Pamplona, Spain: Not Hemingway’s Bullfighting Cliché

Winding my way back home to southern Spain after seeing Paris and northern France over Christmas break, I passed through the Basque lands surrounding both sides of the western Pyrenees mountains. I loved San Sebastián and had a good time in Bilbao, so it seemed like a no-brainer to visit Pamplona in the neighboring region of Navarra. The city is (in)famous for its annual San Fermín festival every July, which involves an encierro de toros, the Running of the Bulls. This kind of event isn’t unique to the festival—tiny villages here in southern Spain will have their own encierros held in their small plazas—but the one in Pamplona is probably the most significant, popularized by the romanticizing author Ernest Hemingway in his works like The Sun Also Rises.

Pamplona, Spain
Pamplona’s old town

But I passed through the town in January, about as off-season as it gets. What could there possibly be to see and do here outside of the excitement (read: stupidity) of running down the street with enraged bulls? Turns out, Pamplona is actually a lovely regional capital that can stand on its own apart from the sanfermines. And besides, everything in town was (reportedly) much cheaper in the low season!

(Side-note: the title of this post was inspired by Not Hemingway’s Spain, a fine blog run by Valencia-based American expat—and fellow Texan—Zach Frohlich. He’s written against the stereotypes of what he calls the “Hemingway paradigm” and tries to break down the simplified images of Spain many people have that often originate in Hemingway’s writings.)

Pamplona, Spain
Monument to the Encierro (Bull Run)

That’s not to say there wasn’t any evidence of the town’s bullfighting heritage, which is itself an anomaly for a city so far north in Spain: along the main shopping drag there’s a massive statue in honor of bull-running, little red signs at just above eye-level let you know which way the bulls pass in July, and the town’s Christmas markets are held in the sands of the town’s large bullring. But there was much more to Pamplona than TOROS and OLÉ!


Pamplona, Spain
Pilgrim waymarker

The Camino de Santiago—an ancient pilgrimage that runs across northern Spain and ends north of Portugal in Galicia—passes through Pamplona, one of the most important “stages” along the route. A pilgrim refuge or two can be found along the outskirts of town, and you’ll frequently run across the route’s trademark yellow shell icon on a blue background: the waymarker pointing west. Pamplona is the first main city that pilgrims walk through along the camino francés (the “French Way”), or the most popular path that starts in far-southern France).


Modern bullfighting began in Spain about 300 years ago, but Pamplona’s past stretches back at least 1,700 years more. Settled in 74 BCE, it was named for its founder, the Roman general Pompey—a key figure in the conflicts that transformed the Roman Republic into an empire. After said empire fell apart/withdrew from then-Hispania, and after Charlemagne’s empire had lost control over the French borderlands, Pamplona became the capital of the independent Kingdom of Navarra, which spanned the Pyrenees and included most regions that speak the unique Basque language today. This country lasted for almost 1,000 years until the kings of Spain and France annexed its territory outright during the Renaissance era.

Going for a Saturday morning stroll in the ciudadela (citadel)

Pamplona then served as a military outpost against the French, who were on the other side of the mountains and eager to gain more lands. You can appreciate this facet of the town’s past in the ciudadela (citadel) on the edge of the old town. Today mainly green space and a park, it’s a great place to go jogging (“footing” in Spanish), walk your dog, or lose yourself amidst the layers of walls and battlements in the star-shaped complex. City planners lobbed off the citadel’s northern edge in 1888 to begin work on the first ensanche, or urban expansion.

Pamplona, Spain
Interior nave of the cathedral

I was a little put off when I had to pay 5€ to visit the local cathedral, but this was because it also houses a decent history and archaeology museum devoted to the city and region. Part of the museum housed the Occidens exposition. Through exhibits and artifacts, it was argued that western civilization was composed of elements from Athens, Rome, Jerusalem, the “Germanic spirit” (from the assimilated barbarian invaders?) and the Gregorian reforms (during the height of medieval papal supremacy).

However, all the ideas that they had plastered on one wall that they claimed were the basis of Western civilization—things like liberty, equality, tolerance, democracy, etc.—had their origins in the Age of Enlightenment and the revolutions of the 1800s, and they are ideals that the Catholic Church has only very recently come to embrace. Awkward. Still, the cloisters were truly gorgeous, and the joints of the ceilings in the naves were beautifully illuminated and decorated.

Nearby in the old town was the Museo de Navarra, a historical art museum with artifacts and pieces spanning from prehistoric times up to the present day—all from Navarrese artists and locations. Roman mosaics, medieval column capitals, and paintings from the last 1,000 years filled the museum’s four narrow floors. The place’s claim to fame is its Portrait of the Marquis of San Adrián, a work by master Spanish painter Francisco de Goya depicting a Navarrese nobleman.


I’m not sure if it had to do with impending Reyes (Epiphany) celebrations or if it was simply for the heck of it, but as I wandered around the Plaza del Castillo—the heart of the city—a large marching band entered the scene and paraded across the central square. It was great fun enjoying this silly diversion between supper pinchos (see below). But the band left to march into the old town, so I marched into Café Iruña, a turn-of-the-century establishment whose interior has changed little since it first opened in 1888. It was also Hemingway’s favorite haunt, but even without that dubious distinction, still served tasty pinchos and good coffee.

Parade in Café Iruña

While I was there, dipping some fresh churros into molten chocolate, the marching band showed up at the café and simply barged in, crowd and all! I don’t know what the owners thought about the commotion, but I’m sure they didn’t mind getting some extra customers that evening. A few people broke out into dance before the revelry dissipated.

As Navarra borders the Basque Country—home to the artsy appetizers called pintxos—Pamplona had its fair share of good bites, spelled “pinchos” here. I have to be honest and admit that, outside of touring the cathedral, art museum, and citadel park, I didn’t do much else but, uh, eat. Like, from 11am when I arrived in town to about 9pm, you couldn’t tell where my “lunch” pinchos ended and the “dinner” ones began. Haha!

A Pamplona resident looks out from her apartment near the
Monument to the Fueros (Charters) of Navarra

So here are the pinchos I ate in Pamplona. They were just as tasty as the ones in next-door Bilbao or San Sebastián and are one of the main reasons you should spend at least a few hours in town:
  • tortilla (potato omelet)
  • ham/fried zucchini roll on toast
  • meat-stuffed pepper with cheese
  • crab/smoked salmon roll on toast
  • goat cheese, sauce, and tomato on toast
  • boquerones (pickled anchovies) in essentially pico de gallo sauce

Have you ever gone to a place on its off-season? Do you enjoy the quiet calm of low season or the tourist-crammed energy of high season? Comment below!

Pamplona, January 2013

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