Pamplona’s vibrant and exciting atmosphere inspired the later Nobel Prize Laureate Ernest Hemingway to use the city as the backdrop of the novel “The Sun Also Rises”, which is set in the world of bullfighting. The highly acclaimed book laid the foundation for Pamplona’s international fame, much of which is associated with the bull running during the Fiesta San Fermin from July 6 to 14, a traditional event made famous by the book, and today attracting thousand of visitors. The media unfailingly provides extensive coverage of the event, and photos of the thrill seekers in their white and red clothes, scattering at the thunder of hooves, are a familiar front-page item during the Fiesta.
Ostensibly the event is to transport the bulls from their off-site corrals to the bullring for the day’s spectacular. The festival of the running of the bulls today developed from the age-old practise of the bulls’ handlers “encouraging” the animals to move quickly through the streets. Young men used to throw themselves into the fray to prove their manhood. Today the run is no different apart from the huge organisational effort made to control it and minimise the number of casualties. On the morning of the run the streets are barricaded to provide the route but the barriers include bolt holes through which a man can pass to escape but are too narrow for a bull to pass through. After a Benediction at the statue of San Fermin a rocket is set off to announce the corral gate has been opened and this is followed by a second rocket pronouncing the bulls are released. There then follows about four minutes of the most amazing orchestrated mayhem to behold. Pounding hooves and frantic feet move in a frenzied attempt to navigate the narrow streets. The bulls have no concern for the safety of their human counterparts and it’s not unusual for injuries as man and beast battle for supremacy of speed along the 826 metre course. A third rocket signals the entrance of the bulls into the ring and a fourth announces the end of the run with all 6 bulls and 9 steers safely corralled. The men will live to run another day but the 6 bulls will be killed in the ring in an entirely different man v beast battle.
The Pamplona Encierro is certainly one of the most evocative historical events in Europe but Pamplona is not stuck in time, on the contrary: whilst retaining its buoyancy, its abundance of colours, its lush parks and medieval city walls, it has become a modern town and a charming tourist destination that still exults in the passion and jocularity that once attracted the young Hemingway.
The compact city centre makes it easy to explore on foot the cobblestone streets San Antón, San Nicolás, Estafeta, or Mayor in the old quarter. Surrounded by ancient city walls and their sentinel belfries, you feel the breath of history; Pamplona was founded in 75 B.C. on an ancient settlement by the Vascons, a now largely forgotten people that populated the Navarre region, of which Pamplona today is the capital. Over the centuries Pamplona has been touched by several cultures, but has retained its hospitality and as well as its quaint character. The small churches, noble, ecclesiastical buildings and narrow alleyways constitute the historical and cultural heritage of the city, the ancient seat of viceroys and bishops. Some of the attractive shops in the oldest part of Pamplona are more than 100 years old, and sometimes street artists or puppeteers will still be found in these areas practising their crafts.
I highly recommend you get lost in the pedestrian-only historic centre, where the Pamplonese meet and chat in bars while enjoying a glass of regional wine accompanied by tapas or pinchos- a varied selection of warm or cold appetizers- before indulging in the rich local cuisine.
With good deals on flights to Spain Pamplona is an important stopover for visitors and a good starting point for further travel in the area. Pilgrims also take a break here on their way to Santiago de Compostela, perhaps by visiting the Cathedral of Santa Maria and its unusual Gothic cloister.
Other places well worth visiting are the Plaza del Castillo in the heart of the city with its arches, the Museum of Navarre with valuable exhibits of Navarrese art, the church of San Saturnino, and the City Hall, from where a ceremonial rocket is launched each year on July 6th to announce the beginning of the fiesta.
Pamplona is no longer limited to being the backdrop to a novel; Ernest Hemingway returned eight times to the city. He was followed by many others, such as Orson Welles, Ava Gardner, Margeaux Hemingway, Arthur Miller, the photographer Inge Morat as well as Antillean Nobel poet Derek Walcott, all who were all captivated by the variety and charm of the city. And even if no-one among them braved the bull running, perhaps they enjoyed a quiet game of Basque pelota instead?
[Photo credits @Flickr: Carlos Octavio Uranga, Jope 1978, psychopenguin]
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