"Los sanfermines no sólo se dedican a machacar el cuerpo de cada cual, sino que basan su fiesta grande en torturar a pobres animales cuya capacidad de decidir la diversión es evidentemente nula. Ver cómo unas decenas de animales nobles, con su sensibilidad, su derecho a la vida y su fuerza, son forzados a correr por calles repletas de miles de personas que les chillan, les insultan, les tiran todo tipo de objetos, y los conducen a una muerte segura y brutal, ver ese espectáculo es ver el espectáculo de la miseria humana. Desde luego, en esa fiesta, lo más humano es el toro."
This is what a Spanish column writer had to tell us about the bull races of Sanfrermines festival in Pamplona (or Iruñea, in Basque language).
Translated to English it would mean something like this:
""The San Fermin festival is dedicated not only to crush the body of everybody, but bases the big party in torturing poor animals whose ability to decide about their fate is zero. See how a few dozen noble animals, with their sensitivity, their right to life and their strength, are forced to run down streets dotted with thousands of people who scream, insult them, throw all kinds of objects their way, and lead to certain death, very brutal. Watching this show is watching the show of human misery. In the end, at that festival the most human being is the bull."
Incited by the whole controversy of animal abuse, I decided to see for myself what this whole festival is about, before judging if the journalist is right or not... I didn't feel the urge to pay entrance to see the real bullfighting with the tragical end, but participating at this authentic Basque festival - that is definetely more about nightlong parties filled with alcohol and music, than about the bulls - didn't seem too wrong to curious me.
So, very lastminute I decided to book tickets to Pamplona for the last bullrace of the season, on the morning of the 14th of July. (Luckily it wasn't Friday the 13th! :) ) Since I was already in Barcelona, tickets weren't so expensive, and I decided to go in the afternoon, spend the night partying and leave next afternoon after the race. From Barcelona, you can get there by bus for about 50 Euro roundtrip, or with train for the double of that price.
By train it would be around 4 hours, with the bus I spent about 6 hours to get to Pamplona. Arriving there around 9PM, the atmosphere was already set to a big party. The streets were filled with people of all ages, dressed in white and red, almost without exception.
To not stick out of the crowd too much, you need to adapt your Sanfermin outfit: to run, you should be wearing white clothes, accesorised with a red shawl around your middle and a red neck-scarf. Also don't forget running shoes (sandals in general are not the best shoes, since the streets are full of scattered glass and dirt). If you're not running, you can just wear red and white, but it's highly appropriate to stick to the dresscode, since the whole city is coloured red and white... not only humans!
All night long the party continues, every bar and nightclub is open, alcohol flows in large rivers, and the atmosphere is climbing to an absolute climax, which will end in the bullrace itself, at 8AM. If you want to participate in the race itself, I advise you to get at least SOME sleep, even if it is on the street and not in a hotel. Actually, if you want a hotel, you better book it long beforehand, since everything is sold out for the festival - and whatever IS still left, is being sold at excruciating prices. My hotel for the night turned out to be a very nice carpeted bank entrance. NO KIDDING :)
The race starts at 8AM sharp, with a rocketlaunch, which lets you know when exactly the bulls have been released. From that moment on, you'll see the people start running faster and faster, 'till they reach the sprint mode (just a few seconds before you'll see the bulls passing by). The runners have to collect in the first 100 meters of the street where the bulls run through, and if you are interested in watching the race, the best place to do that, is around here too, because most people gather at the lower streets which are a bit closer to the center of party.
To get a nice place to watch the race, you should come at least at 7AM, and get your ass on the inner side of the double fence. The best place where you can sit, secretly told us by a very nice old local man, is actually quite in the beginning, where the runners collect. If you go up the street from the city hall, it's just next to a pharmacy, where is a nice stairs, which creates a mini amfitheatre. The best place is of course with your ass on the fence, as mentioned before!
Even with your ass up high on a fence, I must say it's still a flow of adrenaline when you see the bulls pass by. Though, my impression was that they didn't seem that dangerous, and not that big.
Still, I must admit that I changed my mind about that, when unconscient about the second waveof the bulls (apparently because it was the closing day, there are two waves), I decided to do a morning jog to the arena at the end of the parcours, and suddenly turning myself (still wearing my RED Sanfermin sweater...) discovering this exact second wave just 10 meters away from me, storming in my direction. I suddenly got into the 5th acceleration and started sprinting... When I actually realised what happened, they suddenly seemed a lot bigger, especially after looking at their horns from a 20 cm distance.
I warn you, it feels and looks a lot different when you're sitting on the fence just 3 meters away from this happening. But it's still a nice impression :)
Well, so far my personal Sanfermin experience!! Now, more about the animal rights part...
In general, the Sanfermines are way more than just the bulls, but also a lot of Spanish traditions, fireworks, cabezudos (the huge Carnival dolls), and way more. It is a whole week of non-stop party, for the inhabitants as well as for the visitors, almost without violence and with a very friendly atmosphere.
I am strongly against the killing of the bulls, which happens in the evening. Therefore, I didn't buy a ticket to go into the arena seats to watch this cruelty as I said. But the race itself is, in my opinion, not that inhuman. The bulls rest the night before in a quiet bullhouse that is constructed especially for this event at the place where the run starts. Yes, to get them running that fast, they get stick pokes, and even small electroshocks, but for a 500 kg bull, they seem like a bee sting to a human. Not nice, but yet not inhuman let's say.
They just get them excited enough to run and crush everything on the way. The force of the bulls is immense against the humans, or anything that those could possibly do to them, like hitting them with a rolled up newspaper, which is a tradition too.
In my humble opinion, if you just judge the "encierro" (the race), there are way more humans wounded and killed, than bulls, and it does not appear that inhuman to me.
I think banning this tradition will never happen, since there are many locals and also tourists who don't want it to go, and of course the thousands of tourist who are attracted by this event. But, of course there is always a compromis to be made.
If Basque country would follow Catalonia's good example of banning the toreadors, it would be a huge step in animal rights protection. It would make the life of the bulls a lot longer, and they would be able to have titles of "15 corneados" (people ending up on their horns), just like the human participants get titles if they have been participating a lot of times. I bet there would be even more supporters for the bulls, something tells me... I mean, who doesn't secretly enjoy seeing some "idiot" getting horned in his balls? :)