Worth a visit, even when the bulls aren’t running

Since ancient Pamplona could not build outside of the city walls, expansion had to be up, resulting in tall, narrow buildings. During the Fiesta de San Fermin the bulls run here on Estafeta Street, where there is no excape for the runners except in the doorways of the buildings.

By Marilyn Heimburger
Photos by Don and Marilyn Heimburger

Mention Pamplona, Spain, and most people will respond, “Oh, the running of the bulls!”

Although the Fiesta of San Fermin (July 6-14), made known internationally by Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, is Pamplona’s most familiar claim to fame, the city boasts many other reasons for tourists to visit, even when the bulls aren’t running.

Pamplona is the capital city of the region of Navarre, a beautiful and diverse area in northern Spain, bordering France along the Pyrenees Mountains. It is just one hour by air and a little more than three hours by train from Madrid. Barcelona is a three and a half hour train ride away.

Once you’ve arrived and settled into your hotel (the city has one five-star, eight four-star and 20 three-star hotels) start your walking tour at the heart and soul of the city, the Plaza del Castillo.

This tree-lined square was named after the 14th century castle which used to be at one of its corners, and was the site of bullfights from the mid-14th century until 1844 when a bull ring was constructed. Now it has a bandstand in the center and is a popular place for leisure activities and for meeting friends. Cafes line the square, and the streets leading from the square are filled with tapas bars and small shops.

Cafe Iruna, Pamplona Spain
The Cafe Iruna is a popular meeting place. Hemingway waits for you to join him in the Hemingway Bar.

The Cafe Iruna, which looks out onto the Plaza del Castillo, was a favorite meeting place of Ernest Hemingway. It includes the Hemingway Bar, where a life-sized statue of Hemingway leans on the counter, awaiting your Kodak moment. This large cafe was the first location in Pamplona to install electric lights. With its mirrored walls and mirrored mosaic trim bordering the ceiling, the cafe demonstrated the new lights in 1888. Residents gathered inside with anticipation, and as the electric lights were turned on, they rushed in terror to the exits, suspecting witchcraft was responsible for the illumination. The cafe remains an everyday meeting place for the locals. A two-course meal with dessert and beverage costs 13 euros. Or just have coffee while you plan the rest of your route.

Be sure to visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria, in what was the old Borough of La Navarreria. Look for the magnificent alabaster tomb of King Carlos III of Navarre and his wife Eleanor, the 16th century stained glass windows and the 13th-14th century Gothic cloister, which is considered one of the finest in Europe. When the church’s ancient Romanesque exterior collapsed, it was replaced during the 17th century with a Neo-Classical facade, hiding the French-Gothic interior. The figure of Mary in the main altar under the silver canopy has been nicknamed “Mary of the Adopted Child,” since the child in the sculpture is a replacement for the original, stolen during the 16th century. For that reason many families present their adopted children here.

Tomb of King Carlos
The alabaster tomb of King Carlos III and his wife Eleanor of Castile.

If you visit during the spring, notice the blossom-filled chestnut trees that surround the cathedral. In the fall, pick up a fallen chestnut and put it in your pocket. Locals believe carrying the chestnut will protect you from aches and pains in your bones!

The fortified Church of San Cernin from the ancient borough of that same name also boasts a Gothic interior. The Pocico on the outside of the church marks the location of the well where San Cernin baptized the first Christians in Pamplona. Among those baptized was San Fermin, the son of a Roman general. He became a bishop and was eventually beheaded, giving some historic significance to the red scarves worn around one’s neck during the Fiesta of San Fermin.

The Church of San Nicolas, another fortified church from the 12th century, features a watchtower, a Gothic interior, and the largest Baroque organ in Pamplona.

Gothic cloister of the Cathedral of Santa Maria.
The racket made by turning the crank of this wooden noisemaker still serves as the “Call to worship” at the Cathedral when the bells are silenced from Good Friday until Easter morning.

The Town Hall with its remarkable Baroque facade was built between 1753 and 1759 to replace the old one from the 15th century, which was falling into ruin. The launch of a rocket from the upper floor balcony at noon on July 6th each year marks the official beginning of the Festival of San Fermin.

The Navarre History Museum is worth the two-euro cost of admission. A short walk from the Plaza del Castillo, the former 16th century hospital, houses art and archeological exhibits which are arranged from the Prehistoric and Roman ages in the basement through the 20th century on the fourth floor. Included in the collection are intricate Roman mosaics, a Spanish-Muslim casket from the Monastery of Leyere and a painting by Goya.

Pamplona’s town hall — a rocket launched from the upper floor balcony marks the beginning of the Fiesta de San Fermin.

The route that the bulls run during the Sanfermines is much easier to see without dodging the bulls. Since medieval times the bulls have been driven through the streets to where the bullfights are held, first to the Plaza del Castillo and then to the bullring.

Follow the 1/2-mile route from the corral at the base of Santo Domingo Street to the niche in the wall holding a small statue of San Fermin. Here the runners pause and sing to San Fermin, asking for protection.

Continue up the street to the Town Hall Square, where the area is wider and runners have many places to escape. Make the 90-degree turn where the bulls often slip and fall, onto Estafeta Street, and look up at the second floor balcony of the Gran Hotel La Perla, from which Hemingway watched the action. Here the route is narrow and the only escape from the bulls is in the doorways of buildings.

At the end of the street the route slopes slightly downhill and narrows through wooden fences that funnel the bulls and runners into the bullring. During the few minutes that the bullrun lasts, all stoplights are kept at red to allow quick passage of emergency vehicles, should they be needed.

One million people come to Pamplona for the Sanfermines, which opens with a rocket blast from the balcony of the Town Hall at noon on July 6. The bulls run every morning at 8 am from July 7-14. Viewing space on private balconies lining the route can sell for 150 euros per tourist per day. Of the 6,000 runners, on average each year three people are gored, 80 injured and one dies about every 10 years. The runners are dressed in white with a red scarf around the neck, and carry a rolled-up newspaper to hold in front of the bull’s eyes, in case they get too close. A Sanfermines museum is being planned for 2012, so tourists can experience the July event throughout the year.

the bullring in Pamplona
The bullring in Pamplona is the third largest in the world.

Pamplona’s Plaza de Toros (bullring) is the third largest in the world, after those in Mexico City and Madrid. The caretaker of the bullring lives year-round with his family in an adjoining house. This “concierge of the bull ring” takes great pride in keeping the building and grounds in beautiful condition, including the small chapel where the bullfighters kneel and pray before entering the ring. Tickets to the bullfights, held each day during the week of the Sanfermines, range from 400 euros in the shaded seats to 10 euros in the sun. Rumor has it that those in the sun usually have more fun partying than those watching the bullfight from the expensive seats. The money collected from ticket sales goes to charity, as does half of the meat from the bulls, which are butchered on site after the fights.

Hemingway statue in Pamplona
The chapel where bullfighters pray before entering the ring.

Outside of the bullring stands a statue of Ernest Hemingway, who made the Fiesta of San Fermin and the running of the bulls internationally famous. On the morning of July 6, the opening day of the Fiesta, a group of young people traditionally tie a huge red scarf around the statue’s neck, declaring that the festivities can now begin, since Hemingway has joined the party.

Encierro statue
The statue of the Encierro. The artist’s face is on the figure in front of the bull.

The Encierro statue, which vividly depicts the excitement of the running of the bulls, is located a short walk from the Plaza del Castillo, in modern Pamplona. First erected with fewer figures, the statue was so well received that the artist was asked to add to it. The enlarged statue was completed in 2006. The artist put his own face on the figure in the front, about to be stepped on by the bull.

Known here as “pinchos” (the Basque word for tapas) these tasty, unique small portions of seafood, vegetables, meat and pastries are served in bars on the streets that fan out from the Plaza del Castillo. Although pinchos are available all day, eating dinner late is the norm here, so after 9:30 p.m. wander in and out of the small bars and sample a variety of the offerings while standing at the bar with a glass of wine. Many of the recipes are award winners in local and national competitions. Look for the framed certificates proudly displayed on the walls. Baserri won first place for its vegetable Rubik’s cube. Bar Gaucho is also popular with the locals. An award-winning pincho in the “textures” category features slow-cooked salmon topped with a paper-thin loop of raw white asparagus.

Tapas bar
A selection of pinchos awaits the evening’s rush.

Baserri’s award-winning pincho, the vegetable Rubik’s cube.

Pamplona and the region of Navarre boast three restaurants with a one-star Michelin rating. One of them is Rodero, located near the bullring and offering a creative tasting menu of an appetizer, three starters, two second courses and two desserts for around 60 euros.

Relatively new to Pamplona is La Mar Salada, featuring chef Martin Iturri, who worked briefly in Chicago with the Lettuce Entertain You organization. His tasting menu, including two types of paella, a rice dish, is outstanding.

Chef Martin Iturri prepares paella.

Originally a Vasconian settlement called Iruna (meaning “city”), Pamplona was named after Roman General Pompey, who founded the city in 75 BC, complete with drains, walls, moats, public baths, temples and houses. Remains of the Roman baths were recently found under the streets of the old quarter while upgrading the town’s infrastructure.

Occupied by Visigoths and Muslims between the 6th and 9th centuries, the Kingdom of Pamplona was founded in the 10th century by the city’s nobles. The city grew during the next two centuries primarily because of the steady stream of pilgrims trekking over the Pyrenees Mountains through Pamplona to the tomb of St. James at Santiago de Compostela. Travelers who decided to stay in Pamplona, and French traders and free artisans who came to provide services for the pilgrims, founded the Boroughs of San Cernin and San Nicolas. These two boroughs, along with the Borough of the Navarreria, which was inhabited by the locals, were each surrounded by walls, had its own fortified cathedral, and was governed separately.

In 1423 King Carlos III ordered walls between the boroughs to be removed, unified their outer walls, and built a city hall where the current 18th century city hall now stands. Pamplona became a fortress city with the construction of a Citadel and was a stronghold for defending Spain against France. The Citadel, considered the best example of Spanish renaissance military architecture, is now the site of beautiful parks and gardens. More than three miles of the medieval walls are still in beautiful condition, inviting a walk through historic gates, to ancient bastions and over bridges.

Expansion outside of the city walls didn’t begin until the end of the 19th century. Until then, growth within the walls meant not more but taller buildings, an unusual sight in Spanish cities, where 2-3 story structures are the norm. You can see these tall and colorful buildings in the old quarter along the streets that fan out from the Plaza del Castillo.

The symbol of a shell identifies the hostel where pilgrims can spend the night for six euros.
A pilgrim from Canada with her credentials for walking the Way of St. James.

The Pilgrim’s Way to St. James (Camino de Santiago) has passed through Pamplona for centuries. According to legend, the body of St. James the Apostle was brought by boat to the “end of the western world,” after he was beheaded by in Jerusalem in 44 AD. It is said that his body arrived in the boat covered in scallop shells, and was buried in secret in Compostela, forgotten until re-discovered in 812. Compostela became an important pilgrimage site, with the number of pilgrims reaching its peak in the 12th century.

Way to St. James
On a windy hill outside of Pamplona, a pilgrim poses with the metal sculpture depicting the Camino de Santiago.

In the 1980’s interest in the Way to St. James rebounded. A total of 82,000 pilgrims are expected this year because the Feast of St. James (July 25) falls on a Sunday, an event which doesn’t happen again for 11 years. Pilgrims register their name, age, country of origin, and motivation for making the pilgrimage, and carry a credential, which is stamped each time they reach the next destination on their trek. Once spring begins, pilgrims can be seen throughout Pamplona, wearing hiking shoes, large backpacks, and carrying the symbolic scallop shell somewhere on their load. The pathway is marked with the shell symbol and yellow arrows. Hostels provide a place to sleep along the way for a few euros a night.

Pamplona, with a population of 180,000, is very proud of its parks, which comprise more than 20% of the city. In fact, the city claims to be the greenest city in Spain, with almost 34 square yards of green space per resident.

An English-style garden (the largest park in the city) is built on the facing of the Citadel. The interior of the Citadel houses the Ciudadela Park. There you’ll find an open-air sculpture museum and military buildings housing art exhibitions. Taconera Park is on a bastion of the ancient walls, and contains a zoo (yes, a zoo) within the moat.

In addition to many other parks, including a Japanese garden, there is a 7-1/2-mile walking path along the Arga River with areas to picnic and fish. Most are easily accessible by foot from the old quarter, ready to explore and enjoy.

The region of Navarre offers diverse landscapes and opportunities for excursions outside of Pamplona, from the Pyrenees in the north to desert in the south.

Church of Stain May of Eunate
The Romanesque church of Saint Mary of Eunate along the Pilgrim’s Way.

The 13th century Romanesque Church of Saint Mary of Eunate is located southwest of Pamplona toward Estella, on the Pilgrim’s Way to St James. The origin of the peculiar octagonal stone building is unclear. Some legends connect it with the Templars, some as a shelter or hospital for 13th century pilgrims, many of whom appear to have been buried there. Some attribute to it the same mystical energies as that of Stonehenge and the pyramids. It continues to be a popular stop for pilgrims today.

Navarre is known for its fine wines. The Arinzano Winery operated by the Chivite family has been awarded Pago status, which is the highest level of wine in Spain, an achievement shared with only four other estates in the country. The beautiful estate and winery lies along the Ega River, and is open for tours.

Spanish gardens
The market gardens along the Ebro River near Tudelo.

The Arinzano Winery
Chef Jose at Restaurante Principe de Viana serves vegetables harvested that morning from his market garden.

The area around Tudela, about 60 miles south of Pamplona, is known for its market gardens, producing excellent vegetables from the rich soils in the flood plain of the Ebro River. Visit Restaurante Principe de Viana in Murchante, where Chef Jose Aguado prepares vegetables harvested that morning from his family’s garden. A local specialty served only in April and May is menestra, a vegetable stew with asparagus, artichokes, lettuce hearts, peas, beans and chunks of ham.

ancient olive tree
The olive trees at the entrance to the Hacienda Queiles are more than 1,000 years old.

Menestra, a vegetable stew served only in April and May, is a local specialty. Photo courtesy Restaurante Príncipe de Viana

It is a little known fact that Spain produces more olive oil than Italy. To find out how it’s done, visit Hacienda Queiles, an olive oil producer in the Tudela area, that prides itself on green technology and excellent quality. Its olive oil is sold in the United States at Dean and DeLuca, Williams Sonoma and Whole Foods. Tours are available for individuals, families, or groups; e-mail

Olive oil from the Hacienda Queiles

The city’s only five-star hotel is the historic Gran Hotel La Perla, ideally located in the heart of the old quarter on the Plaza del Castillo. Ernest Hemingway stayed here each time he returned to Pamplona. In fact, his room (which was number 217 until the hotel was extensively remodeled and renumbered to 201) is still as it was when he stayed in it. His balcony overlooks Estafeta Street, where he watched the running of the bulls without leaving his room. Only the bathroom has been enlarged and modernized. Other celebrities, including Orson Welles and violinist Pable Sarasate, also stayed here.

Hemingway's room at the Hotel Perla
Ernest Hemingway’s room at the Gran Hotel la Perla

Owned by the same family for three centuries, the hotel’s renovated lobby of glass and stainless steel with white marble floors and stairways is punctuated with antiques from its earlier days: among them an original switchboard, mailbox, and the first elevator in Pamplona, which was still in use until 1991. The hotel also purchased some furnishings, including wooden chairs now in the hotel library, and original recipes (still used with some personal touches) in the hotel restaurant, La cocina de Alex Mugica, from Hemingway’s favorite restaurant when it closed.

Among Pamplona’s eight four-star hotels is the elegant Palacio Guendulain, built in the 18th century palace of the Viceroy of New Granada. Located a short walk from the Plaza del Castillo, it was the residence of the Guendulain family (now living in Madrid) for over two centuries until the end of 2008, and opened as a hotel in September 2009. It has 25 guest rooms, a lounge bar and facilities for meetings and events. Some of the guest rooms use furnishings original to the palace. The carriage on the hotel logo pays homage to the exquisite gilded carriage, also original to the palace, which is on display in the lobby.

Antique switchboard from earlier days at the Gran Hotel la Perla

The Royal Palace of Olite is a beautifully restored 15th century palace, part of which is now a Parador, or hotel. It was commissioned by Carlos III, the king of Navarre who unified Pamplona, and whose alabaster tomb lies in the Cathedral of Santa Maria. It was one of the most luxurious palaces in Europe in its day and contains a hanging garden designed for the king’s wife. Stay in the palace overnight, or for a delightful day trip from Pamplona, take a tour of the palace and the adjoining chapel of St. George, and eat your midday meal at the Parador restaurant.

The Royal Palace of Olite

Restaurant at the Parador of Olite

For an English-speaking tour guide who can lead you through Pamplona with insight, humor and local anecdotes, contact Francisco Glaria with Novotur guias.

A knight in armor stands guard at
the Parador of Olite.

If you stay overnight in Madrid at the beginning or end of your Pamplona adventure, stay at the Hotel Meninas, located a short walk from Madrid’s Royal Palace and the Madrid Opera House. The adjoining El Cafe de La Opera features professional opera singers who serve you and perform arias while you enjoy your meal.

For information about Pamlona, go to:; for complete information about accommodations in Pamplona and the region of Navarre see:, or; for Spain,

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