Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

“Can you help me find a place called Ruggles, the bar?” asked Jenny from New Zealand.

I shrugged, then pointed down the street. The narrow cobblestone alleys were overflowing with thousands of people, crammed into the cafés, bars and shops, and many just sat 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 one bar, I overheard a guy with a “proper” British manner say, “These Spaniards are simply crazy. I like it.” The cramped streets boomed as all manner of sound bounced off the ancient cobblestones.

Hungry now, I found some fresh pollo y frites (chicken and fries) at a tiny café. It was dreadfully hot, and the food was greasy, spicy, messy — delicious. I ventured back to the main square and ended up at the Iruña bar, one of Hemingway’s renowned haunts.

The place was packed with history, laughter and booze. Upstairs I bought a “Special Kas” — some secret tangy mix that included copious amounts of gin. That did it. I danced with a pretty blonde, then thought I saw bulls flying toward the ceiling, singing some song that reverberated in the back of my head. Reality and a dream state were now intermingling.

Stumbling back through the folding crowds, a sign said it was 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 C) — hot. A nap at the hotel was in order. A park loomed in my foreground and I decided to rest there for a moment. As soon as I hit the grass, I was out — cold.

I slept in the park for over two hours, with my passport, money and camera lying at my feet, unprotected in the open summer sun. Fortunately, no one touched anything. I got up, groggy but somewhat refreshed.

The festival draws over a million and a half visitors and it’s an accepted tradition that vast numbers sleep in the city parks. And people were sleeping everywhere, just like me.

I stopped for a couple cups of coffee, then sashayed back to the hotel, sweaty, grass-stained and full of life. The bulls would begin running early the next morning.

Somewhere between dream and nightmare, I awoke at 5:30 a.m., and again barreled through the throngs into old Pamplona. I found my way to Santo Domingo Street, the first portion of the Run and camped out.

I encountered some American guys: one from Texas, one from New York, two from Los Angeles and another from Atlanta. Two English guys and a huge grizzled man from Jamaica rounded out our little party on the street.

There were lots of people here already — this being Sunday, the biggest day when thousands of people accompany the effigy of Saint Fermín along the streets — the day I had been warned never to run.

“Many drunks, tourists, and just too many people,” said my knowledgeable Spanish sources.

Yet here I was with countless other fools, drunks and testosterone-addled specimens. There were a few women, but it appeared 99 percent men.

I listened to all sorts of stories and rumors about what would, and would not happen during the Run. People made bets, and some read their newspapers, with backs to the walls, anticipatory sweat forming on upper lips.

The police made periodic sweeps pulling out the truly inebriated, those with backpacks, large cameras or other hindrances.

The time had finally arrived. The second fireworks blast went off signaling that the bulls were in the street; now people ran in a frenzy. I ran too. Why not? They seemed to know what they were doing, or perhaps it was simply irresistible fear.

I ran hard in step with the guy in front of me, while I felt someone running up my back. I vaguely heard the roar of the crowd and a looming thunder, looked over my shoulder, and there they were.

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