PAMPLONA, Spain (AP) — Thousands of revelers erupted Wednesday as the traditional “chupinazo” fireworks display was lit to kick off the San Fermín bullfighting festival in the Spanish city of Pamplona, ​​ending a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The rain did nothing to dampen the atmosphere as crowds, almost all dressed in the traditional attire of white trousers and shirts with a red sash and scarf, packed the small town hall square for the noon event. After the fireworks exploded, revelers continued to douse each other in red wine.

The highlight of the nine-day festival are the early morning ‘encierros’, or bullfights, starting Thursday, when thousands of thrill-seekers scramble like mad to avoid six bulls as they charge along a winding, paved road toward the city’s bullring. Spectators watch from the balconies and wooden barricades erected to mark the route. The rest of the day is devoted to meals, drinks, dancing and cultural entertainment.

The festival was made world famous by Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises”. Before the pandemic made it impossible to hold it in 2020 and 2021, it had not been suspended since the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

Former footballer and coach Juan Carlos Unzué had the honor of launching the small rocket from the balcony of the town hall. Unzué had to retire from training in 2018 after being diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“This ‘chupinazo’ is dedicated to all healthcare workers and people who have helped us during the pandemic, as well as all those who suffer from ALS. Long live San Fermín,” he shouted from a wheelchair to the teeming crowd below.

Pamplona’s population from some 200,000 balloons to almost a million on peak days during the festival, especially on weekends, including many foreigners. Many visitors don’t stop partying all night or sleeping wherever they can outside.

Pamplona Mayor Enrique Maya told Spanish news agency EFE that while there has been a lot of excitement this year, he was a little worried.

“We feel there’s such a desire in people to have a good time that it could spiral out of control,” he said.

City officials urged people to remember that coronavirus infections are on the rise again and encouraged the use of masks. But the countless races and side parties will make this guideline very difficult to follow.

Normally, the festival is relatively incident-free, with most injuries occurring during the races or from alcohol-related accidents.

Eight people were gored during the last festival in 2019. Sixteen people have died in bullfights since 1910. The last death occurred in 2009.

Animal rights protesters have also become a fixture in Pamplona. On the eve of this year’s festival, dozens of activists dressed as dinosaurs and holding “Bullfighting is prehistoric” signs as they marched down the route of the bulls to protest what they see as cruelty to animals, urging tourists not to participate.

The bulls used in the races are killed by professional matadors during bullfights each afternoon in the town ring.

Bullfights are protected by the Spanish Constitution as part of the country’s cultural heritage. The show is still immensely popular although the movement against it has gained momentum. Animal rights groups cite figures from the Ministry of Culture indicating that 90% of Spaniards did not attend any festival involving bulls in 2014-2015, the last year the issue was investigated.

A major cloud was thrown over the San Fermín festival by a gang rape case in 2016 that rocked the country, and city officials are very sensitive to anything that can be considered the abuse of women.

Under the slogan “Pamplona without sexual assault”, the organizers this year launched a campaign to give information and advice in a city center office to victims or witnesses of abuse, as well as to the general public.

The rape case eventually led to a bill that makes consent a determining factor in sexual assault cases, freeing victims from having to prove that violence or intimidation was used against them.

___ Giles reported from Madrid. Joseph Wilson at Barcelona contributed to this report.

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