Just a Thought: Pamplona’s running of the bulls

Steve Walker is a Vietnam Veteran and former Justice of the Peace and Journalist.

Forty-four years ago in July in 1973, I recall backpacking Europe with some fellow international backpackers. Reminiscing once again about my past, I recall I showed up in Pamplona, Spain for the running of the bulls. It was just in time for their annual week-long event.

I was so excited to be in Pamplona and experience the running first-hand. I had read about the popular event in school years before and learned about the history of the celebration. I arrived by train early in the day, July 10, awaiting my opportunity to see the opening ceremonies the following day.

While in the town square that night before the official running, I was standing with my Australian friends, who I was currently backpacking with, while a band was playing in the large gazebo in the town square directly in front of us.

Believe it or not, the city allowed backpackers like myself from all over Europe and the United States to actually camp out in the town square at night with sleeping bags during the annual event. I am told by many who have gone to Pamplona since that they are no longer allowed to camp out in the town square.

The band was playing and singing “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va!” To my ecstatic surprise it was America’s own Carlos Santana and his band playing. I freaked as my friends asked me who he was since they hadn’t heard of him. Joyfully, I informed them that Santana was a very popular band in America at that time. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Carlos Santana the President’s Award for his contributions to the music industry. Who knew?

Thousands of people flock to Pamplona for the extravaganza every year and fill all the hotels, homes and hostels to capacity.

What I didn’t know previously, but learned quickly, is that the running of the bulls was a practice that involves running in front of a small group of cattle, typically six, of the toro bravo breed that have been let loose on a course of a sectioned-off subset of a town’s streets.

The eight-day festival of Sanfermines is held in honor of Saint Fermin in Pamplona, although they are also traditionally held in other places. Towns and villages across Spain, Portugal and in some cities in Mexico and southern France also host a similar festival during the summer.

The origin of this event comes from the need to transport the bulls from the off-site corrals, where they had spent the night, to the bull ring where they would be killed in the evening. Youngsters would jump among them to show off their bravado. In Pamplona and other places, the six bulls in the event are still those that will be featured in the afternoon bullfight on the same day.

Spanish tradition says the true origin of the run began in northeastern Spain during the early 14th century. While transporting cattle in order to sell them at the market, men would try to speed the process by hurrying their cattle using tactics of fear and excitement.

After years of this practice, the transportation and hurrying began to turn into a competition, as young adults would attempt to race in front of the bulls and make it safely to their pens without being overtaken. When the popularity of this practice increased and was noticed more and more by the expanding population of Spanish cities, a tradition was created and stands to this very day.

During my short stay in Pamplona, I was informed that every so many years some runners are killed participating in the run down the streets with bulls chasing after them. I also learned numerous runners do get hurt. While I was there, one runner was gored by a bull and died later that day from his wounds. I watched from behind the fence constructed down the town streets as the participants and bulls made their way to the bull ring. Considered a sport, it is still very dangerous and not recommended for everyone to actively participate.

However, the memory etched in my mind was standing close to Santana and hearing the future Grammy winner performing “Oye Como Va” in the town square.

As always, I write “Just a Thought.”

Steve Walker is a Vietnam Veteran, former Journalist and Justice of the Peace.