Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more

Herd mentality

Bob Ecker

Just before 8am, a small shrine to St Fermin is set up in a wall and everyone starts chanting and waving rolled-up newspapers, asking the 12th-century saint to keep them safe. The sun breaks over the tops of the narrow streets as I hear the first fireworks go off. Everyone starts running. Drinking on the street isn't particularly pretty, but sometimes going with the flow is the thing to do, and everything is flowing on this sunny day in Pamplona, capital city of Navarre, Spain.

July 6 marks the beginning of the Festival los Sanfermines. It includes the famous running of the bulls, which takes over the streets at the start of each day from July 7 to 14. This festival is one giant party, like the Mardi Gras only hotter and with a unique element of danger. This morning, I muscle into the surging crowd, trying to get to the main square by noon for the 'official' beginning of the festival.

Donning the traditional white shirt with a red sash and red bandanna, I join the sea of white and red, mostly young, semi-inebriated men and women, dancing, shouting and laughing.

Around the Plaza Consistorial and the old City Hall building with its Renaissance facade, hundreds of champagne and wine bottles litter the street. People lean from rows of balconies, pouring unknown liquids onto the crowd. The streets smell like stale alcohol and sweat, but it is warm and the music is honking. I head to the nearest besieged wine shop and buy a bottle of cava. Now I am really into it, drinking from the bottle as the bands march past playing accordions, drums and trumpets. Many musicians have drinks in their hands.

One woman from nearby Bilbao chats in English, and a big bear of a man named Juanto warns me about the bulls. 'Don't touch them,' he says. 'And don't run on the weekend, it's too crazy.'

We all pass around bottles of cava. The narrow alleys overflow with thousands of people crammed into the cafes, bars and shops. Many just sit on the pavement. During the festival, most of the bars remove their doors entirely, since they don't close at all for eight straight days. Squeezed into a bar, one Englishman says: 'These Spaniards are simply crazy. I like it.'


The cramped streets boom as the cacophony echoes off the ancient cobblestones. Hungry now, I buy pollo y frites (chicken and fries) at a cafe. It is dreadfully hot, and the food is greasy, spicy, messy and delicious. I wash it down with two glasses of chilled Navarra wine. The meal hits the spot and the hot air makes the wine even better.

Nearby on the main square at the busy Iruna bar, one of Hemingway's renowned haunts, I buy a 'Special Kas' - a secret tangy mix that includes a copious amount of gin. It's the knockout punch. Giddy and hot, I stumble through the crowd. A sign says it is 39 degrees Celsius. A nap at the hotel is in order.

Passing a park, I decide to rest for a moment. As soon as I hit the grass I am out cold. I sleep in the park for more than two hours, with my passport, money and camera at my feet. Fortunately, no one touches anything. The festival draws more than 1.5 million visitors and many sleep in the city parks. I get up feeling groggy, buy a cup of coffee and stagger back to the hotel.

Day one in Pamplona with plenty of excitement to come. The bulls begin running early the next morning. Somewhere between dream and nightmare, I awaken at 5.30am and make my way through the throng to Santo Domingo Street, the first part of the run, to camp out.


The street is teeming, this being Sunday, the most crowded day - the day I have been warned never to run. Very few women are present. The police make a sweep, pulling out the truly inebriated, those with backpacks, large cameras or other encumbrances. The time has come.

The second fireworks blast goes off, signalling that the bulls are in the street. Now everyone starts running. They seem to know where they are going. I keep in step with the guy in front of me, while I feel someone running close behind. I hear the roar of the crowd and a looming thunder, look over my shoulder and there they are. Huge, black and furious, the bulls are nearly upon me and I kick into another gear. They run straight up the middle, as I move to the side of the narrow street.


The first bull is about a foot from me, and then he is gone. Tan and grey bulls come up fast, and I keep pace. They pass and I pause to watch the scene. It is chaotic. Some people are standing still, some are walking backwards, some clutching the doors and walls. Above the street hundreds are cheering and screaming. People hang over every balcony, photographing the action.

I then hear someone yell in my ear as two more bulls charge past on my left. I chase them up the street until I can only see a distant blur of black, white and red. I make it all the way to the Corrida gate. Wheezing, I look around, then high-five the nearest guys. I have done it!

My elbow has a cut where I've scraped a wall, but other than that I am intact - thrilled. Paramedics are attending to a few victims, including one man with a bloody eye and another on the ground with bloodstained trousers.


'I've been coming back for the past 15 years. Wouldn't miss it,' Dr Moss, a paediatrician from California, says. His red and white uniform is slightly askew.

Some years haven't been so kind to him. He lifts up his shirt, showing off a 10cm scar on his right side. 'Three years ago, a bull lifted me up,' he says, laughing. I wonder about his, and my own, sanity.

Hemingway returned to Pamplona year after year. This sensual, unforgettable place is very much alive and the joy, blood and verve of running with the bulls is one thing that makes life worth living.


On the hoof

How to get there: Cathay Pacific and Iberia or British Airways fly to Madrid in 16 to 23 hours for HK$7,480-HK$12,400; Iberia jets to Pamplona in 55 minutes for Euro62 (HK$600), one way. Cathay Pacific and British Airways fly to Barcelona in 16 to 24 hours, for HK$13,800. Iberia reaches Pamplona in 65 minutes for Euro115, one way. Pamplona is a four-hour drive from Madrid and about five from Barcelona. Trains run from Madrid in 31/2 hours and from Barcelona in four.

Where to stay: Ernest Hemingway stayed at the 127-year-old Gran Hotel La Perla. Euro162 a night via

What else to see: Pamplona Cathedral and the Citadel.

When to go: July and August are 25-35 degrees Celsius; September 22 degrees; spring/autumn 17 degrees.

Car hire: Hertz in Pamplona offers a Ford Fiesta Trend for a week with unlimited mileage for Euro343 (Euro247 if you prepay online).