In Pamplona, we had a plan.
Well, not so much a “plan,” really. More like, a “vague, sort-of idea on some things that might be interesting to see and do.”
Unlike Bilboa and San Sebastian, where we’d actually been before and where I had made long lists of pinxto places we absolutely had to go to, we did not research Pamplona and it’s bar scene before we arrived. We didn’t even have a map.
But we did make up for that oversight, and in a big way.
Pamplona, like apparently all Basque towns, is a charming little city steeped in history. Honestly, you can stop in any town in Northern Spain and, after a few hours basking in their friendly glow and excellent wine, decide definitively that THIS is the place where you will someday retire and live out your days as mysterious and glamorous expats.
We didn’t even book a room until the night before we arrived. We were very lucky in that respect, getting a fairly comfortable room inside the city’s medieval walls at the Pamplona Catedral Hotel. After parking our rental car (a big selling point for the hotel), we got a map from the front desk and began exploring.
We had chosen to visit Pamplona for the same reason that I’m sure most Americans stop in: The Running of the Bulls.
I’ve been to a bullfight, but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan. I consider myself a pretty big animal lover, and I have a hard time even watching animals fight each other on National Geographic documentaries without squealing and covering my eyes when the kill comes.
On the other hand, I am from Texas, so I’ve seen plenty of animals being killed. And, when it comes to most indigenous cultural activities, even those I don’t necessarily embrace wholeheartedly, I tend to err on the side of, “Whelp, to each his own, I reckon.”
But, after watching the Esquire Network’s Running of the Bulls live coverage featuring the Men in Blazers the last couple of years, I came to a couple of realizations:
1) There are a bunch of lunatics in this world;
2) Lunatics tend to drink (for courage beforehand, and to celebrate cheating death after);
3) Ergo, Pamplona must be a pretty dang good place to get a drink.
So, on a cold evening in December, we bundled up and embarked on our own Running of the Bars, pledging to stop at every bar and pinxto place along Mercaderes and Calle Estafeta, part of the slippery 0.5 mile route that the bulls and their would-be victims barrel down on their way to the bullring. The rules were simple: we’d have one drink and share a pinxto before moving on to the next place.
It was a long, long night, with many, many stops. We even skipped a few places (especially towards the end), but according to my fairly consistent photographic evidence, we stopped in at around 12 or so bars. Who knew that such a small stretch of road could have so many bars??
Here is a list of a few of our favorites, and believe me: if they were stellar enough to stand out in our memories after that long blur of a night, they were really, really good.
Cafeteria El Mentidero
Calle Mercaderes, 13
This place was our jam. Our regular stopping spot, for coffee and a snack in the morning, for a late pinxto lunch and, of course, on our Running of the Bars. We had some decent bocadillow and papas bravas there, but my favorite pinxto was a piece of bread topped with chopped ham topped with grilled goat cheese and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. It was sweet and salty and savory and very, very good. One of my favorites on the whole trip, for sure. This place was badly lit and not exactly modern, but totally reliable and always open when we walked past it.
Calle Mercaderes, 15
Right next door to our Cafeteria was this place: the exact opposite, design wise. A very inviting exterior gives way to a narrow space with huge copper barrels suspended over the main bar area and a long standing bar against the opposite wall. It’s also a restaurant and does a good job of separating the two areas. We had a pinxto with a sliver of jamon Serrano and some fried eggplant on a slice of bread. It was good, not particularly earth shattering.
Travesía de Espoz y Mina
What I remember most about this place was the cool and modern décor (stainless steel bar) and the beautiful black and white tiles on the walls. The pinxtos were ok—I think we had a couple of fried things (including rabas. I definitely remember rabas) and a couple of fishy things on bread (probably bacalao). I know I’m being really informative here. They’re known for their txalupa, a piece of bread with a marinated sardine skewed to it and some sort of reduction on top, probably balsamic vinegar or something. It was a finalist in Navarre’s Pinxto Week 2012, a region-wide competition for the best pinxtos.
Calle de la Estafeta, 50
This place was primarily memorable for all the salted cured hams hanging over the bar. So, try the ham. The overall vibe was very warm and cozy with a wooden interior, a roomy bar and plenty of stools or standing space and tables and benches for those who wanted to linger or eat something more substantial, like, a whole ham, I suppose.
Calle de la Estafeta, 81
I’m not 100% sure this is the place where we had the most amazing pinxto in Pamplona. But when I go to the website, I see that they specialize in servings plated in Le Creuset mini cocotte, and well, that makes sense to me. This was one of our final stops of the night and by far, the best pinxto of the evening – a risotto with foie gras, mushrooms and a side of parmesan. I wanted to lick that mini cocotte after we scarfed it down.
A few other places we visited: