Pintxos in Pamplona

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

Eat, drink and live like a king in Pamplona!
The sunsets from this balcony are spectacular - I never get tired of watching them!

The cobbles streets of the centre.
The citadel of Pamplona.

When an opportunity comes up to do a bit of travelling, and see a friend, you should rarely say no. It was October and I was looking forward to the Christmas break and some cooler weather. I was also settling into the new apartment, building IKEA furniture, making sure everything in the right place, unpacking, packing and re-organising. Sounds exciting I know! So when a good friend of mine said he'd be in Pamplona for a weekend, and that it'd be great if I could join him for a catch up, how could I refuse? I finished work on Saturday morning and went straight into Barcelona to get a long distance train to Pamplona, the capital of the Autonomous Community of Navarre in the Basque Country. I got to Barcelona Sants around 2:30 and had a few hours to kill before my train, so headed to a little bar across the road that I always go for a drink before a long bus journey. The bar itself is nothing special, a typical little Spanish place with a stainless steel bar with glass displays with tapas, but I like these places as it reminds me of when I first arrived in the country. Back then, you could smoke inside and even the bartender tended to smoke while working. Although smoking was banned back in 2009, the bars haven't really changed that much and can be just as dirty as before - people still tend to drop their used serviettes and sugar packets on the ground to be swept up later. I had an Estrella and left, heading for my platform. I'd never caught a train for this kind of distance in Spain before, usually taking a bus (the cheaper option) or a car (the more comfortable option), so this was a new experience for me. The train was very decent, with large windows to see the landscape wizz by, air-conditioning and plenty of leg and baggage room. Before I knew it, I was pulling up in Pamplona (or Iruña in the Basque language.)

The city hall.
Walking through the citadel.
Pamplona and its gorgeous architecture.
This city is a mix of old and new.

While on the train, I got a message that there were big delays at the airport in the UK that they were flying from. They were supposed to have arrived way before me, landing in Biarrtiz in France and driving across the border to Spain. So my ride wasn't at the train station when I got off, but luckily, the host of our AirBnB place was super friendly and offered to pick me up. I couldn't refuse such a great offer, considering the flat was on the other side of town. Santiago was friendly, a local, and he also spoke some English! He told me about his time in Australia and how much he loved it. It was a nice little trip to the flat, where he showed me where everything was and how to work everything. I mean everything too. It was clearly his flat (or his mother's!) and wanted it looked after and kept exactly how he would. That sorted and out of the way, I ducked off to the supermarket before they closed, to grab some food and beer for when the boys arrived. My friend Harry and his brother Fred were supposed to have taken off at 10am, but there was delay after delay with EasyJet, before the plane finally landed in Bristol at around 5pm. Then the flight for 2.5 hours and the drive here - they made it around 11pm. I'm very happy (for me and them) that I made sure we had food and drink, as at that time there weren't many bars open in the area and all the supermarkets had closed. We feasted on good olives, ham, cheese some other tapas as well as red wine. The Spanish life! Fred was a bit tired from the journey and the driving (French drivers are all maniacs and you have to be very careful with them!), so Harry and I headed out into the town for a pint or two and a good catch up. We worked together back in Cardedeu for 2 years and have stayed in touch since. I'd visited him in Liverpool in 2012 when I was driving around the UK, and later we went to Nepal in 2013 together for some volunteer teaching and hiking. Just after this, in 2014, he and his girlfriend Ania made it to Australia and they hung out at mine for 2 weeks. It was great catching up again, shame that Ania wasn't here as well. We headed home just after midnight, as tomorrow we were wandering around the city. A bit of rest was needed.


The coloured facades of Pamplona.
Pamplona Cathedral.
Sunday walk.
A man with the typical Basque hat

Pamplona has a more moderate temperature than Barcelona, as it sits at an elevation of 400m above sea level and also has the Pyrenees at its doorstep. When I think of Basque weather, I think of big rolling clouds, afternoon showers followed by rainbows, and just cooler temperatures. All good things if you compare how hot and sticky Barcelona can get sometimes. We got up in the morning, had a big breakfast, cooking whatever we found, not caring if there was anything left for later - we were heading out later. Tapas are famous in Spain, but I think they take it to a whole new level in this part of the country, so we had no problems with having nothing in fridge. We left around midday, showered, fed and ready to go for a walk. Where we were staying was close to the old Pamplona Citadel (Ciudadela de Pamplona), a 16th Century stone beast that has been upgraded and added to since its construction to make it even more impressive. Your typical 'star-fortress' kind of layout, with deep and heavy walls jutting out at angles to protect against cannon fire, it was decommissioned in 1964 and now the military buildings are used for cultural events. Surrounded by green lawns and trees, the inside is now a public park (known in Spanish as La Planta de la Ciudadela) with trees for shade and benches for resting. It was fairly busy, even being a Sunday, full of people walking their dogs or even just using it a scenic route into the city centre like us. Like many Spanish cities, the new apartment buildings on the outskirts aren't pretty, but the historic centre is gorgeous. I'm no architectural expert, but the buildings here are very Parisian in style, with their panelled roofs and windows. I also love the cobbled streets, which are mostly closed off to cars, old stone buildings contrasting with the newly painted ones, and of course the roof tiles. This city has a different feel to other Spanish cities - more relaxed if that's possible. It reminds me a lot of Logroño, capital of the La Rioja wine region, and also a city on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. A wonderful city with good food and good wine, the people are friendly, relaxed and know how to enjoy life.

Looks a little like a lover's quarrel.
Dolls from the 'Procession of Giants and Bigheads.'
The gates around the city for directing the bulls during the run.
That'll leave more than a bruise I reckon.

Pamplona is famous for its annual running of the bulls (Spanish: encierro) in July, as part of the Sant Fermin festivities, when thousands of people from all over the world converge on the city. Originally dating from the 14th century when bull herds got bored during the move from the countryside, where the bulls were bred, to the city so they could be slaughtered in the bull rings. It started off as a show of bravado but turned into a show of skill, as they used fear and excitement to hurry the bulls. Today, the 6 bulls that fight in the afternoon's event run through the streets, young men from around the world showing how brave they are (or how stupid), trying to appear fearless yet stay out of the way of those horns and hooves. Since it began in 1910, there have been 14 deaths due to goring and 1 due to suffocation in a pile up. All men, unsurprisingly. The list does feature 2 international stars - one from Mexico and one from the US - the rest of the lads were locals. There has been a big movement lately against the cruelty of these proud animals (not people dying... it's their choice), and since 2002 there has been a 'Running of the Nudes,' in which people run partly or completely starkers down the streets to show the 'naked truth' that bull fighting is cruel. In 2002, the first year for this alternative run, only 25 naked streakers did it, but within 4 years there were 1,000 people doing the dash without dacks. We walked the streets where the run takes place and there are big wooden fences and gates around, used for corralling the beasts toward their death in the ring. I have seen this race on the news, here and in Australia, and I always cheer for the bulls - I know what they're destined for, but hope they put up a fight by trampling and goring a few idiots along the way. I don't wish any dead, but let's face it - they know the risk and do it anyway, so no sympathy there. One section of the encierro also had a plaque to remember those killed in the running of the bulls, but nothing about the bulls. I have never seen a bullfight live, and although they say you should experience something before being against it, I have seen enough on TV to know what I never want to witness and support this cruelty. Other events held is the 'running of the sheep' in New Zealand where it's a celebration of the sheering and wool industry (no killing involved), and another one that I like is the mock bull run in New Orleans where the roller derby team, the Big Easy Rollergirls, dress up as bulls and skate after people through the streets. Fun doesn't have to mean fear of death or cruelty to animals. I'll say it here - the more I think about bull 'fighting' and running with the bulls, the more disgusted I am.

Just one of many pintxo bars in the city.
Let's tapa! A tapear!
Alleys and towers.
The little streets of Pamplona.

But the city is so much more than this festival. Fine eating and drinking is also something that this place is famous for, and should be more of a focus than killing bulls if you ask me. We ate plenty of tasty pintxos, the Spanish 'canope' of various toppings on fresh crusty bread, as well as the house 'specialities' that the bars cooked up, from paella to sausages and seafood. Some are hot, some are cold, others a little plates all on their own, but it was all fantastic. Everything was great and it was hard not to go for seconds - but the unwritten rule for these places is you have one thing to eat, a drink, and move on to the next bar. We left one place and chose another bar simply by the angle we left the door - this worked well and we zig-zagged our way from bar to bar, enjoying everything that there was to have. I took a photo of the first place we went to and the food we had; oily and zesty olives with sardines and green chillies, washed down with a Vermouth - a fantastic combination! I quickly forgot about the photos and concentrated on the snacks, and now it's shame as the food is always beautiful to look at and come in so many different combinations that it's impossible to remember what they were apart from delicious! I wonder how hard it would be to grow fat in this city... or maybe the question should be how hard would it be to stay slim in this city! Surely the walking between snacks would be a decent form of exercise? Anyway, everyone seems happy here, eating and drinking, enjoying good company and making a quiet Sunday a real social event.

Great city for eating and drinking... and just hanging out with friends.
Sit anywhere you want!
Spanish and Basque.
Taking a moment in the cathedral.

We didn't just eat and drink though! We did some sightseeing along the way, finding our way around the city by just wandering and seeing what we found. I loved the streets, small and winding, and although not much sun reached the facades of the buildings, many of them were brightly painted and so you didn't feel like you were in some back alley. All of the street signs are written in 2 languages, Basque and Spanish, which I found interesting. Linguistically, Basque is unrelated to the other languages of Europe and is a language isolate in relation to any other known living language. Although there are similar words in Portugese, Itlaian, Galician and even Romanian, it is all on it's own - the adjectives and nouns are also structured the same as English (adj + noun) rather than the opposite way round like in Latin languages. We eventually found our way to the cathedral, a big Neo-Classical building with a Gothic interior. The inside of the church wasn't anything spectacular, nor was the outside, but I absolutely loved the cloister. I think it had just been refurbished as it was such a powerful shade of pale yellow, stunning in the sunlight. This part is probably the oldest part of the church, dating back from the 13th Century and follows the French Gothic style. There are many famous people buried here from centuries ago, but none that I'd heard of, mainly bishops and leaders. The Medieval kings of Navarre were crowned here as well, some were also buried, and the Navarrese Cortes (Parliament) was also held there during the early modern ages.

Pilgrims, tourists, locals and beggars.
The stunning cloister in the cathedral.

Sit, eat and chill with friends.

Unfortunately, before I knew it, it was time to stumble home after a full day of wandering around and enjoying the city (and quite a few drinks). There was a lot that I'd missed in the city, as there always is when you only have a day to see a place. I didn't get a chance to the walk around the city walls or see the Placa del Torros (just to see, not watch a fight). You have to look on the bright side and see it was something to save for next time. I got up early, got ready and got a lift down to the station for my 9:30am train. I got back to Barcelona without any problems, watching the cities flash by through the window. It had been a great time - seeing a city that I like and also seeing some good friends. Now, living through these quite difficult and very different times of the Covid Pandemic, it makes me glad that I did this and always try and make time for the people I care about - something that shouldn't change, but only get more important when we can go out again. Cheers Harry and Fred - until next time... the only question is where; my place, yours or somewhere in the middle?

Thank you Pamplona but now it's time to run.

Remember to also follow me on Instagram at: MyUncleTravellingMatt. October 2019.


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