Hemingway, Pamplona and the fiesta

Pamplona, 19231923

It was extremely hot on that long ago 6th of July.  From the very early morning hours, Pamplona, the capital of Navarra, had begun to prepare for its weeklong fiesta of bullfights, dances under the stars, concerts, fair rides and of course, “hearty drinking.”  The shady terraces of the cafés Kutz, Suizo and Iruña were crowded with tables of men arguing over the merits of a handsome matador called Maera.  Café conversation in Spain has always included politics, and that steamy July morning in 1923 was no exception.  The government was about to be overthrown by a military coup d’état (13 September), and with strikes and violent street battles going on in other parts of the country, train loads of people from Barcelona, Bilbao, Zaragoza and San Sebastián where on their way to celebrate San Fermín in Pamplona.  Native Pamploneses, strolling under the acaria trees in the Plaza del Castillo, wondered where “all of the out-of-towners would possibly find a place to sleep”.

That night, while fireworks exploded in the sky over the Plaza, a tall young man accompanied by a smiling blond woman entered the lobby of the Hotel La Perla.  Although they had made reservations from Paris, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley decided against staying there, probably due to the cost of the room, because in those days the Hotel La Perla was considered to be one of the more luxurious establishments in Pamplona, with a restaurant that served French cuisine.  Fortunately, less expensive rooms that even a news correspondent could afford, were available on Eslava Street near the Plaza de San Francisco. (204 Hours of Fiesta).

Pamplona, 2018

95 years later things have changed to some extent.  Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” has attracted thousands visitors from around the world, doubling the population on a long weekend, but the dictators are long gone and the streets quiet except during fiesta.  Navarra now has the third highest average income in Spain, along with low unemployment.  The city of Pamplona is one of the most progressive cities in the country and a gastronomic destination in the north, joining San Sebastián-Donostia, Hondarriba and Bilbao.

But some things haven’t changed, at least not that much.  It can still be extremely warm in early July if the Atlantic storms are not moving through, this is Green Spain afterall.  Native Pamploneses still welcome everyone.  The 5-star Grand Hotel La Perla is once again the most expensive establishment in the city, where few news correspondents  today could afford to stay on their own.  The small hotel on Eslava Street is gone but there is a small (28-room) 2-star Hotel Eslava in the same area at Plaza Virgen de la O, plus several comfortable 3 and 4-star properties in the old quarter and around the city from which to choose, a few more then when Hemingway first visited, but during the fiesta they can be expensive and in demand.

The “loads of people from Barcelona, Bilbao, Zaragoza, San Sebastián”, and now Madrid, sleep in the parks as they have always done, while most foreign visitors, especially those from Australia, the UK and Europe, without hotels rooms, end up staying at one of the local campgrounds, find a spot in one of the city parks, or end up on the streets of the old quarter.

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Papa Hemingway in the Plaza del Castillo 1959

Cafés Kutz and Suizo are not longer cafés.  The tables at the classic Café Iruña, Bar Windsor, Casino Eslava and Txoto, where Rick and the Amigos de Pamplona hang out, are always crowded, but the converstations are somewhat different now and the tables filled with families.  While the city is blessed with more then 300 restaurants, cafés and bars, during fiesta, unlike in Hemingway’s time, reservations are a must if you want to enjoy lunch in the comfort of an air-conditioned space, or dine at one of the city’s top restaurants like the Alhambra, Europa or the Michelin stared Rodero.


If you are planning on attending the fiesta this year, check out Sanfermín Tours to see what’s still available for the opening days of the fiesta.

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Fiesta, what should I wear?

Dressing for the fiesta, or how to look like a Pamplonica

The official dress for all events during the fiesta is the traditional festival costume of white and red: white shirt and pants, red pañuelico (bandana) and red faja (sash). The “official costume”, which is also worn by Pelota players in Navarra and the Basque country, can be purchased in Pamplona at any of the clothing stores around the city, including El Corte Inglés, Spain’s leading department store.  Or better still, to insure the proper size and fit, you can bring your own pair of white pants (chinos, jeans) and a short-sleeved white polo style shirt or jersey.

The traditional pañuelico, the red bandana, is donned at noon on the 6th with the firing of the rockets, the chupinazo, during the opening ceremony, not before, and is not taken off and put away until midnight of the 14th, during the Pobre de mí, the closing ceremony.

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Peña Seattle de Sanfermines provides the  pañuelico for our clients.  Additional pañuelicos and the fajas, can be purchased from one of the many street vendors you’ll find in and around the old quarter.  Men, women and children wear the same red and white costume.  Ladies can wear either all white or a mixture of red and white, red blouse, white skirt or pants (but not shorts), red bag and shoes.  Dressing in San Fermín attire will allow you to integrate smoothly and completely into the spirit of the fiesta.

You might want to note at hotel laundry service is limited on the 6th and 7th, so be sure to bring enough clothes to see you through the first two days.  Also, clothing stores, as well as most other shops in the city, will be closed by mid morning on July 6, if they open at all, for the opening ceremony, and all day on the 7th, an official banking holiday in Pamplona, and Sunday.  You’ll need to check the schedule to see if El Corte Inglés will be open on Sunday, but it is normally open from 10:00 to 10:00 daily.  Other retail stores, except those selling festival-related items, close for lunch, with only a few reopening in the afternoon, after 4:30 pm.


It is also important that you bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes as you will be doing a great deal of walking around the city day and night.  Although the historic quarter of the city isn’t large, the fiesta is spread out over a much wider area, with music venues and special events being held in different parks and plazas, some up to a half-hour walk, or further, from the Plaza del Castillo, the heart of the old quarter and the center of the fiesta.  And while Pamplona does an amazing job of keeping the streets and plazas clean, you will inevitably encounter broken glass somewhere along the way, especially following the opening ceremony, the early morning hours of the 7th, and on weekend mornings when the crowds are at their largest.

Wearing Sandals and “flip-flops” on these days is not recommended.

The Procession of San Fermín

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July 7th is an official religious holiday and the most important day of the Fiesta.  At 10:30 on the morning of the 7th, thousands of Pamplonicas, dressed in the traditional costume of white and red, take to the streets to accompany the 15th-century, polychromed, silver-covered statue of San Fermín, clothed in a beautiful cape of red and gold, as it leaves its chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo, on Calle Mayor, at the entrance to the Old Quarter, the Caso Antiguo, to be paraded around its narrow streets by the civil and church authorities of the city in a religious procession of song, dance and prayers, lasting several hours before finally ending back at the Church of San Lorenzo with a holy mass to honor the patron saint of the fiesta, Pamplona’s parton saint of the fiesta.  The Comparsa de Gigantes, the Company of Giants, marches at the head of the procession. Behind come the ecclesiastical authorities, buglers, kettledrums and txistularis, traditional flute players, who precede the statue of the Saint, followed closely by the Archbishop of Pamplona, the mayor and city council members, and bringing up the rear is the beloved Pamplonesa Municipal Band.  Here the Giants dance to the sounds of the  Gaita and Txistu, traditional Basque flutes, as the bells of the Cathedral ring out.

ABC_5065-1200x795After mass, the Comparsa de Gigantes head back to the Plaza Consistorial, to dance to the delight of the thousands of Pamplonicas filling the plaza in front of the town hall.  From there its off to lunch!