Also known by its Basque name of Iruna, Pamplona, Spain, is a proud, prosperous, devout and usually conservative town with city walls and cobbled streets. The city, 195 mi/315 km northeast of Madrid, is the capital of the green province-region of Navarra, which borders France.
The central square is the Plaza del Castillo, dominated by the Neo-classical Palacio del Gobierno de Navarra and also home to one of Spain's finest cafes, the Cafe Iruna. The streets of the old town fill the space between this square and the cathedral, largely Gothic in style but with a facade added in the 18th century. The other main sight not to miss is the Museo de Navarra in a converted hospital, which has some large Roman mosaics among its other historical and archaeological exhibits.
The town's sedate personality gets turned upside down during the fiesta of San Fermin that runs 6-14 July each year. Immortalized in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, the fiesta's most famous event is the running of the bulls. Each day at 8 am, the brave, foolish or drunk take to the narrow, barricaded streets to run alongside (or away from) six fighting bulls.
Less dangerous (but still exhausting) are the other activities that run the full week of the festival, including parades of giant figures, marauding bands, fireworks, endless dancing and lots of drinking.
If you can handle only a day or two of such merriment, try to make it to the first day or two of the fiesta (the weekend is the busiest time). The celebration that explodes at noon on 6 July is an incredible sight (plan to be soaked by champagne).
If you hope to stay in the city, accommodations should be booked at least a year in advance—be sure to get a room facing away from the street because the noise is relentless. Temporary campsites are set up on the outskirts of the city, and shuttle buses provide transport into town. Note also that petty crime is rife at this time.
Pamplona makes a good base from which to explore the rest of Navarra. Highlights of the province are the restored fairy-tale castle at Olite, the carved portal of the church at Sanguesa, the medieval town of Estella (Lizarra), the pilgrim bridge at Puente La Reina, the two monasteries of La Oliva and Leyre, Javier Castle (birthplace of St. Francis Xavier) and, near the French border, the tiny town of Roncesvalles, a traditional starting point for pilgrims heading across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia via the Saint James' Way.
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