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Not just bars and bravado: retracing Hemingway’s past in Pamplona

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Statue of Hemingway by the Plaza del Toros

While seeking out Ernest Hemingway’s favourite haunts in Pamplona, I admit to feeling like a groupie. The Camino is a spiritual journey, I told myself, so why do I care where a famous alcoholic author, who was macho, petty, and self-absorbed, liked to hang out?

I know these labels don’t cover all of who he was. Besides his chiseled writing style and literary wonders, I admire his willingness to support the International Brigades, risking his life to fight fascism in Spain’s civil war as an ambulance driver. In daily life, he mucked about equally with illiterate fishermen and Hollywood stars, never wallowing in his celebrity status. From his home in Cuba, he tutored young boys in boxing and kept young baseball teams afloat by providing uniforms and equipment.

And Hemingway made a significant pilgrimage of his own to a basilica near a different Santiago, in southwest Cuba. Was it superstition or humility that motivated him to leave his home near Havana and deposit his 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature, a medallion, at the shrine of the Virgin of Charity (La Virgen de la Caridad), Cuba’s patron saint?


Sure, having read Hemingway’s Women, I know about his four wives, and how he never left one until he had lined up another. Yes, he could be a drunken, brutal bastard and for most of my life, I’ve condemned him. Yet, recently, I have felt more compassion for him after learning that he, at age 19, was sent onto the battlefield after an explosion to sweep up the body parts. That would traumatize anyone.

He seemed unable to forgive his talented third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, for scooping him on a deluxe Second World War assignment; she was the sole foreign correspondent to gain coveted access to a certain allied aircraft carrier to report on the war first-hand.

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Having fun with Hem in the bar at Cafe Iruna

And what’s with his fixation with having a large rod in his hands while fishing or hunting?

Yet under his bluster and bravado, a cowering little boy lurked. The 1976 autobiography How it Was, by his fourth wife Mary, reveals not only Hemingway’s meanness and spite but his tenderness and vulnerable need for loving reassurance. She documents his later descent into paranoia and struggle with mental illness. How could a man, formerly at home in vast landscapes, free on the roiling ocean and African plains, stay sane and contained within a locked, isolated room in an institution? While reading that book, I felt compassion for the suffering of his soul.

The writer in me felt drawn not only to the places he frequented in Spain, but to his rebel soul that disdained mundane journalism for a passion-filled life of irreverent adventure.

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My husband Frank on a dreary day in Pamplona’s near-deserted Plaza del Castillo. The white awning of Cafe Iruna appears in the right foreground.

Hemingway’s great literature, skillfully created, added grit and guts to the otherwise snooty veneer of the land of American letters. His bylines came with a lot of sweat, swearing, and swagger; he was a man of the seas and the street—no starched white lapels for him. Although I don’t condone bullfights and his enjoyment of them, I recognize his love of Spanish people and culture and how his view of both expanded North American sensibilities.

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Inside the popular Cafe Iruna in Pamplona

When I strode across Pamplona’s Plaza del Castillo, the large square that housed Hemingway’s favourite hotel and café, it was easy to imagine the expatriate writer arm-wrestling over one of the many patio tables or downing too many absinthes or whiskeys in fading Spanish light. The wicker seats that once filled his haunt Café Iruña (Basque) are gone, but the large, high-ceiling place with overhead fans and polished lights feels like a touch of Paris. In the adjoining bar stands a near-life-size statue of him. Many framed black-and-white photos in the bar show him in informal poses. In one, he’s in the midst of making a cocktail; in another, he’s laughing with friends.  

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Pamplona’s tourist office supplies a free map of Hemingway-related sites. At Plaza de Toros, the bullfighting arena, there’s a Paseo or street named after him. Next to it, a sculpture in his honour — a bust atop a stone shoulders and folded arms — stands as a solemn monument.

Besides notable folk like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, Hemingway used to stay at the tall, elegant Hotel La Perla, where a small bust of him rests on a table in the lobby. Although this five-star “perfect combination of tradition, history, and comfort” offers discounts for Camino pilgrims, I found the atmosphere impersonal and uninviting.

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Hemingway’s five-star accommodations, Hotel La Perla,
appears to the left in this image of Plaza del Castillo.

One of Hemingway’s favourite hangouts, Bar Txoko, was empty when I first looked in. Dominated by a wide counter that runs the full length of the establishment, it has a photo mural at one end. When my husband Frank and I popped in later, the cozy joint was full of Spaniards drinking and talking after work, standing in huddles. Hem would have easily fit into this laid-back, intimate bar.

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Bar Txoko, one of Hemingway’s favourite hangouts in Pamplona

I have toured Hemingway’s home in Key West, Florida, with its tropical garden, mangy crew of five-toed cats, and the salt-water pool that his wife Pauline built for him and he never used. The image of his writing room there, with a typewriter, chaise lounge, and mounted animal heads, has remained with me as a symbol of inspiration. I look forward to seeing his house in Cuba and some of the island’s local places that Mary writes of fondly in her book.

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A photo in the Cafe Iruna bar
shows Hemingway preparing a drink

After walking the Camino, I reread Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, appreciating his description of the same areas and towns where I had walked. But while still in Pamplona, after seeing the token spots that had attracted Hemingway’s boozy interest, I began to feel restless.  After spending two days in Pamplona — days five and six of my Camino pilgrimage — I was ready to leave the city and return to the open, rural paths of The Way. Like this far more famous writer, I craved untamed space and the lure of the unknown.

NEXT WEEK: The gift of little miracles on the Camino

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October 12, 2013 at 11:46 am Comments (2)