Discover the rugged Pyrenees of Navarre

by Lorraine Williamson
the Pyrenees

The valleys of Aezkoa, Salazar and Roncal offer imposing peaks and primeval beech forests, beautiful hiking trails and picturesque villages. Spanish newspaper El Pais toured this area of the Pyrenees.

We are in the Valle de Aezkoa, embedded among the mountains that form the natural border with the rest of Europe. The area is marked by mountains and primeval forests and beautiful villages.

This part of the Pyrenees has a magnificent viewpoint, similar to the world-famous Trolltunga cliff in Norway’s Hardangervidda. At the foot of the viewpoint, the river Irati winds between beech and oak forests. Behind the ridge on the other side, the Peña de Izaga rises above the peaks.

Orbaizata is home to an 18th-century weapons factory. Today, overgrown by weeds and moss, it is an example of industrial archaeology. The building has been designated a Cultural Heritage Site. In the adjacent palace, Kultur Ola was opened last year. This museum publicises the historical value of the area. However, the isolated location of the area has strengthened the identity of its people. Life there is tough and, as in the neighbouring valleys (Salazar and Roncal), the area suffers from depopulation. Moreover, there are increasing numbers of elderly people and fewer children.

Sleeping in a tree house

Consequently, to revitalise the area, new initiatives are emerging. The most recent project is Iratiko Kabiak, a treehouse park in the Irati forest. You can stay there surrounded by beautiful nature. The beech forest is the second oldest in Europe after the German Black Forest. Most of the forest lies in the neighbouring Valle de Salazar. A stop in Abaurrea, known as ´the balcony of the Pyrenees´, is definitely worthwhile. The village is the highest in the region and you breathe in the pure mountain air. You will find the Museum of Steles, with cemetery and maze, where 26 round tombstones from the 15th to the 18th century are on display.

Hundreds of hiking and cycling routes

From Abaurra, the route goes to the Selva de Irati, where hardly any light penetrates the dense forest. The ancient forest is different every season. At the chapel ´la Virgen de las Nieves´ you will find information on hundreds of marked trails in the vast area. In summer you can hike and cycle, but winter calls for skis or snowshoes.

You can also admire the area from viewpoint Pikatua. From here, a panorama stretches out before you: the vast forest, demarcated by the silhouette of the Ori, the first mountain of the Pyrenees over two thousand metres high.

It is a very accessible area for hikers. There are plenty of options for families as well as those looking for a tough route.

Delicious sheep cheese

The mountain pass Puerto de Belagua leads to the Valle de Roncal. In this valley you catch a glimpse of the high mountains. Smugglers used to roam the area so close to the French border. Now there are just herds of Latxa sheep, which provide the milk from which the traditional Roncal cheese is made. At the mountain hut next to viewpoint Larra Belagua, you can taste the cheese against the backdrop of a beautiful mountain landscape.

Picturesque villages

The villages in the valleys are as photogenic as nature. They are characterised by cobbled streets and farms with large gates, specially designed to withstand the winter cold. On the facades is the ´eguzkilore´, a type of thistle that is considered a protective amulet.

The villages of Ochagavía, Isaba, Uztarroz and Roncal are fine examples of the region’s countryside. The village of Burgui offers the route of the crafts, a themed walk explaining past craftsmen like lime workers, charcoal burners, washerwomen.

Collective memory

Burgui’s museum tells the story of the ´almadieros´. These were the men who descended downstream on rafts of questionable quality. With these, they transported wood from the forests to the mouth of the Ebro. It is a craft that is part of the collective memory in this remote corner of the Pyrenees. Just like the mountains, the meadows, the pastures, the crops. And even the mist that descends on the leaves of the beech forests.

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