With the bulls on the loose and sangria rivers running, Samuel Davies takes his life in his hands for Pamplona’s infamous San Fermin festival.
Crouched down against the hard brick wall of a local shop, the self-proclaimed brave begin to settle into their starting positions. It is 7:55am and the sun is yet to warm the cold cobbled streets but the canons are ready to fire and declare the start of the San Fermin festival.
Huddled in a corner next to me in a small doorway is a fragile pale figure, evidently weakened by the sangria soaked celebrations of the previous day and night. Without hesitation, he takes a small plastic bag from his traditional white trouser pocket, raises it slowly to his mouth and ejects the foul poisons that have plagued him all morning. “Happens every time” he mutters as he jumps to his feet. Allowing the glow of the sun to warm his snow white face, he gets in position.
On entering the city for the first time, just 24 hours prior to this, before beads of sweat ran from my cold red-stained palms, Pamplona seemed fresh and innocent; not yet tainted by the actions that would inevitably follow. The tall white utopian buildings stood like walls of an unconquerable maze where, just like in the legends of Greece, lay a bull with horns like blades.
Just like veins pump blood to the heart, the streets turned red as thousands scrambled towards to the city’s centre. As we marched closer to the square, people danced in a red and white blur swinging their arms back and forth and jumping joyfully under sangria showers. I’d yet to try the fruit-filled concoctions the city so gracefully offered so, in a familiar fashion of my surrounding companions, my search for the city square soon flailed under the prospects of losing my unwelcome inhibitions in the white maze.
“Two litres, two euros! Two litres, two euros”, a little man behind a counter demanded. Apparently he’d only just run out of cups and it would cost me another €8 to buy a satchel which just so happened to hold two litres. To avoid further bruising from the amplified crowds pressed against my back, I didn’t bother to barter. “There’s always a catch” I joked as I handed the pint-sized man his money. With a smile and a nod he quickly turned to another target next to me. “Two litres, two euros! Two litres, two euros!”
Streets began to empty but were still filled with the echoes from a roaring crowd. The noise brought me closer and closer to the heart of the city and eventually into the arms of the cheerful masses. It wasn’t long before I was at the very centre of the crowds when the sheer heat started to take effect. Densely packed within a thousand people, the heat from below our waists began to rise. Drops of sweat from my forehead soon turned into rivers bursting from my pores.
After an hour of battling with the challenge of staying on our feet, a rocket fired from the city hall to mark the momentous Chupinazo - the first day of this gruelling festival - and with just under 20 hours before the sound of the first canons, the crowds began to take refuge away from the scorching sun to carefully slow their pulse.
Back within the caged street, rumours confirmed that there is only 30 seconds until the bulls are set loose. Blood rushes throughout my body. The crowds began to edge forward slightly and with a submerged-like explosion, the cannon is fired and the cobbles begin to shake. Nobody around me moves at that point. We still have another minute before the beasts bare down on us. As seconds tick by, feet start to shuffle. Some move quicker than others and the shuffle soon turns into a march and eventually into a sprint.
Keeping a sharp eye on the dividing crowds at my heels, the horns of the first bull rapidly takes form. Weighing just shy of half a tonne, the image of just one bull soon turns into seven. Local tradition dictates that that it is bad luck to enter the arena before the bulls, but as the street began to bottle neck towards the arena’s entrance, my range of choices began to dissipate.
On entering the arena, it wasn’t long before blood stained the floors. In a confident attempt to touch the beasts, a man was flung to the ground and eventually dragged to the infirmary, staining the golden sand with a thick scarlet thread. The audience applauded the man and cheered for more heroes to step up and demonstrate their bravery.
The locals adored the efforts of the tourists at the festival. The audience only booed when a bull missed in hitting someone. In no sense of malice did they despise outsiders, but it was clear that the festival’s core traditions and ideals had been distorted and diluted over the years of its growing popularity.
Shortly after the bulls were herded away from the exhausted crowds, many discussed their next adventure. Before leaving the arena, the Australians and Kiwis in my group discussed plans to meet at the La Tamotina festival the following month. As they don’t know when they’ll next be in the northern hemisphere, let alone the continent, they wish to do as much as they can while they’re here. “With food fights and bulls on the loose, Europe is like a big playground to us”, they conclude, before embarking on a less stress-induced quest for breakfast.