Travel - Spain: Beyond the rising of the sun

The Dal museum is only a small part of the attraction of Figueres in north-east Spain, says Malcolm Smith while Cathy Packe discovers a wealth of things to see and do in Pamplona, even when the bulls are out of town
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The outside terrace is protected by a red awning. Inside, the room is low-ceilinged; the cornicing is gold, and ornate mirrors are set into the dark walls; the light fittings are from the 1920s. At half a dozen tables, silent couples and groups of noisy businessmen fill and refill their glasses with red wine. The Cafe Iruna in Pamplona hardly seems the stuff of legends.

The Spanish city itself predates Christianity, but it was Ernest Hemingway's short novel, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, first published in 1926, which brought it to the attention of a wider public. The book is set in Pamplona during the Sanfermines, a festival lasting eight days during which bulls make their famous run through the streets of the city to the bullring, ahead of the bullfights later in the day. But outside the second week of July, any sign of a bull - or indeed Hemingway - is hard to find.

Pamplona is far from being a shrine to the man who put the city on the map. In fact, there seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge that, were it not for the publication of his book, the town would still be more or less unknown except in Spain, at least to anyone outside religious circles. As a gesture, one street has been renamed in his honour: the Paseo Hemingway runs, appropriately enough, down the side of the Plaza de Toros, and a small statue is tucked away on the street corner. The history of the city is far richer than merely the legacy of one man - and a foreigner at that.

It is San Fermn, in whose honour the fiesta is named, who is the more significant player in Pamplona's past. The son of the Roman senator who was the first of the city's converts to Christianity, he became a bishop and died a martyr, finally becoming a patron saint of the city and being immortalised in an annual fiesta. His wood-and-silver image is paraded through the streets on the morning of 7 July every year, at the beginning of what is otherwise a totally pagan ritual.

If tourists converge on the city to join in the party, an accident of geography has put Pamplona on the route of another kind of pilgrimage. According to legend, St James, the disciple who was given the task of converting Spain to Christianity, is buried in what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain's north-western corner. When his relics were discovered there in the ninth century, the site became one of the most important places of Christian pilgrimage. Towns and villages along the way became part of the official route, and hostels were set up for the weary pilgrims.

A medieval pilgrim, approaching through the northern countryside, would never recognise the modern Pamplona, sprawling out beyond the city walls as far as the eye can see. The traditional path still comes into the city over the River Arga, up the cobbled street to the ramparts and through the city gate. From there it continues over the cobbles of the calle del Carmen, with its flat-fronted houses and wrought-iron balconies, then turns into the calle Navarrera, and into the cathedral by the main door.

Additions were made to the cathedral in the 18th century, including the neoclassical entrance, and the ornate, rococo-style robing room behind the altar, known as the hall of mirrors because of its resemblance, on a much smaller scale, to the one at Versailles. But none of this gives any hint of the richness of the cathedral's Gothic interior. A long cleaning programme has recently been finished, and the stone restored to a warm honey colour. The remains of the original church are now consigned to the local museum, but the existing building took the entire 15th century to construct. It was financed by members of the local aristocracy, whose shields are still displayed around the interior.

The sculptures on the tomb of King Carlos III - founder of the modern cathedral - and his queen, Leonor de Trastmara, are considered to be among the best in Navarre. Carlos was responsible for uniting the warring factions of the town, who had been in dispute since Pamplona became Navarre's capital at the beginning of the 10th century. The citizens of the neighbouring districts of San Cernn, San Nicolas and the Navarrera - the oldest quarter around the cathedral - became part of the same city, but it was nearly a hundred more years before Navarre became a province of the united Spain.

The long history of Pamplona and the surrounding region is recalled in the Navarre Museum, which is housed in a building that served as a hospital in the 16th century. Inside are mosaics, murals, artefacts of every kind and modern works of art: they date from the founding of the city in Roman times by Pompey - who, legend has it, gave it his name - through the Muslim occupation to the present day.

Outside the museum, history blends into modern life. What remains of the old city walls is sandwiched between the Navarrera and the river; the walls are now, in turn, ringed by green belt. This surrounds the 16th-century Citadel, which once fortified Pamplona but now overlooks one of the wide avenues which cut across the city. Part of the Citadel was destroyed a century ago, at the beginning of a programme of modernisation, but since then the emphasis has been shifted from construction over to restoration.

If the walls once marked the outer boundary, the heart of the city is the Plaza del Castillo. It was in the various watering holes of this tree- lined square, with its bandstand in the centre and cafes all around it, that Hemingway's characters spent much of their time - most often in the Cafe Iruna.

I decided to go in. I ordered the menu of the day: three courses and as much wine as I could drink cost pounds 6. There were TV screens around and, on three sides of the room, panels with numbers on, which I assumed must be something to do with the bull running. I was halfway through my main course when the lights behind the numbers flickered into life. When the bulls are out of town, it is bingo which provides the fiesta.