The Fiesta de San Fermín and the running of the bulls
There are at least three ways to attend the fiesta in Pamplona. The first, and by far the most popular, is to do what tens of thousands of others have done year after year; make your own arrangements. Papa Hemingway did so when he first visited the city in the 1920s, but there remains one small problem with this method, which was the same then as it is now. Unless you are familiar with the city, and the surrounding area, it is often difficult to decide where to stay since this is not your normal tourist destination. You don’t want to be too far out because of the difficulty of getting into the old city, the Casa Viejo, for the day’s events. Taxis are nearly impossible during the first days of the fiesta and the city busses will be full morning and night.
Besides a shortage of available rooms, finding something affordable can be difficult at times, even when searching outside of the city center. Hotels, hotel-apartments and hostels typically charge 3 to 5 times their normal rate during fiesta. Lately hotels have begun charging the festival rate beginning the 5th of July, and a few as early as the 4th, depending on which day of the week the fiesta begins on. In 2015, the fiesta begins on a Monday, which means that the festival rate may begin as early as Friday, the 3rd of July.
Another issue in making your own arrangements is that although a few hotels do accept early bookings, but the majority do not set their official festival rates until the end of the year and generally will not accept reservations before then unless you are a regular client. Response time has improved with online bookings, but room selection may be a problem, as not all of the rooms are listed or shown as being available on your dates.
As you may already be aware, many regular visitors to the fiesta either stay with friends or family. Younger visitors from around Navarra and the Basque country usually end up sleeping on the ground in one of the city’s parks, while most of the younger festival goers from elsewhere in Spain, as well as many of the foreigns, either end up sleeping on the ground with the others, or, if they are lucky, find an opening at one of the many campgrounds in the countryside, some of which can be some distance away.
Another way to attend the fiesta is if you know someone who has been there before, and who can introduce you to some aspects of the fiesta, maybe even help you find a room. If you do know someone like that, they are usually very enthusiastic, but may not have experienced those parts of the fiesta that actually make it truly unique and one of the most popular festivals in Europe. But that’s not to say that you still can’t have a good time and come away with great memories.
Many of us who attend the fiesta as part of their business started out this way, building on our experiences over the years, forming relationships and close friendships as the fiesta became part of our lives. In turn, we try to provide the best possible experience for all of our clients, some of whom have become our friends, returning as often as possible to enjoy the fiesta with us and the people of Pamplona. This, of course, is the third way to attend the fiesta, joining a group like Sanfermín Tours who can introduce you to the many aspects of the Fiesta de San Fermín and the Feria del Toro and the Running of the bulls you will not discover on your own.
A little more about the city and it’s fiesta
The city of Pamplona goes all out for the fiesta, one of the largest in Spain, providing everything free of charge except for balconies and bullfight tickets. There are concerts everyday beginning on the 6th of July with a mix of local, regional and international musicians, which in recent years have included the Gipsy Kings and our friend, and Latin Grammy Award Winning Basque musician, Kepa Junkera. The fiesta includes traditional Basque sports, a major international fireworks competition with displays nightly at 11:00, special days set aside for children and seniors as well as a separate children’s festival, the magic of the historic Gigantes and Cabezudos (giants and big heads), the kilikis and zaldikos and the traditional Procession of San Fermin, where the city pays homage to one of their two patron saints.
Every year the fiesta attracts ten of thousands of visitors from throughout Spain, Europe and around the world. The numbers have grown substantially since the early 90’s, but until recently hotels, hotel-apartments and hostals in the city were primarily serving the needs of those visiting the Clínica Universitaria de Navarra (Navarre University Hospital), one of Spain’s premier hospital facilities and medical universities. With only about 1300 hotel rooms located in the city center, i.e. within easy walking distance of the Old City, the center of the fiesta, and an equal number of rooms further out, anywhere from 4 and 10 km distance from the city center, Pamplona is unable to easily accommodate such a huge influx of daily visitors. If you are seriously thinking about attending the fiesta on your own, you have to plan as far in advance as possible. Of the total number of hotel rooms in the city center, less than half are ever available during the fiesta because of returning clientele. Some families have been staying at the same hotel for generations and their rooms are always held aside for them.
Most of the hotels located within the city center and Casa Viejo, the old quarter, are either 3 or 4-star, but there are four 2-star hotels and and single 1-star property. There is also a small deluxe boutique 4-star hotel, the Palacio Guendulain, and the 5-star GH La Perla (of Hemingway fame), both in the Casa Viejo. It’s not much when you consider that the city receives an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 visitors a day during the week and up to 200,000 festival goers over the weekend, nearly doubling its population. Note, if you are planning on staying outside of the city center, you will have to rely on public transportation or city taxis to get you to and from your hotel. Buses run 24 hours/day, but will be crowded in the early morning rush to get to the old quarter for the encierro.
Parking in the city center, or in the Casa Viejo, can be a problem anytime of the year, let alone during fiesta. And this is after the city added several hundred additional underground parking places over the years. Parking in the blue zones in the city center during fiesta had been free for several years, but this changed when the current administration came into office.
Travel between Pamplona and nearby cities or villages is difficult if you have to rely on public transportation. The earliest buses from San Sebastian-Donostia, the closest major city, do not arrive in the Pamplona until after the start of the encierro, meaning that you would have to plan on arriving the night before and spend that night on the street or sleep in the park, if you want to be there in time for the encierro at 8:00 am the next morning.
How To Arrive
If you were staying in San Sebastián-Donostia and wanted to attend the fiesta, you would have to leave very early in the morning in order to be in Pamplona in time for the encierro. It’s about an hour’s drive, depending on traffic and it may take you awhile to find a place to park, if driving, which is why we recommend hiring a private transfer or taking a taxi. We arrange a private transfer from San Sebastian-Donostia, Bilbao or Logroño (La Rioja). Sanfermín Tours can also provide transfers from anywhere in Spain, or the south of France, but they need to be arranged in advance to be sure the service is available, especially during the opening days of the fiesta and over the weekend, when the demand is high.
Direct flights and trains arrive from Barcelona or Madrid and there is regular bus service from Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao and San Sebastian-Donostia during fiesta, but the earliest buses do not arrive until after 8:00 am. They will also be crowded during the fiesta, especially those buses arriving from Bilbao and San Sebastian as some people travel back and forth daily during the week.