From snowy mountains to dusty desert, the stunning landscapes of the small province of Navarra, in northern Spain, are nothing if not varied
I’m sitting on a mountain, watching a steady stream of walkers puff past and thinking – despite the possibilities of getting soaked, the probabilities of poor sleeping accommodation and the certainties of throbbing blisters – that I might be missing out on something.
These walkers are pilgrims, or peregrinos, as the Spanish call them, and they are following that most famous of paths, the Camino de Santiago, which runs from various points across Europe and ends in the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela. It’s a centuries-old pilgrimage to the supposed burial place of the bones of St James, but as the religious relevance of the journey has faded, the sense of belonging to a special group of fellow travellers has only grown.
This is what the walkers tell me, anyway, as they pause for breath on the saddle of Ortzanzurieta, the mountain that stands guard over Orreaga. That’s the Basque name for this settlement, which is little more than a chapel, a monastery, a walker’s hostel and a couple of bars. It’s better known as Roncesvalles, the site of a battle more than a thousand years ago in which Roland, champion of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, was slain by Basque tribesmen.
Roncesvalles is a peaceful place now, full of the camaraderie that marks out the pilgrims. And up above, where I’m sitting like a nodding dog, smiling at the walkers, taking in the warm afternoon sunshine, I’m adding to the sense of wellbeing. That’s because I’m the first ‘Spanish’ face the travellers have encountered since they began the long pull up the mountains from their start point in the French town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port or further away. Almost everyone asks, in French, broken Spanish, German, mostly in English: ‘Am I in Spain?’ and when I confirm this, most of them look like they could hug me.
Not that I’m being paid to act as a tour guide – I’ve just come up here to see what the small province of Navarra is like at its northern end. This former kingdom may be only 100 miles long and 80-odd wide, but its diversity of landscape, its beauty and climatic variety make it a kind of Spain in miniature.
I leave the travellers to their long journey west, heading in the opposite direction to the Salazar Valley, with its steep, wooded hills and tidy villages. The loveliest of them is Ochagavía, split by two bubbling rivers crossed by old, arched bridges. It seems like an embodiment of the Basque personality: big, solid houses, stone-faced or painted white but decked with colourful shutters and tumbling red geraniums at every window.
Austere it might appear, but these villagers know how to throw a party. I had read of the romerías, or pilgrimages, up the mountainside to the shrine of Muskilda, which take place throughout the year. But I bump into something more temporal – the annual shindig coinciding with the grape harvest. I arrive as the band strikes up and within seconds the square is alive with old couples, mums and toddlers, awkward youngsters, all dancing and cheering. The men are too busy sinking wine and patxarán, a liqueur made from sloe berries. My head the next morning tells me I should have donned my dancing shoes instead of my drinking boots.
Still, a stroll through the village later I head south, stopping to watch the vultures wheel above the yawning Arbayún gorge from the dizzying viewing platform.
I’m bypassing the regional capital, Pamplona. It’s a lovely city, with a centre full of medieval wooden houses and later, elegant stone mansions, plazas, some awesome fortifications and, of course, a pretty well-known bullring. For one week a year every July the world focuses on Pamplona when the festival of San Fermin is celebrated with the running of the bulls through the packed streets of the city. Outside San Fermin, Pamplona is a joy to visit and a gourmet’s delight – and it is, of course, a good base for exploring Navarra, especially as there’s an airport close by.
I’ve got an appointment with some holy men at the world-famous Leyre monastery, backed by woodland and enjoying an unmatched view of the tranquil reservoir lapping almost at the edge of the sacred buildings. I scrape into the beautiful old church as the light fades, just in time to hear the few ageing monks recite vespers. These Benedictines are famed for their Gregorian chants, though the efforts of those who remain fall short of those on the heavily marketed CD in the gift shop. Still, there’s no doubting the spirituality, nor the effect on the 400-strong congregation.
Next morning, with the sun on my back, I explore the extraordinary fortified hilltop village of Ujué, which sits high above a winding mountain road inviting admiring gasps from approaching outsiders. The Santuario de Santa María (a fortified church), the well-maintained walls, cobbled streets and beautiful stone houses have put Ujué firmly on the tourist map, though what most visitors clamour for are the famed sugar-coated almonds.
It’s fiesta time here too. I find myself in the middle of a raucous crowd milling around giant papier-mâché figures of folkloric heroes (and, of course, Moors and Christians).
More busy bars, fireworks and a heaving mass of onlookers overcome, I make for handsome Olite, once the Navarrese capital and home to a royal chapel, a tasteful parador hotel and a fairytale castle, turrets and all.
My southerly journey ends at Tudela, sitting proudly on the banks of the Ebro river, surrounded by vineyards and cornfields and possessor of an impressive haul of monuments, including a cathedral that seems to have been squeezed, stone by stone, in between the surrounding buildings.
Between Tudela and Olite, though, is the phenomenon I really want to see – the Bardenas Real. It’s a genuine desert, created by local climatic quirks, and you can drive, cycle or walk around its vast spaces – though you have to keep to the path. This is, after all, an army firing range and there’s a high-security prison stuck right in the middle.
Why they bother with wire and guards I don’t know, because anyone breaking out might as well break in again – there’s nowhere to go unless you’re a fan of strange rock formations and scrub vegetation. The colours of the rock, the erosion, the sense of wilderness – they all combine to make you feel like you’re on another continent, and definitely not just a few miles from the snowy Pyrenees.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel AC Ciudad de Pamplona: part of an innovative hotel chain; a brisk walk or quick taxi ride from Pamplona's old town.
Gran Hotel La Perla: Hemingway is said to have stayed at this historic but recently transformed five-star boutique hotel, right in the centre of Pamplona.
Hotel Castillo de Javier: newly renovated and the best bet in the old town of Pamplona.
Casa Burret: has two self-catering cottages, each sleeping six, in a rural location near Ochagavía.
Hotel Loizu: near Roncesvalles, stay on the top floors of this modernised mountain house in Burguete.
Hotel Hospederia de Leyre: live less frugally than the monks at this impressive hotel within a monastery. Excellent restaurant, too.
Hotel Nobles de Navarra: comfortable, well-planned conversion of an elegant townhouse in Aibar; rooms are full of character.
Hotel Beratxa: modern and convenient hotel in central Tafalla.
Parador Principe de Viana: this beautiful, restored palace in Olite has rooms set around a lovely courtyard.
La Joyosa Guarda: tastefully decorated, restored 18th-century townhouse in Olite’s historic quarter.
Hostal Pichorradicas: in the heart of Tudela’s old town, just off the Plaza Mayor, with seven arty double rooms.
WHERE TO EAT
Anttonenea: recently opened restaurant with warm atmosphere. Calle San Antón, 48, Pamplona.
Baserri: a regular winner in Pamplona’s pinchos ‘Olympics’. Calle San Nicolás, 32, Pamplona.
Bar Gaucho: parcels of smoked fish, mini-lasagnes and cream of sea urchin are just some of the morsels on offer. Calle Espoz y Mina, 4, Pamplona.
Don Pablo: a recent winner of the ‘best bar in Spain’ competition. Calle Navas del Tolosa, 19, Pamplona.
Rodero: has a tasting menu at £33 full of goodies like coconut curd and sea urchin cream. Calle Emilio Arrieta, 3, Pamplona.
Hostal Pichorradicas: in the old town of Tudela, just off the main plaza. Good local veg dishes like artichoke, cardo, and pochas de Tudela. Calle Cortadores, 11, Tudela.
Hotel Nobles de Navarra: small but interesting menu. Cuesta Zapata, 5, Aibar.