Navarraâ€™s beauty is captivating. The multitude of glorious vistas from the resplendent, snow capped Pyrenean peaks in the north through the river laced, lush green pastures and rolling foothills of the centre down to the arid flatlands of the Ebro valley in the south makes this probably the most beautiful province in Spain. This former kingdom is one of the under explored jewels of this emotive country.
The whole region is one of outstanding natural beauty with a widely varied topography from the cooler uplands where the snowy peaks tower over pine forests covered slopes and awesome rugged canyons or pristine valleys with terraced vineyards surrounding picturesque ancient villages. In the south sun drenched mountains overlook valleys supporting old garnacha vines and prolific market gardens irrigated by the Ebro, Argo and AragÃ³n rivers.
It was only with the arrival of the Romans around 100BC that Navarra started to be separated from Basque influence and become a separate entity. There are many traces of the Roman occupation during the early centuries AD, not least in Pamplona and further south at Funes where a stone wine vat and remains of one of their old wine cellars have been unearthed. After 1119 when the Moors were pushed south, Rey Don Sancho the Great expanded his kingdom, but was then variously under the influence of France, Catalonia and AragÃ³n and at one time the kingdoms stretched from Bordeaux to Naples. When AragÃ³n and Castile were unified by the marriage of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II and Isabella, in the 15th century the consolidation of Spain as one nation began. Navarra resisted fiercely any attempt to include it until 1515, but from that date it became part of the new Spain and the official language became pure Spanish (Castillian).
Navarraâ€™s northern boundary forms part of central northern Spainâ€™s border with France to the east of Guipuzcoa on the Bay of Biscay. To the east is AragÃ³n but itâ€™s the proximity to the Basque Country on which most discussion centres. The centuries of cultural exchange have led to a significant Basque influence in Navarra, especially the northwest, and many Basques would prefer it to be part of their region. However, the staunchly independent Navarrines are determined to retain their unique status as a â€˜Communidad Foralâ€™, an accolade that entitles the autonomous government a special status for tax collecting on behalf of the Central Government, not something lightly granted.
They are a warm and friendly people though one could be forgiven for doubting this when they bundle themselves up against the freezing winter winds blowing south from the Pyrenees. They reflect the delightful ambience of their province and an ingrained confidence of those from an influential and very independent region. Navarra has a significant importance for the Pilgrimsâ€™ Route to Santiago de Compostella in Galicia and is reflected widely across the region starting at the border and Augustinian Abbey at Roncesvalles with its 9th century church built by Charlemagne. It descends through Pamplona city to Puente la Reina past the Monastery at Irache near Estella on to Viana on the border with La Rioja.
There are few places where one can eat better than in Navarra, not least because of an abundance of market garden produce, whether fresh vegetables or fruit, and lovely cheeses. They take pride in the local beef, which is noted for being tender and with little muscular fat, and their juicy lamb, let alone the copious amounts of seafood from the Bilbao market.
Freshly harvested, tender Tudela Artichokes, fresh Garlic or succulent White Asparagus [some Green Asparagus is also grown here] from March to June: Lodosaâ€™s lusciously sweet Red Peppers in September and October or artisan Roncal and Idiazabal Cheeses, from the milk of a local breed of small Cantabrian mountain sheep called Latxa: these are just some of the many ingredients. In season one can enjoy salads from the wide-ranging choice of lettuce, tomatoes, celery, cucumber, onions, peppers and other vegetables fresh from the fields.
Originally a local dish, Menestra de Verduras ideally is made from fresh vegetables [de la temporada] like artichokes, onions, garlic, peas, green beans and asparagus and lightly boiled before mixing in a pan to be gently heated in olive oil before serving. A simple, but tricky to make local dish is Guajada, a sort of yoghurt cum junket cooked with a hot stone, which may be eaten plain as a savoury, or with fruit, honey or sugar for a dessert; it should be eaten at room temperature. There are also many fruits both soft and hard, so itâ€™s not difficult to conceive an interesting and varied menu as is amply demonstrated across the province at several splendid high-class restaurants. In Pamplona, Puente de la Reina, Tafalla, Olite and Tudela, they all serve a selection of local and international cooking.
Wildlife having no understanding of national and provincial boundaries, the flora and fauna of the Pyrenees are the natural life in Navarra supplemented by the tail end of the Cantabrian mountains and wide expanses of almost deserted countryside that is Navarra. Naturalists and Ornithologists will find much to reward their explorations, while sturdy hikers will find the trails very rewarding and some good mountain walking. Imperial Eagles, Vultures and Hawks soar over the northern hills and mountains while deer, boar, brown bears and smaller mammals graze the mountainsides.
Climatically the variations are extensive with seriously sub zero temperatures and heavy rains in the north at altitudes from 2,000 metres [6,150 feet] down to 500m [1,535 ft] at Pamplona and 250m [767 ft] at Tudela where the temperatures in summer are very warm and rainfall low. Overall, while winters can be very fierce the summers are normally gentle and pleasantly warm for 3 to 4 months.
Some find them offensive, but in the wider landscapes of this country they are less intrusive, and several extensive wind farms lining the horizons are being installed to take advantage of the frequent and strong westerly and northerly winds. Just as with the construction of many dams to conserve water resources and create hydroelectric schemes across Spain 50 years ago, it is clear the nation is now adopting wind power to contribute to their future power supply, not least in this mountainous region. And with good reason, because at its peak the dams system provided 30 per cent of electricity and water.
The Bull Running Festival, San FermÃ¬n in Pamplona, and the Pilgrimsâ€™ route apart, Navarra remains comparatively unexplored. Yet communications are good with flights from Pamplona to Madrid and motorway and rail connections to San Sebastian, Vitoria, Bilbao, Zaragoza, Barcelona and Madrid.
Pamplona abounds with stylish hotels, as does the charming and historical town of Olite with its historical Parador. Several of these hotels have good restaurants with the best example in Pamplona being the Europa that carries a Michelin star. Ernest Hemingwayâ€™s attachment to Pamplona was not solely based on his love of the Corrida. However with its few comfortable rooms perhaps MesÃ³n de Peregrino at Puente la Reina to the south of Pamplona is the most original and attractive of all. Here one can eat inside by a blazing log fire and surrounded by tasteful decorations of the hunt, or by the pool outside either under cover or al fresco.