Saturday, 9 July 2011

San Fermin Festival

We are on holiday after all... Ferry: Dover to Calais
So many names to choose from for this blog that would help explain this insane festival. "Beer, bulls, sweet sangria and smelly cigars" or "Bulls, buses, sangria and sleep deprivation" or "Bulls, sangria, sweat and wee - the smells of Pamplona". You probably get the picture by now...
Monday afternoon we jumped on the bus not knowing that this would be the longest bus ride of our lives! After 2 hours, we were in Dover and waiting for the ferry to Calais, France.  The ferry takes about and
hour and a half, and is much like the Vancouver to Van Island ferry. After that, back on the bus for about, oh, a 16 hour drive to Spain. OUCH. This would be the beginning of the sleep deprivation part.  We stopped a few times along the way to restore blood flow and get 'nourishment'. I put that in quotations because the food available at the gas stations we stopped at was far from nourishing. We also did a little 'speed dating' to get to know our fellow bus travellers. Tuesday, just before noon, we pull up at our campsite, Lizarra Navarra. Out of the bus we pile and into the sea of tents that await. On go the swimsuits and we are laying by the pool in no time soaking up the hot Spanish sun!

Later in the afternoon, we get back on the bus and head into Pamplona for a tour of the city, a walk of the bull run, and some free time to explore and get our essentials for opening ceremonies the following day. At 9:30, we are back on the bus to join in the party at the campsite being thrown by the other tour group who is also at the campsite. Our tour company had about 300, and the other company seemed to have just as many. Needless to say, it was a noisy place!
We left the party a little early knowing that we had to get up, eat our free breaky, and leave for the opening ceremonies by 9:30am. This didn't matter much though since most of the rest of camp wanted to celebrate until well past 3 am, and tents offer little soundproofing. The sleep deprivation continues.

Along the run route

I'm tough too!

Opening Ceremonies:
The town is jammed with people in red and white. Opening day of the ceremony is marked by huge crowds gathered in all of the town's squares. The rockets shoot off at town hall announcing the beginning of the festival. The people who have been drinking sangria since well before 10 am, now spray it all over each other, while kids toss eggs and flour and some toxic looking yellow drink as well. Some have even brought ketchup and mustard to squirt on each other. This is the most insane thing I have ever seen, but hey, when in Spain... We decided to join in. I knew these white clothes were going in the bin anyway!
San Fermin!!

Riding the Bull!
Back at camp everyone is looking nasty and sticky, a little pool time before showering and chilling around the campgrounds with our new bus friends. Half of whom we had 'dated' on the trip down. Again, we try to sneak out early. This time we think it will for sure work since everyone has to be up early, on the buses at 5:30am to head in for the first running of the bulls.. Wrong again. Starting to wonder what sleep is?

Running of the Bulls:
5:00am. Who wakes up this early?? We do, because someone is walking past all the tents with a bullhorn playing "Ole, ole, ole ole, wake up, wake up", over and over again. This might make you chuckle, now imagine it is 5am, you are lying in a tent freezing your ass off and have probably slept a total of 2 hours in 3 days, yeah didn't think it would sound so amusing any more.
There go the bulls!!
Anyway, we suck it up because we are going to see the bulls today! On to the buses and into town. We have already staked out the spot we want near the beginning of the run with a good vantage point. We get off the bus and cannot believe the sea of rubbish everywhere! Everyone we walk past seems to still be awake from the previous day. Many are still drinking. The town reeks like stale booze and pee. I believe my exact words were "wow, this city smells like a bad hangover".
Our spot must have been a good choice because there are already people there. We squeeze in and wait the almost 2 hours for the run to start. People are pacing the route. The run route is cleared of rubbish by sweeper trucks and city workers and then the road is hosed down - this is why on the videos you always see people and bulls slipping and sliding. The cops show up and some paramedics to line the route. People are now stretching and praying. The safety announcements start playing. Now the cops are grabbing people, espcially anyone who is trying to take pictures, and pulling them off the run route - not today fellas!
Sangria BBQ
Finally the rockets goes off and the bulls are coming. Panicked people start running by us, followed by a stampede of bulls. Many of the less daring press themselves against the walls as the bulls thunder past, the others do their best to run. The bulls are past us in about 3 seconds. That seemed somewhat anti-climatic. Then, suddenly, people are running back and some are flinging themselves over the fencing. One bull has gotten turned around and is running back down the run. Then gets turned right way and is going back again. Another slow poke then saunters by too, guess he didn't feel the same need as the others to run.
All is over and we make our way for some coffee to warm up, back to the campsite for pool time and a sangria BBQ.
At the BBQ, Topdeck staff have made about 400 litres of sangria that is included in the ticket, along with delicious food. We know that this sounds dangerous and also want to make the most of our only good tanning day, so we go light on the beverage. Others, not so much. After pool time we shower to head into town for the fireworks and notice some guys taking care of their friend who is passed out on an airmatress in an empty campsite - at least they are feeding him water. Then we notice our tent neighbour, passed out in her tent in her own vomit. Lovely. We head into town dreading the bus ride with the drunks - luckily only one guy requests a barf bag just before we arrive in the city.
The fireworks are amazing! Part of the festival is now an international fireworks contest. Most likely the best display I have ever seen.
Everyone is tired from no sleep and a 5:30 wake up? Nope, more sleep-deprivation and night of shivering in the tent. What is sleep and why do we need it again?

Last day:
Again, 5am wake up fun. Today we have decided we are watching the running of the bulls from the bullring. This is where the bull fights are held each night. We knew that the bulls we killed, but after hearing the details of how, we decided to skip the bull fights. But watching the run from inside will allow us to see the whole run on the big screens and the bulls and runners at the end of the run. We get some good seats and enjoy the atmosphere. This is a very tradional festival and there are definitely some mixed feelings towards tourists. One guy in front of us kept trying his best not to pass out, but the locals around him were not impressed until he finally got up to find others who he could nap on.
The stadium slowly filled, then over filled. There are no rules, no guidelines. People do whatever they want. We had a group of young teens in front of us clearly boozed at 7:30am, smoking and having a good time. Fights would break out and everyone would stand and cheer and whistle - no security in sight. The bulls and their stats are on the big screen, biggest today is 545 KG!!
Bulls entering the stadium
The run starts and not long after people start running into the stadium, but there are no bulls yet. This is a huge 'faux-pas' and the locals start not only booing, but chucking anything on hand at these people who have run in too soon. Now we hear the thunder approaching and the bulls enter hot on the tails of people who look like they are dirtying their pants! (One guy on our bus apparently missed the run because he actually did dirty his pants. Shame.) They storm right through the stadium and straight through to the bull pens on the other side. When we are about to complain about the anti-climatic issue again, a straggling bull arrives, gets turned around and pummels a guy to the ground. Capes are thrown over the man and people try to distract the bull, who makes it into the pen. We are laughing and thinking "that's it?".
Bullring: Seating capacity of almost 20 000
The runners are all mingling in the ring and taking pictures of themselves. Then we see the sea of people part. An opening is created in the crowd and moves around the ring. It looks like a school of fish being startled. Then we see him. A small steer has been released back into the ring to run through the people and toss whoever he chooses into the air. Now this is getting fun! After this steer has his fun, they let a big bull in who leads the steer back to the pens. They do this with about 6 steers. The crowd cheers as they watch people tossed and trampled. This is again where tradition comes in and locals get mean. Tradition is that you are supposed to distract the bull, then run out of the way. But tourists, who are pretty much pumping sangria through their veins now, want to touch the steer, some even try to ride it. These people find their glory is short lived. Soon after they raise their arms in triumph, they find that they are being beaten senseless by locals who fiercely protect the steers. Crazy to watch!
Someone`s gonna get tossed!
After all the fun is over, it is back to the campsite for breaky. We pack up our things and chill in the shade before our long journey home.
What an adventure this was! This festival is attended by over one million tourists, on top of the locals already there. It is an amazing mix of tradition and tourist attraction/giant party. I am still dumbfouded over and over again by these festivals and traditions that are kept alive. It is hard not to spend a lot of time thinking "They would never allow this back home!" It may be dangerous, it may seem crazy, but it is tradition and despite the changing world, it lives on.

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