The festival of San Fermín in the city of Pamplona (Navarre, Spain), is a deeply-rooted celebration held annually from noon 6 July, when the opening of the fiesta is marked by setting off the pyrotechnic chupinazo accompanied by music, to midnight 14 July, with the singing of the Pobre de Mí. While its most famous event is the encierro, the running of the bulls, the biggest day is 7 July, when thousands of people accompany the effigy of Saint Fermin along the streets of Pamplona, along with dancers and street entertainers, such as carnival giants and the week-long celebration involves many other traditional and folkloric events. It is known locally as Sanfermines and is held in honor of Saint Fermin, the co-patron of Navarra. Its events were central to the plot of The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, which brought it to the general attention of English-speaking people. It has become probably the most internationally renowned fiesta in Spain.
Archives document the bull runnings only as far back as the late thirteenth century, but even if one does not know that the bull is a sacred animal in the Mediterranean world, or is unaware of the bull-dancers in Minoan frescoes, an unprejudiced outsider still may detect the remnants of an ancient pre-Christian ritual. At Pamplona, Saint Fermin – who was actually martyred at Amiens – is now sometimes said to have met his end by being dragged through the streets of Pamplona by bulls, a fate also attributed to his mentor, Saint Saturnin of Toulouse. Up to the fifteenth century, the festival was held on Saint Fermin's feast day, 25 September. The Pamplona fiesta was transferred to July in 1592.
Most runners are traditionally clad in white, with a red handkerchief (the pañuelo) tied about their necks, and some wearing a red sash (the faja) tied around their waist. Anyone who survives a close encounter with a bull is said to have been protected by San Fermin's cloak.
The event is dangerous. Since 1924, 15 people have been killed (most recently, a 20-year-old American in 1995 and a Navarra man who died 2 September 2003, after falling into a coma after the run), and over 200 have been seriously injured. Most injuries nowadays, however, are caused by the increasing rush of participants seeking to run with the powerful bulls. The organizers release multi-lingual guides (with safety tips) to accompany the running event: it is strongly recommended that these be read beforehand.
Since the publication of Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises about the event, a large percentage of runners are foreigners. Most lack the experience and skill needed to run safely in the encierro. Local people, as well as visitors from certain areas of Spain, have had more opportunity to practice, having grown up with other encierros, bull and cow festivals, which used to be held in a wider space than in the historic center of Pamplona.
Stray bulls might become extremely agitated, and may need for the organisers arranging for a "second wave" of "cabestros" (tame steers) to run through the streets after the "first wave," in order to collect any stragglers. The shops and residences along the course are boarded up to prevent damage by either bull or human during the race. One particular stretch of the course, called Mercaderes, is particularly notorious for injuries. On rainy days the bulls cannot turn well on the cobblestones, and often collide into the wall; tear marks from the sharpened horns against the pulp wood barriers give an indication as to the events of days before. While locals are always keen to avoid this corner, it is not uncommon to see tourists getting trampled and seriously injured there.
The course concludes at Pamplona's Plaza de Toros, and the bulls are herded inside the corralillos until the afternoon's corrida.
Once all of the bulls have entered the arena, a third rocket is released while a fourth firecracker indicates that the bulls are in their bullpens and the run has concluded. Some participants of the encierro remain in the arena, when vaquillas emboladas (young cows with wrapped horns) are released among them and toss the participants, to the general amusement of the crowd.
The Riau-Riau was a mass activity held on 6 July. The members of the city council would parade from the City Hall to a nearby chapel dedicated to Saint Fermín. Protesting youths would mass blocking the way, dancing to the Astrain Waltz played by the city band. The councilors would be stuck for hours sometimes being unable to exit the City Hall. The procession was finally removed from the festival calendar.
At night, the town erupts into an enormous party. The Comparsa de Gigantes (Company of Giants) parade the streets— enormous puppets accompanied by brass bands. The streets are filled with drunken revelers, and exhausted tourists are found catching up on their sleep in parks. The local school is offered by the town as a storage facility for backpackers' gear.
After nine days of partying, the people of Pamplona meet in the Plaza Consistorial at midnight on 14 July, singing the traditional mournful notes of the Pobre de Mí ('Poor Me'), in a magical, candlelit ending.