In January 2017, my girlfriend at the time, Sarah, and I were living in New Zealand. We were experiencing the worst summer New Zealand had seen for several years and were not looking forward to winter. Our solution to the problem was to spend the winter months in the UK and spend some time travelling around Europe. We quickly decided on dates and booked our plane tickets. Once our dates were confirmed I pulled out my bucket list to see if I would be able to cross off some items while travelling.
One of the main things I had been wanting to do for a long time was to experience the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain and run with the bulls. This event draws thousands of participants and spectators to the city each year from 6-14th July.
I mentioned to Sarah that this was on my bucket list and I was planning on completing it while we were in Europe. I knew it was not an event that she would be interested in due to her strong beliefs for animal rights. I told her that I understood if she did not want to join me. She agreed that it was best that I go off and experience it on my own and that she would remain in the UK.
After our conversation I searched for flights from London to Barcelona and also a tour company to get me to and from Pamplona. The logistics were fairly easy and I found flights and a tour package for a reasonable price. I was excited to have things booked in as I had been waiting several years to have the chance to cross this one off my list.
I thought that the Running of the Bulls was fairly common knowledge and, based on our conversation, I thought that Sarah understood what the festival was all about. It wasn’t until about a month after our discussion that Sarah googled the festival to understand what actually happened. Once she realised what the event entailed and that it was also very dangerous for the participants, she did not feel comfortable about me attending the festival.
For the months leading up to the festival, I suffered a lot of criticism from Sarah and other members of her family. They constantly berated me for the decision I had made to attend the festival and run with the bulls. I understood society’s view on the festival and also understood the danger that was involved in the event but that did not change my mind. I had thought this through and it was something I had wanted to experience for many years. I realised that I was just going to have to put up with the negative attitudes that I was receiving from others.
When the day came to leave for Barcelona I was dressed in shorts and a singlet, anticipating the warm temperatures in Spain. It is only a short flight from London to Barcelona but I had a few exhausting days leading up to my trip so I fell asleep shortly after take-off and woke up as we were beginning our descent.
As I woke up, I looked over to my right at the two English girls that were sitting next to me. They were heading to Barcelona for a hens weekend and somehow one of them had managed to get very drunk in a short space of time. Once she realised that I was awake she began chatting to me and making that regular small talk that people often do during flights.
She asked me why I was going to Barcelona and I explained that I was joining a tour the following day to go to the San Fermin Festival. Little did I know, she had very strong beliefs about the use of animals in events and festivals. For the next 30 minutes, as we were descending, she lectured me and tried to bring shame to the decisions I had made. It was not enjoyable and the flight could not have landed sooner in my opinion.
The following day I arrived at the Plaça de Catalunya, where I was scheduled to get on a tour bus that would take me to Pamplona. As I checked in with one of the guides I started to get a bad vibe about the whole situation. Their operation seemed to be poorly planned and not many of them knew what was going on. We eventually jumped on the bus and left Barcelona, 30 minutes behind schedule.
While on the bus I made friends with James and Guy. James was American and was on holiday in Europe so he decided to make a special trip for the festival. Guy was an Australian backpacker at the start of a trip that would span several months through Europe and the rest of the world. It was nice to finally be among people who actually shared a similar view about the festival and running with the bulls.
When we arrived to our campsite, 30 minutes outside of Pamplona, the disorganisation of the tour company became even more apparent. Three full tour buses arrived at the same time and as far as I could tell, there was not set process that we were supposed to follow to check in. As a result, hundreds of us were running around the campsite trying to figure out where and how we were supposed to check in. In short, a process that should have taken us 20 minutes, ended up taking us two hours.
We finally received our tour packages and were assigned to tents. James and I were put in one tent and Guy was put in a tent with another person named Jamie. Jamie had also travelled from London, similar to me. After we threw our bags in our tents the four of us went to get a beer from the camp bar.
When I initially booked the tour, we were promised free beer at the camp bar. However, when we checked in we were told that they had changed the plan and that there was a bar in the middle of the city that would serve us free beer. I was still exhausted and felt like staying at the camp bar for the night so I was a bit pissed off with their unannounced change.
We had a couple of beers at the camp bar and I got over my frustration quickly. I did not originally plan on going into Pamplona that night but since that was where the free beer was, we decided it was economical to go into the city.
We went back to our tents and changed into our matching outfits. The traditional outfit for San Fermin is white pants, a white shirt, a red belt and a red scarf.
Our tour package included free shuttles to and from Pamplona every hour so we hopped on the next bus and arrived into Pamplona around 8 pm. I figured a few hours of drinking would be enough so I was planning on catching the 11 pm bus back to our campsite.
After arriving, James got his phone out and pin-pointed where the bar with free beer was located. As we walked through the streets I began to appreciate the true atmosphere of the festival. The city was crawling with hundreds of thousands of people all dressed in the same white and red attire. Ever bar, every street, every square and every garden were completely packed with people singing, dancing and drinking. Wine was thrown around like water and bands marched through the streets and played their music, while people followed behind them in a dancing parade.
It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. People describe cities as being alive but I have never found that statement to be truer than that night. The movement of the people through the city made me think of blood moving through our circulatory systems, as if the people were bringing life to the city. Usually cites “go to sleep” at some point through the night but not for the eight days during San Fermin. No matter whether it was 10 am or 10 pm, it seemed like the number of people and the level of excitement through the city remained unchanged.
After zigzagging through narrow streets we found the bar, where we were promised free beer. For a bar offering free beer, it was surprisingly empty. We approached the bar and showed one of the bartenders our bracelets that should have entitled us to free beer. There was a language barrier but he waved his hands and did his best to explain that he was closed for the night and could not serves us.
After all the disorganisation and changes that we were facing on this tour, I decided I’d had enough and was truly pissed off. We stood in the bar chatting as we tried to figure out our next move. As we were chatting, a few Spanish guys came into the bar and were served promptly. We approached the bar tender again and he still waved his hands and refused to serve us.
That was the last straw for me. I looked at Guy and said, “When I give you the signal, leave the bar and follow me”. I broke off from the group and leaned up against the end of the bar while I pretended to make a phone call. I watched the movements of the bartenders as they proceeded to clean up. One left the bar and disappeared out back and then the second followed shortly after. The only one left tending the bar was the one who refused to serve up. As soon as he turned his back to me, I went for it.
I snuck behind the bar and grabbed a one litre bottle of Brugal rum off the top shelf. I held the bottle, with a straight arm, and hugged it close to my left leg. As I walk out of the bar I looked at Guy, winked and gestured toward the door, with my right hand, indicating that it was time to go. Guy looked down at the bottle as I walked passed and his eyes lit up. I’d made it half way down the block before I looked back and saw the others flying out of the bar. We continued around the corner and found some benches in a square.
The guys were ecstatic and could not believe what I had just done. I handed the bottle to Guy and he unscrewed the cap before tilting it back and having a swig. We passed the bottle around as we chanted and cheered about finally getting the free alcohol we were promise… even though we had to steal it. I was pissed off, I felt no remorse about what I had done.
James and I sat in the square as Guy and Jamie set off to find some cups and cola to mix with the rum. When they returned, we lined up four cups and mixed some strong rum and colas.
This bottle kept us going for a few hours and then it was nearing 11 pm and time to return back to the bus. I wanted to get some sleep before running with the bulls the next morning. When we arrived back at the bus depot, there were many other people from our tour that were running around and appeared to be pissed off. They informed us that the 11 pm and 12 pm busses were cancelled. At this point our only option was to cab back to our camp site which would have cost a fortune. Again, I was not prepared to pay for something that was supposed to be included in my tour so we decided that we were going to stay in Pamplona and make it an all-nighter.
There was no shortage or bars to attend so we went back to the closest one we could find and continued to drink. After a few drinks, Jamie and Guy disappeared so James and I made our way through the city and found a concert in one of the main squares. We joined the crowd and sang along until the early hours of the morning. Around 2 am we decided we should probably get some sleep so we could be as alert as possible for the run.
It was pretty clear that the city exceeds its capacity for accommodation during the festival, as people were sleeping in gardens and any grassy area they could find. After seeing so many people doing it, I figured it must be safe enough. James and I hunted around for a good area and finally found a small patch of grass with a fountain in the middle and surrounded by trees. There were already two dozen people sleeping in amongst the trees when we arrived. It looked like this was the best place we were going to find so we laid down in the grass, next to the fountain, and closed our eyes.
This story continues in my next post, #54 Run with the Bulls in Spain: Part 2. Want to be notified when new blog posts are uploaded? Subscribe below.
Dave has been on a mission, since 2010, to cross off the 100 items on his bucket list. The stories of his adventures are complimented by life lessons learned along the way and his travel tips are unique to his experiences.