Navarre(Navarra in Spanish, Nafarroa in Euskara) is marked by history and appears to still question its identity. For some it is an integral part of the Basque Country, for others, a country unto itself. Seat of a once powerful kingdom at the turn of the Middle Ages that encompassed the entire Basque Country and more, this autonomous community of Spain is proud of its individuality. As the Spanish gateway to the famous Chemin St- Jacques de Compostela, it has always been subject to external influences that have shaped its identity. The northern valleys have evolved with the Pyrenees and the strong presence of Basque culture. Further south, the mountains give way to vast plains dotted with fortified villages, medieval castles and monasteries where the Castilian influence is prominent. Between the two, the capital of Pamplona is the industrial and political center of Navarre.
Winding roads brushing up against mountain passes leading to the mountainous area of northern Navarre. Located on the south side of the Pyrenees, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pic of Annie, Northern Navarre consists of several narrow gorges and valleys filled with dense forests, offering opportunities for discovery and exceptional adventures. Each of these valleys proudly preserves their identity and traditions, strongly influenced by Basque culture. One finds beautifully preserved villages, extravagant carnivals, and local delicacies.
The Bidasoa Valley is the westernmost and most industrialized of the Navarre valleys. Easily accessible from the coast, it is filled with pretty villages like Lesaka, Arantza and Doneztebe. The area is famous for its trout, a featured dish in most local restaurants. The green Batzan Valley is a land of shepherds and a stop for pilgrims en route to St Jacques de Compostela. Lulled by a mild oceanic climate, the region contains many lovely villages with typically Navarran architecture. Its inhabitants also continue ancient traditions through a large number of cultural events. One can find dozens of prehistoric sites with stone tombs and cromlechs. The town of Elizondo has beautiful houses bearing coats of arms . Up the valley to the north you can find quiet mountain hamlets such as the boroughs of Urdazubi and Zugarramurdi, known for their traditional culinary offerings. Not far from Zugarramurdi is the Cave of witches. This series of caves carved into the limestone once housed the incantations of those ultimately charged and convicted of witchcraft by the Spanish Inquisition.
The Recesvalles Valley, the most legendary of the Pyrenean valleys, is an important step on the road to Compostela and is very popular with tourists. Once through the reception center of Roncesvalles (a set of buildings dedicated to pilgrims and tourists), one can explore a variety of charming villages such as Auritz, Zubiri and Irotz. The Irati Valley is the most rugged and offers many hiking opportunities. From the village of Orbaitzeta, one can explore the beautiful forest of Iraty. Nearby is the old weapons factory of Orbaitzeta and the Azpegi dolmens. A little further south, one can explore the majestic Lumbier cayon on foot.
Salazar Valley Valley is one of the most enjoyable to explore. It is a paradise for hikers with magnificent gorges carved by the river into limestone cliffs. A succession of small villages with lovely architecture inhabit the banks of the Salazar river. The village of Ochagavía is the most picturesque, and considered to be one of the most beautiful villages of Navarre. This valley is also a true gourmet destination renowned for its specialties prepared with veal or lamb, trout or mushrooms. The Roncal Valley is the most easterly of all Navarre valleys. It is famous for its traditions, delicious gastronomy and its rugged natural surroundings. From north to south, along the river Esca, there are seven magnificent villages with cobblestone streets, filled with tightly spaced authentic farmhouses. The most interesting of these mountain villages are Isaba and Roncal. A passage through the Roncal Valley would not be complete without sampling of one of the local sheep cheeses, considered by many to be some of the best in Spain.
PAMPLONA AND SURROUNDING
The city of Pamplona (Iruña in Basque) is located in a large shell-shaped depression surrounded by mountains. Pamplona-Iruña, as it is known, is a proud and vibrant city, marked by history and providing a genuine link between the different parts of Navarre. Its surroundings are dotted with various stops on the path to Saint Jacques de Compostela. The northern region has strong contingent of Basque-speakers in villages set at the feet of the beautiful Sierras.
Pamplona is both Basque and Spanish, as evidenced by bilingual street names in the city. But it is above all Navarran. The city is known worldwide for the holiday celebrations of San Fermin which take place over 14 days in early July, particularly because of its encierros (the running of the bulls). The charming historic center of Pamplona, dominated by the towers of the cathedral, show vestiges of a glorious medieval past. Plaza del Castillo, the central point of the city, is a lovely large pedestrian square lined with arcaded buildings and restaurant-bars where popular events are often organized. One should take note of shells lining some of the city’s streets, marking the path to Santiago de Compostela.
The surroundings of Pamplona have a wealth of religious monuments and medieval towns, many of which are steps on the way to Santiago de Compostela. One of these villages is Puente la Reina which owes its development to the passage of pilgrims. Now more focused on agriculture, the village still welcomes pilgrims who must cross the beautiful six-arched Romanesque bridge that gave the village its name. A little further east, the town of Estella was once an important stop on the way to Compostela and one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. Many buildings that reflect its glorious past are still standing, such as the former palace of the kings of Navarre and the San Miguel church, with its magnificent Romanesque portal. Not far from Estella, several monasteries on the way to Compostela can be explored, such as Iranzu or Irache.
The mountains north of Pamplona form the heart of Basque-speaking Navarre. Located at the foot of towering mountain ranges, several villages such as Alsasua, Uharte-Arakil and Lekunberri display their Basqueness without restraint. The area is relatively isolated and rarely frequented by tourists. These is ranch land, populated by shepherds and flocks, surrounded by lush greenery. Hiking in the region’s sierras gives one a chance to meet the shepherds and taste the famous Idiazabal cheese. Located at 1,133 meters above sea level, the shrine of San Miguel de Aralar is accessible from the village of Lekunberri and provides a magnificent view of the surrounding sierras.
South of the city of Pamplona, mountainous terrain gives way to small hills and golden plains. It is a region with a Mediterranean climate where the Castilian influence is still quite strong. Magnificent castles and fortified villages reflect the long history of Navarre. On the fertile banks of the Ebro basin stands one of the only deserts in Europe, the spectacular Bardenas Reales.
The area located around the city of Taffala is a land of fortresses and castles built by the Navarrese kings over the centuries. The castle of the kings of Navarre, located in the small town of Olite, is worth a detour for its beautiful architecture. Nearby, the town of Ujué is a lovely medieval town with narrow streets, hidden on the top of a plateau. Its fortress/sanctuary, located at the center of the village, has superb views of the Pyrenees in the north and the plains of the Ribera opening towards the south. Northeast of Tafalla, the fortress village of Artajona is one of the most beautiful medieval fortified towns of Navarre, and majestically overlooks the surrounding plain. The region is also known for its vineyards, especially in the vicinity of the small town of San Martin de Unx. Interestingly, the area is now equipped with a large number of wind turbines that mark the landscape and constitute one of Europe’s largest wind farms.
The extreme south of Navarre on the banks of the Ebro is characterized by strange and unusual landscapes. One can explore the Bardenas Reales Natural Park,a semi -desert natural region with ravines, deep gorges, jagged cliffs and plains made of clay. Designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, the park has very unique flora and fauna, closer to what one might find in an African desert. The park is divided into three distinct zones. The most spectacular, the Bardena Blanca, consists of dry ravines, grasslands with sparse vegetation, and spectacular rugged hills with surprising shapes. One can drive along a marked path despite the presence of a NATO Air Force shooting range. The Bardena Negra is formed of red clay and is much more fertile. It is a grazing area for shepherds who settled there with their flocks in winter. Finally, El Plano consists of plateaus currently used for agriculture.
Tudela is the second city of Navarre and the capital of the Ribera. Truly Spanish, it is not a Basque town. Founded by the Arabs and reconquered by the Navarro-Aragonese kings in 1119, it held a strategic position along the Ebro. Tudela had been an important cultural centre where Arabs, Christians and Jews lived side by side for over 400 years. Its original town center still bears the traces, in particular its cathedral erected on the ruins of an ancient mosque. The surrounding villages are mostly agricultural; their orchards and vegetable crops are famous throughout Spain.