The first thing anyone thinks about Pamplona, is the scene of bulls running wild, chasing adrenaline junkies through the old streets during San Fermin. However, this city is so much more than that, and you can really delve into a part of Spain that isn’t really well known at all. I learned so much about Pamplona during the few visits I made there, and I was bowled over by many of the things I saw. No wonder why Ernest Hemmingway loved this place so much.
Pamplona is the Capital and largest city of the Navarra region in the north of Spain, and getting there isn’t particularly straightforward. The city has an Airport in the town of Noain on the outskirts, but they don’t operate flights to the UK. you have to either fly to Bilbao or Zaragoza and then catch a bus or train to get to Pamplona. For sure, its at least an hour and a half from those airports. There is also no AVE connection, but there are trains to most of the major cities around Spain, and buses are very infrequent, offering reasonable connection to neighbouring cities of Bilbao, San Sebastian, Logroño and Zaragoza. Alsa and Burundesa are the main bus companies to get you there.
Pamplona lies at the foothills of the Pyrenees which in turn, offers some amazing views from certain parts of the city, so expect a few hills, especially around the old quarter. Local buses are very limited to where they can take you in the old quarter as well, the closest you can get to all the attractions, is if you stop at the Plaza de Toros. in all honesty though, even from the train station, you can walk to most areas fairly comfortably. Pamplona isn’t that big, so you should be ok to walk almost everywhere.
Despite being in the north of the country, Pamplona has a very reasonable climate by British standards. Winters are marginally warmer than in England, but it can snow, and does regularly in the surrounding mountains. I first visited in April 2016, and there was some snow on some of the mountains, but in the city it was light jacket weather for most of the day. Summers are fairly hot, but nothing compared to nearby cities like Zaragoza, I ran a half marathon there, and it was around 32 degrees which was warmer than usual according to the race organisers. My advice, winter jackets in winter are essential, and be prepared for any occasion any other time of the year. An umbrella would also be handy, even though it’s not nearly as rainy as it is on the northern coast.
The first place you’re probably going to see in this city, especially if you arrive by bus, is the Ciutadela. Pamplona is full of fortifications from the 16th and 17th century, but this one is the most iconic. This fort, is enormous, and helps separate the newer neighbourhoods in the west, to the older ones in the east. You can access almost everywhere, and there are local exhibitions that often take place within the walls. It’s well worth checking out, and the whole place is free and open all day. Better still, cross the road and you end up in another park called Taconera and next to that, Antoniutti.
Parque Antoniutti is smaller, but has areas full of animals and birds that you can see from above, completely free. Parque Taconera however, is a lot bigger, and has a walkway where you can walk along some of the fortifications of the city centre. from there, you can cross over the main gateway and you are now in the old quarter or Casco Viejo (Alde Zaharra in Basque). From this walkway, you have unbroken views of some of the Pyrenees, and the River Arga, and this only gets broken at the end when you descend to a point, that everyone knows about…
This point is the bull pen where the bull run or Encierro begins during San Fermin. During this time this is where the chaos begins and then ends just 300m later in the Plaza de Toros at the end. If you follow follow the route, it takes you past the museum of Navarra, then the Ayuntamiento and tourism office, Calle Mercaderes, one of the liveliest streets in the Casco Viejo, and finally Calle de la Estafeta before arriving at the Plaza de Toros. I was a bit shocked when I saw the Plaza de Toros actually, as it’s not the prettiest building to look at, but the seating area inside is a bit better. You think with such a famous tradition like San Fermin, and the Plaza de Toros being the centre of attention, that it would look really emblematic, but it didn’t to me, but inside it does.
If you cross the Encierro and continue along the old fort walls (after crossing a car park), you would encounter the Archivo de Navarra, which often offers local exhibitions. Then you will end up at the Portal de Zumalacarregui which if you exit the city walls there are several parks just outside the neighbourhood of Arrotxapea, but stay on the walls and you find the best views in my opinion. Here, you’re at the corner, and you can see the highest mountains from there, and is one of my favourite parts of the city. There’s also an amazing bar there called Meson del Caballo Blanco, which is perfect to unwind and enjoy the scenes.
The Cathedral of Pamplona is just a stones throw away from this viewpoint, and has a a museum inside, which cost me 5€ to enter. It’s worth checking out, and you will spend quite a long time in there. From the cathedral, I noticed quite a few hostels for pilgrims dotted around, and then yellow arrows everywhere. Yep it’s the Camino de Santiago. Pamplona is actually a very important city for the Camino, and is the first major city on it’s route, so you see a lot of pilgrims resting here.
Head deeper into the beautiful streets of the old quarter, and you will sooner or later end up in the most iconic part of town, the Plaza del Castillo. It’s the biggest square in town and surrounded by typical architecture you see in the Basque region. It’s the typical meeting point in this city, and it’s surrounded on most sides by plenty of bars and restaurants. to the south of the square, you find the main shopping neighbourhood of Ensanche, which has a grid pattern based on that of Barcelona. This is the 2nd oldest part of Pamplona, and you find many of the high street brands around here. Back to the Plaza del Castillo, you will see a place called Café Iruña, which you must stop by for breakfast, as it was Hemmingway’s favourite café and there’s a statue of him inside.
This leads on to one of the best parts of Pamplona, the food. One thing you will see in pretty much every bar, are pintxos, essentially the Basque version of tapas, but with cocktail sticks often sticking out of it and bread is often the base. The whole bar is lined with various plates of things that you can just ask for, and the staff will pick how ever many you want and serve it to you. They then normally charge you afterwards, something you wouldn’t be able to do in the UK. you can also find plenty of restaurants that offer set menus for about 15-25€, making it a bit more expensive than other parts of Spain. Pintxos themselves aren’t that big, and it’s common to go to more than one bar to eat, and you can easily spend 25€ per person, but it’s worth it.
Typical things you will find in these bars, are bomba de patatas (just try it), angulas (mini eels), guindillas (green chilli), trout, pimientos de piquillo (stuffed red pepper), and various soups and dishes made with beef (which have a protected status known as Nafarrakoa Aratxea). But the two most common things by a mile, are chistorra, which is like a softer version of chorizo served hot, and the classic Spanish omelette or tortilla. Tortillas are actually from this and are so popular, that you will see several varieties in many bars, even sandwiches where the bread is replaced by two tortillas or a large one split in half. What a time to be alive, eh?
While you’ll probably find decent bars in the newer neighbourhoods that are cheaper, the difference isn’t that much, and the the streets surrounding the Plaza del Castillo are the most famous for pintxos, especially Calle San Gregorio, San Nicolas, and Comedias. The streets on the other side of the square, also have a notable gastronomy scene. Essentially, you don’t have to go very far in the Casco Viejo to find a decent bar for pintxos, and a lot of places double up as places to go for a night out and after midnight, the pintxos start disappearing in the vast majority of places and the music starts.
What are the people like here? First of all, you will have noticed that there are two languages here, Castilian Spanish and Basque. Navarra had their own language, Navarrense, but that disappeared completely about 500 years ago, and there’s very little evidence of it around. Basque is understood by most people here, but not everyone, and Pamplona is on the border on where a prominence of speakers begin. Being the capital of the region, it acts as a melting pot, so Spanish is widely used by comparison. There aren’t very many people who can speak English here, but many do make an effort.
People do generally tend to be a little serious there, but they are also very helpful and accommodating if you need it. You’re not going to make friends immediately there, but there’s always some curious faces around, and some bar staff are exceptionally friendly, which is always a nice touch. When it’s time to party, they let their hair down and if there’s any major event taking place, they are going to support it, which leads me to San Fermin. I haven’t personally attended the event, but I understand that it’s an unforgettable experience, and that the Encierro is just one part of it. There is some negative press about this event now, compared to years ago, and not just because of animal cruelty issues, but also sexual assault cases and antisocial behaviour.
From the people I know who have been there however, they have said the experience was memorable in a positive way, and the bigger concern is finding a spot at the bar and finding a place to stay. There’s also so much more going on than just the Encierro. Talking about accommodation, Pamplona offers plenty of places of all requirements and luxuries. You can still find good deals if you don’t mind sharing a room. Typically, you’re going to pay 15- 30€ for a bed, and about 35€+ for double rooms per night. I stayed in Aloha Hostel and that was really good value for money. During festivals such as San Fermin, you are going to be paying a lot more however, and don’t expect to be near the centre. Also be careful of certain places you might find online, as some of them are for the pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago, and may lack certain things or even not allow you to stay.
So there you have it, Pamplona. Quite possibly the greenest city I have visited in Spain with all it’s parks, and one with so much of a mixture between modern trends vs traditions. I have visited this place several times, and I can happily say that I would visit it again. If you are looking for a gastronomic experience, Pamplona should be high on your list. When you go there, don’t just think about the bulls, this city has so much to offer and many pamploneses will be happy to show you.