Four Reasons to Skip Pamplona and One Reason Not toCity Guides, Spain — By Mary on June 14, 2012 at 6:00 am
Every July a sea of people and an ocean of sangria flood the streets of what is usually a quiet, mid-sized, Basque mountain town for the annual San Fermin celebration. But it isn’t the sun rising over the Pyrenees or the rich Basque culture or even the chance to celebrate the Roman era martyr Fermin that brings over one million people to Pamplona, or its Basque name Iruna, every year. It’s the legend of hooves pounding against cobblestone streets after a night of Sangria-soaked partying with the natives first told to the English reading world in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises. It’s the Running of the Bulls.
But, travelers considering making the pilgrimage to one of the worlds most celebrated celebrations may also want to consider some reasons to skip Pamplona before booking their flights.
It’s Not Papa’s Pamplona Anymore
Pamplona has long ceased to be the local fiesta we read about in Hemingway’s novel; instead, it’s now a global party. You’re just as likely to hear English or Norwegian or Japanese on the streets as you are Spanish, maybe even more likely. Spanish songs strummed out on a guitar and drum would never be heard over the never-ending sound of bad American dance music pouring out of every discotheque and bar. The traditional red scarves and sashes are sold on every street corner by vendors next to racks of white t-shirts with English writing. In fact it’s hard to find Spain in Pamplona much less Hemingway.
There Are Other Bull Runs
Although Pamplona is clearly the best known Bull Run there are actually almost as many variations and duplicates of this tradition as there are Saints to name the occasion after. Late in the summer Aravaca-Pozuelo, a suburb of Madrid, has a bull running festival, nearby Navalcarnero has a night run, the small Valencian town of Segorbe does two runs a year, the winter run features a bull let loose on the entire old section of town with lit torches on its horns. Because smaller events like these are virtually unknown outside of Spain they are inevitably more authentic.
Pamplona takes planning some spur of the moment travelers may not want to deal with. If you want a guaranteed view of the run you can rent a balcony to watch it from but you’ll have to do that many months in advance and it won’t be cheap. You’ll have to think even further ahead if you want to sleep under a roof in Pamplona, which will also put a dent in your budget. And while Spanish bus companies do adjust their schedules to bus in tourists and Spaniards alike, it’s notoriously difficult to find a bus out if you want to leave after the 8am run, during the peak days of the festival even a bus leaving before the crack of dawn can be hard to finagle.
Every morning of the festival, shortly before the sun comes up in Pamplona, a team of workers begins the epic task of dragging drunks off corners, setting up the barriers, and cleaning the cobblestone streets of a menagerie of human body fluid, broken glass and, Sangria that accumulates throughout the ruckus night. If you’re going, bring closed toe shoes.
But if Pamplona has been completely poisoned by its fame and is now just an inauthentic, expensive, street party with a few bulls why do people keep going? Why does it continue to grab our imagination when we watch clips on the news every year? What’s one reason why you should cancel your summer plans and head to Spain this July?
There are only a handful of events each year that surpass national or cultural fame and become global “must do’s,” New Year’s Eve in Time Square, Carnival in Rio, Marti Gras in New Orleans, Bastille Day in Paris, The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. And while similar events elsewhere in Spain will probably be more authentic none are as iconic. So, if you do choose to go this year or any other year, let the Sangria rain on your overpriced white t-shirt, listen for the sound of the firework signals and let the electric excitement shock your exhausted system awake, smile at yourself when you too become one of the huddle mass trying to sleep in the bus station, fly home in your red scarf and sash as they are a badge of honor. Just don’t forget closed toed shoes.
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