An experience like no other....
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San Fermin! San Fermin! San Fermin! San Fermin! The crowd were in a frenzy, crammed into the small square outside the chapel of San Fermin frantically swinging their red bandana's above their heads. The fiesta of San Fermin had begun....
Most famous for the bull run, the fiesta of San Fermin has become world-famous and thousands of tourists flock to the small basque town every July to take part in the fun and the craziness of the run. My friends and I arrived early on the first day, 6th July, to see the opening of the festival when as many people as can fit (and more) crowd into the square outside the chapel of San Fermin awaiting the sound of fireworks to signal the beginning of the fiesta, when all hell breaks loose. People went crazy, throwing eggs, flour, spraying one another with sangria and sparkling wine and getting very messy, not just in the square but all across pamplona, even the police were not immune. What is so great about this is standing below open balconies and crying out "Aqua! Aqua!" to which obliging residents would respond to by pouring buckets of water over you to clean off the mess.
The festival lasts for a week, with the first day meant for the opening and the first in a series of crazy rituals. There is a statue (about 20ft high) which people climb and then jump into the waiting crowds. There have been fatalities as a result of this, and so I decided I'd content myself with watching. The idea behind this is to prove one's masculinity, but if you are a girl, then the crowds will only catch you if you agree to flash your chest first. You wouldn't know that this festival was begun by men....
There is a really friendly atmosphere during the festival, and it's amazing how good natured everyone is and how there aren't serious safety problems (beyond jumping off statues and being chased by bulls) but not once did I see any sign of fighting or people coming close to it.
Having never done this before, and wanting to get an idea of what we were letting ourselves into, we decided to watch the bull run on the second day and then do it for ourselves the next day -most of the fatalities and injuries occur amongst tourists who don't know what to do. From inside the stadium where the run finishes, we watched as out of nowhere a stream of runners came charging in, followed by a stream of enormous bulls. Christ they looked fast. But that wasnt the end of it. Once all the bulls from the run have filed throught the stadium into the stables there is a brief pause before smaller bulls with wrapped horns are released into the stadium to bash about the 200 hundred or so runners left inside. They went crazy, charging this way and that, knocking people aside, flipping them this way and that. It didn't seem that bad. That was until a young looking bull was flipped into the air and was headbutted by one of the bulls -the whole stadium saw and gasped as one- and the man fell to the ground completely still, he didnt move and had to be carried out by others. We later found out he was paralysed from the neck down.
The next day it was our turn. Wearing the traditional white clothes, with red waist scarf and bandana, we prepared ourselves for the run. It's actually a short distance, made to seem longer by the high buildings and overcrowding on the run. Police patrol through the crowds before the run begins, picking out drunks and confiscating any cameras they could find. I kept mine well hidden in my pocket. Shops were boarded and roads blocked by barriers, and there is very little hiding spots, you can't climb over the barriers as the waiting police and stewards will push you away. The route is quite narrow and there are some turns which are difficult for the bulls to make so often the come around them on the outside. One corner is particularly dangerous because it's a sharp turn and so the bulls often slip and fall against the outside wall crushing anything and anyone in their path. It's known as dead mans turn.
I stood waiting with my two friends for the firework to signal that the run had begun, and then it happened. At first we waited because we wanted to see the bulls and not leg it too early (you are booed by the stadium crowd if you arrive too soon) and so we stood our ground. There were false starts because it's so crowded it's hard to see and you have to judge by the people in front of you, and it got to the point that I ended up the other side of dead man's turn without seeing a bull yet, but there were still a good 200 metres separating me from the relative safety of the stadium. And then they came. First it was the sound of the bells around their necks an almost constant dull thudding, the crowd in front of me dispersing, and I saw them. Three very large bulls. At first it was surreal, they were enormous and yet seemed so out of place in the centre of an urban street. Then the fear and adrenaline kicked in and I turned and round, only turning my head a few times to check where they were. I did as I had been told by the guidebooks:- run in a straight line, don't hesitate, don't stop to look and stay on the inside of turns, if someone falls don't stop to help them, jump over or around them and keep going. Someone fell in front of me. Shit. I could have gone around him, but there wasnt much space as the street narrowed leading to the stadium, I shouted at him to get up quickly and luckily he did and sped off ahead of me as we reached the tunnel into the stadium, which narrowed further still. Two bulls passed me to my right. I didnt have to guess where the third was, it was right behind me, and I just kept running until the stadium opened up and I ran to the left hoping the bulls would run straight ahead into the corral at the other end of the stadium. Luckily they did.
The last of the bulls filed into the stadium, and I was able to catch my breath and try to find my friends. I was praying they were safe. After ten frantic minutes I found them safe and intact. But there was more to come: the smaller bulls would soon be released. One after another they would come, charging round the stadium unpredictably, casting men aside like rag dolls. No-one seemed to be seriously hurt, and I even managed to take a photo of one of the bulls. During this part I lost my friends again, but when I had my film developed, astonishingly there was one of them right in front of me, ducking away from the bull I had photograped, but at the time I never remembered seeing them. There were times when I came to close for comfort to the bulls as they charged around the stadium, but luckily some other movement distracted them and I escaped unscathed. Afterwards I found my friends again, and as before they were both unharmed. Like me though, they realised how lucky we had been, and though we had no regrets it was definitely a scary experience, and one we would never forget. Whenever I think back to that day, my head fills with the sound of those bells and the first sight of the bulls as they rounded dead mans turn heading my way.