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Known around the world as The Running of the Bulls, there is quite a bit more to San Fermin than people running around the streets of Pamplona chased by bulls. The fiesta is an eight-day celebration in honor of Saint Fermin, which consists of all-day parties in the streets, parades and bullfights in addition to the world’s most famous Bull Run.

But this was not always the case. In fact, the fiesta for Saint Fermin and the Running of the Bulls – or the Encierro as it is called locally – were originally separate events. The celebration to commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Fermin began in the 12th century when a relic of the saint was brought to Pamplona. The original celebrations were deeply religious and austere with processions, mass, and a free lunch for the destitute. The fiesta took place each year on the patron saint’s feast day of October 10th.

The cattle markets, from which the bullfighting and bull running aspects of the festival originate, took place on the 7th of July. Cattle herders would bring their stock into the city for sale or bullfighting, and the Bull Run was the easiest way to shepherd the animals from the city corral to the bullfighting ring. It became tradition to clear the route to the bullring and shepherds would often run ahead to lead the animals forward, which over time lead to the involvement of the public as they lined the streets to goad the bulls along as they barreled down the narrow streets on their half-mile run. Naturally, it became a test of bravado for young men to jump into the street and outrun the bulls, eventually developing into a full-fledged bull running competition.

The two events were combined in 1591 after the people of Pamplona petitioned to have the patron saint celebration moved forward to coincide with the cattle fairs and bullfights (when the weather was better). The first San Fermin fiesta was a two-day festival that began with an opening speech and the sounding of trumpets and drums.

Today, the San Fermin festival is held from July 6 – 14 each year. It attracts visitors from around the world, with millions of people thronging the picturesque streets of Pamplona’s Old Town in a week-long party with the daily Encierro at its heart. Some come to watch the spectacle, some to run, but whatever your choice, everyone is a participant in San Fermin.

Most people don’t have the stamina to last the entire week of San Fermin, so unless you intend to see and do other things while you are in Pamplona, a few days is probably going to be enough. (Although keep in mind, sightseeing will be difficult in the city given that it is the busiest time of the year). That being the case, many either choose to attend the first half of the event and catch the opening ceremony or the last days and the closing ceremony.

If you’re not that concerned about the official events, another option is to plan a mid-festival trip where crowds are smaller and the drunken-revelry a little tamer – although it is important to note that if the weekend happens to fall in the middle of the festival, there may not be any quieter days. This year for example, the festival begins on a Saturday and ends on a Sunday, so the weekends coincide with the opening and closing festivities, but as the fiesta begins on a specific date this is not always the case.

However long you choose to visit Pamplona for the festival, planning is a must. Many flights, hotels and even bull fighting events are sold out months in advance, although that doesn’t mean a last minute trip isn’t doable. It does mean, however, that your choices will be limited and the prices high. Apartments and hotels in Old Town were still available ten days before this year’s festival, with prices ranging from $775 – $1,800 US per night. A couple of lower cost options a few miles away from the city center starting at $200 per night were available, too. You’ll also still be able to find balcony spots on sale from which to watch the run, but your choice of day and place will be restricted.

Why do I need a balcony you ask? Because there are only three designated spectator areas along the route from which you can watch the run. To secure a spot in this limited space means arriving at least two hours before the run begins at 8am – and even then, you may not find a place. The safer bet – and the more enjoyable option – is to reserve a position on one of the many balconies overlooking the course. Balconies typically have space for 4-5 people, although there are some that can hold up to 20. You’ll have a birds eye view from above the street while remaining safe from the melee below, plus many balcony spaces also include breakfast. Prices typically range from 100 – 200 euros with prices varying depending on the day you choose. And of course the better the location, the higher the price.

Of course, if you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of person, there’s still time to make it to the 2019 fiesta kicking off this weekend, but it’s probably better to wait for next year and plan out a little further in advance. The good news is, the festival doesn’t change much year to year, so the basic information covered below is relevant for whatever year you choose to attend.

Each year the festival begins with the opening ceremonies at noon on July 6 in Plaza Consistorial. This is a huge party day and the only day of Rejones bullfighting, which is when the matadors are on horseback. The following day heralds the first bull run at 8 am followed by the Procession of San Fermin at 10 am, and traditional bullfighting in the Plaza de Torors at 6.30 pm. Daily Pamplona bull runs and bullfights continue every day until the culmination of the festival with the Pobre de Mi Closing Ceremony at midnight on July 14 in Plaza Consistorial. For more details on the events of San Fermin click here.

There are a few key things you should know before you go, which are outlined below along with links for more information.

  • Run With The Bulls

Anyone 18 years and older can run with the bulls. It’s free and there’s no sign up required – just be behind the starting line on Mercaderes Street at 7am on the day you want to run. Runners will have time to disperse throughout the course before the run starts. This is because most runners will only run a small distance. Although it is only roughly half a mile-long, it is incredibly hard to keep the pace for that long with six fighting bulls and six steers charging behind you. 

Rockets are set off to mark the beginning of the run, with the first signaling the commencement of the run, and the second indicating that all of the fighting bulls have left the pen. The entire Bull Run takes two to three minutes – assuming there are no mishaps and the bulls run unimpeded. A third rocket specifies that the bulls have entered the pens inside the bullring, while the fourth rocket means the fencing can be opened and the streets return to public access.

If you plan to run with the bulls, it is advisable to do some prep work. Knowing the route and where you plan to start from, ensuring you’re in good physical condition and following the official rules are the bare minimum to ensure a good – and hopefully safe – run. Check out this article for more tips to get started in your research.

  • Watching the Running of the Bulls

As discussed previously, there are several street-level locations where you can watch the Encierro, but balconies are the best option for a guaranteed great view of the run. Another option is to watch the end of the run from the bullfighting arena. From this vantage point you can see the runners and bulls spill into the ring, and watch as heifers are released in the arena to chase the runners some more.

  • Bull Ring Events

Tickets are required for both the morning event watching the end of the Running of the Bulls and the evening bullfight, and they can be hard to secure if you don’t book in advance. Both of the festival websites below offer tickets and information for your search.

  • Dressing for San Fermin

One of the unique aspects of San Fermin is the traditional white and red clothing that has become a historical part of the fiesta: white shirt and pants with a red sash around your waist and a red bandana tied around your neck. And not running with the bulls doesn’t mean you can ignore the dress code. Pamplona’s Old Town becomes a sea of white and red during the festival, and it is part of what makes it such a communal experience. You don’t necessarily have to don the full traditional outfit, but a white t-shirt and shorts/pants/skirt and a red bandana is recommended to join in the comradery.

For more information about San Fermin, visit www.sanfermin.com or www.runningofthebulls.com.

A good article for more about Pamplona’s attractions and historic sites can be found here from Culture Trip.