It doesn't stop for the next seven days. It's not a holiday, it's an ordeal. Picture a day of proper drinking, involving at the very least, tens of beers, countless cups of cheap wine and inevitably a few different spirits. Now make it start at ten minutes past eight each morning, and continue until the early hours. For the next seven days in a row.
The reason for the early start, and the reason why the festival is famous worldwide, is the encierro, the bull run. 825 metres of street through the centre of the town are cordoned off and swept clean at about 7am. At 8am, six bulls are released from their pen at one end of the course, and run along the streets to the other end, the bull ring, where they're gathered and shut up again until the afternoon fight. In front of, behind, to the sides of, and underneath the six bulls, are the thousands of Spanish, British, Australians, Germans, and every other nationality, all proving their bravery to their girlfriends and themselves.
If you're lucky enough to know somebody who lives in one of the houses along the run (which are highly sought after and enormously expensive), then you get there early, maybe have some orange juice for breakfast, and step out of the door into the street at 1 minute to eight.
If you're not that lucky then you go to the town square, in front of the mayor's house, before 7:30 when it is closed off. In the square, you become part of the crushing ocean of humanity, pushed in any direction without control, taken by the tide of people. You drown in the noise. You can see fear in half of the faces around you, and you can see alcohol in the other half. People are seeing the fear in yours.
At five to eight, everybody turns to the tiny statue of San Fermin embedded in the wall on one side of the square, and with rolled up papers held in the air, sings:
A San Fermín pedimos,
por ser nuestro Patron,
nos guie en el encierro,
dandonos su bendicion.
San Fermín we ask,
For he's our patron,
Guide us in the run,
Give us your blessing.
Then they shout 'Viva! Gora!' - 'Long Live' in Spanish and in Basque.
The buzz of the crowd gets louder, people start trying to jump up and down on the spot (which doesn't work because it's too crowded), excited and scared, they reflect each other's fear and build themselves into a frenzy. Finally the officials open the barriers surrounding two sides of the square, freeing the crowd into the rest of the run. All the Australians immediately run away from where they know the bulls will come from (If they're fast, they arrive in the ring and jump the barriers to safety before the bulls have even been released. The Spanish have a special name for them essentially meaning 'brave ones').
The rest of the runners spread out up and down the course, going to their own territory. The nutters head onto the steep slope between the square and the bull pen, where most of the deaths and injuries occur. A good place to go is the halfway point of Estafeta street, a couple of hundred metres from the ring. Estafeta is the longest straight on the run, from half way you can see 50 or 60 metres back down the street to the left hand corner that leads back to the town square. From Estafeta, the course continues to Telefonica where it widens out briefly before funnelling into the tunnel of death, the 10 foot wide tunnel leading into the Plaza de Toros.
And there you wait. It only takes a minute to get there, so there are still three or four minutes left until the bulls are released, and then anything from 30 seconds to 3 minutes before they come into view. Waiting there, you stretch and jump up and down on the spot, trying to warm up and keep the panic under control. A steady stream of red and white flows past you. Often, you'll see someone you know in the crowd. You pat each other roughly and say 'Suerte', 'Suertu, hombre,' meaning good luck. After the initial recognition, your eyes probably don't meet.
At eight on the dot, the first rocket is fired. You can hear it even if you're still in bed with a hangover on the other side of town. The first rocket means the bull pen has been opened. The crowd shouts. The flow of people speeds up. Your jumping on the spot doubles in energy. A second rocket follows quickly, meaning all the bulls have left the pen.
The flow of people gets thicker. It's amazing how many people go past you. People fall over each other and dodge around each other. Most are shouting, some are laughing.
And then, above and all around, camera flashes start to go off from the balconies. A surge runs through the crowd. The adrenalin flooding your system takes a sickening leap, because you know that means the bulls are at the corner. At the top of your jump, you can see the whips of the herders above the heads of the crowd, and just ahead of them, the gap in the mass of heads. You start to run, slowly at first, running sideways on with one hand held out in front, the other holding your newspaper behind, looking both forwards and back as you go.
Sometimes you don't even start to run, you wait too long and the bulls are past you before you're ready. Sometimes you fall over somebody else and cower on the floor with your hands over your head until it quietens down around you, then scuttle off to a doorway at the side of the road, hoping you're out of harm's way. Sometimes you leap the barriers at the side to escape the run. The Spanish don't like you to do that, though, and they will push you back into the street if they can.
But sometimes you get it. You're at full speed, the way ahead is clear, and then a bull is there behind you. A giant, sweating, 600 kilo death machine, travelling along the street with you. By this point the bulls are sometimes beginning to tire and run slower, matching the pace of their new found red and white herd. If you're very lucky you can run just ahead of your bull for a stretch of 20 metres or more, holding your paper out to him as a kind of talisman, a wand of control that stops him from speeding up and putting his horns through your body. And then he's past you.
You don't relax. There are six bulls and a number of cows. You can't count them, you never see them all. Often, the herd forms two separate groups, or one splits off from the rest and stops, confused, then spends a minute going for anyone and everyone nearby, before being coaxed into continuing along the run. The split-off bulls can be the most dangerous because they have no herd to follow - all alone they get scared, and they react with aggression.
After the first bull or two have passed you, if you're close enough to the ring you go for it and shove your way through the tunnel of death and out onto the sand with a fair crowd around you sitting in the amphitheatre seats watching the fun. You can jump the barrier then, and join them to watch the rest of the people and the bulls surge into the ring. If you're not close enough to the tunnel, you stop where you are and pant exhausted on the spot, still looking forwards and back in case you get another bull to run.
Eventually, the third rocket sounds, telling you that all the bulls are safely caged. That's when your brain starts to work again. Your run's over and you survived. If you're scratched up you go to the red cross station and get iodined. Otherwise, you head to your bar, and wait for the people you know to come together there. You laugh and shout about your run, hardly listening to anyone else. The feeling then, if you had a good run, is the purest kind of elation - the joy of having faced death in a physical challenge and come through on the far side. Even if it was a bad run, at least you're still standing. Really deep breaths of the fresh air, relief, and sheer exhilaration.
Together you wait for the bar to open, and have a coffee and a brandy. Maybe two brandies. Maybe a pacharan or a vanilla cognac. Your heartbeat starting to calm down, you disect and analyse the run together and work out what you did wrong and how to do better tomorrow. Later on in the day, the photos of the run come out and if you're lucky you find yourself in a picture in the paper. You drink and dance the day away.
Then tomorrow you do it again.
I first ran in Pamplona when I was 15. I haven't been for 5 years. I just booked my flight and my hands are sweating like a bitch.