Pamplona is a magical, mythical town, to those of us who love it and it’s people. Placed at the heart of the beautiful, once-upon-a-time Kingdom of Navarra in Spain, it is the shining jewel in that region’s crown.
The town is famed of course for it’s annual Fiesta of San Fermin, and it’s legendary Running of the Bulls. But it is known for many other things too. Ernest Hemingway for one, whose book The Sun Also Rises/Fiesta brought the town to worldwide attention.
It also lies on one of the ancient ways to Santiago de Compostela, so every year thousands upon thousands of pilgrims, walkers and adventure seekers pass through the town. And there is so much more…
But being a Spanish region, it also has it’s fair share of saints. And three directly connected to Pamplona. One of the Patron Saints of Navarra is San Francisco Javier, a Navarran cleric and an extraordinary man who travelled Asia in the Middle Ages and ended up in Japan. Then of course there is the aforementioned San Fermin, native of the city, first Bishop of Pamplona and also the Patron Saint of Amiens in France.
That honour goes to one San Saturnino, also known in the city under his French name, San Cernin, and the church of the same name lies at the very epicentre of Pamplona’s old town. Which is a wee story in itself and worth briefly describing the history of.
The original Pamplona began as a place called Iruña, which is also the other name for the town as it is the Basque/Navarran name. Iruña literally means ‘town’ or ‘city.’ La Ciudad de la Navarreria in other words. Navarreria is the first and original street. After many centuries another wee village sprang up nearby, only a matter of a minute away. This settlement became known as El Burgo de San Cernin.
Then a third sprang up a couple of centuries later. La Población de San Nicholas. Neighbours being neighbours…they constantly fought. (I blame Patxaran, the local firewater…but that IS another story!)
But Fermín is also the other co-patron of Navarra, along with Francisco Javier. Many people think or assume he is also patron saint of Pamplona…but – spoiler alert! – he isn’t.
In 1423 the then King of Navarra, Carlos the Third, enacted the Privilege of the Union, that united the three places under the name of Pamplona. And that, very basically and simply, is how the city we know and love today came to be.
So…San Saturnino is the city’s patron saint, and his big day, his Feast Day, is on November 29th. He was Bishop of Toulouse and is said to have baptised the young Fermin of Iruña towards the end of the 3rd Century. As with many of these things that happened so long ago, there is very little proof of these stories and legends…but if you believe, perhaps it is true…
Spain being Spain, and especially Pamplona being…well…Iruña…The Feast Day of San Saturnino is a big thing. And as alluded to in the title, although no bulls are let loose to run in the streets, some mythical and magical figures do come out to play.
Giants! And Half men-Half horses, and Little Big heads, and old Vinegar Face, and Napoleon, and…but yet again, they are another story in themselves. Known collectively as La Comparsa – ‘The Troupe’ is how I translate – their Spanish names conjure up another world… Los Gigantes, Cabuzedos, Zaldikos…they all come out to play at various times of the year, and that includes The Feast day of San Saturnino.
Mass is then celebrated in the church, with music provided by the Orfeon Pamplones and the Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra, and around midday or just after the whole entourage return to the Plaza Consistorial, the town hall square…
… Where again the Giants will come alive before your eyes and dance. If you just watch the faces of the children and the look of wonder in their eyes as they see these paper mache figures reborn as living and dancing giants…well, just close your eyes for a second, imagine yourself as you were at their age…then open them again and you’ll feel that wonder and magic.
The Giant’s day is not quite done though, as they have to return home…which includes meandering along Mercaderes and up to the Plaza del Castillo, where farewell is bidden…until once again Giants walk Planet Earth.
But the San Saturnino and the Giants have worked their magic because they’ve brought in Pamplona’s official start to festive season. Later, as darkness falls, is the official unveiling of the Nativity scene – which doesn’t do it justice as Spain has some amazing ‘Belens’ as they are called there. (Belen being the Spanish for Bethlehem.)
Then the Christmas lights are switched on in the square,(and maybe all over the old town too, I’m not sure) and later on there is music and discussion/light opera/play…take your pick!… and more music at the Theatre Gayarre.
And this, folks and folkeros, all happens in one day and heralds the start of Christmas in Pamplona, a special city of wonderful people, amazing traditions and a fiesta without equal.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, and ghosts of Christmas’s past…is that!
Viva San Saturnino! Gora!