San Fermin Running of the Bulls
Whether you have already been to Pamplona’s San Fermin summer festival in July or not, you have probably heard about its highlight event, the Running of the Bulls, where brave runners test their agility by running ahead of a herd of mighty bulls stampeding along a set course through the streets of central Pamplona, Navarra, Spain. This article explains how to choose San Fermín Running of the Bulls best choice balconies for watching the event.
The Main Attraction of the San Fermin Festival
A little before 8am between July 7 – 14 you may have considered waking up and watching the spectacle broadcast live from Pamplona. For many of you, however, visiting Pamplona to run or watch the San Fermin Running of the Bulls is on your bucket list. If watching, rather than running, is what you wish then choosing the right San Fermín Running of the Bulls Balcony will make an important difference. My aim in this article is to help you make the most of San Fermin’s main attraction – the Running of the Bulls – so that you feel the excitement, sense the anticipation, and live a cultural experience unlike any other. Let’s change your experience from a glimpse of black figures among a blur of rushing white ones to a “wow” moment by choosing the best balcony from which to watch the Running of the Bulls.
Running with the Bulls
There are three ways to experience the Running of the Bulls or el encierro, as it is called in Pamplona. The first and most obvious, but definitely not the safest, is to run the course with the bulls. Be forewarned, unless you are an experienced runner, my suggestion to you is that you drop the idea entirely, as it is far more dangerous than it looks or seems. The general understanding of travelers to Pamplona, Spain is that everyone and anyone can run with the bulls…not so! These are dangerous animals, and are specially bred to attack and kill. Apart from the bulls themselves, there are other dangers from within the course itself. For instance, many runners face possible death, with panic and fear sometimes leading to accidental or non-accidental injuries. Apart from the slippery cobblestones, and the hair-raising tension in the air, runners lose their balance, lean on you, or grab on to you with no intention of letting go even if their life depends on it. You can get stepped on you, be tripped over, and trampled. There are plenty of foreign tour companies selling the run as part of their tours and this is one of the reasons why there is an increasingly large number of foreigners on the course who have no idea what they are in for.
Watching the Bull Run at Street Level
One option is to watch the San Fermin Running of the Bulls at street level from behind double fencing made of massive oak beams that create a barrier between you and the course. A team of (beloved) expert San Fermin carpenters set two layers of rigid fencing in place. This fencing is solid, but also thick, which makes it hard to get a good view of the San Fermin Running of the Bulls from between the wooden stakes. You will find yourself struggling to peak through the gaps. To get a good viewing spot you need to wake up extra early to ensure your place among the multitudes of onlookers. As the carpenters set the fences in place, visitors are standing around waiting for them to finish their job and rush in to reserve their space. The wait is long, especially in the wee hours of the morning. If you choose this option, here are two really good pieces of advice: make sure you are at the right fence. It is only the outer fence that can be used to view from, not the inner fence. No one is allowed to remain on the inner fence, which means that if you make the mistake of holding the wrong place, for long hours of waiting the police will still ask you to get down and leave. Reserving a space by a fence takes two forms; you can sit on the fence or stand by the fence – on your feet for hours. You might be thinking ‘ok, well I will just sit on the ground’ but don’t! The streets at this time of the day are caked with what Peter Milligan humorously calls ‘trash juice’ in his novel Bulls Before Breakfast, and, believe me, it gets pretty ugly. Be forewarned, you risk seeing almost nothing unless you choose the right location; one of which is near the beginning of the course, on the Santo Domingo Street along the sloping railing near the Museum of Navarra.
Watching the Bull Run from a Balcony
If your visit to Pamplona’s San Fermin Running of the Bulls fiesta, no doubt your best option is to hire balcony space. By so doing, you ensure not only that you get the best, close up, views of the run, but that you can watch it in comfortable conditions. There are many balcony options available along the course, but today I am going to point out the best San Fermin balcony locations from which to watch the running of the bulls.
San Fermin Running of the Bulls Best Choice Balconies
Stage by Stage
Stage 1 – Santo Domingo Street
Santo Domingo Street, the first stage of the course, is a 280 meter uphill stretch from the corrals to the Plaza Consistorial, the Town Hall Square. This is one of the most dangerous and most demanding stages of the course and there are only a few balconies that offer good views. Those who have the opportunity of getting a good balcony in this stage, will not only get a great Running of the Bulls experience, but will also have the opportunity of witnessing the San Fermin rite, El Cantico de San Fermin which is sung just before the rocket sounds and the bulls are set free. This enchanting traditional chant is sung by the mozos (meaning ‘young runners of the Running of the Bulls’) while facing a figure of San Fermin in a niche in the city wall on Santo Domingo street.
Holding wands of rolled up newspapers the mozos chant away while asking for San Fermin’s blessing before they run. In this first stage, the freshly released bulls are faster than anywhere else. The road slopes upward making it more challenging even for experienced runners, which means that this stretch is less crowded, and hence more dangerous and potentially violent. All of this can be viewed from a well situated balcony on the right side of the street. Keep your eyes open for options within the first 3 or 4 blocks of flats to get the best panoramic view of the Running of the Bulls.
Apartment blocks are usually between 4 and 5 floors high. When selecting a balcony, having first ascertained its availability, consider which floor it is on. As you think about your balcony options, ask yourself what is more important for you; the distance you are from the bulls or getting a better view. If you want to watch the event from close up, the first and second floors are your best choice, while if you prefer to get a more panoramic view, then the third and fourth floors would be a better choice.
Stage 2 – La Plaza Consistorial / Calle Mercaderes
This approximately 100 meter stretch is one of the most dangerous and violent of the course, Santo Domingo Street broadens as it approaches the plaza, enabling mozos to run more comfortably, and giving onlookers the opportunity to identify individual runners more easily. While this stage of the San Fermin Running of the Bulls is a little shorter in length, the curves between the Town Hall and Mercaderes Street make it more spectacular. The curves tend to change the bulls’ pace making the herd scatter and thus increasing the difficulty for both runners and bulls. This stage is one of the most attractive of the course.
Choosing San Fermin Running of the Bulls best choice balconies in this stage of the course again depends on availability and the floor level. I would suggest you go no higher than the third floor. If you want to watch the run up close, the first and second floors are the best, if you prefer to get a more panoramic view, the third floor would be a better choice. Be sure to select balconies that face the Town Hall so that you can watch the bulls make their way up Santo Domingo Street, cross the Plaza Consistorial, and then head up Mercaderes Street. It is no coincidence that these balconies are the most sought after.
Stage 3 – Calle Mercaderes, the Curve, the first half of Calle Estafeta
If you are interested in capturing that ideal photo, this is where you want to be. The corner of Mercaderes and Estafeta Streets has the famous curve where the bulls and the runners are forced to slow down and make that precarious sharp right, which is where the bulls often collide, hitting the boarded façade on the left, and then racing up Estafeta. The best choice balconies of this corner building allow onlookers to watch the bulls gallop down the end of Mercaderes Street, swerve into the curve and then continue a little less than half of the way up Estafeta Street. Again, this location is a favorite among photographers who want to take that perfect snapshot of the bulls in action. If you choose this stage, my recommendation would be to take a first or second floor balcony getting as close as possible to the action.
Stage 4 – Calle Estafeta
This street has about a 2% incline curving slightly to the right and is 300 meters long, making Estafeta Street the most well-known street of the Running of the Bulls. The Estafeta Street stage is too long for you to view the entire length of the run from one balcony. If you are interested in watching the first half of Estafeta Street, the better balconies are on the left side of the street (the side on which the bulls collide when they take the curve on Mercaderes Street). Due to the slight bend in the road, it is a little better on this side than the other.
The balconies on the first and second floors are usually the most sought after and are therefore more expensive. Nevertheless, keep in mind that the higher up you are, the farther you can see, so your experience of the run will be a less intense, but you will have a greater panoramic view of the Running of the Bulls. Therefore, balconies on the third floors are a pretty good choice. From the fourth and fifth floor you get a longer view of the, runners and bulls, and the price of the balcony, in many cases, decreases.
Stage 5 – the end of Calle Estafeta
Another option is to watch the run from one of the balconies located near the end of Estafeta Street. Watch the bulls run the second half of Estafeta, and turn the corner to Telefonica, which is another very popular place from which to watch the running of the bulls. This stage has an added component in that the bulls, at this point, are showing signs of fatigue and slowing down a little, which is a plus given that these animals are much faster than you could probably ever imagine. The fact that they slow down allows viewers an even better opportunity to watch; the bulls, as well as the brave mozos (the runners) in action. Moreover, it is the stage well-known mozos – known as divinos – choose to run.
The Last Stage: Telefonica and Plaza de Toros alleyway entrance
Estafeta Street broadens a little into what could be considered a square, later narrowing into the alleyway which is the entrance into the Plaza de Toros. This last stage of the San Fermin the Running of the Bulls is approximately 100 meters in length. Unfortunately, you can only watch this part of the run from ground level, which will mean waking up very early in the morning and holding your place until the Bull Run begins. There is simply no other way, given that there are virtually no balconies available for viewing purposes at this stage of the run.
The Big Picture
You will have to compete with thousands of locals and foreigners who wish to watch the San Fermin Running of the Bulls from a best choice balcony, so knowing where to focus your attention, time and energy can be helpful. Rental balconies on certain days are more expensive than others, and depending on the floor offered, prices can range greatly. Weekends also tend to be more challenging for finding the best balconies on the course. Keep in mind that on July 6th (which is not the Running of the Bulls, but the Chupinazo opening ceremony in the Plaza Consistorial), and July 7th (the day of the Patron Saint Fermin) demands increase, along with the price. There are plenty of balconies along the route, but there is also a high demand for people interested in renting them.
Balconies located on the first and second floors give you a closer look at the scene below, while from upper floors, you can enjoy the longer panoramic views up or down the course. In all cases, watching the San Fermin Running of the Bulls from good balconies in key locations of the route will allow you the luxury of feeling the excitement without exposing yourself to what only experienced runners should be doing, which is Running with the Bulls. From a balcony you can share the anticipation of the rocket blast, sense how the tension builds, feel the ground tremble…experience the run with enthusiasm and let this wish on your bucket list come true.
Written by Stephanie Mutsaerts from Heart of Pamplona
Photos courtesy of Juan Antonio Garaikoetxea