by Vernon Grant
WINTER in Pamplona can be exceedingly cold and it is not a place for the faint hearted at any time of the year.
Every Christmas, Pamplona plays host to one of the most popular chess tournaments in all of Spain. I recently witnessed some top players turning down an all expenses paid invite to compete in the much warmer location of Motril. Not for them the Costa Tropical.
The competitors declined the offer of a nice hotel with sea views. Instead they travelled many kilometres so they could all gather, as is custom, much further north in Spain in a place that is famous for a much more dangerous event.
To the best of my knowledge chess players do not end up being gored or killed during the heat of battle. As is well-documented, that possibility is only too real during the much hotter summer days in Pamplona, when bulls, not bishops, are the main tourist attraction. Why people attend the bull runs in Pamplona must remain a mystery to me. However, I wanted to find out what would make someone want to live in a place that is so very cold in winter and yet so full of tourists in the summer.
For some people seeking a home in Spain the availability of a memorable view is the most desirable aspect of a property. More important than the number of rooms or the existence of a pool, the vista from the front window or terrace can be crucial. Some people like to see snow covered mountains. For others a sea view is crucial.
It is not common for British buyers to demand a view that includes the sight of many naked people running past their front door. Very few seek out a property in streets that play host to a bull run.
As yet, agents in Pamplona have never met a buyer who wants both.
The city is, of course, famous for the most controversial fiesta in Spain. During the nine days and nights of Las Fiestas de San Fermin, much drink is consumed and locals and tourists alike party all night long. What the fiesta is best known for is the running of bulls through the narrow streets. In recent years this event has been proceeded by another unsightly spectacle – hundreds of bare animal rights campaigners tearing through the city.
However, Pamplona does have attractions that are more pleasing on the eye: the planetarium, for instance, or the three original fortified towns, each with its own 13th century churches. Indeed, Pamplona is ideal for the thousands of people who take time to visit historic religious buildings throughout Spain. The local cathedral was a long time in the making. It took over a century to build the Santa Maria la Real Basilica Cathedral. This, coupled with the fact it boasts three Gothic naves inside, has led to it being listed as one of the most important religious buildings in the country.
Pamplona is the capital of Navarra, a region known for its wine and little else. In itself this is a great shame as the area is unspoilt and very welcoming to visitors. I talked to Ben Mann from Newcastle. An international delivery driver, he was taking time off work to search for a flat in Pamplona itself.
He said: “Through my work I get to see much of Spain and I have taken my time in deciding where I want to buy. Pamplona is my favourite stop off point when I am travelling between Bilbao and the south of Spain. I enjoy the place and the people there are so friendly. So I am actively looking at apartments.
“I confess I am not keen on the bull run but I did enjoy the running of the nudes last year. Imagine my surprise when one of those running was an ex colleague of mine!”
Writer Ernest Hemingway brought the delights of Pamplona to life through his bullfighting memoir, A Dangerous Summer.
Quite what he would have made of the sight of many people, including women, running nude through the streets of the town he loved so much is anyone’s guess. He was a big fan of the bullfight so might not have understood the motives of those who shed their clothes in order to raise money for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). It may have been enough to make him take cover in one of his favourite bars in town, which then admitted only men. In his book he stated that Pamplona was “no place to bring your wife.”
He went on: “The odds are all in favour of her getting ill, hurt or wounded or at least jostled and have wine squirted all over her, or of losing her; maybe all three. It’s a man’s fiesta and women at it make trouble, never intentionally of course, but they nearly always make or have trouble.
“Of course if she can talk Spanish so she knows she is being joked with and not insulted, if she can drink wine all day and all night and dance with any group of strangers… likes disorder, irregular meals and never needs to sleep… then bring her.”
The July bull run began life as three distinctive fiestas and is believed to have taken place since the 16th century. Its religious origins have been largely lost along the way. Today the Sanfermines, as it is known locally, is a more hedonistic affair. Alcohol flows freely in the many bars of the Barrio de San Juan.
One misconception about the bull run is that there is only one such run. During the long festivities there are in fact several. Tourists are surprised to discover the death rate of spectators and participants is as low as 14 in the past 80 years. Fresh concern over the event was raised when, in 2003, an 82-year-old bar owner was knocked over and killed. Prior to that a young American tourist was gored to death in 1995. As ever, opinion remains divided about the merits of the bull run and Ben Mann confesses to being on the horns of a dilemma.
He says: “I do not like to see bulls die in the streets or to witness people being gored, which has happened once. I simply cannot enjoy it but I have to respect to the local people this is an important and meaningful event – and not just because of the tourist money it brings to Pamplona.
“In one bar I met a particularly attractive young Spanish girl who simply told me: ‘San Fermin cannot be explained, it can only be experienced.’
“Having done just that once, I am not sure I want to again and when I live here I think I will rent out my apartment for that week of festivities.”
He will not struggle to do so. Each July it is possible to ask up to four times the normal amount when renting an apartment in streets such Calle Estafeta, as local agent Javier Abrego confirms.
“I can tell you that the price of just a balcony during San Fermin goes from 20 to 80 euros per person. That price is only to see the running of the bulls. We have a property for sale on Calle Estafeta that is also available to rent. This is the best location to be for the fiesta.
“The balcony alone can be rented for the bull run at a cost of 60 euros per person. If you want to rent the whole apartment it would cost up to 3,000 euros per month. During the rest of the year the same apartment would cost 700 euros.”
Clearly if you own a property here and wish to rent it out for the fiesta, you can name your own price. There are properties that are already rented out for San Fermin in 2008. Americans in particular will pay what is required just to ensure they have the best seat in the house. One such American is Charles Leocha, who returns to Pamplona every summer.
“Why do I go back to Pamplona year after year? Bullfights can be found in scores of other Spanish towns and processions are a way of life in Spain. People dance everywhere and bands play throughout the world, but in Pamplona these elements combine with the diverse personalities of people from across the world to create an addictive atmosphere.
“The magic of this fiesta is the virtual suspension of time combined with a chance to live life minute-by-minute once one is swept into the unique world of Fiesta. It is this altered state that makes this festival truly unique and why I return religiously,” he told me.
For the remainder of the year Pamplona is a very sedate place. It has a sleepy feel about it and has never grown into a major city like so many other historic locations in Spain. It is, though, prosperous and popular with young Spaniards who often opt to attend university here. The campus and the education on offer here are much sought after.
Wealthy parents from Bilbao buy second homes there so their children can study in comfort and not resort to renting. That is one reason why house prices have increased noticeably in the past five years.
So what is available to Ben Mann that is within his budget of 300,000 euros? Javier Abrego says: “That budget will not buy him a flat with a view of the bull run. It will buy him a place in one of the nice barrios such as Cuesta de Santo Domingo or Calle de Mercaderes. Possibly he may be able to buy something around the very central Plaza del Ayuntamiento.
“Calle Estafeta is one of the best places in the old part of Pamplona and property here has increased greatly in recent years. Today the price per square metre is 2,500 – 3,000 euros. If it has good balconies facing on to the street the price increases because the view of the running of the bulls is quite good.”
There is an alternative for Ben and others like him: buy just outside the city walls of Pamplona, as Javier Abrego suggests.
“Near Pamplona there are some good residential villages. In my opinion the nicest are Gorraiz, which belongs to the town of Egues. Also British buyers should look at Olaz, the Aranguren Valley, Zizur Menor or Obanos. You are still close to Pamplona and will be able to buy a bigger property on any budget.”
Of course, if you want to be able to step out of your front door and come face to face with a bull you will have to be in central Pamplona.
If on the other hand you want to see the best bits of the ‘running of the nudes’ you could live in the country and use the money you have saved to buy a good telescope!