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Streets of Pamplona

Inside Pamplona's old town

“Then we crossed a wide plain, and there was a big river off on the right shining in the sun from between the line of trees, and away off you could see the plateau of Pamplona rising out of the plain, and the walls of the city, and the great brown cathedral, and the broken skyline of the other churches. In the back of the plateau were the mountains, and every way you looked there were other mountains, and ahead the road stretched out white across the plain going toward Pamplona.”

– The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Speeding along the lush, tree-lined banks of the Río Arga, in a taxi from the train station, we finally sighted the high ground of Pamplona. We barrelled down the Avenida Guipúzcoa, where our vehicle swerved left at a roundabout, squeezing between the river and the medieval walls, up a four-lane ramp that wound through an archway before depositing us in the heart of the city.

We had come exactly two weeks before the Fiesta de San Fermín, when 1.5 million visitors would pour into this quiet provincial capital of less than 200,000. The wooden barricades for the famous encierro – each morning’s bull runs – were already being slotted into place, and the blood red door of the bullring was affixed with posters proclaiming the toreros of the season.

It was Hemingway who first put Pamplona on the world map. Between 1923 and 1959 he made nine visits to the city and its raucous fiesta. His landmark novel of 1926, The Sun Also Rises, was a thinly-veiled roman à clef, based largely on his real-life experiences the previous summer. The main protagonist, Jack Barnes, was Hemingway himself, and the cast of characters was made up of his friends and acquaintances, with a storyline mirroring true events that transpired during the festival.

To my understanding, San Fermín is a week-long drinking party, a bit like Valencia during Las Fallas, except that there are no giant, elaborate sculptures in Styrofoam and papiermâché (later to be torched), or exploding firecrackers in the streets, or daily pyrotechnic barrages that shake the ground. Instead there are bulls – six of them hurtling down a narrow route at eight in the morning – as emboldened revellers run ahead, some slipping and tumbling in the mélee. But the Pamplona I experienced was far more sedate: one of near-empty streets and languid tapas bars, stocked to the brim with Basque pintxos. I wonder what Hemingway would have made of it.

Atop the medieval fortifications

Atop the medieval fortifications

Barriers for encierro

Barriers for encierro

Flags on the Palacio de Navarre, the regional seat of government

Flags on the Palacio de Navarre, the regional seat of government

Balconies in the old town

Balconies in the old town

Plaza Consejo

Plaza Consejo

The cathedral's neoclassical front

The cathedral’s neoclassical front

Roman mosaic in the Museum of Navarra

Roman mosaic in the Museum of Navarra

Return of the king

Return of the king

View from the museum's top floor

View from the museum’s top floor

For a united, independent Basque state

For a united, independent Basque state

Looking down Calle Navarrería

Looking down Calle Navarrería

Outside San Saturnino Church

Outside San Saturnino Church

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. hadassaab #

    Reblogged this on hadassaab.

    September 21, 2013
  2. While the running of the bulls is exactly what draws most visitors to Pamplona, I think I’d be happy just being there on any other time of the year. Your photos alone speak about the sedateness you described and that for me brings a more sane appreciation of what the town offers – without the stench of inebriation, the madness of running feet and hooves, or the fear of being gored 🙂

    September 21, 2013
    • As exciting as it is, I think the pressing crowds of San Fermín (a whopping 1.5 million!) are enough to put me off. One thing I didn’t really elaborate on was the food – if you love tapas then Pamplona is a great find. The region is especially known for its white asparagus and piquillo peppers, which was a boon for me as the latter happens to be my favourite kind of tapa!

      September 21, 2013
      • Oh yes Tapas. I love them. After being colonized by Spain for more than 300 years, Philippine cuisine was influenced to some extent.

        I do hope you and everyone in HK is safe from typhoon Usagi.

        September 22, 2013
      • I really must get to the Philippines as soon as I can – that meld of Asian and Hispanic cultures must be endlessly fascinating. I’m intrigued to see how Spanish has trickled into Tagalog and other languages like Cebuano.

        Thanks for the well-wishes, Dennis! Not to worry as this typhoon has been hugely over-hyped in the media. We’re now looking at much less of a monster.

        September 22, 2013
  3. The Pamplona captured in your photos is definitely so different from the published images of the city where huge crowds await the bulls to have their annual San Fermín. I’m particularly intrigued with the banner saying something about the Basque Country (Euskara), I guess. A union of the region? Anyway, another unique corner of Spain beautifully captured in your words and pictures, James!

    September 21, 2013
    • Thank you, Bama! And you’re right – everyone seems to come here just for the festival. Pamplona is also called Iruña in Euskara… it was historically the traditional capital of the Basques, so some separatists see it as the future seat of government for a united homeland.

      September 21, 2013
  4. Reblogged this on Just Go Places.

    September 22, 2013
  5. Hi,

    I love how you’ve incorporated the images to help understand the environment!

    Also, I am new to the blogging community and would love for you to check out and follow my travel blog and help spread the word! Thanks!

    http://jafre101.wordpress.com/

    September 22, 2013
    • Glad you enjoy it, Ameera. 🙂

      September 22, 2013
  6. I’m glad you went, James, and were able to give me a taste of the Spanish city I avoided because it was fiesta time by the time I got up to that part of the country! I love the spiral roof 🙂

    September 22, 2013
    • You’re right Meredith, that spiral roof is a wonderful little feature… it just goes to show that some things are invisible from the street. 🙂 I wonder how crowded the fiesta would have been if you did end up going – perhaps nothing like the numbers it sees today!

      September 22, 2013
  7. Reblogged this on Holiday Rent Club in Spain.

    September 26, 2013
  8. Pamplona is a city that’s already in my sights! Ever since I watched Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure, I’ve wanted to visit this place!

    September 26, 2013
    • It would be fascinating to visit it twice – once during the madness of San Fermín, and once more when the city is its normal self.

      September 27, 2013

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