Pamplona Guide: Things to know before you go

By Laura Davison

There is so much you can’t plan or prepare for before you study abroad. That’s part of the experience. You learn as you go. That being said, here is a random compilation of things about Pamplona and the University of Navarra I found helpful to understand before I got to Spain.

Running of the Bulls/San Fermín

Hemingway traveled to Pamplona several times during the mid-1920s.

Hemingway traveled to Pamplona several times during the mid-1920s.

Read “The Sun Also Rises,” preferably before or during your stay. I didn’t get around to reading it until my plane ride back to Missouri, and I wish I would’ve read it earlier so I could’ve checked out the places Ernest Hemingway describes in his novel.  It’s about a group of Americans and Brits who travel from Paris to attend San Fermín in Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights.

Even if you can’t stay for the festival, it gives you a nice picture of what it is like. In Spain, the Running of the Bulls is called San Fermín and because you are a foreigner, everyone is going to ask you if you are going to stay for the festival. I wasn’t able to stay because it doesn’t start until July 7, but do stay if your schedule allows it. Many students from the University of Navarra live in or near Pamplona and several international students will stay as well. 

Courtesy of Flickr user enekajimenez1977

Courtesy of Flickr user enekajimenez1977

The weeklong annual celebration originated as a religious festival to honor St. Fermin, Pamplona’s patron saint. This is Pamplona’s distinguishing event and the locals are very proud of it, although many will leave town or hide inside to avoid the thousands of tourists who come for the festival. Participants run through Pamplona’s streets trailed by charging bulls from the holding pen to the bullring. Thousands more watch from balconies along the route through the old part of Pamplona.

Influence of Basque culture and language

Pamplona is not officially a part of País Vasco, the autonomous community in northern Spain. Navarra borders the community and there is considerable Basque influence in Pamplona and the surrounding areas. Pamplona, which some considered to be the Basque country’s historic capital, is also known as Iruña to many Basques. It’s very common for towns in and near the Basque region to have both a Spanish and Basque name. Street signs are written in Spanish and Euskara, the Basque language.

Spain's overall economy is struggling, but you don't see that so much in Pamplona and the surrounding areas, where a lot of industry is located.

Spain’s overall economy is struggling, but you don’t see that so much in Pamplona and the surrounding areas, where a lot of industry is located.

Euskara is very different from Spanish, and most linguists are uncertain how it evolved. Many of the common letters and sounds in Euskara, like “k” and combo “tx” don’t appear in Spanish at all. If you learn one thing, make it be the “tx” sound. It’s the “ch” sound from English. The Basques spell pintxo and the Spanish spell pincho, but they all say “PEEN-cho”.

In many ways, the Basque region is distant from the rest of Spain. A mountain range physically separates them, and until two years ago, the ETA separatist group had been fighting for Basque independence. A cease-fire has since been signed, and the Basque region has concentrated its efforts on building its booming economy. Unemployment in the Basque area is near 12 percent, less than half of what it is in other parts of Spain. This NPR story explains many of the economic differences between the north and south of Spain. While you’re there, take some time to talk to people from inside and outside the Basque region about Spain’s economy and the differences in the regions. These were some of the most interesting conversations I had while abroad.

Opus Dei influence at the University of Navarra

The university is run by Opus Dei, an institution of the Catholic Church, so you’ll see lots of priests and religious memorabilia around campus. Each building has it’s own chapel with daily mass. If want to attend, you can find the schedules here. Even if you don’t attend, the chapels are beautiful and it’s worth stopping by to appreciate the artwork.

Spain’s economic crisis 

It’s no secret that Spain’s economy has been on shaky ground in the past few years. To keep up on economic news during your stay, read the Diario de Navarra, follow NPR’s Madrid correspondent Lauren Frayer and pay attention to El Mundo and El País.

The outlook has been pretty grim for a while, but this video (disclaimer: it is an advertisement for professional services network Grant Thorton) sheds some positive light on the good things happening in Spain.

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