Yet again, the travel bug has pointed me to the green and culturally rich north of Spain. This time, my destination wasn’t Galicia but the once fiercely independent and defended former Kingdom of Navarra and its capital Pamplona.
My trip had a double purpose: first to visit the site of the world famous festival of San Fermin, the running of the bulls, which is takes place every year in July. And secondly to head further north, right up to the border with France to Zugarramurdi, the center of witchcraft in Navarra where another, much smaller festival is held in August.
I went prior to the actual festivals because particularly Pamplona attracts thousands and thousands of visitors which means it gets very crowded so you can’t really see much and, the prices for even a tortilla or a drink rise sky high not to mention hotel rooms which double and triple.
In the footsteps of Hemingway
Pamplona and the bull run owes its international fame and popularity to one man and his book: Ernest Hemingway and his first successful novel: The sun also rises. He arrived from Paris in full swing of the San Fermines in 1923 and returned eight times after that. He always stayed in the 5 star hotel La Perla in the Plaza del Castillo in the middle of Pamplona’s old town.
My journey was slightly less glamorous. I came from Torrevieja near Alicante on Spain’s Costa Blanca, and, to avoid having to change trains twice, went by direct coach. Let’s just say, that after 11 hours on the bus with only two short stops, I arrived in Pamplona stiff as a plank. On top of it, it was pouring with rain, but that’s to be expected. It rains a lot in Navarra at any time of the year.
Armed with rain coat and umbrella I set off to follow the places which Hemingway favored whilst enjoying the boisterous festival of San Fermin.
The San Fermines
The tradition of the running of the bulls dates back to the 14th century when cattle was brought to the market and hurried along to the place where they were sold by young men who used tactics of fear and excitement to get the animals there faster. This developed into competitions. Today, six bulls which are used in the bullfight during the afternoon are rushed from their corral through narrow streets to the bull ring, chased by dare devils who often end up injured.
From 6th to 14th of July this spectacle is repeated daily, with fixed routes and rules, attended by thousands of people who watch the spectacle behind wooden barricades or from balconies of the buildings along La Estafeta. Firecrackers announce the moment when the bulls have been released from their corral and guys dressed in white shirt, white trousers, a red sash and red neckerchief start running ahead of them.
All this in honor of Saint Fermin, the first bishop of Pamplona whose statue is carried along in a procession. The festival also involves parades of the ‘giants’ massive papier mache figures, a lot of eating and drinking which lasts all day and all night. In other words, a weeklong big party which leaves everybody knackered when the final firecracker is launched.
Hotel La Perla and Café Iruña
The center of all these activities is around the Plaza del Castillo where the Hotel La Perla is located. The building has been completely renovate during recent years, but Hemingway’s room as been preserved and was kindly shown to me by the very friendly and helpful PR. He wasn’t the only celebrity to enjoy the San Fermines, the festival also attracted Orson Welles, Arthur Miller and Derek Walcott. If you want to visit during the festival and live like Hemingway you need a healthy bank balance: his room goes at EUROS 2550 per night.
A much cheaper way to play at Hemingway is a visit to his favorite watering hole: Café Iruña, conveniently located right next door to the Hotel La Perla. An art deco fantasy with lots of wrought iron, chandeliers and stained glass, it perfectly takes you back in time.
After that, I made my way along Estafeta and to the bull ring with a bust of Hemingway near the main entrance and the gate which is the final destination of the running bulls rounding of my Hemingway reminiscence in Pamplona.
Witchcraft in Zugarramurdi
I have always had a great interest in the occult, in the history of voodoo and Santeria, so, naturally when I heard about the witches of Navarra, I had to go and see for myself what it is all about.
I was lucky to go with a private tour, another advantage when you visit out of season. Zugarramurdi is located approx. 80km north of Pamplona and the drive there is beautiful and scenic. Dense woods, tranquil rivers, small towns with pretty houses many of which have been converted into romantic country inns.
The village itself is and always was very small and isolated which is one of the reasons why witchcraft blossomed during the 17th century. But, it’s not all about black magic, covens, and dark rituals under a full moon, mostly, the so called witcheses and sorcerers were wise men and women who knew about natural remedies and had the gift to heal. A small community like this is however a breeding ground of rumor, gossip and envy which lead to the denunciation of some 300 people accused of black magic to the Inquisition. Two officials from Logroño came to Zagurramurdi and arrested people as young as six and dragged them to Logroño where they were tortured and seven of them even burned at the stake. A very dark chapter of Spanish history documented in the Museum of Witchcraft in Zugarramurdi.
Nearby is a famous, large cave, formed by a small river where apparently the witches celebrated their reunions with the devil and brewed their potions in caldrons.
This cave is the venue of a festival on 18th August when a collective meal is prepared in one of the ovens and a meeting of the witches in enacted.
A short but wonderful trip to Navarra which holds a lot more treasures like the Palacio Real de Olite, Roncevalles or the caves of Urdax to mention just a few. Reason enough to return another time.