If you mention Pamplona to a Spaniard, the first thing they say in reply will more than likely be ‘San Fermín.’ If you bring up the topic with someone who hails from outside Spain’s borders they will probably have a similar response if they actually know the name of the festival, and if not they will probably say something along the lines of ‘That place where they do the bull-running’. All over the world, this small and quaint city in the region of Navarra is known largely for one weekend every summer when a large crowd of exuberant thrill-seekers voluntarily choose to be stampeded by a herd of angry cattle. However, what many people don’t realise is that Pamplona is well worth a visit even without the risk of being trampled by heavy hooves.
The hectic July weekend aside, Pamplona has a serene, relaxed atmosphere, ideal for a quiet weekend getaway. In fact, it is so neglected that by the tourism masses that when I ventured there for a night in January I had the excellently-equipped Aloha Hostel all to myself, its central location, cleanliness and abundance of facilities making me completely clueless as to why I was the only guest. Despite my solitude the staff there still made every effort for me, and it is sufficiently spacious that had there been a full house it still wouldn’t have felt cramped.
For anyone who likes to augment their travels with a musical or theatrical performance, Baluarte theatre provides a fine opportunity to do so. Expansive in size, modern in design and pristine in appearance, the acoustics and layout of this venue are such that total immersion in the stage’s ongoings is possible from anywhere in the auditorium. The highlight of my own overnight sojourn in Navarra was seeing a gripping interpretation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, one of opera’s most cherished gems, with Baluarte proving to be the perfect venue for the dramatic tension to have its full impact on the audience. A scrawl through their programme shows that there are no shortage of events ranging from concerts and operas to musicals and plays, and with ticket prices very much within reason.
The only downside to attending something with the duration of an entire opera is that it doesn’t suit Spanish dining times. Attempts at getting fed in time to be inside a theatre at eight o’clock proved fruitless, a baffled waitress laughing at me when I enquired about the possibility of eating at seven. ‘You want the dinner menu NOW?’ she bemusedly asked, as if my rather early request made me seem like a lost alien. By the time poor Giovanni’s trials and tribulations on the Baluarte stage had come to an end, one audience member’s stomach was rumbling and the midnight hour had the majority of the local restaurants stacking their tables and calling it a night. Therefore, as sure as I am that the city is rich in culinary delights, Dominoes Pizza was my only remaining option by the time I was back on the streets.
In the cold light of day, Navarra’s capital more than holds up well. With its lofty position making for a great vantage point from which to enjoy the surrounding rural scenery, the extent to which the old city walls remain intact make the area a gold mine as far as photo opportunities are concerned. One particularly intriguing place for a wander is the old Citadel, the green walkways in the midst of its stone walls giving one a sense of having stepped into another world for a while, with another section of the old fortress now functioning as a museum giving an insight into the city’s history.
In the calm centre, the castle is well worth seeing, while the pretty square of Plaza del Castillo is a perfect spot to sit and enjoy a hot beverage. Art museum enthusiasts will find the Museum of Navarra a worthy attraction, with its collections ranging throughout the past millennium and into this one, while statues and signs detailing the route will remind you that they do indeed run with bulls here every summer.
Not only is Pamplona a lovely place to walk around, but it also ideal to walk into and out of. For walkers braving the world-famous Camino de Santiago in its entirety, this will be the first city they come to after departing from St. Jean Pied de Port and crossing the border into Spain. The previous stopping point is Larrasoaña, a village so tiny that it might not exist at all if it wasn’t for the walking route, and with so little in the way of accommodation that a lot of pilgrims choose to rest their heads (and legs) in Zubiri instead. Either way, a trek of over 20km will have hungry and weary walkers stomping their boots across the River Arga to be faced with the city walls, before crossing the moats and entering through the Gateway of Zumalacárregui.
Departing across another stone bridge sets pilgrims on their way to Puente de la Reina, a village of just over 2,000 inhabitants situated about 24km from its province’s capital, with Cizur Menor making an ideal stopping point along the way. If pilgrims have started their journey in the Pyrenees the route should be starting to even out by now, although it’s not entirely flat and even either! Furthermore, it’s likely that opportunities to buy food will be few and far between at this early and rural stage of the Camino, so make sure your backpack has some means of nourishment packed in with all the changes of clothes and raingear!
Whether it’s part of a longer walking or cycling expedition, a quiet weekend break, a cultural visit or a photography escapade, this underrated city in northern Spain is more than deserving of a few more visitors than it seems to get. And contrary to popular belief, there is still quite a lot to see and do even when there aren’t hordes of people tempting herds of bulls to chase them down the street.