For such a small area, the landlocked Autonomous Community of Navarre has great diversity, with a Basque mountainous northern minority married to a non-Basque, wine-growing, agricultural region to the south. Pamplona dominates the region, set in a basin surrounded by mountains, with half of the Autonomous Community’s population living in the metropolitan area. Known as the “Gateway to Spain,” its strategic location has meant it developed as a fortified city for much of its existence until recent times.
Pamplona was originally a settlement of the Vascones, the ancestors of the Basques, until the “Great” Roman General Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus founded a Roman City, and named it for himself. Following the fall of the Romans the city alternated between self rule and domination by first the Visigoths, and then intermittently the Moors and the Franks. Eventually the Basque chieftain Iñigo Aritza was chosen as King of Pamplona in 824, and in the eleventh century the kingdom became known as Navarre.
The region’s most renowned moment prior to the emergence of the kingdom was a famous ambush on the returning forces of the Frankish King Charlemagne, returning from battling enemy forces in 778. Outraged by his sacking of the city of Pamplona, the Basque natives attacked the rear of his column in the Pyrenean pass to present day France. The Basques made their ambush near the pass of Roncesvalles, where the most trusted knight of King Charlemagne fell, an event recognized in the famous heroic eleventh century poem Song of Roland. These days it is the overnight resting place of most Pilgrims on their first day setting off on the Camino Francés route of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
Navarre experienced its heyday in the early eleventh century, when it briefly controlled all of Christian Spain, before having its lands whittled away. Eventually it was regained by the Castilian Crown in the early fifteenth century. The city of Pamplona continued to have a tumultuous history, but in modern consciousness it is probably most associated with Ernest Hemingway, and the Fiesta de San Fermín that he loved and made so famous in his book “The Sun Also Rises.”
For one week in early July the normally calm city, with a historical reputation for conservatism, descends into chaotic debauchery, as tens of thousands of tourists flock to make merry, and either observe or participate in the iconic “running of the bulls.” It is ironic that in the later of the nine visits he made to the festival, Hemingway was troubled by the influx of tourists for which he himself was largely responsible. He is still remembered as a fallen son, with a bust outside the iconic Plaza de Toros (“bullring”), and tourist routes through the city taking in his favorite haunts.
Outside of the capital there are few large urban areas and it is very picturesque. The panorama is green and dominated by mountains and reservoirs in the north, while wheatfields, sunflowers, and vineyards smother a rolling landscape further south. The pilgrimage trail crosses a large cross-section of the community, and there are a wealth of medieval villages and religious monuments along the route to admire.