The Pyrenees

AREAS OF THE PYRENEES

The Pyrenees rise in the north of Navarre, forming a landscape of evergreen valleys which spread to the east. The high mountains become less extreme as they approach the Cantabrian Sea, just like the climate. The landscape attracts travellers from the five continents who seek a return to the essence of rural life, to enjoy the beautiful traditional architecture and the culture, and to savour the rich and creative gastronomy, as well as to discover the traces of the rich history stemming from this strategic border location.

Rural architecture is integrated into this enchanting environment, from the country houses on the Atlantic watershed to the compact concentrations of narrow cobbled streets in the east. Nature, water, men, history, mythology, customs, gastronomy, sounds and silence...everything fuses together in the Navarre Pyrenees.

The altitude and climate variations create three distinct areas:

The Eastern Pyrenees

Villanueva de Aezkoa

The highest altitudes of the region are found here and the climate is more extreme in winter. The mountains share a border with France along a 163 kilometre stretch.

To the east is the Roncal Valley, a land of shepherds and river raftsmen known, amongst other things, for its renowned DO Roncal cheese. In the village of Roncal - which gives the valley its name - the tenor Julián Gayarre was born, and the town of Burgui is home to the Museo de la Almadía or River Rafting Museum, celebrating the log boats which traversed rivers from the north of Navarre to Zaragoza and Tortosa.

This valley leads into the Belagua glacial valley, a paradise for hikers, mountaineers and, in winter, fans of cross-country skiing. Amongst its high peaks is the Mesa de los Tres Reyes (the Table of the Three Kings), which at 2,444 metres is the roof of Navarre. To the north is the Larra Nature Reserve, known for its limestone karst landscape and as the site of the ancestral “Tribute of the Three Cows” ceremony.

The gorges of the Pyrenees are also unique, and are known in Navarre as foces. The Lumbier gorge, with walls of up to 150 metres, and the 6 kilometre-long Arbaiun gorge, with height differences of up to 300 metres, are a haven for vultures, including bearded vultures, otters and roe deer.

The adjoining Salazar valley is famous for its cobbled villages with their steep roofs designed to withstand the cold winters in a valley used to the snow. Its most emblematic town is Ochagavía, the picture postcard of the Pyrenees.

From here you have access to the Irati Forest, one of the greatest natural treasures of the Navarre Pyrenees, and at 17,000 hectares one of the largest beech forests in Europe.  A network of paths crosses the heart of the forest where the peaceful Irabia reservoir can be found.

The forest is also accessible from the Aezkoa valley where you can enjoy the charm of the raised granaries, a symbol of the valley which has remained intact for centuries. Irati is also the site of the 18th-century Orbaitzeta munitions factory. Mountain paths lead to summits such as Urkulu - this peak holds the ruins of a Roman tower and it is the legendary burial site of Pyrene, the beauty who gave the Pyrenees their name.

Next to this valley, Luzaide/Valcarlos is the gateway to the Camino de Santiago. The main landmark here is the mythical Collegiate Church of Roncesvalles, a group of 12th-century buildings noted for their beautiful church, cloisters and chapter house.

Forests of different species cover the Arce and Erro valleys and the Quinto Real massif, located near the Eugi reservoir. These large protected areas are home to roe and red deer and wild boar. The stirring animal calls can be heard in autumn through the fog, the soft rain and the thick forest. 

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The Atlantic Pyrenees

Embalses de Leurtza

This north-western area of evergreen valleys and lush forests is also known as the Navarra Húmeda. Located at the western limit of the Pyrenees, its peaks become gradually lower the nearer they are to the Cantabrian Sea.

The Belate mountain pass leads into the Baztan valley, the land of noblemen and indianos (Spanish emigrants returned from America with their fortunes), where the climate is temperate, the meadows green and the forests vast. A place where the mist plays with the hills and the scattered country houses. Walking towards the heart of the valley you discover picturesque settlements with medieval palaces, such as in Arraioz or Irurita. The majestic air and the echo of past emigrations can be sensed in the streets of Gartzain, Elbete, Arizkun or the capital Elizondo, in the casas de indianos. The passion for rural sports such as pelota, the great respect for traditions, the love of Basque (the regional language) and the connection to farming and cattle breeding are all apparent in this valley.

Next to the border, Urdazubi/Urdax and Zugarramurdi are famous for their beautiful caves, such as the stalactite caves of Ikaburu in Urdazubi/Urdax, and those at Zugarramurdi which are famous for the Basque witch trials of 1610.

Following the course of the Bidasoa river leads to the Señorío de Bertiz Natural Park. With more than 2,000 hectares of Atlantic forest and a botanic garden housing plants from across the world, it is one of the most popular destinations in Navarre. In the area known as Malerreka, Ituren and Zubieta are famous for their ancestral carnivals. Here you can imagine what life was like in the Late Middle Ages as you contemplate defences such as the Tower of Donamaria, as well as enjoying the charm and tranquillity of a mountain lake in the Leurtza reservoirs.

A visit to the Cinco Villas or Bortziriak region awaits before the Pyrenees reach their end point. Oak, chestnut, ferns and meadows grazed by livestock form a landscape scattered with country houses and settlements such as Etxalar, a village which owes its fame to the peculiar method of hunting passing pigeons with nets during autumn, and to its evocative landscaped cemetery full of monuments. In Bera it is worth visiting the houses along the street which joins the village to the neighbourhood of Alzate, or taking in Itzea, the house of Baroja which was home to the famous writer Pío Baroja and his family.

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The Aralar and Urbasa sierra and the Ultzama valley

Sierra de Urbasa

The green environment of the Pyrenees extends to the south towards the villages of Basaburua and the Vía Verde del Plazaola zone, a beautiful route which connects Mugiro and Lekunberri with Leitza and the Gipuzkoan town of Andoain. From Lekunberrithe Aralar sierra is accessible, a dolmen-strewn wilderness which is a paradise for walkers, as well as the site of legends and the Sanctuary of San Miguel in Excelsis. This temple has more than a thousand years of history and guards a Romanesque altarpiece considered a key work of medieval European imagery.

The Urbasa-Andia Natural Park can be seen from the extraordinary San Miguel viewpoint. This massif is formed by two karst plateaus filled with potholes and an important aquifer which gives rise to the Arteta spring and to the spectacular Urederra spring head.

Approaching Pamplona, you can’t visit the beautiful Ultzama valley without trying the famous cuajada (curd cheese) of the region and discovering the thousand-year-old Orgi oakwood forest which spans eighty hectares, and which is the only testament to the oakwood forests which abounded in the wet valleys of the north of Navarre. The forest contains accessible and easy trails.

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One day hikes

The following are suggestions for one day hikes which take in the main towns, landscapes, monuments and essential features of each of these areas:

1.- Roncal and Salazar
2.- Irati- Roncesvalles- Aezkoa- Eugi
3.- Bertiz Baztan Urdax and Zugarramurdi
4.- Aralar, Leitzalarrea and Malerreka
5.- Urbasa Andía

 

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