Guide to Navarra
Navarra’s greatest claim to fame is that its capital city is host to one of the world’s best known (and most hazardous) festivals. The San Fermin fiesta entices dare devils from across the globe to risk life and limb in the annual running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona.
It’s an event which fired the imagination of American journalist and author Ernest Hemingway who lost his heart to this little-known corner of Spain back in the 1920s. Successive generations of Hemingway fans have since been drawn to this ancient medieval kingdom to savour the culture, cuisine and special beauty of a region which has been immortalised in some of his best-loved novels including For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises.
Navarra’s location as the gateway to France has given it great strategic importance since Roman times.
It may not figure on the list of Spain’s favourite package holiday destinations but Navarra has much to offer history buffs, lovers of the great outdoors and connoisseurs of fine food and wine.
What and where is Navarra?
It’s a land which has been inhabited by the fiercely independent, and totally unique, Basque people for thousands of years. In medieval times it was a powerful, independent kingdom ruling almost all of Christian Spain and all of the Basque territories on both sides of the Pyrenees. These days, Navarra is a separate autonomous region from its Western neighbour the Basque Country (Pais Vasco). But it still retains many obvious traces of its Basque heritage including the strange language of Euskera – still spoken by many people in the region – and a greater degree of independence from central government control than most of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions.
The famous Roncesvalles Pass through the French and Navarrese Pyrenees has proved a godsend through the ages for everyone from Roman foot soldiers and pious pilgrims to solitary shepherds and smugglers.
Roncesvalles is the main starting point in Spain for one of the world’s best-known walks – the Santiago Way which for more than 1,000 years has been leading pilgrims to the holy shrine of St James in the Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela. Over the centuries various monasteries, inns and humble lodging houses have sprung up along the ‘Way of St James’, all designed to ease the journey for weary travellers determined to reach the alleged final resting place of one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. The Augustine monastery at Roncesvalles still offers 21st-century pilgrims a place of prayer and a cheap bed for the night, nearly ten centuries after its foundation.
Navarra is a land for mountain lovers
The Navarrese Pyrenees lure ‘off the beaten track’ travellers with picture postcard mountain villages, wonderful walking territory and the largest and oldest Beech forest in Europe (the Irati Forest where Hemingway went fly fishing for trout). Many foreign tourists make a beeline for the Pyrenean village of Burguete to enjoy the traditional dishes of vegetable soup and freshly caught trout stuffed with ham, described in mouthwatering detail in the Sun Also Rises.
Navarra has no fewer than 50 natural reserves. Most outstanding are the Reserva Integral de Lizardoia and Parque Natural de Senorio de Bertiz, offering great possibilities for hiking, climbing, fishing. It is an ideal place if you want to spend green holidays in Spain.
The region’s top tourist attraction is, of course, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona which takes place during the week-long fiesta honouring the city’s patron saint St Fermin, from July 6th-14th.
Even when it’s not awash with bulls and bold-hearted young blades Pamplona is still well worth a visit for anyone interested in Navarra’s glorious past. The city boasts a wealth of monumental buildings including the magnificent 14th-century cathedral – one of Spain’s most important religious buildings – which houses the tombs of the 18th century Spanish King Charles III and his Queen Eleonora.
There are also beautiful towns to visit such as Artajona, surrounded by medieval walls, Estella, Olite, formerly seats of Navarra’s Kings and Tudela and Roncesvalles which are also worth a visit.
Another very peculiar folkloristic attraction is the Navarrese Carnivals with their typical Zanpantzarrak.