Bilbao and the Basque Country Feature


Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway describes the Pamplona encierro (bull running) in anything but romantic terms. Jake Barnes hears the rocket, steps out onto his balcony, and watches the crowd run by: men in white with red sashes and neckerchiefs, those behind running faster than the bulls. "One man fell, rolled to the gutter, and lay quiet." It's a textbook move, and first-rate observation and reporting. An experienced runner who falls remains motionless (bulls respond to movement). In the next encierro in the novel, a man is gored and dies. The waiter at Café Iruña mutters, "You hear? Muerto. Dead. He's dead. With a horn through him. All for morning fun."

Despite this, generations of young Americans and other internationals have turned this barnyard bull-management maneuver into one of the Western world's most famous rites of passage. The idea is simple: At daybreak, six fighting bulls are guided through the streets by 8 to 10 cabestros, or steers (also known as mansos, meaning "tame"), to the holding pens at the bullring, from which they will emerge to fight that afternoon. The course covers 902 yards. The Cuesta de Santo Domingo down to the corrals is the most dangerous part of the run, high in terror and short in distance. The walls are sheer, and the bulls pass quickly. The fear here is of a bull hooking along the wall of the Military Hospital on his way up the hill, forcing runners out in front of the speeding pack in a classic hammer-and-anvil movement. Mercaderes is next, cutting left for about 100 yards by the town hall, then right up Calle Estafeta. The outside of each turn and the centrifugal force of 22,000 pounds of bulls and steers are to be avoided here. Calle Estafeta is the bread and butter of the run, the longest (about 400 yards), straightest, and least complicated part of the course.

The classic run, a perfect blend of form and function, is to remain ahead of the horns for as long as possible, fading to the side when overtaken. The long gallop up Calle Estafeta is the place to try to do it. The trickiest part of running with the bulls is splitting your vision so that with one eye you keep track of the bulls behind you and with the other you avoid falling over runners ahead of you.

At the end of Estafeta the course descends left through the callejón, the narrow tunnel, into the bullring. The bulls move more slowly here, uncertain of their weak forelegs, allowing runners to stay close and even to touch them as they glide down into the tunnel. The only uncertainty is whether there will be a pileup in the tunnel. The most dramatic photographs of the encierro have been taken here, as the galloping pack slams through what occasionally turns into a solid wall of humanity. If all goes well—no bulls separated from the pack, no mayhem—the bulls will have arrived in the ring in less than three minutes.

The cardinal crime, punishable by a $1,000 fine, is to attempt to attract a bull, thus removing him from the pack and creating a deadly danger.

Updated: 2014-07-24

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