San Fermín: The iconic festival of Pamplona

by Lorraine Williamson
San Fermin 2023

Step into the vibrant city of Pamplona, located in the Navarre region of northern Spain, and immerse yourself in the festivities of San Fermín. This world-renowned festival, with its centuries-old traditions and electrifying atmosphere, is a must-visit event for both residents and tourists alike.

Join us as we discover the captivating history of San Fermín and explore the reasons why this celebration continues to attract thousands of people from around the globe.

San Fermín, celebrated from July 6th to 14th, is a nine-day festival where Pamplona adorns itself in red and white to honor the saint. Since 1657, San Fermín has been the co-patron saint of Navarre, alongside San Francisco Javier. The red neckerchief worn around the neck during the festival is said to serve as a symbol of remembrance for the saint’s beheading and has become an iconic feature of the San Fermín celebrations.

Origins and heritage

Embark on a journey through time as we uncover the historical roots of San Fermín. With origins dating back to before the Middle Ages, this annual event commemorates the life of Saint Fermín, the first bishop of Pamplona. The festival gained prominence in the late 16th century when it was merged with the city’s traditional summer fair. Today, San Fermín proudly upholds its deep cultural heritage while incorporating modern elements that appeal to visitors of all ages.

Legend has it that San Fermín, the co-patron saint of Navarre, was born in the 3rd century in the Roman city of Pompaelo, known today as Pamplona. Fermín’s father, Firmus, was a senator who entrusted his son’s education to a Christian priest named Honestus. Under Honestus’ guidance, the entire family converted to Christianity.

At the age of 24, Fermín travelled to France to spread the teachings of Christianity among the Gauls. He was consecrated as a bishop in Toulouse and embarked on a journey through Aquitaine, Auvergne, Anjou, and Amiens. Along the way, he performed numerous miracles, including curing blindness, healing leprosy and paralysis, and lifting curses.

However, the Roman governor, Sebastián, who aimed to restore faith in the cults of Jupiter and Mercury, saw Fermín’s growing influence as a threat. As a result, Fermín was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded with a sword on September 25th. In commemoration of his martyrdom, the citizens of Pamplona wear red handkerchiefs around their necks during the San Fermín festival.

The symbol of San Fermin

Interestingly, it was not until the 12th century that San Fermín began to be worshipped in Pamplona. Pilgrims from Amiens, where the remains of San Fermín are said to lie in the cathedral, brought the news that a saint from Pamplona was revered in their city. As a result, several relics were sent to Pamplona, including those brought by Bishop Pedro de París, which are still preserved in the Cathedral of Pamplona and in the image of the Saint of the church of San Lorenzo.

The running of the bulls

One of the most iconic and adrenaline-charged aspects of San Fermín is the legendary “Encierro” or Running of the Bulls. Every morning at 8.00 am from July 7th – 14th, brave thrill-seekers test their mettle as they sprint alongside the massive bulls through the narrow streets of Pamplona. This exhilarating spectacle, which lasts just a few minutes, epitomises the festival’s thrill and excitement.

The running of the bulls, known as the encierro, is a quintessential symbol of the San Fermín festivities. It involves running ahead of the bulls through a designated and fenced-off street. The purpose of the encierro is to transfer the bulls from the Santo Domingo corrals to the Bull Ring, where the bullfights take place in the afternoon. The encierro consists of six fighting bulls accompanied by two groups of oxen to guide them. The second group follows a few minutes later to ensure all the bulls are collected. The route spans through various streets of the Old Quarter of the city and measures 848.6 metres.

Originally, in the 14th century, the encierro was not part of the official fiesta calendar. It emerged out of the necessity to move the bulls from outside the city walls to the bullring for the bullfights held in the afternoon. Over time, the participation of young men in the running of the bulls became the highlight of the San Fermín fiestas. The encierro was officially approved on June 28, 1876. Since the opening of the current Bull Ring in 1922, the encierro has followed the same route.

San Fermin of old

Experience the pulse-pounding rush as you witness this heart-stopping tradition, but remember to prioritise safety and follow the guidelines set by the authorities.

The running of the bulls is an exhilarating and intense tradition that has become synonymous with the San Fermín fiestas, attracting both locals and visitors from around the world.

Festivities and revelry

Beyond the famous Running of the Bulls, San Fermín offers an array of festivities that captivate visitors throughout its nine-day duration. From vibrant parades and traditional music performances to thrilling bullfights at the renowned Pamplona Bullring, there is no shortage of entertainment for all tastes. Revel in the lively atmosphere of the festival, and celebrate with music, dance, delicious food, and, of course, copious amounts of sangria.

The official programme has over 200 musical events held at six main stages in the streets of Pamplona. To see the full programme, click here.

The Chupinazo

The Chupinazo marks the start of the San Fermín festivities on July 6th at 12 noon. This thrilling event involves launching a rocket from the main balcony of the City Hall, announcing the beginning of the celebrations. Over 12,500 people gather in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, which spans an area of 2,502 square metres, to participate in this electrifying moment. As soon as the Chupinazo resounds, the festival commences, and everyone in Pamplona ties a red handkerchief around their necks.

Baycrest Wealth

The Chupinazo is a relatively recent addition to the San Fermín traditions. The first rocket was launched in 1941 following a proposal by deputy mayor Joaquín Ilundáin and journalist José María Salazar. However, according to local legend, it was Juan Etxepare, the owner of a tobacco shop on Calle Mayor, who obtained permission from the City Government of Pamplona in 1931 to launch rockets at noon on July 6th in the street, surrounded by enthusiastic youngsters. Today, the Plaza del Ayuntamiento becomes a vibrant gathering place as people eagerly await the rocket’s launch.

Pamploneses, pamplonesas. ¡Viva San Fermín! ¡Gora San Fermín!

At three minutes past noon, the designated individual responsible for igniting the fuse steps onto the balcony accompanied by a municipal representative and a representative from the Caballer fireworks company, which produces the rocket. Excitement fills the air as the crowd chants “San Fermín!, San Fermín!, ¡San Fermín!,” raising their red handkerchiefs high, ready to tie them around their necks once the festival officially begins. Buglers announce the moment, and following the traditional bilingual greeting in Spanish and Basque, the chosen individual proclaims, “Pamploneses, pamplonesas. ¡Viva San Fermín! ¡Gora San Fermín!” (“Men of Pamplona, women of Pamplona, long live San Fermín, long live San Fermín!”).

Red neckerchief

The opening event of the fiestas can be witnessed not only in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento but also from nearby areas and other parts of the city through giant screens placed by the City Government of Pamplona in the Plaza del Castillo and Paseo Sarasate, offering a less crowded viewing experience.

This year, Club Atlético Osasuna has been chosen to launch the Chupinazo, honouring their historic achievements on the football field, including their classification for the Conferencia League and reaching the final of the Copa del Rey. The selection also celebrates the club’s centenary in 2020. Osasuna secured seventh place in La Liga Santander, earning them a spot in European competition after a 16-year absence. Furthermore, their fans eagerly awaited another Copa del Rey final, which took place on May 6 against Real Madrid. Although Osasuna lost 2-1, over 23,000 fans attended the match, while many others supported the team from home or local bars throughout Navarre.

Amidst the sporting successes of the season, the team’s centenary in 2020, marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent cancellation of the San Fermín festivities, adds even more anticipation for the upcoming celebrations, providing an opportunity to enjoy events and create lasting memories after a period of limited festivities due to health restrictions.

The parade

The procession is an enduring tradition of the Sanfermines, tracing its origins back to the 12th century during the tenure of Bishop Pedro de París, also known as Pedro de Artaxona. Dressed in the same attire as the vespers, the mayor and town councillors leave the Town Hall and proceed to the Cathedral, where they meet with the Chapter responsible for leading the Saint’s procession. From there, they make their way to the Church of San Lorenzo, where the image of San Fermín is retrieved, marking the commencement of the procession through the city streets. This solemn procession lasts approximately an hour and a half and is accompanied by various participants.

San Fermin

Accompanying the mayor and councillors are the Gigantes y Cabezudos, impressive wooden and papier-mâché figures, as well as clarinetists, wardens, txistularis (traditional Basque flute players), dantzaris (Basque dancers), and timbaleros (drummers). Representatives of historical guilds, the Hermandad de la Pasión, and the Congregación Mariana also join the procession. The poignant moments of the procession occur when special pauses, known as “momenticos,” are made along the route to pay homage to the saint.

After the procession returns to the Church of San Lorenzo, the archbishop presides over a mass. Following the mass, the City Corporation once again accompanies the Chapter to the cathedral. In the cathedral’s atrium, the Gigantes dance to the melodies of flutes and bagpipes, accompanied by the ringing of church bells, bugles, and the La Pamplonesa municipal band. Notably, the performance features the second largest bell in Spain, the “Maria,” weighing 12,000 kilos and crafted in 1584. Afterward, the Corporation returns to the City Hall, bidding farewell with the song “Asombro de Damasco,” while the dancers conclude the festivities with a final dance in the Plaza Consistorial.

The Octava, a mass held on the 14th at 10.45 am in the chapel of San Fermín, serves as the concluding religious ceremony of the official festival program. This mass, celebrated since 1689, is attended by the Corporation, accompanied by the Gigantes y Cabezudos, the municipal guard, and the La Pamplonesa municipal band. Following the mass, they return to the City Hall, marking the end of the San Fermín celebrations.

The spirit of San Fermín

At the heart of this extraordinary event lies the spirit of San Fermín, characterised by joy, camaraderie, and inclusiveness. During the festival, the city’s streets become a melting pot of cultures, where people from around the world come together to revel in the shared experience. Whether you choose to participate in the thrilling traditions or observe from a safe distance, San Fermín is an opportunity to forge unforgettable memories and create lasting connections with fellow festival-goers.

Exploring Pamplona

While San Fermín takes centre stage, don’t miss the chance to explore the charming city of Pamplona itself. Known for its rich history, architectural wonders, and picturesque landscapes, Pamplona offers a multitude of attractions beyond the festival grounds. Stroll through the enchanting Old Town, visit the awe-inspiring Pamplona Cathedral, or unwind in the tranquil parks and gardens that dot the city. Indulge in the local gastronomy, sample mouthwatering pintxos, and savor the region’s finest wines.

Also read: A visit to Pamlona will leave you wanting more

San Fermín in Pamplona is a cultural extravaganza that combines history, tradition, and excitement into a mesmerising experience. This legendary festival not only pays homage to its historical roots but also offers a thrilling adventure for those seeking an unforgettable holiday. Join the thousands of people from around the world who flock to Pamplona each year to partake in this captivating celebration.

Also read: Fiestas, ferias, and celebrations in Spain 2023

Images courtesy of 2023 Sanfermines Pamplona

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