Military Spouses Travel Solo– Pamplona Spain

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Traveling Solo to See the Running of the Bulls

Yeah, military spouses see the world for Uncle Sam. Travel has always been one of the best military spouse benefits. Fortunately, the military creates opportunities for Military Spouses to Travel for Solo Fun. It’s the week of San Fermin in Pamplona, a.k .a . the Running of the Bulls, and it’s one of my fondest travel memories. But not for all the obvious reasons. We were stationed in Germany, and my husband was in Afghanistan. And three of my friends, fellow Army spouses, decided to go. Sure, the bull run was thrilling, the atmosphere was thick and festive, and the sangria flowed (I’ll get back to that later). But I will never forget that trip because all my friends bailed on me, and I went solo.

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Military Spouses Travel for Solo Too

Pamplona Spain 

I won’t bore you with why my friends decided not to go. To be honest, I didn’t know if I was going until I got to the airport. I sat in my car and weighed all the options:

  1. Maybe I could go next year with Steven when he gets back.
  2. Perhaps I could convince a friend to join me later in the week.
  3. Just go home. I paid less than $30 for the flight on Ryan Air. I could cancel the hotel and share the cancellation cost among my former travel companions.
  4. Or I could go. And take advantage of the solo travel opportunities traveling with the military gives me.

It was my choice to travel without my soldier or stay at home. I decided to go. The decision made it more comfortable because of all the travel I had done with my soldier. Travel is one of the many benefits of military life. And because of that, I felt empowered, unafraid— or less afraid than I would be missing out on this opportunity. And that, my friends, is why I am telling you about that time I saw the running of the bulls and not wishing I had gone.

Please read all about Finding Our Temporary Home on the Croatian Coast.

Travel in the Moment

It’s the People You Meet and the Experiences You Share

I was a little anxious during the 2-hr flight from Frankfurt. I am a military spouse who loves to travel solo. But if I’m honest, it’s because I’m still a bit angry.

Despite months of meticulous planning, it came down to money. All three of my travel companions canceled on me. As far I knew, they were together somewhere fabulous. Their heels kicked up, having a good laugh at my expense.

The latest one called yesterday, promising to pay half the hotel and rental car bills. We agreed I’d have a great time, with lots of stories to tell. Hopefully, none of them will begin with I saw this guy get gored to death.

I sat behind a group of really loud Germans obviously going to the festival. The entire plane had a festival-like atmosphere that was infectious, so I joined the party with an early morning cocktail. I could have stayed angry, but what’s the point?

drinking-rioja-out-of-sheepskin-in-pamplona-spain Military Spouses Travel Solo-- Pamplona Spain

My Credit Cards Didn’t Work.
Again

Overnight bag in hand, I strolled up to the rental car counter only to discover my debit and credit cards had no purchasing power at Europcar. Two hours later, I was worn out and still without transportation. After a very brief silent meltdown, I gathered myself and realized this wasn’t the first time I had encountered this problem in Europe.

Every once in a while, U.S. bank cards simply don’t work in Europe. American credit cards rely on a magnetic strip. However, many European banks offer “smart chip” and pin technology to process purchases. Very few U.S. banks had smart chips back then. And mine was not one of them.

A quick stop at the ATM for pocket money, and an hour later, I was sitting in my Hertz rental car. It cost a little more, but I didn’t care. I had concluded that this trip would cost a little more because I was traveling solo.

Pamplona-streets-before-bulls-are-let-go-in-pamplona-spain Military Spouses Travel Solo-- Pamplona Spain

Pamplona– Here I Come
Comillas to Pamplona

I woke up in a panic because I overslept. After all, the wakeup call was late. The Hotel Mar is a lovely boutique hotel in Comillas. My room had sea views off the balcony. And it was located less than 5 minutes from the beach and old town. I paid 63 Euro per night.

Hotel rooms in Pamplona were out of my new budget because of the Running of the Bulls. I couldn’t book anything for less than $400. Booking.com allowed me to change my reservation without a few. And now that I was traveling solo, I had to revise my budget. The drive from Comillas to Pamplona took 3-hrs, and I got to drive through the luscious Basque country of Northern Spain.

A Scenic Drive 

Taking Me Out of My Comfort Zone

I weaved up and down the jagged peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains and the thickly wooded valley floor below. Leaving the coastline, I marveled at a view of the Guggenheim Museum on the outskirts of Bilbao. The building is hard to describe. It’s a blossoming flower, a collection of tidal waves, or a glistening crown of silver ribbon.

That was the first time I had driven in a foreign country on vacation. As a black military spouse who has traveled to 60 countries, I am comfortable being uncomfortable. My husband always did the driving, but not today. I was solo. Empowered, I can remember shifting in my seat and sitting up a little taller. I was in control of my adventure. Of course, I wished I could stop to check out the museum. But stopping would have to wait for the next adventure. The bulls were waiting for me in Pamplona.

Standing Room Only in Pamplona
Running of the Bulls

First of all, the running of the bulls takes place every year from July 6 to July 14. And like most celebrations in Europe, it has its roots in a blending of the medieval fair and religious doctrine. I quickly made my way through the narrow streets because the Bull Run is the only thing that occurs on time—promptly at 8 am.

Remember– It’s About the People You Meet

Solo on Mercaderes Street?

Mercaderes Street is the most popular vantage point along the 800-meter route. The high stalls were already in place, and I found myself three rows behind them. Damn, I messed up. I had come so far and wouldn’t be able to see a damn thing.

I was resigned to glimpses of the action when I heard my name. To my surprise, the German guys I met on the plane stood on the second-floor balcony. It didn’t dawn on me later, and I didn’t even flinch. I climbed the narrow stairwell around the corner and joined my new friends, already drinking sangrias, and ready to cheer the raging bovines along their way. My ticket to ride costs me, two pitchers of sangria, later that afternoon.

The entire run lasted a good 2 minutes. Runners, then bulls, hurled themselves through the cobblestone alleyways of the old city center. And the two-legged animals were frantic. They were scaling the now barricaded storefronts and wooden blockades in front of them. The four-legged animals skidded and collided as they made the sharp turn Dead Man’s Corner. A sharp right up Estefeta Street. I’m here to watch the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.

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Party in the Streets

It’s Going to be a Long Day

The streets themselves seem to move like one giant millipede. Doused with sangria, beer, mustard, and various other liquids was fun if not sticky. I was kissed and hugged, serenaded, and twirled as I made my way through the congested streets. At 10 am, I realized this was going to be a long day. Because I had a ticket for the corridas (bullfights), and they didn’t start until 6:30 that night!

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Spanish Food is Not Like Mexican Food

A Sangria Diet

I quickly realized I wouldn’t make it long on a singular diet of sangria. I needed some food. So I made my way to one of the many street stalls offering traditional festival foods. My Spanish is not good. This is the only place traveling solo impacted me. It didn’t take long to realize Spanish food and Mexican food wasn’t the same thing. Why that surprised me, I have no idea. Nothing on the picture menu looked familiar, except the mojito. Furthermore, no one spoke enough English to help me out. Thankfully, pointing works every single time.

I might as well have closed my eyes and pointed, so I did. And as a result, I wish I could tell you what I ate. But I will never order it again. I grabbed a mojito to go and walked back to my car to take a nap.

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A Ticket to the Bullfights

There’s Little Left to the Imagination

Although I consider myself a world traveler and not just a tourist, for 77 Euro, I would have a story for many years to come. I followed the marching bands and musicians as they lead the crowds to the bullring. And while bullfighting may not be for everybody, I was curious to see it for myself.

I was not disappointed. On the contrary, I was overwhelmed by the colorful spectacle and enthusiasm shown by the spectators. I found the actual killing of the bulls to be more empathetic and less gory than I had imagined. And the elaborate costumes worn by the Matadors were bright and left very little to the imagination—which didn’t hurt either.

The Bullfights & Bud Light

Solo Travelers are Always Welcome

A bullring is divided into three tiers that circle the entire stadium. The tendido is the section closest to the ring and is the most expensive. My seat was next to this section– a stone’s throw from the trumpeters and ceremonial officials in the second section.

I sat behind a group of boisterous, chain-smoking fans from Barcelona. And they were all dressed just like me. We wore traditional white with red hip sash and a triangular “neck kerchief.” Consequently, they noticed I was alone. They offered me a can of beer they brought with them. I smiled and graciously took a mouthful of the slightly chilled liquid. I still chuckle when I think of all the delicious beers those guys could drink in Spain, and they chose Bud Light.

The third ring, or Andanada, is best described as the cheap seats. It’s open to the unshielded sun and the uproar of the rowdiest fans, known as peñas. I’m glad I splurged.

A Little Bullfighting History

A Sport for Nobles. I Must be a Peasant

A brass band, body waves, confetti tossing, and traditional songs create a din of good-natured, but exuberant fun, from beginning to end. If you do sit in the sun, don’t forget to bring a wide brim hat and a cushion for the concrete stadium seating.

The majority of the tickets are unavailable to the general public, automatically renewed each season, and passed down from generation to generation. Only 10% of the tickets are available to non-members. Make sure to buy them the day before in the box bullring offices.

Bullfighting began in the 8th century in Spain. It was once considered a “sport” for nobles. However, it has since been modified and adopted as a national pastime for everyone. Spanish bullfighting differs from its Mexican and French counterparts because they kill the bull. And to the pure delight of most animal activists, an occasion matador as well.

Fans of the art, do not want the bull to suffer. And I realize you may have an opinion about the activity. If the matador is victorious, he is cheered with a standing ovation. If not, the fans turn on him. And the cheers are replaced by boos and taunts as he exits the ring by a side door.

Fireworks in Pamplona

Safety in a Crowd

After the 4th bull, I had enough and wandered back in the central plaza. I spent the rest of the day wandering in and out of the local bars and restaurants. I bought some souvenirs, explored the churches, cathedrals, and danced with total strangers. The steel pan bands and high pitched mariachi filled the streets around me.

I danced and ate. I even danced when there was no music at all. The sun and the sangrias were starting to get to me. My car was close enough for me to visit when I needed a safe space to close my eyes. And although the streets swarmed, I always felt safe and supported. So when I needed some shade and a soft spot to relax my bum, I found it on the lawn outside of the 16th-century military citadel. The citadel rose high above the city. My seat was the perfect perch for the fireworks festival later that evening.

A Great End

You May Travel Solo, But You Are Never Alone

The firework display is a serious event. Dozens of companies compete for the honor to light up the sky over Pamplona every night during the festival. It started with military precision. BOOM! The air cracked, whizzed, and exploded in vibrant blues, reds, and silver lace for more than 40 minutes. I knew then what I know now. The military creates opportunities for solo travel and so much more. And I’ve got to take advantage of that whenever possible.

I lay on my back and stared straight up into the magnificent explosions. I could feel the warmth on my face and the rattle of the earth beneath me. And when it was over– silence. Then a thunderous clap of applause came out of the darkness all around me. And I was instantly reminded that travel without my soldier didn’t mean I was alone. The running of the bulls was an experience I’ll always remember.

I forgot how angry I had been. And I travel with military friends often– Poland, Italy, Croatia, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary and had a blast. But I’ve also traveled solo to Malta, Turkey, and Sicily too. Life as a military spouse is never boring, but it can be lonely. And now I don’t hesitate to travel alone either. I am a fierce military spouse who doesn’t have to wait for friends or the military because I can travel solo too. As a result, the plan is to take at least one or two solo trips every year.

It came as no surprise that my credit card didn’t work when I checked out in the morning. So I ended my Spanish adventure the same way it started, with a run of my own to a nearby ATM.

Don’t leave without sharing your solo adventures in the comments.

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Comments

  1. Anuradha

    That’s nice to know how amazing your trip was! It is indeed in the Solo trip we get to travel at our own pace, come out of comfort zone, and make friends! It is one of the most liberating experiences ever.

  2. Anuradha

    That’s nice to know how amazing your trip was! It is indeed in the Solo trip we get to travel at our own pace, come out of comfort zone, and make friends! It is one of the most liberating experiences ever!

  3. Anna Hammerschmidt

    I loved reading about your experience. First, I am so happy you decided to go even though your friends bailed! This is certainly a bucket list experience! Something I’ve wanted to do for years!

  4. Digitaldaybook

    Wow very interesting and informative! It’s great that you went solo because sometimes that’s the best times! Not reliant on anything but yourself!

  5. Sarah

    Good on you for going solo. I was terrified the first time but soon learnt there were loads of advantages to solo travel. We were thinking of visiting Pamplona during the running of the bulls but you’re right, the accommodation costs go sky high. Here’s to more fabulous solo trips!

  6. Renata

    I’m happy for you that you had such a great trip. I like Spain and parts of the culture – quite honestly, the whole bull thing is not my favorite part – for obvious reasons. I know it’s a tradition, but not my favorite one 😉

  7. Georgina

    I am so glad that you did go! Sometimes we need to go, out of our comfort zones to experience one of life’s best opportunities. I haven’t visited a bull fight yet but it is high on my list.

  8. Kelly

    Oh this sounds like so much fun! Ive always wanted to see running of the bulls. I travel solo 99% of the time and love it for the friends you meet. I’m glad the trip worked out for you and thank you for your spouse’s service, and yours.

  9. Wendy Lynn Lee

    What an adventure! I’ve never really wanted to see the running of the bulls, but you’ve made it sound really exciting and worth the trip. And good for you for going solo and making the best of the situation.

  10. Sue Davies

    Greta story. Glad that you went and overcame the challenges. Pretty gutsy to go on your own. Not sure I would want to go to a bullfight, but the running of the bulls is interesting.

  11. Audrey

    Good for you going solo! Clearly you are a savvy traveler and the pay off for your courage was a truly memorable trip. By the way, your writing is wonderfully descriptive. I hope you consider writing a book of travel stories some day.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      I am so happy I did. But I can’t tell you how long I thought about it. Ten or fifteen more minutes in the car and I would be telling you about how I wished I had gone.

  12. Linda (LD Holland)

    Travel certainly is a benefit – and sometimes a curse – of being a military family. But great that it gave you the confidence to travel when the urge hit you. But I am sure it was daunting to land and not have working credit card! But great that it all worked out and you got to Basque Country and saw the bulls! And the fun celebration surrounding this. A great experience in the end to keep you travelling solo!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      I was teased for days after that because I called myself a fearless explorer. My husband agreed as long as I had a credit card, lol.

  13. Jay Artale

    It would be interesting to go and see the running of the bulls but I definitely give the bullfight a miss. We went to a bar fight in Seville last year and it really disturbed me how unfair the fight was. I naïvely thought it would be the matador against the bulll but before the Matador even started interacting with the bull it was taunted And teased by trainee matadors, and the actual Matador didn’t come in until the poor bull was dizzy and frothing. I wanted to see a full fight for cultural reasons but we left after two deaths. Quite disgusted. I know I would never go again and I questioned my decision of why I even went in the first place

    1. duffelbagspouse

      I don’t blame you. I hadn’t done any research on it before I went and was shocked at all the taunting done to the bull before the matador even showed up. I am glad I went though because I can discuss it from a point of experience and not books or theory. It was a bit unnerving as an American, and although I have no desire to go ever again, I understand why the Spanish do.

  14. Ann

    You seem to have had such a great trip, and I love the fact that you are seeing this as an opportunity instead of a negative thing 🙂
    You do you!

  15. Lynda

    It was nice meeting you at the winery today. I can’t wait to dig deep into your blog for tops on where I should go when we start traveling again.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Hey Lynda, you found me. It was really nice meeting you too. I met so many nice people today, I feel blessed. Let me know if you have any questions or are interested in a personalized itinerary.

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