If you’re determined to exercise your machismo, head to Pamplona for July’s weeklong running of the bulls. You’ll be in the frenzied company of up to 9,000 others on the path. However, if you agree that enjoying the accompanying Animal House atmosphere is, um, bull, sign up to visit Pamplona the other 51 weeks of the year.
You won’t be the first such tourist. The Romans built a garrison here in 75 AD—Pamplona is named after a Roman general, Pompey—and awesome traces still remain. The city’s cathedral stands on the site of a former Roman temple, and the Roman walls still guard the city. Beyond the walls today sprawl panoramic garden parks, earning Pamplona claim to be the greenest city in all Spain. Not far from town, wineries flourish where the Roman invaders once transplanted grapes from home.
In Pamplona’s museum, the Museo de Navarra, excavated Roman treasures shine, from intricate mosaic floors and sturdy statuary to elaborate belt buckles. This exemplary establishment treads through the region’s history with art from the Middle Ages, painted Gothic saints bearing gold-platter halos, and a precious Goya masterpiece. In the adjoining chapel of this former convent/hospital, glittering Medieval altarpieces portray the life of Jesus in comic-book-frame fashion to bring the message to the multitudes unblessed with reading skills. A present-day gallery of sociopolitical art does the same.
Where Romans forged, Christians followed—notably the apostle St. James (Santiago) the Greater, whose mission was to spread the word to heathens. Ever since the Middle Ages, when his remains were discovered here in Northern Spain, pilgrims from all nations have followed trails to the cathedral dedicated to him in Santiago. Pamplona, where the trail disgorges hikers from a pass through the Pyrenees Mountains, has flourished as a major holy (thus, tourist) stop along the way. Feet groaning, bearing backpacks and walking sticks, they pay obeisance in the mighty cathedral. Next, they go to Romanesque fort-church San Nicolas. Finally, they visit San Saturnino, with its split-identity chapels, one delicately Gothic and the other overblown Baroque.
Pilgrims seek a hostel for the night, where we found cousins Kourtney and McGuire, 32 and 35 respectively, from Winnipeg, massaging each other’s feet, as they shared the reasons for their monthlong, 25-kilometer-per-day hike, in company with their mother and aunt. The cousins agreed, “It’s more a spiritual than a religious quest for us. We have friends who did this, and we wanted what they had: no luxuries, a chance to pare down. You go through layers, like an onion, peeling back to the new you.”
Following the yellow arrows that mark the 800-mile trail in the countryside, we encountered more pilgrims at the remote 12th-Century chapel of Eonate, which, most probably, the secretive Knights Templar built as their burial ground. Our guide, Francisco, declared, “Maybe, maybe not, but definitely a center of spiritual energy, like Stonehenge or Machu Picchu.”
Pilgrims of another stripe—the devotees of Ernest Hemingway, an ardent enthusiast of Sanfermines, AKA the running of the bulls—brought Pamplona to the world’s attention. Gertrude Stein had told him, “Go to Pamplona, and you’ll no longer be a journalist—you’ll be a writer.” He listened, and the magic worked. These days, fans can follow his trail any day of the year, starting, as we did, at the five-star Hotel La Perla, where his room, 207, is kept as it was when he watched the Sanfermines from his balcony. Stop in next door at Bar Iruna to snag his favorite window table, shared with Hollywood’s Ava Gardner and Orson Welles when they brought his novel The Sun Also Rises to the screen in 1957.
A statue of Hemingway anchors Pamplona’s bullring—the third largest in the world—where we peeped into the matador chapel, and, conveniently across the hall, the emergency room. Pop for a ticket in Box 2, Hemingway’s seat, to cheer for supergay matador José Tomas in his oh-so-silky, tight-fitting pants. Head afterward to Nicolette’s, the city’s hottest gay bar, for the chance of a glimpse. Check out <www.navarrafriendly.com> for other happening gayborhood hangouts.
As Hemingway famously gushed, Sanfermines represents two wild animals, man and beast, running together. The actual half-mile event is the ultimate in democracy—just show up, and stay ahead of the thundering herd. It’s a young man’s (also, male menopausal) rite of passage, but don’t let your mamas know, or they’ll fret. Francisco, our guide, floated white lies: “I’d say I was going out for breakfast. ‘Be careful,’ my mother would say. ‘Call me after.’”
Breakfast? Make it café con leche at the Iruna. For later on, Pamplona has an amazingly-rich treasury of dining options, both traditional and modern, including three restaurants boasting coveted Michelin stars.
Sunday at 4 PM is lunchtime in Spain. Cheery Bar Ina was as closely packed with customers as the sardines on its menu, and they jointly created a cloud of tobacco that made volcanic ash seem petty. Like a bucket crew, they passed plates from the counter to waiting diners. My bill for three tapas and a glass of vino tinto? Nine euros. I love Spain!
Tapas turned elegant at nearby Baserri, winner of this year’s tapas competition for its Rubic’s Cube, a glittering composition of jellied vegetable essences. At Gaucho, we inhaled last year’s winner, Salmon Three Ways—cold, tepid, and warm in layers—plus foie gras melting onto toast fingers. Heaven! At Bistronomia (“bistro + gastronomia”), a hypertrendy outpost, we sampled a pot of lentils stewed with foie gras and a couple of deftly-fried croquetas.
Dining went up another notch at stylish La Mar Salada, as the chef, who recently had consulted in Chicago, provided a lesson in paella preparation, then a dual feast: the traditional combo of rabbit and snails, followed by a modern seafood mixture. Tradition vied with contempo again in a pair of sweets: bread pudding with custard; and a cold soup of yogurt and white chocolate. In Pamplona, vegetables rule the kitchen, and asparagus is the king. No argument from me, as we sipped a warm asparagus soup, followed by lightly-fried asparagus logs, both outstanding on the seven-course veggie-tasting menu at the farmer-cum-chef’s Principe de Viana Murchante, star of the countryside.
The rain in Spain didn’t get the memo. Drenched, we slogged through the hills surrounding the Senorio de Arunzano Estate. Spain’s superstar architect, Raphael Monero, designed its elite winery. The wines proved equally stellar, climaxed by a pair of single-estate blends of tempranillo, merlot and cab, then a Chardonnay so elegant that some of Spain’s royals chose it for their wedding. We lunched elegantly here on (thankfully) more asparagus, amid a gourmand’s feast highlighted by rich, fatty—and, therefore, sublimely-tasty—suckling pig.
Think you can’t eat another bite? Well, sit down in La Perla’s cozy Cocina de Alex Mugica, and think again, or you’ll regret it. Eggshells, delivered in cardboard cartons, delighted us with their supple filling of eggs scrambled with bacalao (salt cod) and tomato. So did a return of asparagus, this time tempura-style, followed by a menestra (stew) of lamb with broad beans, peas, mushrooms, and potatoes. Strawberry soup flecked with (yes!) sweet green peppers, along with goats-milk ice cream, preceded another suave dessert, tocino de cielo, which was like flan on a cloud.
Rodero earns its Michelin star. In this intimate, modern setting, the traditional Spanish tortilla (an omelet of hashed browns) came ramped up with truffles. A cello-wrapped parcel of spring vegetables followed, mined with bacon, poached egg, and smoked sturgeon, whose aroma explodes as you open the package. Next, a cannelloni “pasta,” created from pureed cauliflower, and baptized with a shower of red bean soup, tempted us. Flaky hake fish arrived, then a confit of suckling pig and a palate-freshener of mojito-lemon foam. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, fragrant strawberries stuffed with mascarpone capped off our meal.
You, too, can’t wait to die to go to heaven? Visit www.spain.info, and hop a plane.