Not-so-totally-touristy guide to Spain, Part III – Pamplona

It didn’t take me more than 10 minutes or so to find the hostel in Pamplona, booked on purpose as close as possible to the modern-looking, WiFi-wired Pamplona Bus Station. I would also soon find out that Navarra‘s capital city draws large numbers of people beyond its bull-running Fiesta de San Fermín (once a year in July) and the Hemingway element of attraction, alive and well judging by the various bars and restaurants, and even a kebab shop, named after the Pamplona-loving author. Other pilgrimages – religious, self-finding or simply touristy – are becoming increasingly popular, along the Camino de Santiago passing through Pamplona. Hostels leave out signs welcoming the peregrinos who regularly come to book them out, connected to the now well-organized network of inns along the multi-country path catering to this demographic. I was lucky to easily find a room at the very nice, small and cozy Aloha Hostel; it has a friendly, personable staff including the Spanish Hugo and Taiwanese Yu Fang, the latter spontaneously joining me on my last outing there.

Walking up to Catedral de Pamplona. Photo by A. Ribeiro.
Walking up to Catedral de Pamplona. Photo by A. Ribeiro.

There are also plenty of journeys of the bar-hopping kind going on: young people come out to play en masse as evening draws in, spilling out of the small bars with their beer glasses and sitting on the sidewalks and streets near the Catedral de Pamplona. This city of 200,000 is seemingly filled with students even in the summer. And I must say that Bistrot-Catedral Pamplona is the hippest cathedral-side bar I’ve ever seen, though the cocktails were too expensive for me to want to try one, and the service too slow. In fact, the number of trendy little bodegas in Pamplona amazed me, except they were closing quite early on weekdays at least, so I couldn’t really spend a lot of time exploring the different options at night.

I found small beers for €0.90 and tapas for €1 each at Miel Otxin Taberna.

A plus is that drinking in the streets even with open glass containers seems totally okay in Pamplona, as opposed to Madrid, where you have to be discreet if you don’t want to get a fine. A minus I found is that, the afternoon I arrived, starving for lunch, the service was so delayed in multiple places that I ended up choosing one where I’d be able to simply pick tapas displayed directly on the bar. In the end I was glad, though, because the tapas happened to be decent and appropriately filling, and the craft beer was quite nice – this place Txirrintxa was an actual micro-brewery, as opposed to the deceiving facade of the “beer factory” I’d visited in Madrid. I accidentally killed two birds with one stone by finding out that the bar was right on the bull-running route, Estafeta, which features a digital countdown to bull day. So after eating and drinking there, I spent a little bit of time going up the street and thinking about whether people actually enjoy or hate living along that street when the whole hullabaloo (or shall I say, “bullaballoo?”) breaks. I also stopped by and took a couple photos of the Plaza de Toros, just to register that I’d been there. I was a tad weirded out by the cartoonish images depicting bulls being angry but looking like children’s book characters and goring people. Fortunately, I’d find very few reminders of bulls beyond that particular area of town. Except for maybe the cut-off bull legs, a frequent sight at eateries across Spain.

Pamplona is quite walkable, and pleasantly so. I wouldn’t have minded getting lost there, although that didn’t really happen, even with my defective internal compass. I welcomed the solitude the first night I was there. I was able to follow the music at will and ran into a rock concert happening on a makeshift stage, also close to the cathedral. The next day, I would also accidentally find out about some more live music – except not alone, which was also nice. Along with Jessica, an Aussie I was yet to meet in my shared room at Aloha Hostel, I would buy a bottle of wine and a few different tapa sandwiches to share during a free jazz concert. The open-air venue was La Ciudadela, a big complex of old military fortifications and ample park space. On my leisurely way back to the hostel the first night, and later with Jessica, I followed the walls of the old city fortress and found some very lovely views to capture.

Jessica and I got along easily as travel buddies; it’s a pity that we only got to hang out for one day. I wouldn’t have minded joining her on her later adventures and remarkable random encounters in other Spanish cities. I was happy to translate for her from Spanish to English and back during our short time in Pamplona, and help her find a hostel to spend the following night, since Aloha was already booked out. Together we met two very young German guys (brothers traveling together), in fact a little older than half our age, who told us we looked like we were 20 years old, before joining more age-appropriate chicks in the Pamplona night. We also befriended the lovely Yu Fang, who – besides drinking, talking and laughing with us for a few hours – helped us find Jessica’s new hostel at night, and helped me find the bus station in time for me to catch my buses all the way to Madrid airport (a sleepless) five hours away.

Jessica (center), Yu Fang (right) and I at one of our bar-hopping stops in Pamplona. Photo by A. Ribeiro.
Jessica (center), Yu Fang (right) and I at one of our bar-hopping stops in Pamplona. Photo by A. Ribeiro.

I was happy to have Jessica’s very friendly, open and easygoing company at lunch, where we got a two-course meal, water and a whole bottle of wine for €8.90 each at Bar Rodas. It was nice to keep hanging out with her for the rest of the day, and the evening, beyond the jazz concert and into bar-hopping until 12:30 a.m., when I absolutely had to make my way to the bus station. I also got to introduce Jessica to Mahou beer, which I found to be a must since she was going to Madrid next. To wrap up the night, we found ourselves at the only bar we ran across that would close late by Pamplona standards, at around 1:30 or 2 a.m. – El Tinglado, where the staff was quite pleasant to boot.

Even before leaving Pamplona, I wanted to return. An excuse would be to also go to nearby San Sebastián, which looks like a gorgeous beach area from the photos Jessica and Yu Fang posted on Facebook, having gone there together the following day, after I’d left. Well, maybe next August! For now, I am spending some days in China, and getting ready to tell you about it. So please keep visiting our #Travel column, in which I always try to feature little impressions and curiosities you may not be able to find elsewhere – because despite the many travel-related channels out there, our personal experiences can always reveal something distinctive and fresh.

Hope you’ve enjoyed my Spain series, and see you next time, with new material, once I’m back from China!

A Global Studies doctoral degree holder and former newspaper reporter, avid eater, pseudo-philosopher and poet, occasion-propelled singer, semi-professional socializer, movie addict, Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, with special attention to social issues.

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