I attended the incredible festival of San Fermin while in Spain last July. The festival coincided perfectly with both the route and timing of my wife Diane’s trek along El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) with her friends Joanne and Julia. The ladies arrived in the city of Pamplona, where the festival is celebrated, on the exact day at the exact time that the festival was getting underway. Coincidence?
The festival of San Fermin has been held annually for hundreds of years from July 6th to July 14th. The week-long celebration involves many traditional events, but is most famous for the daily Encierro (The Running of the Bulls). The festival has become a huge international event, with an estimated 1 Million visitors flocking to the city of Pamplona during this period each year. The town’s population is only one-fifth that amount (197,000 as of 2012), so the city is literally overrun with visitors. A huge street party consumes the town for the entire period of the festival, which is a local civic holiday.
The festival honours Saint Fermin of Amiens (San Fermin), one of the 2 co-patrons of Navarre, the region of which Pamplona is the capital. According to local legend (it was a very long time ago), Saint Fermin was the son of a high-ranking Roman who lived in Pamplona. He converted to Christianity, was ordained a priest in Toulouse, France and returned to Pamplona as its first bishop.
The festival kicks off at noon on the 6th of July with the launching of a rocket from the balcony of the city hall. Thousands of folks cram into the small plaza in front of the hall to watch and participate. The people, all dressed in the traditional red and white festival costume, hold their red scarves above their heads and sing. The scarf, whose purpose is shrouded in history, may symbolize the blood of Saint Fermin, who was beheaded in Amiens, France in the year 303 CE. Only once the festival is underway do they tie their scarves around their necks.The party gets going immediately when people open hundreds of bottles of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and spray them into the air. Wineskins and bags of sangria are also squirted into the air, literally drenching everyone in sticky red juice. People emerge from the square with their white clothes stained pink for the remainder of the festival.
Diane, Joanne, and I were caught up in mob. The ladies were both loaded down with their backpacks, and we took refuge in a shallow doorway to watch the action. Police barred the street we were on, controlling access to the city hall plaza. As soon as the brief ceremony was over, in addition to the rain of cava and sangria, people started throwing buckets of water onto the crowd from their balconies! The party had begun.
The most important day of the festival is July 7th, when the statue of Saint Fermin from the Church of San Lorenzo is paraded through the streets. This procession includes many other officials, dancers, and performers, including some giant animated figures known as Gigantes. The festival concludes at midnight on July 14th, when people gather to sing Pobre de Mí (Poor Me) in a candlelit ceremony at the city hall plaza.
In the intervening 9 day period, the city is consumed by non-stop partying in the streets and bars.
Traditional sport competitions are held, usually accompanied by heavy betting. Musical performances run all day on stages through the city. There are bull-fights every afternoon in the arena. Marching bands parade randomly through the streets leading huge processions of spontaneously acquired followers.
Each night there is a large fireworks presentation, followed by a rock concert. All festival activities, except the bull fights and the booze, are free.
I have been to some big parties before — music festivals in Canada, beach parties in Thailand, Oktoberfest in Munich – but none of them begin to compare to the craziness of San Fermin. I have never seen people party so hard day after day.
Most of the shops in town close for the week of San Fermin, covering their windows with plastic to prevent this from happening.
Some go so far as to erect temporary walls 6 inches thick that they bolt into the pavement to cover their storefronts and prevent damage.
Glassware isn’t prohibited at the festival, and garbage constantly piles up in the gutters. Leave your open toed shoes at home!
The bars stay open until 6 AM. During the night, the streets become tacky with spilled drink and mystery fluids. In the early morning, it is literally difficult to walk because of the combination of sliminess and stickiness.
Because the number of visitors greatly exceeds the number of beds, the prices for accommodation are sky-high and many people sleep outdoors in the park or on the street.
Every morning, a massive cleanup effort is required to revitalize the city after the previous night’s debauchery.
Crews collect mountains of garbage and literally scrub the streets.
During the 4 days I was at the festival, I stayed in the S&M Motel, parked on the street a comfortable walk from the downtown. It wasn’t quiet though. I stayed near the Citadel where the nightly fireworks are held, just up the street from the outdoor stage where rock concerts begin every night at 11 PM. Because San Fermin is a civic holiday, street parking is free for the duration of the festival.
Despite all this craziness, I never felt unsafe during San Fermin. Even in the crush of the crowds, the atmosphere is upbeat and friendly. I saw no violence or even aggression, which I would have expected when you have so many drunk people in one place. I believe that I would have been safe sleeping alone in a park or on the street, though I didn’t try it to find out.
Have you been to San Fermin? If so, what was your experience? If not, what is the wildest event you’ve ever been to?
Flashback Friday — this is another in a series of posts about memorable events from recent travels. They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.