Pamplona is in a territory that is a great crossroads between the Atlantic Ocean, Pyrenees Mountains, Spain’s high plains, and the Mediterranean Sea. It is a location that has been in the center of numerous imperialistic battles for this reason.
Once the territory of the ancient Vascones, ancestors of modern-day Basques, Pompey founded Pamplona proper in 77 BCE as a part of the Roman campaigns in Spain. Later Pamplona was attacked during the early 5th century Germanic invasions.
Pamplona tried to hold its own against Visigothic rule in Iberia but this too came to an end with a new invasion, that of Arabs and Berbers from North Africa in CE 711.
North Africans briefly took Pamplona in CE 732 and then lost it to Charlemagne, who would then lose it in CE 778. The epic Song of Roland (noted in Roncesvalles) results from this early medieval history. Later, Castilians would join in on the competition over this important crossroads town.
Greater growth and stability came to Pamplona in the 11th century under building campaigns begun by Navarra’s King Sancho III. He invited Navarrese Occitan speakers from southern France (the Kingdom of Navarra straddled both sides of the Pyrenees) to resettle in Pamplona.
Frankish settlers and locals alike, both in collaboration and in times of fierce strife, developed what was becoming an important pilgrim town. Pamplona would remain a coveted settlement, fought over in later centuries by the Castilians and the French.
Many people today think of Pamplona as the land of Hemingway and the Festival of San Fermín (Pamplona’s patron saint), called los sanfermines, with the running of the bulls, and a good deal of eating and drinking. San Fermín and bulls carry deeper stories than these.
Pamplona was central in Roman campaigns to dominate Iberia, and with the Romans and Roman legions came the cult of Mithra that included the sacrifice of bulls. Or more accurately, today, given the danger of running in the streets chased by a bull, the sacrifice seems to be inverted and is of one’s self to the bull.
San Fermín was born during the peak of Mithraism in Roman Spain. Born in Pamplona in the 3rd century to a Roman senator, he converted to Christianity and was baptized by his teacher, Saint Saturninus, at a small well dedicated to San Cernin. This is most likely the spot on which Iglesia de Saint Cernín stands. San Fermín traveled widely, especially in France, to preach his new faith. In Amiens he was martyred by beheading.
In Pamplona there are several churches, including the beautifully proportioned Gothic cathedral. (Don’t be repelled by the cathedral’s unwelcoming Baroque exterior. Go inside and discover a whole other and harmonious world hidden there).
Two smaller and captivating churches worth exploring are Saint Cernín and Saint Nicolas.
The 13th century Saint Nicolas with both Romanesque and Gothic elements, is appealing because it is still largely intact after so many centuries of battles and because it is usually the less visited of the medieval churches in Pamplona. It is the only church in Pamplona where the Romanesque influence survives.
Saint Cernín is the true center of the deeper stories of this city. It was originally Romanesque but was rebuilt after its destruction in the 13th century with Gothic styles. It is connected to San Fermín’s holy well.
According to legend, some time in the year 1487, the icon of la Virgen del Camino from Alfaro, a village 82 kilometers south of Pamplona, appeared on the rooftop of San Cernín church. Not a short journey, people kept getting it down and taking it back to Alfaro, but she would reappear each night. Eventually, locals realized she was making this her next home and they built an extension to the church, the Capilla de la Virgen del Camino, While in San Cernín, it feels as if it is it a separate church.
The Camino continues to ‘where the way of the stars meets the way of the wind’ at the Sierra del Perdon.