When it came to travel, few could match Ernest Hemingway’s voracious hunger for adventure. As a result, the man is forever associated with a handful of places around the world including Paris, Africa, Key West and Cuba. But it was Spain that would inspire four novels, a play, countless pages of journalism and a handful of short stories.
To say that Ernest Hemingway was a brilliant novelist of the 20th century would suggest that he was merely a writer. While the author of timeless classics like A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea and A Moveable Feast did win a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer Prize for his literary achievements, it was his stouthearted approach to living that sustained his legendary standing long after he penned his final words.
From the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s, his most literary years, Hemingway made more than 20 trips to Spain. Now, more than half a century after his death, visitors can still experience the same charm and adventure of this great country.
Hemingway’s Spain begins in Madrid, a place he once declared “the most Spanish of all cities.” Here, a handful of Hemingway haunts still remain much the way they did during his time. Not much has changed inside Cervecería Alemana, where he mingled with matadors and where today visitors can sit at his table by the door. Restaurante Sobrino de Botin, where Hemingway spent countless days writing, serves as the setting for the final scene of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. And Museo Chicote was one of Hemingway’s favorite cocktail bars, where in the days of the Spanish Civil War, he would drink and scribble notes as war correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance.
After a glass of sherry at La Vencia, another favorite Hemingway hangout, book a room at the cozy Hostal El Aguilar in the historical, artistic center of Madrid, where in the 1920s, Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, stayed during their early trips to Spain. Or spend a night at the majestic Palace Hotel frequented by Hemingway in the 1930s, and follow in his footsteps to the cherished Prado Museum.
One of Spain’s most important traditions, and one of Hemingway’s reigning passions throughout his life, is the corrida de toros, or “the bullfight.” Hemingway witnessed countless bullfights and pursued his favorite matadors during his many trips to Spain in the 1920s, and even competed in amateur bullfighting competitions. But it was his 1932 trip to Spain that produced Death in the Afternoon, his greatest literary work dedicated to the sport.
Today, Spain’s bullfighting season generally runs from April through September, and most major cities hold weekly events in addition to festivals like San Isidro in Madrid and Feria de Abril in Seville.
San Isidro, between May and June each year, is the world’s most famous bullfighting festival. For three weeks straight, spectators will experience the ambiance of this historic carnival amid Las Ventas Arena, Spain’s largest bullfighting arena.
And while witnessing a bullfight is not for everyone, the rich history of the sport can still be appreciated. Many bullrings throughout Spain include extensive museums that chronicle the sport’s evolution through unique collections of photographs, art and artifacts. Most museums offer behind-the-scenes tours of their bullring.
For the most Hemingway of Spanish cities and adventures, head north to the Navarra region where every morning for a week in July, the streets of Pamplona’s old quarter fill with the cheers of enthusiastic spectators and a frenzy of fearless, if not desperate, runners pursued by six furious half-ton Spanish Fighting Bulls. This is the encierro, better known as the “running of the bulls,” and it’s the most popular event of Pamplona’s annual San Fermin Festival.
This weeklong street party, the most internationally renowned festival in Spain, includes fireworks, open-air concerts, parading giants and cabezudos, a variety of sports and endless hours of singing and dancing. Bullfighting is a large part of the festival too. In fact, the bulls that run in the morning take part in the afternoon bullfights held in the Plaza de Toros, Spain’s second largest bullfighting arena.
Throughout his life, Hemingway frequented Northern Spain, enjoying the raucous San Fermin Festival. In fact, the festival is central to The Sun Also Rises and brought San Fermin to the attention of most Americans. Today, the festival draws more than one million visitors each year.
But when Hemingway wasn’t mingling with matadors, he was writing. And when he wasn’t writing, the avid outdoorsman was knee-deep in the rivers of the Pyrenees—a place where the mutual influence of a mountainous landscape and the cold waters of the Irati led Hemingway to claim it was “the closest thing to heaven.” In fact, he spent many long hours fishing the river Irati alone.
In addition to breathtaking scenery disrupted by stunning geology, the Spanish Pyrenees offer anglers their choice of high-mountain lakes, remote gorges and mountain streams teeming with zebra trout and alpine brook trout. Trout waters abound throughout the region, so hiring a local guide is the best way to fully experience the nature and culture.
Non-anglers will appreciate the slower pace of Northern Spain’s mountain culture filled with picturesque valleys, historic monasteries, beautiful national parks and towering peaks. Favored by Hemingway during his fishing excursions, the charming village of Burguete is a short drive from the festivals of Pamplona.