In 1959, Hemingway returned to Pamplona, the city of his first and perhaps best novel, and said he feared he had ruined it. I found myself there, a mere 55 years later, in the city he once loved, and cracking open the digital pages of The Sun Also Rises I read his famous novel on the day we arrived. It was good, damn good, but being in Pamplona while reading it was even better.
The book follows the stories of several American and British expats, living in Paris, who decide to travel south to Spain to see the San Fermin festival — often known as ‘the running of the bulls’. There’s conflict and drama, drinking and trouble making, and in the background, a place that sounds rather magical now, a completely untouched Pamplona, free of the hordes of tourists who visit each year for San Fermin, all because a guy named Hemingway wrote about it.
“I’ve written Pamplona once and for keeps. It is all there as it always was except forty thousand tourists have been added. There were not twenty tourists when I first went there nearly four decades ago. Now on some days they say there are close to a hundred thousand in the town.” (Hemingway from his 1959 book The Dangerous Summer)
The thing is, Hemingway wouldn’t know this, but he wouldn’t be the only writer to bring tourists raining down on Spain. Paulo Coelho wrote The Pilgrimage in 1988, a fictional book that is based on the author’s experience walking the camino — the way of St. James — which passes through Pamplona. About 180,000 people walked it last year.
Still, San Fermin will forever be what this city is known for, with 1,000,000 people coming for the bulls each summer. When Hemingway thought the city was ruined in 1959, there were 100,000. However, he couldn’t have predicted Pamplona today. The city, whatever it was eighty years ago, has grown up with grace. There are gorgeous and sprawling parks all over the city. The old town is still as you’d expect it, but instead of gentrified tourist ghettos, it’s locals living in those apartments closest to Plaza del Castillo. People still flock to café Iruña, but most likely for the same reason Hemingway had his morning coffee there… it has the best shade. We stayed in shared apartments, a sort of Airbnb hybrid that we’ve seen a lot of in Spain this year, where three bedroom apartments are configured into mini-hotels, each room with a lock, and a front desk check in for multiple properties. They’re all located on the edge of town, a couple blocks of apartments that frame parque Yamaguchi, an area of town that no doubt didn’t exist in Hemingway’s day. Pamplona hasn’t been ruined, it just grew into itself.
The city is so adept at managing the influx of tourists, that a three-day concert came into town during our stay and we moved around town, walking past part of the event, without even realizing it. Yes there were lots of people out for cañas that night, but it didn’t feel like all that much. There’s also public bathrooms and water fountains everywhere, perfect for wine guzzling San Fermin crowds, before they pass out in one of the parks.
So what of Hemingway is left? Well the festival was never his, it was Pamplona’s. It still is. The cafe Iruña has a bar downstairs and from the street you can peer in.
Hello, handsome. That’s Hemingway, forever at the bar, while the rest of the world is upstairs eating at the cafe, looking out the door longingly, honored as, or perhaps reduced to a tourist attraction that no one else seemed to notice while we were there. We walked down the steps and into the silent bar, where an empty beer and wine glass sat next to him. Hemingway. Wow. Okay, we need to do a selfie:
Times have changed. I particularly like that rugged Hemingway can say nothing about my very manly husband wearing a baby into a bar.
Anyway, I snapped a few shots of myself with America’s greatest writer, probably just one of thousands of bad photos taken at this spot, but at least I refrained from openly molesting him. His head is big. Okay, the Hemingway tour is over.
The Navarra tourism board has a page about Hemingway and where to find all the spots he’s written about. There’s little signs in town announcing “The Hemingway”. He’s been commoditized, branded, turned into prop — but also he’s been forgotten. At least a little.
This restaurant, just off of Plaza del Castillo has switched to selling kebabs (who can blame them, they are delicious). Inside there are photos of Hemingway as a child, a young man and as the writer. The frames are broken and the glass cracked. Some of the photos have fallen away.
He was happy here once:
He wrote a lot of great books:
But in the end… kebabs. I don’t know if Hemingway would be mortified or amused, but there’s nothing to remind you of your own mortality and microscopic impact like someone of Hemingway’s stature being pasted over fifty years after his death for pizza and shawarma.
Time marches on for all of us, even the great ones.