Just say “Pamplona” and the images tumble over themselves in a crazed kaleidoscope: Men and bulls running, stumbling, flailing on ancient cobblestones.
And everywhere the ghost of Ernest Hemingway hovers – tossing back drinks, prowling city alleyways, roaring at bullfights.
But there’s a much quieter, gentler side to this old Roman city in northeastern Spain, a ritual every bit as old as the medieval Running of the Bulls.
It’s the pilgrimage path along the Way of Saint James…El Camino de Santiago.
Since the ninth century, Christian pilgrims have been walking across Europe, crossing the Pyrenees into Spain and heading to the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, said to hold the remains of the saint.
The French Route of the Camino de Santiago, one of the most popular, cuts through Pamplona.
“In the Middle Ages, the kings would make services for the pilgrims, hospitals and hostels,” said Silvia Azpilicueta Rodriguez-Valdez, Pamplona tourism director. “The camino brought retailers, artisans– lots of richness, culture and diversity to your city. It was like having the Olympics now.”
It’s easy to spot the pilgrims, hunched under backpacks or pedaling saddle-bagged bikes. Each carries a scallop shell, symbol of St. James.
“It’s pilgrim season,” guide Francisco Glaria, “like mushroom season.”
You don’t need a scallop shell to follow the yellow arrows along the path, chatting with pilgrims as they head to Pamplona’s two camino hostels, wishing each other “Buen Camino.”
Wilbert Wils of The Hague in the Netherlands is eager to pay his five euros to snag a bunk at Casa Paderborn on Pamplona’s Arga River.
“I’m in between many phases in my life right now,” Wils said. “I thought ‘Why not walk and see what happens?’”
After a disappointing start near Paris, with too much asphalt and too few pilgrims, he switched to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port near Biarritz, climbing up the Pyrenees and walking four days to Pamplona.
“I’m impressed with the trail so far in Spain. There are hardly any roads – all the time the walks have been through the woods, and it’s very beautiful.”
At the nearby Albergue Jesus and Mary, a female troupe of pilgrims is massaging sore feet and taking stock.
“You’ve got to dig deep to do this,” said Kourtney Kaminsky from Manitoba, Canada. She’s on day five of the walk with her older sister McGuire, their mother, aunt and a friend from Colorado. Along the way, they’ve gathered women from New Zealand and the Netherlands.
“We’re trying to be pilgrims, trying not to eat very much and walk a lot,” McGuire said. The group spurned cell phones, iPods and even alarm clocks for the 500-mile trek from Saint-Jean to Santiago de Compostela.
“There’s so much music along the road – a rooster crowing, or a song coming out of a window. If I had an iPod on, I wouldn’t hear it.”
Both Kaminsky sisters work in advanced physio-therapy. “For me, this is spiritual,” said McGuire. “I’m doing it because I can. So many spinal cord patients train so hard to breathe, just to get out of bed.
I want to spread it [the spirit] and be an example.”
The women, like all pilgrims in Pamplona, have a long way to go until Santiago. The trail outside the city climbs steeply to La Perdon, the Mount of Forgiveness, a windy crest where everyone poses with the pilgrim sculpture. As they head downhill, the two Spanish routes join together into the unique camino headed west.
The path leads to a mystical spot in a remote field, the Gothic Chapel of Santa Maria of Eunate. The “Church of 100 Doors” has double cloisters ringing its octagonal stone walls, creating a force field palpable to many true believers.
Eunate, from the 12th century, has possible connections to the Knights Templar, a secret fraternity of warrior priests charged by the Pope with protecting pilgrims. Some of the chapel’s carvings have Templar meanings and alignments to power vortices as far away as Egypt’s ancient pyramids and Peru’s Machu Picchu.
“Many pilgrims come here to recharge their energy,” Galaria said. Even for those without a scallop shell on their backpacks, it’s a great place to regroup before taking another tourist run through the streets of Pamplona.