Back in the third century Northern Spain a Roman Senator’s son was indoctrinated into Christianity and, driven by his newfound faith, set out from his home city, over the Pyrenees and into what is now France to spread the word of the Gospel. Fermin bounced from town to town, preaching, converting pagans and doing whatever else 3rd-century evangelists do, before settling down in Amiens. He got onto a bit of a roll here and after 40 days of converting a bunch of pagans he became the city’s Bishop, a triumph which was celebrated by the remaining pagans who chopped his head off, making him a martyr on the 25th of September 303.
A few of his loyal convertees secretly buried his body, which was miraculously rediscovered more than 300 hundred years later in January 615, and the headless dust was declared to be Fermin. It took even longer to repatriate Fermin’s remains to his hometown but in 1196 he finally made it home and the city threw a big fiesta in his honour and started the annual fiesta of San Fermin where they had music, feasts and a bullfight. Nowadays, the celebration in Pamplona has evolved into a weeklong affair, and has added fireworks, parading giants and theatrics to its old customs, but is known more for the famous ‘Running of the Bulls’.
For most of the year, there doesn’t seem to be anything special about this Basque city, but between the 7th and 14th of July it is home to one of the world’s great fiestas. Two weeks after we left school, Bani and I took my van over the seas to Spain and witnessed this historical event whilst beginning our road trip, and I can’t think of a better way to start travelling. The nerves of driving my old van on the other side of the road as we departed the ferry were only overcome by the excitement of the unknown in that we would see over the next two months. We steadily cruised through the beautiful roads of northern Spain until we reached the old city of Pamplona, where the town greeted us with an eruption of fireworks which lit up the night sky and painted the rooftops with explosive colours. We had no idea what we were in for, but we knew it was going to be epic.
That night we walked around the streets of the vibrant city, witnessing a new place and a new culture for the first time. The bars were overflowing with merry people who had enjoyed the day’s festivities and street stalls scattered delicious odours as they catered to the hungry masses. Everyone adorned the white uniform of the festival complete with the red handkerchief and feeling sheepishly out of place we invested in our own outfits. Music flooded the squares, backed up by cheery crowds of singers and it seemed as if the city would refuse to sleep all week. Our senses were overloaded from the wild celebrations of the streets, feeding a warm excitement and wonder in our bellies, and within my first night of travelling I had already fallen in love with it.
At 8 am the next morning, dressed in our new white shirt and trousers, we were in the Plaza Consistorial with hundreds of other similarly dressed, similarly nervous people, awaiting to run with the bulls. Every morning of that week people start collecting in the square under the big clock, getting ready to dance with danger. By 8 they are ready, or as ready as they can be. The route runs for 825 metres from the paddocks to the arena and down uneven cobbled roads, round bends and everyone is locked in by barriers across any potential escape. From the paddocks, 6 of the meanest, deadliest beasts are unleashed. They are not any old cow, but specifically adapted and trained fighting bulls evolved to cause carnage. They are the descendants of Egyptian Pharaoh’s personal herds that were brought to the Iberian Peninsula by Phoenicians or some other trading group. They were bred and culled for fighting with distinct triangle heads, forward-facing horns and an extra neck muscle. They can run at speeds of up to 35mph (a cheetah tops out at 45) and with that energy combined with their enormous mass, the force they release through their horns is equal to an artillery gun. There only purpose on this Earth is to fight, and as disagreeable as bullfighting is, without it they would become extinct. I am happy that I did not know how scary these animals are before I ran, I only knew that 15 people have died in the last 110 years.
As we stood in the square, the time slowly came. The crowd sings to the Patron Saint Fermin for protection three times before the run begins at 8, waving their protective newspapers in the air and praying for safety. On the hour, everyone spreads along the course. Then, an explosion. The first rocket signifies that the first bull is on the move, the second bang tells everyone that the final bull has left the paddock. There have been times in the past where the rockets, for a variety of reasons, haven’t gone off in time. Time-keeping by rocket probably isn’t the best way. It was between these two loud bangs that I was dragged over the barrier by a policeman. I had been stupid, ignorant enough to bring a gopro, an idiotic violation of the rules and of common sense. I would not run with the bulls. After the beasts ran past in an awesome fashion, I searched for Bani before returning to the van for breakfast.
When I next saw him over an hour later, I had never seen him so happy. He had run with the bulls. He had stayed, ran along the cobbled roads, dodged horns and ran all the way into the bullring. It sounded as epic as I had imagined. It was impossible to for me to sulk, despite missing out. We were still involved in the final day of the festival, still in the midst of celebrations and wonder and still keen to enjoy the rest of the day, it was still 10 am after all.
The running of the bulls is just a small part of the day, its main point is only to get the bulls to the arena. Before the fights, the fireworks and the fiesta there is plenty to do in the town. Massive feasts, street processions of massive giants, exploring the roman walls and walking amidst thousands of happy people. Pamplona is incredible during this week, like nothing else on the planet. By the time the bullfight came about the sangria had already flowed freely and during it the flow did not cease. The rest of the night flew by with cheering, singing, food and dancing before we collapsed back into the back of the van. It was the perfect start to our trip, and it’s all thanks to some angry pagans 1700 years ago.
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