Now, I don’t know about you, but while I appreciate an added frisson of adventure and excitement on my romantic escapes, I’m happy to skip the part where a dozen big horned beasts stampede through the city. The Running of the Bulls: main star of the San Fermín summer festival, and the reason most people have heard of Pamplona. Maybe you know it from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises? Or, possibly, thanks to bravado, you’ve sampled it first-hand.
Happy to be heading to Spain’s northern Navarre region, a region also cherished by oenophiles for its heady reds and rosés, we're looking forward to a weekend at Muga de Beloso sans any encierro thrills. A modern, museum-like rectangle, this Alma hotel sits just outside history-steeped, park-rich Pamplona in its own asparagus-green valley. As Mr Smith and I are whisked into reception, things get hi-tech – and also bubbly; as our fingerprints are scanned for our key fobs, two glasses of fizz appear. In the corridors, on the way to our room, it gets more sci-fi, with white doors lining the aisles and mood-lighting lending an atmospheric blue tinge.
Fully programmed in, we enter, rather peculiarly, through our bathroom. The ensuite is expansive, with no concession to clutter – even the the loos are hidden from view. (It in fact takes us a while to find them. But of course Mr Smith loves this new game: ‘hide-and-seek hotel facilities’.) Settling into our minimalist palace, we locate the shower (around the corner) and then have a squeeze of the Bulgari bath products.
Rooms are bright thanks to widescreen windows streaming in the rugged backdrop. Stripped wood, leather chairs and brightly coloured hide rugs not only add chic, but also a subtle cattle reference for any especially dedicated bull-running pilgrims. After a quick dose of those mountain views from our sleek concrete terrace I try nudge Señor Smith towards the hotel’s basement as I’ve heard that there’s a sleek, slate spa with a hammam, sauna and a shower-surrounded pool. Mr Smith, meanwhile, is harping on that the hotel offers mountain-biking and kayaking, with sports massages to kick us back into shape afterwards.
Earmarking the spa and sport for later, we wander along the river path that wends with the valley, with the terracotta-topped buildings of Pamplona in the distance. The first thing we stumble across is the bullring – ‘the third largest in the world after Madrid’s and Mexico City’s’ announces Mr Smith. He’s a fan, also, of the game ‘trivia one-upmanship’. At this wintery time of year, I’m more interested in the seemingly empty pintxos bars looming. Bulls aside, it turns out that wine and cheese are also star attractions of Pamplona, as are hanging hams in the bars.
Silky slivers of jamon Iberico and tumblers of inky Navarre red sampled, we dip into Vinoteca Murillo on the corner of Calle de San Gregorio and Plaza de San Nicolás for a suitcase-worth of larra roncal (the manchego-rivalling local cheese) and red wine. Appetites merely whetted, we’re ready for La Ribera, the mountain-facing restaurant back at Muga de Beloso.
The menu in contemporary La Ribera is in Spanish, but we can tell grilled offerings are the headline-grabbers. Memories from a gap year in South America soon resurface – funny how you never forget foreign words for meat. After Mr Smith’s sibilant and ‘hhha’-heavy attempts at speaking in tongue, we tease our tastebuds with some sizzling sea-bass and monkfish, served with a zesty tapenade, and move onto charred lamb and steak with sides of griddled zucchini and crispy French fries.
The goldfish-bowl-size G&T I was served as a sundowner in Muga de Beloso’s lounge combined with more than my share of ‘tinto’ soon mean it’s time for bed. There, we’re pleased to discover our mattress is as spacious as the dimensions of our suite. This bodes for a successful sleep, where we can both adopt whichever shape we choose – Mr Smith is a fan of ‘the diagonal’, which doesn’t fare so well in your average double.
Mini breakfast buffet (capsule granola pots, fresh breads and small-scale pastries) devoured at our table next morning (does it count as a buffet if they bring to you and you don’t have to get up and queue?) and we’re ready for a hike. The Camino de Santiago – the Way of St James pilgrimage – passes straight through the beautifully preserved old town. We dip into it with a stroll through the romantic cobbled streets and plazas, before pitching up in the gardens of Taconera Park.
Channelling Ernest himself, we linger in Café Iruña on Plaza del Castillo, scribbling in our Moleskine notebooks. After a rummage through secondhand treasures at Antiguedades Migueleiz on Avenida Roncesvalles, all that’s left on our to-do list is a quick drive up into the mountains at sunset – and we discover that the lookout over sandy-coloured landscapes was indeed too good to miss.
Bidding a final farewell to Pamplona, we aim north next for a Michelin-starred lunch in a traditional Basque house in Urdániz. Bellies bursting from El Molino, we continue the winding, hour-or-so drive through the hills to the mountain village of Urdax, famous for its sheep and Swiss-style scenery of snow-capped peaks and lush green hillsides.
Before our flight home, there’s just time to float back down to sea level for a bit of sightseeing in golden San Sebastián. Here the bayside Belle Epoque Basque beauty and its numerous pinxtos bars put up a good fight to win our affections, but our hearts belong to the land of the running bulls. You never know, we might even brave Pamplona when they’re in town.