Travel Report: Pamplona, Spain.
August 2015. Back in my early to mid twenties, in the days before I became an addicted blogger, I used to read a lot. Over time, I fell for a number of novelists whose works I read religiously, including Donna Tartt, David Sedaris, Khaled Hosseini and Ben Elton.
One summer afternoon in The Scottish Borders, I took the family dog for a walk up Sweethope Hill to read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The story follows a group of American and British expats who travel to the Spanish city of Pamplona for the world famous San Fermín Festival.
While I liked the book overall, I can’t say I cared much for the characters. For the most part I found them spoilt, shallow, vain and horribly moneyed. Nevertheless, I found the novel to be an engrossing insight into the so-called Lost Generation of the 1920s.
However, I did find myself falling head over heels for Pamplona. In fact, I was utterly absorbed by the city’s glamorous 1920s cafes and hotels. I felt simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the organised chaos that is San Fermín and its hair-raising Running of The Bulls.
One day, I told myself, I’ll go see Pamplona for myself. Spend a couple of days retracing Hemingway’s footsteps and breathing in the remaining traces of a bygone era.
In the summer of 2015 I finally got my wish when I planned a trip across the north of Spain. I can still picture myself, as pleased as punch, strolling through the streets of Pamplona on the day of my arrival.
One of my first stops was this impressive full scale bronze monument, which pays tribute to The Running of The Bulls. Designed by the famed Bilbao sculptor Rafael Huerta, it depicts eleven fearsome bulls closing in on some hapless runners who’ve fallen to the ground.
Hemingway’s first visits to Pamplona unfolded in the early to mid 1920s. Each time, he came for the San Fermín Festival to see The Running of the Bulls. These visits, taken with his wife Hadley Richardson and various international friends, served as the inspiration for The Sun Also Rises.
“Nobody ever lives their life all the way up, except bullfighters”.
– The Sun Also Rises.
Pamplona Bullring (Plaza de Toros de Pamplona) lies a short walk from the bulls monument. It has hosted the city’s controversial bullfighting events since 1922, while it also marks the end point for the Running of the Bulls.
With the ability to host just under twenty thousand people, Pamplona’s renaissance style bullring is the third largest in the world behind venues in Mexico City and Madrid. When not in use, you can visit the bullring with either a guided tour or independently with an audio guide.
As an avid bullfighting fan, Hemingway attended countless events in Pamplona over the years and indeed across Spain. Moreover, he actually participated in a bullfight in the summer of 1924 when he claims to have been “gored three times”.
Of all the Hemingway statues peppered across town, I particularly like the one outside Pamplona Bullring. Created from granite by the artist Luis Sanguino in 1968, the piece depicts the great writer observing a bullfighting event in his signature roll-neck sweater. For me, the statue has a real warmth and dignity to it.
In The Sun Also Rises, Jake’s love interest Brett falls for a handsome bullfighter called Romero. Her subsequent seduction of the young man creates a cauldron of jealousy and bitterness among Jake and his friends, resulting in harsh words and vicious fistfights.
I felt blessed by how quiet Pamplona was during my visit. In contrast to the mayhem of San Sebastian, here the streets were half empty and peaceful. This was even the case on Calle de la Estafeta, a key passage in The Running of the Bulls.
Long, narrow and largely unbroken; the street has seen some of the worst injuries to the runners. Literally there is nowhere to escape to when a bull separates from the herd and starts behaving unpredictably.
At some point, I realised that I’d accidentally timed my explorations for a Sunday afternoon during siesta. Perfect! Taking full advantage of the emptiness, I was able to completely switch off and paint a few of the book’s half-remembered scenes into the stage before me.
Eventually, I turned onto the deserted Calle de la Curia, where the two sides of the street beautifully sandwich the clock tower of Pamplona Cathedral.
“It was dim and dark and the pillars went high up. And there were people praying, and it smelt of incense”.
– The Sun Also Rises.
Built on the ruins of an ancient Romanesque church, construction of Pamplona Cathedral began in 1397, but didn’t finish until 1501! It definitely isn’t the most stunning church I’ve seen in Spain, not by a long shot. And yet, it was within these hallowed walls that I came the closest to experiencing a genuinely spiritual moment.
Maybe it was due to the fact that I was the only person in the entire building. Perhaps it was the engulfing silence of the gorgeous 14th century cloister, where I sat on a stone bench watching sparrows flit between the fur trees. Furthermore, the eventual pattering of light rain and a distant rumble of thunder only added to the ambience.
Inside the main nave, I couldn’t tell you how long I sat staring at the main altar, as the Kings of Navarre had done when they came to take their oaths. Nor indeed how much time passed in the mausoleum which serves as the final resting place of King Charles III and his wife Eleanor of Castile.
In need of a drink and a bite, I made tracks for Pamplona’s most prestigious food and drink spot, Café Iruña. Situated on the beautiful Plaza del Castillo, it opened in 1888 and became the city’s first establishment to be lit up by electric lights!
There have been some highly distinguished guests over the years, including Hollywood greats Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. And, needless to say, Mr. Ernest Hemingway was a regular visitor when in the city.
“We had coffee at the Iruña, sitting in comfortable wicker chairs looking out from the cool of the arcade at the big square”.
– The Sun Also Rises.
That afternoon I took a table outside facing the square. Ordering a coffee, I sat people watching as casual-smart waiters, dressed in all black, moved between the tables checking up on customers. Before long I ordered a second coffee, then a few rounds of smoked salmon on bread.
When I could eat, drink and sit no more, I decided to head inside to admire Café Iruña’s stunning interior. Apparently, much of the original decor has been retained through restoration. The sheer number of chandeliers is staggering, and somewhat blinding if truth be told.
Elsewhere, there are intricate wooden windows, meticulously polished mirrors and thick, ostentatious stone pillars. The toilets meanwhile were spotless, one of the best-smelling gents I’ve ever had the privilege to step into.
Best of all, I wandered into the small bar at the back of the cafe where there’s a statue of Hemingway propped up against the bar. According to local legend, this is where he would come to work on poems and to scribble down notes for the novel that would become The Sun Also Rises.
Hemingway was a voracious drinker and, they say, some of his most infamous drinking binges took place in this room. A man of many tastes, he would down gins, guzzle beer, knock back champagne and smash through mojito after mojito. In addition to the statue, a number of framed black and white photographs of the man adorn the walls.
It was mid afternoon by the time I came upon Pamplona’s splendid Town Hall (Ayuntamiento). Dominating Plaza Consistorial in the heart of the old quarter, this baroque-neoclassical building is where everyone gathers to celebrate the start of San Fermín every July the 6th. A fired rocket from one of the upper floors signals the beginning of the party!
“I went to the Ayuntamiento and found the old gentleman who subscribes for the bullfight tickets for me every year”.
– The Sun Also Rises.
There was a reason I hadn’t stuffed myself silly at Café Iruña. It was all because I didn’t want to miss out on Bar Gaucho, hailed by many as one of the best pincho spots in Pamplona.
The Bar Gaucho mantra is all about fancy bites served by no-nonsense waiters in an equally unpretentious interior. So unpretentious in fact that the staff openly encourages customers to chuck their used napkins and unwanted bones on the floor at their feet. Don’t trouble yourself, someone will take care of that.
Immediately, I was drooling at the prospect of some of their dishes. Thus I wasted no time in going for a sublime mini steak and mushroom boccadillo. Then a few sticks of deep fried Roquefort cheese and a giant meatball topped with mayo, sat in a puddle of tomatoey sauce.
No wonder I ended staying in Bar Gaucho for several hours. In the end, I only left because I was the last customer and it was starting to get awkward. Gathering up my stuff, I grabbed a swift mirror selfie and headed out into a pleasingly mild Pamplona evening.
Cunningly, I’d held back on dessert so that I could frequent another legendary Pamplona institution, Beatriz Bakery. With the look of a rickety workshop, it certainly hasn’t won any beauty contests. And yet, you’ll find plenty of online reviews claiming this is one of the best bakeries in Spain!
They specialise in cakes, cookies and traditional Spanish butter pastries called hojaldres. In the morning, and late afternoon, it’s common to see a line snaking out the door and down the street.
Luckily, I caught them at a quiet moment. After some deliberation, I came away with a divine slab of nutty dark chocolate. It was very, very good.
Looking back, I’m so happy I got to see Pamplona. In terms of living up to the expectations set by the book, the city really delivered on all fronts. Actually there were plenty more Hemingway spots I could’ve crossed off, if I’d had more time and the inclination to go full on forensic. For a deeper overview, read this excellent guide, The Hemingway Route.
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