Magdalena Front in the medieval old city of Pamplona

Pamplona, Sans Bull Running

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Have you ever slept in your car? If so, you know it’s not the best way to spend a night, with no way to lay flat or really stretch out your legs.

After sleeping in the VW the first night of our road trip to Spain, my stiff back was forgotten as soon as we stumbled into the Aire de Service de la Corrèze – the fancy French equivalent of a Flying J for truckers in the States – and were hit with the smell of coffee and fresh pastries.

Multiple banks of automatic coffee dispensers lined the walls like slot machines at a casino. I did, in fact, feel like we’d hit the jackpot. We put in a couple of small coins, selected the largest coffee available, and watched in awe as the machine slowly lowered our cups, then filled them with fresh, strong coffee. Maybe this kind of gadgetry is common in Europe, but it was a first for us for even the cup to be dispensed.

Breakfast at a gas station in France

An uncomfortable night of sleeping in our car is forgotten as soon as we smell fresh beignets and coffee at a French service station.

We ordered nearly a dozen mini beignets from the adjacent boulangerie and got back on the road, enjoying our tasty breakfast as we continued our road trip from Switzerland to Madrid, Spain.

Our discoveries for this, the second day of our 10-day road trip, would include a day exploring some of the best things to do in Pamplona, Spain – besides the infamous Running of the Bulls festival.

Map of our 10-Day Road Trip – Switzerland to Spain

The orange pins mark our travel for day two, from Aire de Service de la Corrèze in France to the Castillo de Monjardín in Spain. The blue line roughly follows our entire 10-day travel path.

Road Tripping Through France to Pamplona, Spain

The night before when we’d tried to exit the main freeway to find a place to camp, we’d been frustrated to find toll booths blocking every exit. They made searching for a campsite so frustrating, we gave up and slept in our car at the service station. 

Come morning, our decision paid off since we were grateful to be able to exit the Aire de la Corrèze gas station immediately back onto the freeway without additional tolls.

Travel Tip: France has a lot of road tolls. Some are really expensive, especially around the big cities like Paris. Keep in mind the additional cost, as well as the extra time having to wait in traffic to pass through.

Nearing the perimeter of Bordeaux, we veered south, celebrating when we reached the Spanish border near the Bay of Biscay. It was Trav’s first time in Spain and my first visit to Basque country, a region which encompasses northeastern Spain and part of southwestern France. 

We almost immediately turned off the main road onto a narrow two-lane highway empty of traffic and began to relax. The terrain grew more wild with mountains and rolling hills striped with steep ravines and clear, rushing streams.

Inexplicably, we felt more at home than we had anywhere in France. Perhaps it was simply due to the rugged landscape with tiny towns and few people. It didn’t hurt that we’re fairly fluent in Spanish. I’ve especially just always felt really comfortable in Spain, like I belong there.

Language Tip: Once over the border, the road signs switch from French to Basque, and words are riddled with x’s, z’s, and q’s.

Tiny town of Maquirriain in Basque country, Spain
The Basque town of Maquirriain is so small that the “entering” and “exiting” signs are a stone’s throw apart.

We quickly realized that each town has a sign with its name when you enter, as is common in the US. They also have a sign as you’re leaving though. Some towns are so small, the “entering” and “leaving” signs are just a handful of meters from each other, like in the town of Maquirriain. 

Trav grew up in a town in North Idaho with a population of about 50 people. This town makes his seem like a metropolis!

Finding WiFi on Easter Sunday in Pamplona

As soon as we arrived in Pamplona, our first goal was to find a place with WiFi so we could give our friend in Madrid an update on our ETA.

It was still fairly early in the day, but even if we drove straight through to Madrid without exploring Pamplona, we wouldn’t arrive until our friend and her parents would likely be asleep. Plus we’d miss out on exploring Pamplona. We realized we wouldn’t be able to reach Madrid until Monday at the earliest. 

Considering that it was Easter Sunday, finding WiFi turned out to be a challenge. Even McDonald’s was closed. Luckily KFC was open! We jumped online to send AG a message and grabbed lunch while we were there. 

Though it hardly seems like a fitting Easter lunch, we hadn’t been to KFC in years. It was actually a treat, particularly the ice cream cones we bought with a 5 euro bill some friends in Oregon gave us with a going-away card when we moved to the Switz.

Thanks, Kat & Joe!

We laughed on our way out when we saw the advertising slogan in their window:

Rustic Patatas at KFC in Pamplona, Spain

“Rustic Potatoes, the Envy of All the Potatoes”

It seemed strangely ironic that Two Small Potatoes from Idaho – where our potatoes are world famous – would have lunch on Easter at KFC in Pamplona, Spain. It was one of those moments where it really struck me how odd life is and how you can never imagine where you’ll end up.

But on to some sightseeing!

Things to Do in Pamplona, Spain…for Non-Bull Runners

It’s indisputable that one of the most famous things to do in Pamplona is the Running of the Bulls. Officially called the San Fermín Festival, the 9-day event takes place every year in July.

Unfortunately few visitors explore anything else in the city, which has so much to offer!

Pamplona’s Fortified Medieval City Center

We didn’t run with any bulls while we were in Pamplona or even visit its famous bullring – the third largest in the world, seating nearly 20,000.

Instead, we set off to explore something much more to our liking: the heart of its medieval city center. Recognized as a national monument, the center and its fortifications are one of the best preserved military complexes in the country.

Magdalena Front of Pamplona's Old City walls
The old city center of Pamplona is surrounded by 5 km of fortress walls that remain largely intact.

Like many cities in Europe, Pamplona has been inhabited for millennia. 

A permanent settlement was established on the site in the first millennium BC. It was initially called Iruña, which means “the city” in Basque. It eventually grew to become the capital city in this region of Spain, which at that time was the Kingdom of Navarre.

Beginning in the 16th century, the fortress of Pamplona became an important strategic defense against French invasion. It was then that the many bastions, ravelins, and gates were added and improved over the coming centuries.

Walking Pamplona’s Old City Walls

Walking the perimeter of the old city walls is definitely one of the most interesting things to do in Pamplona.

A nice option is to start your walking tour near the Media Luna Park along the beautiful Arga River. From there, you’ll follow a shady path north through the trees with the river on one side and the looming old city walls of the Magdalena Front on the other.

When you reach the Redín Bastion (the huge corner lookout), the trail curves left to follow the northern perimeter of the city walls.

Redin Bastion, one of the coolest things to do in Pamplona
The Bastion of Guadalupe is a watch tower in the northern corner of the old city’s fortress walls.

You can continue all the way to La Taconero Park on this path outside the city walls, enter the inner city via Portal Nuevo (New Gate), then loop back to your starting point through the inner city.

This entire walk along the outer walls is about 2.5 km; allow at least an hour. The route you choose back through the inner city can be as long or winding as you choose.

Travel Tip: Those who arrive by car can park on the Playa de Caparroso, a long narrow parking street along the Arga River on the eastern side of the city walls. It offers easy walking access to the outer walls, as well as the Portal de Zumalacarregui/Portal de Francia gate.

Seeing the fortress walls is definitely one of the most memorable things to do in Pamplona, but the city has many more hidden gems tucked inside the old city walls.

Make sure to explore inside the walls too!

Where to Enter Pamplona’s Inner City

As the modern city of Pamplona grew, some of the old fortifications were destroyed or removed, especially along the southern and western perimeter. But the sections along the east and north are intact, which makes them ideal for a walking tour.

It also means it’s not as easy to find a way to enter the inner city there. You have to either know where to go, or just walk along the walls until you find an entrance.

Several “portals,” or gates, offer access.

Of the original six gates built between the 16th and 18th centuries, two no longer exist and three have been moved or reconstructed. Only the Portal de Zumalacárregui, or Portal de Francia as its also called, still exists in its original form. This also happens to be the oldest of the gates, built in 1553.

Entrance into the medieval old city of Pamplona
A small drawbridge over a dry stream marks the Portal de Zumalacárregui entrance into old Pamplona.

The Portal de Zumalacárregui is the one we used to pass through the old city walls.

Unlike the Portal Nuevo, which crosses a main road, this gate is a pedestrian-only walking path over a small drawbridge. The old counter balances and weights used to open it are still visible along the path. At one time it would have overlooked an expanse of water, an additional line of defense against would-be invaders.

Views from Pamplona’s Inner City Walls

As soon as you enter the inner city, you’ll realize the views are killer. From outside the walls, you can only really see the walls themselves. Once inside, you’ll be on top of the fortifications, which offer long stretches where you can look out at the surrounding city.

It’s easy to see why folks would want to settle in such a place. 

Pamplona is surrounded by a ring of mountains and nestled in a central basin with a warm Mediterranean climate and little rainfall. Understandably, such a settlement would require massive walls to protect the fortress within.

Redin Bastion of Pamplona's medieval city
The top of the inner city walls offers superb views of modern Pamplona and the distant mountains.
Medieval fortifications in Pamplona's city center
From an overlook along the fortress walls, you can see the old city’s intricate ramparts and moat.

Venturing deeper into the heart of the old city, we moved away from the fortress walls. 

We discovered ancient narrow streets with buildings so close together on either side that the light barely reaches the street.

Calle Dormitaleria in Pamplona, Spain

Many streets, like Calle Dormitaleria, are just barely wide enough for a small car to pass.

Catedral de Santa María la Real – Cathedral of Santa Maria

As we walked, we kept our eyes focused on the spires of a cathedral, first passing the back side of it with its austere brick walls soaring sky-high, and then catching a narrow glimpse of it through the bars of a small private gated entrance. 

But where was the entrance?

We kept walking and walking. 

After no small amount of searching, we finally entered a small plaza tightly hemmed in with buildings and were greeted with a splendid view of the cathedral bathed in the early evening light, framed with a brilliant blue sky. 

Hallelujah, we’d found it!

Catedral de Santa Maria, one of the best things to do in Pamplona
Catedral de Santa María la Real de Pamplona, Spain

It’d be nearly impossible to visit the inner city without seeing the Catedral de Santa María, at least from a distance.

Construction on the imposing Gothic cathedral started in the 14th century on the site of a former Roman temple. The church is notable for its massive central nave, 16th-century stained glass windows, and richly decorated cloister. The tomb of King Carlos III and his wife, Leonor, are housed there as well.

Since the cathedral was closed for the evening on Easter Sunday, we could only see it from the outside, but it was still worth a visit.

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Sundial on a cathedral in Pamplona

I really liked a giant sundial affixed high up on a corner tower. Years ago my mom made a beautiful horizontal sundial for my grandpa out of a slab of polished dark wood with metal bars for the Roman numerals. He passed away a few years ago, and I found myself wondering what happened to the sundial. I wished that my mom could be there to see this one. I knew she’d like it.

Cathedral of Santa Maria in Pamplona, Spain
The adjacent wall of the church is so different in color and form, it almost looks like a different church.

Convento de las Carmelitas Descalzas – Convent of the Discalced Carmelites

It does seem that where there’s one church, there’s another. We passed so many, we lost count.

Trav noted it must’ve been sad for all the small local churches every time a larger, more grand cathedral was built in the same plaza. Neglected and with dwindling visitors, many succumbed to the inevitable passage of time. We passed many of these little churches, still beautiful, with their own largely untold stories and small groups of loving devotees.

One especially beautiful little church that stood out to us was the Convento de las Carmelitas Descalzas de San José, or the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites.

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The Order of the Carmelites is an ancient Roman Catholic religious order that can trace its roots as far back as Mount Carmel in Israel during the First Crusade. An order specifically for nuns was founded in 1452 and quickly spread throughout Spain.

During the 16th century, the order underwent significant reforms, which were led by Teresa of Ávila, a Spanish noblewoman who belonged to the Order. She created the Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites, an offshoot of followers known for their habit of wearing sandals. Above all else, Carmelite belief focuses on fraternity, service, and contemplation in the form of silent prayer.

Fun Fact: The convent is located at the end of Calle Salsipuedes, the shortest street in Pamplona. Less than ten meters long, the street is closed at night by a high black wrought-iron fence. A sign nearby reads: Get out if you can and come in if they let you.

Streets of Pamplona on Easter, Sunday

If you visit Pamplona on Easter, be prepared for music, parties and public street celebrations.

As we wandered through the old city of Pamplona, we periodically heard music with live bands in the streets and throngs of young people singing and dancing, celebrating Easter. The joy is infectious. It’s a happenin’ place to be for the holiday.

We passed one street with standing room only before saying adiós to Pamplona.

Street festivities in Pamplona on Easter
Groups of revelers celebrate Easter in the streets.

We hope to see you again someday, Pamplona!

Once we were back on the road, we headed west instead of due south to Madrid. 

Our next destination?

Burgos, Spain – with one unexpected and very memorable stop camping on Easter at the Castillo de Monjardín.

Have you been to Pamplona? Did you run with the bulls or did you explore the rest of the city? Share your travel tips in the comments!
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