Back in the summer of 2009, shortly after graduating from university, I had the chance to join five school friends for an epic road trip – a Grand Tour, if you will – departing from England by ferry, down through Spain to Barcelona via the San Fermin festival, the (in)famous running of the bulls in Pamplona. From Catalonia, we would head east through France and the Cote d’Azur and down into Italy, basing ourselves in the picturesque Umbrian countryside for a few days before turning north, heading home via Lake Garda, the Austrian Alps, the Black Forest in Germany and finally northern France.
This is part two of my recollections and photos of the trip, covering Bilbao and watching the Pamplona running of the bulls.
The first installment, covering the ferry journey, can be found here.
After disembarking from the ferry, and escaping the confinement of the berths, we headed into Bilbao. It was early Sunday morning, and consequently we felt like we had the city to ourselves, counting prehaps on one hand other people doing the same thing at such an early hour. It was before 8am, after all.
We spent the first hour or so mooching around the banks of the pleasant river, the view dominated by the single towered bright red suspension bridge, La Salve bridge, crossing the river ahead of us. The giant red archway is apparently another work of contemporary art, in a city that is quite clearly defined by contemporary art. We passed a giant dog made from colourful flowers (no idea), and finally we were alongside the famous Guggenheim Museum. Opened with fanfare in 1997; all metal, silver, glass, wavy lined, and not a flat surface in sight, the museum building hogs your attention ahead of all the other buildings in the immediate area, including the slighty creepy oversized statues of spiders, one of which was a good 20ft in height, hovering above us like a tripod from WG Wells War of the Worlds. Imagine finding that in your bath.
We decided not to go into the museum. Partly because, being early on a Sunday morning, it was shut, and dictated by the timetables of the ferry, this choice had been decided for us. Also, none of us are really into ‘art’ per se, I had no desire to pick apart and critically analyse the works of artists pouring their soul into something I couldn’t get quite get my head around. I like landscapes and a purpose to things. A giant dog made from flowers? Ok then. Ah, yes, of course!
I was, however, fascinated by the exterior of the building. It certainly had more than a passing resemblance to a ship – highly appropriate given where we had been for the last 36 hours – and I was amazed how such a building appears, on first glance, to be completely randomly assembled, is actually planned and executed down to each tiny, microscopic detail.
After spending only an hour or two in the city centre, getting our land legs back after the sea voyage, we decided it would be best to start the two hour drive towards the town of Pamplona – specifically a campsite about 5kms south outside the main part of the town centre that would be our accommodation for the night.
We had chosen to visit Pamplona as it was on the way(ish) to Barcelona, our next intended destination, and it was more through luck than judgement a few weeks prior to our departure that we realised we would be passing close enough by to the town to experience the (in)famous San Fermin festival, held in the town each July. Part of the festivities is the Running of the Bulls – or the Bull Run, known locally as encierro – held daily at 8am each day of the nine days of the festival.
It is practised that tradition dedicates that you run down 826 metres of the closed streets of the old town of Pamplona, ahead of a group of about a dozen bulls, who are probably no doubt a bit miffed about being made angry and antagonized.
The tradition for this apparently originates from the need to transport cattle through the town to market and bullfights – the animals are made to speed up through a combination of fear and excitement. This practice evolved over time with locals starting to choose to run ahead of the bulls, no doubt with a healthy mixture of courage, confidence, stupidity, peer-pressure and, above all else, bravery.
We arrived in Pamplona mid-morning of the Sunday, 12th July, and it was obvious straight away that a proportion of the mix of locals and tourists who we passed on arrival – dressed from head to toe in all white, complemented only by a flash of red from a neckerchief – had been hard at it either since the previous Saturday evening, and were still going, long into the following morning. Or, even more possibly, had really been on it since completing that mornings bull run. There was a vibrancy about the town, a buzz you feel when attending a gig or a football match, or getting the night bus home – the notion that everyone is there for the same reason.
We had arrived after the mornings bull run, and were able to walk down the streets that only hours beforehand had been full of nervous runners and the pounding of hooves, the streets being cleaned around us. We stopped to look at the market stalls that had opened up, selling the obligatory merchandise, and we purchased our red neckerchiefs for the following day, and moved onto the next stall – a small shop run by a middle-aged woman selling pictures and posters of the event and various bull related tat.
Highlighted in one of the doorways next to the stall, there was a striking poster image of two or three participants of a previous years event, cowering in an arch and in obvious distress as a lone bull, having broken away from the main herd, attacks the group, clearly goring one of the participants through the side of his body. It took us a while and a few steps back to realise that the events highlighted in the picture where actually taken from the same doorway we were currently stood in front of.
It was at that moment I decided I wasn’t going to run the event the following morning, when we had tentatively between us planned to do so.
To be honest, my feelings about running the course had been mixed before we had even left the UK. These were compounded after we discovered that on the Friday, two days before we arrived, the town had seen its first fatality in six years (and as of 2014, there hasn’t been one since), when a 27 year old man had been fatally gored through the neck. The local papers, magazines and TV stations – who cover the event with maximum publicity – were awash with pictures of the man – acting as a constant reminder of the very apparent dangers, however slim the chances of it happening were.
My other doubts were surrounding my conflicting emotions in upholding local tradition against my thoughts that if the bulls were aggravated and ultimately killed for our entertainment? Six of the bulls that run in the mornings events are later killed during a bullfight in the stadium that marks the end point of the 800m course, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take part for that reason.
I eat beef, does that make me a hypocrite? I would say not. I don’t torture my Sunday roast before eating it, other than to move vegetables around my plate or ask for more. I decided I couldn’t run the following morning.
The following morning, we awoke from the campsite early at daybreak in time to make it back into the town centre for the 8am start of the run. Myles and Sing had ultimately decided to take part, possibly for the same reasons as the locals who first had the idea, while Ed, Wing and I would watch from a safe vantage point overlooking the course in the main town square. The hustle and buzz in the town defied the early hour. It wasn’t quite yet 7.30am, and already there was little room to move freely along the streets, the ramshackle balconies above filled to capacity with onlookers, having paid for the privilege months in advance.
We left Mlyes and Sing, wishing them luck as we parted, as we spotted two Australian travellers we had shared a beer with at the campsite the night beforehand. They were being removed from the course by local officials – apparently still worse for wear from the previous evening. As the remaining non-runners, we attempted to find a good spot to try and watch our friends pass by, deciding the best option (or the least worse) was to stand uncomfortably on a ledge by an ATM in the main square, the part of the course that takes a sharp ninety degree turn to the right before heading down Estafeta Street, and is the fastest part of the course.
Our views were obscured by the mass of people in front of us, including those who presumably arrived much earlier than us and were able to climb on the wooden fences erected parallel to the course, and who had the prime viewing positions from the street level, blocking what little of the view we had.
Every available position was occupied and there was simply no room to get a good view.
Suddenly, from afar, we heard a boom that marked the start of the run, the signal for the runners to start moving. I thought of our friends, and what they must be thinking at the time, knowing that shortly the second boom would be heard, that signifies that the dozen bulls have been released from their pen higher up the course. The atmosphere in the square was absolutely electric with anticipation, the first runners starting the pass by one by one, a few of them nervously glancing over their shoulders, others full on sprinting through the square in a vain attempt to outrun something far bigger and heavier than themselves. Once the second boom was heard, it echoed around the high rise buildings of the square, the atmosphere cranked up even further, the noise of the crowd becoming deafening. My hands were sweating with nerves, so I can only imagine the magnitude of emotion from those actually taking part.
Quickly the trickle of runners had turned into a flow. All we could see were the bottoms of peoples legs from the knee down, a passing blur of activity and shouts of nervousness. I was looking for the shoes of our friends, but could not see them. Were they alright? Had they passed already? In reality there was little chance of spotting them and we had no choice but to assume they were ok.
Suddenly, from further up the street to our left, the noise and movement of human feet were joined and then replaced by the sounds of the dozen or so angry muscular animals hurtling towards the crowd of people; each animal probably weighing upwards of 500kgs and travelling at 15mph, the sight and sounds of their hooves now merged with the feet of the runners and onwards, down to the stadium out of view to our right, shooting past us in a blur of activity.
And with that, as quick as a flash, it was over. Hours of build up and anticipation, over in seconds. Relief and terror were still etched onto the faces of our friends once we had caught up with them a short time later, no worse for wear otherwise. We relaxed them with a beer, headed back to the campsite and onwards to our next destination – Barcelona.