After finishing the first phase of MY Camino (in all caps because I’m not doing the full route or doing this all at once, I’m definitely doing it my way, so please set any judgment aside), I flew to Madrid on the morning of July 4. As luck/fate would have it, of all the cafes in Oporto’s airport, Ieva and I bumped into each other! Also, for the second flight in a row (this time on TAP Air Portugal) I had a seat in the exit row. Only this time I selected the seat during online checkin, (at no extra cost !) and the seat next to me was empty (again!). I guess Europeans don’t like exit rows with more leg room?!
After a quick and easy flight, I was back in Madrid, but only for a night. This time it was to meet the boyfriend (who I’ll call Vinny, because writing “my/the boyfriend” repeatedly is obnoxious), who flew to Spain to visit me for a few days. (Also, because this is a travel blog and not a dating blog, Vinny will continue to remain anonymous, for now.) The bulk of our time (and definitely the highlight of the trip) was in Pamplona, so I’ll start there. I’ll save the Madrid update for another blog post (because some fun photos and updates after Vinny left too).
Note about transportation in Madrid: the metro is amazing and trains are VERY punctual. Cars and traffic, however (especially Uber), are unpredictable and should be avoided if possible. I was smart enough to plan ahead and buy us train tickets to Pamplona two weeks prior to our trip, [correctly] assuming that tickets might sell out. Unfortunately for us (at least, initially- turned out to be for the best!), we missed our train by about 2 minutes and there was no option for any sort of public transit. Because all reservations in Pamplona were made and paid for, and we had to get to Pamplona that day (Thursday, 5 July), we sucked it up and paid the 277€ ($325) for a one-way car rental. The unexpected extra cost was a bit jarring, but after only an hour or so on the road we both totally relaxed, decided to take the long/scenic route and turn the drive into a road trip across part of central/northern Spain (the drive took about 5-5.5 hours). And Spain did NOT disappoint. (Also, my manual car driving skills are far too rusty. Thankfully, Vinny is a whiz at it!) There are parts of the road that remind me of driving in the US (some of the green covered mountains reminded me of the Grand Canyon northern rim… if that had games with olive trees below it), and then BAM! Out of nowhere a castle appears! Definitely one of (if not THE) best road trips I’ve ever been on.
After arriving into Pamplona we met up with Paula, who my friend Meedo connected me with; from our first messages you’d think she and I had been friends for years. She is a kick ass woman and such an incredible ambassador for Pamplona and San Fermín! Once Pras (another friend from the wild world of taekwondo) arrived from France, Paula took all of us shopping. So I’ll now present photos in a sort of how-to do San Fermín fashion:
1. Pack lightly and plan on shopping a bit in Pamplona. Bring old shoes you don’t mind getting ruined (and that are comfortable for walking- ladies: no sandals or open-tied shoes!). You must wear THE Festival “uniform”: white shirt, white shorts/pants, red sash around your waist, and red handkerchief/bandanna. Do not buy/bring from home. All the stores in Pamplona have these items for cheaper than you can buy AND you definitely don’t want to bring something you like and would be upset having ruined (red wine/sangria and grass stains are guaranteed). But you should buy or bring from home: a moneybelt. Crowds are intense and we were constantly warned (including by our local friends) of pickpocketing.
2. On the festival opening day, until 12:00pm, you must keep the handkerchief tied around your wrist (or anywhere other than tied around your neck). And almost all restaurants serve large brunch specials. You will be drinking for hours in the sun, so starting the day with a good base is key! (Other thing I loved: Fermineros eating and drinking around large tables set up on streets throughout the city center.)
3. If you want the best view of the opening ceremony, rent a balcony or arrive to the Plaza before 11am. But be warned! If you want to stand close, you will end up getting sangria showers. Everyone is in such good spirits and people love it! And after the ceremony at 12pm officially kicking off the festival, you can then run around asking people on balconies to throw water on you and “clean up” a bit. (Or, you can do as we opted, which was to continually step back to try and avoid as much of the sangria showers as possible. Yes, a bit lame. And yes, WHEN I return in the future I will be in the middle of the chaos.) If you’re going to get into the middle of it, make sure your smartphone and money are in a ziplock bag inside a moneybelt. A few minutes before 12pm, people hold the handkerchiefs above their heads, waiting in anticipation (so much energy around you). When the clock strikes 12pm, everyone ties the handkerchiefs around their necks, and this is how you wear the “uniform” for the rest of the Festival.
4. Be prepared for early mornings, late nights, and lots of action going on all day long. Live music, DJs, and dance parties everywhere. Extraordinary fireworks every night, beginning at 11:15-11:30pm. You will not get a lot of sleep. Embrace it. There are great wine stores in the city center where you can get a bottle of awesome wine for 3€-5€ (because I could only handle a little of the premade, sugary Sangria that everyone is drinking- and wearing) and beat the heat by relaxing on a patch of grass around one of the city squares.
5. Finally, for the actual running (we did not participate- if you choose to do so, be careful; there are serious injuries every year), unless you stay up all night it’s almost impossible to view the Running of the Bulls from the street. I was lucky that my cousin advised me to rent a balcony. Be warned though: spots can cost 150€-250€ per person! But if you look or plan early enough, you may be able to find a deal (again, or not underestimate Airbnb Experiences!). Vinny’s birthday is in August so I bought us spaces as an early birthday gift and it was 100% worth the money. The bulls will pass wherever you are standing in about 5 seconds, so having a clear view is a must! Plus, you can then watch the rest of the run on a TV. And ours included breakfast, which was great (because you need to wake up at 6-6:30am to watch the run).
It’s safe to say I dramatically underestimated how much fun this festival would be! Families with kids everywhere. And apart from food, drink, accommodations, and buying your “uniform,” everything at the festival is free!! You don’t have to pay to enter bars/dance parties, for concerts, etc. And the people are so wonderful! I don’t think I went to the bathroom once without having a great conversation (usually with someone from Pamplona). The energy is contagious and infectious. And people born and raised in Pamplona absolutely LOVE this festival- there is no leaving town to avoid the crowds. They fully embrace and revel in it, in a way I haven’t seen before (not for a Festival of this size). To finish this post, a few more photos of the fun in Pamplona.