Travel

White way to run with bulls

HORNS OF A DILEMMA: Bull fighter Alberto Aguilar eyes off a bull during a bullfight in Pamplona.
HORNS OF A DILEMMA: Bull fighter Alberto Aguilar eyes off a bull during a bullfight in Pamplona. AAP

WHITE is certainly not my colour but when I visited Spain last summer, I made an exception.

Perhaps it was the wrong choice?

As soon as the first spray of the sangria sack blasted my clean, white shirt barely before 10am, I knew this was going to be a wild week.

Every year, the charming town of Pamplona in northern Spain is transformed into Europe's No 1 party destination for seven days during the San Fermin Festival.

The historic capital city of Navarre swells from 200,000 people to 1.2 million during the festival which was immortalised in Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises.

The highlight of the week-long festivities is the daily dose of half-tonne bulls running through the centre of town to the plaza de toros (bull ring) for Running of the Bulls.

While San Fermin is associated with bulls, blood and gore, there is more to the 600-year-old festival than meets the eye.

Live music, nightly fireworks, street parties and plenty of sangria round off the whirlwind week of San Fermin.

While the annual festival may be five months away, accommodation and inter- European flights book fast. The best way to experience the festival is with a tour company suited to young people such as Fanatics or Busabout.

We arrived in Pamplona by bus, via a flight to nearby Bilbao to the Fanatics campsite. We were greeted by the all-Australian staff and blazing 40 degree weather. The camp caters for 700 guests and is an experience in itself with music always playing, pool and canteen facilities and plenty of chances to meet new people, all at a budget price.

A 10-minute bus ride away is the city of Pamplona. The beautiful historic town is lined with cobblestone streets shadowed with balcony-lined buildings, each with its own charm.

There was a real buzz about town in the lead-up to the opening ceremony, but I still didn't really know what to expect. I discovered the bull run could be watched from several vantage points, the best ones snapped up at the crack of dawn, hours before the run starts.

The whole introduction was slightly overwhelming. Where are we supposed to stand? Is it safe to watch from the track? Maybe I should run with the bulls?

It's easy to get swept up in San Fermin fever. Shops are stocked with souvenir shirts and pants. You can easily pick up your whites for the bull run for about 10 euro (about $AU12)

I'm still a little unsure what the Festival of San Fermin is about. Perhaps its meaning has been lost over the centuries? I met up with a close friend and Pamplona native. But even she wasn't 100% sure of why thousands turn out every year in honour of Saint San Fermin or why the bulls are run.

But no one seemed to mind.

Headed into the town for the San Fermin opening ceremony, the adrenalin and excitement was pumping. The Fanatics crew headed towards the city hall to watch the

mayor usher in the start of San Fermin. This prime spot is not for the faint hearted. It's a small space with thousands of people and plenty of sangria being thrown around the place.

Festivalgoers party through the night with a massive street party. Anything goes with sangria, water pistols, eggs and flour showering crowds. With barely an hour's sleep under the belts, many of the bull runners take to the track at 6am ready for the 8am start.

The word on everyone's lips was Dead Man's Corner. It marks a point in the bull run where the route takes a sharp turn. Unable to move quickly in a different direction, many of the bulls slip up at this point and slide across the cobble street. And if a runner is standing in the way, the outcome is usually fatal.

On day three I was lucky enough to be perched on a balcony at Dead Man's Corner to watch the run.

But for the most part I watched the run via big screen along with 20,000 people in the bull fighting arena. The pre-run schedule went a little something like a State of Origin, with the bull names and weight displayed on the screen.

Minutes after watching the run on the big screen, runners streamed into the arena.

Bull runners often likened the adrenalin rush of the run to being chased down by a car - you can hear and feel the rumble. The bells on the necks of the bulls becoming louder as the herd approaches.

Each day six bulls and steer are released and sacrificed that evening in the San Fermin tradition. To find a restaurant or cafe with the meat of the sacrificed bulls is a privilege.

The matadors are the celebrities of northern Spain, appearing in gossip magazines as often as Kim Kardashian.

We escaped the hype of Pamplona for the day during our stay to San Sebastian, a seaside town one hour's drive away. Located on the Coast of the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastian has boutique shopping, cafes and hundreds of classic Spanish tapas bars.

In both San Sebastian and Pamplona during San Fermin, every second person is a tourist, so most shop owners speak English. We downloaded a Spanish language iPhone App prior to our trip to learn the basics. But the best advice is to learn the word "Agua". It means water and in 40-something degree weather it is a must.

If you are ready for food, fireworks, bull runs, sangria fights, partying and new friends, Pamplona is ready for you and you will always be made welcome.

Just be prepared to stick to a white wardrobe for a week.

Did you know?

More than 1 million people converge on the Spanish town of Pamplona each year for the Running of the Bulls

The Running of the Bulls is the highlight of the annual San Fermin festival from July 6-14

The festival begins with the txupinazo: a rocket fired from the city council's balcony. This marks the start of the festival and a week-long street party laced in sangria and street music

Six bulls and several steer run through the centre of town each morning for seven days towards the bull ring alongside the runners. The arena is filled with 20,000 spectators

Six bulls each day are sacrificed in a bull fight with a matador each night

The running track is 800m long and takes about two minutes to run

Pamplona becomes a sea of white and red as children and adults wear the traditional white pants and shirt with bandanas

>> Read more travel stories.

Topics:  pamplona, spain, travel, travelling


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