Thousands of adventure-seekers have descended in droves, drawn to the small Spanish city of Pamplona for its annual San Fermin festival and the famed running of the bulls. Pamplona’s population of 200,000 can triple during the nine-day festival, which began on Sunday, due to the amount of visitors looking for thrills and a one-of-a-kind experience.
The running of the bulls is about as straightforward as its name. Six bulls charge behind a teeming mass of humanity fleeing toward the bullfighting stadium. Although Pamplona is not the only place to hold running-of-the-bulls events, the Spanish city can boast of the most famous version. The tradition began centuries ago when young men would race in front of the bulls as a way of enticing them to move quickly from their paddocks to the bullfighting arena. However, the custom only gained its worldwide fame after Ernest Hemingway wrote about the dangerous practice in his seminal novel The Sun Also Rises.
The city’s running of the bulls has taken the lives of 15 people since 1924, when officials began taking records of the event. Thousands have been injured, often by being pushed to the ground by frantic runners. Medical teams line the half-mile course, with ambulances ready to bring injured runners to surgeons experienced in operating on goring victims.
The annual San Fermin festival also draws thousands of visitors to Pamplona for attractions other than the running of the bulls. According to municipal officials, approximately 1.5 million people attended the hundreds of parades, concerts, religious events, and children’s activities held during last year’s celebration. This of course translated into millions of dollars in revenue for the small city.
The festival began at noon on Sunday with the launching of a small rocket signaling the official start of the revelry. After seeing the firework, the thousands of jubilant visitors, packed like sardines in the narrow streets of the ancient city, broke out into a raucous celebration featuring many people showering other partying participants with wine and water.
Despite its popularity, the running of the bulls also has its detractors. Over 150 animal rights activists staged a protest on Saturday in the city’s main square. Dressed in the traditional white clothing and red scarves of the festival, the protestors used face paint to make their faces look like skulls. They also held signs in multiple languages, all of which translated to “You Run. Bulls Die.” The Spanish animal welfare group AnimaNaturalis and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) organized the protest.
The activists said that their efforts sought to remind tourists that the running of the bulls ends in the deaths of the animals at the hands of matadors. Bullfighting involves several people repeatedly stabbing the bulls with spears and swords. After the animal has been sufficiently exhausted, the matador will land the killing blow. The practice was banned in Catalonia in 2012, but remains legal in other parts of Spain.
Although the annual running of the bulls draws thousands of tourists to Pamplona, the event is far less popular in other areas. PETA campaign coordinator Kirsty Henderson stated that bullfighting arenas are closing across the country. She claimed that the Pamplona event’s popularity is due to tourism and a lack of understanding about what happens to the bulls in the end. Looking to the future, Henderson said that bullfighting was not something that Spaniards wanted to protect any more. Whether or not the bullfighting continues in the years to come, the revelry in Pamplona has thus far overwhelmed the animal rights activists’ grim message. At least for now, the party is still going strong.
By Yitzchak Besser