The Camino de Santiago crosses into Navarra from France via the foothills of the Pyrenees, descending steeply to the historic monastery at Orreaga-Roncesvalles. As the mountains peter out, the path passes alongside trout-filled rivers lined with beech trees and through traditional whitewashed Basque villages graced with Romanesque churches.
Navarra has invested considerably in this section of the route, and its twenty or so albergues – all with comfortable, if basic, facilities – are among the best along the camino. The path mainly follows dirt farm-tracks, although some stretches have been paved, which makes the walking less messy but leaves pilgrims prone to blisters.
Traces of Charlemagne’s tenth-century foray into Spain are everywhere in Navarra, from the pass before Roncesvalles by which he entered the country to a stone monument some 20km farther on that depicts the massive Stride of Roland, his favourite knight. The region also contains some of Hemingway’s much-loved haunts; the camino passes through his trout-fishing base at Auritz-Burguete, just 3km from Roncesvalles, and lively Pamplona, another 40km into the walk.
There are a couple of stiff climbs, notably the 300m up to the Alto de Perdón, just outside Pamplona. Here, legend tells of an exhausted medieval pilgrim who stood firm against the Devil’s offer of water in exchange for a renunciation of his Christian faith. The pilgrim was rewarded with the appearance of Santiago himself, who led him to a secret fountain.
Navarra boasts some of the finest Romanesque architecture in Spain, including the octagonal church at Eunate, 20km from Pamplona, thought to be the work of the Knights Templar, and the graceful bridge that gave its name to Puente La Reina, 4km farther on. The architectural highlight is undoubtedly the small town of Estella, where it’s worth spending an afternoon exploring the Palacio de los Reyes de Navarra and the many lovely churches. The route from Estella is lined with vineyards, and Bodegas de Irache’s free Fuente del Vino (wine fountain), just outside town, is said to fortify pilgrims for the journey on through the Rioja region to Santiago de Compostela.For more information, see Practicalities of the Camino de Santiago.