Sneaking a cigarette, tasting that first beer or borrowing Mom and Dad’s car for a joy-ride are about as daring as it gets when it comes to rites of passage for American teens.
In Pamplona, boys of all ages — and a few girls, too — run with the bulls.
From waiters and cab drivers to hotel managers and business execs, nearly every man I met recalled his youthful bravado — even stupidity — in following this northern Spanish city’s annual custom of running with the bulls.
That risky, centuries-old ritual, immortalized in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 classic, “The Sun Also Rises,” will grab headlines again as Pamplona’s Festival of San Fermin, honoring the city’s patron saint, takes to the Old City’s narrow, cobblestone streets July 7-14.
The spectacle is televised around the world, giving rise to the fiesta’s reputation as “the most dangerous party on Earth.” Otherwise, it’s so family-oriented that one endearing tradition has babies handing over their pacifiers to looming, 13-foot tall papier mache characters in the aptly-named Parade of Giants and Big Heads.
But it’s the bulls that bring Pamplona a headline- and visitor-bonanza. Starting with an early morning rocket’s bang July 7 and on seven consecutive mornings, several thousand daredevils of many nationalities, including some Americans, surge forward in kamikaze fashion along the half-mile bull-running route. Each adrenaline-fueled runner covers just a short section — curved, narrow, flat, wide or inclined — before peeling off to safety behind, or at least near, wooden barricades.
Runners are chased by six menacing bulls, half-ton bulls with sharp, curved horns. The madcap dash typically lasts under three minutes from the corral to the bullring, where death by matador awaits that night. Approaching speeds of 15 mph, the bulls are accompanied along the ancient route by six steers that, hopefully, keep them running in a pack.
“Everyone wears white during the festival, even the mayor and VIPs,” says Francisco Glaria, whose guide service offers tour packages that include prime, balcony-viewing seats (www.novotur.com/English).
The traditional white outfits, signifying that “everyone is equal,” are accented with a dashing red neckerchief and red waist-sash. To avoid the tourist label, visitors should tie their sash on the left — and leave their sandals home.
Runners must be at least 18, sober, and avoid touching the bulls, which may cause them to turn around. Phones and cameras aren’t allowed. One foolhardy runner was fined for attempting to take a selfie two years ago.
Backpacks also are banned. Since bulls are color-blind, their movement is more distracting than the much-maligned color red.
Which brings us to the gory truth: 200-300 people are injured each year along the ambulance-lined route. While just 15 died in the past 100 years, an average of 10 people are gored annually. Among those rushed to the hospital for surgery last year was a co-author of the guidebook, “Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona.”
For information, check http://www.spain.info.