September 19, 2020: Pamplona and Olite
With the second wave of COVID taking over Spain and an uncertain date for getting my residency renewed, I decided to set a travel goal of visiting all of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities. The Community of Navarra was just a 3.5 hour train ride from Barcelona. It is also very small, making it the perfect destination for a weekend.
Navarra is the historic homeland of the Basques. At one point, it was an independent Basque kingdom. However today, the Spanish influence has permeated Navarra and the region is split. The North of Navarra is Basque-speaking. The south is Spanish speaking and the middle is “mixed”. Most Spanish regions are unified in their history and language. I was curious to see how this dichotomy played out.
Unlike most of my trips, I managed to find a group of business school friends to travel with: Cezar, Anita, and Riya. The four of us left by train on a 7:20 AM train from Barcelona’s Sants station. We arrived in Pamplona, the capital and largest city of Navarra, at 11.
The weather was cold and cloudy, but no rain was falling…yet. After picking up a rental car at the train station (where I was the only foreigner renting all week),
Our first stop was the University of Navarra. My business school, IESE, is actually a subsidiary of the University of Navarra.
The campus has lots of beautiful green lawns. However, the buildings themselves were ugly. Just for fun, I tried to use my IESE ID card to enter the library. The guard didn’t know what to do- it appeared that he had no idea what IESE is.
We then headed into the city center- a quite lively place! We passed by a statue commemorating San Fermin, the world famous “Running With The Bulls” festival.
As Navarra is part of the Basque world, Pamplona has a strong pinxto (elaborate Basque tapas) scene. For lunch we visited Bar Gaucho, the most famous pinxto spot in town. The dishes were incredible. The highlight (and a local pinxto contest winner) was the foie gras.
In most cities, I try to visit all the attractions. Pamplona is full of them- the cathedral, history museum, and bull-ring among others. But since I was with a group- and because of the short operating hours, we instead spent some time wandering the streets of the beautiful city.
The main street- where the running with the bulls actually occurs- is lined with pinxto spots, bars, and tourist gift shops.
We did go into the cathedral, one of the better ones in Spain despite the 18th century neoclassical façade. It contains the impressive funerary monument of the last King of Navarra: Carlos III plus impressive side chapels.
In the cloister, there is a large museum that contains a full history (in Spanish). In an odd twist, the final room is decked out in millennial pink and has fake grass. A strange sight to see in a Gothic cathedral- not that different than what I experienced in Roskilde in Denmark.
After the cathedral, we checked into our hostel. It just so happened to storm heavily while we were unpacking, so we rested for an hour until it subsided.
We then got into the car to head 30 minutes south to the town of Olite. There, we got to see Navarra’s premier attraction: the Palace of Olite. This housed the kings of Navarra and is probably the most castle-y castle of all time. The turrets looked fairy-tale like and completely useless in battle.
We roamed all over the castle to take some stunning pictures.
Unfortunately the castle was unfurnished so we were left to our imaginations as to how it looked back in the 1400’s.
The castle closed around 7 and we were able to get back to Pamplona just in time for dinner! The original goal was to do a pinxto crawl to 3 of the most famous spots in town. However, it was Saturday night and PACKED so we could only get into one place. Luckily, this was one of the best pinxto spots in town. We ordered 3 of their contest winning pinxtos. Each one was a mere $3.50- an incredible bargain considering the artistry of each pinxto.
The meal was complemented with a heavy shot of pacharan- a sweet but potent Basque liquor.
We ended the evening with a night cap at Café Iruna- a place frequented by Ernest Hemingway when he lived in Pamplona. Now it is a beautiful tourist trap.
September 20, 2020: Irati
We started the day around 8:30 am. The stormy weather from yesterday had subsided, making it a perfect day to explore the Navarran Pyrenees. My friend Jose is from Navarra and recommended we visit the Irati Forest, Spain’s largest forest and Navarra’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The road to Irati wove through valleys, villages and steep canyons. The fog made it extra enchanting.
Eventually we reached the entrance to the forest and after paying a 5 euro entry fee, drove 15 minutes down a narrow 1.5 lane road. The forest was thick and reminded me of my summer camp days in northern Wisconsin.
We parked our car next to a huge reservoir that extended all the way to the French border. We then took a gorgeous 5 kilometer stroll through the beech trees. The air was perfect.
On the way back to Pamplona, we stopped for lunch in a small Basque town. There, we got garlic soup in a teeny café.
The girls had an earlier train, so with our extra time Cezar and I went to a Pamplona institution: the Martintxo Asador Sideria (cidery and steakhouse). The cavernous restaurant was completely full- very glad we made a reservation. There, we feasted on Navarran lamb-shoulder and Basque cider. We left so full!
With that, we returned the rental car and boarded the train back to Barcelona.
I absolutely loved Navarra. It has a good mix of culture and nature. I also liked that it was devoid of tourists. I probably wouldn’t recommend Pamplona for a first-time visitor to Spain outside of San Fermin, but for a returning visitor- Navarra is a perfect 2-day stop to see the real Spain.