Besides the ‘Running of the Bulls,’ that is…
When most of us hear about the Spanish city Pamplona, the first – and only – thing that comes to mind is that unique yet slightly strange-sounding custom of stampeding bulls chasing usually sane humans through narrow streets. Legendary author Ernest Hemingway immortalized this tradition in his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, but there’s so much more to this friendly and surprisingly sophisticated city than that.
The annual Running of the Bulls, officially called the Fiesta of San Fermín, takes place in Pamplona each July 6-14. But as well-traveled tourists are finding, this legendary city is northern Spain is worth adding to your travel itinerary. Why should Barcelona, Madrid and Seville get all the foreign travelers? If you’re already traveling throughout Spain, flights from the capital city of Madrid and Barcelona (and other international cities) land at Aeropuerto de Noaín, less than four miles from Pamplona’s city center. And visitors can easily travel here via train from Madrid and the Basque country’s San Sebastián.
During my year of living and working as a freelance travel/food writer in France, I visited the fascinating town of Pamplona. So here are five quick reasons beyond the yearly bull-running why the city is well worth a visit for a couple days –or even a week:
Year-round cultural activities and festivals: Pamplona is a stunning mix of the old and new – and visitors can sample both. San Fermín is the patron of wine traders – and wine lovers can check out the interactive Wine and Vine Museum of Navarra in the nearby town of Olite. Once you’re done learning, make your way to Olite’s elegant and artistic Bodegas Pagos de Aráiz. Here you’ll find great hospitality as you take in custom-designed wine tastings, winery tours, and harvest experiences. The family-owned Pagos de Aráiz also contains a collection of Spanish art dating back to the 16th century.
Pamplona is on the Way of St. James, which welcomes travelers and religious pilgrims walking one of four ancient routes to Santiago de Compostela. These routes are included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, thanks to the 1,800 religious and secular historical structures that line them.
And if you’d rather visit Pamplona at a less hectic and bull-dominated pace, visit during the next-to-last weekend in September. You’ll experience San Fermín de Aldapa, a mini-version of the July festival, which honors the saint’s martyrdom with frequent concerts, traditional dances and processions through Pamplona’s scenic streets.
Haute hotels: A city rich in Basque culture, tradition and history, Pamplona now is home to a range of great hotels, from posh, storied favorites to modern resorts. The five-star Gran Hotel La Perla – housed on a corner of the elegant Plaza del Castillo – offers rooms and suites overlooking the bulls’ storming down nearby Calle Estafeta. These include the preserved ‘Hemingway’s Room,’ complete with tapestries, chairs, and original desk, where the legendary American writer often stayed, penned articles, and entertained Hollywood royalty.
A former family residence, the historic and spacious four-star Palacio Guendulain has 18th-century palace charm with the comforts of a modern luxury hotel. Its 25 bedrooms and suites either overlook the city’s charming and lively Plaza del Consejo or the hotel’s intimate inner courtyard—a gorgeous place to unwind with a cocktail. Don’t miss the Palacio’s Taittinger Bar Lounge, complete with leather club chairs and constant Taittinger Champagne tastings.
Just 15 minutes outside Pamplona is the four-year-old Castillo de Gorraiz Hotel Golf & Spa. It features sumptuously decorated, guest rooms in its main building (all with balconies) and medieval-style ‘castle,’ and a scenic 18-hole golf course, which guests can view from the Terrace Bar. The destination hotel’s stunning spa – inspired by the baths of ancient Roman palaces – is itself worth the short trip from the city. With a hydromassage pool, waterfalls, a Finnish sauna, Turkish bath and ‘sensations’ shower, it’s a water paradise on many levels. Ask about spa and golf packages—as well as private cars and shuttles to Pamplona during the fiesta.
For old-fashioned character, sleep at the 15th-century, 43-room Parador de Olite. Part of the Spanish government’s network of paradores – castles, fortresses, palaces, stately homes and rustic structures authentically restored to offer guests an experience rather than just a place to sleep – the Olite parador is a castle-palace with uniquely furnished guest rooms. And its restaurant’s stained-glass windows and brick walls provide the backdrop to traditional Navarrese cuisine.
But if you do come here during the Fiesta of San Fermín, you’ll need to reserve hotels six to 12 months in advance. And if you’re partial to upscale lodging, know that hotel prices often triple or quadruple for rooms near the hugely popular Plaza del Castillo and other central locales.
Fabulous (and Michelin-star) dining: Foodie palates will be right at home in Pamplona, where seasonal specialties from northern Spain’s Navarra region are on full display at tapas bars and Michelin-star menus. Check out seasonal cuisine at hip and sophisticated La Nuez Restaurante from Venezuelan Chef/Owner Julio Flames, who makes the rounds at Pamplona’s local markets and is big on small-producer Navarra wines.
Another first-class gastronomic experience: the elegant Europa, just steps from popular Plaza del Castillo. The restaurant’s Michelin star comes courtesy of the inventive cuisine of Pamplona-born chef Pilar Idoate. Europa features several seasonal dining options, including a degustation menu for those willing to put their taste buds in this talented chef’s hands.
Chic family-owned Rodero would be at home in Manhattan, San Francisco or any other world-class city. The gorgeous restaurant earned a Michelin star for self-taught Chef Koldo Rodero’s innovative use of top-quality Navarrese products. But he’s also a fan of international ingredients like Japanese black garlic and shiitake mushrooms – and global influences from Peru and France – all adding to Rodero’s deliciously diverse menu.
But don’t miss Pamplona’s many and diverse tapas bars, scattered across the city center. Spend an evening hopping between various ones, as they often feature different culinary specialties and vastly different atmospheres. It’s how Pamplona residents both nosh and socialize; and what better way to soak up the local culture than by standing side-by-side area residents while you sample small plates and glasses of vino?
First-rate health care: Pamplona’s prestigious Clínica Universitaria de Navarra has become internationally known, with thousands of medical tourists from 53 countries around the world now traveling to this non-profit health care facility for personalized diagnostic and treatment programs. International patients make up less than 3 percent of those treated here annually, but their numbers are growing.
The expansive complex has 34 medical departments, 400 beds, 16 operating theaters, and 154 examination rooms. Most of the facility’s doctors also are professors at the University of Navarra Faculty of Medicine. Their relationships with other universities and hospitals in Europe, the U.S. and throughout Spain strengthen Clínica Universitaria de Navarra’s cutting-edge oncology research. Its other specialties include neurosurgery, eye stem cell transplants, and treatments for varicose veins and ulcers. New and renovated patient rooms feature the latest in automated and personal technology. And in true Spanish style, even the Clínica Universitaria de Navarra ‘Cafeteria Restaurant’ is elegant, with first-rate food served in a stylishly sleek orange-and-brown setting.
Outdoor people-watching: Just as you’ll find in other Spanish and Mediterranean cities, life is lived outdoors. And Pamplona’s lively plazas offer plenty of first-rate people-watching. Pamplona is surrounded by mountains, giving it a moderate climate and making it easy for its people to indulge year-round in paseos, or evening strolls that not only give locals a chance to socialize, but to see and be seen. And as a visitor to this fair town – most of whom arrive between June and September – why not join them and do the same?
There’s nothing like experiencing life as the locals do, even if it feels a bit outside your comfort zone or what you’d do back home. Get out there, chat a bit in your broken high-school Español, and create some travel memories that go far beyond mere postcards and souvenirs.