Running of the bulls? Is there more to Pamplona than this crazy, macho festival? Liz Carlson, our guest writer and expert in Northern Spain 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 know’s? All that matters was that when I first set foot in Pamplona this October, 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 it’s Sant Fermines Festival to watch the most intrepid (or perhaps the most inebriated) people run alongside a handfull of angry half-ton bulls.
As unforgettable an event this is, I think Pamplona’s real charm and allure are overshadowed by it. Pamplona is definitely worth seeing, even if for just a day, throughout the rest of the year, and it would be a crime to skip visiting it on any northern Spain getaway.
Meandering through the old quarter, following in the footsteps of the legendary toros 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 20′s.
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 and 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 about 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!
I will definitely be back in Pamplona this July to take in the San Fermín Festival firsthand, but you can bet I will be back there before as well. It is a unpretentious, hidden city with a lot to offer the other 50 weeks a year, and I promise if you add it to your next Spain itinerary, you won’t be disappointed! Maybe you’ll even fall in love with it like me.
Plaza del Castillo, 44
Calle de San Nicolás, 32
Related Spain Scoop: More from Liz Carlson on northern Spain.
Liz writes Memoirs of a Young Adventuress which is about traveling and expat life abroad. Four years ago, she said goodbye to the freezing cold New England winters and hola to sunny warm Spain, and hasn’t looked back. Unsatisfied living in the same place for too long, she has called several cities in Spain home, from Salamanca to Madrid, Córdoba and Málaga, and now Logroño.