Day 8: Encierro
Today is the day I will finally see the running of the bulls (encierros) at San Fermín in Pamplona. The path the bulls will take winds from St. Augustine, through the Old City, and ends at the Plaza de Toros. Despite the night-long partying, the crowds re-emerge as early as 5am to find a safe place from which to observe the spectacle. As we stumble out of the hostel, I am astounded at the transformation that has taken place. The streets are emptied of the trash from the day before, and city workers have nearly finished washing away the debris from the grey cobblestones.
At around 6am, our group of travelers reach our pre-selected vantage point: a high wall above the starting line of the encierros, next to the Museo de Navarra. We squeeze into an empty space at the edge of the railing. Down the road from where we stand, sixteen bulls and steers quietly await the race, the sun rising behind their corrals.
My feelings this morning are a mix of wonder at the tradition and grandeur of it all, and the dragging sorrow of the continued reality that we humans have a tendency to exploit anything weaker than ourselves. This isn't what we are supposed to do with animals. We are supposed to take care of them. And yet, there is a certain beauty to what is about to happen.
Lining the narrow cobblestone lane, the walls and balconies spill over with thousands of spectators. A deafening, celebratory hum fills the air. Then, just before 8am, the scheduled start of the encierro, the singing begins.
All else falls silent. In what was just a raucous crowd, the only other sound sound is the breathing of the bulls.
The song is repeated three times. Between each chorus, the cheering of the crowd surges, then surrenders again in a quiet nod to the sacred chant.
After the third repetition, the signal indicates that the encierro has started. At first, nothing seems to happen, and then, we hear the bells on the necks of the steers. There is movement, followed by shouting, and the surge of a running of the crowd. It's not so much a run as a fervent yielding to these magnificent, terrified creatures, running towards certain death at the Plaza del Toros.
The way of the bulls reaches up to our right, before turning towards "suicide corner," and we can clearly see the animals heaving through the crowd. Some of the steers fall, and the bulls, hoofs clattering on the cobblestones, move to avoid them. Runners fall over each other, hug the walls, or narrowly miss the tip of a horn as the bulls pass.
After a brief moment of calm, another group is released, and the spectacle begins again. The scene repeats itself twice more, then, the Old City takes a breath, and the party in the streets commences for the day. Today, the energy is different: powerful, almost spiritual, awestruck energy.