Herd at a party

Next Monday, at dawn, Pamplona's annual bull-running begins.
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The Independent Travel
"It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta." Never did Hemingway's observation on Pamplona's San Fermin seem truer than at 8.15 one morning last July in the Plaza de Toros. Less than a day in town and I'd become a victim of the most common misfortune during the festival famous for its encierro or running of the bulls.

No, I had not been trampled by a testy toro. Given the hundreds of thousands of people who descend on the Basque town for the eight days of festivities, injuries during San Fermin are remarkably rare. In comparison, as I found out at the local police station, hundreds of people every day have their pockets picked. And I was one of them.

My date with destiny had begun a bare 15 hours earlier in the elegant coastal city of San Sebastian, Franco's favourite seaside hangout. Here, I had joined the revellers - many attired in the San Fermin costume of white pants and T-shirt, red kerchief and belt, and boarded one of the buses that wind their way through the foothills of the Pyrenees towards Pamplona.

For at least 600 years the bull run has been the highlight of San Fermin. On the stroke of eight each morning, thousands of runners attempt, in three exhilarating minutes, to outpace six fully grown bulls, each weighing in excess of 600 kilograms, and each with a pair of horns primed to toss or gore anybody that gets in their way.

No wonder that for the other 23 hours and 57 minutes of the day, people party as if it's the end of the world. The festival had been running for four days by the time I arrived. So completely had it taken over that it was impossible to imagine what the ancient fortress town would look like without the dancing in the streets, the music, the noise and, of course, the drinking.

Within moments of sticking my head into my first bar, I had been grabbed by Nathalie and whisked into the beery bosom of her family and friends. Like many others, Nathalie came to San Fermin every year, not for the bulls, but to party.

Outside, the heavens broke as if it were the first week at Wimbledon. But nothing can rain on Pamplona's parade, and the frantic bacchanal continued. Splashing through the puddles, I ran with the crowd to the next packed bar, bolting down a couple of tapas snacks as fortification against the onslaught of booze and bonhomie.

The shower over, I went in search of the other diversions of San Fermin. I'd just missed the intriguing "contest of flirtatious remarks" in Half Moon Park, but was in time to witness the firework "bull" sizzling in Santiago Square and the pyrotechnical display glittering over the ramparts of the Citadel.

At 2am, a pint-sized chanteuse was belting out "All shook up" in the Plaza de Castillo, the colonnaded old town square, where bands play all night. Too bad for anyone wanting to sleep at the famous Hotel La Perla, Hemingway's haunt during San Fermin. Battling past one of the competing bands that wander the streets, crowds in tow, I reached the edge of the city walls and the Corrales del Gas, where the bulls pass the night before the encierro. The full moon shining through the clouds highlighted the passive beasts. My body shuddered; was it the chill of night or the thought of falling under the bulls' hooves?

They say that the "hand of Saint Fermin" reaches down from heaven to rescue runners who get into trouble. Taking no chances, I opted for a ringside seat on top of the protective fence, erected along the 850-metre route that winds up through the old town streets to the Plaza de Toros.

I was in Plaza Consistorial - one of the main vantage points. You have to be there by at least 6am to get a decent spot, unless you live in one of the buildings whose geranium-lined balconies overlook the square.

Beneath me, the mozos, as the young male Spanish runners are called, sat cross-legged, nonchalantly reading in the morning papers of the previous day's casualties. With these same papers the mozos would seek their revenge by thwacking a passing bull. The more daring would try to outpace the toros as they stampeded.

Those in the know get moving seconds before the first gun sounds to signify that the bulls have been released. In the ensuing pandemonium I never heard the second shot, which tells the runners the bulls are all out. All I saw was a mass of panicked people rising up the slope of the course, followed by the bewildered bulls in a whirlwind of dust.

And just as suddenly they were gone. Craving more than this fleeting excitement, I followed the crowd towards the Plaza de Toros. It was at this moment that I discovered my lack of a wallet. The old saint must have been paying all his attention to the runners, I thought ruefully.

I was left with just 20 francs. An hour's walk out of Pamplona, I grabbed a lift with Joseph, a truck driver, who took me virtually to the French border, where he stopped for lunch. I then teamed up with Joel, a geologist from Pau, returning to France after partying in Pamplona.

By 3pm, I was deposited in front of Biarritz's Hotel de Ville. Enjoying a late breakfast on the beach, having spent my last 20 francs, it was time to reconsider. Perhaps Saint Fermin had been watching over me after alln

Pamplona facts

Getting there: The closest airport to Pamplona with scheduled services from Britain is Bilbao, served by British Airways (0345 222111) from Gatwick and Iberia (0171-830 0011) from Heathrow. The lowest fare on BA is pounds 213, on Iberia it is pounds 208 including tax. Some charter services operate to Vitoria, slightly closer to Pamplona. Overland, you can travel by train to Pamplona from London Waterloo in about 13 hours, changing at Paris and Irun; call Eurostar on 0345 303030 for more details. Eurolines (01582 404511) has two direct services a week on Thursdays and Sundays, taking 20 hours and costing pounds 138 return.

More information: Spanish Tourist Office, 57 St James' Street, London SW1A 1LD (0171-499 0901; brochure line 0891 669920).