Few things are more Spanish than the fiesta of San Fermin (or Sanfermines, as many Spaniards call it). Dating back to the Middle Ages, it was a celebration honouring San Fermin, the co-patron of the Navarra region. Initially, the fiesta was held in October, but in the 16th century, tired of the grey skies and the rain, the people of Pamplona decided to change the date of the celebration to July.
The beginnings of the fiesta were far more modest, lasting only two days, and consisting of an opening speech, musical and theatre performances, a tournament, and bullfights. Over the following centuries, San Fermin continued transforming itself to something much larger and much “more fun.” Fireworks, dances, a Parade of Giants (Comparsa de Gigantes) were just some of the key elements that were added, while the celebrations were extended to last an entire week.
San Fermin today
Present-day San Fermin starts off with Chupinazo, a rocket-launching to mark the official beginning of the celebrations. It is followed by the Saint Fermin procession when the 15th-century statue of the Saint accompanied by thousands of people, dancers and street entertainers is paraded through the narrow streets of Pamplona’s old town. An ancient traditional dance called the Jota is performed during the procession and the “Gigantes” (huge wood-framed and papier-mâché puppet figures operated by people from inside) dance and twirl among the crowds.
“The Roar” (El Struendo) is the next key element of San Fermin. At a specific day during the week (it changes annually), just before midnight, people gather at the City Hall in order to make as much noise as possible for several hours (mainly with drums but also whistles and any other objects capable of making noise). The celebrations end on July 14 with a massive firework display and the chanting of Pobre de Mi (Poor Me), which mournful notes are sang by thousands of people holding candles.
Of course, for most visitors to Pamplona during the fiesta of San Fermin, the main event is the running with the bulls. The bulls are released from their enclosure exactly at 8am in the morning and take approximately 3 minutes to run through the designated narrow streets of the old town (approx. 800 meters in total), ending up at the city’s bullring (4th largest in the world), where they are kept until the afternoon, when a bullfight takes place. The same routine is repeated every day of the San Fermin week.
Without a doubt, the best views of the run (that is, if you are not in the mood to run with the bulls yourself) are from the balconies of the buildings that line up the narrow streets of the old town through which the bulls are herded. If you would like to stay in one of the hotels or apartments located there, be prepared to spend a considerable amount of money, as the prices more than double during that week, Pamplona’s most important tourist event of the year.
Gay San Fermin and Pamplona
While Navarra and its capital city, Pamplona, are not known as huge gay-tourism centers, there are a few gay and/or gay-friendly spots that make a stay in the city fun and entertaining. Many of these places are particularly festive during the week of San Fermin, offering special nights and events for the LGBT visitors to the city.
Also noteworthy are La Pulga and Meson de la Navarreria (the two are connected). The latter is a gay-friendly bar specializing in pinxos (probably the best of Spanish cuisine, small canapes with creative toppings) playing traditional Basque music, while the former is a gay-friendly bar famous for its Chochi music (traditional Spanish dance music particularly popular among the gays).
Aldapa, known among Pamplona’s gay community as Antonias, caters largely to the lesbian public and during San Fermin also plays Chochi music. In contrast, Disco Bar M-40, caters largely to gay men and is known for its dark room.
Ozone is Pamplona’s largest gay-friendly club, with a VIP zone and two different areas: the main dancefloor and the smaller and more intimate O2 room.
Qwerty, Bistrot and Racer Café are the top 3 picks in terms of some of the best gay-friendly bar-restaurants, all attracting a younger, hipster crowd, a good selection of drinks and some interesting gastronomical offerings. Qwerty and Bistrot become particularly busy during San Fermin.
Generally speaking, while the atmosphere in north of Spain might seem a little more restrained than, say, in Madrid or Barcelona, it is still Spain, and the same general attitude of openness and acceptance is the norm. In other words, gay travellers to Pamplona can feel secure that they will be welcomed and treated very well at every point of their stay.
For nature lovers and the more adventurous types, there is plenty to do and see within an hour’s drive of the city. The mountainous landscape dominates here (these are the foothills of the Pyrenees, Spain’s largest mountain range), making for some truly spectacular scenery.
There is an abundance of day-trip options, starting with the Castle of Olite, a postcard perfect medieval structure found some 45 minutes to the south of Pamplona; the beyond-picturesque hill-top pueblo of Sos de los Reyes Catolicos with its tiny but extremely cozy Jewish quarter; the dramatic rocky river valleys of Lumbier and Albayun perfect for hiking or rock climbing, and the Romanesque Monastery Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar along with the incredible views that it offers of the Pyrenees’ foothills given its mountain-top location.
These are just some of the many options that this part of Spain has on offer. So, if after several days of San Fermin partying you need to disappear and disconnect from it all, I wouldn’t think twice about renting a car and taking full advantage of Navarra’s natural beauty.
Experience Spain run by a Canadian expat and, by now, Spanish expert, Ralph, offers year-round LGBT and friendly packages (both pre-set or fully customized) across Spain, including Navarra. This year they offer a LGBT San Fermin VIP package that combines both the best of gay Pamplona with the best of San Fermin.