The world's limited view of the fiesta, broadcast on TV and splashed across newspapers, is the two to three minutes each morning when six fighting bulls and steers run through throngs of anxious runners dressed in the traditional garb of white with red scarves.
Most of the thousands of runners who cram the narrow course that winds between ancient buildings succumb to natural panic. They cringe in doorways and dive over fences to avoid the rampaging herd. But experienced runners dare death by coming as close to the horns of the fighting bulls as possible and then, hopefully, escaping injury by diving to the side at the last instant.
Over 31 years, I have experienced this group adrenaline rush along every cobblestone of the run. I have run toward the bulls as they first step out of the corral onto Calle Santo Domingo, whirling and sprinting for 50 yards through the 15-foot-wide chute in front of the horns before diving to the side.
I've seen a runner only an arm's length from me get caught by a bull, watching in anguished slow motion as he was tossed on the horns and eventually driven through the barricades by the massive animal. I was transfixed as townspeople carried his bloody body to a nearby ambulance.
Running beside my youngest brother, I've been trailing the bulls into the entrance of the bullring when one suddenly stopped and turned around. The ensuing panic was wild. My brother and I leapt to the barricades, clinging for our lives while the bull decided whom to charge.
Obviously there is no logic to this. It may be a form of sensation addiction.
Ambulances and first-aid stations are positioned alongside the barricaded streets and, after the run, do a brisk business. Dozens of runners are injured every day. Over the past 100 years, hundreds have been seriously gored, but only 14 men have been killed by the bulls. Some refer to this as a sport; others, perhaps more accurately, term it simple madness.
No one really knows why the "running" started. Years ago the local butchers were also the men who herded the bulls into the arena from the corrals on the outskirts of town. This herding or running of the bulls down to the arena eventually developed into the exciting spectacle seen every morning from July 7 through the 14th.
The evening bullfights
The bulls that run in the streets each morning perform in the bullfights in the Plaza de Toros that evening. Some of the best bullfighters in Spain come to Pamplona to fight for what has been called the rowdiest bullfighting crowd in the world.
Many of the spectators, mostly those sitting in the cheap seats under the blazing sun, spend the entire bullfight singing, dancing and spraying each other with bottle after bottle of champagne. They register their displeasure with underperforming toreros by raining seat cushions and the fruit from their sangria buckets down on their heads.
The serious patrons of the fights sit well dressed and clean in the expensive shaded seats reservedly observing what has been called a ballet in blood. Aficionados may tell you they love bullfighting, yet hate what the bull must endure.
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The only consolation is that these creatures are allowed to live a bucolic four to five years — a full two to three years longer than their beef-supplying brethren — and they die a "noble" death.
The rest of the day
This fiesta is far more than simply the early-morning run and evening bullfights. Officially this is a religious festival commemorating San Fermin, the patron saint of Pamplona, a black bishop martyred by the Moors. This Christian background is reflected in an occasional religious procession. The rest of the fiesta is pure escapism.
While the bulls may conjure death and fear, the wild abandon of uninhibited drinking and nonstop dancing celebrates living life to its fullest.
Bars and cafes remain open virtually 24 hours a day. Each day is packed with street performers, marches, concerts and hundreds of other activities. Local families pour through the newspapers and programs to carefully plan daily activities. At noon paper-mache giants begin their march through the narrow streets of the old town halting regularly to dance to music provided by an accompanying traditional band.
Every night some of the world's most spectacular firework displays light up the sky for almost an hour. This is the site of the annual Spanish firework championships where carefully selected companies explode their best and brightest pyrotechnics, leaving each night's spectators with stiff necks vowing they have never seen anything to match it.
The closing ceremony of the festival takes place at midnight on the night of July 14th. Bands and crowds of people holding candles gather again in front of the town hall. As the bands begin to play a slow song of grief, the people fall to their knees, some hitting their heads on the streets in sorrow. They lament, "Woe is me. San Fermin is over. We must wait another year for San Fermin." The music quickens. The crowd again responds, dancing wildly and happily. The slow, sad dirge and the fast, happy music alternate until the candles have burned to small nubs and dawn begins to peak over the mountains outside of Pamplona.
Just like the bulls thundering up the uneven Pamplona streets in the morning, life passes us in a flash. Come quickly, come before it's too late.
When you go: The basics
Pamplona is a four-hour drive north of Madrid or approximately the same distance west of Barcelona. Iberia has five to seven flights from each city depending on the day of the week. Bilbao, on the north coast of Spain, is only an hour-and-a-half drive from Pamplona. By car, Pamplona is about a four-hour drive north of Madrid and approximately the same distance west of Barcelona.
The Fiesta de San Fermin officially starts on July 6th at noon. The bulls run each morning at 8 a.m. from July 7 through July 14. Each evening at 6:30 p.m. there are bullfights in the Plaza de Toros.
The weather is unpredictable. Some fiestas have been cold and rainy, other have been suffocatingly hot. Come prepared for both extremes.
Last-minute accommodations in Pamplona during San Fermin are very difficult. However several newer hotels on the outskirts of town often have rooms, especially during mid-week in the last days of the fiesta. They are a bit out of the center of town but there is an excellent bus system and good taxis from the hotels. Hotels are not inexpensive. They have government permission to double and triple their rates during the period of fiesta. Try one of the following:
Iruna Park Hotel (948) 173200; fax 172387 Hotel Reino de Navarra (948) 177575; fax 177778 Hotel Blanca de Navarra (948) 171010; fax 175414
For budget accommodation, the best bet is to head to the tourist office just off the Plaza Castillo. The Tourist Office is at the corner of Calle San Francisco and Calle San Miguel; telephone (948) 220741. The office is normally open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and again from 4 to 7 p.m. It is closed on Sunday and only open in the morning on Saturday. The windows of the tourist office normally have several notices taped to the glass, indicating possible rooms in private homes for rent during fiesta. The town used to have a room-finder service, but that has been discontinued.
The streets surrounding the Plaza Castillo are filled with restaurants serving meals for every budget. Some of my favorites are Amostegui on Pozoblanco and San Fermin or Otano on Calle San Nicolas. Casa Flores on Estafeta and Irunazarra on Mecaderes are more rustic and less expensive. Specialties of the region include Cordero Asado (roast lamb), Trucha de Navarra (sauteed trout covered with a thin slice of ham) and, of course, Estofado de Toro (bull stew that used to be made from the bulls killed in the bullfights each night). Lunch is normally served from 2 to 3:30 p.m. and dinner from 9 p.m. until midnight.
Insiders' Tip: If you are trying to save money, don't buy drinks at outside tables on Plaza Castillo. Go into the bar to make your purchase. You'll save about 50 percent.
Contact the Tourist Office of Spain for more information. The schedule of events, as well as photos of past fiestas, can be found at www.sanfermin.com.
Is Pamplona for you? If you are an adventurous traveler who loves excitement, doesn't mind crowds and has plenty of stamina, this fiesta is for you. However, if you need to have reservations and don't have them yet, don't even think about this (at least this year). If crowds and noise bother you, a week here could be an ordeal.