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Navarre ~ history and heritage

Northern Spain with so much to offer

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Alava - vineyard
Street scene at fiesta time
  The thing about Navarre is that virtually nobody visits it by chance. With much its northern border running along the crests of the Pyrenees, and the only passing tourists tending to be those taking the short no-tolls route through France to southern Spain via Bordeaux and Saragossa, few visitors find themselves in Navarre by accident.
    Those who deliberately seek out Navarre as a travel destination are rarely disappointed. Not only is it one of Spain's historic regions - once a kingdom, now an "autonomous community", it also has plenty of stunning landscapes and areas of natural heritage, havens for those looking for history, wildlife and interesting – even exotic – places to visit.


Old Pamplona circa 1850. The painting shows the cathedral,the city walls  and the river, as well as the hills behind. Today the modern city stretches well beyond the historic centre. Public domain
     It was Hemingway who brought Pamplona, Navarre's historic capital city, to the attention of the outside world. His first novel, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, was inspired by the San Fermín Fiesta which he discovered when he first came to Pamplona in 1923, on the recommendation of Gertrude Stein. Hemingway fell in love with Pamplona and visited the city no less than nine times, the last visit being in 1961. Many have followed in Hemingway's steps, including Orson Welles and John Dos Passos  Today the city is proud of its Hemingway heritage, and visitors can follow a Hemingway trail.
    Standing  on a hilltop in a loop of the river Arga, the historic centre of  Pamplona, also known as Iruña in Basque,  is surrounded in part by old city walls dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries, after Navarre was incorporated into the kingdom of Castile. On the north edge of the old city stands the cathedral which, like many in Spain, is of mixed styles. Behind the impressive baroque facade is a fifteenth century gothic interior and a very fine 13th century cloister with delicate vaulting and richly sculpted doorways.
     Navarre has a long and complex history, and the Museum of Navarre, housed in a 16th century building, contains a good collection of art and artefacts from prehistoric to modern times. Another must-see attraction in Pamplona is the Monumento al Encierro, a lifesize bronze sculpture celebrating the city's most famous event, the San Firmin Fiesta  (6th - 14th July each year) whose bull runs attract visitors from round the world. Yet there is much more to see and discover in Navarre than just Pamplona.

Olite and the Bardenas Reales

The royal palace at Olite Navarre.
Not far south of Pamplona lie two of Spain's (so many) hidden gems, the first a small town, the second a unique area of outstanding natural beauty.
    Olite, which most travellers just pass by, is one of the most attractive and interesting small towns in Spain. Passed by not just by motorists but by the ravages of recent history too, Olite is a delightful small town built at the foot of a magnificent medieval fortress, the Royal Palace of the Kings of Navarre. The thirteenth century palace fell into disrepair in from the seventeenth century onwards, but was extensively renovated back to its original glory during the mid twentieth century, and  deserves more than the two stars it gets in the Michelin guide. The walkways around its ramparts offer magnificent views over the roofs of the old town below, and the surrounding countryside, while exhibits within the palace explain how it was restored.
Bardenas Reales
Desert landscape in the Bardenas Reales, Navarre.
    Next to the palace stands the beautiful 13th century church of  Santa María la Real, with its fine gothic sculpture and a large and impressive  sixteenth century gilt retable (altar screen) with paintings of Flemish and German inspiration.
   Fifty kilometres south of Olite lie the spectacular Bardenas Reales , a unique area of semi-desert classed as a World Biosphere Reserve.  Anyone waking up from a long sleep in the heart of the reserve would be forgiven for imagining they were in Arizona or central Asia, such  are the unexpected landscapes of the Bardenas. The heart of the area is relatively small , and  a 25 km unpaved road runs round the centre, linking the most interesting geological formations - and there are plenty of them.

Elsewhere in Navarre

The Belagua valley near Roncesvalles.
Outside the Pamplona urban area, Navarre, like the larger regions of inland Spain, is sparsely populated. The region's second city, Tudela, has a population of 32,000, and only a handful of other towns have more than 10,000.
.   The north of Navarre is mountainous, an area of uplands known as the Basque mountains, which make up the western end of the Pyrenees.  The region's highest point is the summit of the Mesa de los Tres Reyes (Table of the Three Kings), at the point where Navarre meets Aragon and France. The summit can be reached on foot in the summer months, but it is a good climb up from the Refuge de Linza, located on the Aragonese side.  The whole area abounds in hiking trails, the best-known of which is the Navarre section of the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage trail, which enters Spain over the Roncevaux Pass from Saint Jean Pied de Port. The pass, at an elevation of over 1000m, was the site of the historic battle in the year 778 where the forces of
Bardenas Reales
Uiue is one of many historic small towns in Navarre.
Charlemagne were defeated by an army of Basques as they returned north. This epic event gave rise to great works of medieval literature, notable the Chanson de Roland in French and Orlando Furioso in Italian.  The Santiago Trail crosses Navarre from Roncesvalles, via Pamplona,  to the border with Rioja.
    Anyone looking for a spectacular but easy walk could do no better than to visit the Foz de Lumbier, just north of the A21 motorway between Pamplona and Jaca; the hiking / cycling trail at Foz de Lumbier is a flat Via verde running through a narrow limestone canyon which is home to a large colony of vultures.
    The southern half of Navarre is a fairly dry area, dotted with small historic villages and vineyards. Among the many places worth visiting are Puente la Reina, where the Compostella Trail crosses the river Arga on a six arched medieval hump-backed bridge. Close to the bridge is the church of Santiago, with a remarkable 12th century sculped portico.
   The nearby town of  Artajona has a historic centre circled by remarably renovated  medieval fortifications, and is just one of many hill towns that is worth a visit. Throughout this part of Navarre, there are vineyards producing some rather good wine which - not having the prestige name of neighbouring Rioja - offer very good value for money.
    While not a hill town, another small town worth visiting is Sanguesa, in the east of Navarre, famous for its Sant Maria la Real pilgrimage church, with  its large finely sculpted romanesque portal,  and also for the magnificent nearby 10th century Castillo de Javier, birthplace of St Francis Xavier, a well preserved medieval castle which has been renovated not just on the outside, but inside too.
Other pages of interest : - Andalucia - Extremadura -  Valencia Undiscovered Spain - The coasts of SpainTravel in Spain  -  Food and eating in Spain  -  Driving in Spain  -  Spanish motorway map

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Getting to the Navarre:
By car via the southwest corner of France (A10 from Paris) via Bordeaux and Bayonne or Roncesvalles
By ferry: Brittany ferries operate direct ferries from Portsmouth and Plymouth to Bilbao, two hours' drive from Pamplona.
Fly to Navarre:  Ryanair (2023) has flights  from London Stansted and Charleroi to Biarritz France), an hour and a half's drive from Pamplona.

Foz de Lumbier
The Foz de Lumbier, offers a spectacular hiking trail along a long abandoned railway line.

Puente la Reina
Finely carved 12th century romanesque portal of the Santiago church in Puente la Reina

Navarre's vineyards produce some great wines

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Except  photo of Belagua valley by Mercedezunzu

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