CHARLOTTE, N.C. It’s festival week in the tiny city of Pamplona, located in the Basque region of Spain. This can only mean one thing: The annual Running of the Bulls!
Ernest Hemingway almost inadvertently popularized the now internationally famed running of the bulls in Pamplona in his hit 1926 novel “The Sun also Rises.” But historically, the event has been a homegrown annual Spanish celebration for nearly 500 years, dating from 1592.
At first, the festival was held in October. But later, it was later moved to July in order to ensure better weather. (And, perhaps, steadier footing.) Today, running with the bulls in Pamplona is the signature event of the “Spanish Summer.” Currently, it’s observed each year from July 7 – 14. So, if you want to run with those ornery bulls, there’s still time to put your life in danger in the streets of Pamplona.
How the running of the bulls in Pamplona really began
When the tradition began in Pamplona a century after Columbus discovered America, it originally served a practical purpose. It fulfilled the need to entice a small herd of bulls from their corral to the bullfighting ring where the professionals would deal with them spectacularly.
But here’s a surprise. Honoring Pamplona’s Patron Saint, San Fermin, the festival was initially a religious celebration. Many believe it dates back to the Middle Ages, perhaps as early as 1385. Affiliated festivities eventually expanded to trade fairs and other forms of entertainment. These, in turn, eventually included the bullfights that were, of course, preceded by the then-integral running of the bulls to the arena.
Images and reputation have given the bull running ceremony an understandable reputation for being dangerous as well as violent. After all, the angry bulls involved aren’t exactly complicit in their fate. Depending upon your perspective, some say the annual running of the bulls is relatively safe, considering only 13 spectators have died during the last 100 years of the event. The spirits of those spectators might disagree.
Certainly, the two Battles of Bull Run in northern Virginia during the American Civil War proved far more deadly than the running of the bulls. But then again in Pamplona, those risk-taking volunteer runners do have a choice as to whether to participate or not.
The real danger involved in running with those bulls
Spaniards will tell outsiders that the real danger in Pamplona lies not in the running of the bulls, but in the wild festivities that follow the runs. Sangria flows freely for the entire festival week. Those who closely follow this event observe that alcohol-impaired participants find themselves in considerably more danger of injury than sober runners.
Actually there is a method to the madness of running through the streets of Pamplona, though this strategy really sounds like the lesser of two evils. According to experts, if a bull is hell-bent on getting you, getting trampled is preferable to getting gored. So if a runner falls, his or her best defensive tactic is to curl up into a fetal position. Though hardly a comforting thought, experts claim this simple technique saves numerous lives. No word as to whether it saves numerous broken bones.
Of course, one other life saving strategy, and probably the best one, is not to participate at all.
Do bulls really “see red”?
A common myth associated with bull-running and bullfighting involves the notion that bulls get angered when they see the color red. That’s one reason why the traditional uniform for the run is white pants and a white shirt accessorized by a red bandana worn around either the waist or the neck.
This tradition has nothing to do with the color red, however. Most historians believe the white symbolizes the sainthood of San Fermin, while the red bandana represents the saint’s eventual martyrdom. Another theory says that the red is a hat tip to the butchers who started the tradition of running the bulls.
As far as the bulls are concerned, neither theory matters. They are color blind anyway. Instead, the quick movements of the runners — and, later on in the ring, the matadors — provoke the animals.
More bull: Is it swell being a steer?
One little known fact about the run is that steers are also released with the half-dozen bulls that run through Pamplona. For those not familiar with cattle-raising, a steer is a castrated bull. That makes these bulls calmer, and they tend to run slower than their hormone-driven brothers. Thus supposedly reduces the danger quotient. Somewhat.
In actuality, since fully-equiped bulls become increasingly vicious when separated from the herd, adding a few more reasonable steers to the herd to slow them down is safety measure…of sorts. Everything is relative when it comes to this event.
“Pobre de Mi!” How often do the bulls run in Pamplona?
Among other bull run misconceptions: There is only a single running during the weeklong festival and that the distance for the run is quite long. Wrong answer. In truth, bull runs take place at 8 a.m. each morning of the festival. Each one deployes the animals that will compete in the afternoon bullfights.
Total distance for the fenced in course is only 875 yards or roughly half a mile. But good runners typically last only about 30-seconds, or until the danger passes.
Though it may seem somehow wrong, in the 21st century, modern technology has crept into Pamplona’s internationally famous festival. For example, the city fathers recently added a convenient app for your smartphone. It helps Pamplona enthusiasts and curiosity seekers alike to keep up with festival’s events.
Pamplona’s annual estivities conclude at midnight on July 14. All remaining in the city gather at city hall singing “Pobre de Mi.” (“Poor me, the Fiesta de San Fermin has ended.”)
Our takewaway. A classic novel by Ernest Hemingway transformed a once local religious celebration into an internationally famous tourist event.
Today, if you travel to Sunny Spain, you’ll find “The Sun also Rises” for you. That assumes, of course, you survive the running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona.
—Above image: Pamplona bull run scene, 2014. Image via Wikipedia, CC 4.0 international license.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com).