Pamplona, Spain — Photo courtesy of Jaume Escofet via Flickr
Every July, the Spanish town of Pamplona welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors to the round-the-clock party known as the Festival of San Fermin, or the running of the bulls.
Indeed, the nine-day fest (July 6-14 each year) focuses on the morning ritual in which thousands of runners tempt fate by dodging six bulls in their half-mile sprint through city streets to the bull ring.
Made famous by writer Ernest Hemingway in his novel, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, the festival’s main event gets started at 8 a.m. every day when bulls and runners take off at the sound of a rocket. It's all over in about three minutes. So, there’s a lot of time for other amusements during the festival, or at other times of the year if you come to Pamplona when it isn’t quite so crowded with tourists.
Starting the night with a glass of wine at an outdoor bar before dinner is common in Pamplona. — Photo courtesy of Pamplona City Hall
The café culture is alive and well in Pamplona at any time of year, festival or not, so make sure to grab a seat at one of the city’s squares and sip on coffee or wine.
One of Hemingway’s haunts was Café Iruna, on the Plaza del Castillo, and it’s still there. Inside, a photo-ready statue of Hemingway waits for tourists. Across the street from Café Iruna is the Gran Hotel La Perla, the only five-star hotel in town. It’s an ideal, if pricey, place to stay, in the middle of everything. Some rooms have balconies overlooking Estafeta Street, where the bulls run. Hemingway stayed there often and his suite has been renovated to look almost precisely as it did during his days.
A city of about 200,000 in Northeastern Spain, Pamplona is the capital of Navarra, Spain’s breadbasket and producer of the most high-quality vegetables in the country. That makes it a culinary destination where Michelin-starred chefs share the spotlight with locals preparing traditional dishes or young chefs strutting their stuff in the annual pincho competiton. Pinchos are elaborate small plates, a bit like tapas, and are, indeed, miniaturized haute cuisine. The two Michelin-starred restaurants in town are Rodero and Europe, both worth a visit for their innovative cuisine.
The annual Semana del Pincho is a great time to travel to Pamplona as it gives tourists a chance to sample the finest pinchos around town at discounted prices. And any time of year, at bars and cafes throughout the city, locals and tourists meet for pinchos and wine before heading out to dinner. It’s part of the culture.
When the bulls aren’t there, Estafeta Street is a great place to walk and get a feel of Pamplona’s center city. The most spectacular pastry called a garrotico is sold at Beatriz, 22 Estafeta Street. Garroticos are mini chocolate croissants baked on site by the two sisters who own the shop. Buyers form lines out the door to purchase these treats, but they’re well worth the wait. A flaky crust and chocolate that is just a bit bitter oozes out of the warm pastries, a perfect two-bite delight.
Olite, Spain — Photo courtesy of Albert Torelló via Flickr
A must-do day trip, and a place to stay nearby if you’re visiting during the running of the bulls, is the quaint town of Olite, home to a 14th Century architectural gem, the Royal Palace of Olite, from which the Kingdom of Navarra was ruled. Looking like something out of a fairy tale, much of the palace remains intact including many towers that anyone can climb to get a good view of the countryside. One of Spain’s prestigious paradors, the grand hotels run by the Spanish government, often in historical buildings, occupies part of the old palace and is a great place to stay. Next to the parador is the 13th Century Church of Santa Maria, a terrific example of Gothic architecture with an amazingly elaborate carved facade.
There’s so much more: wineries, a salt water spa, quaint towns of the Baztan Valley in the shadow of the Pyrenees, cider making, desert caves and even a part of the famed pilgrim’s route of the Camino de Santiago.