The Navarra region, which sits to the northwest of Barcelona on the road to Pamplona, is small enough to drive end-to-end in a day, but you could easily spend a week looking around
From top Castle of St Xavier, known locally as Castillo de
Javier. Palacio Real, Olite, as it appears today. Entry to fortress
at Sadaba, Aragon. Exterior view of Habitacion 22 patio and tub
at Aire de Bardenas, Tudela. Aire de Bardenas own herb garden.
Sitting area, Aire de Bardenas. Austere passageway, Aire de Bardenas.
Courtyard at Aire de Bardenas. View from the dining room, Aire de
Bardenas. Gehrys Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the banks
of the river Nervión. Mediæval streets in Olite: behind these
ancient walls lie unknown Renaissance and Baroque palaces.
Hotel Aire de Bardenas
Ctra. Ejea NA125 Km 1,5
34 948 11-66-66
La Joyosa Guarda
Rúa de Medios, 23
34 948 74-13-04
Casa del Preboste
Rúa Mirapies, 8
34 948 71-22-50
Finca San Rafael
34 945 600-201
Stanley Moss is travel
editor of Lucire.
Top Bardenas Reales national park, near Tudela. Above
Palacio Real in Olite before the restoration, c. 1925. Bottom
Composite view of the city of Tudela, looking west from Aire de
Top View from room 22 at Aire de Bardenas, Tudela. Above
Minimalist breakfast at Aire de Bardenas.
DIPLOMATS CUT their deal to enter the EEC
years ago they made a brilliant group of negotiations which brought
home the richest package of subsidies of any Common Market country.
The result: an incredible burst of prosperity, which transformed
the shabby remnants of Francos legacy into a vibrant economy,
a creative hotbed, as well as the worlds largest construction
site. At one point, only Dubai had more cranes at work. Happily,
some of the wealth went to significant place
branding, a vast improvement
of the road system, and admirable infrastructure development. Spain
today is modern, connected, yet still in touch with its rich cultural
The Navarra region, which sits to the northwest
of Barcelona on the road to Pamplona, is small enough to drive end-to-end
in a day, but you could easily spend a week looking around. It stretches
all the way to the French border. Think of a letter Y, backslanted.
At the bottom point of the Y sits Zaragoza, a fine southern port
of entry to the region, home to a spiffy new airport.
There are regular, cheap flights available from
all the European capitals. An unhurried atmosphere prevails. If
you return your rental car after hours you just park it in the parking
lot, note the space number, and drop your keys and the ticket at
the drop box, no sweat. Drive 75 km northwest, to the point where
the two arms of the Y branch out and you reach the city of Tudela,
founded in the ninth century, population around 35,000. The city
enjoys a reputation as a place where Christians, Moslems and Jews
lived together peacefully for over 400 years.
Whats attracted people to Tudela in the
past has been a famous Easter pageant, baroque architecture, a mediæval
bridge over the river Ebro, old city walls and the mediæval
Jewish quarter, still intact. Its a charming, modest, quiet,
Hip people have been drawn to Tudela in the last
couple years by Aire de Bardenas, a boutique property of 22 rooms,
dramatically situated on the outskirts of town on an elevated plateau
just below a wind farm. The property sits at the edge of the Bardenas
Reales, an extensive, semi-desert-like unpopulated area with striking
geologic formations. The hotel has been featured in every major
design and architecture magazine in the world, recipient of many
awards and the darling of travel magazines. Its a minimalist
construction with container-like residence cubes interconnected
by glass-walled geometric passageways. You feel like youve
stepped into the set for a fashion shoot, or perhaps a sci-fi movie.
The very austere lodgings turn out to be surprisingly
comfortable, and Habitación 22 has the best view,
privacy, and a cast iron outdoor tub, an amazing place to just soak
at dusk and stare at turbines lazily rotating on the distant horizon.
The hotel has its own organic vegetable garden, and a well regarded
restaurant, a medium size meeting room, isolation, agreeable staff
who have seen it all owing to so much press and attention. One definitely
has the feeling of being supremely cool there, and the location
is optimal for day trips throughout Navarra. It has calm and
tranquility to recommend it, a fine lodging to come home to each
night. Might be a suitable venue for a small corporate meeting or
retreat, or a mountain biking holiday due to the flatness of the
The city of Tudela is good for one afternoon
walk, and tapas at an outdoor table in the town square, not a lot
more. The taperia, San Jaime, in the Plaza San Jaime, has good food,
reasonable prices and a lively young crowd in the evening. Include
a day trip into the Bardenas Reales as part of your itinerary: it
takes a half-day, easily navigable by good surface roads, or some
rougher unpaved routes. Long hiking paths can be found, and well-marked
bike trails. Bring drinking water.
Head 80 km to the northwest and you arrive in
the city of Logroño, capital of the Rioja wine region, at
the upper left point of the Y. While not particularly well-known
outside of Spain, Logroño is a prosperous, modern city with
a thriving night life, wonderful tapas bars, exceptional food and
outstanding wines. The citys broad boulevards fronted by 60s-style
high-rises recollect Miami or Beverly Hills, expressing a confident
and unexpectedly cosmopolitan air.
You can tour some of the higher-profile wineries
who send their vast productionthe largest in Spainall
over the world. But a visit to a smaller viñedo reveals
the process at a more human scale where the handmade aspect of winemaking
can be appreciated up close.
Consistently fine wines in Spain are made under
the brand name Contino, whose vineyards are an easy 25-minute drive
north of the city. The Contino winery is set on an alluvial plain
whose terraces slope gently west to a bend in the Ebro, a perfect
microclimate for raising grapes. The quality shows in the finished
product, result of meticulous craft devoted to intentionally low
production. Both Continos Gran Riserva and Graciano of any
vintage would make excellent bottles to take home.
On the other stem of the Y, 40 km north of Tudela,
you reach Olite, seat of the Count of Navarre in the era of Carlos
III (13871425). This mediæval town on a hill has a low
skyline dominated by the silhouette of the Palácio Real.
Built in the French Gothic style, it contains all the sumptuous
features of the best French palaces of the time. You can walk at
your own speed through a complex of rooms, gardens, moats or patios,
surrounded by high walls, a constellation of towers rising overhead,
and views of the countryside from all the ramparts.
Olite turns out to be another of those unknown
treasures you find along the road. Its narrow mediæval streets
are lined with noble houses and Renaissance and Baroque palaces.
La Joyosa Guarda, an interesting hotel renovation behind ancient
walls, tucked away on the Rúa de Medios, has modern design
and conveniences, but the rooms inexplicably do not have safes.
Strange! Everything else about this hotel is wonderful, especially
helpful staff and the advantage of a private garage.
Another big plus is the hotels kitchen:
the owner doubles as the chef, and he knows his food, only working
with local and seasonal fare, including serving his own label of
wine and olive oil. This is a restaurant worth trying and every
meal taken there was a winner.
A block from the hotel is the Casa del Preboste
restaurant. It says pizzeria on the outside, but dont let
that deter you. Walk in, go all the way through the smoky bar to
the back wall, and behind the swinging doors youll find a
sit-down restaurant which faces a wall-sized open fireplace where
meats are grilled. Definitely eat there, order beef and lamb chops,
a plate of pinchos, some fried potatoes and a bottle of the local
Rioja. The server doesnt speak English, but it doesnt
matter, youll be understood. Few tourists go to this place:
its all locals. Prices are reasonable, and the flavours gloriously
Its a jaunt of only 40 km to the northwest of Olite to intercept
Pamplona. Much has been written about this bustling city of 250,000,
and its yearly running of the bulls. Those descriptions are best
left to Papa Hemingway, and you are advised to wave hello as you
drive by, and instead head west through lush mountain valleys of
the Pyrenees, towards the coast, to Bilbao, a comfortable ride of
about an hour and a half.
Gehrys Guggenheim Museum focused attention
on a place that had lost its vigour, delivered to Bilbao a global
profile, revived tourism, turned a forgotten backwater of a million
residents on the Bay of Biscay into a happening destination filled
with groovy people.
Yet the architects grandiose statement
sits on the bank of the river Nervión like an oversize piece
of klunky reflective jewellery, an incongruous monument to the ego,
with a dysfunctional interior guaranteed to induce vertigo or acute
disorientation. Huge works by Richard Serra are displayed in a vast
hall, yet claustrophobia happens and his remarkable sculptures definitely
want more space to breathe. This Guggenheim is a must-see, and speaks
so eloquently about the time we live in, where works of art get
housed in gaudy, thin-skinned barns, and people who call themselves
artists build huge replicas of cutesy puppy dogs covered in flowers.
You can be back in Olite in time for dinner.
About 10 km north of Olite youll find
the turnoff for Sangüesa, on the banks of the River Aragon,
an historic town (population 5,000) whose origins can be traced
back to the Bronze Age, and once a traditional stopover on the ancient
pilgrims route to San Juan Compostela. Important Roman ruins
can still be visited there.
Until around 1500, this was a strategic hotpoint
in the defence of the Navarre against the adjacent kingdom of Aragon,
which lies to the west. The old quarter has some lovely classical
façades, but unless churches and convents interest you, continue
through town and follow the winding road northeast into the hills
to the castle of St Xavier, an impressive restoration with a fine
museum. Several good hotels and restaurants stand next to the castle,
and its an excellent stopover on the ride through the mountain
passes, which lead into Aragon.
Sos del rey Catolico, a resort town at the crest
of the range, has quaint walking streets and good hotels, with views
of forest and gorges, all very picturesque. You continue down the
hill headed south, passing old castles and small settlements, onto
the flats. Eventually you come to Sádaba, where a mediæval
fortification rises starkly above the landscape, visible from miles
away. Its worth a stop simply to gaze at the towering classical
proportions, and to dream of what this romantic land must have been
like in bygone days, when knights and ladies, kings and princes,
lorded over empires, now faint memories we simply dismiss with the
vastly inadequate term history.