Guest post by Barney Hewitt
The attraction of Pamplona for many travellers can be summed up in two words: San Fermin. The walled medieval town in the Navarra region of the Basque country holds the world’s most famous bull festival every year, from the 6th to the 14th of July. On the first day of the festival, anyone with a fairly loose attachment to their own life is free to dash in front of the beasts as they stampede through the cordoned-off streets, finishing in the bullring, Plaza del Toro. There is more to the town, though, so if you are on holiday in Spain, Pamplona is well worth a visit, bull runs or not.
Health and safety concerns are near non-existent: there have been over two hundred gorings and several fatalities since 1924, when Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, set the festival on the world stage. The atmosphere of that book – a young international crowd mixing with locals in one wild night after another fuelled by home-made red wine and the intoxication of the bullfights – is pretty much still what you’ll get today. The difference is the attitude to animal welfare: back then no one complained about the bulls’ inevitable death. Now many young Spanish oppose the sport. There’s even an alternative event – the ‘Running of the Nudes’ - organised in protest. As its name suggests, it’s still in keeping with the anarchic, devil-may-care spirit of this mad week in high summer, with visiting participants equally welcome.
So by all means go to San Fermin – whether you think you like bullfighting or you’re sure you hate it, you’ll only really know after seeing it in the flesh. But if you can’t make it for that July week – and heaven knows accommodation is hard enough to come by – don’t think there’s no point visiting Pamplona any other time. There is, as you’ll find an atmosphere like nowhere else in Spain. Enclosed by walls a dozen metres thick, the town feels like a fortress. You can walk all the way around it along the top of these walls, taking in incredible views west and south across the castle-dotted plain of the Agra river, and north east to the purple peaks of the Pyrenees.
The proximity to the mountains is another great reason to be based in Pamplona. There are great days out hiking to be had, nowhere better than at Roncesvalles, scene of one of the bloodiest battles in history when, in 778, the Emperor Charlemagne’s army was massacred by the Basques.
Yes, history oozes from Pamplona and its environs. If you can appreciate that, you don’t necessarily need bulls and blood. But after a day’s walking and exploring you will enjoy settling down with sangria and tapas at one of the bars in the Plaza del Castillo. Just as ‘Papa’ Hemingway himself used to do in fact.