It’s thrilling, yet controversial. Daringly dangerous, yet fiercely impassioned. It is Pamplona’s Fiesta de San Fermín. If you haven’t been, you should get yourself a traditional red-and-white Basque outfit and head to the festivities this July for the time of your life.
Proudly dedicated to the town’s patron saint, Saint Fermín, this festival races boldly through the hearts of the Spanish people. The origins of Pamplona’s Fiesta de San Fermín date back to the Middle Ages, and is based on three different celebrations: the religious ceremonies honouring San Fermín, trade fairs and bullfights. Records from the 17th and 18th centuries tell stories of religious ceremonies paired together with dancing, music, giants, acrobats, bull runs and bullfights...not to mention excessive drinking and the unrestrained behaviour of young men and women. The festival reached its peak in popularity in the 20th century, with Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’ giving it worldwide fame.
Fiesta de San Fermín’s most famous event is the ‘encierro’, more commonly known as the ‘Running of the Bulls’, and is held at 8:00 am every morning from the 7th to the 14th of July. At this time, thousands of participants run through Pamplona’s cobbled streets trailed by six angry, charging bulls. Thousands of spectators watch from the safety of balconies as well as on television. As can be expected, it is not an especially safe exercise, and since 1924, 14 people have been killed at the Fiesta de San Fermín.
The morning bull runs are followed up with afternoon bullfights and colourful parties in the streets of Pamplona.
Single Day Events
The setting off of a pyrotechnic chupinazo has officially marked the opening of the fiesta since 1941. The rocket is launched at noon on July 6th from a balcony on City Hall with thousands of people celebrating the act in the square and other locations throughout Pamplona.
The Riau-Riau is a traditional dance event where the City Hall Councillors march from City Hall to the San Fermín. The rhythm of the march is very slow because there are a lot of people and the tight crowds move to the rhythm of a musical piece - the "Riau Riau" of the Vals de Astráin.
There is no fixed date for the Struendo, though it usually takes place in the middle of the week and late at night. The participants bring with them any kind of musical instrument they can find (or anything that makes a loud noise), and parade through the streets of Pamplona, making as much noise as possible.
Pobre de Mí
This is the formal closing ceremony of the fiesta, called the ‘Pobre de Mí.’ It takes place in front of the Town Hall, where a large crowd gathers to sing "Pobre de Mí, Pobre de Mí, que se han acabado las fiestas, de San Fermín." (Poor me, poor me, for the fiesta of San Fermín has come to a close).
Running of the Bulls
Every morning from July 7th to 14th, people gather in a historic section of the city, many dressed in traditional garments and carrying rolled-up newspapers. They sing a traditional homage to St. Fermín, asking him to guide them through the run. After two small rockets are fired, six bulls are released and the chase is on. The event generally takes just a few minutes.
Giants and Big-Heads Parade
Every morning during the fiesta, there is a parade of ‘giants and big-heads.’ The giant figures used in the parade are more than 150 years old and are around 4 metres high. Many of them were built by the painter from Pamplona Tadeo Amorena in 1860, and represent four pairs of kings and queens from four different races and locations (Europe, Asia, America and Africa). During the parade, the giants are carried by a dancer hidden inside and move to the rhythm of traditional music.
Many traditional sports take place during the Fiesta de San Fermín, including stone lifting, wood cutting, and hay bale lifting. Most of these events are held in the Plaza de los Fueros, a square close to the City’s Citadel.
Pamplona’s bullring is the fourth largest in the world. Every afternoon of the fiesta, the 6 bulls that have been driven to the Bull Ring during the bull running of that day, are killed in the bullfight. The event starts at 6:30 pm and is extremely popular with visitors of the fiesta.
Fireworks have been known to be a part of the fiesta since 1595. A favourite event with the crowd, thousands of spectators sit on the grass around the citadel to watch the spectacular show.
What to Wear
The traditional outfit for the Fiesta de San Fermín consists of white pants, a white shirt with the customary red scarf and red waistband. While it is not mandatory to wear this to the fiesta, most people do and it is a great way to really feel apart of the event. The white pants and shirt can be purchased anywhere (or be brought from home), and the red scarf and waistband can be purchased in Pamplona. You will be able to find them in several shops on Estafeta, Mercaderes and Chapitela streets, as well as places like Taconera Park, around the Bull Ring and Menindades Square.
How to Get There
- By Plane - The Pamplona airport is 6 km from downtown, in the village of Noain. There’s at least one daily flight from Paris and Lisbon to Pamplona, and usually 5 or so from Madrid and Barcelona. Besides Noain, the nearest airports are: Vitoria (101 km), Biarritz (128 km), Bilbao (170 km), Zaragoza (172 km), Madrid (407 km) and Barcelona (437 km). From these cities you can easily take the train or bus services to Pamplona.
- By Train - The address of the main train station of Pamplona is Plaza de la Estación 1, Pamplona, in the neighbourhood of San Jorge. It is a high quality rail service and you can get to downtown Pamplona by taking a taxi or bus from the main station. You can find out all the information regarding tickets by calling +34 902-320320.
- By Bus - The Pamplona bus station’s address is C/Yanguas y Miranda Nº2, and is located in the center of the city. Several companies operate daily connections between Pamplona and Bilbao, Barcelona, Madrid, San Sebastian, Vitoria, Zaragoza and Biarritz. You can easily walk from the bus station to your hotel if it is located in the city center.
Getting Around Town
Pamplona is a city where you can easily see all the sights on foot. If your hotel is situated in the Old Town, you will not need to take any transportation to get around the city.
Where to Stay
Most of the hotels in Pamplona get very expensive during the fiesta and are usually fully booked months beforehand. A great alternative is to take a guided tour, where the accommodation is included. Also keep in mind that Pamplona turns into a party zone at night during the San Fermín Festival, and getting a decent night's sleep might be difficult. However, if you stay up all night to enjoy the festivities, there's nothing better than being able to fall into bed after the running of the bulls in the morning. It may be possible to stay in a hotel just outside Pamplona, though you will need to make transportation arrangements if you want to get into the city for the bull run. Be sure to book very far in advance to avoid any disappointment.