While walking the ancient streets of Pamplona (locally known as Iruna) Spain, it's easy to understand why Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Ernest Hemingway fell in love with this place.
Tucked in just below the French Pyrenees in the northern province of Navarre, Pamplona dates to 75 B.C. It's a place where the armies of Charlemagne and Ferdinand fought, albeit several centuries apart. The Camino Trail passes through here, leading the devout, the curious and humble on a 600-mile pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
But it's Hemingway whose name and image, his sense of adventure and romance, are most associated with Pamplona. He first came here in 1923 while still a struggling writer living in Paris with his first wife Hadley, who was pregnant with their first son at the time. The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway's first novel, which launched his path to success, is set partially in Pamplona. Over the years, he returned another eight times, apparently captivated by the city's vibrant energy.
Plaza del Castillo, Pamplona
If you've read the The Sun Also Rises (and you really should have), you'll remember that Jake Barnes and friends stayed at the Hotel Montoya. There is no Hotel Montoya in Pamplona, but as described in the book, it is logistically the Tropicana Hotel, a lovely property located directly on the Plaza del Castillo. Everyone and everything in Pamplona eventually comes to the Plaza del Castillo. It is the most popular square and scene of the most festivals and events in this city of 200,000. They call it Pamplona's Living Room.
The city's oldest restaurant, the Cafe Iruna, has been providing refreshments in the Living Room since 1888. Featured heavily in both The Sun Also Rises and Fiesta, Hemingway loved the Cafe Iruna, emptying many a bottle here, no doubt fueling the creative process. The Iruna returns the love with a life-size bronze statue of Papa leaning against the bar with a warm smile as if he is welcoming friends to his favorite watering hole. Little has changed inside the restaurant over the years, but where you really want to spend your time is on the patio outside, absorbing the energy of the Plaza.
The Hotel la Perla, Pamplona
In all but one of his nine visits to Pamplona, Hemingway stayed at the Grand Hotel La Perla and always in room 217. It, too, is located on the Plaza del Castillo, but more importantly, many of the rooms overlook the Calle Estafeta, the narrow street, just a half-mile long, where the famous Running of the Bulls takes place every July. Room 217 has one of those beautiful balconies and each morning Hemingway would watch the spectacle before returning to his desk to write.
The Perla today is a five-star boutique hotel with just 44 rooms. Hemingway's has been maintained as it was in the 1920s, complete with twin beds, although the bathroom has been greatly upgraded. During most of the year, it's a mere $600 per night, but during the Running of the Bulls, it will cost you more than $2,000 per night to sleep where Hemingway slept. Other rooms in the hotel and around Pamplona are more reasonably priced, but lack the flair of the Perla.
Indeed, Pamplona and Navarre are less expensive for visitors than most parts of Spain, except during the Running of the Bulls. It seems that's when everyone wants to go to Pamplona and we can thank Mr. Hemingway for that favor.
There are other cities in Spain to see the running of the bulls festivals that will be less crowded and less costly than Pamplona in July. The city of Cuellar, slightly northwest of Madrid, has celebrated this tradition since the 13th century. San Sebastian de los Reyes and Aravaca-Pozuelo, both near Madrid, also have running of the bulls. Those festivals are in August.
If you truly want to experience Pamplona as Papa did, you'll also want to spend some time north of the city and out in the woods. In addition to drinking and bullfighting, Hemingway loved hunting and fishing throughout the Baztan Valley. Adorable little villages like Amaiur and Elizondo are worthy of day trips from Pamplona to begin to understand the pull of the region as Hemingway's muse.
Anytime of the year is a beautiful time to visit this region. A spring festival not quite as well known as Running of the Bulls and featuring the culinary attributes of the region is the Semana del Pincho. The week highlights the pincho, a delightful treat unique to this region. While Spanish tapas are often served as a meal, a pincho is just a one or two bite morsel usually eaten while standing and always with a glass of wine.
And this is key to the pinchos experience when you are finished, if you liked it, you wad up your paper napkin and fling it to the floor with gusto.
It sounds like an event that Hemingway would have enjoyed also with gusto.
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