Pamplona – The clock strikes eight and an audible silence descends on the morning crowds awaiting the cohetes, a rocket fired when the bulls are running. In just seconds twelve tons of bull charge through the narrow medieval streets of Pamplona overflowing with 3500 runners. Our tour started in Spain's northern wine region, an hour southwest of Pamplona. Rioja is a sleepy little province largely untouched by tourism.
Stopping along bike routes overflowing with vines, we savored excellent red wines. Winemakers often invited us for dinner and another took us into her home to proudly display pictures of children and grandchildren. Hot daytime temperatures gave way to comfortable nights with the region's majestic northern mountains providing cool relief in the evenings.
The Spanish are not clock-watchers. Opening hours in shops are mere recommendations. Breakfast is served at nine, lunch starts at two, siestas are the norm and the dinner table is set at nine or ten. Virtual ghost-towns during the day, small villages teem with activity after sunset.
From sleeply Rioja we traveled north to the province of Navarra and rugged Basque country.
The Basque are an ancient people with their own language and culture. Pamplona is the province's capital city. Roughly the same size as Mississauga (pop 250,000), its population triples during the San Fermin festival. This religious festival in honor of Saint Fermin runs every year from July 6-14.
A dozen bulls run every morning except on opening day or the Chupinazo when there is an opening ceremony in front of city hall that can only be described as part rock concert, part champagne water fight, part World Cup soccer match.
The crowds are rowdy but good-natured. The Spanish are lovers not fighters and the only real danger is during the bull runs. The daily runs or encierros are a throwback to medieval times when herdsmen drove their bulls through the streets of Pamplona to the bullrings.
Bullfighting has been a Spanish tradition for hundreds of years. Townspeople helped drive the bulls and this tradition eventually became running in front of the bulls. Hemingway made Pamplona famous with his book, “The Sun Also Rises.” Running with the bulls is a dangerous yet exhilarating experience. If there was any doubt as to the risk, the entire route is lined with two sets of protective fencing. Would-be runners often give up minutes before the run as ambulances, medical crews and police take their stations.
The smell of fear is everywhere and only grows thicker as the bell tower strikes eight. Near silence is broken by the crack of a rocket announcing the gates have opened. A second rocket announces the bulls are running. What follows is pure mayhem. Yells and screams reach a fever pitch. The crowd surges forward and then parts as the herd approaches. Each bull weighs at least 1200 pounds and even with heads bowed their horns easily reach up to your shoulders. Running in front of them is terrifying. Your feet hardly touch the ground. The bulls start overtaking and you instinctively move to the side but strangely follow the herd whooping and screaming. Your run may have lasted just seconds but the memories last a lifetime. The bull runs are just a small part of the festival. Families with small children are everywhere and the streets are overflowing with crowds, rides, bands, parades and dancing. Despite the often raucous masses, the feeling is one of friendship where all are united in joyous celebration.
Bull running is the most famous side of San Fermin, but we most remember the warmth and kindness of the people of Spain.