Plaza in Ochagavia

For lunch on the second day of our road trip, Marketa and I stopped in Ochagavía, the most prominent village in Navarra’s Salazar Valley. We walked alongside the river, admiring the traditional architecture and taking pictures like crazy. Then we found a reasonably priced sidrería (Cider-house) to eat at. Marketa ordered “cow’s face” as she called it – some sort of cheek meat, while I ordered traditional Basque meatballs, Basque pate, and cuajada for dessert.

Marketa saw some Kukuxumusu merchandise in a store window in the plaza, so in we went. I was ecstatic to find several animated movies from my childhood – in Basque! Red-faced but determined, I asked the lady behind the counter for Haran Sorginduaren Bila – also known as The Land Before Time. She was very sweet. “I see you like cartoons, just like me!” she said. As she was scanning the movie, though, she realized that it wasn’t just in Spanish, but in Basque! I told her that was why I was buying it, because I was studying Basque a little.

At that, she went out to the street and called in her friends. “This is an American girl, studying Euskera!” she announced. All of them were pretty impressed. “You’re doing what we could not,” they told me. “We’ve tried to learn a little bit, but we’re too old now, it’s too late, we’re the lost generation.”

“Our grandparents spoke Basque, our parents understood it. But then came the Franco years… It skipped us. But now the children are learning again! And even you, an American!”


Mount Arangoiti

With views like these, it’s no wonder people hike up Arangoiti. But here’s the mountains little secret – you can actually drive up all the way to the peak itself!

Published in: on December 12, 2010 at 17:56  Leave a Comment  

Pony Problems

I was excited to find Arangoiti when I was scrutinizing my map of Navarra, planning my road trip with Marketa. A mountain we could drive right up to the top of? The highest thing for miles around, with views of the Embalse de Yesa, the Leyre Monastery, and Foz de Arbayun? It sounded perfect. Some people hike up to the top of Arangoiti just for the view – what could go wrong if we drove up instead?

Watch and see!

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Published in: on December 11, 2010 at 17:48  Leave a Comment  

Return to the Foces

Foz de Lumbier (Morning Sun)

Marketa and I started the second day of our road trip with the Foces of Lumbier and Arbayun to the east of Pamplona.

Rushing brown waters in Foz de Lumbier

I’d visited the Foz de Lumbier before, but I was happy to return – the foliage had changed from autumn colours to winter, and the morning sun lit up the side of the canyon that was deep in shadow during my last visit. Weeks of rain and recent snows had turned the waters turbulent and brown. Of course, the visit was also much more convenient by car: we paid 2 euros to park in the nearby lot, and then we could walk in and through the canyon and back in about forty-five minutes.


"The" view over Foz Arbayun

Just a few kilometers down the road is Foz de Arbayun. Arbayun may be even more spectacular than Lumbier, but it’s somewhat less accessible, with no easy path going directly through. There are some hiking trails that go through the gorge leaving from the village of Usún, but as we had lots we wanted to do that day we opted merely to drive to the lookout point on the road between Lumbier and Navascues. It’s well worth a quick stop – the view is stunning.


North, to the Witch Caves!

Zugarramurdi, in the Valley of Baztan

In the extreme north of Navarra is a little town called Zugarramurdi, home to 218 people and, four hundred years ago, one of the biggest and bloodiest witch hunts of the Spanish Inquisition. Ultimately, forty suspected witches were found guilty and sent south for further trial, where many ended up being burned at the stake.

In my second to last week in Pamplona, some friends and I took a rental car up to Zugarramurdi from Pamplona (about 1 1/2 hour drive). We were in a bit of a hurry, so we only took the quickest peek at the new Witch Museum, but we were especially eager to see the Sorgin Leze, or Witch Caves, where the devil himself was said to give services to congregations of witches on the banks of the Hell Stream (Infernuko Erreka in Basque).

The Hell Stream

The first thing we came across while walking the loop path was the infernal stream itself, reddish brown and strangely opaque. It looked as thick as paint, but it was moving too fast and without staining the stones around it. Although we were certain that the colour must come from the soil – clay or something similar – it was easy to see why earlier generations had found it so unsettling.

The caves are enormous and airy inside...

Following the stream, we soon found ourselves in the cavern itself, with its high ceiling and the little chambers above us to the left, where the covens were said to hold more private meetings. Open on two sides to the air, it was more like a natural bridge than a cave, but spectacular either way.

Whatever you believe about the historical ‘witches’, it’s easy to imagine some fantastic bonfires taking place here!

The biggest opening, with the hell stream below.

Published in: on December 10, 2010 at 00:54  Comments (1)  
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Xareta is an association of four Basque villages – Zugarramurdi, Sare, Ainhoa, and Urdax – which are united by cultural elements such as fantastic caves and Pottok ponies. What makes this connection unusual and interesting is that it straddles a national border – Sare and Ainhoa are French villages (2 of the 148 most beautiful in the country!), while Zugarramurdi and Urdax (Urdazubi) are Spanish.

On my last trip in Spain, a road trip to the North and East of Navarra, we passed through all four – seeing the witch caves of Zugarramurdi, getting lost in Sare, eating some Basque cake in Ainhoa, and taking a tour of the caves of Urdax. I know that there are a number of lovely walks to be taken in the region – I only wish we’d had more time to explore!

Published in: on December 9, 2010 at 23:55  Leave a Comment  


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On a beautiful mid-November Saturday, my friend Lea and I headed southeast to Zaragoza, the capital of Navarra’s neighbor state of Aragon. Many of our friends had gone a few weeks earlier during the Fiesta de Pilar, but Lea had a visitor at the time and I was in Madrid, so it was just the two of us this time. As with Bilbao, we hadn’t heard glowing reviews of Zaragoza before coming. First, I was told that there wasn’t much to do there other than walk around and shop. When I confronted them with what I’d found out online – that Zaragoza has several world heritage sites and an amazing cathedral, they sighed and said, “Well, other than those, there’s not much to do.” – I guess some people can never be satisfied.

The Arabic Palace

Our first stop on arrival was la Aljafaria – Arabic for the House of Jaffar (a bit funny for those who grew up watching Disney’s Aladdin.) The palace is more than a thousand years old and is perhaps the best example of Islamic architecture from the period of the independent kingdoms in Spain, and is the only such building outside of Andalucia in the far south of Spain. Although it was altered several times – from Arabic palace to the royal residence of Catholic kings to a military base and even a hospital, it preserves much of the intricate Muslim decoration I hadn’t hoped to find so far north. The building seems to be all graceful arches, impossibly complex stone carvings and the play of sun and shadows. In keeping with it’s multi-purpose past, today the Aljafaria is not only a popular tourist destination, it also houses Aragon’s regional parliament.

Next, we took a walk through the streets of Zaragoza, where the first Christmas decorations had already been put  up. We wandered in vague search of some Asian cuisine, but somehow found ourselves at a pintxos bar instead – apparently Zaragoza is almost as well known for this close cousin to tapas as Pamplona and the Basque Country. Between the two of us, we managed to consume a total of 16 different pintxos, most of them quite tasty, although perhaps a bit heavy on mashed potatoes.

The Two Cathedrals

After lunch we made for the epicenter of Zaragoza’s attractions, the Plaza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. As Mary is considered the patron saint of Spain, as well as all Hispanic people, a reflecting pool and a fountain on the western side combine to form a mirror like map of the Americas from Mexico down to Argentina – this is the Fuente de Hispanidad, or the Fountain of Hispanic Identity. The rest of the plaza is mostly empty, with plenty of room for the striking shadows of the churches that surround it on three sides. Two of these are cathedrals – la Seo, and the famous Basilica.

The Basilica is a huge building that dominates the view of Zaragoza for kilometers along the river. It is built in the Arab-influenced Mudejar style and includes brightly coloured domes. Inside, the ceilings are covered with frescoes by Francisco Goya, and you can see the pillar and image of Mary that she was said to give to St. James during her only apparition prior to her death. Equally miraculous is the church’s survival through the Spanish civil war – three bombs were dropped on it, but none of them exploded, and the basilica stands to this day.

Afternoon Wanderings

With Zaragoza’s most mandatory sites out of the way, both Lea and I had something in the area that sparked our curiosity. Lea wanted to see the sight of the Expo 2008, which was hosted by Zaragoza, while I wanted to hop a bus to neighboring Utebo to see another element of the Mudejar World Heritage Site, a lovely tower. We headed to the Expo first, as the sun was sinking fast and we needed light to see the old water park. The site of the Expo is in some disrepair, and looks like it hasn’t been touched since the day the party ended. Still, I didn’t regret the leisurely walk along the banks of the river to get there. Zaragoza may be the fifth most populous city in Spain, but it still didn’t feel too metropolitan – we passed a group of men fishing under the shadow of the cathedral, for example, and the lawns around the Expo are now a sort of park, where a few families were walking or picnicking. A piece of interpretive art nearby played strange music from some underwater world – remixed whale calls and flowing water, and we spent half an hour listening to it while lying on our backs looking up at the late afternoon sky.

We had just enough time before our bus ride home to get over to Utebo to see my tower. It was as beautiful as I had imagined, and I was happy to get to see it. There wasn’t much else to do in Utebo, though, so it might not be worth the effort to everyone. On the way back through, we stopped at a greasy little stand where I had the best churros of my time in Spain so far – a sweet end to a lovely day.

Published in: on November 23, 2010 at 21:15  Leave a Comment  
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Foz de Lumbier


The Plan

The Foz de Lumbier is a beautiful and distinctive canyon in the east of Navarra. Photos of its green waters, soaring cliffs, and hundreds of resident vultures tantalized me from every pamphlet and guide to the region. I wanted to go, but with my access to cars essentially non-existent, I wanted to see if there was a way to reach it by public transport. I could think of a few potential issues – 1.) Is the canyon within walking distance of a bus stop? 2.) Is the canyon easily walkable without a guide, map, or prior knowledge? 3.) Is there a bus to the nearest bus stop at a reasonable time? 4.) Is there a bus back from the nearest bus stop at a reasonable time? Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy guide to day-trips from Pamplona, but after a bit of Googling and guesswork, the answer to all the above seemed to be yes, and there was nothing for it but to try. I found my opportunity on a beautiful and unseasonably warm November Friday. I thought it could easily be my last chance, so even though my friends were tied up in class, I set off.

I went to the bus station after my morning classes and ordered potatoes with garlic sauce and a bottle of water. The whole package cost me less than four euros, and was lovingly packaged to go – a quick and easy alternative to packing a lunch for day-trips. With just this, my camera, and a basic plan, I caught the one o’clock bus to Liedena, to the slight surprise of the driver. On Google Maps I could see that the canyon itself was halfway between the small town of Lumbier and Liedena (smaller yet) – and it looked to me as if I could walk easily between them, following the river. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure it would work, as all online advice was written to reasonable people with cars, but I figured that if the path became impassable, I could always return to Liedena and take the bus back from there. To be safe, I had copied down the times of all the returns from both Liedena and Lumbier. If things went well, the walk would be about 8 km = 2 hours, and I had four between my arrival in Liedena, and my last chance of departure from Lumbier. I couldn’t find the exact location of the bus stops on Google, but I figured that Lumbier was a bigger town, and the stop would be more likely to be marked, or if not it would be easier to find someone to ask about it – by arriving in Liedena I would know immediately where that stop was in case of having to revert to plan B.

The Escape from Liedena

I got down at Liedena. I was glad I’d done the walk in this direction, as the official stop seemed to be the parking lot of an auto-body shop. An older woman got off with me and asked me twice if I was really going to Liedena – the first time I merely said ‘yes’ and smiled, the second time I explained that my plan was to walk to Lumbier. She brightened at this, understanding, and told me that it was a lovely walk and popular in the summer – and that right now the first bit was under construction for the new highway, but I could still pass through. I followed her into Liedena proper, which consisted of a few rows of houses, a little cafe, and a church up the road. She showed me the best spot to photograph the town was, so that I’d have a memory of her pueblo, and pointed out the path to Lumbier. I thanked her and set off.

The first part of my journey was through a field of mud – the ugly construction site the woman had warned me about. My original plan had been to try to follow the river, so that’s what I did… at least, until I ran into a rope and a sign prohibiting unauthorized access. Perhaps I wasn’t on the right path after all? Backtracking a little ways, I found a more suitable looking path, much less muddy, that still kept fairly close to the river. I really thought I’d figured it out this time, and was walking happily along a shady path with little farmhouses beside me, when the path suddenly came to an unceremonious end. Looking to the right, I saw for the first time an extremely nice looking path, well maintained and continuing on towards the canyon. This, I thought, must be the path – but I didn’t want to lose another half hour retracing my steps. Summoning up my courage, I cut across a tiny bit of land, dodging planters and sheds (the owner’s house was nowhere in site) and threw myself up the muddy hill on my hands and knees. Triumphantly I landed on what I hoped would be the actual path, and started for a third time on my way. After another kilometer or so, a little path broke away from mine and led into the mountains – here I found a sign at last, confirming that the path I was on led to the canyon. Finally!

The Devil’s Bridge

I followed this path for some time. As much as half of my total walk was on this side of the foz, and the woman in Liedena had told me to just walk until I got to the tunnel. It was a pleasant walk, through, once I had left all the mud and construction behind. The river ran beside and below me, and there were more leaves on the trees left than in Pamplona. Dozens of vultures were flying above me, but in the perfect fall air and sunshine they didn’t seem threatening or ominous at all. At last I reached the tunnel the lady had described, and a good sign post explaining my options. There was a very easy walk through the canyon, or a much longer round trip that also took me up into the mountains. To be on the safe side, I opted for the easy walk, since I didn’t know how well the mountain path would be marked or how long it would take. First, through, I was distracted by a smaller sign, just to the side of the tunnel entrance.

This sign said (in Spanish, Basque, and English): The Devil’s Bridge – 16th century – a bridge of great historical importance until its destruction during the War of Independence (1812). DANGER! Access to the bridge is highly dangerous (danger of falling). Proceed at your own risk.

The path was narrow and high, but wide enough, and one side was against the mountain, and the rocks beneath my feet were solid. I’m not sure I’d want to take the trip with a toddler or two in hand, but it was perfectly fine as long as I didn’t do anything stupid. Soon I was hiking almost directly above the blue river and a few ruined houses. The bridge itself was pretty thoroughly destroyed, and what is left isn’t fantastically interesting, but it’s a cool spot to go to nonetheless. On one side you can look down the river towards Liedena, and on the other you can -almost- see into the canyon itself. When the bridge was complete I’m sure the view from the middle was marvellous, but the way it is now it’s so tempting to try to lean just a bit further out and see the canyon open up – maybe this is the danger the sign warned about!


Enter the Foz

I worked my way back to the tunnel and entered. The reason there’s such a convenient path through the canyon is that the tunnels were once part of a railroad. The tunnel is long and slightly curved, but never so dark you can’t just make out where to walk. Before I knew it, I had reached the end, and I was in the canyon. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I followed a little path down to the water on my left, where I could look out back towards the Devil’s Bridge. A lone kayaker was practicing in the rapids here as I snapped a few pictures, enjoying the sense of calm and quiet.

The canyon itself was so short it only took me half an hour to cross, even taking dozens of photos. The afternoon light was hitting one wall of the canyon and making it shine brilliantly, while the other was in deep shadow and the water separating them seemed to glow faintly as it wound its way through, cutting every second a tiny, tiny bit deeper into the rock. I sat for a few minutes to take pictures of the vultures that flew overhead, and enjoyed the half company of a bunch of schoolchildren who marched through with their teachers, acting exactly like my class would have, at that age. The canyon path ended with another tunnel, a bit shorter than the first, and shortly behind me one of the schoolboys came running and hollering, throwing his bag up in the air. You could hear the voices of his teachers calling behind him, exasperated, but sounding more annoyed than worried.



There was a little picnic area on the Lumbier side of the Foz, and I stopped there to eat my little lunch and let the schoolchildren pass by me. They taunted a herd of sheep as they went by, and the sheep went running for the hills. I mean literally – I’ve never seen sheep move like these, running so fast that at times they seemed to have all four feet up in the air. As soon as the children left, they ran back towards the path just as quickly. The walk to Lumbier was nice again in the golden sunlight, as I passed old men tending old vineyards and several pairs of old women walking two by two for exercise. Before long I rounded a certain corner and could see Lumbier ahead of me, with its city walls and church up on the hill. I followed a sweet looking path towards the town, crossing a tiny patch of woods and a little river on a medieval bridge.

I was quite a bit ahead of schedule, so I headed for the Tourist Information Office/Foz Nature Interpretation Center, where I paid 1.20€ for entry to the center (the information office is free). I was the only one there, and the woman working the front desk had to run up the stairs to turn all the lights and sounds on for me. The center was small but nice, with a variety of different exhibits about the geology of the canyons, the resident vultures, and about nature in general. I suppose the grand majority of it was marketed for children, but I enjoyed the little models and illustrations and the translation of everything into Basque. I even got private showings of the two short movies about the area. On the third floor there was a strange ‘tunnel of sensations’ where you could go through, learn about living in peace with nature, and feel different objects from the forests and canyons to guess what they were. I would have loved that as a child!


Back to Pamplona

When I’d seen all there was to see in the center, and it was getting closer to time to catch the bus, I asked the woman where the bus stop was (it was very close and impossible to miss) and caught the bus back to Pamplona with no issues. All in all, my daytrip to Lumbier was a success. Other than a bit of confusion at the beginning due to the construction, things went easily and according to plan. Although visiting by car would be quicker and more efficient, I also got something special out of doing the trip this way. After all, it’s not only the destination that matters, but also the journey.

Published in: on November 16, 2010 at 23:03  Leave a Comment  
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The Most Dangerous Place in Madrid

Vintage magazine covers

Interested in buying a gas mask? How about some vintage postcards or magazine covers? Or maybe just some cute new sweaters and scarves for the winter months? If you’ve come to El Rastro de Madrid, held every Saturday and holiday throughout the year, you’ve come to the right place to buy all of the above, and more.

Are those... gas masks?

Sara and I went in, ‘just to see it’, and emerged a few hours later with about 100 euros worth of purchases – and we were being strict with ourselves! I like to joke with my friends who are headed to the Spanish capital to watch out for El Rastro – the most dangerous place in Madrid!

Published in: on October 27, 2010 at 15:26  Leave a Comment  
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Cumbres Borrascosas

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Our Selva de Irati hike started out with a long walk across some windswept plains. The fog was so thick that we could only make out the bare outlines of things about twenty feet away… any farther, and they disappeared completely. Not the sort of place where you want to get lost!

Usually there was grass and small stones under foot, but once in a while there were patches of heather, just like in Scotland. With so much moisture in the air, soon our clothes and our hair were actually wet, despite the lack of falling rain. We kept walking, our hands pushed deep into our pockets to keep warm, oblivious to time and distance.

I thought again and again of Wuthering Heights, which I’ve just reread for my literature class here. In Spanish, they call it Cumbres Borrascosas. I told our guide what I was thinking, and he just laughed. “See Miranda,” he said, “What places I take you too – the canyons, the Pyrenees, and now to Cumbres Borrascosas itself.”

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 21:52  Leave a Comment