Navarra borders the Eastern Pyrenees, which formulates the separation from France. This region is often associated and confused with the Basque Country, although there are similarities in language and terrain. Its landscape ranges from deep forests, torrential rivers, and green meadows allowing nature to put on a real show each season from the spring thaw to the winter wonderland.
The most important of these routes in the old kingdom of Navarre is the ‘Camino de Santiago’ (The Way of St James), which has left its indelible mark on the customs and heritage of these lands.
Here are the best places to visit in Navarra.
Castillo de Javier, Javier
The small village of Javier is considered a sacred place for believers and is situated a mere 5 miles from Zaragoza (Saragossa) in the center sector of Navarre.
Each March, the ‘Javierada’ pilgrimage takes place beginning in Pamplona with thousands walking to Javier. The Castillo de Javier is the final destination of this trek. They present their personal intentions and petitions to the Patron Saint of Navarre, San Francisco Javier (St Francis Xavier).
San Francisco Javier was born here in 1506 and was an initiator of the Order of Jesuits. The castle now belongs to the Jesuits with a portion of it used as a college.
The formation began as a fortress in 10th century by the Moors to protect their borders. The property was expanded in the 12th and 13th and by the end of the 15th century the palace was complete.
Originally, it served as a family residence for several leading noble families. However, it was partially destroyed in 1516 by a massive fire and its ownership and restoration project became that of Francisco Javier’s father.
It is now a place of worship and as a museum open to visitors after major archaeological restoration work.
In the Santo Christo Chapel, a 16th century altarpiece in alabaster represents the “Adoration of the Magi” and the15th century wooden carving of Christ on the cross.
The walls are adorned with murals with the maximum piece being the “Dance of Death”. There are many important Spanish painting collections from the 15th to 20th centuries that are located here as well as a number of historic documents.
Cathedral de Santa María la Real, Pamplona
Pamplona is located on the snow-capped foothills of the Pyrenees Range and was brought to the attention of thousands by writer Ernest Hemingway. He introduced it as the place to be during its summertime Fiesta de San Fermín and run with the bulls through its winding streets.
Fortified by medieval walls which have been preserved, Pamplona was founded by Roman ‘Pompey the Great’ and its name was derived from him. The Visigoths and then, the Muslims took reign of the city for a brief period.
Pamplona’s 15th century Gothic Cathedral de Santa María la Real stands inside the city walls amid a dark thicket of narrow streets.
The neoclassical facade was designed by Ventura Rodríguez in 1783. Recently, archaeologists concluded by their excavations of the church revealed that two other churches were home to this site with one dating to the 1st century BC.
The immense interior is equally impressive. The central nave contains the tomb of 15th-century King Carlos III of Navarra with the mausoleum crafted in alabaster.
The Gothic cloister contains outstanding element presents intricate sculptural decorations. The ‘Precious Door’ illustrates a complete sculptural story of the Virgin Mary’s life and offers access through the former canons’ dormitory and kitchen.
This area houses the Museo Diocesano which exhibits pieces of religious art including paintings, sculptures, and some fine Gothic wood carvings.
Cuevas de Zugarramurdi, Zugarramurdi
One day each year Zugarramurdi is overflowing with visitors to celebrate the summer solstice at a cave.
The La Cueva de las Brujas (the Witches’ Cave) is located within the village of Zugarramurdi touching the western portion of Navarre next to the border of France.
This is no average summer solstice festival, as it observes the alleged witches that used the cave for their rituals and as a hiding place during the Spanish Inquisition.
At that time as in many regions of Spain, the inhabitants of Zuarramurdi were living in fear. Any “pagan rituals” performed would be subjected to punishment or death. Many people were hunted down as witches or anti-Christian during the Spanish Inquisition.
Even heresy could find a person charged as being a witch, so they kept a low profile and prayed that their lives would be spared.
Many of them were burnt alive during the Basque witch trials during 1609-1611.
The summer event is known as ‘Aquelarre’ (witches coven) and has a mystical connotation to some people who attend but for many it is a just an excuse to party. However, La Cueva de las Brujas is open to visitors during the remaining and much tranquil 364 days of the year in Zugarramurdi.
Monasterio de San Salvador de Leyre, Yesa
Located approximately 25 miles from Pamplona confidently situated at the foothills of the Sierra de Leyre’s southern range is the Monasterio de San Salvador de Leyre the (Monastery of Leire).
The privileged location of the monastery immediately bestows an atmosphere filled with the serenity that calms one’s spirit. Within the structure’s walls and tranquil natural surroundings it is easy for the visitor to reflect and meditate.
The original abbey was founded in the 11th century but the other structures date from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The chapel was converted into a pantheon under the orders of King Sancho III as a burial place for the Kings of Navarra. By the 19th century, it was abandoned and in disrepair but later restored. Excavation of the bones reveled no fewer than ten kings, seven queens and two princes from Navarra, which were exhumed and boxed in 1915. However, many of the other remains found are unmarked and unknown of their origins.
The church itself is of mixed styles but preserves much simplicity. The 12th-century portal is filled with Romanesque scenes of the Last Judgement. There are sculptures of interesting demons and beasts, Jonah and the whale and some lifelike prowling lions. Benedict monks inhabited the monastery and visitors can hear them singing Gregorian chants during mass from above.
A portion of the property also houses a hotel and restaurant.
Real Fabrica de Municiones de Orbaitzeta, Orbaitzeta
The Real Fabrica de Municiones de Orbaitzeta (Royal Arms Factory of Orbaitzeta) was founded in 1784. It previously housed the old iron works built in 1432. Queen Blanche of Navarre authorized to exploit the wealth of iron, silver and lead in the valley.
However, under the Royal Order of Carlos III, it was replaced in part, to stop the suffering from exhaustion and depletion of the forest. It was set up for manufacturing ammunition and is considered one of the finest examples of industrial architecture.
The Factory Orbaitzeta was actually a complete village in this small town in the Pyrenees. It hid the factory as the entire Royal Factory is created as three different levels.
The top level contains inhabitants’ homes, surveillance services around the square, a church and on the other side the barracks with a palace in its center, thus making a complete village.
The second tier held the deposits of ores, coal mines and the homes of miners and the third level contained the actual ammunition factory in which workers refine and reverberate furnaces for melting bronze.
The French occupied and destroyed this during the War of Independence. The Factory Orbaitzeta complex has been progressively deteriorating since its closing in 1873.
All the same, the visitor can still grasp some its dependencies and view its churches, palace and portions of the former working factory. Various buildings of the village are preserved and the restoration project in progress aims to restore the factory to its former glory.