Navarra is much more than a certain fiesta famous for the running of the bulls (that’s you, Sanfermines). This semi-autonomous frontier region was the last of the great Iberian kingdoms to join the union of states that became the Spain we know today, remaining formally independent until 1812. The legacy of this turbulent past is a fascinating history that complements Navarra’s wonderful countryside and stonking culinary tradition.
For those hoping to explore Navarra in depth, we would recommend hiring a car and striking out alone: the roads are excellent (and rather quiet) in this region, even for nervous foreign drivers. A good option would be to use the province’s charming and fairly central capital city, Pamplona, as a base for day trips. For nature lovers, there are a good number of rustic casas rurales (simple country hotels) further out into the countryside.
This is about as far away from the concrete costas as you can get: Gusto Guides‘ 10 things to do in Navarra (below) feature witches, isolated monasteries and lush nature reserves in the middle of nada.
1. Olite: A mere 42km from Pamplona, this sleepy little town is first featured in records from the 7th century. The importance of the Navarra aristocracy is reflected in the magnificent Palacio Real de Navarra del Siglo XIII (13th century Royal Palace of Navarra) also known, and only slightly less regally, as ‘The castle’. Sadly, much of the interior was destroyed by fire during the Peninsular War but, along with Olite’s atmospheric old town, this remains one of the must-sees for tourism in Navarra.
2. Ulzama Valley: Navarra’s countryside is full of sleepy valleys where time has almost stood still. One of our personal favourites is Ulzama, 20km form Pamplona. Hemmed in by gentle hills, Spring is an ideal time to enjoy the technicolor green scenery punctuated with the odd (very happy) cow or sheep. We would especially recommend trying cheese and local delicacy cuajada from this area.
3. Zugarramurdi: This northernmost part of Navarra has always been the land of legends, some quite dark. This area, 80km to the North of Pamplona, was the focus of a frenzied investigation by the Spanish Inquisition. The reason? Witches. More specifically, witches that used to meet up in a spooky cave (where else?) just outside the tiny hamlet of Zugarramurdi. Whether there was any truth to the stories, nobody really knows, but 6 poor women were burned at the stake and the little village, even 400 years later, is still a hotspot for tourism in Navarra. Well worth a visit, but make sure you check out the opening hours in advance.
4. Bardenas Reales: A semi-desert natural park and designated UNESCO biosphere reserve, Bardenas Reales is located the south of Navarra, in an area known to locals as La Ribera close to the border with Aragon. A great place for fans of mountain biking, horse riding and rambling, the park’s lunar landscape is almost unique in this part of the world. This arid scenery is home to eagles, vultures, foxes and wildcats as well as a few fairly wild legends about bandit Sanchicorrota, whose favorite trick was to put his horse’s shoes on backwards so as to throw anyone pursuing him. If you are feeling less adventurous, the park can be crossed by car and there are ample places to stop off en route and enjoy the scenery.
5. Señorío de Bertiz: A natural park made up of beech and oak woodland just 42km from Pamplona. King Carlos III decided in 1392 that this was such a good-looking wood that it warranted special protection, and to this day the area is spoilt rotten by both the Navarra government and a small army of local volunteers. Hunting and fishing are popular in this area, and there is a visitor centre, extensive network of nature trails and picnic area onsite.
6. Roncesvalles: The most popular route for the Camino de Santiago passes through Navarra’s atmospheric Roncesvalles, a real treat for history buffs. It was in this village that Charlemagne was defeated while trying to beat a hasty retreat back to France after the sacking of Pamplona in 778AD, as told in medieval French epic poem The Song of Roland. At an elevation of 900m in the Pyrenees, the little settlement is home to a spectacular gothic church, museum (with beautiful religious art and artefacts, including ‘Charlemagne’s chess set’) and former pilgrim’s hospital.
7. Monastery of Leyre: Religion has played an important part in the history and society of Navarra, and nowhere is this more visible than in the 9th-century monastery of Leyre. In a stunning mountainside position 50km to the East of Pamplona, the building is noted for its many Romanic features (including its well-preserved 11th century crypt) as well as being the resting place of the Kings of Navarra in centuries past. Visitors also have the chance to attend a mass with Gregorian chant, courtesy of the small number of monks who still live in the adjacent monastery. There is also a 2* hotel and horse riding facilities onsite.
8. Land of wines: Less well known than neighbouring La Rioja, Navarra nevertheless has a long tradition of wine production. One of the best-known vineyards on an international level is Julián Chivite, which has been producing the good stuff since 1647. Most Navarran wines come from the southern part of the province, where conditions are more favorable for growing grapes than in the often cold and soggy North. Many of the wineries, including Chivite, offer guided tours, and over recent years, much of the tourism in Navarra has begun to focus on the excellent gastronomy of the area.
9. Sierra de Urbasa: Another of Navarra’s natural wonders, the beech woods of the Sierra de Urbasa cover up to 70% of this natural park, which was formed millions of years ago when two tectonic plates collided. The higher parts of the Sierra reach an altitude of 1000m, and above the tree line the mountains are dominates by shepherds and their flocks. Try Idiazabal sheep’s milk cheeses from this area.
10. Navarran Pyrenees: In Navarra, the Pyrenees are more like beefy hills than the hardcore mountains that they become further to the East, but the scenic beauty of the area is well worth a visit. One good area to start with is the Selva de Irati, with its impressive pine forests and special habitat for rare birds. Further south, there are waterfalls at Arbayun and Lumbier whose vertical walls have been worn away over thousands of years. Also keep an eye out for the vultures who frequent this region.
Written by Iñigo Antolín