The celebration of San Fermín, popularly known as Sanfermines, is a Festival of International Tourist Interest in honour of Saint Fermin de Amiens, which is held annually in the Spanish city of Pamplona, capital of the northern region of Navarre.
The festivities begin with the launch of the “chupinazo” (a loud rocket – firecracker) from the balcony of the Pamplona City Council, at 12 noon on 6 July. The Sanfermines end at midnight on 14 July when singing the “Pobre de mí…” (Poor me…), a farewell song.
One of the most famous activities of the Sanfermines is the “encierro”. It consists of a race of men and women along a route of 875 meters in front of 6 untamed bulls and other 6 tamed bulls; the race finishes in the bullring of the city. This race in front of bulls takes place every day, between the 7th and 14th of July, and starts at eight in the morning, with a duration of between two and four minutes, although in recent years due to the security measures introduced it is very rare that they exceed three minutes.
The Sanfermines festival has an origin that goes back several centuries, although their worldwide fame is a recent phenomenon, also linked to the diffusion that Ernest Hemingway gave it. It is one of the most unique festivals and, with no doubt, the event by which the city of Pamplona is best known in the world. Its current nature, cosmopolitan and multitudinous atmosphere is the result of a slow historical evolution whose origins date back to the Middle Ages.
Below we describe the most important elements of this festivity from the north of Spain.
The chupinazo is the rocket (firecracker) that is launched on 6th July each year at midday from the balcony of Pamplona’s city hall. It marks the start of the fiestas of San Fermín (Sanfermines). It attracts a large number of people and it is broadcasted live on television.
After the Spanish dictatorship, in the election of the first democratic city council in 1979, it was adopted the criteria of firing the rocket in rotary turns among the members who organized the festival. Later, on 1983, it started to be launched by the different political groups within the city council. Since then, there have been some exceptions, generally related to sports where, for instance, the captain of some major regional football team was allowed to throw the chupinazo due to his team being promoted to the top division soccer.
Since July 6, 1941, the formula that has been mostly pronounced when launching the chupinazo has been as follows:
‘”Pamploneses, Pamplonesas, ¡Viva san Fermín! Gora San Fermin!”
An approximate translation would be “Citizens of Pamplona, hail Saint Fermin!”.
“Gora San Fermin” is the way of saying “Hail Saint Fermin” in a local language called euskera.
The Riau-Riau is a traditional event within the Sanfermines, whose raison d’être keeps an essence full of criticism and protest against authority. It never had official consideration and it is not included in the official program of Sanfermines.
It is celebrated on the afternoon of July 6, at approximately 4:30 pm, when officials of the city hall leave the building to participate in the Vespers function in the Church of San Lorenzo.
Citizens of Pamplona, tourists, musicians and troupers such as those of “Gigantes and Cabezudos” occupy the city hall square, and later the Calle Mayor (Major Street), singing and dancing the “Riau Riau”: a waltz composed in the middle of the 19th century by Miguel Astráin under the name of “La Alegría por San Fermín” (The Happiness for Saint Fermin).
In this way, in its origin, those officials from the city hall (specifically those working in the “Corporación municipal”) had many troubles passing through the crowd, making a journey of just 500 meters taking several hours to complete. The last Riau-Riau to achieve this objective was in 1985, with a duration of three and a half hours, during which the “Waltz of Astráin” was interpreted, sung and danced around 180 times.
Since 1997 the Riau-Riau has been officially absent from the San Fermín festivities, although every year it is one of the hot topics when planning the programme of the Sanfermines. Since that year, some groups and associations organize an alternative Riau-Riau, without the participation of political representatives but with the people of Pamplona who want to preserve the tradition of going to Vespers along the route between the town hall and the church of San Lorenzo to the sound of the Waltz of Astrain. In 2018, this popular and unofficial modality celebrated its 21st edition.
El encierro (The running of bulls)
It consists of taking to the bullring the six bulls that are going to be fought at 18:30 of the same day in the bullfight. Since summer time was established in Spain in 1974, the running of the bulls starts every day at 08:00 hours. At that time they leave from the farmyard of Santo Domingo, where they have spent the night, and they go towards the bullring, where they arrive after travelling about 875 meters. All this is helped by 6 tamed bulls that serve as a guide for the other bulls, and also to somehow calm them down.
If you are only visiting Pamplona and don’t want to participate in the “encierro” of San Fermín, don’t worry about the bulls. The route is fenced and the bulls can’t escape. The running of the bulls can be seen from the wooden fences that are installed along the streets, from private balconies or in the bullring itself.
The first encierro of San Fermín is on 7 July, and the last one is on 14 July.
The encierro of San Fermín has a medieval origin in the “entrance”: the Navarrese shepherds brought the fighting bulls from the meadows of the “Ribera de Navarra” to the “Plaza Mayor” (Main Square), which was used as a bullfighting bullring as there was not any bullring yet in the city. The night before the bullfight they camped near the city and, at dawn, they entered the race together with the tame bulls (called “cabestros”) and accompanied by people who, on horseback or on foot, helped with sticks and shouts to lock them in the corrals.
Eventually, at the end of the 19th century, they went from running after the bulls to help locking them in, to running ahead; this is how this custom became so popular. Some historical documents say that the first people to challenge the prohibitions that prevented running in front of the bulls were the butchers of the Santo Domingo Market, located next to the hill of the same name.
Chants and canticles
Before running the encierro, the participants ask to the saint “San Fermín” for help through chants and canticles that are sung on the slope of Santo Domingo Street (at the beginning of the route) 5, 3 and 1 minutes before the running of bulls; that is, at 07:55, 07:57 and 07:59. Since 2009 the chants have been performed both in Spanish and in Euskera / Basque (a local language).
Part of the chants say:
“A San Fermín pedimos por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición” which means “To Saint Fermin we ask for being our patron saint, to guide us in the running of bulls giving us your blessing”.
The route during the running of bulls
The route of the encierro goes through the streets of Pamplona’s old quarter and ends in the bullring. The corner between Mercaderes Street and Estafeta Street is a very popular place for photographers, and it is in this last street where you can see the longest straight section of the running of bulls.
The herd of bulls runs the whole route in about four minutes on average, at about 25 km/h and it is composed of six bulls and eight (sometimes six) tame bulls, followed by young men who work as shepherds in case any of the bulls is left behind.
The shepherds are identified with a bracelet which usually is green. Recently they also use clothing of the same color to clearly differentiate themselves from the rest of the participants in the race.
Other fundamental participants in the encierro are the “dobladores”. They are four professional bullfighters carrying a bullfighting cape. In case some bull is left behind from the herd, the dobladores are in charge of leading them to the corrals in the bullring, trying to take them in a straight line so that they do not take any bad habit that could affect their afternoon bullfight.
The owner and origin of the bulls change every day, since they all (except the tame bulls) participate in bullfightings after each encierro. Therefore, there is a total of 8 different bull farms participating in the Sanfermines (San Fermín).
At the end of it
When all the bulls are already in the corrals of the bullring, the runners who participated in the encierro wait in the arena of the bullring for the release of heifers. It is usual for people to sit in front of the exit door so that the heifer passes over them.
Many people are run over by the heifer, partly because with so many people participating in the activity, it is hard to know in which direction the animal is moving.
It is totally forbidden to mistreat the animals, whether through kicks, climbing on top of them, grabbing them from the tail or similar.
The San Fermín encierro itself has its own risks. There are an average of 2,000 people participating in each running of bulls, and the bulls can gore or trample. It is common to see each day of Sanfermines to several participants of the encierro injured by horns, blows or traumas, especially if there are bulls left behind and not following the herd, or when it is formed a blockage due to the running crowd of people.
Although it is not common, there have been some deaths in the last 30 years.
In any case, if you are a foreigner and you have been injured during the encierro, you will be treated and healed. Nevertheless, keep in mind that they will pass the cost of the treatment to be paid by your health insurance.
The parade of giants, horses (kilikis) and big-heads (zaldicos or, in Spanish, cabezudos)
The Giants of Pamplona have more than a century and a half of history, and they are one of the most emblematic symbols of the Sanfermines festival. They are big figures made of wood, cardboard and fabric accompanied by a cohort of kilikis (horses) and zaldikos (cabezudos). Together they form the “Comparsa”, which consists of a procession that takes place every morning of the fiesta of San Fermin, although you will be able to see them on the street some other times during the celebration. Behind each couple of giants there are musicians setting their pace.
The group of giants is composed by four couples that represent the races of the world and the continents, although there is not a couple representing Oceania. The white couple of giants are the kings of Europe, the yellow one the pair of kings of Asia, the light black one the pair of kings of Africa, and the black one the pair of kings of America.
The weight of the giants of Sanfermines is around 59 kilos in the European queen and 66.5 kg in the African king. Their height reaches 3.9 meters.
Fireworks of San Fermín
Every night at 11 pm, visitors can witness the burning of the pyrotechnic collection, which is between a quarter of an hour and 25 minutes long. Currently, the pyrotechnic spectacle during the Sanfermines has become an international competition in which professionals from other Spanish cities such as Valencia and Zaragoza, but also foreigners from countries such as Italy compete.
The history of the fireworks of the San Fermín festivities goes back to the 16th century and almost goes hand in hand with the precedents of the giants. Fire has always been a substantial element in the celebrations and rites of this northern Spanish land. The Chinese later introduced gunpowder and the city of Pamplona became home of fireworks in the Sanfermines since 1595. First there were modest Japanese firecrackers such as rockets and bombs in the Plaza del Castillo (Castle Square), but today they are a majestic pyrotechnic collections launched from the Citadel at 11 pm.
Other activities in Sanfermines
The atmosphere during the eight days of Sanfermines is really festive and jovial, so there are a lot of additional activities that give the city an absolute partying atmosphere. In fact, even at the end of the San Fermín festival, people sing a farewell song (“Pobre de mí…”) but at the same time they happily embrace the wait for next year Sanfermines.
In addition to the running of bulls (encierro), which is the activity par excellence of the San Fermín festival, there are also many music concerts, sport competitions (chess, fencing, golf…), theatre plays and shows.
Each year the programme of the Sanfermines changes. Therefore, the year you come to visit this festivity, we advise you to take a look at their new programme on their official website.