by Carla Waldemar
If you head to Pamplona, Spain, for July’s running of the bulls, you’ll be in the frenzied company of up to 9,000 others on the path. Better plan: Explore Pamplona at your leisure the other 51 weeks of the year.
You won’t be the first. The Romans built a garrison here in A.D. 75 (the city is named after their general, Pompey), and awesome traces remain today. The city’s cathedral stands on the site of a former Roman temple, and the empire’s walls still guard the city. In its museum, excavated Roman treasures shine, from intricate mosaic floors and sturdy statuary to elaborate adornments. The museum treads on through the region’s history with art from the Middle Ages, Gothic saints bearing gold-platter haloes, and a precious Goya masterpiece.
Where Romans forged, Christians followed—notably St. James, whose mission was to spread the word to heathens. Ever since the Middle Ages, when his remains were discovered in Northern Spain, pilgrims have followed trails to the cathedral in Santiago dedicated to this saint. Pamplona, where the trail disgorges hikers from a pass through the Pyrenees Mountains, has flourished as a major stop along the way. Feet groaning, devotees pay obeisance in the mighty Cathedral, with stops at Romanesque fort-church San Nicolas and San Saturnino, with its split-identity chapels—one delicately Gothic and the other overblown Baroque.
Then they seek a pilgrims’ hostel for the night, where two cousins from Winnipeg shared reasons for their month-long, 25 km.-daily hike: “It’s more a spiritual than a religious quest for us,” they agreed. “We have friends who did this, and we wanted what they found: a chance to pare down. You go through layers, like an onion, peeling back to the new you.”
Then there are the pilgrims of another stripe—the devotees of Hemingway, who brought Pamplona to the world’s attention as an ardent enthusiast of Sanfermines, aka the running of the bulls. Gertrude Stein had told him, “Go to Pamplona and you’ll no longer be a journalist, you’ll be a writer.”
He listened, and it worked. These days fans can follow his trail any day of the year, starting in Hotel La Perla, where his room, 207, is kept as it was when he watched the bulls from its 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 The Sun Also Rises to the screen in 1957.
A statue of Hemingway anchors the city’s bullring—third largest in the world— where we peeped into the matadors’ chapel, and, conveniently across the hall, the emergency room. Box 2, front and center, was Hemingway’s seat.
The actual half-mile run is the ultimate in democracy—just show up and keep ahead of the thundering herd. But don’t let your mama know, or she’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. And for later, Pamplona offers an amazingly rich treasury of dining options, both traditional and modern, including three restaurants boasting coveted Michelin stars.
Four o’clock: lunchtime in Spain. Cheery Bar Ina was as closely packed as the sardines on the menu. Like a bucket crew, customers 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 vegetables. Next, at Gaucho, we inhaled last year’s winner, Salmon Three Ways—cold, tepid and warm—in layers. Then on to Bistronomia (“bistro + gastronomia”), a trendy outpost, for lentils stewed with foie gras and deftly fried croquetas.
At stylish La Mar Salada, dining went up another notch, as the chef provided a lesson in paella preparation, then a dual feast: the traditional combo of rabbit and snails, followed by a modern seafood mixture.
In Pamplona, vegetables rule the kitchen, and asparagus, they decree, is king. No argument from me as we sipped a warm asparagus soup followed by lightly-fried stalks, stars of the seven-course veggie tasting menu at farmer-cum-chef’s Principe de Viana Murchante cafe.
The rain in Spain didn’t get the memo. Drenched, we slogged through the hills surrounding the Senorio de Arunzano Estate, a winery designed by Spain’s superstar architect Raphael Monero. The wines proved equally stellar. We lunched here on a gourmand’s feast highlighted by sublimely tasty suckling pig.
Think you cannot 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.
Rodero earns its Michelin star. In this intimate, modern setting, the traditional Spanish tortilla (an omelet of hashed browns) came ramped-up with truffles, followed spring vegetables tossed with bacon, poached egg and smoked sturgeon. Flaky hake fish, suckling pig and a palate-freshener of mojito-lemon foam followed. Just when you think it can’t get any better, fragrant strawberries stuffed with mascarpone arrive.
You, too, can’t wait to die to go to heaven? Then visit www.spain.info and hop a plane.