January 10, 2013 Features & Images » Feature Story

Pamplona a rite of passage 

A 14th Century tradition continues

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY MIGEL/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Photo by Migel/shutterstock.com

It's been three hours of standing and waiting and the crowd is growing restless. A mixture of excitement and fear hang over the sea of people crammed like cattle into the tight streets of Pamplona. There is no time for second thoughts though, no time for hatching escape plans. The nervous energy is palpable. Crowds of onlookers are gathered draped in red and white, baying for blood. They shout and sing with expectation, their voices echoing off the ancient cobbled streets. All of a sudden in the distance there is the crack of a gun and the unmistakable sound of steel hitting stone. The gate has dropped, the beasts are loose. Now it's time to run, with the bulls.

Each year thousands of people descend onto the streets of Pamplona in July to take part in the eight-day festival the locals call Encierro, the origins of which are steeped in history. Spanish tradition tells us the practice began in the early 14th century, where cattle were transported to the local bullring from pens on the outskirts of the city. Young men would jump in with the bulls as they were corralled through the streets to prove their bravery to the onlooking crowds. Not much has changed in over 600 years. The thrill of dicing with death continues to entice people the world over to celebrate the Encierro creating one of the world's great festivals.

Pamplona is located in the far northeastern corner of Spain, a mere hour from the French border. The journey through the mountainous Pyrenees region of France en route to Pamplona is worthy of mention in itself. Huge peaks stretch off into the distance, like a scene straight from "Middle Earth." The highway winds up and down these majestic mountains, over clouded summits and through deep valleys offering beautiful vistas to the traveller.

As we entered Pamplona, having missed the opening ceremony the night before, we expected the city to be in recovery mode. How wrong we were. Crowds of revellers packed out the local bars and restaurants, excited tourists from all corners of the globe roamed the streets, draping the city in an immaculate red and white. The atmosphere is electric, as the sounds of music and revelry fill the streets.

As we fumble and stumble our way around the maze that is central Pamplona, swept along with swarms of red and white revellers, the party atmosphere that has engulfed the city seems to intensify. The sights and sounds of Spain's premiere festival fail to disappoint as the night continues to fall with music wafting from restaurants and bars, as the streets become a dance floor to which everyone is invited. Locals and visitors alike are transformed into Flamenco dancers with the aid, of course, of a little of the local sangria which continues to flow throughout the city.

With dawn comes the realization that there is one last box to tick on the Pamplona to-do list. Dragging ourselves out of bed, the usual early morning fuzz is replaced with a sense of anticipation. As we take our place amongst the crowd anticipation turns to nervousness, as the reality of running with the bulls sets in.

We are joined by our newly found Spanish friends who assure us that our position on the track is amongst the safest places to be. Apparently the beginning of the course can be carnage as can the notorious "Dead Man's Corner," which we are just in sight of.

Finally the moment of truth arrives, the gun sounds and the gate drops. The sea of red and white begins to surge, even before the bulls are in sight. Biding our time, we wait to see the first of our foes charging through the cobbled street. The sound of hooves on stone, rushing towards us focuses our attention, and as the beasts round the corner we finally catch a glimpse of the 1,100lb wrecking balls charging towards us. Instincts take over. It's every man and woman for themselves now.

The run itself is over relatively quickly, as the bulls overtake the runners and continue to the arena in the centre of town. The image of six bulls, each with horns bobbing up and down, all within two metres of my scared and excited self will remain with me for the rest of my life — as will the feeling of exhilaration and exhaustion that followed the run.

With our job done — bones and limbs intact, we head back to our hotel reflecting on the events of the morning. Dicing with over 6,000-lbs of bulls in a morning will make you think of things a little differently. There are too few times in life where instinct can overrule the mind, and common sense takes a back seat in order to truly experience the world. That is the essence of travel after all, to experience things that seem so strange and terrifying yet provide the most fulfilling rewards. The Encierro offers one of the world's last truly life changing experiences. Terrifying, exhilarating, humbling and empowering, the running of the bulls is one event that should be ticked off everyone's bucket list.

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