What you should know before you arrive:
1. Pamplona's population swells more than sevenfold during the Fiesta de San Fermin to one and a half million people and the hotels hike their prices by exactly that multiple. Of course, many tourists make do with benches, parks or gutters. Unluckily for them this year the forecast is for rain.
2. Even though this is the best and biggest party in the world, it is also a feria for the (co-) patron saint of Navarre, an autonomous community of Spain sometimes regarded as a part of the Greater Basque Country, but also a part of the Kingdom of Spain. This means a little respect and sensitivity is necessary – the politics, the religion, the patriotism and the tribalism, they all have their darker side. Speaking of respect: just because everyone else litters – in the case of the French with their bodily fluids – you don't have to.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison training with Spanish bullfighter Juan José Padilla. Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison
What you need to know when you arrive:
(3) Pickpockets abound. In fact, the only thing more evident on the streets, day and night, are loud, distracted and extremely drunk people. Hence the pickpockets. You have been warned about both.
(4) Instrinsic to this fiesta is the Feria del Toro. Pamplona is about bull, and not just the stuff spoken at the bars. Large Spanish fighting bulls, toros bravos, from the most historic ranches in Spain stampede down the streets every morning at 8am. They come by the half dozen, and each evening, they are individually danced with, dared with and despatched in the plaza de toros. This is the corrida de toros, mistakenly called the bullfight – it is not a fight, nor meant to be, but a three act tragedy culminating in a ritual sacrifice: the bull always dies. A throwback to a bygone age? Perhaps. But remember, that is how they'll view the steak you eat with no dietary need in a hundred years time…
What you need to know about running the bulls:
(5) Read my book! The Bulls Of Pamplona is the official guide in English language to the Feria of San Fermin. The foreword is written by the mayor.
(6) Plan! Watch as many videos as you can and realise that you must be physically, psychologically and technically able to run between thousands of idiots, among which will appear, as though by magic, half-ton-plus wild animals with swords attached to their heads. They have never seen a human being on the ground before – they are ranched wild from horseback – so they may view you as a fellow herbivore fleeing the same predator and ignore you, or they may work out that it's humans who are the danger. Then God, and Saint Fermin, help you.
Fiske-Harrison running with the bulls in Pamplona. Photo: Foto Auma
(7) As a result of (6), if you get knocked down, STAY DOWN, in 1995 an American runner died trying to get up and thus putting his vital organs at waist – i.e. horn – height. The pastors – herdsmen – in green polo shirts who run with canes will intervene to take the bull off you as will the experienced runners.
(8) Experienced runners grew up with the bulls. There are practically no truly experienced foreign runners (I discount Joe Distler who ran every run in Pamplona from 1968-2012 and co-authored our eBook.) We are all just amateurs from outside Spain, no matter how gifted. The Spanish and Basque contributors to our e-book have run an estimated 10,000 encierros between the four of them across the entirety of Spain. Do not interfere with their work, their commands, and whatever you do, do not interfere with the bulls – DO NOT TOUCH THEM! Some people seem to think it's a game to hit them with newspapers. This is a game that leads to people in wheelchairs or the grave. Also, no cameras are allowed on the run. Fifteen people died in bull-runs in Spain last year, in at least one case while they were taking a selfie. An experienced Spanish runner died in Pamplona the year I first came in 2009. This is for grown ups.
Fiske-Harrison always runs in his very distinctive Eton blazer. Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison
What you need to know about after the running of the bulls:
(9) You have been a part of something remarkable. It is hard for the brain to process that. You will become – in this order – speechless, repetitively boring, drunk (this is necessary, otherwise the adrenaline makes you ill), overly affectionate to people including bemused waiters, and finally,wild in your exaggerations. We've all been there. No need to blush the next day, but tone it down a bit if you can.
(10) As a result of the above, you might like to come back. Do. It gets better. And you don't have to run the bulls every time by the way, but it's certainly better than espresso.
Co-authored by Fiske-Harrison, the book includes contributions from regular runner John Hemingway (grandson of Ernest), Beatrice Welles (daughter of Orson) and Joe Distler, a veteran bull runner who has earned a reputation as one of the greatest ever American participants, Larry Belcher the former Texan Rodeo Champion, and even a chapter on the tactics to deploy from gifted young bull-runner Captain (Ret'd.) Dennis Clancey of the 101st Airborne Division, as well as four Spaniards widely acclaimed as the greatest bull runners ever.
A version of this article first appeared in July 2018.