Running of the bulls? Is there more to Pamplona than this crazy, macho festival? Liz Carlson knows there are hidden charms, and especially good food, to add to the fame of this city.
By Liz Carlson
I fell in love with Pamplona before I even got off the bus. There was something about this tucked-away, old-world city that had been calling to me for years. And it wasn’t the bulls.
Maybe I had seen too many Visit Navarra commercials, or read too many Hemingway novels growing up. Who knows? All that matters was that when I first set foot in Pamplona I squealed out loud like a little girl and couldn’t wait to start exploring. And let me tell you, Pamplona did not disappoint.
Most people know about Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls. Every July over a million people dressed all in white with red sashes flock to this northern city for its Sant Fermines Festival to watch the most intrepid (or perhaps the most inebriated) people run alongside a handful of angry half-ton bulls.
As unforgettable an event this is, I think Pamplona’s real charm and allure are overshadowed by it. Meandering through the old quarter, following in the footsteps of the legendary bullfighters and famed figures like Ernest Hemingway, I felt at home. Pamplona has quirky little shops, bakeries that smell like heaven, and Belle Époque style cafes.
My friends and I easily lived up to the European stereotype of drinking strong coffee and chatting for hours outside Café Iruña in the town’s vast main square, Plaza del Castillo, easily Pamplona’s most famous gathering spot. If I only had smoked and had my journal out with me, instead of my smartphone, it could have been a scene from the ’20s.
Pamplona is best experienced outside, on a beautiful day with the sun shining. When I was there in the fall, we spent the morning wandering around the cramped streets of the old quarter, following the route of the Running of the Bulls with the occasional detour into a bakery or little shop. Or in my case, many bakeries.
Far from dull, Pamplona is a vibrant city, full of red, yellow, azure, even pink colored buildings clashing together with white shutters opening onto narrow streets. My kind of city. We stepped inside the Museo de Navarra (Museum of Navarre) to catch a glimpse of the local art and history before heading out and posing with the famous Running of the Bulls statue. You can’t come to Pamplona and not get one picture with a bull.
One of my favorites aspects of Pamplona has to be the food. Navarra represents the convergence of different cultures in Spain, which is especially obvious in the food. We decided to eat at Baserri, an award-winning and surprisingly still affordable, restaurant in the old part of the city. With so many varied and innovative dishes on their menu, it’s hard to chose. And depending on your level of Spanish, hard to understand since they have a flair for using obscure ingredients, like ostrich. The staff is friendly and more than willing to explain with hand gestures.
After such a big lunch on a Saturday, the only thing to do was go have a siesta in the sun in one of the parks in the north of the city center that overlook the river and mountains. Before rambling further, we downed some reviving espresso, and then peeped into the nondescript cathedral.
We checked out the bullring before having the best kind of dinner northern Spain has to offer: pinxtos (tapas). Thanks to the influence from Basque Country, Navarra has some very creative and innovative pintxos to choose from. Well on my way to becoming a wine snob, I paired them with a nice glass of local Navarra red, something I won’t dare admit to all of my fellow Rioja wine friends. A great end to a great day!
Look for these eateries when you visit Pamplona:
Plaza del Castillo, 44
Calle de San Nicolás, 32
Liz writes at Young Adventuress which is about traveling and expat life abroad.