Our road to Pamplona and to run with the bulls started out as a wild idea, after all, who has not dreamed of running with the bulls? (And what wife, mother or girlfriend has not dreaded it.) It is purely and simply a macho thing, Oh Yes, but also a dream I have had ever since reading Hemingway. He adored the run as much as I do.
I decided that even though I was over 50 and overweight, running with the bulls was something I wanted to do. This was something on my bucket list that was due to be crossed off. I started searching for information, costs, and travel arrangements.
The town of Pamplona is very small and standard accommodations are very expensive. However, there is another option. There are quite a few companies that run excursions out of the U.K and other countries each year. These are primarily aimed at backpackers. we did not really want to spend 4 nights in a small 2 man mountain tent.
I stumbled across a backpacking company in London that not only had tents for rent. They also had 6 and 8 people shared cabins at their resort. We settled on one of the cabins and booked our trip. It was surprisingly inexpensive. All that was left was the airline tickets which I got the same day.
At last, we boarded our plane to London. I had made reservations for 3 days of hotel rooms in London to acclimate before going on to Pamplona. We had a great three days in London. It included shopping at Harrods, London, visiting the British Museum, eating great Tai food, and going to two plays. Finally on my way to run with the bulls.
Getting to Pamplona to Run With the Bulls
The day finally arrived and we were to meet the tour near a tube location on the street. We arrived and found that there were about 200 kids, ranging from 19 to 25 years old. All of them ready to go with sleeping bags and backpacks.
When we did leave London, there were 16 buses crammed full of kids and us heading to the channel crossing. Then all night through France and eventually to Spain. We met our tour leader named Petey, as we were boarding the bus. It was his 5th trip and he gave us great information on what to expect, taking great care of us for the entire trip. The weather was great the whole time we were there. With a day at San Sebastian beach, that came with your trip, it was well worth the fees we paid.
All of our traveling companions were recent grads from Australia and New Zealand. They all take a two year trip to London to work, party and see the world. All of them were great kids and took to us like a long lost uncle and aunt. We learned so much about their countries, they do like to drink down there. It turned out to be one of the best trips I had ever planned.
Arriving In France
We crossed the channel on a ferry, everyone went to the duty-free area to stock up on liquors and the party officially started there and went on for the entire trip. I do remember passing through Paris with the Eiffel Tower shining in the background.
We passed through a border stop between France and Spain before arriving in Pamplona. We woke up at the campground outside of Pamplona. The campground came complete with pool, store, restaurant, and nightly live bands. The rest of the day was spent meeting more people (the campground had over 2000 visitors), and walking along the small river that ran past the camping areas.
A truly remarkable start to my dream trip of running with the bulls.
The first step to run with the bulls is the opening ceremony. Our whole group was led up one side street to the main city square by our guide Pete. This was his 4th trip to the running of the bulls so he knew the best spots to be. We get a great place to stop and visit while waiting for the ceremony to actually begin. Not really that much to see or do at this time, other than watch the people and hit a few beach balls into the air.
When the rockets that signal the festival’s opening are lit, that is when everyone starts spraying each other with wine or sangria.
(Note from Laurel: Several young men from our group huddled around me, protecting me from the sprays. Chivalry is not dead!)
The Mussel Bar
Another great tradition although new is a vist to the the Pamplona Mussel Bar this event has proven to be even more dangerous than the actual running with the bulls itself. This is a statue in the center of 3 roads that merge into a circle built around a monument.
Each year Aussies, New Zealanders, and South Africans head straight there after the opening to climb to the top and dive off hoping to be caught by their comrades at the bottom. Both men and women make the dive, which actually leads to more injuries than all of the bull runs combined.
The Pamplona Mussel Bar will be the meeting and drink ground for this group as long as they are in Pamplona. They gather there to party, sing and drink sangria each evening. Throughout the day and each evening of the festival people will climb the 20-foot tall statue to make their leap of faith.
A little out of my comfort zone but I am not from the three countries mentioned earlier so that is not a “Bucket List” item for me. I am planning a trip back and the Pamplona Muscle Bar will be a great stop for some videos and who knows I may take the dive this time.
My ‘thing’ is to take place the following morning, I board our bus at the campground and get ready for the reason I came here, “To Run With the Bulls”. I am not sure why I came all these thousands of miles to do this, it is just something that I have wanted to do my entire life.
The First Run With the Bulls Event
To run with the bulls is not quite as dangerous as reputed, although a number of people are hurt and sometimes killed doing it, for the most part, your chances of injury vs the number of runners is actually quite low.
The night before each run 8 to 10 bulls that have been raised on a mountaintop from fighting stock are brought into the city and put in a pen at the bottom of the hill. The trick is, there are also about a dozen domesticated cows put into the pen with them, and they have made this run for a number of years. The females know that as soon as the gate flies open they run up the hill to the bullfight arena. Then they will be fed and taken back to their barn.
The wild fighting bulls in the pen with them, for the most part, will follow and run along with them without any mishap other than knocking the occasional runner down. Once in the arena, they will be taken to a separate barn to get ready for the evening bullfights where they will meet their road’s end.
The Run With the Bulls Course Sections
The run with the bulls layout is made up of three distinct parts. A long run of perhaps half a mile straight up the street. Then the second part, which is where almost all of the problems occur. The street here makes a 45-degree left-hand turn then straight for 50 yards and another 45-degree turn to go up the hill for another half mile and into the arena.
The cobblestone streets in those two turns sometimes cause one of the bulls to fall and become separated from the herd cows and that is when the incidents almost always happen. While running with the pack they are usually quite docile but when they are alone, they become the fighting bull they were raised to be.
I knew that at my age if I was to get to the arena before the bulls and the closing of the gates, I would have to cheat a little, so, I made my start just past the second 45-degree right-hand turn. I was up to the top of the hill and into the arena as the bulls arrived.
While you run with the bulls, and a bull approaches, the bystanders on the balconies are yelling “Toro, Toro, Toro”. At that point, you know that a bull or bulls are getting close. When you hear that he excitement is almost overwhelming. I know that I am 64 years old now but one more run is still inside me. We are both working hard at losing weight and getting in better shape for Mt. Kilimanjaro now. I think that this time, this should be a family affair with Laurel and I meeting at the arena.
Remember when you are running with the bulls, two 45 degree turns when you make your run. Plan your strategy with those in mind.
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