This past July, I finally returned to explore the rest of Spain.  My only other time in this fantastic country was back in my college backpacking days when I spent a few days in Barcelona.  This time, I was going to hit all the major hot spots, but actually, the original inspiration for this destination was experiencing, first-hand, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.  Back in January, when I started my research, I stumbled upon a website that offered balcony rentals for the bull run and VIP packages.  One look at the view from the opening ceremonies balcony, and I was sold!  The best balconies, a top hotel in Old Town Pamplona, AND the profits from the week all went to fund philanthropic activities in Peru.  Too good to be true??  I thought so!  But everything was as advertised and more!  If you ever want to experience THIS:

you must check out Mark Regouby and Pamplona Balconies.

While Pamplona was the original inspiration, it actually was only one of many stops on our fantastic driving tour that included Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, Rhonda, Costa del Sol, Granada, Toledo, Pamplona, and La Rioja wine region.  

Highlights of the trip:  

Cordoba - You really only need a quick day trip to explore the must-see site: Mesquita.  Fantastic moorish architecture!  Warning, watch out for gypsies!!  One of our memorable stories from the trip was trying to find parking in Cordoba, getting help from a good samaritan, only to realize said good samaritan was holding a diaperless baby and was probably going to empty out our car while we toured the city.


Seville - One of the few European cities in which I could imagine myself living.  Cute, quaint, quiet, lovely.  Highlight of the city: Seville Bike Tour -  cheap way to tour more of the city AND get a nice breeze on a hot day.  Must see: Alcazar, flamenco dance.

Alhambra in Granada - Amazing mudejar architecture!  Breathtaking, picture postcard gardens!

Pamplona - Imagine what you would get when you combine Mardi Gras and Preakness infield....that's the San Fermin festival in Pamplona.  We arrived the night before the Txupinazo - Opening Ceremonies and wandered around the city like little girls, pretending to be bulls running down Calle Estafeta into the bull ring.  Alas, we had no idea what we were going to witness over the next few days - the crudest of behaviors that come along with excessive alcohol consumption: women lifted up in a crowd to expose themselves and public urination everywhere (that smell is still seared in my brain).  We heeded the warning of our organizer to arrive early to our balcony on opening ceremonies morning.  Already a crowd had started to gather and the sangria, flour, mustard, whatever was being thrown.  By noon, when the mayor made the announcement, rockets were fired, and scarves were wrapped around necks, the crowd was packed like sardines in the square in front of town hall.  Looking from our balcony five floors above, it was like observing a live physics inertia experiment, as one person's shove became a wave of movement.  And the noise!! That day, I lost the battle and my new white dress became a victim of someone's jumbo glass of sangria.

The next day, we got up early to make our way to "Dead Man's Corner" by 6:30am, where our 2nd floor balcony was awaiting our arrival.  Once the streets had been cleaned and the drunks had been rounded up from the course, the bulls were let loose at 8am.  To say we saw the bulls for 30 seconds may be overstating the facts.  I think we saw people panicking for 30 seconds, running around the corner, but only saw the bulls for 10 seconds.
Drunk Round Up

10 Seconds of Bulls on Dead Man's Corner
For the rest of the day, we did whatever we could to avoid the unshowered drunks, many of whom slept in parks and on urine soaked streets over night, if they slept at all.  That evening, we made our way to the bull ring to experience our first bull fight.  My friend had shown me photos and videos, so I thought I was prepared for the blood.  The introduction of the toreros (matadors), bandarillas, and picadores, was rich with tradition.  The "pep bands" in the audience were a fun surprise!  When the first bull fight commenced, I was trying my best to embrace the cultural aspect of the event because without that approach, it would just appear to be cruel.  For the most part, I was impressed with the structure of the fight and the talent exhibited by one matador in particular.  Nothing could have prepared me, though, for the picador spearing the bull for the first time or for the final death of the bull.  Then, there was the ear that was cut off as a trophy to one matador.  Ew!!  In the end, I'm glad I went and "checked that box"!  That's what adventure is all about - sometimes it's a one time event, and other times it's a lifelong repeated experience.  Now I possess the knowledge to discuss all three stages of a spanish bull fight.  Crossing my fingers that question is somewhere in the Trivial Pursuit box!

La Rioja - To complete our trip, we reached for the opposite spectrum of sophistication, going from drunken chaos to classy wine tasting in the La Rioja wine region.  Stopping to explore the castle in Olite and the alleyways of Laguardia, we ended up in the very small town of Abalos.  See my review of the B&B here.  We had the opportunity to take a private tour of the environmentally friendly Baigorri bodega (winery) and Marques de Riscal's historical winery next to a Frank Ghery designed hotel.