02 Oct 20
Pamplona – More than Bulls!
While the small city of Pamplona is world-renowned for its Fiesta de San Fermín held every July, there is so much more to this atmospheric city than wild bulls stampeding down the main street, as our Camino Destination Expert Sue discovered during her visit in May. With the running bulls and rowdy San Fermin crowds absent, she found a city filled with cultural and culinary highlights and spent hours happily getting lost while discovering some of the main sites and hidden gems all over the city.
In addition to its long and rich history, Pamplona is located right on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain and is blessed with a lovely old town, a delightful warren of cobbled streets lined with cafes and bars, plenty of churches and monuments to visit, and the best people-watching and pinxtos nibbling in Europe. Due to its location right on the Camino Francés, it is the first Spanish city of note that pilgrims walking the full-length Camino de Santiago will encounter. Known as Iruna in the Basque language, for the majority of our RAW travellers, Pamplona will also be their first chance to enjoy a ‘rest day’ on their Camino journey, so here are my top 10 suggestions of what to do/how to pass your free day.
Hotel Pamplona Catederal
Spanish tend not to rise early. Here is your chance to relax and do as the locals do – after some long days walking and the early starts, take this opportunity for a lie in and to enjoy a leisurely breakfast (after all you’ll likely be going out tonight…but more about that later!). The stylish 4-star Hotel Pamplona Catederal is one of our preferred hotels and is ideally located inside the walled old city and so a perfect base to explore the delights of Pamplona. Housed in a restored convent, this boutique hotel has all the amenities a weary pilgrim would wish for and also serves up an amazing buffet breakfast spread – definitely worth lingering over!
Church of San Fermin
Also in the old quarter and just a stone’s throw from the Hotel Pamplona Catederal, the small but significant Iglesia de San Fermín de Aldapa (Church of San Fermin) commemorates San Fermin and was the first settlement of Roman civilisation in Pamplona. St Fermin, the patron saint of Navarra, is one of many locally venerated Catholic saints. The annual Running of the Bulls fiesta is celebrated in honour of San Fermin.
Archive of Navarra
Almost right next door, the impressive Archive of Navarra is one of the most ancient and emblematic historical buildings in Navarre. This ancient palace, recovered after decades of abandonment with origins dating back to the 12th century, served as the residence of the bishops of Pamplona and the monarchs of this old Kingdom in medieval times. Now restored, the archive normally opens for visitors between 10am and 2pm and then from 5pm to 8pm with free admission; however, we do recommend you re-confirm opening times locally to avoid disappointment.
Pamplona’s compact walled old town, or Casco Viejo, is largely pedestrianised and ideal for walking at any time of the day or night to discover the style and spirit of Pamplona. During the morning hours before the crowds take to the streets and the bars open, discover another side of Pamplona tucked away in the numerous medieval alleys – street-art. Wander down some of the smaller and less well-known streets to discover a visual feast of artworks on walls and shutters of buildings, bars and shops. Some pieces are comical, some nationalistic, while others provide topical social commentary or even fiercely political content. Nowhere is it more evident that the historic city of Pamplona is also very much a vibrant and edgy Basque city with its own character and distinct pulse and a proud independent streak.
St Mary’s Cathedral
Visit Pamplona’s outstanding and ornate Catedral de Santa Maria (St Mary’s Cathedral). With a neoclassical façade and a late-medieval Gothic interior (which replaced an older Romanesque temple) this is Pamplona’s main cathedral and includes an impressive cloister and the alabaster tomb of Carlos III, ruler of the Navarre in the 1400s. Presently the Cathedral offers admission €3) for visitors daily between 9am and 10.30am and from 7pm to 8.15pm (on Sundays the hours vary slightly: from 10am to 2pm and from 6.30pm to 8.30pm). Again, we recommend you re-confirm opening times locally to avoid disappointment.
Caminoteca Gear Shop
Lost something or realised your hiking boots are too small or you really should have bought hiking poles? In the heart of Pamplona less than 100m from the cathedral on Calle Curia take the opportunity to stop in at Caminoteca. This compact but well-equipped shop has everything a pilgrim may need and all that high quality hiking gear that you wish you had packed. It usually opens from around 8am to 9pm during the ‘Camino season’.
Plaza Consistorial Square & Pamplona Bull Ring
Head towards the heart of the old quarter and in the surprisingly compact Plaza Consistorial square stop for some people-watching and to view the picturesque Town Hall, or Ayuntamiento de Pamplona. It has a fabulous facade combining both Baroque and Neoclassical styles and has witnessed some of the most significant events in Pamplona’s colourful history. It is perhaps most notable as the place where the Fiesta de San Fermin kicks off each year by the launch of a rocket. Having visited the starting point of the Running of the Bulls it also makes sense to take the opportunity to visit its famous finishing point – the Plaza de Toros de Pamplona. Holding almost 20,000 spectators, the iconic Pamplona Bull Ring still holds bullfights during the San Fermin festival. At other times it is open most days for visitors from 10.30am to 7.30pm, with shorter opening hours on Sundays and public holidays (closed on Mondays). Admission is €6; guided tours and audio guides are available.
Museo de Navarra
For history and art buffs the Museo de Navarra, housed in a former medieval hospital, will easily consume an afternoon with its eclectic assortment of archaeological finds, murals, jewels and art. Entrance is €2 and the museum is usually open from Tuesday to Saturday from 9.30am to 2pm and from 5pm to 7pm. Sundays and holidays the museum opens from 11am to 2pm; closed Mondays.
Plaza de Castilo & Cafe Iruna
Spanish cities are known for their impressive plazas that form the focus of the social life of the city, and the expansive Plaza de Castilo is no exception. Also with a colourful and somewhat controversial history, this vast pedestrian square is a perfect place to do as the locals do and enjoy a stroll in the late afternoon, soaking up the ambience. Restaurants and cafes are plentiful around the perimeter of the plaza. Arguably the most famous of these is Cafe Iruna. Ernest Hemingway is known to have regularly frequented this cafe and said to have spent time writing some of his works including For whom the bell tolls and The old man and the sea among others. Literary buffs can enjoy soaking the history and atmosphere while enjoying a local coffee in the historic interior or a cool refreshment in their outdoor terrace.
Nightlife & Tapas
As the day draws to a close, do as the locals do and enjoy Pamplona’s famous nightlife and tapas, or pintxos (pronounced peen-chose) as they say in the Basque country. Pamplona comes alive in the evenings and every night is a great night to go out, with Thursday nights being a particular popular night for locals. In the heart of the old town, Calle Jarrauta is usually buzzing with a young university type crowd early in the evenings, and Calle Navarerria and Calle de la Estafeta are well known for their many bars and restaurants serving up tasty pintxos. There are perhaps hundreds of bars to choose between. The bustling Bar Gaucho serves extravagant multi-award winning pintxos so is a good starting point, but feel free to try a variety of places. Don’t be shy – go up to the bar ask a local or the waiter what they recommend. If you can’t speak Spanish, charades always works! Most Spaniards order their pintxos with a glass of the house wine or a caña (whatever type of beer they have on tap). It is unlikely you will immediately get a seat, so just make some space for yourself at the bar or join a local group and enjoy! Hopefully, you all took my advice to sleep in this morning.
RAW travellers on our Full Length Camino, Camino Highlights and St Jean Pied de Port to Logrono itineraries will be able to enjoy fabulous Pamplona during their Camino journey. We definitely recommend at least 2 nights to allow for a full free day here – in fact, there is so much to see and do that the above suggestions do not begin to scratch the surface – you may wish you had longer!