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Navigating the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain

 If you’ve always wanted to visit Spain, you’ve probably heard about the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona. Known as the festival of Sanfermines, the celebration is a yearly event that honors the town’s patron saint, San Fermin. Between noon on July 6 and midnight on July 14, Pamplona is overtaken by this cultural celebration.

On opening day, the festival begins with the lighting of a pyrotechnic rocket that is fired from the city hall balcony at precisely noon. This is the signal for revelers to take part in flour, water and wine fights in the streets. For the rest of the week, each day begins with the Running of the Bulls at 8 a.m., then bullfights at 5 p.m., followed by parties late into the night.

Although El Encierro (Spanish for The Pamplona Bull Run) gained international popularity in the early 1970s, the festival has been part of Spanish culture for centuries. As far back as the 14th century, bullfighting became popular in Spain.

The runs started in the 16th century when the presiding Catholic Church changed the day on which they honored Saint Fermin from its original slot in October to July. These days, the bull runs are looked forward to by thousands of people across the world who visit Pamplona to witness or participate in this unique event.

Those daring enough to participate run down a half-mile stretch of cobblestone street that has been cordoned off at the sides. This means you can’t get out of the way of the bulls. Every year, thrill-seekers over the age of 18 line up at the start for the opportunity to participate in this age-old tradition. Then the organizers release six bulls as well as four oxen who run after, over and in between the revelers.

There aren’t any comprehensive official figures, but it’s estimated that about 1.6 million people have attended the festival over the years. Most participants finish alive, but a few dozens do end up getting gored or run over. Incredibly, only 15 people have been killed since officials started keeping records in 1910.

For the run, participants wear a signature ‘uniform’ consisting of a white shirt and white pants topped off with a red neckerchief and red waistband. Rumor has it that the clothing tradition honors San Fermin with the white and the saint’s martyrdom with the red. Other people theorize that the colors represent the butchers who began the tradition. Either way, the uniform is striking with its splashes of blood red mimicking the injuries of the runners.

What you might not know about the Running of the Bulls

Taking your life into your hands by running among a herd of powerful horned bulls is one thing, but doing it while drunk and suffering from sleep deprivation is another. Yet that’s what happens year in and year out.

The night before the run, participants spend the night drinking huge quantities of alcohol in the many bars to be found around the city. As alcohol is well known for lowering your inhibitions, all that drinking ends up in a whole lot of party animals who lose all reasonable judgment before embarking on this dangerous act.

Something else you should know before even thinking about taking part in one of these runs is that the bulls finish the course at about 15 miles per hour. That’s at least 2 miles per hour faster than the average human being can run. So it’s not surprising that people do get badly injured, although not as many as you might imagine. The trick, of course, is not to trip or you’re likely to get run over by a bull or two as well as lots of other humans.

The course of the run ends in a bullring, the Plaza de Toros, where the oxen give less adventurous people the opportunity to get into the ring for a less dangerous Running of the Bulls. What they do is run around the ring teasing and chasing the oxen while having a lower chance of getting gored by these less deadly animals.

Tips for the visitor

The main action of the bull runs is at the beginning at the Cuesta de Santo Domingo and at the end in the bullring. But your timing has to be good. If you want a good view of the run, get there early. Although the runs only start at 8 a.m., all the prime viewing spots at the railings are occupied by 3 a.m. If you get there at 6.30 a.m., you’ll still get a pretty good position with only one or two people in front of you.

But no matter what time you arrive, there’s plenty to see and do. Participants and other merrymakers spend the whole night partying, so there’ll be plenty to entertain you. Otherwise, find a balcony to watch from.