Man oh man have I been incredibly excited to write about this experience. If you’ve been following along with me over on Instagram, you’ll know that Zach and I recently returned from a two-week Eurotour that centered around the infamous San Fermin Festival in Spain. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me back track a bit. Last summer, after we returned from our honeymoon (p.s. we made our dream honeymoon happen on a budget, check that out here) our itch to head back to Europe was at an all time high. We were lying in bed one night, chatting about what was on our bucket lists, and Zach brought up The Running of The Bulls. After coming back from being an an ultimate honeymoon high, my reaction was HECK YES.
I’ll also mention I was also very much on board with this idea because I’m a huge fan of Hemingway (and the entire Lost Generation) and Pamplona hit a new found fame thanks to Mr. Hemingway himself. Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises” was written about this fair city, and the grandiose event that is what we know as The Running of The Bulls. Hemingway’s debut novel is absolutely derivative of he and his compatriots, as it centers around expats living in Paris who head to Spain to experience this festival. I had read this ages ago, but it just so happened to be rekindled in my mind as I had recently read the novel “The Paris Wife” while we were on our honeymoon. This novel is told from the perspective of Hemingway’s first wife, and their early life in Paris, and their travels to Pamplona for this festival. It all seemed quite Inception-esque and just felt oh-so right. So, a year in advance, we booked flights overseas and let the countdown begin to check off potentially the most terrifying thing we’ve ever done.
Now, I hadn’t known anyone before who had done this personally so all of our research came from online searches. It’s actually shocking there’s not much available online when it comes to this certain festival. I was legitimately Googling “how not to die while running with the bulls” before we left. So let’s change the lack of information, shall we? If this massive celebration happens to also be on your bucket list, then this guide will be all you need to make sure you enjoy your time in Hemingway’s old haunt (and come out of it unscathed!)
WHAT IS IT?
First things first, what the heck is The Running of the Bulls? Well, the actual name for this traditional Spanish celebration is actually called the San Fermin Festival, but is commonly referred to as The Running of the Bulls as the festival centers around this massive event. Named after the town of Pamplona’s patron saint, the San Fermin Festival is a weeklong celebration and was made incredibly famous by Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Tradition says that the true origin of the run began during the 14th century—how cool is that?! The run eventually ends with leading the bulls to Pamplona’s famous bull ring. We skipped the bull fights that the run ended with. Be prepared: you might lose your lunch watching them.
WHERE IS IT?
This iconic Spanish festival takes place in the city of Pamplona, which lies in Basque Country. It’s definitely a bit more remote than major cities like Madrid & Barcelona, and we’ll touch on how to get there momentarily! One thing to keep in mind which can be a common misconception, is that this festival takes places in more than one location throughout Spain, which is not the case. There are other (incredibly small) “runs” throughout the country, but this is the place you want to be. Make sure to factor in travel times as you plan your excursion as it’s definitely a destination you have to plan for.
WHEN IS IT?
The San Fermin festival takes place in July of each year, and the festival typically runs from July 7-14. The actual Running of the Bulls is very short-and only lasts for about three minutes. One thing that we were unaware of until a few weeks before we left for the festival, was that the start time is much earlier than we anticipated. The actual run takes place at 8 AM every morning, and is ridiculously fast-paced. This is hugely important, as you definitely need to snag a spot early in order to actually participate in the run. The police are SUPER strict when it comes to this, and will have no problems throwing you out if you try to get into the run area after they’ve essentially closed the gates.
As I mentioned, Pamplona isn’t close to any major cities-but luckily for you-Spain’s rail system is fantastic! If you’re staying in Madrid or Barcelona, you will absolutely be able to catch a train for a relatively cheap price, that won’t take longer than 4 hours. Hop on the Renfe, open up your copy of The Sun Also Rises, and you’ll be golden! Something to keep in mind if you choose to stay in Pamplona: hotels (and even our go to Air BnB’s) are quite expensive, but definitely a more convenient option if you plan to party all night long after you survive the run (and we know you’re going to survive, after all!)
If you’re up for more of an adventure, you could do like we did and stay in nearby San Sebastian (so much more to come on this magical beach town so soon!) San Sebastian is about an hour outside of Pamplona, and is an insanely gorgeous and beyond charming seaside town. I would highly recommend staying here! Personally I think it’s much more appealing than Pamplona, and there’s much more to do (helllllo beach time!)
While there are busses from San Sebastian to Pamplona, the schedule wouldn’t put us there in enough time to snag our spot in the run and we didn’t want to risk possibly not making it in time. So, we rented a car, which was actually super easy, and drove to Pamplona on the very last day of the run. Sidebar about our drive there: after we got our car sorted when we landed in San Sebastian, we discovered we were going to have a VERY early morning to make it to Pamplona on time. So, about an hour after going to bed (around midnight) the following interaction happens.
Zach: “Steph…are you awake? What are your thoughts on heading to Pamplona right now? I’m nervous we won’t make it in time….”
Me (half asleep): “No way. Not happening.”
Me: “Well…now I’m nervous we won’t make it. Won’t be able to go back to sleep. F it. Let’s do it.”
Which led us to getting ready for the festival at midnight, hopping in our teeny tiny toy car, and hitting the road to Pamplona in pitch black darkness. When we made it into the city we were so excited to get there, we just found a place to park, and slept in our car for the next three hours. I was positive that we had parked on a street where we would inevitably get robbed/mugged/etc (ridiculous…I know) But we made it out alive! How we actually fell asleep in this toy car I’ll never know, but it’s an experience I will undoubtedly remember for the rest of our lives. A few hours later, my alarm goes off and we shake ourselves awake to head to what would be the wildest three minutes of our lives.
Now, onto the most important part of this entire saga: how to actually survive this epic run you’re about to embark on. As we set our alarms for about 5, by the time we got to the festival (after getting lost…multiple times…and finally catching a bus to make it to the run route in time) it was about 6:30 AM. Perfect. The most hilarious part about all of this is that you can’t always tell who’s ending their night (again this party lasts ALL night long) and who’s just getting up for the run. Arrive early to scope out your best and safest spot to actually run with the bulls.
Because we got there in enough time, we were able to walk up and down the entire route of the run to pick our ideal (read: least terrifying position) and settled for a spot in Plaza del Ayuntamiento as it was a wide space that seemed to have quite a bit of places for refuge. It seemed pretty perfect. “Perfect” being a term of perspective, of course. Because is there truly a “perfect” place to escape six massive creatures running at you? No. The answer is no. But alas, we decided this was our spot, and we began to stretch out our limbs. There were tons of people around the square, and in my mind, they would become a human shield for us. Fast forward to about 2 minutes before the run and this is what happens…
Everyone clears out of said square. I begin to look around (slightly panicked)
Me: “Wait…where did everyone go? Our human shield is gone! Why am I the only female here…?”
Zach: “Are we seriously doing this? Why did we decide this was a good idea…??”
Me: *Heart begins to race…slightly starting to panic….*
THEN A POLICE OFFICER TAPS ME ON MY SHOULDER AND THE FOLLOWING INTERACTION HAPPENS (and yes that’s in caps because I’m still a bit pissed about this…and we are now one minute to the run)
Cop: “YOU! Are you running? You need to get out of the square! Women shouldn’t run!” (Yes, actual words that were said…)
Me: “YES I’m running!” *getting angrier by the second*
Cop: “I’m watching you (points at me) if you don’t run, I’m going to fine you!”
Zach: “She’s running!” (Glares at officer….)
Two seconds later the first gun goes off announcing the run has begun, and the earth begins to shake like there’s no tomorrow. Not an ideal time for a cop to just have scared the crap out of me, but I didn’t have to much time to think about it. Just as I was about to go off on him and tell him that women are just as capable of running, we turn to see six massive bulls racing towards us and we begin to run like hell. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared/excited/exhilarated in my entire life. Scratch that. I KNOW I haven’t. I will never forget turning around to see the face of a raging bull running directly at me.
After the bulls passed us, (and we dove against the fence to stay out of their way), we followed them and ran behind them the rest of the way. As we hit the longest straightaway of the run, hundreds of people were watching with endless enthusiasm, cheering and hanging off of the balconies as you run past, and I don’t know if it’s possible to be on more of a natural high.
As I mentioned, Zach and I skipped the bull fights and instead celebrated the fact that we had just survived this death defying run by poppin’ a bottle of bubbles and walking back through the route we had just conquered (and this time, we were MUCH more relaxed). My heart is actually still racing as I write this, but I can’t keep the smile of my face. Now if you care to take a peak at our run, you can see Zach and I in the below video at about the :54 mark (much closer to the bulls than I ever thought possible!)
Key Things to Keep in Mind:
- Follow the rules, you will definitely get kicked out if you don’t. You’re not allowed to bring bags, cell phones, cameras, etc with you.
- Dress in the traditional garb of all white and a red scarf. They sell this everywhere in town, so don’t worry if you forget to bring it with you. You can purchase it there for a pretty great price.
- Don’t drink beforehand—I know this might be tempting as you’re about to risk your life, but I promise you you’ll want to be sober for this one.
- Don’t start at the beginning of the run. Swallow your pride and find a “safe” place to start. The very beginning of the run is reserved for seasoned runners. That being said..don’t start at Dead Man’s Corner either. I mean really? The name speaks for itself.
- While wildly thrilling, the run is NOT safe. You can try to prepare and make it as safe as possible, but at the end of the day, you’re dealing with living creatures that have a mind of their own. You have to know the risk you are taking when participating in the run.
- Speaking of safety, if you fall, STAY DOWN. Apparently it’s safer to get trampled by the bulls, than to get gored. Neither sound that appealing to me to be honest, so you better run fast.
- If you choose not to run and revel in the insanity of those below, grabbing a balcony spot along the run is just as fun (and you might save yourself the heart attack!)
- CELEBRATE. After you survive the run, you’ll have a camaraderie like no other with those around you. Revel in this moment! There isn’t another feeling quite like it.
Celebrating the run we had conquered mere minutes beforehand…although much less stressed out at this point in time!
Have you been to the San Fermin festival? Any desire to go? As crazy as this all may seem, we’ve already talked about going back and doing it all over again! Here’s to crossing off that bucket list of yours, one crazy adventure at a time!