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Michael’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 10 Jul 2008

Location: Pamplona, Spain

MapFirst weekend of July, and I was doing the same thing I had been for the last three years – heading to Spain for Fiesta de San Fermin. This festival, which lasts for a full 8.5 days of serious partying, is best known for the 2-5 minutes each morning from the 7th to 14th July that the bulls are let loose on the street and make their way from the holding pen to the Plaza de Torro, the Pamplona bull ring. And it is this Running of the Bulls that draws the crowds of tourists in year after year. But there is more than just the running of the bulls to entertain yourself with, and the energy levels and excitement amongst the locals for the week is testament to this.

Despite being my third straight year, this time around still provided new experiences for me. Firstly, this year I took 13 people along to the party with me, having increased from 1 the first year (Clint) and 4 last year. As with most parties, the more the merrier, and having such a big crowd of people made for an exciting time, but also a busy time as we tried to get 14 people in and out of 2 apartments, for which we were only allowed to sleep 10, and of course, it meant keeping a watchful eye on more people during the bull run and the mayhem of the opening ceremony.

I left work on Friday after my half day of work (I do love Friday’s) and headed straight for the ferry to the mainland. Once there I teamed up with 6 of the travelling party and we jumped in a taxi and headed for Bournemouth airport. By 430 pm we were on a flight to Barcelona, and by 730 pm, accounting for the 1 hour time difference, we had landed in Girona airport. The hour long bus ride into central Barcelona passed by, and then we found ourselves with just one hour to make our way to the train station for the overnight train to Pamplona. A small error in platform judgement, and we were left with just 5 minutes to make the train, with way too many people trying to get on still. Thank God for pre-booked tickets. We met up with Potter who’d flown straight from Melbourne to Barcelona (by straight I mean on 3 separate legs) and barged through the crowds, half of whom didn’t have tickets or were trying to get on the wrong train.

It was a long uncomfortable ride, with a totally packed train. The American tourists that were on board, and there were plenty of them, were cheering and celebrating the 4th of July, and the Spanish locals were in party mode already, looking forward to arriving in Pamplona. For a change, Australian tourists were looking respectful and normal! An uneventful train ride, and we arrived in Pamplona, feeling like trash, a 534 am. Most of the train disembarked, and headed into the Spanish darkness. With an early arrival, we decided to walk from the train to the apartments rather than catching a taxi, figuring we wouldn’t be able to check in yet. When we finally made it to the apartments, we were correct in our assumption, no checking in till midday. When I asked if we could drop our bags off and was told yes, I wandered outside to get everyone to bring in their bags, and when I returned I was told the apartments were ready and we could check in now if we like… a resounding yes!

We headed upstairs and after a quick shower, we all got some much needed sleep. Mine was interrupted by phone calls with people trying to find the apartments and others wondering what was happening with the footy team this weekend back in England. Yeah, wasn’t impressed with the lack of sleep I managed.

After lunch we all headed in to the old city, and with more people having arrived, we were up to 13 of the 14 we were expecting in the apartments. We wandered into town and had a couple drinks in the temporary bars that had been set up. It wasn’t long before the final member of the troupe arrived and I gave the tour of the encierro (Bull Run). The attention of those that wanted to run ranged from hanging on to every word to a 6-year old with ADHD and an allergy to red food die after drinking a litre of raspberry cordial. We finished the tour, showing the run route, explaining where things would take place on the day of the opening ceremony and the best spots to watch the run from. And of course I explained the rules of the run, and reminded everyone that this was something done sober, not drunk.

Another drink in town, immediately after my warning, and then we headed out of town, stopping to buy of white and red costumes that we would wear for the remainder of the time in Pamplona. On the way back to the apartment, we stopped at the grocery store for food, knowing that the next two days the supermarkets would be shut. And stock up we did. Back at the apartments, people were cooking up a feast, while others were drinking with a fury that hadn’t been seen since schoolie’s week. In fact, the rest of the evening was spent moving from one apartment to the other, watching people think back to their high school days for drinking games, and getting to know the people on the trip that we didn’t already know.

The following morning, I eventually managed to get everyone on the road and we headed to the old town square in front of the Town Hall to take up position for the start of the festival. Arriving at about 1040 am, it wasn’t long before our new crisp white clothes were wet and stained, with showers of Sangria and sparkling apple wine being sprayed & poured everywhere. But when the sparkling wine was going at €2 a bottle and the Sangria for €1 per litre (note, when bought from the supermarket!), people don’t seem to mind using it in this non-conventional way.

We stuck it out in the middle of the Town Hall square until midday when the festival officially started with the high ranking town officials standing on the balcony and the town mayor lighting the first of dozens of bottle rockets that indicated the opening of the festival. At that point, with everyone holding their red neckerchiefs in the air, bottle rockets continuing to ring through the air, and Sangria flying around everywhere, the crowd tied their neckerchiefs around their necks and slowly dispersed through the rest of the town.

I took the crew down to muscle bar, once we’d reformed, and we wandered around there for a while looking at the gutsier, or foolhardier, of the revellers jumping off the statue. After a false start, Ash backed out, and then Dash finally made the decision to climb up and take the plunge. The entire crew of boys were out there to catch him and did a great job, and Dash did a fine job at the jump – straight as an arrow, easy to catch.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around town, grabbing the most expensive round I have ever had (60 Euro for two buckets of Sangria and 2 1L beers) and soaking up the sun and the atmosphere. Early in the evening we headed back to our apartments and grabbed some Chinese for dinner from the local restaurant. It was a very laid back and chilled evening, with a few people starting to nurse the side effects of the copious amount of opening ceremony alcohol, and other already going into some sort of focused trance, thinking about the following mornings bull run.

AS early start on the 7th of July, with the alarm going off at 6 am. By the time I’d gotten dressed and wandered to the other apartment it was 10 after 6, and most people were starting to get up, with a planned departure time of 630 am. A few people, Potter and Quinny, were looking worse for ware after the previous days activities, and I doubted would run. In fact, they both doubted their ability to run, but by the time we’d wandered, pretty slowly, to the spot in front of the Town Square, where we’d planned to run from, they sharpened up and bit and seemed keen to give it a shot.

There were 8 of us running, and I gave everyone some last minute instructions. We didn’t start heading down the run until closer to 8 than I had planned, but being behind the Town Hall it was hard to see if the police had cleared out the head of the run yet. In any case, we were walking towards dead man’s corner, and I noticed police still in the run, so figured that we still had a bit of time when the first bottle rock sounded, signalling the opening of the gate to the bull pen.

Now, in the 45 minutes or so preceding the start of the run, everyone had acted in their own way. Some kept to themselves, with an internal focus a sporting coach could only dream of. Others tried to release their nervous tension by jumping, singing, talking and itching. In any case, the minute that bottle rocket went off, most people acted the same way – shear panic. Potter, who an hour early looked like he couldn’t walk, took off at the quickest pace I have ever seen. It wasn’t long before we were all around dead man’s corner, and then all scattered. We, at least I had lost everyone else.

When the first pack of bulls had come past, accompanied by 4 Jersey cows, I counted four of the six bulls. I continued running up Estafeta, the long uphill stretch with buildings on either side with no escape. As the crowds in the balconies above started cheering again, I turned to see the fifth bull, accompanied by a jersey running up the middle of the road. Looking further behind, I couldn’t see any other bulls, and figured that perhaps I had miscounted the first four. Where was the sixth bull? Well, I guess that was the end of another safe bull run.

Then at the last minute, the sixth bull appeared out of nowhere. I had moved to the middle of the road, chasing the bulls that had passed me, and as such was right in the line of attack for the last bull. Getting out of the way at the last second, I had the newspaper I was carrying, the only thing allowed to be carried, knocked right out my hand. And being so close to the bulls, I was able to do the one thing that I hadn’t done before – touch a bull on the run. I was so close as to actually touch one that I gave it a nice sized slap on the ass on the way past, rich in some cow dung that he’d no doubt been lying in during the night!

A couple of bulls managed to get turned around toward the end of the run, prolonging the time of the run, and also allowing the crowd to get closer to the tail end of the bulls as they entered the bull ring. As such, I was just behind the final bull entering the ring, and was shocked to see another bull still running loose in there, as well as the last one to enter not wanting to go straight into the holding pen out the back. That caused havoc amongst the runners, but eventually the bulls were lead into the holding pens, and the runners began their celebration. At this point I had only located 6 of our runners, Potter and Marcy both gone missing. Not what I wanted to find out.

I exited the ring and tried to locate the missing runners in the crowd. There is a 2 m wide walkway that surrounds the bull ring and separates the crowd from the ring itself, and after every bull run it is packed with runners just trying to get out of the ring, and away from the adolescent bulls they release into the crowds – with their horns capped so there is no goring!

I was fighting my way around the crowd looking for Potter and Marcy, and made my way to the ramp where the bulls enter and exit the ring, at which point I was turned back. At the opposite side of the ring, another first for me at the Bull Run; as I looked into the crowd for everyone, the packed crowd dispersed and appeared to be jumping into the ring. I looked up and a bull was flying over the fence and into the walkway. He land just 6 feet in front of me, turned and headed towards me. Thankfully, with no where to built up speed and no real place to run, he just trotted past, I almost felt like patting him like a dog. Just wish I had my camera out.

Anyway, at that point they opened a small gate out of the bull ring and I headed out to the street and found Marcy. So I was only just one last person short of the full 8 runners. When the fun and games in the bull ring finally settled, and everyone left, we finally located Potter out at the designated meeting point. Everyone was high on the adrenaline of a survived run, and we wandered around looking for a bite to eat. Eventually we split up, and a bunch of us decided to stick around and watch the parade of Las Giantes, another first for my time in Pamplona. A dozen or so 20 ft giant puppets wandered down the street, with a precession of religious folk, and eventually the statue of San Fermin exited the church and was parade through the street.

After a wander through the markets, we headed back to the apartments, and Marcy and I stopped for a lunch on the way. Back at the apartments, some were sleeping off the night before, others were starting to party, but in general, everyone was starting to get a bit livelier in the late afternoon. In the early evening we headed to the park next to the Citadel and got our spot for the nights fireworks. Each night of the festival, a European pyrotechnic company does a show, and they last about half an hour each. And Monday night’s show was nothing to sneeze at.

After the show, all 14 met up again, and we headed into the Old Town, stopping by the holding pen on the way to see the bulls and jersey’s for the second days run. From there we headed into town, making the most of the impromptu night life that occurs on the streets, in the bars, and any other premises that you could carry beer into and sell. We found our way into a bar that looked as though it sells cured meat during the day. The music was great and awful at the same time. “It’s Hard to Say I’m Sorry” dance remix was a personal favourite at the time. I met a bunch of American tourists and showed them the run route, as they planned on running the following morning, and then headed home to call it a night around 2 am.

The following morning I lacked the motivation to get out of bed to watch the Bull Run and with a cold setting in, decided to sleep in. Vacating the apartments at 10 am, we headed down to the train station for our 11 am train to Madrid. We crossed half of Spain in under 3.5 hours and arrived in just enough time to catch a connecting district train, and then underground train to the airport and check in. At this point in time, the cold, and my lack of sleep had me looking like the walking dead, and I couldn’t wait to get on the plane. By 7 pm we were in Gatwick, but it was a further 5 hours before I would be home, with customs to clear, and then no direct trains running to Southampton. Aside from feeling awful by the end of it all, it was another classic trip to Pamplona for the running of the bulls, and you may very well see me do it a fourth year!