You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing that ever happens in Pamplona is the running of the bulls through the streets during the weeklong Festival of San Fermin each July. But Pamplona is one of several exciting cities in the northeast corner of Spain that have just as much to offer as the better known southern cities.
San Sebastian, an easy hour’s drive north of Pamplona, is one of the most popular holiday resorts for Spaniards but is less known to overseas travelers. In 2016, that will change when San Sebastian becomes a European Capital of Culture, alerting the outside world to its many attractions. Beyond its wonderful beach curving around the Bahia de La Concha is the historic Old Town with ancient churches and the Museo San Telmo. If you want to find out about the Basque culture of this part of Spain, this museum, set in an old monastery, is an absorbing delight.
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An hour west along the coast is Bilbao, the largest Basque city, with its wealth of museums. The most notable is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, looking just as futuristic and striking now as it did when it opened in 1997. It concentrates on modern art with work by artists including Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jeff Koons, but it also displays the work of Basque artists. Notable too is the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, dating from 1908, with works from Goya, El Greco, Gauguin, Cezanne, Francis Bacon and more.
A two-hour drive through the dramatic, mountainous Parque Natural Aizkorri-Aratz takes you back to Pamplona, capital of the Navarre region. Founded in Roman times, it is as bustling and buzzing as any modern Spanish city, with cafes and tapas bars serving Basque food. It has medieval walls, a vast main plaza, an impressive Gothic cathedral, a fascinating old town, churches and museums, including the must-see Museo de Navarra. Avoid the bulls, and feast instead on the culture.
European Capitals of Culture
In 1983, Melina Mercouri, a Greek minister of culture and former actress, came up with the idea of designating one European city to be the City of Culture each year. Now they’re called Capitals of Culture, and two cities share the honor. Start planning your travels, as the cities put on their best face with new museums, special exhibitions and one-off events.
2015: It’s not too late to visit Mons in Belgium or Pilsen in the Czech Republic (known for the beer Pilsner Urquell).
2016: Sharing duties with San Sebastian will be Wroclaw in Poland, recently voted one of the world’s best cities to live in.
2017: The Cultural Capitals will be Denmark’s second city, Aarhus, and Paphos on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
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