Meg and Grant go to Barcelona & beyond

¡Gora San Fermin!

When we first decided on Spain as a place to live for the next year, I immediately marked the Running of the Bulls on our Google calendar. This weekend I got to check “watch crazy people run in front of bulls” off my bucket list, but more importantly, I got a better appreciation for the Sanfermines festival and the Basque culture.

No, we did not run with the bulls. I am much too clumsy and anxious to handle a mob of people scrambling towards me.

We took a six-hour bus ride northwest from the capital of Catalan country to the center of the Kingdom of Navarre and Basque culture – Pamplona. Pamplona is nestled among rolling hills and mountains, and a river runs weaves town. The old city walls are excellently preserved and are integrated directly into the a park that runs the length of the riverfront. The city is green this time of year, and there are still cool breezes in the evening. In short, Pamplona is beautiful.

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I was not expecting how beautiful Pamplona would be, and Grant and I wished we could see it when it is not in “festival mode.” The whole city was in full-on party mode. The closest parallel I have to draw on is New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Everyone was out in the street drinking and partying all day and night. I mean everyone – grandparents all the way down to grandkids. One of the things that I love about Spanish culture is that all ages are included in celebrations. This means the family stays together and everything is more family-oriented in general. You will see school-aged children wide awake at 11 PM. We noticed this at the FC Barca football game, as well. You rarely see sloppy drunk Spaniards celebrating. People enjoy their drinks, but they don’t overdo it. That isn’t to say that there weren’t enough tourists here to stumble down the streets sloppily with drink in hand for everyone in Pamplona!

Since the streets of Pamplona were ripe for people-watching when we arrived in town around 5 PM on Sunday, we grabbed what turned out to be a very expensive beer (3 euros for what amounts to be Bud Light equivalent) and hit the cobble stone streets. In many ways, the Pamplona streets reminded me of the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona. However, instead of Catalan flags, there were Basque flags, and instead of Catalan translations, there were Basque translations. The streets were filled with tourists, and rather unfortunately, covered in trash. All the restaurants and bars had their doors flung open on their hinges and were serving copious amounts of beer. There traces of the bull run everywhere – bull cardboard cut-outs and street signs indicating the route.

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IMG_3089We stuck out like a sore thumb because both ofus were wearing dark grey/black shirts. The traditional outfit of the festival is white shirt, white pants, red belt, with a red bandana around the neck. I had seen photos, but for some reason, I thought it was a gimmicky thing. No, it turns out everyone who is anyone wears this outfit. Lesson learned! We stopped by some tents selling festival gear and got ourselves set with red bandanas for the next day.

That is when I saw …. the shirt. The funniest shirt! It’s Grumpy Cat wearing a red bandana for the festival. I fell in love, and the deal was sealed when I found out that the woman selling the shirts had designed them. Done and done.



We walked to the bullfighting arena (the third largest in the world), where the bulls from that morning’s run were set to bullfight. I was open to seeing a bullfight until I read in detail about exactly what would happen. I decided that was not something I wanted to support, as every bullfight ends in the bull being slain, and the whole thing is really a ritualistic killing. Bullfighting is actually very controversial in Spain right now. Catalonia has led the way in outlawing bullfighting due to animal cruelty concerns, but it is still a central part of other parts of the country. For example, ninety percent of the seats in this bullfighting arena were owned by local families and passed down generation to generation.

We headed to bed early that night, since we had to be up by 6 AM the next morning to walk into town for the actual running of the bulls event. From July 6 to July 14, every day at 8 AM, six bulls are run from one part of Pamplona through the streets to the bullfighting stadium. It is a different six bulls every day. People run the few street blocks in front of the bulls for as long as possible to show how brave and daring they are. At the last second, the goal is to dive out of the bulls way. My understanding is that it really only counts to run with the bulls if you have touched the bulls or been within touching distance of them. This tradition literally started when they had to move bulls from one place to another and cocky men started jumping in front of the bulls to show how brave they were. Now, it is known worldwide.

Bleary-eyed, we started walking into the city center around 6:30. I had contacted a local resident and arranged for us to rent their balcony to watch the running of the bulls (la encierra) that morning. The apartment balcony was in the middle of Estafeta, the longest and straightest street on the bull run. As soon as we were situated in this nice woman’s house, I had deja vu that we were about to watch the Thanksgiving parade in New York or something. The lady had the TV on with coverage, and we had a great view over all the preparations for the event. The TV camera actually ran right past the balcony we were on. Once we got some coffee in our blood, we started waking up. The anticipation leading up to the actual running was, dare I say, more fun than the actual event!


The lady whose balcony we were on helped to explain some of the traditions of the preparation. First, they clear out the people from all the streets and set up the fences that keep the bulls running towards the stadium. Then, there is an inspection of the streets by the event coordinators. Finally, the pastores, people who follow the bulls with wooden sticks to make sure they keep moving in the right direction and aren’t agitated by the crowd, walk backwards down the path to the applause of all the people along the way.

IMG_2995The streets started to flood with white and red clad people minutes before the event. What happens is that people are released onto the roads and can choose wherever they want to start their run with the bulls (whether it’s at the beginning or towards the end). I think this is necessary because of the sheer number of participants. It made me realize, though, that this is a “choose your own adventure” scenario. You can definitely take an easier way out depending on where you start.

A rocket at 8 AM (maybe the only thing ever in Spain to be on time) indicates that the corral gate where the bulls are kept has been opened. A second rocket a second later notifies the runners that all the bulls have left the pen. We watched the first part on the TV as the bulls tore out of the pen and up the streets. Through the TV, you can see the fear raging in the people’s eyes as they position themselves directly in the bull’s path for their thirty seconds (if they’re lucky) of fame. Then the bulls started to turn the corner, and we flung ourselves on the railing of the balcony to see the infamous Mercaderes-Estafeta corner, la curva, where the bulls tend to slip as they maneuver  around the sharp curve. A chaotic wave of red and white pulsated towards us and only when they were almost beneath us could we see the bulls themselves.

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Almost directly in front of us, a runner tripped and fell. The man curled quickly into the fetal position, protecting their head and stayed there as the bulls raced directly past and on top of them. I am told that this is the only way to survive a fall during the race – if you get up, you will likely be gored by a bull. When the dust settled after the crowd had passed, the man got up and was ok.


The encierra literally lasts 3-4 minutes. It is quick. You barely see the bulls before they are well past you. Some runners seemed to thrust themselves in the path of danger, some simultaneously amidst three of the bulls, while other runners seemed to shy around getting close to the bulls at all. After we saw the encierra, I asked Grant if he wanted to run it now that he had seen it. His answer: “I mean I would do it if you wanted but it doesn’t particular call to me.”

The shop windows were filled with TV’s with replays after the running was over. There were a few close calls, but it didn’t look like anyone was getting major medical attention today. Apparently, between 200 and 300 people are injured every year. Those aren’t good odds. Honestly, it seems like the biggest danger is from the other runners and the mob mentality than from the bulls.

A nap was in order before we went to a pinxto restaurant for Basque-style tapas. We had some creamy, rich seafood tapas and fruity white wine in the sunshine before we got back on the bus to take us home. We saw one Camino de Santiago pilgrim as we were heading out of the city center and he was arriving. Pamplona is one of the stops along the Camino de Santiago, the religious pilgrimage route over which people hike for 30-40 days. I attempted to look up the history of Pamplona while we were eating, thinking it would give us more insight into this city. However, it has quite a lengthy history that I was not able to follow well at all! It started as a Roman camp for General Pompey in 75 BC – I can’t even fathom that far back in time.


Our 24-hour trip to Pamplona was quick, but we got to see the event we were really looking forward to: the encierra. Maybe our future trips will bring us back to this lovely city to enjoy her when she is not stuffed with tourists wanting to have the claim to fame that they ran with the bulls. As for us, all we can claim is that we did dress the part.


Our first visitor in Barcelona


Visting Kat in Milan

1 Comment

  1. Jill V.

    That photo of you in the Grumpy Cat t-shirt is priceless!

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