Pamplona and the Encierro

Day 7 & 8

Pamplona was the part of the trip that was going to be the highlight for me and it didn’t disappoint. A somewhat less accessible destination for the conventional tourist, I’d read about its history and character, made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s book The Sun Also Rises.

It’s history is older than Christ and because of its natural fortification on a massive hilltop and its strategic importance to Spain from the Pyrenees, its been besieged, sacked, re-captured, partitioned, fortified, re-fortified, won and lost time and time again to a host of invaders. From the Romans who took the city after the entire population committed suicide to the Vikings, Moors, the Spanish fiefdom’s and French soldiers who captured and surrendered the city after being starved out of occupancy. It remains the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Navarre.

Enter into the city via the funicular and you can feel the real authenticity to it as soon as you step onto the street. It doesn’t feel anything other than Spanish. The streets are cobbled at times, buildings shabby and decayed in places and covered in posters when shut down, typical of any ancient city. But within that are beautifully restored and respected structures. Away from the old city you have stunning offices, shops and government buildings that are completely contemporary and in fitting with the surroundings.

In the daytime it’s only a handful of tourists that meander around along with the aged who meet on benches to talk and undertake the strangest lottery you’d see. Like a mini fairground attraction, you purchase tickets to instantly win things like household goods such as cutlery at an array of stalls by the bus station. It was mid morning and place was full of people buying tickets, collecting candles and other winnings.

At lunchtime the time honoured ritual of the siesta commences. After 1.30pm you wont find many shops open until 5.30pm (except the bigger department stores). The bars and restaurants are bustling but not crazy busy, there are no Itsu’s or Pret a Manger’s here. People go home to eat and siesta. We didn’t have time for that and sat in the main square just observing in fascination, surrounded by a variety of American’s who come to pay homage to one of their few literary icons.

The Spaniards we talk to – largely touristic staff in hotels, bars and shops are warm, kind and pleasant people. On the street, people will always smile at you, knowing you bring economic value to their city but on the whole they’d prefer it to stay Spanish for the Spaniards and ideally for the Pamplonans. To that end, you can see that while there has been huge progress, investment and development on this World Heritage site, they want it to stay authentic, which is really the world that encapsulates the city.

Siesta Over

It’s in the evenings though that you really feel the heart of the city. After 7pm, there are parks filled with children and parents, all playing outside and entertaining each other. There are no kids on phones or Xbox’s here, they all play, scream and run around with balls and on swings as their parents socialize with each other. Move to the next street and square and there are hundreds of couples and families just out walking the streets, window shopping or actually shopping as part of their daily life. They live in the walled city, use it and don’t see it as anything else other than home.

The bars are alive with people spilled out onto the pavement, some drinking beer, some with just a plate of tapas and water. It’s not like and English pub where drinking is the order of the day until 11pm. They go to be with friends, to drink or not, but the sounds reverberate through the narrow five storey streets and get louder and louder as the evening passes.

By 9pm the restaurants start to fill, not only with adults but with whole families and young kids. It is the Pamplonans who clearly regulate the price of food and drink here by voting with their feet as eating out and living al fresco is part of the way of life.

You can see one of the reasons Hemingway and his crowd were attracted to the place as it remains economically viable to be an alcoholic in the city. The quality and value of the food and drink is exceptional. We took dinner in the Café Iruna on the main square, one of the places made famous by Hemingway. We were expecting to pay a premium and get an average dinner, which is the usual form in pretty much any place in the world made famous by fable. What we actually got was the best meal deal we’d had in the city and on the whole trip.

For just under 20 euro’s we were given a beautiful three course meal, myself choosing gazpacho followed by fresh whole sea bream with complimentary wine from a local vineyard. I took the sorbet for dessert and mixed it with a shot of vodka to help the digestion and watched in amazement as the barman must have tipped the vodka bottle for a good ten seconds onto a huge ice filled brandy glass. Sam and I ended up sharing what was probably four shots for a couple more euros.

And then of course, there’s the famous San Fermin – the festival of the bull – and its legendary encierro (the actual Pamplona bull run) where for 12 days from 6th July each year, over 1m people come to watch or participate in the festival.

We’ve all seen the images and footage where hundreds of men run down half a mile of the Old Town’s streets towards the bull ring, chased by half a dozen bulls. It was only a chance comment that led us to discover that one of our former colleagues had actually participated in one of the runs. Paul Eisinger, our web man at the time, had participated in this years ago and narrowly escaped a goring. Here is his account published in the Guardian.

For us, the trip was far calmer and had been a welcome rest and relief. We’d arrived on Wednesday after a short 50km run from Estella, one of the stops on the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, saw us reach Pamplona and a 36 hour rest. As we turned the corner on our final climb, we were welcomed with the most stunning spectacle of Pamplona in the distance set against the most beautiful painted sky and greenery. Before descending, we stopped to rest where we had a chance meeting over a cup of Sam’s tea with former champion racer Prudencio Indurain, brother of the world famous cyclist Miguel, who was just out for his daily ride up and mountain and back.

Strava Stats (our ones are a bit more shameful than Indurain's I'm afraid)

The near two day break was more than welcome as we took time out, played tourist and just people watched in the various squares and bars that make up one of the most stunning and authentic cities in Spain.

We were now heading out on the last part of the journey. We’d had to spend time putting together different options to cross the Pyrenees as bad weather in France was heading to the mountains and there were severe weather warnings in place for the weekend. Heavy rain isn’t a problem, it’s just a bit irritating. As we’d discovered the previous weekend though, cycling in rain at 1800m is a bit different as you’re actually getting hailed on, freezing cold and become an obvious lightning conductor. Friday would be fine but it was the weekend where the problems were expected.