“Will you be running with the bulls at the fiesta?” The question was
being put to me in a quiet bar in a remote village in northern Spain. I
had been watching a football match on television and had got into
conversation about football and then sport in general with a Real
Madrid football supporter.
Then he added, “Two men were killed in Ampuero last year. One was
caught in the chest and one in the throat. The bulls turned back and
ran the wrong way. That is when it is most dangerous.”
Until that moment I had always thought that the Spanish custom of macho
men running in front of bulls and immortalised by Ernest Hemingway in
his novel The Sun Also Rises, was something from the past. How wrong I
The tradition of running with the bulls goes back in history to around
1590. A decade later, at the turn of the 1600s fearless young men found
it helped to speed up the passage of the bulls from their enclosure to
the arena if they ran in front of them. And so the running with the
bulls caught on like wildfire throughout Spain..
Hemingway wrote about the San Fermin festival of Pamplona which now
attracts tourist from all over the world and is becoming more and more
poplar every year. Most people now think San Fermin is the only
festival of its kind. But similar bull-running events are held in many
other Spanish towns. One very popular festival but little known by
tourists is at the small town of Ampuero mentioned by my friend in the
bar, which is just up the road from where one of my daughters has built
a holiday home on a mountainside.
It was here I was staying with my wife Barbara, our son Tony and his
wife Helen and Helen’s aunt Nora, a remarkable eighty-plus
ready-for-anything Irish lady. After my conversation in the bar we
decided we would all go to Ampuero and have a good look at what the
running of the bulls was all about. So on the day of the Fiesta,
September 8, the feast day of the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin, we
made the short drive to Ampuero.
Earlier that morning the lady who daily delivered our fresh bread
sticks arrived with the bread wearing the traditional dress for the
running of the bulls: white trousers and trainers and white shirt with
“Are you going to the fiesta?”
“Si, si,” she replied and I got the impression that everyone was going.
“Are you running?”
She laughed. “Ah! No, no.” I was to learn that whether running or just
watching, people dressed specially for the occasion in the traditional
garb. As we walked into the centre of Ampuero we saw whole families,
fathers mothers and several children all dressed in white and wearing
the red neckerchiefs.
Numerous bands were marching around playing and as we passed along the
narrow streets we found ourselves like everyone else swaying to the
traditional Spanish music and every so often breaking into a little
dance. Everywhere there were happy faces and a sense of anticipation.
The bull-running festival was clearly a popular family event. Many
people believe that the increasing popularity of the Pamplona festival
with Europeans is a reaction against the never-ending health and safety
regulations coming from the present European Union and the army of
health and safety experts that it has spawned. It is these officials
who are now responsible for decreeing many weird and barmy things
affecting people in all walks of life. In England they were responsible
for the chopping down of a magnificent row of horse-chestnut trees.
This was a health and safety measure to prevent, they said, chestnuts
falling on people’s heads.
More recently was their much-publicised interference in pageant to
honour England’s great naval hero Nelson. They solemnly laid down that
the actor playing the Victor of the Battle of Trafalgar had to wear a
life jacket when he climbed from a rowing boat on to a barge in case he
fell into the water.
As we waited behind the wooden barriers for the running of the bulls to
start the health of safety inspectors of Europe became the subject of
conversation. “The Spanish like to uphold the freedom of the
individual,” one retired lady with us in the crowd behind the barriers
explained. “There is nothing more important than the freedom of the
individual and the respect of personal freedom,” she proclaimed. “The
European bureaucrats better keep their noses out of our bull running
A gentleman nearby joined in the conversation by suggesting that it
would be a good idea if all the health and safety experts were gathered
together and put to run in front of the bulls. Another gentleman
pointed that we should first consider that the fact a bull weighs about
600 kilos — some 120 stone (1,680 pounds)– and has two big rock-hard
horns which can cut through practically anything. Our little group
considered these facts and then agreed that having health and safety
experts run before the bulls was an even better idea than we had
It is now a few minutes before noon. The runners I noticed were all
male. What a wonderful opportunity this would have been for feminists
to show that they were the equal of any man by running shoulder to
shoulder with them in front of the bulls. But sadly to say there was
not a feminist in sight.
The runners are now nervously pacing around, rubbing their hands and
trying to look calm and nonchalant. But they keep looking back in the
direction the bulls will come from. A band marches down to the arena
past where we are standing and then the bandmen and women shoulder
their instruments and file in behind the wooden barriers and join us.
It’s noon. A rocket goes off to indicate the bulls have been released.
Then a second rocket to let everyone know that all the bulls are now in
the street. Charging bulls seem to appear from nowhere. Some runners
run a few paces and then frantically fling themselves on to the eight
feet high wooden barrier and scramble up it, helped by the people
sitting on top of them. Some runners swerve and somehow dodge the
bulls. Others carry on running for another twenty or twenty five yards
before leaping on to the barriers.
The next minute bulls have gone and the crowd seems to give a collective sigh of relief and there is silence.
Then a few minutes later the bulls are back — led by runners who have
started near the end of the course and are running literally for their
dear lives to get into the arena and behind the safety barriers before
the bulls can reach them.
A third rocket goes up. The bulls are back safely in the arena.
“You must now come in the arena,” the lady who had instructed us on the
importance of the respect for human freedom told us. “You will enjoy
it. There will be no killing. People will try out their skills on the
young bulls.. Come.” And she insisted that we go with her and paid for
All around the inside of the arena were young men waiting for a bull to
be let loose on them. A large wooden gate at the far end opened and a
young bull with huge curved horns appeared and immediately charged at
the first person in sight.
He immediately fled and leaped up, grabbed the rails round the arena
and pulled himself to safety. The bull continued circling the arena and
men, some quite middle-aged waited for the bull to attack and then fled
before it and hastily climbed to safety in the stands. One middle-aged
man was not fast enough climbing back and the bull caught his legs with
its horns. But shortly afterwards he was back in the ring.
After going several times round the arena the bull had managed to empty
it apart from two cheeky fellows, one in a red shirt and one in a
yellow shirt. These were the professionals. “Toro! toro!” they called
out to it and waved. The bull pawed the sand and charged. At the last
second they moved out of its path and the bull went hurtling past. Then
the two joined hands and when the bull was upon them parted and the
bull shot between them.
“Toro, toro,” they cried.
This time the bull pawed the sand even more angrily and charged with
greater speed and determination. The man in red stood his ground and as
the bull lowered its horns to savage him he leaped high into the air
and the bull ran under him. The bull pulled up, saw the man the yellow
jersey and charged him. He had a different technique. He did a sort of
sideways long-jump over the charging bull.
We were all on our feet applauding. It was far more exciting and
entertaining than watching football. We later learned that no one had
been injured during the running of the bulls, though in England four
people had died running a half marathon.
When the exploits in the arena were over everyone happily went off for
a few glasses of wine and beer. And the bands played on. Our little
group’s verdict was that the Spanish certainly know how to enjoy their
feast days. And that the Anglo Saxons seem, by comparison, quite
miserable and puritanical.
William Keenan is a British author and a former investigative journalist with the Daily Mirror in London.