I hadn’t planned to go to Pamplona. Originally, my semana santa plan of action was to spend just two nights in Bilbao (which developed into three after I realised how much I loved the place/that the Guggenheim was closed on Mondays), three nights in San Sebastián (which was reduced to two after I realised I was actually rather bored) and one night in Santander (which just gradually, for some reason, became less and less appealing).
If truth be told, my decision to go to Pamplona was based purely on one man’s recommendation and the alleged fact that I was more likely to encounter Basque being casually spoken in the streets, even though Pamplona isn’t actually a part of País Vasco. There also happened to be a couchsurfing night on which, judging by the number of confirmed attendees pre-departure, looked to be a rather promising climax to my trip.
Until that day, the city hadn’t even been on the radar. All I knew about it was that once a year its inhabitants allowed a drove of disoriented and understandably irked bulls to gallop around the city for an entire day, which, to be honest, wasn’t something high up on my to-do list, given the fact I am completely against animal cruelty and I am – not unlike most I imagine – shit scared of bulls. I’ve heard the stories; seen the horrifying Youtube videos; and been charged at in a field when I was about 10. Placing myself within the immediate vicinity of one of these unforgiving beasts was not on my bucket list, oddly enough.
Perhaps I was being slightly naïve. Well, I was definitely being slightly naïve, as it turned out. When I met my eleventh-hour couchsurfing host in Pamplona, just half an hour after arriving and three hours after deciding that I would go, my previously uneducated opinion on the matter quickly began to manifest itself. My host, Nacho, met me by the city’s famed ayuntamiento building and readily pointed out to me how various metal bollards that are usually kept hidden within the ground are raised during San Fermín, in order to protect spectators. Apparently, they could be found all over the city.
Not that bollard spotting was something I felt particularly enthused about, but I’d soon find out in any case, as a bike was pushed in my direction moments after we arrived at Nacho’s flat.
“It’s going to rain tomorrow”, he proclaimed with a smile, “so I take you on a bike ride to see the city today!”
Moments like this reminded me why I love couchsurfing so much. It really is the best way of meeting people when travelling – a couch or bed for the night is merely a bonus.
Off we went, beginning the tour where the bulls themselves are let loose into the city. First, we passed a tiny, doll-sized porcelain model of San Fermín which stood behind a glass panel in the brick wall beyond the ayuntamiento building – something that would have completely passed me by had it not been for Nacho’s local knowledge.
Next, we came upon a park filled with ducks, geese, peacocks and other feathery creatures. I’m pretty sure I kept it locked but I am also, embarrassingly, shit scared of geese. Well not scared…scared, just massively uncomfortable around them. I can’t be certain, but I’m fairly sure I was chased by a gaggle of them when I was little, after innocently tossing a few chunks of bread at some ducks, who were then ambushed. The memory is hazy, but on the rare occasion that I actually do encounter geese, that same sudden pang of panic hits me, and I just need to get out of there. I envisaged my own hellish version of San Fermín: the running of the geese. Thankfully, I wouldn’t have to run anywhere, as there was an 8ft wall between us, and I had a bike to escape on if it somehow managed to sense my fear and fly at me. On the upside I did see a black swan for the first time. Take a look:
With the geese in our wake, we pedaled on toward Pamplona’s 16th century fortress so I could soak up a bit of history. The castle was built under the rule of King Phillip II, who later had the city bounded by walls so as to keep out the French and any other unwelcome guests. For hundreds of years after the city could only develop within these walls, as Pamplona served as one of northern Spain’s most fortified of military footholds. The walls – visibly ravaged by war – still stand today. One we passed had a small opening with a metal pane barricading its entrance. Again, I’d never have noticed if Nacho hadn’t stopped to tell me all about it.
“Tunnels like these stretch for miles, and were used for eavesdropping”, he explained, “people would be sent down them for days at a time and remain in absolute silence so that any enemy strikes or ill-intentioned conversations between conspirers could be preempted back at the fortress”.
Nacho was full of interesting information, and could have easily fooled me into thinking he was an actual tour guide.
That evening, he and I headed out to a bar to meet other couchsurfers of the Pamplona community, some of whom had other travellers staying with them. We were the first to arrive but before long others were blowing in thick and fast. Eventually the bar was swarming with Spanglish speaking couchsurfers, mingling to no end. Beer and pintxos were lavishly consumed, and contact details for future reference affably exchanged. In truth, it was a real eye-opener of a night; how, and why on earth had I been missing out on this scene in Granada?
Next day, I unsurprisingly awoke to a merciless hangover that kept me prisoner for the rest of the early afternoon.
“The solution is easy!” declared Nacho. “We will go to other bar to drink more!”
Despite my lack of enthusiasm I really did admire the guy’s adeptness at hosting – and drinking for that matter – he’d certainly fit in with my usual crowd at home.
“Ahh. Hair of the dog” I replied.
“Err, ‘pelo del perro?’”
“Que dices hombre? Vístete! Vamos muy pronto.” What are you on about mate? Get dressed. We’re leaving very soon.
Fair enough. I could hardly rebuff such a proposal after all that he had done for me thus far. His house, his rules.
Half an hour later, I watched with one dry, bloodshot eye as a grinning barman poured me a locally brewed cidra (cider) whilst the other got to work on locating the bathroom just in case I needed to pay an impromptu visit (I wasn’t cross-eyed). Nacho and his friend who’d joined us were evidently less effected, or just way more macho than I was, as they got started on a couple of Perucci Martinis. My cider was only a 250ml measure but lasted me a good hour.
As we chatted outside, Nacho suddenly nodded in the direction of a family standing to our left. They were speaking Basque. Weirdly, it more or less involved another mother telling off her children, though on the previous occasion I hadn’t managed to retain a lot of what I’d heard believe it or not. It was a lot clearer this time, though still an utter mystery.
Several remedial pintxos and photos of the world’s third largest Plaza de Toros later and I was headed back to the bus station, in the absolute pissing rain, feeling rather pleased with my brief but decidedly satisfying trip. Pamplona – minus all the fuss and bustle of San Fermín – is a city worth visiting any time of the year.
Have you been to Pamplona? Would you like to go? Do leave a comment!