The first port of call for many a visitor to Pamplona has to be the Café Iruña. It’s been there for well over 100 years, judging by its décor today, it probably hasn’t changed much in that time, and it must surely have been a focal point for Pamplona ‘society’ through amazing moments in history.
For all its elegance, I’m almost sure that when I got my first teaching job here 32 years ago there was a bingo hall either inside or next door to the Café. I seem to recall that bingo in Spain at the time was considered quite de rigueur and had rather a different image from the scruffy converted cinemas that grew up around Britain from the 1950s onwards.
No sign of bingo these days but the Café Iruña is very much a presence still in Pamplona today, so that was where we headed for our first cuppa after we got off the bus from Bilbao last week.
I remember that Café as being a regular meeting point for a Friday night out in Pamplona in that classic Spanish way of going on pub crawls in big groups. Somehow, though, the Spanish manage to do a lot of drinking without ending up in a drunken state down some dark alleyway as we Brits seem to favour increasingly.
Mind you, I think there’s a fair bit of inebriation when the bulls are running in Pamplona and I don’t suppose many visitors to town for those mad days in July are particularly bothered about where you can get a decent coffee or tea. But that, of course was our aim last week. And we struck gold down in the narrow streets of Pamplona’s old town (casco viejo).
If Café Iruña is all elegance and imposing grandeur, the Cafés Bruno in calle Pozoblanco was the absolute opposite: tiny, but cosy and intimate, run by a local mother and son pairing.
It’s the first real specialist coffee shop we’d found in Spain this time. They roast their own beans and have sacks of the stuff lining the walls from whatever origin is in season at the moment.
And a really imaginative menu, offering not just the classic cafe con leche or espresso, but an exotic mix of other takes on coffee, from the Bora Bora (with condensed milk and cream added to your espresso) to the Bulgarian (with honey and cream over your espresso).
I’ve not yet been to Bulgaria – so can’t vouch for the authenticity of this concoction – but wow, this was one nice smooth drink, with wonderful rich local honey blending in perfectly with the Ethiopian coffee. I sure hope we find something like this when we get to Bulgaria later this year…
The funny thing is that Cafes Bruno, like virtually every other shop and business in Pamplona, closes for a very long siesta every day.
Now, when I went to live in Spain all those years ago, this was the part of the day I found most boring. Nothing is open; nobody is in the streets, and as a lonely young 22 year old, it nearly drove me crazy. And you know what? Not a lot has changed in that respect, giving Pamplona a very sleepy, small town feel for three hours in the middle of the day.
Even the tea room we wanted to visit was closed from 1.30pm until 4pm. Well, phew, you might say, at least they reopened in time for tea at 4 o’clock. And I guess they know their customers’ needs, but wow can you imagine an independent coffee shop or tea room closing in the UK from 1.30 – 4pm?
Well, we were virtually banging on the door and ready for our tea when Artea in calle Zapateria reopened at 4. And this is a popular place: by 4.30 every seat was taken with quite an electic mix of people in there: couples; groups of young women; but also single men sitting there reading the paper before, presumably, they headed back to work.
And it’s a great place for tea aficionados. Artea has a menu with 84 different teas and infusions, most (if not all) loose leaf and very good quality. And a very English feel to the selection of sponge cakes on offer.
We really liked this place. And again it showed just how popular taking tea has become in Spain, which was one of the big surprises of our whole trip.
The tea room is apparently owned by an English expat, though we didn’t get to meet her. Instead we were served by two young guys who told me they were ‘out of work journalists’ – well, as someone who has also moved from media into the caffeinated world of catering, there can be worse things to do for sure than serving tea in such a nice tea room. But good luck to them all at Artea!
Although I had a lively social life in Pamplona when I lived there in 1982, I did get a bit bored. There isn’t really much to see as a tourist (apart from during San Fermines in July), though we did like the citadel and the park where there are loads of free range birds down in what was the moat under the town walls.
In the middle of that park (Taconera, I think) there is also apparently a Viennese coffee shop, but sadly only open at weekends, so we didn’t get the chance to try Spain’s take on Austrian-style coffee this time.
But the plus side of a small town where everyone knows each other and nothing major changes from year to year is that someone like me can walk into a bar we teachers used to frequent every night after classes and still find the same baristas working there: 32 years on!
The amazing thing is, considering how I had long hair and a beard in those days and am now bald as a coot, that both baristas (Mario and the other guy whose name I forgot) in Bar Oslo recognised me almost immediately. And I remembered again why I do actually like small towns, whether in Spain, France, UK, America or anywhere else I’ve lived in the world…