The origin of the fiesta of San Fermín goes back to the Middle Ages and is related to three celebrations: religious ceremonies in honour of San Fermín, which intensified from the 12th century onwards, trade fairs and bullfights, which were first documented in the 14th century. Initially, the fiesta San Fermín was held on October 10th, but in 1591 the people of Pamplona, fed up with the bad weather at that time of year, decided to transfer the fiesta to July so it would coincide with the Fair. This is how the Sanfermines were born. It initially lasted two days and had a pregón (opening speech), musicians, a tournament, theatre and bullfights. Other events were added later, such as fireworks and dances, and the fiesta lasted until July 10th.
Chronicles from the 17th and 18th centuries tell us of religious events together with music, dance, giants, tournaments, acrobats, bull runs and bullfights, and the clergy's concern at the excessive drinking and dissolute behaviour of young men and women. They also refer to the presence of people from other lands, whose shows "made the city more fun". In the 19th century there were curious fairground attractions such as a woman fired from a cannon, exotic animals or wax figures, while the Comparsa de Gigantes (parade of giants) had new carnival figures with big heads, kilikis and zaldikos. Furthermore, the absence of a double fence in the bull run meant that the bulls escaped on several occasions and ran around the city streets.
The Sanfermines reached their peak of popularity in the 20th century. The novel "The Sun Also Rises" ("Fiesta"), written by Ernest Hemingway in 1926, attracted people from all over the world to come to the fiesta of Pamplona. The 20th century also witnessed new events within the fiesta such as the Riau-Riau (suspended since 1991), the Chupinazo, or the cultural programme.
The rocket that inaugurates the fiesta of San Fermín is known as the chupinazo. At 12 noon on July 6th thousands of people fill City Hall Square to overflowing. With great expectation, accompanied by chants, shouting and cheering, the crowd dressed in red and white waits for a member of the City Council to light the fuse of the rocket. To the shout of "Pamploneses, Viva San Fermín Gora San Fermín!" the places erupts and thousands of red neck scarves are waved to welcome nine days of unparalleled fun.
The Encierro is the event at the heart of the Sanfermines and makes the fiesta a spectacle that would be unimaginable in any other place in the world. It was born from need: getting the bulls from outside the city into the bullring. The encierro takes place from July 7th to 14th and starts at the corral in Calle Santo Domingo when the clock on the church of San Cernin strikes eight o'clock in the morning. After the launching of two rockets, the bulls charge behind the runners for 825 metres, the distance between the corral and the bullring. The run usually lasts between three and four minutes although it has sometimes taken over ten minutes, especially if one of the bulls has been isolated from his companions.
The bull run has a particularly emotional prelude. It is when the runners, just a few metres up the slope from the corral where the bulls are waiting, raise their rolled newspapers and chant to an image of San Fermín placed in a small recess in the wall in the Cuesta de Santo Domingo. Against the strongest of silences, the following words can be heard: "A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición. Entzun arren San Fermin zu zaitugu patroi zuzendu gure oinak entzierro hontan otoi." (We ask San Fermín, being our patron saint, to guide us in the bull run and give us his blessing). When they finish they shout "¡Viva San Fermín! ¡Gora San Fermín!." This chant is sung three times before 8 a.m.: first, when there are five minutes to go before 8 o'clock, then three minutes and one minute before the gate of the corral is opened.
The encierro is an unrepeatable experience for spectators and runners alike. It is a spectacle that is defined by the level of risk and the physical ability of the runners.
An inexperienced runner should learn about the characteristics of this dangerous 'race' (although it should not be considered as a race) before starting, and also about the protective measures to be taken for his/her own safety and that of the people running alongside.
Not everyone can run the encierro. It requires cool nerves, quick reflexes and a good level of physical fitness. Anyone who does not have these three should not take part; it is a highly risky enterprise.
Runners should start somewhere between the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (City Hall Square) and the pink-slab Education building in the Cuesta of Santo Domingo, and they should be there before 7.30 a.m. because entry to the run is closed from that time on. The rest of the run, except for the stretch mentioned above, must be completely clear of runners until a few minutes before 8 a.m.
The Comparsa de Gigantes y Cabezudos a whole 'court' of kings preceded by its entourage of carnival figures with big heads, kilikis and zaldikos (horse figures). There are 25 papier-mâché figures that follow different routes through the city every day.
The bull is undeniably one of the main protagonists of the Sanfermines. These fighting bulls and the mozos (young men) come together at 8 a.m. every morning of the fiesta for the Encierro, the best-known event of Pamplona's fiesta. The bullfight takes place in the evening, a spectacle in which the contrast between the silence of the spectators in the seats in the sombra (shade) contrasts with the noise and rollicking of the peñas (social clubs) in the sol (sun) area. Just after nightfall the Encierrillo takes place. In a surprising atmosphere of quietness and without runners, the bulls are sent from the 'corrales del gas' to the corral in calle Santo Domingo, the starting point of the bull run.
Check this section of the website of the Department of Tourism of the Government of Navarre that answers the frequently asked questions to get the most out of the San Fermín festivities.