Pamplona (A Photo Tour)

Before we left for our Camino, people would ask me what place I was most looking forward to visiting, and I would always say Pamplona.

Partly, I admit, that’s because it was the only name I recognized. I looked at maps with words like Moissac and Castrojeriz, and drew blanks. The books told me that Conques and Burgos were lovely, but I had no reference.

But PAMPLONA.

Hemingway’s haunt.

The running of the bulls.

The Basques.

I carried a small, battered copy of The Sun Also Rises and re-read it as I walked toward the Pyrenees. It’s not my favorite Hemingway, but it’s such a love letter to the region.

(It’s also, by the way, where I learned, somehow for the first time, that bulls are killed in bullfights. Somehow—and I think I blame Bugs Bunny for this—I always pictured a bull fight as something like a rodeo, more like a a timed event than a to-the-death kind of thing.)

But anyway. We weren’t in Pamplona for San Fermin, and there were no bulls running or dying (thank goodness). But that doesn’t mean the town was ever quiet. This, more than the literary history or the bloody sport, is why I fell in love with Pamplona…it was one of those cities where around every corner was a new surprise.

Brierly’s Camino guide, the ubiquitous orange book used by almost every English-speaking pilgrim in Spain, recommended blowing through Pamplona mid-day and staying in a suburb on the other side of town. But I wasn’t having any of that.

I was a bit city-starved by this point. For almost six weeks, we’d been walking through pastoral countryside and exploring small towns for almost six weeks. It was lovely and beautiful. But I’m a city girl by nature. I love busy streets and alleys and plazas and people. This was a place where I wanted to linger. So we arrived mid-day, checked into a hotel just a block from the Plaza del Castillo, and stayed for two nights.

There was music coming from every corner when we arrived, and I assumed it was some kind of festival, but a local we met told us no, this wasn’t a particularly special day. This was just Pamplona.

To get there (at least on the Camino), you must first circle the outside of the medieval walls in order to enter through the historic pilgrim’s gate…

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…and then navigate the crooked, colorful, pedestrian-friendly streets…

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…past the famous city hall, where every year the rocket is launched that starts the nine-day festival of San Fermin…

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…and then a few more blocks to a hotel room. But it’s hard to stay inside when there are dancing troupes of fifteen-foot puppets twirling in front of the cathedral and parading down our narrow street…

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…and a young boy with a paper mache horse and a plush mace going around bopping small children on the head (there’s some great story behind this, and I wish I knew it)…

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…while around the corner literary types and tourists sip cocktails in Café Iruña, Hemingway’s favorite haunt still gaudy in its Art Deco glory…

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…and watch impassively as a thoroughly modern triathalon ends in the main square, pumping out hip hop for an outdoor Zumba class…

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…just a few narrow, bumpy streets away from the bullfighting ring, and the powerful statue just outside…

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…while just up the street a traditional Basque group with fur on their shoulders and giant percussive bells on their butts march by, looking fierce…

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…and then a night of wine and tapas, and discovering that our surprisingly cheap private room, with the balcony overlooking a shuttered street, had turned into a wall-to-wall crowd of people at ten o’clock at night, and the party literally lasted until dawn.

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Now, I can sleep through most noises, and never needed ear plugs on the Camino. But a party in Pamplona, ten feet below your window, is pretty much impossible. It’s also so cheerful and so quintessentially Spanish that I couldn’t be annoyed.

When our Camino was over and we had a few days of extra time before our flight home, this was the one city I really wanted to revisit. I wanted to sit longer in the enormous Plaza del Castillo again, and see what human puppets would go dancing by next. And I wanted more of those tapas

But alas, by that time it was almost San Fermin. Rooms were booked, albergues were closed, and if what we saw were the locals on a random May weekend, I couldn’t imagine the city with two million tourists.

Next time, though…

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