An Insider’s View Of The Running Of The Bulls In Pamplona, Spain

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It’s the last day for the running of the bulls during the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain — which means sleep is on the horizon for Stephanie Mutsaerts, founder of Heart of Pamplona. This new Pamplona-based company will make you feel like a local during the world-famous event, which goes 24/7 with parties, parades, and more. But San Fermin is mostly known for the heart-stopping running of the bulls, a high-octane test of wills that takes place every morning during the eight-day annual festival that lasts from July 7 to 14. It’s been a headline-maker this year with at least 12 people, including four Americans, getting gored in the process.

Photo Courtesy of Juan Antonio Garaikoetxea

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Canadian-born Mutsaerts is an expat who has been living and teaching English in Spain since college. A few years ago, she saw an opportunity in the market for a company that would rent apartments, provide balconies to watch the running of the bulls and give tourists unprecedented access not only to the San Fermin festival but also to the Navarre region and the north of Spain. “I started this business three years ago with the intention of offering beautiful luxury homes, but also to bring people over here so they become locals, getting the inside story on what this is all about,” Mutsaerts says.

Mutsaerts began by investing in rental apartments — buying places and fixing them up. She says that the market is saturated in this area, but she has carved out a specific niche that sets her apart. “The apartments I offer are different — they’re reproductions of the 1920s, with a modern yet antique touch.”

Photo Courtesy of Juan Antonio Garaikoetxea

 Then she gradually expanded: Her  VIP tours give visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the running of the bulls (also known as El Encierro) and what goes on beyond it during the San Fermin festival when the city expands from 250,000 people to over a million. “A lot of people think it’s just about the running of the bulls,” Mutsaerts explains. “Quite frankly, this is a festival that has tons of things to do — morning events, afternoon events, evening events. It’s a festival that goes on 24/7 nonstop for eight days.” One curiosity about San Fermin is that everyone in town – locals and visitors — wears the same outfit, including a white shirt, a red scarf, and a red sash. “The great thing about everyone wearing the same thing is that no matter what creed, religion, or class, everyone’s the same,” says Mutsaerts. For Mutsaerts, being an entrepreneur in a place like Spain is exciting. “I’m having a great time,” she says. “When I have guests come, I just feel like they’re family members who are coming to visit from my hometown.”
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Photo Courtesy of Juan Antonio Garaikoetxea

Here, Mutsaerts shares the things not to miss during the running of the bulls, as well as her favorite secret spots in Pamplona.

Chupinazo: Thousands upon thousands of revelers gather in the Plaza Consistorial in front of the city hall to celebrate the opening of San Fermin.

Comparsa de Gigantes y Cabezudos: This is also known as the parade of giants and big heads when costumed revelers in massive papier-mâché masks march through the streets and bop little kids on the head with soft sponges. The largest statues tower almost 13 feet high and date to the 1850s.

Deportes Rurales: You can watch people competing in wood cutting, stone lifting, log cutting, and other displays of rural Basque sports in the Plaza de los Fueros

Toro de Fuego: This is a running of a bull made of fireworks, which is treacherous in its own way — think getting burned instead of getting gored by a bull’s horn. (Want to stay safe? Check out the fireworks that light up the sky every night.)

Meeting the Runners: Mutsaerts can introduce you to some of the devotees who compete in the running of the bulls, like Peter N. Milligan, an American lawyer who has done it over 80 times and whose new book “Bulls Before Breakfast” details what it is like to face off with one of the killer animals. Then there is the rare breed of female runners. “Before 1974, women weren’t allowed to run with the bulls,” says Mutsaerts, who points out that there are still very few women in this male-dominated sport.

Ball Dancing at Cafe Iruna: In the mornings, ball dancing takes place in the breathtaking casino above Cafe Iruna, overlooking the Plaza Castillo. Cafe Iruna became famous thanks to Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises” (there’s a bust of the author in the back of the restaurant).

Churrería de la Mañueta: The tiny Churrería de la Mañueta is over a century old and is only open eight days a year during the San Fermin festival. It’s been in the same family for generations, and the owners – lawyers, doctors — take off work to make the churros that are served right after the running of the bulls. You need to get there immediately after the event before the line wraps around the block. “It’s the perfect breakfast,” says Mutsaerts.

Pastas Beatriz: Located on Calle de la Estafeta, where the bulls run, Pastas Beatriz is owned by two sisters, and their buttery-sweet chocolate-filled garroticos are worth the wait.

Written by Laura Begley Bloom,  CONTRIBUTOR of Forbes Magazine, in July 14, 2016.