So, San Fermin is over for another year. Pamplona’s population will suddenly shrink from over a million back to a comfortable 200,000 and the vast majority of tourists will forget that the city even exists for another 12 months. That makes the remaining 51 weeks of the year the perfect time to visit!
The Casco Viejo, or old city, in Pamplona is a maze of streets, some cobbled, some modernised, but all with their own charm and mystique. It’s easy to get lost, but it’s easy to get your bearings again quite quickly. Plaza de Castillo is the picturesque square at the heart of the city and you should use it to find your way around. Have a wander around and find some quirky shops and delightful little bars. My personal favourites are Café Iruña where you can have a reasonably priced menu del dia in eloquent surroundings, and La Mandarra de la Ramos where you can graze on pintxos (similar to tapas but in a very Basque way) and sip a cold Navarran rosé wine. Be sure not to miss Calle de la Estafeta either, as it’s probably the one street you have seen more than any other on TV whenever they show the bulls running through the streets. As darkness falls, head to the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) for a floodlit view of one of Pamplona’s most picturesque buildings.
Old City Walls
Walk through the city centre to the Cathedral and you’ll find it a good starting point for exploring the old city walls of Pamplona. Let your mind drift back through time and imagine the city at its magnificent best, a fortification looking out over the River Arga. From the walls the river valley opens up in front of you as the river winds is way around the nearby hills. Turn to your right and walk along the walls to the Interpretation Centre in the Fortín de San Bartolomé. Once you’ve finished in there, backtrack and continue your journey through Pamplona’s history. Look out for the impressive Portal de Francia (French Gate) along your way to see a wooden drawbridge complete with portcullis.
Eventually your wanderings will take you out of the old town and you’ll find the inner citadel of the Ciudadela. The first stone for this extraordinary fortification was laid in 1571. This ancient pentagon has a bastion in each corner and a moat running all the way around. It is set in what is now extensive parkland. Inside the citadel, explore the buildings as they often host art exhibitions. A few pieces of ancient artillery are also on display. Just over the road is the Taconera Park where you can see deer and peacocks if you are lucky.
Escape from the city by taking a stroll alongside the River Arga where an 11km riverside walk has been established. As the seasons change, so does the scenery. It’s glorious in the spring sunshine, refreshing in the summer heat, sensational with autumn colours and rather romantic with some winter snow. A handy guide in English has been created to help you find your way.
Any place with a long and rich history is bound to have a few museums. Pamplona is no exception. The most notable examples are:
– The Museum of Navarra, located close to the Ayuntamiento.
– The University of Navarra Museum which is a brand new art and photography venue touted by some as Pamplona’s answer to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
– The Planetarium if you wish to explore the heavens.
– Jorge Oteiza Museum Foundation located in nearby Alzuza which houses an impressive collection of art in a magnificent rural location.
Camino de Santiago
When walking through the old town, you can’t help but notice the occasional shell imbedded in a wall or on the floor. This symbol denotes the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and part of this long distance pilgrimage footpath passes right through Pamplona on its way from Roncesvalles to Puente le Reina. The city even featured in the film, The Way starring Michael Douglas, and it is something you should watch if you need inspiration to begin your walk! You can so some of the walk in a day travelling some 13km to the Camino sculpture among the wind turbines on El Perdón hill.
If you want to stretch your legs more energetically than strolling around town, but 13km each way sounds a bit too far, then jump in a taxi and ask them to take you to the base of San Cristobal hill on the Northwest edge of Pamplona. It is a moderate climb on well-established paths which will take you to the summit. There you can explore Fort San Cristobal which was built in the late 1800s after the Carlist War. It was used as a prison during the Civil War so it’s not difficult to get a sense of the history beneath your feet once you get there.
It is impossible to visit Pamplona and not bump into Ernest Hemingway somewhere along the way. It was, after all, his book The Sun Also Rises which brought fame to the city and its bull-running fiesta. The aforementioned Café Iruña was one of his regular haunts and the Rincon de Hemingway bar which perches on the side of the café features a bronze sculpture of the man himself propping up the bar. Make your way over to the Plaza de Toro and you’ll find another sculpture of him.
It is also impossible to visit Pamplona and not come across the bulls. Their image is everywhere from illustrations on closed shutters to decorations in the bars and restaurants. There is a terrific sculpture of a man laying prone on the floor whilst sharp horned bulls run close by. For me, that’s as close as I want to come to the experience. It is possible to follow the Route of the Encierro allowing you to walk all the way from where the poor animals are released from their enclosure, up the cobbled hill, through the narrow streets and finally into the bullring itself where they will later meet their end. It’s certainly not a fiesta to everyone’s taste which is why I wanted to show you that this wonderful city is so much more than the one week of the year for which it is most famous.
Where to Stay?
There are quite a few options for accommodation in Pamplona. We prefer the NH Pamplona Iruña Park as it makes sure that we get a stretch of our legs! If you want to be a bit more central, the Tres Reyes might suit you better, or the Maisonnave which will put you right in the heart of the old town. Of course, if you are there for the full Hemingway experience, Gran Hotel La Perla is probably your best option, but at a price!