Pamplona: Bulls and elegant dinners

I have just learned that one of my favorite restaurants ever, anywhere in the world, is closing after thirty-two years: Restaurante San Ignacio. A wonderful indulgence on a memorable trip, and I never paid a cent for dinner because the owner, a dear friend, wouldn’t let me.

 Most summers, I have spent a week in Europe at an English language immersion retreat in a remote area. The groups that sponsor these sessions are not looking for teachers per se, but native English speakers that enjoy conversation. The attendees are adults from the host country that have a sufficient level of English proficiency to qualify. Their English at the end of the week always shows noticeable improvement, as does their confidence in speaking.

At my first of these sessions, held in the restored medieval village of Valdevilla, Spain, I found two lasting friendships. One was Laura, a young woman working towards her Master’s degree. We slipped into an easy conversation immediately, interested in each other, as we chatted on the bus on the way to the retreat. And at each program, English speakers are assigned to mentor one of the students, who are required to give a speech at the end of the week on a topic of their choice. I had the pleasure, that first year, of working with Nuntxi, a lovely tall thin woman who wanted to improve her English since she was the owner and manager of a restaurant frequented by international tourists to her city.

Valdevilla, Spain

We met every day for an hour session. The first challenge was to decide upon a subject. Each time we talked, Nuntxi tried out a different idea and then discarded it. I was getting a bit concerned as the week progressed. And then suddenly, the day before her talk was scheduled, she found her voice. She gave a charming, humorous presentation about the diverse visitors to her restaurant and the characteristics of their native countries that they displayed.

The following year, I planned to return to Spain for another immersion course. Laura invited me to spend a few days in Madrid at the apartment she shared with her mother, a warm, welcoming woman who spoke no English at all. A challenge for my rusty Spanish! We walked the parks with her little dog, Merthin, and dined at authentic Spanish restaurants in less touristy neighborhoods I never would have found on my own.

When I had emailed Nuntxi to tell her I was thinking of returning to Spain, she encouraged me to time my trip so I could come visit her city during their famous festival. I recognized the name of her city, but I couldn’t recall the context. She sent the name of the festival in Spanish: San Fermin. I Googled it. Oh my gosh, it’s the Running of the Bulls! And so I spent an unforgettable week as her guest in Pamplona.

Nuntxi told me to come directly to the restaurant, since she would be at work; her sister would take me to the apartment and give me a key. When I arrived, we hugged and she handed me a gift in a small envelope. I had already decided that I did not want to attend the bullfight, which I felt to be a barbaric custom. But here was a ticket to the opening evening, when toreadors perform on horseback. How could I refuse my friend’s generous present? I smiled and thanked her. So I watched the death-defying dance of man (they were all men), prancing horse, and desperate bull, defiantly fighting for its life but ultimately doomed, stumbling around the arena, bloody spears dangling from its flanks, dying to cheers and olés of the enthusiastic crowd, shaking their red scarves. Like a sports fan sitting in the stands of the opposing team, I didn’t belong there. Tears rolled down my cheeks as, over and over, well-known toreadors slowly and ceremonially murdered bulls in a centuries-old spectacle, now discontinued in many traditional venues. I did marvel at the graceful dexterity of the horses.

The crowd filling the arena
Toreador on horseback bullfight

Early each morning, armed with my camera, I staked out a different spot along the route, perched on a fence or behind it, to watch the death-defying run of daring, foolish risk-takers chased by bulls running in a well-defined chute to the arena. One morning, I was invited to join friends of Nuntxi on their balcony overlooking the course, with drinks and hors d’oeuvres, as we were regaled with stories of past runs by her friend who had participated for years in the event. There were some serious injuries and casualties that year when the runners and bulls reached the arena, where the entrance narrowed.

Fence sitters waiting for the runners
Aerial view of the run from a balcony
End of the run in the arena

During the days, parades with giants marched to band music through the crowded streets among the stately buildings of Pamplona. Three young men, proud of their completion of the run that morning, bragged to me of their bravery. I followed the festive pageant along part of the Camino de Santiago trail which runs through the city. After the parade, Spaniards folk danced in the streets.

Parade of giants
Proud Spanish runners
Folk dancers at dusk

Every evening, Nuntxi invited me to dine at the elegant Restaurante San Ignacio, an exotic daily specialty masterfully prepared by her chef partner, served with delicate or hearty wines. One day, I suggested that I should find another place to eat in town—she didn’t need to feed me every night, so she brought home take-out for me. The most memorable dish was an unfamiliar starter called percebes (the “c” lisped as “th”). She described it as little things that live on rocks in the ocean. Barnacles! If you are a lover of escargots, you will likewise adore percebes. I haven’t found it on a menu anywhere since. Van, a cockney-rhyming London cabbie, also an attendee of that English retreat, emailed to ask if it was really true, was it the best restaurant in Pamplona? On my recommendation, he and a friend went to Pamplona to say hello to Nuntxi and experience it for themselves after another English week in Spain.

Nuntxi (standing) sings with a table of women, Restaurante San Ignacio

For a diversion during that intense festival week, I took a bus up north to Bilbao, home of the ultra-modern Guggenheim art museum, and to bask on the sunbaked beaches of San Sebastián on the Bay of Biscay.

Street jazz, Bilbao, Spain

Although I’ve also worked with similar programs in other European countries, I have returned to the one in Spain many times, and each time stayed with Laura for a few days. Opting to drop out of the rat race, she recently resigned her corporate job and moved to a quiet village by the northern coast near Santander. I visited her there last year. We hiked along the cliffs above the bay on part of the northern Camino route chatting with some of the passing pilgrims, watched the surfers glide into shore (she was taking lessons), wandered the medieval center of historic Laredo, and relished her madre’s excellent paella. If you would like to improve your Spanish with a friendly online tutor, check out Laura’s new venture: theSpanishIceberg.com.

Camino sign at beach, near Galizano, Spain

More photos for Pamplona

Published by rkrontheroad

Writer, photographer, traveler

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