Last Updated on June 1, 2023 by Kelsey Polosino
Every year more than one million people participate in the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain, made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s depiction of the running of the bulls in The Sun Also Rises. The week-long festival celebrated from July 7 to July 14 every year originated as a religious festival to honor the St. Fermín, the patron saint of Navarre. One of the most popular festivals in Spain, the entire city wears white shirts and red scarves and participates in festivities.
The opening of the festival is marked by setting off the pyrotechnics (chupinazo). The rocket is launched at noon on July 6th from the city hall balcony as people celebrate in the square below, which since 1941 has officially marked the beginning of the fiesta.
The Running of the Bulls – also called encierros begin at 8 am every day, when a firecracker is lit to announce the release of the bulls. Thousands of people run for their lives in front of the six enraged bulls carrying rolled up newspaper to hit the bulls as they run. The participants run half a mile of narrow cobblestone streets in a part of old Pamplona, a run that usually lasts just over 2 minute, while being chased by the bulls. The run ends at the bullring where the bulls will be held until the bullfight in the afternoon. The event is extremely dangerous and not for the faint of heart. Thousands watch from safe balconies along the route and spectators can also follow the events on television.
The Parade of Giants
Or gigantes y cabezudos. Every morning a parade of giant mascots is held in the streets of Pamplona. The eight giant figures, built by the painter Tadeo Amorena over 150 years ago, are four pairs of kings and queens representing Europe, Asia, America and Africa. The remaining 17 figures are big-head caricature human-like structures worn on top of helmets. A skilled performer carries the giant wood structure while dancing to the rhythm of classical Spanish music and playfully running after children in the streets.
Every afternoon from there is a complete corrida de toros or bull fight with the bulls from the morning run. What should you expect? (Read more about the history of Spain and Bullfighting) The stadium is always full and it a very popular event.
Is football really the national sport of Spain? It hasn’t always been. Forget football, basketball, and any other modern Spanish sports because during the San Fermín festival, tourists and locals are introduced to traditional Basque sports that were played hundreds of years ago. Every afternoon in the main city plaza, local Spaniards and tourists watch sports like hay bale lifting, woodcutting, stone lifting, and Jai alai.
At the end of the day, the city has a fireworks show that dates back to 1595.
To mark the end of the festival, the people of Pamplona meet in the Town Hall Plaza at midnight on July 14th singing the traditional song Pobre de Mí (Poor Me). The city mayor closes the festival with participants lighting a candle and removing their red handkerchiefs.
The San Fermín festival is more than the iconic running of the bulls, so for those who aren’t seeking an adrenaline rush there are plenty of other events to get a taste of northern Spain.
Handy Tip: Take it from me, make sure you book your ticket to Iruña (what Pamplona is called in Basque) not Irun, because you will end up at a bus depot far from any festivals!