Photo: Fotolia
Photo: Fotolia

Spain’s Navarra Province

Travel to this little-known gem via an article that recently won a bronze award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

The first time I came across them, I was stunned to see a uniformed band of three pipers and a drummer walking down a deserted street soon after sunrise. I encountered them as I went out one morning in search of an early coffee in Pamplona, the capital of Spain’s northern Navarra Province.

Every Sunday, for longer than anyone can remember, the txistularis (as the pipers are known) have been heading out from the baroque town hall here to serenade in the old quarters. This is one of many timeless aspects of life in Pamplona—as reliable as the chiming of the cathedral bell or the soft swish of a street sweeper’s broom. I lived here for over a decade and whenever I return to this lovely city to visit my daughter, Lucia, we go out on Sunday to watch the txistularis.

Photo by Mark Eveleigh
Photo by Mark Eveleigh

We also often walk along Calle Nueva. (Only in Pamplona could a road with six centuries of history be known as “New Street.”) Many of the balconies here drip with bunting in the form of the red, white, and green flag of the Basque country, and newly arrived visitors frequently jump to the erroneous conclusion that that’s where they are. Even the red, yellow, and purple of the Republican flag (emblematic of the 1936–1939 civil war) are present yet, strangely, the red and the gold of the Spanish flag are absent.

Pamplona is one of the most peaceful places in Iberia these days, yet this city, just a stone’s throw from the Basque highlands, still feels like frontier country in many ways. Perched on its impregnable ledge—which is embossed in granite with the star-shaped battlements of one of Europe’s most intact medieval citadels—it is easy to imagine the Casco Viejo (old town) in the medieval days when it was besieged by enemies.

Photo by Mark Eveleigh
Photo by Mark Eveleigh

Those days have long since passed and for 51 weeks of the year Pamplona could qualify as Spain’s most invisible provincial capital. Then, annually on July 6, a modern-day army of more than a million devotees invades this city of 200,000 inhabitants for the Fiesta of San Fermin. Pamplona takes a few long pulls at a wineskin—eventually consuming an estimated total of almost 70,000 gallons of booze during the eight-day fiesta—and turns into the hell-raising capital of the world.

Pamplona during “peacetime” rarely features in tourist itineraries, however; and, apart from the foot-sore modern-day pilgrims who pass through on the famous Camino de Santiago, the province as a whole sees few visitors. It is as if Navarra has become a victim of the fame (many would say notoriety) that is connected with the running of the bulls. Ask the locals what they think of Hemingway’s legacy and the real-life Death in the Afternoon re-runs that draw crowds of almost 20,000 to the world’s fourth-largest bullring and you risk inciting tempers: after all, Navarra has so much more to offer than just the world’s greatest party.

An hour south of Pamplona, cut off from northern Navarra by the Aragón River, you find the great desert wilderness of Bardenas Reales Natural Park.

The entire province of Navarra is considerably smaller than Death Valley National Park, yet this mountain kingdom at the foothills of the Pyrenees boasts its own spectacular version of California’s famous desert canyons. I’m sitting astride a mountain-bike, gazing from the lip of a great limestone crest across a tangle of dry barrancos, crested with wind-sculpted sandstone. While this mysterious semi-desert is barely known even to Navarrans, it became familiar to millions worldwide as the Dothraki Sea when desert scenes were filmed here in 2015 for the sixth season of Game of Thrones.

Photo by Mark Eveleigh
Photo by Mark Eveleigh

From the rocky ledge on which I perch, like Don Quixote astride my aluminum Rocinante, I can imagine armies of mounted barbarians wielding razor-edged scythes. Instead of flame-coughing dragons, however, something potentially even more terrifying frequently crosses the sky over Bardenas Reales: part of this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve serves as an air-to-ground target range for bombing practice (without explosives). In 1970 the U.S. Air Force moved here after it lost access to its El Uotia gunnery range in Libya. Over the next 15 years, Bardenas Reales became the biggest European training ground for American pilots who must have thought it did indeed look a lot like the Libyan desert as they streaked across an area that had been the peaceful wintering grounds for migrant shepherds for thousands of years. Shepherds still use this area for wintering their flocks but usually avoid the soaring temperatures of the summer months here.

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Hitting the highway in one of the world’s most culturally diverse countries.

“This area remains truly wild, and few people—even locals—ever come here,” says Stephanie Mutsaerts, as she stops her bicycle next to me. “You can often see golden eagles and Egyptian vultures riding the thermals up here.”

Photo by Mark Eveleigh
Photo by Mark Eveleigh

Stephanie left her home in Vancouver 20 years ago and now knows northern Spain better than most locals. She first fell in love with Barcelona but soon discovered the excitement of Navarra. She quit her job as an English teacher at Navarra University to dedicate herself to regional tourism—focusing not only on VIP visits to San Fermin Fiesta but also on promoting the province to travelers who are looking for something even more unpredictable than the fiesta.

Our morning ride has fostered an appetite and by the time we’ve freewheeled down the rutted tracks back to Stephanie’s car, the hot dust in my mouth is spawning desert mirages of that first lunchtime sip of Navarran wine. So, from the road back towards Pamplona, Stephanie takes a detour through the ancient town of Olite and onto a tiny country road that leads to the little village of Ujué.

“‘Ujué’ means pigeon,” says Juana María Rosauro, as she leads us to a table in Casa Urrutia, the restaurant that bears her husband’s family name. “Legend has it that two shepherds, lost in a storm, saw a pigeon flying into a cave. They went inside to shelter and found the statue of the Virgin Mary that now stands in the Church of Santa María on the hill. The village of Ujué grew around the spot.”

Photo by Mark Eveleigh
Photo by Mark Eveleigh

It’s hard to imagine today that this sleepy hamlet with fewer than 100 inhabitants was in the 12th century a fortified community of about 1,500 people that boasted one of Europe’s first universities. Juana shows me into the kitchen where her husband José Manuel Urrutia is preparing a dish that would surely have been known (although perhaps in humbler style) to the two shepherds who inadvertently founded what was one of the great spiritual and strategic centers of northern Spain a thousand years ago.

Migas is an ancient shepherd’s dish,” explains José Manuel, who started baking in his father’s shop when he was 14. Although it’s a secret family recipe, he agrees to give me the basics: “First, it must be made with the crumbs of very good bread…but the bread must be four or five days old. You fry the bread crumbs in lard with garlic, pork belly, serrano ham, mushrooms, and tomatoes.”

By the time I return to the dining room, the table is groaning over moist, delicious migas, txistorra sausages, succulent roasted peppers, and the best sourdough bread in the region. We sip full-bodied red wine that has traveled just 20 kilometers through the rolling hills from the Pagos de Araiz vineyard.

Photo by Mark Eveleigh
Photo by Mark Eveleigh

Driving homeward in a crystal-clear Spanish evening, we’re suddenly aware of what seems to be a swirling black tornado against the blushing skyline. It is a murmuration (as these mass meetings of birdlife are called) of what looks like several million starlings. They move in an ever-changing shadow above the waters of Laguna de Pitillas, shifting and swirling in a haunting aerial ballet, until they finally come to rest on the ranked lines of grapevines in such numbers that the plants sag under their weight. The avian plague seems to provide a fittingly biblical end to our day in the Navarran desert.

“It doesn’t seem logical for such a small area as Navarra to boast both a desert and a jungle,” enthuses Stephanie as Lucia and I jump into her car in Pamplona one morning.

From the city it’s about an hour’s drive through villages with names that seem to clang like the bells on the Basque oxen: Oroz-betulu, Orbaizeta, Ochagavía, then the Selva de Irati (Irati Jungle). This pristine wilderness is the second-biggest beech and fir forest in Europe (after Germany’s Black Forest) and an area of incredible beauty that glows a fiery orange in the fall. Irati is an enchanted forest haunted by foxes, wild boar, deer, and even, according to legend, a local yeti.

In the ancient Basque religion, Basajaun was a benevolent giant who roamed the forests, warning shepherds of coming storms and guarding flocks from wolves. Some experts have hypothesized that the myth of Basajaun as the great teacher who showed the local communities how to construct mills and smelt metals could, in fact, have evolved from the supposedly advanced Neanderthals who had one of their last bastions in this area. Circles of prehistoric stones still mark sacred spots on the peaks (such as the 123 monoliths at Azpegi); and in nearby Abauntz Cave, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a Neanderthal settlement that dates back 50,000 years.

Traditions die hard in the highland villages of Navarra. If you drive north alongside the crystal-clear headwaters of the Bidasoa River (where Hemingway once terrorized the trout) and into another chain of valleys with names that ring like a wind-chime—Urritzokieta, Lurriztiederra—you come to the highland village of Etxalar and what might be the world’s most unusual community of “fishermen.”

“The villagers here have been trawling with nets on the highest mountain passes for centuries,” local guide Alfonso Bermejo tells us as we gaze at the northern slopes of the Pyrenees sweeping down into France. “But rather than trawling for fish, these men are fishing for pigeons.”

Apparently the first-known recorded mention of la palomera (literally “the pigeoning”) was from a 650-year-old letter in which the villagers of Etxalar complained to the church authorities about their local padre, who was holding mass at 4 a.m. so that he’d be free to go “pigeoning” at dawn.

Photo by Mark Eveleigh
Photo by Mark Eveleigh

Even at that date the tradition had already been around for more than a thousand years, and these days the giant pigeon nets are still hoisted between the highest trees on the peaks to catch wild pigeons that have fattened up for the long migration to North Africa.

“The season is a short one—only October and November,” Bermejo explains, “but during that time as many as 100,000 pigeons fly over these passes in a single day.”

When the pigeons get close, hunters on high wooden watchtowers throw whitewashed bats which, to panicked pigeons, look fleetingly like hawks. The pigeons evade them by diving low and fast towards the tree line…and straight into the nets.

It’s hard to believe that yesterday we were dining on delicious shepherd’s breadcrumbs in a village near the desert and today we’re feasting on wild pigeon with chocolate sauce in a cozy wood-beamed asador (roasting house) in a Pyrenean village less than 20 kilometers from the Irati Jungle. We take our time over a bottle of Basque cider and by the time we emerge the afternoon mist has started to descend among the red-tiled roofs of Etxalar. It is time for us to head back down to the sunny plains of Pamplona.

The next day is Sunday, so Lucia and I wake for our traditional rendezvous with the pipers. We step out onto our balcony at sunrise and gaze down the ancient canyon of Calle Nueva. This might be late fall in Navarra, but as we wander out into the early-morning crispness we’re reassured by the knowledge that, even in the depths of a Spanish winter, the sun also rises.    

Photo by Mark Eveleigh
Photo by Mark Eveleigh

Traveler Fast Facts

If tiny Navarra (just 10,391 square kilometers) were an American state, this province in northern Spain would rank 48th in size and population, yet it is arguably Spain’s most fascinatingly diverse region. In 824 the Basque Iñigo Arista was elected king of Pamplona and the city remained Basque until it was annexed by Castile in the 16th century.

Summer temperatures climb to 30 degrees C (about 86 degrees Fahrenheit) but in winter the city occasionally sees snow. No months can be guaranteed to be rain-free but, even in the depths of winter, there are often sun-blessed days to lure you out for a pintxo (tapas) lunch on a terrace.

Pamplona Airport accommodates private jets but airline connections are limited and most people travel to Navarra via Madrid or Barcelona (four and five hours away, respectively, by train). Bilbao Airport serves many European destinations and is just two hours by bus from Pamplona.

To really get under the skin of this part of Spain, you should take time not only to soak up the atmosphere of the old town but also to explore the rural villages and valleys.

Traveler Report Card

La Perla (B+), Pamplona’s most famous five-star hotel, is perfectly located on the beautiful Plaza del Castillo. The room where Hemingway stayed was left unchanged, even during extensive renovations. Muga de Beloso (B) is a chic modern four-star hotel overlooking the Arga River in a peaceful location at the edge of the old town. For those who want to live like the locals Heart of Pamplona (A+) offers a range of beautiful self-catering apartments in the city’s historic center.

Navarra is renowned by the Spanish for its hearty country food. The vegetables—especially asparagus and peppers—grown on the sun-blessed Pamplona basin rank among the world’s finest, as does Navarran wine. One of the best ways to sample the endless variety of local produce is to dine on pintxos (as the local style of tapas is known). La Cocina de Alex Múgica (A+) is where the city’s most famous chef works his magic. Bar Gaucho (B+), while less salubrious, has won countless awards as the best of the traditional pintxo bars that date back to Hemingway days. Café Iruña (B), overlooking the main plaza, offers a hearty three courses plus wine for US$19. To sample country cuisine as you might never have had it, try Casa Urrutia in Ujué (A). Don’t miss the specialty migas and pick up some of José Manuel Urrutia’s freshly made confectionaries, such as iconic rosquillas, magdalenas, and txantxigorris.

Options range from cultural trips and visits to highland villages to mountain-biking journeys in Bardenas Reales and trekking expeditions in the magical forest of Irati.