What the hell is... the San Fermin Festival?

(An Alcurrucen's ranch bull faces off with revellers during the 2013 San Fermin festival. Picture: AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

This week sees the bull runs of the 2014 San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain, an iconic annual celebration that attracts hundreds of thousands of people to the city.

Immortalised in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel 'The Sun Also Rises', the annual mix of hedonism and tradition is probably the best-known festival in Spain, if not the world. However it is not without its critics, chief among them animal rights activists who decry the treatment of the fighting bulls that career through Pamplona's cobbled streets on eight mornings every July.

If you've ever wondered what's the story behind the San Fermin Festival, here's all you need to know.

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(Revelers and Torrestrella ranch bulls on Estafeta corner during the 2014 encierro. Picture: AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

WHAT IS THE SAN FERMIN FESTIVAL?

Known to locals as 'Los Sanfermines', the festival is held every year in Pamplona, the capital city of the Basqure region of Navarre. The first-ever festival is dated to 1591, when church authorities decided to move the annual feast day for Saint Fermin (one of the patron saints of Pamplona) from October to July, to coincide with an annual cattle fair (and to take advantage of the nicer summer weather).

The running of the bulls - called the 'encierro' in Spanish - was first recorded during the festival in the 17th century.

Traditionally, cattle that had been brought to the city were corralled in pens on the city outskirts overnight, before being driven through the streets on festival mornings to be slaughtered. At some unrecorded point, city youths began running in front of the the steers (rather than behind, with the drovers) in a show of bravado, which has evolved into the festival we know.

WATCH: The running of the bulls in Pamplona, 1959

Today, six fighting bulls drawn from ranches around the city's hinterland run through the streets of Pamplona every morning of the festival to the bullring, where they will die the same afternoon at the hands of a matador (bullfighter).

WATCH: The first bull run of the 2014 festival, Monday July 7:

Of course, the San Fermin festival is about more than just the running of the bulls - there are lots of other events including a daily 'Parade of Giants' (think Macnas heads at the Galway Arts Festival), contests and tournaments in differents sports such as the traditional Basque pelota and various other parades and processions.

Also, because Pamplona lies in one of Spain's famous wine regions, there is drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.

One of the highlights of the week is the opening ceremony or 'Chupinazo' which has taken place at 12 noon on July 6 every year since 1941. The ceremony sees a rocket - also called the chupinazo (or txupinazo in Basque) fired from a balcony in the city's main square.

WATCH: The Chupinazo ceremony from the 2014 San Fermin festival:

The firing of the Chupinazo is "the signal for nine days of non-stop partying" says the festival's official website. So you're expected to go a bit mad.

(The Chupinazo ceremony opening the 2014 San Fermin Festival. Picture: AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

"The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta."
- Enest Hemingway, 'The Sun Also Rises'

But it's the bull run - or 'encierro' in Spanish - that's the most famous part of the San Fermin festival, with runners flocking from all over the world to take part.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Every morning at 8am during the eight days of the festival, six fighting bulls are released from a pen in Santo Domingo Street, from where they must make their way through the city streets to the Pampona bullring, a distance of 875 metres.

The bulls come from ranches around Pamplona, with each ranch contributing different bulls on different days. The ranches themselves are famous, family names such as Torrestrella, Dolores Aguirre, Victoriano del Río etc. reknowned among connoisseurs of the encierro for the strength, bravery and aggression of their bulls (particularly good bulls - the biggest, angriest and most fearsome - are also given names and the crowds eagerly anticipate their performances on the run and in the ring).

Every night before a run, at around 11pm, the bulls for the following morning are brought from their corral in the Rochapea to the Santo Domingo pens through the deserted streets in a part of the encierro known as the "encierrillo".

"The spectacle is watched in silence, in total contrast to the noisy reception the bulls will experience the following morning," according to festival authorities.

"For some people it has a certain mystìc - the majestic bulls cantering silently along under the still light of the shining moon."

The following morning the six bulls will be joined on their canter to the ring by a number of cow as well as thousands of runners dressed in the traditional outfit of white shirt/pants and red necktie (the necktie can only be worn during the eight days of the festival, fact fans - the firing of the Chupinazo on San Fermin Sunday is the signal to put it on). Runners vie to get as close as possible to the bulls without being gored or trampled, either by the beasts themselves or by other runners.

(A close brush with a Torrestrella bull during the 2014 encierrio. Picture: AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

Runners are cheered on by crowds that clamber atop the fences marking out the course, or crowd the balconies overlooking the narrow streets.

The run normally takes around two and a half minutes, with different parts of the course having entered folklore for being particularly dangerous or action-packed (chief among them the spot known as Estafeta Corner).

(A Torrestrella ranch bull falls. Picture: AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

Anyone over 18 can take part in the run - no fee or tickets are required - but there are strict rules to be followed and lots of police on the streets to enforce them. Entry to the course is permitted only through designated gates, anyone who is obviously drunk is quickly hauled off and police enforce a 'no camera' rule among runners. Which makes sense, as the last thing that they want is people stopping to take pictures with six tonnes of pissed-off bovine hurtling down the street towards them.

Amid the chaos of the run, a series of four loud rockets are fired to let runners know what's happening. The first rocket goes off when the bulls are released from the Santo Domingo pen, with a second to let people know that all the bulls are out on the street. A third rocket is fired when all of the bulls have arrived into the bullring and a fourth and final rocket goes off when the six are safely penned once again.

IT LOOKS MENTAL. DO PEOPLE GET HURT?

Yes. Yes they do. Quite a lot of people get hurt, some of them quite badly.

And while fatalities are rare during the festivals, they can happen.

(An injured runner is carried away during the 2014 encierro. AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Some 15 people have died in the annual Pamplona encierro since records began being kept in 1910, most of these from goring.

The last person to die in Pamplona was Daniel Jimeno Romero from Spain, who was gored to death in 2009.

(A man is gored by the bull 'Ermitano' in 2009. AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

However in most cases, goring is not the danger but rather falling - every year between 200 and 300 people are injured during the runs, with 50 people requiring hospitalisation last year.

One significant risk is that of being crushed, with the entrance to the bullring - where bulls and runners alike are funnelled through a narrow passage before entering the open ring - being a particular danger area.

A particularly bad crush at this point in 2013 saw the bulls arrive into the ring only to be greeted by a wall of immobile bodies - the sight of the bulls leaping and trampling over the crowd made headlines worldwide.

Twenty-three people were injured.

WATCH: Horror crush at bullring entrance in 2013

Festival officials offer plenty of advice on the best ways to take on the bull run without getting injured.

"When you are running keep a constant eye on the distance between you and the bulls," is one of the insider tips offered on the festival website.

"They´ll be up your ass before you know it.

"At the same time, Be aware of the runners in front of you, particularily fallen runners who can easily trip you up.

"Look for the place where you plan to pull out of the run.

"It´s all quite hectic and complicated in a very short space of time."

(Two Torrestrella bulls fall on Estafeta corner during the 2014 encierro. AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Experts also warn strongly against trying to touch or attract the attention of the bulls, saying that if they had their way, they would run straight through to the ring without incident.

Trying to get their attention is a sure way to get yourself into trouble, either with the bulls or with other, more experience runners who will think nothing of throwing a few slaps at anyone acting the gobshite.

(Although despite this many runners carry a rolled-up newspaper with the seeming purpose of trying to whack the bulls on the head with it. Which really doesn't sound wise, it has to be said).

And if you do fall down or trip up - stay down, make yourself small and cover your head with your hands.

"The bulls don´t particularly want to tangle with anyone," say festival authorities.

"If a bull sees a fallen lump in front of him, he´s likely to step on it and keep going. And his other five mates will do the same and that´s that."

But if you stand up and get caught in the path of a running bull "he could go through you as clean as a knife cuts thorough butter."

(Ouch. Picture: AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

Ouch.

Don't say you weren't warned.

Despite all this sage advice, it goes without saying that running with the bulls is an inherently dangerous activity, and runners are to a very real extent risking their lives for two and a half minutes of adrenaline-fuelled fun on the streets of Pamplona.

It's why they keep coming back.

IT'S A GREAT TRADITION BELOVED BY ALL, RIGHT?

Not quite all.

Animal rights activists have long criticised the encierro as a spectacle of cruelty and brutality, and protests are held annually against its holding.

(A butterfly rests on the finger of an anti-bullfighting demonstrator in Pamplona on Saturday. Picture: AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

The argument against the encierro is entwined with opposition to the tradition of bullfighting in Spain, a topic which has long divided the country (bullfighting was banned in Catalonia in 2012).

A protest organised by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) and Spanish animal welfare organisation AnimaNaturalis attracted around 150 people to Pamplona on the Saturday before the 2014 encierro.

"With faces painted to look like the Grim Reaper, 'blood' on their hands and signs reading, 'You Run. Bulls Die', the volunteers sent a sobering message to anyone in doubt about the cruelty that occurs at the annual San Fermín festival," a PETA blog post said.

"Every single one of the 48 animals who are chased through the cobbled streets by drunken revellers will later be stabbed to death in the bullring, in front of a jeering crowd."

(Picture: PETA)

“The only reason it’s still going as an industry is because of tourism," PETA spokesperson Kirsty Henderson told The Independent.

"The vast majority of people who attend this event are tourists who do not understand what happens to the bulls at the end."

(All alone. Picture: AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

By Conor Hallahan
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