Situated along the Camino de Santiago in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Pamplona explodes in early July when both revelers and religious observers flock to the town for the festival of San Fermín which runs from noon on July 6th to midnight on July 14th. There is no other word to describe this festival -the opening day in particular- than as a bacchanal. The contention exists that Spain has a fiesta culture, and no other event captures this cultural mood than Sanfermínes.
Origins of San Fermín and Ernest Hemingway
In a nutshell, San Fermín was a 4th century Christian bishop from the area who was butchered in the South of France for proselytizing, with today’s festival structure reflecting the marriage of a religious celebration and medieval cattle market. While there are obviously vestigal elements of the festival that are religious in nature, the main draw today is unquestionably the daily running of the bulls, which start on the morning of July 7th. Ernest Hemingway’s depiction of the festivities in The Sun Also Rises did more than any tourism board could have ever hoped to popularize the event, especially amongst English speakers from all corners of the globe.
Sanfermínes Festival Attire
All festival attendees don the traditional costume: white shirts, white pants or shorts, a red sash tied about the waist and a red scarf tied about the neck. Those participants not dressed in such attire are embarrassingly noticeable. Go cheap with the outfit as many people get doused in wine or other potions purposely flung about by tipsy party-goers toting jugs of their own booze; this is no party foul but rather very much part and parcel of the festivities. Intuitively, flip-flops or sandals are nonsensical as the streets are littered with debris, including a lot of broken glass.
The Festival Kickoff
It is worth the effort and expense to witness the festivities official commencement at noon on July 6th when revelers shower one another with cava (Spanish sparkling wine), red wine or whatever concoction is at hand. Most party goers will be purple by early afternoon and head for the fountain to either watch (most people) or hurl (the brave or foolish, depending on one’s point of view) themselves in to the crowd below. The party then rages until the next morning.
Retreating to quieter streets away from the old quarter allows one to enjoy the festivities in a more relaxed atmosphere; otherwise, be prepared to push, shove, sweat and overpay for drinks in any number of the holes-in-the-wall that litter the old quarter.
Observe the demographic diversity of the attendees: for many locals, it is a family affair and three or more generations can be seen setting up for and tucking into a long lunch on some of the less hectic streets that radiate outward from the old quarter.
Lodging is reserved early, especially for the first several days of the festival or weekends so booking several (read more than five) months in advance is advisable to ensure the best rates and location as the prices skyrocket anywhere from two- to four-hundred percent and up over non-Festival prices. Consider that the fiesta rages all-night in the old town with certain bars blasting club music until seven or eight in the morning, so while the location is unbeatable, it might be noisy; conversely, lodging further afield, while quieter, necessitates a hike or bus-ride into town.
Some attendees stay in neighboring cities, such as San Sebastian, bus in for a day and night of partying and leave the next morning after the running of the bulls. Others, throwing caution to the wind, opt to crash in the grassy fields near the River Arga while many foreign backpackers gravitate toward the local campsites. The quickest way to get a handle on availability and pricing is to check an online booking site such as booking.com or hostelworld.
Transport from Sanfermínes
Transport options from neighboring towns increase during this time, but given the frenetic pace of the festival and the number of people that pour into the town on a daily basis, the bus schedules can be a bit fluid; therefore, try to double-check bus schedules ahead of time at the station but be willing to roll with the punches. Renfe maintains an excellent, up-to-date website with an English language page.