Pamplona Pilgrimage: On the Way to Santiago de Compostela

Religious tour groups find meaningful sites along the Way of St. James

There is a quiet, peaceful journey playing out every day across Spain. It has been ongoing since at least the middle of the 10th century.

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela

This journey for spiritual meaning is a way for tens of thousands every year to come to grips with themselves and their religious beliefs. The route of nearly 500 miles typically begins in the rugged Pyrenees, at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, or through Baztan in the north of Spain or through the Aragonese Way at Sanguesa, Spain.

The Pilgrim’s Way, as the route is called, can be the single focus of a religious group tour or part of a larger concentration on the Navarre area around Pamplona, an hour north of Madrid by plane. Whatever tour plans are made, the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago de Compostela is a powerful theme for groups wanting to see any portion of this magical route, which has brought an economic, religious and social boom to the area.

Powerful Encounters Await

A couple of examples of pilgrim journeys sets the tone for what visitors may encounter on the Pilgrim’s Way:

  • The determined young man had been walking for over a year, starting in Norway, destined for Santiago de Compostela on the west coast of Spain. He was only 25 years old and on a religious pilgrimage over the 1,000-year-old route, with his final stop at the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago, the reported burial place of St. James the Apostle, the brother of John. Unfortunately, his journey was stopped short when an ankle injury forced him to end his quest without reaching his goal. Unable to continue, he was devastated because completion of his journey meant so much to him.
  • The two Canadian health-care sisters in their 30s, their 63-year-old mother and 57-year-old aunt, along with a 21-year-old friend from Colorado, had been walking for five days when they arrived at Pamplona at a Pilgrim hostel. “We’re on the journey because our mother has told us about it for a long time,” the sisters said. They were on the journey to “help simplify our lives, understand the physical pain our patients go through, and find a spiritual meaning.” They also had friends who took the walk, and it had changed their lives; the sisters wanted the same thing to happen to them.
The Pamplona Cathedral

The Pamplona Cathedral

The final destination for pilgrims, usually Santiago, can be reached by walking, bicycling or even riding on a horse or other animal, although this is now rarely done.  A series of yellow arrows helps pilgrims stay on the path, and a white seashell, used to scoop up water on the way, is the symbol of the traveler that is found on backpacks, hostel doors and signage.

Pamplona, founded by the Roman general Pompey, is a popular stop for groups on the Pilgrim’s Route, and many use it as a base for trips in the surrounding countryside. Religious tour groups can find a meaningful experience by visiting this multi-faceted area of Spain.

Pilgrimages: Way of Life in Pamplona

Pilgrims and their experiences are a way of life in Pamplona, and adult pilgrims of all ages can be found making their journey through the heart of the city on most days. The Pilgrim’s Way through Pamplona crosses the Arga River at the La Magdalena Gothic Bridge (built in the 12th century) and passes the 1553 French Gate and Bastion del Redin, where a palace as well as a pilgrim’s inn once stood. It then weaves its way in front of the Baroque façade of Pamplona’s City Hall, a favorite stopping-off point in the center of town, and the Church of San Cernin of Toulouse (the evangelist of Pamplona).

Church of San Lorenzo

Church of San Lorenzo

Also on the route is the Church of San Lorenzo, opened in the 18th century and remembered today by only a tower from the medieval church. Also here is the Chapel of San Fermin, containing the bust of the patron saint of the city and the first bishop of Pamplona.

Santa Maria church, Pamplona, Spain, religious travel groups, religious tours, religious travel

Interior of Santa Maria church in Pamplona; many pilgrims come here to worship. (photo by Don Heimburger)

Other religious spots that groups will want to see include the Gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria, housing art treasures and the tomb of Carlos III and Eleanor of Castile, king and queen of Navarre. The cathedral and its towers are the emblem of the city. The French Gothic cloisters, regarded as some of the finest in Europe, are open for touring. The cloisters’ beautiful arches, large windows and relief work are exceptional.

With as many as 14 pilgrim hostels in town, meeting and talking with pilgrims is easy. The Casa Paderborn (Paderborn, Germany is a sister city to Pamplona) is run by several couples who alternate operating the 26-bed hostel. The 112-room Jesus y Maria Hostel is a much larger facility in the center of town.

Running of the Bulls

Pamplona's San Fermin Festival

Pamplona’s San Fermin Festival

In Pamplona (population 180,000), once a walled city, portions of the thick ancient bastions and gates are still standing. It became a stronghold for defending Spain against France after its incorporation in 1512. For groups, there is plenty to see in this vibrant city, known worldwide for its San Fermin Festival, which includes the Running of the Bulls every July, a spectacle made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises.

The Running of the Bulls

The Running of the Bulls

Groups can tour the street of Estafeta, the bull route that leads to the famous 19,500-seat bull ring itself, where Hemingway used to watch the spectacle. The San Fermin Festival, which began in medieval times, starts with a bang, as the mayor shoots off a rocket from the City Hall. Parades, fireworks and parties last nine days, attracting one million visitors each year.

Any tour of the city will likely include the Encierro statute, which dramatically depicts the running of the bulls. Stops also are in order at the neo-classical Palace of Navarre constructed in 1851 and the giant sequoia from California, planted near the city center. The Navarre History Museum, a few steps away from the pen where they keep the bulls prior to letting them run through the streets, features Roman mosaics, ancient caskets, rich paintings and a portrait by Goya of the Marquis of San Adrian.

Plaza del Castillo

Plaza del Castillo, Pamplona

Not to be missed is the Plaza del Castillo, where streets lead off like a spider’s web; it’s an inviting square with restaurants and shops, including the Cafe Iruna and Bar, where locals hang out and where Hemingway used to spend time. Find the life-sized statute of Hemingway in the basement.

In Spain, tapas bars (called pinchos in Pamplona) are the main dining attraction. A brochure provided by the city maps out 91 of them for visitors, describing their menus and listing specialties. At about 9:30 p.m. the bars begin to fill up, and the nightlife begins. The small but delicious portions of meats, vegetables and pastries offer a good variety at reasonable prices.

In the region of Navarre surrounding Pamplona, group day trips could include wineries, olive oil plantations, vegetable farms, the Irati forest, desert landscapes, caves, gorges and Roman ruins.

Friendly people, uplifting pilgrim encounters, great pincho bars, Hemingway and the greenest city in Spain await visitors to Pamplona. Sometimes a trip can be more than a physical journey: it can be one of personal and spiritual growth. A trip to Pamplona just might be both.

–By Don Heimburger

Travel writer Don Heimburger frequently travels to Europe on behalf of companies, organizations and his own travel publications to write about, research and photograph destinations. He earned a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and has written 12 books.