by Don Harris | January 2010

Navarra is exceptionally beautiful -- especially to the north where it meets the high Pyrenees along the border of France. The soaring peaks, deep valleys, bucolic pastures, swift rivers and bubbling streams that flow through thick forests of oak and beech are very appealing. It is a romantically pastoral landscape with many cattle lazily grazing. We like driving the back roads to visit quaint villages of stone houses and tile roofs. Their wooden balconies are adorned with colorful geraniums.

Pamplona, the capital city, is well known for the running of the bulls, which, thanks to Ernest Hemingway, attracts swarms of people from all over the world for a week of daring and debauchery! But that is not the essence of Navarra. I find that many of the towns, castles and monasteries along the pilgrimage route stretching from France to Santiago de Compostela are evocative of a kind of spirituality which is fast disappearing. 

Puente la Reina is a wonderful eleventh century bridge which, tradition says, was built by a monk in order to help the pilgrims on their way. I found an extraordinarily moving crucifix in one of the chapels along the wayside called El Crucifijo. The scholars feel that it was the work of a pilgrim from Germany because of the exquisite carving style. This town was where converging pilgrimage routes merged into one. 

Sangüesa is another town along the pilgrimage road which, though generally not too interesting, has a remarkable portal at the church of Santa Maria La Real. It has an amazing number of detailed stone carvings of musicians, warriors, craftsmen, fighters, and scenes from the new and Old Testament. We found the depiction of the musicians playing a variety of instruments to be fascinating. 

We also enjoy visiting the imposing castle in Javier, the birthplace of the sixteenth century missionary to India and Japan name Francis Xavier. From a much earlier era is the stunning Monasterio de Leyre which was so beautifully maintained by the monks who lived there. The religious community has been there since the ninth century and their church is the first Romanesque structure in Navarra. 

We have other tastes too, as I'm sure you do, so we always enjoy returning to the Parador in Olite. It is situated within a dramatic castle in a picturesque medieval town. Sometimes we go west from there into the green rolling hills of the farm country and visit our friends at El Navarrico, who preserve some of our very favorite vegetable products. It's great to watch them wood-firing bright red piquillo peppers, which are delivered by the farmers' tractors. I think it's particularly amusing that the rejected peppers are fed to some fighting bulls who live in the area. Then there are the magnificent asparagus spears they bottle, which are tended by hand in the early spring so that the sprouting spears are protected from the sun and remain white.

Breathtaking mountains, thick forests, remarkable architecture along the pilgrimage route make Navarra a place that we return to over and over again.

Related Articles