Navarra, the Spanish region of culture and tradition

The famous pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela begins in Navarra. In many places the memories of this route have been kept alive. This can be seen in the Cathedral of Pamplona, the churches of Estella and the Monastery of Roncesvalles. Navarre was the scene of major events, such as the Battle of Roncesvalles against Charlemagne’s army. The historic town of Olite has existed since Roman times, but was important in the Middle Ages when Navarre was a kingdom. However, Navarre is especially famous for the Sanfermines festival, where bulls run straight through the city of Pamplona.


  • General
  • History
  • Top locations
  • Food and drink
  • climate
  • Bullfighting
  • Sports activities
  • Transport

Navarre, Northern Spain / Source: Mutxamel, subido por Rastrojo (D•ES), Wikimedia Commons (GFDL)


Navarre has an area of 10,391 km² and has almost 641,000 inhabitants (2016). The capital is Pamplona with almost 196,000 inhabitants (2016). Navarre borders France to the north and the Basque Country region to the west. The south borders the La Rioja region and the east borders the Aragón region.
Navarre is partly inhabited by Basques (Nafarroa is the Basque spelling). The north of the region in particular has a strong Basque character, with Basque as the official language. In the areas south of Pamplona the Basque influence is less significant.
Navarra is a small, sparsely populated area, but with great geographical diversity. This varies from the snow-capped mountain peaks in the Pyrenees to the green plains around Pamplona and the arid landscape in the south.


The earliest period

People have been living in Navarre for at least 40,000 years. The first inhabitants were the Basques, a people whose origins are unknown. It is possible that they are descended from the first inhabitants of Iberia (Cro-Magnon man). Around 1200 BC the region was inhabited by the next group of immigrants, namely the Celts from Central Europe. In the following centuries, a population of mixed Iberian-Celtic origin emerged, also referred to as the Celtiberians.
In the 1st century B.C. Navarre was conquered by the Romans. Beautiful cities arose, where Roman culture made its debut. The city of Olite, later the residence of the princes of Navarre, still has a Roman city wall. In 75 B.C. the Roman general Pompey founded the city of Pompaelo (Pamplona). Later Pamplona became the capital of the Kingdom of Navarre. In the early 5th century AD. the decline of the Roman Empire began. Navarre, like almost all of Spain, came under the rule of the Visigoths.
The death of Roland / Source: Jean Fouquet, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain) In 711, the weakened Visigothic kingdom was conquered by the Moors and in 714 they managed to occupy almost all of Navarre. In 722, Christian enclaves developed in the north and began the reconquista of Spain. The Christians expanded their territory south, often with the support of Frankish troops. Charlemagne’s Frankish forces drove the Moors out of much of Navarre in 750. The south was only liberated by Christian troops at the beginning of the 12th century. When Charles expelled the Moors from Navarre, he is said to have ordered the demolition of the city walls of Pamplona. The Navarres saw this as an attack on their independence and they took revenge in 778. In that year, Charlemagne called off an attack on Moor-occupied Zaragoza. The rearguard of his army was defeated by the Navarrese in the famous Battle of Roncesvalles. They inflicted great losses on the Franks, including the death of the Breton army commander Roland. This fact was later blown up into an epic, the Roelandslied . The battle of Roncesvalles showed that Navarre would not tolerate Frankish rule in this part of the Pyrenees.
Navarre experienced its heyday in the 11th century. It became an independent Christian kingdom in 905 under Sancho I. Sancho III the Great became master of the kingdom of Aragon (1005) and the county of Castile (1028) through marriage and inheritance. After his death in 1035, the empire fell apart again, his successors were unable to maintain it. Castile united with León in 1035. Aragon was strong enough to stand on its own two feet and Navarra’s days seemed numbered. The French claimed the area and it was assigned to the House of Champagne in 1234, without losing its independence. However, French royal authority in Navarre was weak and numerous dynasties fought for the crown. Ferdinand II of Aragon took advantage of the division and took control of the southern part of Navarre in 1512. With this, Navarra became definitively part of Spanish history. It retained the status of a separate kingdom, with great autonomy and separate law. The northern part of Navarre, above the Pyrenees, remained an independent kingdom that would later be united with France.

Modern times

For centuries, Navarre retained its special status, but this was questioned in 1700. In that year, the Habsburg Charles II died without an heir. In the subsequent War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1714), Castile, the Basque Country and Navarre gave their support to Philip V (from the French Bourbon dynasty). Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia supported Archduke Charles of Austria, who promised to restore their traditional rights. Philip V emerged victorious. He proclaimed Spain a single state in 1715 and abolished the privileges of almost all regions. The Basque Country and Navarre were allowed to retain their rights because of their loyalty.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Navarre underwent a major change. When Ferdinand VII died in 1833, a dispute arose over his successor: his brother Don Carlos or his daughter Isabella. Carlos favored absolutism and decentralization, and Isabella favored liberalism. All this was the beginning of the First Carlist War (1833-1839). The Carlists mainly received support from the Basque Country and Navarre, where there was much resistance to the centralization of the state. However, the Carlists were defeated and Navarre became a province, with limited autonomy.
In 1936, after the left won the elections, the army revolted and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) began. Due to the influence of the clergy, Navarre was one of the most conservative parts of Spain. For that reason, Navarre supported General Franco’s nationalist army. After the Civil War, Franco gave the provincial government of Navarre greater powers. In 1973 he renewed the separate law from the Middle Ages. After Franco’s death and 1975, Spain became a parliamentary monarchy.
In 1982, Navarre became an autonomous region under the name Foral Community of Navarra. Autonomy is based on formal law, which arises from the fueros (freedoms, privileges) of the region. Navarre enjoys an autonomy that is not as extensive as that of the Basque Country or Catalonia, but goes further than most other autonomous regions. For example, Navarra has its own police force and its own tax administration that collects both regional and central government taxes. Language use is also regulated in Navarre. Spanish, together with Basque, is the official language in Navarra.

Top locations

Pamplona (Iruña)

Pamplona is a city of culture and tradition and is crossed by the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. The old fortified city was built in 75 BC. founded by the Roman general Pompey. Today Pamplona is a lively university city and also the commercial and administrative center of Navarre. All of the city’s monuments can be found in the walled historic center. Pamplona is best known for the Los Sanfermines festival, where bulls are chased straight through the city.
The cloister of the Pamplona Cathedral / Source: Santiagolopezpastor, Flickr (CC BY-ND-2.0)From the old city walls you have a good overview of Pamplona. Against the city wall, in the north of the center, is the Catedral de Santa María la Real . This cathedral was a stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The cathedral was rebuilt in the Gothic style in the 14th and 15th centuries on the foundations of its 12th-century predecessor. The facade was changed in the 18th century into a mix of baroque and neoclassicism. Inside you will see beautiful choir stalls and the alabaster tomb of Charles III and his wife. The 15th-century cloister , with its beautifully decorated passageways, is a Gothic masterpiece. The Museo Diocesano is located in the refectory and the adjacent kitchen . The collection consists of church treasures, such as reliquaries, altarpieces, and wooden statues of Mary and Christ.
In the north of the center is the Museo de Navarra . Highlights in the collection include Roman mosaics, Gothic and Baroque murals and Romanesque capitals. The masterpiece is a Spanish-Arab ivory box, made in the 11th century, which appears to be inspired by Islamic motifs. The museum also features paintings from the 17th-20th centuries. Of these, the best-known painting is Goya’s Portrait of the Marquis of San Adrián . The vibrant center of Pamplona is the Plaza del Castillo , with its many terraces and cafes. The Palacio de Navarra is located on the square . This neoclassical palace was built in the 19th century and is the seat of the government of Navarre. Inside you will see Goya’s painting Portrait of Ferdinand VII , as well as portraits from the 19th and 20th centuries. In front of the palace there is a column crowned by a statue of a woman holding the fueros (privileges) of Navarre. On the southwestern side of the city is the 16th-century citadel , built during Philip II. Exhibitions are held in the powder magazine and the armory. The neat lawns feature contemporary works of art. From the bastions you have a beautiful view of the surrounding area.

Roncesvalles (Orreaga)

High on a Pyrenean pass, one of the oldest passages in these mountains, lies the village of Roncesvalles. It is an important stop on the route to Santiago. Before it became associated with the pilgrimage route, it was the place where the Basques inflicted a historic defeat on Charlemagne’s army in 778.
The most important building in Roncesvalles is the Colegiata Real . This Gothic church was built in the 13th century and is where pilgrims are welcomed after their journey through the Pyrenees. Under the canopy of the main altar you will see a statue of Mary and Child , which is venerated by pilgrims. Goldsmiths’ pieces are exhibited in the church museum . The highlight is the ‘Charlemagne chessboard’, an enamelled reliquary (14th century) with a geometric division into compartments. In the chapter house , separate from the church, is the tomb of Sancho VII the Strong (1154-1234). A stained glass window from the 20th century shows a scene from the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, in which the king of Navarre defeated the Moors in 1212.
The monument depicting Roland / Source: John Robinette, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0) A few kilometers north of the church stands the 12th-century Capilla del Espiritu Santo . Charlemagne is said to have had army commander Roland and other fallen knights buried here in 778. Nearby you will find a stone monument depicting Roland. The 12th-century French poem Roland’s Song describes how the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army was massacred by the Moors. However, the victors were not Moors but warlike Basque mountain dwellers from Navarre, who wanted to secure their independence. This is described in the 14th century in the poem El Bernardo del Carpio o La victoria de Roncesvalles . It is about an army of Basques, Navarres and Asturians who take revenge on the French who previously ventured into Spanish territory and captured Pamplona.

Estella (Lizarra)

Estella was also an important stopping point for pilgrims and therefore has a number of monuments of great cultural and artistic value. King Sancho Ramírez ensured that the pilgrimage route passed through Estella in the 11th century. Today the city is famous for its many churches, palaces and monasteries.
The beautiful portal of the Iglesia de San Miguel / Source: Miguel. (respenda), Flickr (CC BY-2.0) Estella’s main monuments are located on the outskirts of the city, on both sides of the Río Ega. The Iglesia de San Juan Bautista is located at the Plaza de los Fueros . This church has a Romanesque portal. The interior consists of a large 16th-century altarpiece depicting scenes from the life of Christ and that of Saint Bautista. To the right of the main altar is a 15th-century statue of the Madonna. Just east of the church is the Plaza de San Miguel . The Iglesia de San Miguel is located on this square . This 14th-century church deserves particular attention because of the beautiful portal on the north side. On the tympanum Christ is surrounded by the symbols of the evangelists and two unknown persons. The arch frames show all kinds of figures: angels, prophets, martyrs, and so on. Hunting scenes and apostles are depicted on the upper part of the capitals. There are two high reliefs on the lower part. On the right you see the three Marys at the Tomb, on the left you see Saint Michael slaying the dragon.
Further south is Plaza de San Martín . The Palacio de los Reyes de Navarra is located on this square . This palace was built in the 12th century for Sancho the Wise. It is the only surviving example of civil Romanesque architecture in the region. The palace has a museum with works by the local painter De Maeztu (1887-1947). Near the palace, on a hill, is the Iglesia de San Pedro de la Rúa . This 12th-century church has a Cistercian portal influenced by the Mudéjar style. The portal also has richly carved capitals of arched moldings. The cloister was largely destroyed in the 16th century when a castle opposite the church was blown up. All that remains are the beautifully decorated capitals.


About 3 km southwest of Estella is the Monasterio de Irache . This 11th-century monastery housed pilgrims and was the first to be built in the region. The monastery consists of a 12th-century Romanesque church and a Renaissance-style cloister. From 1569 to 1824 the monastery also served as a university. The wine cellars at the monastery offer thirsty pilgrims a free glass of wine.


Historic Olite was founded by the Romans and later chosen as a residence by the kings of Navarre. Part of the Roman and medieval walls are still standing. The center is a maze of steep, narrow streets with squares, churches and a former royal palace. Olite is located in the wine region of Navarra, where you will find many bodegas.
The Palacio Real / Source: Multimaniaco, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0)On the edge of the center is the Palacio Real . This immense palace looks like a fairytale castle. It was built in the early 15th century by Carlos III and gave Olite its nickname ‘the Gothic city’. The castle consists of a complex of courtyards, corridors, great halls, royal chambers and battlements. It was decorated inside with azulejos (painted tiles), painted stucco and Mudéjar style ceilings. Hanging gardens had been created behind the towers in the walls, and vines and orange trees had been planted next to the walking paths. Next to the complex is a network of underground passages, which once provided access to the palace. The palace was destroyed by fire in the 19th century, but was restored to its former glory in the 20th century. A large part of the palace is now a parador (state hotel in historical monument).
Next to the castle is the Iglesia de María la Real . This 13th century church is the former royal chapel of the monarchs of Navarre. The church has a richly decorated portal showing scenes from the lives of the Blessed Virgin and Christ. In front of the portal is an atrium with an arched vault with polygonal arches, a beautiful example of Navarrese Gothic. The interior is also interesting. Above the main altar, a beautiful 16th-century altarpiece surrounds a Gothic statue of Mary.

Food and drink

Navarra’s fertile arable land produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, such as asparagus, artichokes, cherries and peppers. In the mountains of Navarra, lamb and trout are popular. Navarre also produces cheese, some of Spain’s best cheeses come from this region. The wines from neighboring La Rioja are excellent, but the wines from Navarra are also among the best in Spain.
Most culinary specialties come from the Navarrese Pyrenees. The rivers here are full of trout, used in the dish trucha a la Navarra (trout stuffed with ham (braised in olive oil) with potatoes and lemon). Lamb is also popular in the Pyrenees. Chilindrón de cordero (savory lamb stew with potatoes and sauce made from peppers and tomatoes)
is on almost every menu . The famous idiazabal cheese / Source: BocaDorada, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0)The green, fertile meadows are the basis for various delicious cheeses. A well-known cheese from Navarre is the idiazabal . This cheese is made from sheep’s milk and has a pressed, but not cooked, rind. It has a soft, smoky taste. The cheese is produced throughout Navarre, with the exception of the Roncal valley. The queso de Roncal comes from the Roncal valley, in the Navarrese Pyrenees . This cheese is also made from sheep’s milk. It is an ivory-colored cheese, with a hard inside and hard rind. The cheese has a characteristic, slightly smoky taste.
Navarre is also known for its good wines. Spain’s best wines come from neighboring La Rioja. But Navarra is hardly inferior to this with its wines. The wines are less expensive and often just as good, with a taste and quality that approaches Rioja wines. The Navarra wine region is located in the south of the region, around the Ebro River. The town of Olite is also located in this region, where you can visit one of the bodegas and taste wine. Navarra produces red wine, white wine and rosé. The most commonly used grape variety for red wine is the tempranillo , a variety also used in La Rioja. In Navarre , tempranillo is combined with smaller amounts of cabernet sauvignon and merlot . The white wines are often made from Chardonnay and Viura . Tempranillo is also the basic grape for rosé, followed by garnacha and other variants with smaller quantities.


Navarra is characterized by the presence of various climates. The north of the region consists of the snow-capped mountain peaks of the Pyrenees. Here you will find an Atlantic rainy climate, characterized by rainfall in all seasons and moderate summers and winters. Towards the south the climate changes and temperatures become more extreme. The center of Navarra has a continental climate, with hot summers and cold winters with relatively little precipitation. The south has a semi-arid climate. This is a warm and fairly dry climate, with hot summers and cool winters. The average maximum temperature for the whole of Navarra is 13 degrees in winter and 26 degrees in summer.


Bullfighting is a ritual in which men (sometimes women) compete against an animal that is bred to be killed. Bullfighting is becoming increasingly controversial due to its cruelty. Catalonia banned it in 2012, but it is still popular in Spain. Bullfighting is rarely practiced in Northern Spain, actually only in the Basque Country region and in Pamplona, Navarra. In some places it is traditional to chase bulls through the streets to the bullring. This tradition is strongest in Pamplona, where it celebrates the annual Los Sanfermines fiesta .
The spectacular encierro, the running of the bulls / Source: Asier Solana Bermejo, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0) Los Sanfermines
The Los Sanfermines fiesta is held in honor of the patron saint of Navarra, Saint Fermín. He is revered for being the first bishop of Pamplona. The fiesta is celebrated between July 6 and 14. The most spectacular part is the encierro , which makes this fiesta unique. Bulls run through the old center of Pamplona every morning. The young men ( mozos ) dressed in white run in front of the bulls. The running of the bulls is also attended by thousands of spectators. The 840 m race, which lasts about 4 minutes, starts in the Plaza de Santo Domingo and ends in the bullring. Here the animals are killed in bullfights ( corridas ).
Los Sanfermines also consists of parades, religious ceremonies and exuberant parties. An important part is the procession of Saint Fermín . On July 7, the statue of the patron saint is carried from the town hall to the cathedral. Priests, municipal officials and residents participate in the procession. The so-called Gigantes , enormous dolls in lavish clothing , are carried in the procession . They add color to the party and are particularly popular with children. Traditional orchestras also participate. The musicians, often young people, play flutes, clarinets, bagpipes and drums.
The fact that this local celebration turned into an international event is partly thanks to Ernest Hemingway . The American writer visited Pamplona a few times around 1920 and 1950. He used this in his novel And the Sun Rises from 1923. Several places he visited are still there. In 1968, a monument was unveiled in the writer’s honor near the arena.
Paragliding in the Pyrenees / Source: Consueloternero, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

Sports activities

Navarre is the ideal region for active holidaymakers. The Navarrese Pyrenees in particular are a perfect place for active pursuits. The landscape consists of mountain peaks, rivers, valleys and vast forests. You can take beautiful walking and cycling trips in this beautiful area. The rivers of the Pyrenees are full of trout, which you can fish in spring and summer. Organized fishing excursions are very popular in this region. The Navarrese Pyrenees are also a popular destination for water sports. An enjoyable way to explore the rivers is whitewater rafting. Specialized centers organize canoeing and rafting excursions (white water rafting). The best way to view the beautiful mountain landscape is from the air. For those who want to fly like a bird, paragliding is a good choice. There are various flying schools that also rent out the necessary equipment. In winter you can also enjoy winter sports in the Pyrenees. You can go cross-country skiing and skiing around the winter sports resort of Isaba, in the Roncal valley. There are 25 km of slopes in this area.


There are daily flights from Schiphol to Pamplona Airport. These flights go (as of 2017) via Madrid, Rome, Frankfurt, Munich or London. Buses run between Pamplona Airport and central Pamplona, 9 km northwest of the airport. The fastest way to reach your destination is by taxi. You can also travel further with a rental car. There are several car rental companies at the airport.
The railway from San Sebastián to Madrid via Pamplona / Source: Elandroid, Flickr (CC BY-2.0) Train traffic in Navarra is limited, but there is a good rail connection with the rest of Spain. There is a railway line from Pamplona to Tudela in the south of the region, via Olite. There is also a railway line from San Sebastián to Madrid via Pamplona.
The bus is a convenient and economical means of transport to explore Navarra. Various bus lines connect most cities and towns. There are also connections to major cities in the rest of the country. From Pamplona buses run to Bilbao, Zaragoza and Madrid. In Navarra (as of 2017) the following places have a bus station: Pamplona, Estella, Olite, Tudela and the Roncal valley.
The car is the most practical means of transport, especially to reach the more remote areas. From Pamplona there is a highway towards Zaragoza, via Olite and Tudela. There are also highways to the east towards Huesca, north towards San Sebastián and west towards Vitoria. Estella can be reached via the highway to Logroño (La Rioja). The Navarrese Pyrenees can be reached by main roads, secondary roads and tourist routes.

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