Pamplona, Spain and Hemingway

This life-size bronze statue of the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, shows the tension between the bulls and the men who jump in front to try to outrun them during the festival of Sanfermines each July. While many people are injured, only 15 have been killed in the last 100 years. (photos by Pamela O’Meara/Review)

The zampanzares jiggle their hips to jangle the giant brass bells on their backs during the festival of San Fermin Txikito in Pamplona.

Ernest Hemingway is featured in an old Paris magazine on display at the Museo del Encierro.

Balconies at the Gran Hotel La Perla in Pamplona, Spain, overlook the narrow street where the bulls run each July.

An ancient breed of black-headed sheep graze near old Roman burial circles in the Pyrenees northeast of Pamplona.

My balcony at the Gran Hotel La Perla in Pamplona, Spain, overlooked a narrow street lined with 18th century yellow, blue, tan and pink buildings along the route of the running of the bulls during the July festival of Sanfermines. The run was immortalized in Ernest Hemingway’s book “The Sun Also Rises.”

I was in Pamplona in September during San Fermin Txikito, a smaller, family-oriented festival similar to what Hemingway experienced minus the bulls.

As we elbowed our way through the festival crowd in the narrow streets of the old city, we stayed close to our tour guide, José Luis Del Pra, an architect who is fluent in English. He caught up with the zampanzares -- people wearing giant brass bells on their backs - the gigantes y cabezudos (giants and big heads), and the groups of costumed dancers, musicians and kids on their fathers’ shoulders. Dressed in lace and satin, the gigantes represented the mythical kings and queens of Europe, Asia, Africa and America. They towered over everyone as they walked through the crowds.

Running of the bulls

José also walked us along the half-mile route of the running of the bulls, and took us to the Museo del Encierro  -- museum of the running of the bulls  -- where we learned the history of the event and watched a video with live action reminiscent of Hemingway’s story.

Hemingway, a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star and living in Paris, first visited Pamplona in 1923 to watch the running of the bulls, a throwback to medieval times when farmers drove their bulls to market.

In “The Sun Also Rises,” he wrote, “I went out on the balcony (of Gran Hotel La Perla). ... All the balconies were crowded with people. Suddenly a crowd came down the street. They were all running, packed close together. They passed along and up the street toward the bullring and behind them came more men running faster ... and then the bulls galloping, tossing their heads up and down. .... One man fell, rolled to the gutter, and lay quiet. The bulls went right on and did not notice him.... After lunch we went over to the (Café) Iruña.”

Hemingway’s book put Pamplona on the world map and turned the running of the bulls into an international event now attended by a million people a year. To honor Hemingway, a large stone statue of him overlooks the bullring.

La Perla owner Rafael Moreno gave us a tour of Hemingway’s room from which he watched the running of the bulls many times between 1923 and 1959. It still has his original furniture and copies of his books, for which he was awarded both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. In the lower level of the hotel, La Cocina de Alex Múgica was a favorite place for Hemingway to eat and drink. Since then, La Perla has been updated to a five-star hotel with Wi-Fi service.

Eating, drinking, fishing

In the evening, we went to Café Iruña, established in 1888, where a life-size statue of Hemingway greeted us from the corner of the bar and his photos were on every wall. We enjoyed wine and pintxos - small servings of crispy little sausages, calamari and ham sandwiches -- while we imagined Hemingway eating and drinking there with his expatriate friends.

Then we stopped at Café Bar Gaucho for pintxos prepared with eel, tomato sauce and black olives on toast, a spinach and shrimp pastry and rosado wine from the Navarra region and at Restaurante Baserri. These pintxos may not be what Hemingway and his buddies ate, but they were colorful, delicious and unique.

Outside, a man on the street stopped us and showed us scars on his neck and abdomen where he said he was gored during the running with the bulls.

Back at la Plaza del Castillo, the main square of the old city, we sat outside with a beer listening to the Nebari Quartet playing from the balcony of La Perla in memory of violinist and composer Pablo Sarasate, whose music Hemingway would have heard there.

Earlier that day, we walked along the thick old fortress walls of the Citadel and stepped into the gothic Cathedral of Pamplona and the mysterious ancient churches of San Lorenzo and San Cernin o San Saturnino. We saw many pilgrims with the walking sticks and backpacks on the Camino de Santiago, which legend says was the route taken by St. James as he preached.

Scenic hikes in the forest

One day we headed northeast of Pamplona, the capital city of the Navarra region, and climbed to an outlook in the foothills of the Pyrenees to see the Irati River where Hemingway went fishing with his friends and also wrote about in “The Sun Also Rises.”

We stopped at the Hotel Burguete where he carved his name in the piano during his stay there on a fishing trip.

With Excursiones Auñak, we drove through the Selva de Irati, the second largest beech and fir forest in Europe. It has scenic hiking trails that perhaps Hemingway enjoyed. We drove through small villages into the mountains where five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain trained, and then along part of the Camino de Santiago, and we stopped at the ruins of an old munitions plant in Orbaitzeta. Unused for over a century, the crumbling iron and stone structure now has leafy vegetation growing throughout.

While Hemingway put Pamplona on the world map, and it’s fun to trace his footsteps, Pamplona and the Navarra are so much more than Hemingway.

It’s the delicious local food, colorfully presented, and the centuries of history, the varied landscape and friendly people.

Pamela O’Meara can be reached at or 651-748-7818.


It's the economy

In spite of the country’s economic problems, the northern Spanish city of Pamplona has one of the highest standards of living in Spain and relatively low unemployment.

Volkswagon has a factory in Pamplona, and the Navarra region is Europe’s sixth largest producer of wind power. Its wind turbine companies do business in the U.S. and around the world. Central Navarra is noted for its olive oil and good wine, some of which is for sold in the Twin Cities.

Locals and tourists alike enjoy leisurely colorful restaurant meals prepared with fresh local ingredients.

The University of Navarra in Pamplona is ranked as the best private university in the country, and its medical clinic is fast becoming a world destination for health care.

Many doctors are fluent in English and have worked in prominent American hospitals, including the Mayo Clinic. All citizens get free health care at public hospitals.
For more information on Pamplona and the Navarra region:


Palace and Vinyards

With our Novotur guide Francisco Glaria Baines, we headed south of Pamplona past fields of sunflowers and corn to the Iglesia Fortaleza de Ujué, a well-preserved 13th century fortification perched on top of a hill and built to protect local citizens in war. When the community was under siege, the townsfolk stayed in the fortification, which had a deep well, large food stash and a church dating to the 12th century with a statue of Mary wearing armor and holding baby Jesus.  Inside the fortress in the bar of Meson Las Torres we enjoyed cortados (espresso with milk) and caramelized walnuts handmade by local women before our tour began.

Nearby, we visited the Royal Palace of Olite, one of the most interesting Gothic complexes in Europe and a National Monument. It was built for Charles III of Navarra in the early 1400s, and Walt Disney used it as the inspiration for Disney World’s Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Now in ruins, the palace once had modern amenities like running water, an ice house and a central heating system.

Part of the palace has been renovated and turned into the Olite Parador - one of 94 government-run hotels often located in historic buildings. This Parador has Wi-Fi for guests and a restaurant in a palace setting.

At the nearby Pagos de Araiz Winery, we learned the wine-making process, saw the owners’ art gallery with statues of the apostles and famous paintings, and finished our day by sampling wines from their modern vineyards.

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