A prosperous city of just under 200,000, Pamplona (Iruña) is a robust, visceral place, with a rough-hewn edge and a strong streak of macho self-confidence. Having started out as a powerful fortress town defending the northern approaches to Spain at the foothills of the Pyrenees (the city takes its name from the Roman general Pompey), it later became capital of Navarra – often a semi-autonomous state – and an important stop on the Camino de Santiago. With plenty to offer around its Casco Antiguo – enticing churches, a beautiful park and the massive citadel – Pamplona makes an appealing year-round destination, though for anyone who has been here during the thrilling week of the Fiestas de San Fermín a visit at any other time can only be an anticlimax.
Everything you’re likely to want to see in Pamplona lies within its remarkably compact Casco Antiguo. Centring on the Plaza del Castillo, ringed with fashionable cafés, it’s a glorious and very much lived-in jumble of buildings from all eras, where every twisting stone lane is worth exploring and intriguingly tatty old shops and bars lie concealed behind medieval shutters.
Pamplona's legendary Fiestas de San Fermín, or Sanfermines, known to the rest of the world as the Running of the Bulls and popularized by Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926), lasts from noon on July 6 until midnight on July 14. The daily early-morning bull-run, or encierro, is just one component of nine days of riotous celebration, which also features bands, parades and 24-hour dancing in the streets. For details, see wsanfermin.com.
The encierro, the Running of the Bulls, takes place every morning. Six bulls are released at 8am, to run from the Corralillos near Plaza Santo Domingo to the bullring, where they will fight that evening. They take around four minutes to race a fenced-off course of just over 800m, through Plaza Consistorial and along c/Estafeta; official pastores (shepherds) armed with sticks make sure they keep going. A second batch of more placid animals follows, to help round up stragglers. In front, around and occasionally beneath the bulls run the hundreds of locals and tourists who are foolish or drunk enough to test their daring against the horns.
To watch the encierro arrive early, by 6am. The best vantage points are near the start, or on the wall leading to the bullring. Try to get a spot on the outer of the two barriers – don't worry when the one in front fills up and blocks your view, as all these people will be moved on by police before the run.
The event divides into two parts. First comes the actual running of the bulls, when the object is to run with the bull or whack it with a rolled-up newspaper. Even if you don't see the bulls amid the runners, you'll sense the terror and excitement down on the ground; occasionally, if a bull manages to breach the wooden safety barriers, this spreads to the watching crowd.
Next, bullocks with padded horns are let loose on the crowd in the bullring. By then, the bullring is already too crowded for anyone who has watched the running to get in there; to see both, you'll have to go on two separate mornings – for the bullring, arrive at 6am to get the free lower seats. For a seat higher up, buy a ticket from the office outside, not from the touts inside. On Sunday, you have to pay.
If you do decide to run – and we strongly advise you not to – remember that although it's generally less dangerous than it looks, at least one person gets seriously injured (or killed) every year. Find someone who knows the ropes to guide you through the first time, and don't try any heroics. Don't get trapped hiding in a doorway, or come between a scared bull and the rest of the pack. Traditionally, women don't take part, though more and more do so. Under-18s are barred.
The only official way in is at the starting point, Plaza Santo Domingo, entered via Plaza San Saturnino. Shortly before the start, the rest of the course is cleared. Then, shortly before 8am, you're allowed to make your way to your own preferred starting point. To mark the start, two rockets are fired: one when the bulls are released, and the second when they are all out. As soon as the first goes, you can start to run, though if you do so you'll probably reach the ring well before the bulls and be booed for your trouble; if you wait a while, you're more likely to get close to the bulls. No one is allowed to stop altogether. There are plenty of escape points, but they're only for use in emergency – try to get out prematurely, and you'll be shoved back. A third rocket is fired when all the bulls are in the bullring, and a final fourth once they've all entered the corral within.
Pamplona offers plenty of other hazardous pursuits. Many visitors have fun hurling themselves from the central fountain on Plaza Consistorial or surrounding buildings, in the all-too-often vain hope that their friends will catch them. Other events include live music nightly from midnight in the bars and at Plaza del Castillo, continuing until about 4am in the fairground on the Avenida de Bayona, 1km southwest of the centre. Fireworks go off every evening in the Ciudadela park (about 11pm), and there's a funfair on the open ground alongside. Competing bands stagger through the streets all day playing to anyone who'll listen.
Two days before the encierro, animal-rights charity PETA puts on the annual Running of the Nudes in which naked protestors draw attention to the conditions endured by the bulls and what happens to them afterwards.
Bullfighting itself take place daily at 6.30pm. Tickets (€15–75) go on sale at the Plaza de Toros at 8am the day before. At the end of the week (midnight July 14), the festivities are officially wound up for another year with a mournful candlelit procession, the Pobre De Mi (Poor Me). For more on bullfighting see Sports and activities.
Among the best of the other Basque towns where fiestas involve some form of encierro are Tudela (July 24–28), Estella (first weekend of Aug, with no official ban on women participants), and Tafalla (mid-Aug).