Huir! ….. Run…. Run Now!

We were up and out by 6:30 walking towards the walled section of the old town to ensure our entrance for the 8am running of the bulls. The night before we had hoped to turn in early and get a good night sleep, but that doesn’t happen in Pamplona during the festival of Saint Fermin. We passed staggering groups of revelers still up from a long night of debauchery.

Jean Paul and myself were going to run, so we made plans to meet Katie and Helen when the run was over at the Hemingway statue outside the bullring.


Helen and Katie made this for me to ward off ‘toros’.

We finally gained entrance and went to a spot we had scoped out the night before, a long uphill straightway with  small doorways to hide in if the sh*t hits the fan; It sounded like a good plan. Ten minutes later, the police swept up our section of the street and kicked everyone back outside the fences. We had no idea why, but I had a bad feeling this run was not going to go as planned. Undeterred, we were going to find a way back in. A group of about a dozen of us doubled back along the narrow streets and alleys at a full run – time was running out. We came upon Plaza Consistorial and crawled under two fences to regain entry, technically that was not allowed,  and so we ‘lucky’ to get back in.

The plaza was full of runners, we were only about 250 yards from the start but did not have view up the street to the pens where the bulls were to be released.  We quickly came up with a plan B; stay close to the fence, wait until the bulls passed and then follow them down the road. If it all went south, we could climb over the fence or dive underneath it. It sounded good in theory.

Eight o’clock was the time for releasing the bulls and as that time approached the nervousness of the runners was visible: Running in place, stretching their legs, nervous chatter. I tied my shoes a few times. The Spanish kid in his twenties next to us on the fence was sketching me out: kissing the rosaries on his wrist, kissing the cross around his neck, knocking on the fence three times, looking skyward. Over and over and over. Five minutes to go and the plaza started to clear out as people moved down the course; I didn’t know if that was good or bad.

Just minutes to go and suddenly a police officer climbs the fence and motions that he does not want us near or on the fence. We hear the sound of the cannon; the signal that twelve Spanish fighting bulls from the infamous Valdefresno Ranch have been released from the pens. A combined twelve hundred pounds of angry bovine, each armed with two spear-sharp horns were quickly closing the gap beyond our sight lines. The officer yelled “Huir!!” and pointed down the street away from the onrushing threat. Jean Paul questioned, “huir?” and the officer replied “Run!”. We both just looked at him, dumbfounded. With an urgency in his voice and a look of… “what are you? Idiots?”, he shouted “RUN, RUN NOW!’ and violently pointed down the street. Jean Paul instantly came up with plan C and screamed at me, “RUN!” We were off.

No bulls in sight but they must be close..It was an all-out panic run, arms flailing, head swiveling back to look for toros, then forward so as to not run into someone and fall, the last thing you wanted to do is fall and get trampled. After about fifty yards I took quick peek back, still no bulls, but I looked forward a little late and ran into Jean Paul: we both stumbled but kept our feet. I tried to regain speed and lost sight of Jean Paul. Suddenly, eerily, only a few people were around me and all those people I passed were stuck to the side of the street looking beyond me with huge eyes. I now heard the thunder of hooves on the cobblestone street. I looked back and fifteen feet off my back shoulder was a lone, monstrous salt and pepper bull hammering down the center of the street, his curved horns raising well above my head. The sight was shocking; it literary shocked the wind out of me. I angled off to the side of  the street as he passed me like a freight train. I looked back again and saw his buddies; a large group of jet black bulls in tight formation filling the street. That was it, like a deer in the headlights, I flung myself back into the stone wall on the side of the street trying to embed myself into the granite. I was stuck there motionless, petrified as they passed.


Medics with the injured

Twenty yards ahead of me the salt and pepper beast lined up an unsuspecting victim, lowered his head and hit him square with his horns, tossing him straight in the air. The victim landed on his butt; however after sometime on the cobblestones he was up, remarkably unhurt, but with the back of his pants completely shredded.

After the group of black bulls passed I tried to follow them further down the course, but the police shut a large metal gate to keep the bulls from doubling back on the crowd, no-one could pass. Was that it? It didn’t seem like twelve bulls had passed. With no bulls in sight, I wandered around looking for Jean Paul, not really paying attention. Suddenly the police are frantically opening the gate, not good; I look up the street- a group of steers were on their way. That’s great considering I’m now in the worst possible place; the locals call it ‘Muerto tripula la curve’ – Dead man’s curve! I’m out of here – run, jump for the fence and get half-way up before getting pinned by the crowd.  From above, I see the herd pass by, hitting no-one. I again try to follow but police close the gate again… and that’s it, over.

If I sound kind of bad-ass, i beg to differ; I did almost everything wrong. My dreams of grandeur, running the length of the course with one hand on the bull’s horn and triumphantly entering the bull stadium to flowers showering down from the stands had quickly given way to a terrified 100-yard dash pin-balling down the street and trying to run through a stone wall to get away.


Runners in the bull ring with the ‘baby’ bull.

I climbed the fence to look for Jean Paul, I saw him approach and we both erupted into uncontrollable laughter; I jumped from the fence and gave him a hug. We exchanged notes; he did not fare  any better, running face first into metal door followed by ten of his closest friends.

We slowly followed the path of the bulls to meet up with the girls, occasionally doubled over with laughter sharing stores of our legendary ‘Run with the Toros’.


After the run at the Hemingway statue.


Categories: Europe, Spain - July 2013 | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Plaza de Toros

We were lucky to get tickets to the bullfight at the Plaza de Toros, one of the largest and storied bullrings in the world. On the opening night there were five bullfights and the matadors were on horseback when fighting the toros. We entered the outdoor ,circular stadium and sat on the concrete bleachers. There were a few tourist in the stands but the majority were Spaniards, both young and old, including many large families. It looked as if we were attending a religious cult event with everyone in the stadium wearing  white with red neck scarves.









The matador entered the stadium on horseback to the loud cheers of the crowd,  which immediately fell silent just moments later when the Spanish fighting bull, weighting well over a thousand pounds entered the ring. It was on. The bull charged and the horse danced out of the way at the last moment, while the matador threw short colorful spears. The spears accumulated and hung from the blood-soaked hump behind the bull’s head. After each encounter, the matador would play to the crowd, lifting his arms to loud applause. The horse and bull seemed to play a form of chicken. From opposite ends of the ring, they charged toward each other; the horse faked one way and then went the other just narrowly missing the horns. As the bull slowed down the matador hung off his horse by his legs and put his hands on the bull’s head, enraging the beast as they raced around the ring. The  agility and fearlessness of the horses amazed me the most, it was the horse that had the most to lose if caught by the toro. Once a bull momentarily fell and the horse ran over and bit it on the back.



When the bull began to tire from loss of  blood,  three matadors on foot ran him in circles until he fell. Then the lead matador would pull out a long dagger, aim carefully and deliver the death-blow to the spine just behind the head. A team of horses quickly hooked up the carcass and dragged him from the ring. The matador took a slow walk victory lap around the ring, his hat in one hand and he severed the ear of his vanquished foe in the other. The crowd cheered, a few bouquets of flowers landed in the ring as the matador threw the ear to a female fan in the stands.



















I went to this event with an open mind and tried to withhold judgement; who am I to judge a cultural practice centuries old?

That being said,  I was still troubled  and distressed  about the whole thing. I thought multiple glasses of sangria might help. It didn’t.

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Toro de Fuego

It was ten o’clock at night and Pamplona was in full swing. We were off to Plaza de Santiago to see the Toro de Fuego; The flaming bull. We ended up in a tiny plaza filled with mostly families: small children, strollers. The flaming bull was being prepared at one end, Basically a man underneath a four-foot fake bull that rested on his shoulders leaving only his legs exposed. Atop of the bull’s back was an array of short firework tubes; pinwheels  and rockets.










































We were on the benches as the man stood up and the bull on his shoulders rose above the crowd. The Toro exploded and he started to run through the plaza shooting sparks high into the air. I covered my eyes as he passed, sparks raining down stinging my skin. We joined a group of children and dad’s with toddlers on their shoulders and chased after Toro de Fuego.  Suddenly, there was a loud explosion and flash from the bull’s back as he spun around and started running down the extremely narrow street towards us. The children squealed and scattered, as did we. The pinwheel on his back lit and started to spin rapidly, firing sparks in every direction followed by another loud explosion lighting the length of the street. We looked at each other in disbelief, shaking our heads; did that really just happen. This town is nuts.


Pamplona casualty #2

Good thing this dude switched to water (water bottle enclosed in his left hand ). Too bad he passed out before he could open it!

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July 7th, Pamplona, Spain. The noon ceremony kicked off the start of the festival of St. Fermin and running of the bulls. On the way to the Plaza de Consistorial, we picked up some water and a few liters of sangria:  You know… when in Rome.

We passed through a police line that took the caps off the plastic bottles so when thrown they would cause less damage; clearly a sign of things to come. We could hear the noise of the crowd as we weaved our way through the narrow streets of this medieval town. We rounded the corner to the plaza and before us were hundreds of people going absolutely mental: singing, chanting, dancing and drinking huge bottles of sangria.





The air was thick with sangria, literally, thrown from bottles, squirt guns and even buckets and trash cans from balconies: it was basically raining sangria on the revelers in the plaza. It was truly a fiesta, Spanish-style, and everybody was family. Former strangers walked arm and arm, shouting incoherently whilst chugging sangria. Two young fiesta-goers almost knocked each other down and they immediately started apologizing: one said in an English accent, “Are you Spanish?”, the other replied “Si”, the Englishman replied in a shout, “I love you man!” and they hugged, slapping each others’ back. This kind of party would not happen in the States: the authorities would not allow it and Americans aren’t capable of unrestrained affection for strangers.









It is customary to wear white pants and shirt with a red scarf around your neck and red sash around the waist.  The clock stuck noon and everyone held up their ceremonial red scarfs and began to sing. We enjoyed the festivities for a while and then with our new uniform soaked  pink in sangria we were off to explore Pamplona.


Pamplona casualty #1

You had to feel sorry  for this guy. Stupid drunk, soaked in sangria, unfocused eyes, unable to speak, with a hard lean on the wall for support.  And it was only 12:30 in the afternoon.

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London 2012

Using every avenue and all means possible, Helen was able to acquire tickets to three Olympic events this summer in London.  We stayed with our friends Jean Paul and Katie, and arrived just as they were preparing the house for a party that evening featuring Jean Paul’s vat of Indian curry. (Apparently a family recipe from the ‘old country’,  which was somewhat strange, since he is from the Basque). Helen and I took a quick nap, trying to ease the jet lag to rally for the party. We did pretty well staying up till around eleven. Pints of beer + jet lag + JP’s curry = sleep.


Centre Court

The first event was football, at the mecca for english football, Wembley Stadium.  We went with Helen’s childhood friend, Lucy and her husband Jamie, who were kind enough to give us their extra tickets. We lucked out; Team GB was playing Senegal in the second game. Wembley Stadium is state of the art with Jumbotrons and plush seating with some old-school rules. You are not allowed to bring beer into the stands, because back in the day when drunk lager louts/football hooligans used to beat the crap out of each other in the stands. I was wondering why so many people were loitering in the concession area pounding down beers.  You either had to chug beer in the hallway or sneak beer into the stadium in coffee cups. We did both.






Beach volleyball was next. The large temporary stadium was built in the courtyard of the old Horse Guard Parade. A strange sight; this modern modular stadium in the shadows of the 250-year-old buildings and on top of the jousting grounds of Henry VIII. Henry loved his jousting.

There was a commentator whipping the crowd into a frenzy and a DJ playing music between points. Between games they had a dance troupe in retro bikinis dance around the sand court or start conga lines that would dance around the stands. Beer drinking in the stands was commonplace instead of outlawed. We saw the powerhouse teams from Brazil, both men’s and women’s, and with it being  sunny for once in London, it did kind of feel like Rio.



The next afternoon it was tennis at Centre Court at Wimbledon, with four game scheduled. I was excited walking through the hallowed grounds with all its tradition and Pimm’s cups. It was the complete opposite of the beach party at volleyball the day before. The judges trot out and around the court in a line, with stiff arms, to their positions. The tennis balls are lined up before the game and rolled individually to the ballboys in a ritualistic fashion. The head judge calls for “quiet please” before the ball is served. We were lucky and saw some of the best players including the two eventual gold medal winners Andy Murray and Serena Williams.




Team GB out in force at Wimbledon


















It was a whirlwind trip with everyday packed with Olympic events or meeting with friends or family, full speed. When we got home, we needed a vacation to recover from our vacation.

Categories: Europe, London, UK - July 2012 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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