24 Hours in Pamplona
Sometimes, when I get an idea into my head, I can’t shake it. I become infected by it, obsessed with seeing it through.
My travel partner, Paige, was the same way.
We were in San Sebastian, Spain, on the fifth of July, 2004. The next day was opening day for the festival of San Fermín, better known as the running of the bulls.
Pamplona was a mere hour away. We had been tossing it up for weeks – should we go? We had no plans, no accommodation, and nowhere to store our bags. It just wasn’t practical.
So what did we do?
We went, of course.
Our San Sebastian hostel agreed to hold our bags, we scored spots on a Busabout bus, and we were in Pamplona before we knew what was happening.
Step 1: Dress the Part
The uniform is simple: White top, white pants, red sash, and red bandana. If you don’t have these items in your wardrobe, don’t despair. There are shops that stock them specifically for the 9-day festival. I bought a pair of capri pants, a sash & bandana for less than 20 euro. It was worth it to be a part of this mass fashion wave.
The clothes stayed clean for about four minutes.
Tip: Wear SHOES. Due to all of the broken glass and random crap all over the roads, I threw out my cheap flip flops and bought a pair of cheap shoes (€5 from a bargain bin. Apparently others make the same mistake.)
Step 2: Fill your bladder.
No, not that one. This one:
The official kick-off of San Fermín is sort of incredible. First, everyone gathers as close to the square as possible, packing every balcony and alleyway. As they hold their bandanas in the air, they chant: “Sanfermin! Sanfermin!”
Then all hell breaks loose. The bladders are used to squirt wine liberally, on friends and strangers alike. Actually, anything squeezable will do – mustard, ketchup, whipped cream – people become walking hot dogs.
Of course, taking sips from the bladder between firing is part of the fun, too.
Step 3: Settle down. You’re in for a loooong night.
Like I said, we didn’t have accommodation.
“We don’t need accommodation. We’ll stay up all night,” we said. “It’ll be awesome.”
And until about 3AM, it was. We visited the bulls in their pen and tried not to think about the animal cruelty aspect of the event. We ate patatas fritas in crowded cafes, watched the nighttime fireworks under a drizzle of rain, and danced as if we’d been electrocuted in the clubs off the main square.
But then people started to drop off.
And with hours to go before the 8AM run, Paige and I were feeling weary. We pulled our knees to our chests and leaned against the outside wall of a restaurant, willing sleep to come.
It didn’t. Instead, the sun came up.
Step 4: Run. Or not. Whatever.
“I want to run,” I’d told Paige the day before. “I think I’m going to do it.”
“Lauren, please don’t,” she said. “I just don’t want to explain to your parents how you got gored by a bull.”
The idea excited me right up until 6AM, when we went to stake out a good vantage point for the run.
I wasn’t running anywhere. In fact, it was a miracle I was walking. We waited, yawning, for the first gun to fire.
At eight o’clock on the dot, we heard a blast. The runners were on their way.
Shortly afterwards, the second gun went off. The first bull had crossed the start line.
And then, the third gun, signifying that the final bull had officially entered the race.
The balcony crowds started cheering, so we knew something was coming. I braced myself for the sound of thundering hooves.
The runners sprinted past, some diving for safety through the slats of the fence.
Still, I waited for the thundering.
It never came. What did come was a pack of six bored bulls, leisurely trotting along, sniffing at spots along the ground.
Apparently, no one had told them that this was the running of the bulls, not the meandering of the bulls.
“That’s it?” Paige said.
“When do they start running?” I asked.
And just like that, our adventure was over.
24 hours after arriving in Pamplona, we were on our way back to San Sebastian. Back to a shower, clean clothes, and, most importantly, a bed.
Was it worth it? Definitely.
*If you’re interested in San Fermín, check out Girls Who Run With Bulls, about a bunch of – well, girls who are going to run with the bulls this year in Pamplona. The site dispels some of the myths surrounding the festival (like who is and isn’t allowed to run) and covers the exciting buildup towards the big event.
It almost makes me want to put on my running shoes and give it another shot.