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Pamplona and Ernest Hemingway

August 8, 2017

Pamplona in northern Spain had great significance for the American writer. Hemingway's novel "The Sun Also Rises" is set here. The love affair was one-sided, but the city of Pamplona is glad to profit from it.

Spanien Hemingway in Pamplona
Tour guide Javier Aldunate next to the Hemingway monumentImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Frentzen

Ernest Hemingway leans casually on the counter; behind him bottles of wine and cognac await thirsty customers. That's how the great American novelist would have liked it - this bar atmosphere was completely to his taste. 

Spanien Hemingway in Pamplona
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Frentzen

The life-size statue stands in a wood-paneled side room in the Café Iruña in Pamplona, one of Hemingway's (1899-1961) favorite places. Not only did he spend many hours here drinking and chatting; he immortalized the café in his famous novel "The Sun Also Rises."

Spanien Hemingway in Pamplona
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Frentzen

"Hemingway's love affair with Pamplona lasted all his life," says Lucinda Poole, who has lived in the city in northern Spain for 30 years and is considered a true expert on Hemingway's stays in Spain. Tour guide Javier Aldunate agrees: "He loved bulls, wine, women and fishing -  so this was the perfect place for him."

Spanien Hemingway in Pamplona
Ernest Hemingway watching a bullfight in 1927Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Senne

The writer came here a total of nine times to attend the Festival of San Fermin and the running of the bulls associated with it. When he made his first trip in 1923, he was still a young man, but already enraptured by bullfights and matadors. "He was obsessed by the idea of bravery and death, and found all that here in Pamplona," says Poole. 

Spanien Hemingway in Pamplona
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Frentzen

Hemingway's novel "The Sun Also Rises" was published in 1926. It originally had "Fiesta" as a working title, under which it was published in Britain a year later - and it also bears that title in Germany. It is considered by many to be his greatest creation. In the US, the novel, in which a group of American expatriates travel from Paris to Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and spend their time at the fiesta drinking and bickering over petty jealousies in all sorts of bars, is required reading. Lucinda Poole calls it a sad book about lost souls, inspired by real people. 

Following the traces of Hemingway in Pamplona

Spanien Hemingway in Pamplona
Plaza CastilloImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Frentzen

Hemingway's friend Juanito Quintana, a hotelier and expert on bullfighting, served as a model for Juanito Montoya, in whose hotel the group stays. During the 1920s, Hemingway himself stayed in the Quintana several times. It used to be diagonally opposite the Café Iruña on the Plaza del Castillo. "It was good to get out of the sun and under the shade of the arcade that runs all the way around the square," he wrote in "The Sun Also Rises." And even though the hotel no longer exists, the square has retained its arcades and its charm.

Spanien Hemingway in Pamplona
 Hemingway drank cognac with vanilla here, his favorite tippleImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Frentzen

But while Hemingway's enthusiasm for Pamplona never waned, the residents had a love-hate relationship with him, Poole says. "Most haven't even read his book. They just remember the Hemingway of the 1950s, who used to hang around in bars and drink," she says, and adds reflectively, "Hemingway loved Pamplona much more than Pamplona loved him." Still, that doesn't prevent the local population from making money with his name. Hemingway is everywhere. Shops and pubs bear his name. The city organizes tours that trace his footsteps, and a monument to honor him was erected outside the bullring.  

Spanien Pamplona Festival San Fermin
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Ochoa de Olza

A few meters from Café Iruña the Gran Hotel La Perla even touts itself as having a suite where the author spent the night several times. A hotel employee confirms that anyone who wants to book the "faithfully preserved" rooms during the bull run festival, has to fork out more than 2000 euros a night. Lucinda Poole is skeptical: "He never stayed in La Perla. I've researched very thoroughly." The expert thinks the hotel's opulence wouldn't have appealed at all to Hemingway. 

The Festival of San Fermin - highlight of the year

Spanien Pamplona Festival San Fermin
Fiesta: every morning bulls are chased through the narrow streets into the bullring, where they are killed in the eveningImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Hollander

The celebrated writer brought Pamplona to world attention. The festival honoring San Fermin, the city's patron saint, enjoys unbridled popularity to this day. No wonder, because a festival like this is no ordinary occurrence. "The fiesta was really started," says an enthusiastic Jake Barnes, Hemingway's alter ego in the novel. "It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on."

09. Spanien Stierrennen in Pamplona
Image: Getty Images/AFP/C. Manso

When Hemingway, now white-haired and already a Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Literature laureate, returned to the capital of the Navarre region in 1959, he was shocked by the crowds.  While in "The Sun Also Rises," not even 20 tourists attend the fiesta, now there were 40,000, as he wrote, appalled, in an article for Life magazine. Otherwise he found Pamplona unchanged and in his inimitable manner he enthused: "The wine was as good as when you were twenty-one and the food as marvelous as always (...) Nobody was defeated." 

Every year in July, thousands of onlookers come to Pamplona. They want to party, and many try to survive the dangerous bull run through the narrow lanes unscathed. 

Carola Frentzen (dpa)