Mountain-ringed Alma Pamplona might be a short backwards-facing sprint from the site of the region’s famous Running of the Bulls festival, but tradition here is only subtly hinted at (your room’s brightly coloured hide rug, for instance). Instead, its focus is mostly modern, with a sleek, slate-lined spa in the basement, futuristic bathrooms, and your fingerprints, scanned upon check-in, used for a room key.
Get this when you book through us:
A bottle of cava in your room and a hand-made chocolate treat from the kitchen
Noon, but flexible if there’s availability. Earliest check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from £196.65 (€230), including tax at 10 per cent.
Rates usually include breakfast.
There’s a spa in the basement with a sauna, hammam, contrast showers, treatment rooms and pool. Guests staying in the Grand Deluxe, Executive Suite, Terrace Executive Suite and Family Suite categories get free access to the spa, otherwise it's €20 a person.
At the hotel
Spa, free WiFi throughout, parking, laundry service, library and gym. In rooms: free soft drinks, flatscreen TV and Malin + Goetz bath products.
Our favourite rooms
We love the pared-down Executive Suites, which look out to the rugged San Cristóbal Mountain from their epically sized slate terraces. Suite 325 is the big daddy in terms of style and space, with more stripped pine, two bathrooms, a living room, a reception room and a hefty bedroom with white, cloud-like beds.
The indoor pool in the spa is slate and grey, and looks like the kind of natural lake you’d sweep back some leafy canopy to find in the jungle.
A Spanish and/or Basque phrasebook (particularly useful for ordering pintxos); leave the red garments behind in case you stumble across any stray bulls.
You won’t have to worry about forgetting your key – all you need to get in your room is your fingerprint.
Baby cots are free and extra beds can be added to Executive Suites and above for €60 a night (on request, must be booked ahead). Babysitting can be arranged if you ask first thing on the day you need it (€15 an hour). The menu has child-friendly options.
If there’s a group of you, sit on one of the vast round tables. Couples should sidle up to a seat by the windows for magical mountain sights.
Red, green and gold, matador-style.
There are two: Alma Restaurant and La Biblioteca, both helmed by chef Leandro Gil. In bright and relaxed Alma Restaurant start with creamy tomato soup and olive oil ice cream, then move on to bourbon-marinated beef sirloin or Iberian pork cheeks. For dessert choose from herbal ice creams, caramelised French toast and decadent carrot cake. Can’t decide between the delicate Michelin-acclaimed dishes at gourmet restaurant La Biblioteca? Worry not – that’s where the intricate seasonal tasting menu comes in. There’s a wine-pairing option too, naturally.
The library-style lounge is a sumptuous space with inviting sofas, magazines and books to leaf through, and mountain views through the huge windows. There's an extensive wine list and classic cocktail menu too. Feeling hungry, but unmotivated to budge from your cosy surrounds? Order ham croquettes, Iberian pizza and dessert tasting plates straight to your armchair.
Alma Restaurant is open daily for breakfast from 7am to 11am (7.30am on weekends and holidays), lunch from 1.30pm to 3.30pm and dinner from 8.30pm to 10.30pm. La Biblioteca is open Wednesday to Sunday for lunch (1pm to 3pm) and dinner (8pm to 10pm).
A selection of mostly cold dishes is available 24 hours a day.
The nearest airports are Bilbao and Biarritz to the north, or Zaragoza to the south. EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies to Bilbao from London Stansted, and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) will get you to Biarritz or Zaragoza. Pamplona does have an airport (12km away), but chances are you’d have to connect in Madrid to get here.
The main Renfe (www.renfe.com) station in Pamplona is 5km from the hotel. From here, trains go to Madrid, San Sebastián and Barcelona.
The hotel is just east of Pamplona, close to Burlada, the next town along. The drive from Biarritz and Bilbao should take around an hour and 40 minutes. From San Sebastián, it’s an hour and a half, and it’s just under two hours in the car from Zaragoza. There’s free parking.
Worth getting out of bed for
If you’re in town during July, you might notice men running through the old town with bulls after them. Don’t be alarmed; it’s just the annual San Fermín festival, documented in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Incidentally, Pamplona is home to the third-largest bull ring in the world, after Mexico City and Madrid. Follow the part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail which crosses right through the city and up into the hills.
Europa (+34 948 229 235) is a tiny hotel restaurant where you can’t move for locals on a Saturday night. Squeeze in for the tasting menu, which changes four times a year; make sure you’re hungry. If you can’t get a reservation, try sister restaurant Alhambra (+34 948 245 007) instead. On Calle de San Nicolás, Bodegón Sarria (+34 948 227 713) has hundreds of hams hanging from the ceiling and a lengthy bar piled with pintxos. For a smart supper amid fine art and chandeliers, head to the regal Palacio Guendulain (+34 948 225 522) and choose from Iberian beef, ox loin and sautéed squid.
Now, I don’t know about you, but while I appreciate an added frisson of adventure and excitement on my romantic escapes, I’m happy to skip the part where a dozen big horned beasts stampede through the city. The Running of the Bulls: main star of the San Fermín summer festival, and the reason most people have heard of Pamplona. Maybe you know it from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises? Or, possibly, thanks to bravado, you’ve sampled it first-hand.
Happy to be heading to Spain’s northern Navarre region, a region also cherished by oenophiles for its heady reds and rosés, we're looking forward to a weekend at Alma Pamplona sans any encierro thrills. A modern, museum-like rectangle, this hotel sits just outside history-steeped, park-rich Pamplona in its own asparagus-green valley. As Mr Smith and I are whisked into reception, things get hi-tech – and also bubbly; as our fingerprints are scanned for our key fobs, two glasses of fizz appear. In the corridors, on the way to our room, it gets more sci-fi, with white doors lining the aisles and mood-lighting lending an atmospheric blue tinge.
Fully programmed in, we enter, rather peculiarly, through our bathroom. The ensuite is expansive, with no concession to clutter – even the the loos are hidden from view. (It in fact takes us a while to find them. But of course Mr Smith loves this new game: ‘hide-and-seek hotel facilities’.) Settling into our minimalist palace, we locate the shower (around the corner) and then have a squeeze of the Bulgari bath products.
Rooms are bright thanks to widescreen windows streaming in the rugged backdrop. Stripped wood, leather chairs and brightly coloured hide rugs not only add chic, but also a subtle cattle reference for any especially dedicated bull-running pilgrims. After a quick dose of those mountain views from our sleek concrete terrace I try nudge Señor Smith towards the hotel’s basement as I’ve heard that there’s a sleek, slate spa with a hammam, sauna and a shower-surrounded pool. Mr Smith, meanwhile, is harping on that the hotel offers mountain-biking and kayaking, with sports massages to kick us back into shape afterwards.
Earmarking the spa and sport for later, we wander along the river path that wends with the valley, with the terracotta-topped buildings of Pamplona in the distance. The first thing we stumble across is the bullring – ‘the third largest in the world after Madrid’s and Mexico City’s’ announces Mr Smith. He’s a fan, also, of the game ‘trivia one-upmanship’. At this wintery time of year, I’m more interested in the seemingly empty pintxos bars looming. Bulls aside, it turns out that wine and cheese are also star attractions of Pamplona, as are hanging hams in the bars.
Silky slivers of jamon Iberico and tumblers of inky Navarre red sampled, we dip into Vinoteca Murillo on the corner of Calle de San Gregorio and Plaza de San Nicolás for a suitcase-worth of larra roncal (the manchego-rivalling local cheese) and red wine. Appetites merely whetted, we’re ready for La Ribera, the mountain-facing restaurant back at Alma Pamplona.
The menu in contemporary La Ribera is in Spanish, but we can tell grilled offerings are the headline-grabbers. Memories from a gap year in South America soon resurface – funny how you never forget foreign words for meat. After Mr Smith’s sibilant and ‘hhha’-heavy attempts at speaking in tongue, we tease our tastebuds with some sizzling sea-bass and monkfish, served with a zesty tapenade, and move onto charred lamb and steak with sides of griddled zucchini and crispy French fries.
The goldfish-bowl-size G&T I was served as a sundowner in Alma Pamplona’s lounge combined with more than my share of ‘tinto’ soon mean it’s time for bed. There, we’re pleased to discover our mattress is as spacious as the dimensions of our suite. This bodes for a successful sleep, where we can both adopt whichever shape we choose – Mr Smith is a fan of ‘the diagonal’, which doesn’t fare so well in your average double.
Mini breakfast buffet (capsule granola pots, fresh breads and small-scale pastries) devoured at our table next morning (does it count as a buffet if they bring to you and you don’t have to get up and queue?) and we’re ready for a hike. The Camino de Santiago – the Way of St James pilgrimage – passes straight through the beautifully preserved old town. We dip into it with a stroll through the romantic cobbled streets and plazas, before pitching up in the gardens of Taconera Park.
Channelling Ernest himself, we linger in Café Iruña on Plaza del Castillo, scribbling in our Moleskine notebooks. After a rummage through secondhand treasures at Antiguedades Migueleiz on Avenida Roncesvalles, all that’s left on our to-do list is a quick drive up into the mountains at sunset – and we discover that the lookout over sandy-coloured landscapes was indeed too good to miss.
Bidding a final farewell to Pamplona, we aim north next for a Michelin-starred lunch in a traditional Basque house in Urdániz. Bellies bursting from El Molino, we continue the winding, hour-or-so drive through the hills to the mountain village of Urdax, famous for its sheep and Swiss-style scenery of snow-capped peaks and lush green hillsides.
Before our flight home, there’s just time to float back down to sea level for a bit of sightseeing in golden San Sebastián. Here the bayside Belle Epoque Basque beauty and its numerous pinxtos bars put up a good fight to win our affections, but our hearts belong to the land of the running bulls. You never know, we might even brave Pamplona when they’re in town.