It was hard to believe that we had finally arrived at the festival that we had heard so much about – the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. We arrived in Pamplona by train and our first glimpse of the town was of hundreds of tired looking people covering a very crowded platform. I was excited to think that we were just about to begin the amazing experience that had made these people so exhausted.
As we walked into town, my initial impression was of lots of people lying on the grass and on benches, obviously trying to get some sleep in any available space after a long night of festivities. The other unusual thing about the scene was the colour of the clothes worn by everyone. They were all dressed in white outfits with red scarves. Our own attire seemed very out of place. It didn’t take us long to put that right! Within the hour we too were clothed in t-shirts and matching red scarves bought from the local vendors lining the streets and we no longer looked like new comers.
I checked my watch, and it was still a few hours before we were due to meet our friend Kate, who had travelled to Pamplona separately from us.
Our next priority was to sample some of the Spanish food and drink. There was no question that our first drink would have to be the traditional wine-based sangria. However, the enormous “bucket” of the liquor that we received did come as a shock! The sangria had a potent effect on all of us and we soon found ourselves feeling as if on a roller-coaster ride in the amusement park. We were spun around, up and down and thoroughly drenched by the end of the ride – it was fantastic!
Soon it was time to meet Kate at the agreed-upon spot. Given that we were unfamiliar with Pamplona, it had been difficult to agree on a meeting place. We had decided to meet at a statue in the town’s Temple Bar area that was notorious because of the crazy Australians who climb it and then jump off the top. We were relieved to find the statue empty of people preparing themselves to leap from it. However, to our dismay, there was no sign of Kate there, and after a couple of hours we had to give up waiting for her.
The festival atmosphere was unlike anything I had ever seen before. What pleased me the most was the fact that it was enjoyed by both the foreigners who had travelled from afar to be there and also the local Spaniards alike. The sound of a marching band that wound its way through the crowds of people increased the carnival-like atmosphere, as did the spectacular fireworks display that lit up the night sky.
A mad dash from the bull
Other travellers had warned us that finding accommodation without a reservation in Pamplona was next to impossible. They were right. As the night wore on, I began to regret the fact that I had not brought my sleeping bag. There was no choice other than to stay up all night until the bull race the next morning. We easily passed the time meeting lots of fellow travellers and swapping some travel stories at the bars in town. Even restaurants and garages had been transformed into bars for the festival and there was a huge variety of music to choose from – salsa and reggae to electronic dance.
Before we knew it, it was time to position ourselves for the running of the bull race. By tradition, women are not permitted to take part in the race, but I saw heaps of others there, and so Emma, my travelling companion needed little further encouragement to join in when we saw the girls lining up for the run. Whilst our families at home would have thought us mad to throw ourselves in and be chased by a pack of running bulls, we had been advised by friends that there was a “safe” way to run. This approach consisted of lining up ahead of the bull start line, beginning the race before them and reaching the bullring well ahead of the stampeding animals in our wake. However, it was a well-known fact that people were often seriously injured and sometimes killed in the race.
It was about 6am when we got into position at the starting line. The streets were lined with people 10 deep and every balcony in the surrounding buildings had people waiting for the run to start. As I sized up the persons either side of me, I could hardly believe my eyes when I suddenly saw Kate. She also recognised me, but as our eyes met, the rocket went off, signaling the start of the race and forcing us to take off together in the swarm of people headed for the bullring.
It was an exhilarating race. Despite knowing that the bulls were not yet within sight, I was sure that they could appear at any minute and I kept the fastest pace that the crowd running beside, behind and in front of me permitted. I was spurred on by the fact that two of the largest bulls of the festival, weighing about 520 kg’s each, were supposed to be running that day. I tried to block out the visual images of people being trampled by bulls that had been playing on the TVs in the bars the night before and splashed across the front page of the local newspapers.
Before I knew it I had reached the bullring and I was dashing for the safety of the stands. I looked behind me. The bulls were now within sight. I was relieved to see Emma and Kate by my side. We had been pulled up into the protection of the stand not one moment too soon. We embraced one another, with surges of relief flooding though us as we had found each other after escaping the peril of the bulls! What a thrill!
It was soon time to head home. As we sat at the crowded platform, I realised that we too had become a part of the weary mob of travellers crowding the platform after my first glimpse of Pamplona.
*The Pamplona Bull Run takes place over several days in July every year.