Visiting Spain: Hemingway, bulls and much more highlight historic Pamplona
When Ernest Hemingway attended his first fiesta in 1923 in Pamplona, Spain, he was inspired to write his literary masterpiece, “The Sun Also Rises.”
Today, visitors from around the world attend the annual San Fermin Fiesta for eight
exciting days in July in honor of the patron saint of Navarre in Northern Spain. The event is better known as the “Running of the Bulls.”
But Pamplona has much more to offer than the legendary bullfight and the city has become a popular destination for travelers any time of year, said guide Francisco “Fran” Glaria Baines.
“People have many reasons for coming here,” he said. “We have history, Hemingway, museums, monuments, parks, food, music, fiestas, cathedrals, the city walls, the Camino … So many things to see and do.”
Although the San Fermin Fiesta is known for its bulls, the event also offers a family atmosphere and free entertainment drawing people of all ages. Along with the two-minute running of the bulls each morning, Pamplona is filled with parades, parties, music, dancing, religious events, children’s activities, and flashy fireworks displays.
The city is awash with festival goers wearing white shirts and pants with red bandanas tied around their necks – the official fiesta outfit.
The parade of Giants and Big Heads is packed with parents and children. One of the touching traditions that happen each year is when tiny children give their pacifiers to the huge parading characters as a symbol that the youngsters are no longer babies. It was also funny to see how little ones feign bravery when the mean-looking Big Head Vinegar Face passed by.
A favorite with visitors is finding Hemingway haunts. It’s certainly not difficult to do. The American writer is considered the godfather of Pamplona and there are reminders of him everywhere.
The war-weary wounded Hemingway first visited San Fermin in 1923. He quickly fell in love with the city and became fascinated by bullfighting. Hemingway returned eight more times. His last visit was in 1959, two years before he took his own life with his favorite shotgun.
A life-size statue of Hemingway leaning up against his favorite bar in Café Iruna is a popular photo spot. A few steps from Cafe Iruna is Gran Hotel La Perla, where Papa stayed in Room 201, now preserved with original furniture plus Hemingway memorabilia.
Look for the bust of Hemingway in the hotel lobby. During San Fermin, the sculpture sports a red scarf. Also look in a lobby hallway for a poster from the 1923 San Fermin, the first one Hemingway attended.
Of course, back then the annual fiesta was not the international party it is today. For more than 400 years, the bulls had been running in Pamplona for a very practical reason – to get them from the stockyard to the bullring.
WALKING IN PAMPLONA
One of the best ways to see Pamplona is to lace on your walking shoes and head out with a good map or guide. Founded by Pompey, to whom the city owes it name (Pompaelo), Pamplona today is a monumental city thanks to its history as a crossroads of cultures, the capital of the Kingdom of Navarre, and the starting point of the Way of St. James in Spain.
Pamplona itself is an historic walled city, settled by the Romans in 75 B.C. Pamplona’s architecture is majestic, and its medieval city walls are among the best preserved in Europe. The walk along the city walls starts at the 18th century Fort of San Bartolome which now houses the Fortification Interpretation Centre. It’s a good place to learn the history and evolution of Pamplona’s defensive enclosure.
Stroll through the Gateway of San Nicolas to enter the Park of La Taconera. In days of old, it was one of six gateways to the walled city of Pamplona. The gateway was built of stone in 1666. The oldest park in the city, La Taconera offers lovely gardens, statues and surprising sights of deer, ducks and peacocks that roam the moats of the walled area.
Visit Plaza Del Castillo, known as the city’s “living room” because it has been the stage for so many main events and is a popular meeting place for locals. For more than two centuries, the plaza has held markets, tournaments, political demonstrations, military parades and, until 1844, bullfights. It is surrounded by houses dating from the 18th country with wide balconies for watching the goings-on. The plaza also has many interesting shops and dining spots.
The Museum of Navarre gives a great overview of the region’s history. Showcasing regional artifacts, it features four floors of treasures dating to the city’s Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque times. The museum is housed in a historic hospital.
Stop by the Cathedral of Santa Maria built during the 14th and 15th century on a site where a Roman temple used to stand. A towering Gothic church, the cathedral holds the alabaster tombs of King Carlos II and his wife Leonor. At the foot of the king is a carved lion.
At the foot of the queen are statues of two vicious dogs. “They are two ugly dogs fighting over a bone,” Fran said. “The ‘bone’ would be the kingdom of Navarre that King Carlos knew would be fought over after his death.”
Just outside downtown Pamplona sits the University of Navarre, one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Europe and a popular place for American students studying abroad. The leafy campus is filled with roughly 4 million square feet of green space and a variety of architecturally significant buildings.
Many travelers feel the same way Hemingway did when he first visited Pamplona. They want to return again and again to discover more of this ancient city’s treasures.
-Story and Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch
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