Northern Spain is somewhat of a mystery to the average visitor. It is a mistake, however, to overlook this part of the country. It is culturally distinct from the rest of Spain, though retaining the best of Spanish alegria, so to say, the simple joy of being alive. The area is known throughout Spain for its culinary expertise and outstanding produce, including the world-renowned Rioja wine region. Historically, with its strategic location on the way over the Pyrenees into France, it has seen many fascinating military campaigns, sieges, and battles dating back centuries to before Roman times. As such, the abundant castles and medieval towns with towering defensive walls and Romanesque churches give unending possibilities for exploration. This article is about what to see in Northern Spain.
The Basque Country has produced some of Spain’s greatest artists and Bilbao is a cultural crossroads with a thriving art and music scene. Participating in the festivals of Navarra, Rioja and Basque Country can feel like stepping back in time. They are always family friendly and full of music, dance, celebration, food and wine, and traditions that connect the locals to the past. These festivals are not mere shows put on for tourists. The people of northern Spain are still very much living and breathing their culture and are welcoming to visitors wanting to experience it along with them. The possibilities feel limitless when it comes to visiting northern Spain.
Spain is peppered with castles. Some are small and crumbling on a remote hilltop, recalling an era of wandering knights and lonely journeys, while others are magnificent and well-preserved, where the kings and queens of Spain lived and fought bloody battles of succession and dominance. Navarra, Aragon, Castile and Leon were territories and kingdoms that were constantly at each other’s throats since before medieval times. With the Moorish threat constantly pressing up from the south, the story of this region would make the series Game of Thrones blush with modesty.
If you are wonder what to see in Northern Spàin, the castles and fortifications around this area are numerous and mostly intact. The most magnificent by far in Navarra is in Olite. It was one of the seats of the Court of the Kingdom of Navarra, since the reign of Charles III “the Noble” until its conquest in 1512 by Castile. While it was a military fortification, it was also described by many of that period to be more like a sumptuous palace, with all the gilded luxuries of its time. Beginning in the 13th Century, it was built up over time, before finally being badly damaged during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.
It was beautifully restored to its previous glory in the 1930s and is now one of the finest castles in Europe to visit. Surrounded by grape vines and a medieval town of twisty cobbled streets and beautiful old stone buildings, you cannot but feel like you have time traveled to another era. Olite also has a fantastic medieval festival in August where the town’s people come out dressed in their best period clothing, carrying falcons, and playing and singing music from a bygone era.
For more modern history, there are a series of military bunkers dug during Franco’s era into the Pyrenees along the border of France. Numbering in the thousands and stretching from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, they went unused in the end, as Franco’s paranoia of an attack arriving overland from France proved to be unmerited. It is now possible to visit some of them on trails in the mountains by foot or bike. Hunkering down inside them peering out over the Pyrenean mountain passes gives you a sense of what it would have been like to have lived through this turbulent time in the early to mid 20th century.
For history buffs, ask us about our visits to the Bunkers between Spain and France
Of course, there are so many historical sites in northern Spain, it would impossible to highlight them all. From sitting in a 400 year old monastery in Aragon listing to monks reciting Gregorian chants, to visiting cathedrals such as the one in Pamplona where the kings of Navarra were crowned, or the one in Vitoria that inspired Ken Follet for his fictional cathedral in Pillars of the Earth, to sleeping in luxury hotels that are remodeled 10th century castles, it is impossible not to feel a connection to the past of this captivating region of northern Spain.
There is perhaps nothing more iconic in northern Spain than its yearly festivals or fiestas. The king of fiestas is the festival of San Fermin, taking place in Pamplona, the capital of Navarra, in early July each year. Known around the world as the Running of the Bulls, it goes on for eight days of revelry, endless music and dancing in the streets, taurine events such as the daily bull run each morning, and other traditions that go back centuries. Everyone is dressed in all white with a red sash around their waist and a red pañuelo or kerchief, around their neck. This dress is not specific to Pamplona but is rather a Basque tradition you can see all over the region at the various fiestas.
While it is a non-stop party and celebration of life itself, it is absolutely inclusive of everyone. Navarran and Basque families attend from babies to the elderly – it is not just about flinging sangria and dancing the night away. In fact, the fiesta is in honor of one of the patron saints of Pamplona, San Fermin. A fact overlooked by tourists, it is a religious festival with masses and prayer honoring their saint. It even evokes some moments of solemnity and gravitas throughout the week.
Each village in northern Spain has a fiesta in honor of their specific patron saint. Some fiestas are quite small and intimate, and others feel like smaller versions of the famous party in Pamplona, with lesser-known bull runs and almost no other tourists. Many of the rituals and activities are specific to that village. Hence, going to one in Estella will feel very different from the one in Lesaka, where you can see the bell dancers balancing on the edge of the canals, leaping and jumping on narrow walls, with bell-clad legs creating the most wonderful music. What they all have in common is the joy of celebration, the traditional music and dance, and the comradery among participants.
Moving away from purely traditional, there are other kinds of festivals in northern Spain. San Sebastian boasts several huge fiestas every year. It hosts a star-studded film festival, a summertime jazz festival on the beach, and in January a drumming festival called La Tamborrada where hundreds of people drum together in the large square, creating an effect that is hard to imagine unless you have witnessed it yourself. Another favorite is in La Rioja where participants load giant water guns with wine and run around shooting each other with sprays of wine in the hills while drinking plenty of it as well. These festivals are sprinkled throughout the year, so visitors to northern Spain would have a hard time not hitting one or two of them. If fun is to be had, the locals will be having it.
The Basque Country and Navarra have produced many of the great artists, writers and musicians of Spain. Creativity and imagination is felt everywhere around the region. The Basques have a very rich folklore with pre-Christian pagan elements still evident in their art and storytelling. Rife with fantastical creatures and sorcery, perhaps inspired by the deep forest valleys draped in curtains of mist, the area inspires an artistic culture.
Northern Spain has artists that in many ways represent the region, such is the case as with Eduardo Chillida. One of his masterpieces that have grown into an icon is El Peine de los Vientos, where the wind and the sea are one. Another such artist that works with large sized sculptures and painting is Jorge Oteiza, or the modern day artists Carlos Ciriza and Fernando Pagola.
For those who are passionate about sculpture ask us more about private visits to the artists’ private homes, workshops and museums.
One very good example of this connection of art, nature and folklore is the Enchanted Forest of Oma, a grove of trees that have been painted by the Basque artist Agustin Ibarrola. It is done in such a way as to create a sense of mystery and otherworldliness using optical illusions and tricks on the mind. Even if the idea of painting trees at first makes one balk, once experienced, it is hard to not appreciate the fine lines between magic, art and nature.
Eight kilometers outside Pamplona is the Oteiza Museum, which houses the art of the great and very influential Basque artist, Jorge Orteiza. His sculptures brought him massive success and fame by the 1950s, and using various mediums and abstract theories, he created an enormous quantity of work. The museum contains 1,690 sculptures, 800 drawings, 2,000 chalk laboratory studies, about 5,000 books from his personal library, and his countless writings.
Pamplona is not only a living museum in and of itself, it benefits from the engaging Museo de Navarra with a wonderful collection of items from pre-historic artifacts and human bones to great works of art. There is the 1st century Roman mosaic Triumph of Bacchus and other mosaics from the same period excavated from Roman homes and palaces that existed in the area. There are many mural from across the ages – Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance – and artwork from artists such as Baroque painter Mateo Cerezo and the famous Spanish painter Goya. Taking you on a journey through Navarra from pre-historic times to the present day, this museum is not to be missed.
Bilbao encompasses the old and the new with stunning modern architecture such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum and the Zubizuri Bridge, alongside the beautiful medieval buildings in the Casco Viejo in the center of the city. With endless sites of aesthetic and historic interest to visit and a thriving art and music scene, Bilbao is a feast for the mind. In 2010 Bilbao was recognized with the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, considered the Nobel Prize for urbanism because of its spectacular transformation from grimy industrial port to modern wonder. As the largest city in the Basque region and as one of the most important port cities of Europe, it is bustling with activity, art and industry.
There are endless sights in northern Spain, and these are but a few. The region is welcoming of visitors and there are many ways to visit the region, whether by bike, on foot or by car. Along with such amazing culture to see and experience, northern Spain is also covered in Michelin-starred restaurants as well as rustic, delicious traditional cuisine, wineries, luxury hotels, quaint villages and gorgeous landscapes.
Northern Spain Travel has a collection of outside-the-box travel journeys throughout the region.
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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