Day One in Pamplona
Three days in Pamplona were fun-packed. On day one of our three day program we walked around the city but the plan was definitely derailed by the weather. Soon after we left the apartment it started to rain, then it poured, and then the wind blew, and then a gale blew. Even Northern Spain Travel with all its skills and talents was unable to manage the weather for us! We staggered on, doing our best to be cheerful (stiff British upper lip, remember), but finally we gave in and spent almost an hour in a very cozy bar sipping coffee!! We then continued our sightseeing, building in as many indoor stops as possible!! Two o’clock saw us in a local restaurant for lunch. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that lunch is the main meal of the day here, most restaurants offering 3-course menu lunches for very reasonable prices. The price also includes 1/2 bottle of wine per person! A siesta followed and we wandered out again in the evening to see more of the town and be taken on a gastro tour by a young Northern Spain Travel guide.
Our guide picked us up at 8pm and we walked to a nearby street which is home to many many bars. In addition to serving drinks these bars feature pintxos – the local equivalent of tapas. It is quite customary for friends to meet at the end of the day for drinks and pintxos – sort of making that the evening meal. Our guide took us to a bar which had won first prize in the recent annual city-wide pintxo competition. She ordered a couple of the winning munchies for us to try – and glasses of vermouth to go with them.
The pintxo in question included oxtail and fish – not mixed together but separate parts of the whole concoction. They were served on sort of lurid, fake seashore rock, complete with fake starfish, all looking rather like a washed up piece of flotsam. Not very attractive but pretty good to taste. Vermuth is a local speciality rather like, but not really the same as, Italian sweet vermouth. Bars here make their own so each recipe has a tiny twist of its own. I noted that most of the locals in these bars were drinking wine or beer – not many were taking the vermuth.
When we first arrived in the bar our guide told us that in addition to the prize-winning pintxo she was going to order a surprise pintxo for us. First we were disappointed when she was told that the surprise item was not available, but just as we were leaving the bar a waiter dashed up to us to say that the chef had indeed made one of the surprise items and was about to bring it to us.
It was called a Bomba – indeed it looked like a bomb complete with black plastic bomb-shaped container. A mystery liquid was poured over it, creating a white smoke effect. It was all very dramatic but the downside was that the pintxo itself, nestled inside the bomb, was floating in the liquid and had become a soggy mess – not easy to eat as finger food. It was spectacular to see and, despite its soggy condition, it tasted delicious!!
Then to a second bar which serves our favourite pintxo – duck liver (not duck liver paté) on tiny rounds of toast…. This pintxo is freshly cooked, outrageously delicious, probably loaded with cholesterol, but liver is liver and liver is supposed to be good for one!! Alas, no photos of this bar…. We enjoyed good local red wine with this delicacy!
Our third, and final, stop was at the oldest bar in Pamplona – very small, pretty dingy, with a careworn and slight down-at-heel look, but what do you expect when your age is in the 100s! Here we enjoyed a glass of Patxaran (pronounced patcharan) which is liqueur of distilled aniseed with overtones of sloe. So delicious and a definite favourite.
Day Two in Pamplona
The following day we travelled by road with our guide to San Sebastian – an hour’s ride through the Pyrenees to the coast on the Bay of Biscay.
A lovely city which was the gathering place of wealthy Spaniards back in the 30s. There is an old city of narrow streets, ancient churches, bars, markets, and then there is the great stretch of the three bays with their elegant hotels, posh apartment buildings, and pristine golden sand. San Sebastian was quite a hit with our friends and we enjoyed showing them around. We walked about 10km that day, loving it all.
Day Three in Pamplona
The next day we were out again with Northern Spain Travel – a visit to a pig farm, to be followed by a demonstration of how the pig meat is processed into jamon, sausages, etc. followed by a 13 course tasting menu of various pig products. This sounded intriguing. We met one of the part owners of the business and he became our guide to the farm which we reached after a lengthy drive along a muddy, rutted, farm road (typical of farms just about everywhere in the world). On arrival we were all issued with what looked like large, elastic-topped, plastic bags. These were for us to put on over our shoes and provide protection pretty much up to our knees.
Things of beauty they were not but they served their purpose very well – thank goodness! By now we were experiencing heavy rain so, clutching brollies in one hand and cameras in the other, we walked a muddy farm path the length of the property, skirting hillside fields with hundreds of pigs wandering, sometimes running, around.
The pigs were divided into separate fields depending on their age and most would be on the farm until around the age of 12 months at which time they would be taken to the slaughter house. From there the hams go to Salamanca and are hung and cured for 30 months. Who knew that a good jamon would take that long to dry out? Seems that Salamanca has the perfect climate for ham air-drying! The pigs are Iberian Basque pigs – quite a rare breed – sort of pink with black rumps and black blotches on them, and they have big, floppy ears.
Only one farm in Spain and one in France breed these pigs and they are specially prized for the quality of their ham. One very valuable piece of information I gleaned is that the noise I assumed was the pigs grunting as they wandered about was in fact farting brought on by the huge quantities of grass they eat! For the last few weeks of their lives they also get large quantities of acorns added to their diet. They all looked like very happy pigs as they were free ranging in their large fields. Finally we tore ourselves away from the muddy fields and drove back to “headquarters”, too late for the production demo, but in time for the exquisite lunch.
This was a great experience. The dining room was very elegant with light, Scandinavian type furniture, crisp white (real fabric) table cloth. The food was prepared to the standards of at least one Michelin star. The chef came to the table with each course to explain what we were eating, the process of making it etc. The portions were small – just right to get a good sample taste. We ate cured ham, cured pork loin, various sausages, bacon cut so finely it was almost transparent, crackling cooked very very slowly in lime juice so it was soft and tender and could be eaten with a spoon. And so it went on – one dish after another, each one very special, and all washed down with a crisp, white, Navarran wine. A light dessert and coffee rounded it off …. so wonderful.
There were no nap options following lunch but we drove to a nearby village and into the bar for a post-lunch patxaran (it was going on for 5pm by this time!) and from the pub a brief ramble around the village.
Finally – up, up, up into the mountain tops to the church of St. Miguel de Aralar. Our guide explained to us that this church was built as a penance by a warrior – perhaps a crusader – who, on returning home from the wars, found a couple in his bed and, on the assumption that this was his wife with a lover, killed them both. He then found that he had actually killed his mum and dad who were spending the night in his castle and that his wife had moved to a smaller room. He was very very upset. For years wandered the world in chains and, at some point, built this church as part of his seeking forgiveness for the bad thing he had done. It’s very simple romanesque style, rounded arches, small windows. It has a great atmosphere that let’s one feel holy no matter what. The mountain top was swathed in fog so we saw nothing of the supposedly magnificent view. And thus the day ended – a trip home, simple supper of paté, jamon, local cheese, fruit, and – of course – wine.
Day Four in Pamplona – Farewell
The next day – not really part of our three day program – a visit to the local fresh food market – more oohing and aahing, this time over huge assortments of meat, fresh fish, lots of veg, including the phallic white asparagus which is now in season, and several monster green leafy things called Cardo in Spanish (Cardoon in English). A quick lunch before our friends took a taxi to the airport and time for us to pick up our bags and join a Northern Spain Travel guide for what was billed as “a romantic weekend away”, a part of their Hidden Gems of the North Tour.