The truth about Hemingway, bullfighting and Pamplona

Sheila O’Flanagan gets to grips with Hemingway on a visit to Pamplona in northern Spain

The sun broke through the clouds as we arrived at Pamplona, the destination of our two-hour journey through the mountains and valleys of northern Spain. In a different time, when travelling was simply a matter of deciding where and when, this was a breathtaking drive; the highest points of the road overlooked those same clouds before the dense green forests enveloped us in the kind of drenching, misty rain that in Ireland is known as a soft day. 

The abrupt change from mist to bright light meant my initial impression of Navarre’s capital city was as I had always imagined it: a dry, dusty enclave where men take shelter from the summer sun in dark bars, and the bottles of cheap red wine on the tables between them lubricate conversations about bullfights, matadors and women.

This impression was forged from my reading of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, when I was in my 20s. Full disclosure – it was not a novel I enjoyed. However, I wanted to use a quote from it in my latest book, and I felt I owed it to Hemingway and to myself to read it again; this time against the backdrop of the city it made famous.

While shameless about wanting to plunder a line of Hemingway’s prose, I have always carried a certain guilt for not appreciating his work. This may be because the first of his novels I read was The Old Man and the Sea, a set text in my school days, and singularly inappropriate for a 14-year-old girl whose interest in old men and fish was minimal. 

Having read more Hemingway when I was older, I still struggled to find his appeal. But here, in Pamplona, I hoped to reassess. Perhaps under the searing heat of the summer sun, I would, like him, see bullfighting as heroic rather than barbaric, and discover that his heroes were not self-centred machistas, but fallible, relatable men. 

Bullfighting is big business in Pamplona


The imagined smell of bloodied sawdust was in my nose as we got out of the car and the afternoon heat settled on me like a mantle. Yet as we walked across a shaded plaza to our hotel, the air was cooled by the spray from a modern fountain and the only aroma was of fresh churros.

Perhaps if we’d chosen to visit the city during the San Fermin festival, Hemingway’s Pamplona would have been more immediately obvious. At that moment, however, it was not the city of The Sun Also Rises, but a living, changing place. 

Nevertheless, it is impossible to avoid the Hemingway connection. Streets, shops, bars and cafés are named after him. There are Hemingway drinks and sandwiches, chocolates and baseball caps. His name is everywhere.

Almost a century has passed since the novel was first published, and Hemingway has been monetised as much as revered. Meanwhile, a vibrant, young population of travellers has replaced the ennui of his Lost Generation. 

Teenagers created TikTok dances on the bandstand and took selfies in front of the Ayuntamiento. Outside the bullring, the talk was of a forthcoming concert, not the running of the bulls. The terrace of the Café Iruña was filled with men and women, talking volubly in rapid Spanish. The topics ranged from politics to fashion. 

It’s hard to miss the Hemingway connection on Pamplona’s streets


As I sat at a pavement café myself, I realised that Hemingway’s Pamplona was a single view of a single slice of a single section of life. It’s a personal view. A machista view. And not the only view, either now or in a post-coronavirus world where we will carry our own scars of battle.

Thoughts swirled in my head as we travelled 30 miles north of the city. Like Burguete, where the fishing scene in The Sun Also Rises takes place, Elizondo is in rural Navarre, a region steeped in the mythology of the forest rather than the sawdust of the bullring. It is dissected by the river Bisadoa and is the setting for a trilogy of police procedurals by Spanish author Dolores Redondo.

There are machista characters in these novels too, and perhaps too much wine drinking by men who feel that their brilliance as police officers is not fully appreciated. But the lead character is a female detective who doesn’t have time for thinking too much about the unfairness of life as she deals with the unwelcome nature of sudden death.

Our arrival in this town of low-rise buildings with shallow-slanted roofs capable of holding the winter snow coincided with the return of the heavy clouds, and a summer festival as far from the running of the bulls as was possible.

We watched a procession of giant papier-mâché figures exit the local church and perform complex set dances in front of a large gathering of families, many of whom were wearing blue and white checked scarves around their necks. We had no idea of the significance of the figures, or the dances, although they were clearly part of local folklore, but the spectacle was thrilling, even if the fiesta lacked the dazzling gaudiness of Hemingway’s matadors. 

Rural Navarre


This was something rooted in the heart of the valley itself; in its granite buildings, slate-grey rivers, rocky outcrops and hidden pastures. 

There were no backpackers creating TikTok videos on the bridge over the river, no visible industry forged out of Elizondo’s central role in the Baztán trilogy and no Redondo sandwich in the bar where I had lunch. Elizondo remains a town for its people.

There is something special about reading books in the location where they take place. In reading The Sun Also Rises in Pamplona, I was able to put aside the comments of those who told me that the novels were of their time, and that in making my judgment of Hemingway’s representation of women as characters whose purpose was to help a man in his personal struggles, I should remember that he was reflecting the patriarchal society of the day. 

In reading Redondo, I could see very clearly how old traditions still influenced modern lives.

And I’ve made my choice. Redondo, not Hemingway. Baztán, not the bullring. I’ve lost my guilt and I’m fine with it. I have, however, used Hemingway’s quote. Because even if the novels aren’t for me, he is right when he says: “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from place to place.”

But you can find another part of you, and make your peace with that.

The Women Who Ran Away by Sheila O’Flanagan is out in hardback (£18.99; Headline Review)/ £16.99 from 

The Foreign Office currently advises against all non-essential travel to Spain. Britons who visit will need to self-isolate for two weeks when they return.  

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