Mention Pamplona and for many the image comes to mind of a hoard of runners dashing through the city’s cobbled streets, struggling to stay ahead of six ferocious fighting bulls. This is indeed the highlight of the San Fermín festival, held annually in July and immortalised by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises. It was what first drew me to the city where, bedecked in white polo and jeans and sporting the traditional red sash and scarf, I sprinted breathlessly until overtaken by the rampaging beasts. I then sauntered off to Bar Gaucho (see ‘My perfect day’, below) to celebrate my survival with a glass (or two) of local Garnacha. If you’re tempted to run, you will need to clamber over the barriers to join the crowd well before the 8am starting gun. Speaking of early starts, abandon any hope of finding a hotel unless you book at least four months in advance.
There is a lot more to Pamplona than stampeding bulls, however. Until the 16th century, this was the capital of the Kingdom of Navarre, in northern Spain, and its ancient walls are among the most extensive in Europe. Its lands are rich in agriculture, making Navarre a vegetable garden delight. So if you’re not keen to run with the bulls, I would suggest a visit in April when the famed white asparagus is harvested, June for strawberries or August for artichokes.
Navarre has also been a wine-producing land for more than 2,000 years. The geography stretches some 100km north to south, from lofty pre-Pyrenean hills to the temperate valley around Pamplona, down to the more arid Ribera abutting the Ebro river. This is where I love trekking through the dramatic Bardenas Reales, which is classified as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Half-day guided walking tours can be arranged by the Pamplona tourism office, found opposite the extravagant Baroque town hall.
My perfect day in Navarrre
Pamplona is the ideal base for exploring Navarre and its wineries. Pop in for breakfast at Café Iruña on the square and then take a stroll to the Santa María la Real cathedral, along some of the city’s loveliest old streets. Drive 30 minutes south to Olite, the royal court in the Middle Ages, and take a tour of the spectacularly restored castle. The wine museum provides a fascinating insight into the region’s winemaking history. One of the best displays takes the visitor on an olfactory tour through the scents found in Navarrese wines.
Lunch & afternoon
Lunch at Restaurante Merindad de Olite must start with the fantastic appetite-opener of melted cheese with caramelised onion and sesame. Afterwards you can visit two wineries – Irache and Inurrieta are both a short drive away – then head back to Pamplona.
Back in Pamplona, an array of old-fashioned shops invite an evening stroll through the old town, along the Calle Mayor and Calle de San Antón, with traditional shops and even a haberdashery with hundreds of drawers bursting with buttons of every description. When you’re feeling peckish, wander over to Bar Gaucho, which has scooped awards in Spain for its pintxos, similar to tapas but smaller and taken to an art form. It is worth battling your way through the three-deep throng at the bar, where amazingly serene staff will serve up the treats you point to.
A diverse region
Climatic diversity, variance in altitude and orientation of the hillsides make an ideal terroir for native red Garnacha and Tempranillo varieties. The Navarra DO – which covers the southern part of the modern-day Navarre autonomous region – employs the sangrado (‘saignée’ in French: allowing grape must destined for red wine to macerate for a brief period before a portion is bled off to make a rosé) process for its coveted Garnacha rosés. Since this method was introduced in the 1970s, the region has been considered Spain’s gold standard for rosé.
A mere 20 minutes from Pamplona lies Bodega Otazu. The winery’s extraordinary collection of contemporary art complements a vineyard awarded Spain’s highest rating, the DO Pago. You could be forgiven for thinking you were entering a modern art gallery, with works by Anish Kapoor, Antoni Tàpies, Ai Wei Wei and others. ‘Our initiative is a fusion of three concepts: wine, art and history,’ says Guillermo Penso, the founder’s son, who lives in a splendid 16th-century Renaissance palace adjoining the winery. In 1989, the Penso family purchased an estate devastated by phylloxera and launched a project on the French château model by taking the winery to the vineyards. The Navarra wine council has selected Otazu’s Chardonnay 2020 as the region’s top white, offered to visitors on the ‘150-minute tour’ of the winery and its art treasures (€39.95, book ahead via the website).
When entrepreneur Alejandro Gómez Sigala acquired Bodegas Irache a few years ago, he was determined to create a unique winery experience. Irache lies on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Its roadside two-tap fountain offers trekkers water or wine and you are welcome to take your choice. Its Pago de Cirsus vineyards, an hour’s drive south, are the setting for a four-star boutique hotel with sweeping bedroom views of the vines and distant mountains. Limestone soil rich in mineral salts, plus a microclimate of damp, cold winters and long, dry summers, enable Irache to grow seven grape varieties. A labour of love? The vineyards are monitored by satellite image to analyse the harvest.
Nearly two centuries of passion for wine have gone into Bodegas Ochoa, located near the Olite castle, half an hour south of Pamplona. The winery’s manager Beatriz Ochoa recalls her grandmother Mercedes insisting the winery should remain open to visitors, even on Sunday. ‘There is nothing that makes us happier than to receive guests in our home,’ says Beatriz. Guided tours and tastings are available seven days a week, topped off with snacks and artisan chocolate. ‘Each harvest is different and each grape has its own rhythm,’ she says. You need to be an early riser to catch a glimpse of the harvesting. This takes place at the crack of dawn, to keep the grapes fresh from vine to winery, avoiding loss of aroma and quality. Sign up for the Living Wine guided tour (adults €18, children 4-17 years €6, book ahead via the website) or for something special in the summer, enjoy the weekend evening tasting with tapas on the winery’s open terrace.
A short drive southwest takes you to the picturesque town of Falces, home of Bodega Inurrieta, the youngest of DO Navarra’s major wineries. The business falls under the sharp eye of co-founder Antonio Antoñana who, at 77, drives 60km from Pamplona every day to liaise with the team. The Antoñana family produced its first vintage in 2002 and its top-of-the-range Altos de Inurrieta Reserva red has been deservedly sweeping up international awards ever since. The sharp contrast in seasonal temperature and the sloping fields towering to 480m yield varieties from classic Navarra Garnacha and Graciano to Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
Eleven generations of the Chivite family have stood at the helm since the winery’s foundation in 1647 by the widow of José Chivite. Its Legardeta estate is located in Villatuerta, 40km southwest of Pamplona. The 103ha of vineyards sit among the local forests and scrubland ecosystem and, at 6,000 vines per hectare, Legardeta claims to be the most densely planted vineyard in Spain. The Colección 125 Blanco 2002 (barrel-fermented Chardonnay) is pure enchantment to the palate – ask the king and queen of Spain, who savoured it the night before their wedding. Great ideas can emerge from a friendship between a signature wine- grower and a world-class chef. Julián Chivite López and longstanding friend Juan Mari Arzak of San Sebastián three-star Michelin restaurant Arzak, have created the Las Fincas range, whose rosé and white bottlings are crafted to suit the two families’ tastes. Chivite says: ‘We always like to enjoy things together.’
How to get there
A flight to Bilbao puts you less than two hours by motorway from Pamplona. Via Madrid there is the option of a half-hour domestic flight.
Your Navarre address book
Prepared to push the boat out? Book a room at Hemingway’s favourite haunt, the refurbished Hotel La Perla, a lavish five-star affair overlooking the lively Plaza del Castillo.
The latest addition to Pamplona’s four-star range, this is an elegant boutique hotel with a spa and rooftop cocktail bar offering spectacular mountain views.
This three-star hotel is an Art Deco gem. I’ve always found it a most charming place to hang my hat.
Owners Luken Vigo and Iñaki Andradas describe themselves as edgy and mad. Maybe so, but they have achieved a breakthrough in imaginative Basque-Navarrese cookery, offering an inspired seven-course tasting menu served in a chilled-out environment.
A mecca for lovers of traditional Navarre cuisine for more than a century. The local Cristal peppers baked in a wood-fired oven with prized Arbequina olive oil is a starter not to be missed.
Creativity drives Koldo Rodero, head chef at this family-run, one-star Michelin restaurant near the bullring. Seafood is a cherished delight, delivered daily from Atlantic fishing ports. The crème foie with a veil of Garnacha, quince and pine nuts is simply scrumptious.
What to do
Pamplona’s landmark antiquarian bookshop, which serves as a backdrop to a delightfully unique assortment of affordable antiques, pictures and contemporary craft pottery and textiles.
I almost always make a pit stop at this family bakery, which offers delectable homemade biscuits and sweets to take the edge off that mid-morning craving.
Santa María la Real cathedral
With Spain’s largest working bell, the cathedral houses the international award-winning Occidens, a permanent exhibition taking visitors on an imaginative voyage through the history of Western civilisation.