A Prolonged Pass Through Pamplona on the Camino de Santiago

My Camino de Santiago comrades and I had met up along the Way and we entered Pamplona together. Some were dreading the urban environment after days of passing through the quietude of the Pyrenees, the solitude of nature and small Spanish villages along the pilgrimage path. As a self-proclaimed urbanist, I had been looking forward to Pamplona and was excited to experience the phenomenon that cities with many layers of history and culture offer.

In addition, I already had a lifelong romantic notion of Pamplona long before I arrived. The Festival of San Fermín with its traditional running of the bulls was made internationally famous in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and the children’s book, The Story of Ferdinand- the latter I had read both as a child and a parent- with its evocotive and humorous ink illustrations by Robert Lawson. But it was much more than that.

Drawn in by the massive fortification walls around Pamplona, we crossed an ancient Roman bridge, and through two stone gates to arrive in the heart of the old city. We then went our separate ways- I had booked my accommodations earlier, and my friends went in search of an albergue or hostel. I was glad for my prior planning and was looking forward to having my own private room.

I had walked 17 miles (27km) on the Camino de Santiago that day- my longest day yet. My leg muscles were deeply sore from 5 days of continuous walking, carrying my heavy pack and I suspected a couple of small blisters were forming. Pamplona is the first major Spanish city on the Camino Francés route to Santiago, so I wasn’t surprised to find a place that advertised pilgrim’s massages. I allowed myself a bit of luxury and went for a full-body massage. I was so exhausted and my body felt broken. The one hour massage was bliss, but as I attempted to stand up afterwards, I was devastated to realize that my muscles were still in excruciating pain. The massage had not helped much at all. I hobbled to my small hotel room overlooking a busy pedestrian street.

The hotel receptionist told me I arrived in Pamplona on the perfect night — every Wednesday the tapas bars open for a special happy hour. He excitedly promised it would be a lively evening.

And it was. Pamplona came alive! I showered and dressed in the least hiker-looking clothes I had with me and threw on a scarf for fashion. Every narrow street I turned down was lined with open bars. Small, high tables and stools, or open counters with groups, couples and families chatting and laughing, whispering, leaning in, speaking to each other intently, gossipping. The chattering of a foreign tongue was intoxicating to me and I wished for a friend, a group, my husband or even strangers to share the experience with. I looked for my Camino friends in every bar with no luck.

I wandered the narrow, gritty streets with voices and music reverberating between the 5 story buildings for a couple hours, popping in to welcoming-looking bars for more rioja and small bites- pintxos- featuring sumptuous crab, egg, jamon, chili, or sardines which I chose from glass cases on the counter. I had this conflicting feeling as I wandered the crowded streets. It felt thrilling to be alone (as a mom this is extremely rare) and have the ultimate freedom to go as I pleased. But there I was in this vibrant city full of life and feeling a bit lonely. I felt an ache in my heart, but convinced myself that I was my own best company. I observed families, couples, and friends with quiet, longing interest, ate and drank to my hearts content, and went back to my hotel room satisfied and tipsy.

Pamplona affected me deeply, and I didn’t want to leave the next day. This longing for the city had not left me. I had another long walk ahead on the Camino planned. I wandered the old city as it began to wake up, with cleaners washing the streets from the night before, people hurrying by, stopping to line up for coffee and pastries. I made my way to the cathedral, where I received a stamp in my pilgrimage passport. The architecture, like this 2000 year old city itself, was a palimpsest of styles- from the brick Romanesque, the high gothic arches and ribs, to the neoclassical facade. Organ music and monks singing reverberated and echoed filling the space.

I stopped at a market for my typical morning breakfast in Spain- tortilla and cafe con leche, and I lingered. I was only supposed to be on the Camino for another 2 days and then I would fly home to my husband and kids. My accommodations were booked for the days ahead. As much as I longed to stay in Pamplona for another day- and my body needed the rest- I knew I must continue my Camino and keep my plans.

Still, I kept a leisurely pace wandering and gazing at the city- noticing the texture of the urban fabric, the life on the street- busy, quite different from the jovial activity of the night before. People were getting to work, tourists were visiting the cathedrals, sanitation trucks crept along, narrowly avoiding pedestrians, voices calling out from iron balconies, people chatting on cell phones as they passed. Most buildings were in varying states of decay, but in ways that added charm, like many European cities.

I paused at what looked like an elegant pallazzo, with a nearly frameless glass entryway. I poked in to find local art: stylized paintings of Pamplona, a 3-dimensional map of the old city carved into a thick cross section of a tree trunk, and a biennalle exhibit of Latin American architecture. The museum’s architectural design was so elegant with its traditional courtyard space with several floors of surrounding verandas, natural light from above, and a mix of modern and historical details throughout. This was the Civivox Condestable, that I happened upon- a cultural center/museum that held events, concerts, participatory programs. I imagined myself living here, attending events, surrounded by ideas. Was I falling in love with Pamplona? I was.

The morning was almost past and I knew I had to leave the city and get back on my Camino, but I found myself drawn down a narrow street triangulated off the organic street grid, and into yet another cathedral, and then a golden- lighted bakery from the 1890s- where I bought the most delicious Basque almond pastry.

I was both on a reluctant mission — following a path out of the city, or more accurately, a general direction — and on a dérive, allowing myself to be absorbed by the city.

Dérive is a French word for a wandering walk through the city in which one is continuously driven onward by the city itself. It could be the urban fabric propelling you forward, it could be some sort of energy, sound, light that causes you to turn and change direction. It is a wandering walk through the city without having anywhere to go or a place to be. It is a walk in which the city itself guides you, draws you into its phenomenon. A dérive happens when one is exploring leisurely and is interested in what is happening in the city, and perhaps in some sort of zen or stoic state. The city grabs you, the streets, sidewalks give you the path, the urban grid provides choices in a rhythm of time. Sensations from the city are repelling or magnetizing. An energetic block, a desolate street, a darkened alleyway, a lively restaurant scene, interrupting street vendors, broken sidewalks, benches and planters, each can cause a person to turn, stop, pick up the pace, slow down, take care, rest and watch, engage.

A dérive is best when one is walking alone with only the city to influence your trajectory. As diverting as this dérive was for me, I eventually found my way to the city gate, and passed the threshold, on my way to another adventure.



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