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Pamplona’s Pearl

Revisiting the Small Town Heartbeat of Hemingway’s First Love

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Emily Palmer, a junior global studies and creative writing student from Durham, is an intern for theCarolina Alumni Review. She blogs for the Review about many aspects of the Carolina student experience and spent her spring 2013 semester with UNC’s Honors Semester in London Program 

Traveling can be exhausting. Even more exhausting than traveling: hosteling. And too many picnics consisting solely of peanut butter sandwiches are rather exhausting, too. Let’s face it, economizing while traveling is an exhausting business. And that’s why about a third of the way into my two-month long European travels, I decided to take a few days to pamper and recuperate. And no better place to do it than in Pamplona, Spain, where Ernest Hemingway spent a good deal of time doing the same thing — at La Perla, a five-star hotel on the corner of la Plaza del Castillo.

Most people go to Europe to see the sights, to check a few must-dos off their bucket lists, to immerse themselves in new cultures. I don’t deny any of those reasons for going to Europe. But my primary reason for remaining in Europe after my London study abroad program ended was Hemingway. Perhaps going all the way to Europe to learn about the life of an American author sounds a bit strange. But Hemingway was a well-traveled expatriate who spent a good deal of his life outside of the states.

And so as my travels through Spain came to a close, I decided to spend my last two days in Pamplona at La Perla (in honor of Hemingway, of course). I can confidently say that I am probably the first resident of this posh hotel to arrive by bus. Of course, there aren’t any bus stops anywhere near La Perla’s glitzy domain, so after de-boarding the bus, I proceeded to roll my luggage several blocks to the hotel. I arrived in the beautifully carpeted and chandeliered entranceway heaving and slightly sweaty.

The concierge pretended not to notice. Instead, he showed me to my room, which was dedicated to yet another American author, Orson Welles. His name glimmered in gold letters by the door.

“We don’t like him much here,” the concierge said, cheerily, as he opened the door.

Following him inside, I found that I’d purchased what appeared to be a small house for two days, not just a room. A long hallway led to the bathroom area on my left and to a large sitting room before me. Beautifully carved chairs and a small table in the sitting room pulled me through the entranceway. Only then did I see the huge and dreamy bed with Egyptian cotton sheets awaiting my tired limbs. I had touch-sensor reading lamps, a large desk for writing and a mini-fridge all to myself. Goodbye hostel, hello 5-star hotel!

The bathroom was a treasure unto itself. I could have easily fit the entire bedroom from my previous hostel inside the hydro massage cabin, marble-tiled walk-in shower — no hyperbole necessary. (The concierge proudly told me about the high-power jet stream, but I didn’t catch the details because I’d just noticed the large footed double bathtub and a basket of ointments promising a luxurious bubble bath in my near future.) In a separate room, off of the bathing area I found the toilet and rather unnecessary bidet (bidet for one? — a staple item in every hotel and hostel where I stayed; even when I had to share a bathroom with other guests, I always had a bidet to myself). I quickly found the “royal” bathrobe, which I wore as much as possible, even out on my picturesque balcony, which opened out onto Calle Estafeta, the street where the annual running of the bulls takes place.

A large portrait of Orson Wells hanging near the bed reminded me to ask why La Perla wasn’t fond of the American writer.

“He never paid his bill,” the concierge said with disdain.

I made a mental note. “And Hemingway?”

“Always,” he beamed. “A man of great class and poise.”

“Ernest Hemingway” was on everyone’s lips in Pamplona. The name was uttered with reverence, as if the very consonants and vowels were made of gold. (The larger-than-life statue placed right outside the Plaza de Torros is actually gold-tinged.) I couldn’t stop at a cafe for a cortado (espresso shot cut with milk) without hearing his name. Hemingway had been to every cafe in town. There was no reason for me to even make a list of the places I should visit. I couldn’t help following Hemingway’s path. He had footprints all over the map!

One afternoon, stepping onto Plaza del Castillo, I found myself in the midst of a rosé wine festival and tasting. For just 3 euros, I received a wine glass (to keep), the opportunity to taste about a dozen wines (and when I say taste, I mean that I received entire glasses at each station) and a pink straw cowboy hat. I proceeded down the line, tasting each rosé. A few were quite good, others (usually those with the most creative names) were not. For instance: 8:00 AM Rosé — an amusing title, rendered all the more amusing because it is one of the drinks of choice during the San Fermin fiestas — that is during the Running of the Bulls. Perhaps the rosé would taste better with a few bulls barreling toward you.

As Pamplona is rather small with only one huge annual event, the entire town had come out for the wine tasting. Live music played in the background, and women and children in historical costumes danced through the streets, clapping their hands and chasing beautifully decorated floats.

The wine tasting and festival were seemingly disparate activities, but they flowed together seamlessly, so that by the end of the afternoon, women dressed in petticoats and mob caps had fashioned pink sombreros to their bonnets and were dancing through the streets with half-filled glasses of rosé. And in the midst of all the singing and dancing, one particularly dapper young fellow in a plaid beret and overcoat roared “To Hemingway!” followed by a thousand toasts — some in English, some in Spanish and all quite enthusiastic.

Returning to La Perla (cowboy hat safely away) and with Hemingway imminent on my mind, I asked to see his room. I had already looked into actually spending a night in his room but with a price tag of over 1,500 euros a night and with no desire to pull an Orson Welles, I asked for a tour instead.

Let it be known that Hemingway had exquisitely opulent taste. As someone who has tromped around Europe, dipping inside just about every hotel, cafe or favorite writing nook boasting his presence, I can say that he was not a cheap date. So I went to my room and changed into my dress and heels before stepping inside Hemingway’s room.

While La Perla was renovated and modernized back in 2007, the hotel preserved several of the rooms’ historical character — those of Pablo Sarasate (Spanish violinist and composer), don Juan de Borbón (the heir-apparent who was usurped by Franco in 1969), the Royal Family, and, of course, “Papa” Ernest Hemingway. Only “Mr. Hemingway’s” room, room 201, has been left untouched, with the same furniture and decoration as when he stayed.

I must admit that I was rather surprised by the decor. Hemingway posed as the iconic Manly Man — machismo sprouting from his bushy gray beard and four marriages. After all, he came to Pamplona nine times — every time for the eight-day festival characterized by bullfights and lots (and lots) of drinking. So when I walked inside his hotel room, I was surprised to discover that I matched the room in my pink and purple polka-dot dress. Two small beds with ornately carved and hand-painted white and gold headboards rested along a pink patterned silk wallpaper, a small bedside table sat between, over which hung a medallion painting accented by little double-lamp sconces. A small pink loveseat and reading table stood a small distance from the foot of the beds and glass bookshelves flanked either side of the beds, each filled with every Spanish-language edition of Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) — both Hemingway’s and Pamplona’s debut novel — ever printed.

I gravitated to the long windows, which opened out onto the balcony. Just a floor below Hemingway’s room, I shared a similar view of the main street of the Running of the Bulls. Below me, I could see shopkeepers closing, a few locals walking down the street, grocery bags in tow. Turning from the window, I noticed yet one more piece of furniture, one that I had not at first seen. In the corner of the room was Hemingway’s roll-top writing desk, pen and paper laid out, a wine glass at the ready. The concierge invited me to sit down.

Since talking about my time in Pamplona, I’ve heard many people sigh over how I just missed the San Fermin fiestas. Can you get more Hemingway than the Running of the Bulls in July? But I wouldn’t take anything for the chance that I had to sit in his chair and write for an hour, undisturbed — an opportunity that I would not have had in the early days of July. (After all, one Hemingway aficionado has booked Room 201 for the eight days of the San Fermin festival all the way until 2040.)

Hemingway’s Pamplona changed in the time that he spent there. The Pamplona of today (and even of Hemingway’s last trip) was different than the one he immortalized in The Sun Also Rises. In The Dangerous Summer, a book published by his wife after his death, Hemingway wrote: “Pamplona was rough, as always, overcrowded … 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 … four decades ago.”

Now, over a million people flock to the festival each year. Hemingway recognized that he’d inadvertently globalized a rather precious local secret. It was a consequence that pained him until the end of his life. He worried that his pearl, Pamplona, had been forever tainted.

I can’t speak for San Fermin, but I can say that Pamplona in the off-season is still quite lovely. The small town vibe is just as real in the springtime as it was when Hemingway first attended San Fermin back in 1925. I saw living, breathing characters and descriptions that could have been lifted from the pages of his novel. Children dancing, singing and climbing on the iconic structure in the center of the square. Teenagers lounging on the benches, eating gelato and flirting outrageously. Grownups and the elderly sitting together at the sidewalk cafes, drinking coffees (or something harder), smoking and talking about the day’s events.

I didn’t feel hurried as I walked along the streets or dipped inside the shops. I spent an hour with a painter inside her studio, listening to her talk about Hemingway and the country house where he lived and wrote for a while. I ducked inside an antique bookshop in hopes of finding my own copy of Fiesta and found instead a copy of Death in the Afternoon with illustrations by Pablo Picasso. Just a few visits to Bar Txoko (my vote: Best Sangria, uhhm, anywhere) and to Café Iruña made me one of the regulars. At Café Iruña, I was greeted by name and brought to the side bar, where I toasted a grand statue of Hemingway, immortalized at one of his favorite cafes. I spent countless hours at Café Iruña, reveling in the quaint, literary atmosphere of the tall gilded mirrors, thin wrought iron columns and tin-tiled ceiling. When I wasn’t inside feasting on copious amounts of calamari and red wine, then I was luxuriating on the terrace, sipping a cortado or nibbling churros con chocolate and journaling as I looked out over the square.

It was in these small moments — sipping coffee at Café Iruña, walking along the windy paths that make up the Running of the Bulls, sitting at Hemingway’s writing desk — that I found myself at home in Pamplona. In Hemingway’s Pamplona.


Emily PalmerEmily Palmer, a junior global studies and creative writing student from Durham, is an intern for the Carolina Alumni Review. She is blogging for the Review and wants to hear about your can’t-miss experiences while at Carolina.

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