PAMPLONA (Iruña), in the Pyrenean foothills, has long been a powerful fortress town – it takes its name from the Roman general Pompey. Also an important stop on the Camino de Santiago, it's now a prosperous city of just under 200,000. A robust, visceral place, with a rough-hewn edge and a strong streak of macho self-confidence, Pamplona makes an appealing year-round destination.
Everything you're likely to want to see lies within the compact Casco Antiguo – enticing churches, a beautiful park and the massive citadel. Centering on the Plaza del Castillo, ringed with fashionable cafés, it's a glorious jumble of buildings from all eras, where every twisting stone lane is worth exploring and intriguing old shops and bars lie concealed behind medieval shutters.
Known in Spain as the Fiestas de San Fermín, or Sanfermines, the city's legendary Running of the Bulls, lasts from midday on July 6 until midnight on July 14 (www.sanfermin.com). Nine days of riotous nonstop celebration, it features bands, parades and 24-hour dancing in the streets. The actual bull-run, or encierro, takes place each morning at 8am, when six bulls take three minutes to race a fenced-off 800m course from the Corralillos near Plaza Santo Domingo to the bullring, where they will fight that evening. In front, around and occasionally beneath the bulls run the hundreds of locals and tourists who are foolish or drunk enough to test their daring against the horns; at least one person is seriously injured or killed every year.
To secure accommodation during the fiesta, book well in advance – the town is packed to the gills, and hotels can triple their usual rates. If you arrive without a reservation, check out the turismo opposite the bullring, which fills with women letting rooms at exorbitant prices, or accept that you're going to sleep on the ramparts, in the park or plaza (along with hundreds of others), and deposit your valuables and luggage at the bus station (which also holds showers).
ATMs frequently run out of money during the festival, while banks close for the weekend. And the petty crime rate soars; cars and vans are broken into, and people sleeping outdoors are often robbed, occasionally with violence.