‘It’s Christmas for adults’: The foreigners who flock to Spain’s bull-running fiesta

Pamplona's San Fermín festival, immortalised in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises”, has long drawn large numbers of foreigners, with many choosing to return year after year.

Locals and foreigners run in front of bulls during the "encierro" (bull-run) of the San Fermín festival in Pamplona on July 7th, 2022. (Photo by Jose Jordan / AFP)

As soon as Peter Millington heard that Spain’s San Fermín fiesta would be held again this year after a two-year absence due to the pandemic, he started making travel arrangements.

The 38-year-old British financial advisor has been a regular at Spain’s most famous bull-running festival since he first attended the annual event in Pamplona as a university student, and was keen to return.

Millington said he booked his flight from London and made hotel reservations in February, just days after Pamplona’s mayor announced that San Fermín would likely go ahead this year.

“There is nothing else like it, it’s totally unique,” he told AFP in the northern Spanish city on Wednesday when the nine-day fiesta officially opened.

“I had to be here,” he added, gesturing towards the sea of revellers merrily drinking around him, most dressed in the traditional all-white outfit and red scarf.

The festival, immortalised in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises”, has long drawn large numbers of foreigners, including many like Millington who return year after year.

And with global travel on the rebound since most coronavirus pandemic restrictions have been lifted, the foreign visitors were back in force in Pamplona this year.

Among the regulars who returned this year was Hemingway’s writer grandson John Hemingway, who came from Montreal where he currently lives.

“It is good to be here,” said the 61-year-old, who was attending San Fermín for the 10th time.

“This is a breath of fresh air after all this craziness of lockdowns and social distancing.”


Foreign women are often encouraged to show their boobs to the crowd, even though Pamplona authorities have long discouraged this kind of behaviour, especially in light of the sexual abuse cases that have tarnished the festival’s image recently. Photo: Jaime Reina/AFP

‘Hell of an experience’

The festival, which dates back to medieval times, features concerts, religious processions, nightly fireworks, and round-the-clock drinking.

But it is best known for the bracing daily test of courage against a thundering pack of half-tonne, sharp-horned bulls.

Every day at 8:00 am, hundreds of daredevils race six fighting bulls along an 850-metre (2,800-foot) course from a holding pen to Pamplona’s bull ring.

The bulls then face matadors and almost certain death in bullfights in the afternoon.

About 40 percent of all runners come from abroad, with Australia, the United States and Britain accounting for the greatest number of foreigners, according to the Pamplona city hall.

The vast majority of participants are men, with barely a female face visible among the runners — although there were plenty in the cheering crowds.

During the last run in 2019, Pamplona town hall said just six percent of runners were women. This year’s figure will only be available at the end of the festival.

Roger Sandhu, a 30-year-old businessman from the United States, had just taken part in the first bull run on Thursday.

“As soon as we turned the corner, the bulls were right there,” he said.

“It was one hell of an experience.”


Foreign thrillseekers have for years jumped from the top of the Navarrería fountain down into the crowd in Pamplona’s main square, wrongly believing that it is a tradition and despite being discouraged by locals. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP)

‘Christmas for adults’

But for Jack Denault, a 50-year-old Canadian who now lives in France, the festival’s biggest draw is the “camaraderie” that exists among festival goers.

“The bond you make with the people you celebrate with lasts forever,” said Denault, who rents the same apartment every time he comes for the fiesta.

“There are so many of us that come back year after year, and it is such a great reunion.”

Denault said he had participated in over 80 bull runs in San Fermín, but he said they were only a “small part” of the festival.

He has come to every San Fermín festival since 2008 and has a tattoo of a bull’s hoof on his arm for each year he has attended.

“I will keep coming as long as my body allows it,” said the retired hotel sector worker.

The festival was last held in 2019. It was called off in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic.

Timothy Pinks, a 60-year-old London driver who has attended San Fermín regularly since the 1980s, said he was thrilled the event was back on this year.

“It is paradise on earth. Nine days of Christmas for us adults,” he said as he had drinks with a large group of friends in a central Pamplona square.

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Debate flares over Spain’s bull-running fiestas as ten revellers die

Spain's controversial bull-running festivals have once again hit the headlines after a deadly summer in which at least 10 people lost their lives, exacerbating divisions over the centuries-old tradition.

Debate flares over Spain's bull-running fiestas as ten revellers die

Seven deaths occurred in the eastern Valencia region where the practice of releasing bulls into the streets for entertainment has sparked debate, with the other fatalities taking place in the regions of Madrid, Castilla y Leon and Navarra in the north.

This year’s toll raises to more than 30 the total number of people who have been killed in Valencia’s bull-running events since 2015.

This summer’s victims, who died from injuries sustained while racing through the streets alongside a group of hefty bulls — known as “bous al carrer” in Valencian — were between the ages of 18 and 73.

Six of them were men and one was a woman — a French woman who was the oldest victim.

They died after being gored or trampled by the bulls. Countless other people were injured, among them minors.

Bull-running events are a highlight of summer festivities across Spain, with the best known being the San Fermín festival in the northern city of Pamplona.

The idea is that a small group of bulls are let loose into a fenced-off area of the streets and hundreds of foolhardy thrill-seekers run alongside them for a few adrenaline-fuelled minutes, in a spectacle that draws thousands of spectators.

In Valencia and in southern parts of neighbouring Catalonia, such events are hugely popular and few are the villages that don’t put on some sort of entertainment involving bulls barrelling through the streets.

There are also “bous a la mar” – races to the seafront where at the end of the run, the participants vie to try and make the bulls fall into the water, most ending up there themselves.

Experts are divided about when the practice of running the bulls began but Cuéllar, a town some 150 kilometres (90 miles) north of Madrid, claims to have historical records dating back to the 13th century.

READ ALSO: Will bullfighting ever be banned in Spain?

And although the exact origin of the tradition is unclear, it is thought to emerged out of the need to bring bulls from the countryside into the towns on market day when they would be be coralled through the streets with sticks.

Irrespective of how it began, it has become a political hot potato for the local authorities, which often sparks heated debate and can win or lose an election.

When the Socialists and their hard-left ally Podemos managed to take over Valencia’s regional government in 2015, ousting the right-wing Popular Party, they were careful to steer well clear of the issue.

Podemos, which in Valencia is known as Compromís, is implacably opposed to any entertainment involving bulls.

“It’s not a simple issue, whether you’re debating or legislating… there are many sensitivities,” Valencia’s regional deputy leader Aitana Mas told reporters.

“At some point, it’s a debate which we have to have,” said Mas of the Compromís party, referring to a ban on all such activities.

“We’re talking about seven lives this summer alone,” she said, but adding it was also necessary to talk about “protecting animals”.

Bull-running events are a highlight of summer festivities across Spain, with the best known being the San Fermín festival in the northern city of Pamplona. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

But Germán Zaragoza, head of the region’s Federation of Bull-Fighting Clubs which promotes bull-running events as the Spain’s “most-traditional and authentic” fiestas, says any such move would face an uphill battle.

“They will have to take on Valencia’s love for the ‘bous al carrer’,” he said.

“The right to access culture — and all events featuring bulls are absolutely part of that — is sacred within the constitution,” he said in a statement.

“And neither the city councils nor the regions have the authority to ban or organise a referendum” on the fate of such events.

The right-wing Popular Party, which has a long history of supporting any bull-related festivities, pledged its support for such traditional events.

Those who question the validity of such fiestas “are attacking who we are and how we express our traditions and culture”, said Marta Barrachina, a local PP leader in Valencia.

But not all areas of Valencia feel the same, with towns like Sueca or Tavernes de la Valldigna refusing to issue permits for bull-running events this year.

And animal welfare associations have published a manifesto calling for a ban on which describes bull-running events as “torture dressed up as culture and tradition” in which “abuse is more than evident”.

Such spectacles often involve “these noble animals” being beaten with sticks, kicked, jerked around, insulted, humiliated and subjected to stress, it states.

And the runners “are often drunk or under the influence of drugs, with many also injured”.

So far, the petition has garnered some 5,500 signatures.