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Perhaps because it shares its borders with France, the Basque country and Aragon, the small mountainous province of Navarra has managed to absorb a little bit of all its three neighbours into its own pleasing mix.
For such a small region it also impresses in its variety and great beauty. To the north you have the high Pyrenees with their soaring peaks, deep valleys, rivers and streams. To the south the fine wine region of the Ebro valley. Westwards there stretches a landscape of green valleys, meadows and woods, whereas the countryside to the east becomes wilder as it runs right up into the Pyrenees. Navarra can even boast its own mini desert - Las Bárdenas.
The people, customs and architecture are no less diverse. There is a plethora of old towns, palaces and mansions, cathedrals and monasteries, in part a legacy of its historical importance as a great pilgrimage route on the way to Santiago de Compostela.
Gastronomy Influenced in equal measures by the cuisine of France, Aragon and the Basque country, the gastronomy of Navarra is rightly praised for its wide-ranging quality and freshness. Certainly in Navarra, traditional and “nouveau” cuisine are able to live harmoniously side-by-side to create mouth-watering dishes such as la trucha a la navarra (fried trout with ham) and menestra (made with artichokes, asparagus, green beans and peas).
Meat dishes include el cochifrit Navarro (small pieces of deep fried lamb) and the emblematic dish of la chistorra, a sausage prepared over burning coal. Feathered game, such as quail, turtledove and wood pigeon takes pride of place in Navarra.
In September, when the bird is at its fattest, quail is roasted in fig leaves. Turtledove is roasted with herbs on the grill and laced with red wine and vinegar, amongst other ingredients. The result is a feast for the taste buds.
The cheeses of Navarra are also amongst the best in the country, Roncal being a fine example. After enjoying such delights, why not wash all it down with Pacharan, a special liqueur of bilberries and anise.
History Due to its geographical position, Navarra has traditionally been swayed between the influence of Spain and France. Part of old Navarra, for example, is now in present day France. By the 11th century, the Kingdom was a heartland of Christian territory, but having successfully resisted the Moorish invaders, it eventually lost its independence when it became an appendage of the French crown (1284-1316) by the marriage of Philip IV to the Heiress of Navarra.
In 1479 Ferdinand of Aragon annexed Spanish Navarra whilst French Navarra went to Catherine of Foix. The province’s brief golden age came with Carlos III the Noble, who managed to reign in harmony with France, Castille and Aragon.
By 1515, however, following the conquest of Pamplona, it had been swallowed up by the Crown of Castille, though it managed to retain its own regional law code and institutions.
Fiestas Undoubtedly the most emblematic celebration and world famous event in Navarra is the festival of San Fermín, which takes place every year from the 6th to the 14th of July. For eight heady days, the streets of Pamplona come alive with the running of the bulls. Every morning, courageous (or fool hardy, depending on your point of view) young men run in front of the bulls to make for a unique spectacle. Unlike bull fighting proper, here it is the animals that have the upper hand. Anyone can join in, though they better be fast.
Celebrations are not just about the bulls, though. The city itself is taken over by non-stop and wild dancing, merriment and parades. Not to be missed if at all possible. Handicrafts Navarrese craftsmanship is a combination of time-honoured traditions and techniques. Examples of this can be seen in the making of wooden objects, such as chests and "kaikus", and in the production of the famous leather wine bottles. Nevertheless, present-day designs can always be found in the constantly updated works of potters and tapestry makers.
Monuments Being strategically situated on the Pilgrims route to Santiago has blessed Navarra with many fine religious buildings, not least of which the Monasterio de San Salvador de Leyre. This largely Romanesque church had fallen into disrepair for over a century, but in the 1950’s Benedictine monks set about restoring it to its original glory.
The town of Puente de la Reina (Queens Bridge) stands at the meeting point of two main Spanish routes and is a delightful place to visit. The bridge that gave its name to the place is perhaps the finest example of its kind in Spain.
Estella is not too far off and is another fine town with many beautiful and well-preserved medieval monuments worth exploring, such as the church of Santa Maria Real. Activities Taking part in the San Fermín festivities (Pamplona) is an unforgettable event.
The encierro (or the running of the bulls) however, takes place to a lesser extent in a number of other towns. Some of the best are to be experienced in Tudela (July 24-28) and Estella (First week in August).
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