Brace yourselves- this is going to be long and possibly too full of enthusiasm for all the wonderful things we saw…. but here goes…..
We met our Northern Spain Travel guide around 4pm on Saturday afternoon, overnight bags at the ready. We were about to begin a portion of the Kingdoms of the North tour territory. Our first stop was Javier, a hamlet on the border between Navarre and Aragon …consisting mainly of a partially ruined castle, a chapel or two, and a restaurant all surrounded by rolling, green, country side. The claim to fame of this community is that it was the birth place of St. Francis Xavier in 1506. He became one of the founders of the Jesuit community. What had been a tiny chapel back in the day is now a much larger chapel that was opened in 1901. It is still pretty modest and has none of the decorations lavished in gold stolen from the colonies in South America that one sees in so many Spanish churches.
I was pottering around on my own, taking photos and enjoying the stillness when I heard myself being summoned by a casually dressed man close to the altar “Señora” he said, making beckoning signs that I should approach. I thought I was probably going to be reprimanded for being in the wrong place or taking photos when I shouldn’t or some other transgression. But no, he wanted me to stand next to him, turn around and look at the rose window over the entrance door. Having established that my Spanish was not up to snuff he rattled on in very good English to tell me that the window was a gift to the chapel from Notre Dame in Paris and that most people stick their noses into the chapel, take a quick look around but never look up behind them to see the window.
The conversation went on from there …. he himself was a Jesuit priest and had worked in India for about 40 years. He was full of interesting stories – both of the life of St. Francis and of his own. I was attracted by his relaxed personality, his sense of humour, his wealth of history and anecdotes. Finally he said he had to leave to take mass in a local church – off he went, still in what looked almost like casual gardening clothes. I was very taken with him and his attitude to life – if I lived close by I’d go to hear his sermons on a Sunday morning!
Our romantic getaway in Navarra and Aragon took us driving toward the Pyrenees. We drove on to Sos del Rey Catolico. The approach to the town is up a steep, windy, mountain road, twisting and turning until eventually the town appears perched on the tippy top of the mountain – a totally mediaeval town of windy, narrow, cobbled streets, some so steep that they were built as stairs. we went to the tower, the only remains of the once-long-ago fortress, some of us huffing and puffing as we went, but the view from there was worth it – old, terra cotta roof tiles on higgledy piggledy roofs and, in the distance, the mountains and the snow capped high Pyrenees beyond. Fabulous.
Our way back down through the town included a stop in an ancient bar (wine for some, paxaran for me) before we returned to the car and drove on to Uncastillo, a journey across scrubby, craggy, uplands passing rows of hilltop wind turbines which have an eery quality of their own, especially in the light of early dusk. Finally down into the valley of the Luesia and, as darkness fell, into the ancient town of Uncastillo. The “road” to our hotel was barely wide enough for our small SUV to pass through. The last few yards were on foot.
The hotel was in an ancient building dating back to the 18th century but furnished with the best of comforts and in understated elegance. It was lovely, quiet, very comfortable. By the time we arrived it was 9.30pm and we were in need of food. The owners called their buddies in a local restaurant and all was arranged for us. A walk along darkened, cobbled streets flanked by buildings from the 13, 14, 15 centuries and into a welcoming upstairs room in an ancient inn. What a perfect day this had been….
Our hotel with the balcony of our room over the entrance door view from our balcony. We slept in great comfort in the silence of the town. Breakfast at 9am by a cozy fire. After breakfast we made our way through more tiny cobbled streets to the church of St. Martin which is now the information office. There we were invited into the church in total darkness. We were guided to seats and waited for action. Slowly and mysteriously a video and sound show started – projected into the apse of the church ahead of us – the history of the church, of the town, of the surrounding areas. From time to time different areas of the church were floodlit – golden altars, ancient manuscripts, old bronze bells, ancient organ etc. It was all very well done.
At the end we were taken on a guided tour of what was in fact a museum of church artefacts housed in the ancient church. Some of the pieces were old and primitive, others were newer (16th century??) and gaudy. All were interesting. Once that tour was completed and we had had a chance to just wander around inside the church on our own, we joined a larger group with the same guide and set off on a tour of the town. The guide spoke Spanish only but we managed to follow much of what he had to say and we had the NST team closeby to translate. There was no major history in the town but many small details regarding architecture, daily life over the centuries, etc. Definitely worth it all.
Then on to our surprise lunch spot with a stop en route at yet one more hill top village with fortress ruins and ancient church. This village had been modernized to a large extent, alas, and the bar where we stopped for coffee/beer late morning was definitely in a 50s time warp. Historic in its own way when you stop to think that the 50s were 70 years ago!! Our lunch destination was in a nature reserve about 8km down a gravel road. The “restaurant” was a sort of glorified snack bar surrounded by a large, tree shaded, parking lot. The building had glass walls on three sides and was furnished with picnic benches and plastic chairs!
This was quite a contrast to all we had seen thus far, and was definitely not mediaeval!! we were the only people there which was surprising as it was a lovely sunny day and ideal for being outdoors in the reserve. The owners attributed the lack of clientele to the fact that the elections were on and people were staying home to vote. The food turned out to be superb. Freshly cooked meat and fish, fresh crisp salads. A perfect meal, eaten at our picnic table with an occasional dog coming to visit us. After lunch we walked to the river a few yards away – deep natural swimming pools and shallow water falls surrounded by craggy cliffs. Very attractive and inviting. As it was so warm and sunny we paused there for a while, just soaking in the sun and the sound of the water.
But that was not the end of our weekend adventure. On the way back to Pamplona we stopped in Lumbier and walked along a disused, now paved, railway track that ran through a deep narrow gorge along the river bank. There were quite a few people there but the place never felt crowded and it was great to listen to the bird song echoing through the gorge, and watch the eagles and kites soaring overhead.
And so ended the day. We drove back to Pamplona. At our request our guide dropped us off at the perimeter of the pedestrianised centre and we walked back to the apartment along more cobbled, but definitely wider, streets. No medieval houses but 18th and 19th century buildings and a couple of urban palaces (now government offices) on the street where we live. Sherry and spicy crackers rounded out the day.
Thank you Northern Spain Travel for a fabulous trip!
Discover the heart of this magical region, where a perfect combination of first-class experiences, exceptional gastronomy and sensational accommodation gives you the most authentic Spanish experience.
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