The old man and the city: Hemingway's love affair with Pamplona

Pamplona in northern Spain was Ernest Hemingway's first obsession, but the affair ended badly. Fifty years after his death, Chris Leadbeater visits a place that the author feared he had ruined

It is not hard to find him. And I see him first where I had expected him to be. Outside the bullring. There he is in sculpture: head an orb of bronze, hair plastered to giant cranium, beard in bloom. His face wears a look that says he owns the place. In many ways, he does.

Ernest Miller Hemingway. Legendary carouser and drinker. Itinerant American and far-flung traveller. A lover and a fighter who chalked up four marriages in his 61 years. A misogynist and a boor, but one whose bullish approach to life is splashed across the pages of the books he penned. A Nobel-lauded writer who, in the likes of For Whom The Bell Tolls and A Farewell To Arms, was one of the undisputed icons of 20th-century literature.

Many parts of the world can claim an affiliation with the great man, his heavy footsteps solidified in the years he spent trawling their cities, and the novels he crafted as a result – Cuba (The Old Man And The Sea), the Florida Keys (To Have And Have Not), Paris (A Moveable Feast), the French Riviera (The Garden Of Eden), Kenya (True At First Light).

But Pamplona was his first obsession – a mutual romance. Even now, though sizeable of reputation, the capital of the Navarre region is a small city, hemmed into the north-east corner of Spain. In Hemingway's heyday, this was trebly the case – a little-acknowledged citadel barely grown beyond medieval youth, a secret package waiting to be unwrapped.

And unwrap it he did. In total, Hemingway journeyed to Pamplona on nine occasions, the most prolific burst between 1923 and 1927, when he visited every year. Each time he came for San Fermín, the city's famed fiesta of bullfighting and brutality, drink and song.

Of course, "famed" needs qualification here. Because, before Hemingway, Pamplona was not famous. Much of its current-day mystique stems from The Sun Also Rises, the masterpiece that the writer distilled from the ripe fruits of his Spanish summer of 1925. Indeed, you might even say that he forged the modern idea of Pamplona and San Fermín, his celebratory words transforming what had been a provincial party into a global event.

The Sun Also Rises was his first novel (published in 1926), and his finest. A portrait of a group of Bohemians caught in the frenzy of the festival, it fizzes with the abandon of the Roaring Twenties. Its genius is built on fact, inspired by what happened to Hemingway's own friends in the July heat. For the fictional Lady Brett Ashley, whose bed-hopping rips the group apart, you should read Lady Duff Twysden, a British divorcee socialite. For her ex-lover Robert Cohn, you can picture Harold Loeb, Hemingway's former boxing partner. And for the cold voice of the narrator Jake Barnes, you should hear Hemingway himself.

But if 1925 was the beginning of something beautiful, 1959 was the end of the affair. The author's final visit to Pamplona was not a happy one. Increasingly frail of body, mind and mood, he found a city he did not know. The spry Spain of the Twenties had been replaced by a state stifled by the fascist fist of General Franco for two decades, a country in which Hemingway's books were banned.

And San Fermí* had swelled hugely – so much so that Hemingway feared he had created a monster. Writing in The Dangerous Summer, published posthumously in 1985, he mused: "Pamplona was rough, as always, overcrowded... I've written Pamplona once, and for keeps. It is all there, as it always was, except forty thousand tourists have been added. There were not twenty tourists when I first went there... four decades ago." Two years later, on 2 July 1961 – 50 years ago today – he walked on to the porch of his home in Ketchum, Idaho, and put a shotgun in his mouth. It was the week of San Fermín.

While it would be a leap to say his last dalliance with Pamplona was a factor in his suicide, there is no doubt that it left Hemingway troubled. And, so, when I arrive in the city on a spring evening, yet another tourist attracted by his prose, I am aware of the folly of chasing something that Hemingway had deemed spoiled. But I am hopeful that it still exists, the Pamplona of 1925 – café chatter and friendly spirit – that dances in The Sun Also Rises.

It helps that I am not in town for San Fermín, the blood-soaked fiesta where the reckless run with angry cattle, and six bulls die in the ring on each of its eight days. For though it was the festival that called to Hemingway's machismo, the city is far better when calm.

So much is clear in the Plaza del Castillo. A grand rectangular space framed by the pale façades of three-storey buildings, it is the obvious spot to launch a hunt for Hemingway's Pamplona. Here it is, the centrepiece, not only of the city, but of The Sun Also Rises – the playground where the characters nurse their morning coffee and spill their evening wine.

As soon as I enter the square, I feel that I have tripped into a chapter of the book. "The square was hot," says Jake Barnes of his first impressions. "The flags hung on their staffs, and it was good to get out of the sun and under the shade of the arcade that runs around the square." And, though the day is merely warm, I do the same, diving into the semi-dark and tracing the edge of the plaza below the low overhang that still flanks it on four sides.

This brings me, instantly, to a landmark. "We had coffee at the Iruña," Barnes continues, "sitting in the comfortable wicker chairs, looking out from the cool of the arcade at the big square." Café Iruña does not seem to have changed in 86 years – a gilded ghost of the 19th century, vast polished mirrors affixed to its walls, Arabesque pillars rising to ornate ceiling, black-and-white tiled floor scuffed by decades of chair-legs scraping backwards.

It still exudes "local". It is a weekday morning, and, as I sip a café con leche (€1.90), I am surrounded by elderly matriarchs, huddled in pairs at rounded tables. And Hemingway is here, too, swarthy statue standing by the bar in a side room that, until Spain enforced a ban on 1 January, was the smoking area. This is the corpulent Fifties Hemingway (though a photo behind shows the svelte lothario of the Twenties), full of face – and the scowl upon it conveys what would surely have been his opinion on Spain's break-up with tobacco.

There are less subtle alterations to Hemingway's Pamplona blueprint. The bolthole where the group stays in The Sun Also Rises was the Hotel Quintana – or the Hotel Montoya, as it is named in the book. The property, in the south-east corner of the Plaza del Castillo, was run by Juanito Quintana. He was a friend of Hemingway, and the model for the novel's gruff hotelier, Montoya. Quintana, an open critic of Franco, vanished in the Forties, and the hotel was turned into apartments. The ground floor now hosts the Cervecería Tropicana, a rowdy watering hole that, on the evening I pop in, is far removed from the polite retreat of matadors that Hemingway eulogises. Next door, Bar Txoko, where Hemingway drank in 1959, is similarly boisterous. Though, at least it is still there. Elsewhere on the Plaza, Bar Torino – thinly "disguised" in the novel as Bar Milano – is mourned by a plaque on the wall.

Yet I can't lose the belief that the Pamplona of 1925 lingers. And, as I stroll the Plaza that evening, I catch another glimpse. Children are noisily kicking a ball under the arcade, and I'm transported to Barnes's depiction of a scene outside Café Iruña, of "a man, playing a reed-pipe... a crowd of children was following him, shouting and pulling at his clothes."

Then there is the Hemingway mother lode, the Gran Hotel La Perla. While Hotel Quintana is the mainstay of The Sun Also Rises, its colleague, in the north-east corner of the Plaza del Castillo, was the author's favourite. He stayed here on most of his visits, becoming so much a part of its fabric that the room he always booked has been preserved in his name.

The suite is usually occupied. But I am in luck. There is a vacancy – and I am led through the lobby of this elegant five-star, past an antique lift and a framed poster for the 1923 fiesta. At the top of the stairs is a time capsule. True, the number has been changed (from 217 to 201) as part of a renovation in 2007, and a new bathroom has been built on to the front. But the bedroom beyond the second door is almost unaltered from the last time Hemingway slumbered here, down to the original furniture: a two-seat sofa in faded pink; a white circular-dial telephone; a writing desk with fold-down lid; a pair of single beds.

Of these, the one by the window is most important. This room was a direct influence on Hemingway's work. When a hungover Jake Barnes is woken by the clatter of bulls on Calle de la Estafeta, it is – to all purposes – in this bed that he stirs. When I doze off that night, I do so aware that I am effectively sleeping within the pages of The Sun Also Rises.

Next morning, I step on to the very balcony where Barnes observes this animal cavalcade, and decide to experience the route myself. Even walking it on a quiet Tuesday, the 851-metre madness of attempting to run with the bulls on these narrow streets is apparent: up the steep gradient of Cuesta de Santo Domingo into the Plaza Consistorial, a quick left into Calle de Mercaderes, a right into the long enclosed corridor of Calle de la Estafeta.

At the end, the bullring lurks. As I approach, the entrance is open. A market is in swing, and I wander inside. The size of the arena (the third largest bullfighting stadium on the planet, after Mexico City and Madrid) is impressive – and you do not have to be a blood-sports apologist to appreciate the place it holds in Pamplona's heart. Nor to appreciate that its seats are where Barnes explains the rituals of battle to Brett Ashley; where the socialite falls for the matador Pedro Romero; where Hemingway himself watched the corrida.

Hemingway was probably fair in his bleak 1959 appraisal of the city. But the thought that he had created a monster was not. Perhaps The Sun Also Rises ushered Pamplona into some awkward teenage phase – because it has since blossomed into adult sophistication.

And it is here that the charming city Hemingway loved lives on: in the Museo de Navarra – a showcase for the region, where an 1804 Goya painting of the Marqués de San Adriá* does dark portents, the clouds gathering behind the nobleman hinting at Napoleon's threat to Spain; in the Parque de la Taconera, a leafy expanse where the art-deco Cafe Alt Wien does Twenties splendour as readily as Hemingway's fiction; in the Ciudadela, a 17th-century stronghold where striking pieces by Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida now nestle behind the fortifications; in the fresh produce on sale in the Mercado del Ensanche in the newer, south side of town; in Rodero, a Michelin-starred restaurant by the bullring where the cochinillo (roast suckling pig) is €26; in the bite-sized pintxos at Bar Gaucho, where the ajoarriero (a pastry parcel of cod and poached egg) should really cost more than €3; in the cluttered ambience of a city that still echoes the medieval era in its defensive walls.

It is to these that I go, seeking a last fragment of The Sun Also Rises. At one point, Barnes and Brett escape the group, ambling to these ramparts to share a moment of peace. And, on a quiet evening, I stalk them – past the Catedral de Santa Maria to the Paseo de Redín.

Here is a special view, the River Arga flowing below, the valley ebbing away, the San Cristóbal mountain rearing to the north. It is the Pamplona that Barnes espies from afar en route to the city, "rising out of the plain... the walls of the city, and the great brown cathedral, and the broken skyline". It is the Pamplona that Hemingway thought was ruined, but which, 50 years after his death, is still extant. You just have to search for it.

Travel essentials: Pamplona

Getting there

* There are no direct flights to Pamplona, but Iberia (0870 609 0500; flies from Heathrow via Madrid or Barcelona.

* Alternatively, the city can be reached from Bilbao, served from Stansted and Manchester by easyJet (0905 821 0905; and from Heathrow by Vueling (0906 754 7541;; or from Zaragoza, served from Stansted by Ryanair (0871 246 0000;

Staying there

* Gran Hotel La Perla, Plaza del Castillo 1 (00 34 948 223 000; Doubles start at €260, room only.

* Hotel Alma Muga de Beloso, Beloso Bajo 11 (00 34 948 293 380; Doubles start at €149, room only.

Visiting there

* Ciudadela, Avenida del Ejercito (00 34 948 228 237; Monday to Saturday 7.30am-9.30pm; Sunday 9am-9.30pm; admission free.

* Mercado del Ensanche, Calle Amaya 15 (00 34 948 231 273). Monday to Friday 9am-2pm; Saturday 9am-2.30pm.

* Museo de Navarra, Cuesta de Santo Domingo 47 (00 34 848 426 492; Tuesday to Saturday 10am-2pm, 5-7pm; Sunday 11am-2pm; €2.

* Catedral de Santa Maria, Calle Curia (00 34 948 212 594; Museum: Monday to Saturday 10am-7pm; €4.

Eating and drinking there

* Bar Gaucho, Calle de Espoz y Mina 7 (00 34 948 225 073; .

* Bar Txoko, Plaza del Castillo 20 (00 34 948 222 012).

* Cafe Alt Wien, Parque de la Taconera (00 34 650 486 569; .

* Café Iruña, Plaza del Castillo 44 (00 34 948 175 536;

* Cervecería Tropicana, Plaza del Castillo 18 (00 34 948 222 659).

* Rodero, Calle Emilio Arrieta 3 (00 34 948 228 035;

More information

* Pamplona Tourist Office: 00 34 848 420 420;