Friday, November 28, 2008

Visiting Iruñea

This article about the capital city of Euskal Herria, Iruñea (known around the world as Pamplona) comes to us courtesy of Napa Valley Register:

No bull: Pamplona is cultural and culinary center of Basque Country

Friday, November 28, 2008

Register Staff Writer

PAMPLONA, Spain — While Pamplona has achieved international notoriety thanks to Ernest Hemingway’s fascination with and descriptions of the thrilling Running of the Bulls in his novels, this otherwise tranquil city is without a doubt, much more than the edge-of-your-seat, bull-dashing frenzy that often seems to define it.

The winding streets of the compact center not only host the clamoring bulls for one week each July, but are also home to lots of history, architectural treasures, picturesque plazas, quaint shops and delightful cafés.

Tucked into a valley and surrounded by lush alpine countryside of the Pyrenees foothills, Pamplona is the historic capital of Basque Country and the current capital of Navarra, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities.

Pamplona’s main sights are dispersed throughout the so-called “old town,” which is divided into three parts — La Navarrería, the city’s oldest section, and the 12th century boroughs of San Cernin and San Nicolás.

Culture vultures won’t walk away disappointed after a meandering stroll through La Navarrería, the oldest “burgo,” home to well-preserved architecture, stretches of the original city walls, museums, theaters and Catedral de Santa Maria with its thundering bells.

In addition, La Navarrería is the hub of Pamplona’s social life and without a doubt “pintxos” central, where you can enjoy the Spanish art of bouncing around from bar to bar tasting each establishment’s scrumptious tapas, called “pintxos” in Basque.

One of Pamplona’s noteworthy aspects is the impressive amount of parks, gardens and other greenspace that make it one of Europe’s greenest cities. Also at the edge of the city is La Ciudadela, a star-shaped citadel built centuries ago to defend Pamplona from invaders. Today, it is a top historical attraction and home to non-stop exhibitions.

On top of that, it is a great place to stay should you want to meander around the region to visit impressive wine estates.

Where to stay: if you want to keep the bill under 200 Euros per night, one of the best options is Iruña Palace Hotel Tres Reyes, a four-star hotel located by the Taconera Gardens, right in the center of Pamplona, between the old town and the modern city. Hotel Tres Reyes features a garden and an outdoor swimming pool. For those aiming to keep fit, the hotel boasts a complete gym, offering personal trainer service. It also offers an Internet Point with printer.

For well under 100 Euros per night, there’s the three-star Husa Avenida Hotel, a short walk from Ciudadela Park and Taconera Gardens. It has two restaurants, the Leyre and the Tradicional, which offer traditional dishes, a coffee bar, Wi-Fi Internet connection throughout and the advantage of being only minutes away from the train station and Pamplona-Nóain International Airport.

Where to eat: With its small, compact city center, Pamplona is the perfect city in which to spend an evening bar hopping from tapas bar to tapas bar. Basque tapas are widely considered to be the tastiest in all of Spain. The streets Calle San Nicolás, Calle Estafeta and Calle de Jarauta are chockfull of pintxos bars.

Another popular establishment is Café Iruña with its Belle Epoque decor. Located on Plaza del Castillo, Café Iruña was a Hemingway hangout and is a great place to nurse a coffee, nibble on a snack, grab a drink and just people watch.

There are also a few fine dining establishments, including one with a Michelin star. Long one of the premier restaurants in Navarra, Rodero Restaurante offers both nuevo and traditional Basque dishes. Executive chef Koldo Rodero and his team provide exciting menus paired with the restaurant’s extensive wine collection — or even the wines you may have discovered while visiting — matched by the outstanding service directed by the family’s distaff side in the front of the house. A recent dinner there featured baby squid casserole with sweet and sour potatoes and squid ink-infused tapioca, as well as a hare stewed in foie gras, truffles and its own blood.

Named for a mountain in Quinto Real, Enekorri features creative cookery and a fabulous wine list. A comfortable dining room features contemporary oil paintings on the walls and never-ending plates of outstanding food from the kitchen of chef Fernando Flores. Flores and his first-rate culinary team delighted visiting journalists with a meal that ranged from a very seductive tomato soup to a dessert plate that explored the diverse yet complementary flavors of spices — pear with cardamom, creme anglaise with cloves, chocolate mousse with nutmeg and cake roll with cinnamon cream. In between, taste buds were stimulated by wild bluefish over black olive and onion sauce, sautéed langoustines on creamed broccoli and butter foam, plus grilled loin of venison with seasonal vegetables and raspberry jus.

Getting there: If you want to fly directly into Pamplona, then your best bet is to book a flight to Madrid on Iberia and connect to Pamplona. Our group flew to Bilbao instead, allowing us a little time to check out the cultural scene in this bustling Basque city. You can fly to Bilbao via Frankfurt on Lufthansa or United, or via Paris with Air France. Then when you’re ready, hop aboard a relatively comfortable bus for the inexpensive, picturesque two hour ride to Pamplona.

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