Pamplona is the capital of the Navarra region, and of course best known for its crazy ‘Running of the Bulls’ festival, San Fermín. When the festival is not on however, Pamplona still has a wealth of treasures to discover. Walk the old city walls and learn all about their history in the interpretation centre, then explore the ancient citadel. Another highlight is the Museo Universidad de Navarra, a contemporary art museum, housing some great masterpieces by the likes of of Antoni Tàpies, Eduardo Chillida and Pablo Picasso.
The town of Olite, to the south of Pamplona, may be small, but during the Middle Ages it was at the centre of the royal court of Navarra. What’s left of this today is the magnificent Olite Palace-Castle, once home of kings and queens and one of the most luxurious medieval castles in Europe. It is one of the most important examples of Gothic architecture in Spain and was declared a national monument in 1925. Visit in August for the Medieval festival held here.
The Natural Park of Bardenas Reales is a semi-desert area, covering 42,500 hectares, and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve due to its unique lunar-like landscape. Because of its strange clay and sandstone formations, Bardenas Reales has been used as the setting for many movies and TV shows, including Game of Thrones and the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. The best way to explore the reserve is by 4WD or on horseback.
Around one hour’s drive south of Pamplona, you’ll find the small town of Carcastillo, home to La Oliva Monastery. One of the three best-preserved monasteries in Navarra, La Oliva is still in use today and houses 26 white-robed monks who can be seen walking around the grounds and praying. Visitors can see its large church, one of the best examples of Cistercian art in Spain; the beautiful Gothic cloister; the chapter hall; and the chapel of Jesus Christ, built during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Located in the town of Estella-Lizarra, along the Camino de Santiago between Pamplona and Logroño, sits the Palace of the Navarran Kings. The only civil Romanesque building left in Navarra, it was built in 12th century during the reign of the monarch named Sancho the Wise, and is covered in intricate stone carvings. Today, it is the home of the museum of the painter Gustavo de Maeztu.
Sitting some 50 kilometres from Pamplona, the Monastery of Leyre is the most important Romanesque monument in Navarra and has more than one thousand years of history. Highlights of the visit include an 11th-century crypt, a Gothic church vault, and the porta speciosa – a stunning Romanesque portico dating back to the 12th century. Parts of the monastery are still home to a number of Benedictine monks.
Situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees, northwest of Pamplona, the Sanctuary of San Miguel de Aralar sits on top of Mount Artxueta. Built on the site of a 9th century temple, the sanctuary offers spectacular views across the mountains, as well as a beautiful Romanesque altarpiece.
For pilgrims who begin the Camino de Santiago at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, the small village of Roncesvalles is the second stop on the journey. Today, you can visit the stunning colliegate church, while the hermitage has been turned into a hostel for pilgrims to spend the night. This is also where the legendary Battle of Roncesvalles took place in the year 778AD.