On the road to Spain – Puente de la Reina and the monasteries Iranzu and Irache

In November 2019, we spend some days in Pamplona to explore the city and the surroundings. Our first excursion takes us to Puente de la Reina (a small town with a Romanesque bridge), to the Cistersian monastery Iranzu and to the Benedictine monastery Irache (which is also a bodega).

Source: Google Maps


Puente de la Reina – Romanesque Bridge from the 11th century, built for the pilgrims

In the early 11th century, pilgrimage on the Way of St. James thrived. Two branches of the Way of St. James meet here to cross the river Agra. The wife of Sanchez III the Great (or her daughter in law) decided to build a bridge and for that it was called “Puente de la Reina”. This is the bridge providing access to the city…

… and leading out of the city.


Puente de la Reina is a pretty town – with various churches

With the bridge for the pilgrims, the town Puente de la Reina evolved. Until today, brave pilgrims are withstanding the rain…

… to visit the churches such as this Crucifixion Church from the 13/14th century…

… with Christ crucified hanging inside.

The city also caters for the pilgrims. The restaurants offer cheap pilgrim menus for 5 to 6 Euros and shops sell trekking clothes that are particularly useful now that it rains so much. We buy jackets and shoes here (though not being pilgrims). The “Planeta Agua” belongs to a chain that we also find in other towns along the Way of St. James.


Red pimientos (sweet pepper) are omnipresent in Puente de La Reina

We have parked our car near the market that sells primarily pimientos or sweet pepper.

Sweet pepper hangs on the balconies…

… and they are on offer in every vegetable shop, where they are being roasted and peeled using these machines.

Then they are marinated in garlic. Shops and restaurants sell them (note the two pilgrim’s scallops).

In the restaurant La Plaza, I eat marinated pimientos as a pintxo (snack) and they are very, very delicious.


The monastery Iranzu

The sun shines for some hours and we benefit from this rare occurrence by driving to the mountains, where the secluded Cistersian Monastery Iranzu from the 12th century welcomes us.

We arrive just in time to visit the monastery, before it closes. This is the cloister…

… with the beautiful fountain.

The sun brings the rosettes on to the wall of the gangway.

The church is sober. The Cistercians were masters in laying bricks precisely.

In the sun, we head off to walk in the canyon behind the monastery.

Panels explain the geology and the biology of the valley. The mediterranean vegetation is changing to a eurosiberian vegetation, as we climb higher. Typical of the mediterranean vegetation are for example ilex (Steineiche), acorns, poplars and pine-trees, whereby higher up, in the eurosiberian vegetation, oak trees and beeches are dominating.

We are caught by rain again, return to our car as fast as possible and, swish-swish-swish, drive to Irache.


The Benedictine monastery Irache is also a bodega

The Benedictine Monastery Irache is beautifully located within its vineyards.

Their emblem is the golden lion on red background. In the shop, I buy a bottle of Garnacha rosé and a bottle of Vino de Pago (Tinto). Vino di Pago is a label that only three bodegas of Navarra carry, as they process their own grapes, which gives their wines the character of their territory, while the territory as such does not carry the DO label.

The monastery can be visited for free. It is under restoration and only the Plateresque cloister is accessible,…

… with the porch and the medaillons that they are proud of; they explain each of them.

We drive back to Pamplona. Fog and rain accompany us.

Tomorrow we plan to see Rioja Alavesa, Laguardia and Elciego.

Sources: Marion Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakobsweg”, Dumont Reise-Handbuch, Ostfildern 2018; Marion Trutter (Editor): “Culinario España, Spanische Spezialitäten”, Tandem Verlag 2015; “El mundo del vino”, Edition Larousse.

On the road to Spain: Pamplona – treasures in the Cathedral and the Museum of Navarra

In November 2019, we spend four nights in Pamplona on the Agra River exploring the City and the treasures in the Cathedral Santa Maria La Real and in the Museum of Navarra.


The Cathedral of Santa Maria La Real

The Cathedral of Santa Maria La Real is located above the river Agra. The church was built in the 14/15th century and is of gothic style. The choir with the stalls is in front, which makes the nave open and uncongested (differing from many Spanish cathedrals, where the choir is in the middle of the nave impeding the view of the overall beauty of the nave).

The statue of Maria from the 12th century sits under the silver baldachin.

Carlos III the Noble and his wife are buried in front of the choir. The15th century tomb slab made of alabaster has been beautifully carved. Carlos III is the king that managed to make peace between the local Navarrese and the “foreign” Franconians. The latter had immigrated to Pamplona in the 11th century and had kept on living in a town district of their own, even separated by a town wall. Carlos III mediated between the antagonists, pulled down the wall and constructed the townhall at the former borderline. With respect, I look at him.

And with respect, his subjects mourned, as the beautiful small statues around the tomb illustrate.

In the gangway to the cloister, I find this elegant spiral staircase.

The filigree arches in the cloister seem to dance.

Bishop Barbazán was buried in the chapter house in 1355. A small angel seems to adjust his cushion carefully.

The refectory looks like it was a stylish place to eat. It was built around 1300 and measures 30mx10m.

Nearby is the kitchen from the 14th century, with the long-long chimney.

Attached to the cloister is the Museo Diocesano with the exhibition “Occident” that illustrates the history of Christian culture in Europe.


The Museum of Navarra

We spend a full day in the Museum of Navarra that shows exhibits from archaeology and art that are related with the history of Navarra from prehistoric times until today.

The Museum is located in a former hospital. On the terrace, we find a great view of the Pyrenees and the city.

In the halls about Romanesque, we study Hiob’s fate in detail. Maestro del Claustro de la Catedral de Pamplona created it in the 12th century. The happy days of Hiob, his fall and his resurgence are illustrated on all four sides of the column. This is Hiob living happily with his family and his animals.

I very much like the elegance of this ox and donkey, a fragment from a nativity sculpture from the Cathedral of Pamplona.  Maestro Estebán made it in the 12th century.

The ivory case “Arqueta de Leire” has been carved by Maestro Faray in Córdoba during the Umayyad Caliphate (up to 1031). It shows fine hunting scenes. The representation of human beings and animals is unusual for Islamic work of art. The case is from the Monasterio de San Salvator de Leyre. One of the inscriptions says “En el nombre de Allah”.

Goya painted a friend of his, Marqués de San Adrián. A noble young man in elegant velvet trousers. He has taken off his hat which creates an atmosphere of casualty and confidentiality.

The Museum is proud of their Mapa de Abauntz. Never have I seen a prehistoric map engraved on a stone. It is the most ancient map ever found, about 13’000 years old. Abauntz is a cave located about 25km north of Pamplona.

Panels explain what archaologists found on the map: Rivers, mountais and places for hunting goats (cabras) and other animals.

These maps are not as easy to read as the Swiss topological Maps of today… I admire the imagination of the archaeologists.

From the necropolis of Castejón (about 80km south of Pamplona), this charming horse shaped urn cover has been brought to the Museum of Navarra.

We spent a full day in this interesting Museum of Navarra – to be recommended! Especially on the rainy days that we experience now.

Next we explore the surroundings of Pamplona, Punta de Reina and Laguardia.


Sources: Marion Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakobsweg”, Dumont Reise-Handbuch, Ostfildern 2018 and “Museo de Navarra”, edited by the Gobierno de Navarra.

On the road to Spain: Via Zubiri to Pamplona

In November 2019, we are traveling through France to Spain. From our first stop in Spain, Roncesvalles, we drive to Pamplona, with a stop over in Zubiri.

Source: Googlemaps


Crossing foggy and rainy hills to Zubiri with the Puente de la Rabia

From Roncesvalles, the road leads over two passes. The rainfall never stops and we feel compassion with the humpy pilgrims that, hidden under their rain capes (covering their back bags as well), bravely walk along the path of St. James crossing the main road from time to time. It has been raining for a week now, and there is no end in sight for at least another week. I do not know, whether I would feel like joining the pilgrims walking in the rain. I am pretty sure that I prefer to remain dry in our car, while our windscreen wipers go “swish-swish-swish”.

The villages on the way are full with guest houses for pilgrims. Good business, since the 11th century.

Zubiri is known for the medieval Puente de la Rabia over the river Agra. The Way of St. James crosses the bridge.

The bridge cures animals suffering from rabies – this is the legend. It seems that relics of Santa Quiteria, a martyr from the second century, have been found here. She would calm barking dogs and for this reason, she became known for curing rabia. Somewhat interesting. Nevertheless, I would not miss vaccination against rabia, when traveling to countries, where I could come across it, even after having been on this bridge.

People cross the rabies bridge with their umbrellas. Yes, it IS raining.

After Zubiri the valley opens and the mountains recede. We reach the basin of Pamplona.


Pamplona – known for their bulls

In Pamplona, we settle in the business hotel Los Tres Reyes, conveniently located, where the old city begins. Three kings, this alludes to the union of the kings of Navarra, Castilia and Aragon.

The city is known for bullfighting. In July (Sanfermin), the bulls run from their corrales through the narrow streets of the city center to the bullfight arena. Young men dressed in white with red scarves and red belts run with them, a pretty dangerous event. That is reflected in the shops. They sell the typical outfit and they also remind of Hemingway who has described Sanfermin in his novel “the sun also rises”.

Shop windows show videos about Sanfermin and childrens’ toy shops have sets to practice bullfighting.

This is the entrance to the bullfighting arena.

Bullfighting is not really for me… I fell in love with Pamplona for other reasons, namely for the nice old town that invites for strolling and for all the works of art we found in the Cathedral and in the Museum of Navarra. Let me talk about some impressions in the city center first.


Strolling through the old city center of Pamplona

Not far from our hotel, St Francis welcomes us on the namesake square. He seems to have a discussion with this wolf.

There are various Palaces in the city, with the Tribunal de Cámara de Comptos Reales being the oldest. It was built in gothic style in the 13th century. The public finances are controlled here.

The town hall or Casa Constitutional was constructed by Charles III the Noble in the 15th century at the point where two city districts fighting one another had their frontiers. In one district lived the Navarrians, in the second district the Franconians. Charles III is called “the Noble”, because he succeeded to mediate between the two antagonizing parties. The town hall was reconstructed in the 19th century, but the baroque facade was preserved.

The Romanesque church of San Saturnino is from the 12/13th century.

It is of defiant stance. This is the tower with the narthex.

Inside the narthex, the tympanon above the porch presents the Last Judgment with Paradise and Hell.

A service is going on inside the church. We attend it for a little while. The priest in front of the altar wears a red gown. The altar is decorated with white flowers. What a solemn atmosphere under the sober Romanesque vaults!

We leave the service and continue to walk through the narrow streets. Never before have we seen so many draperies and in some of them tailors are working at their sewing machines.

This backyard has been turned into a vegetable garden. What a great initiative.

The habitants call it “Pipparika” which might be Basque.

Inside the city, we find many small bars that sell pintxos (called tapas elsewhere in Spain). Great for short breaks, when strolling through the streets.

Walking along the fortifications of Pamplona tops our visit. It was the Spanish-Habsburgian king Philipp II who had fortified the city in the late 16th century, because he feared a French invasion. Part of the wall and the bastions have been kept until today and allow for a nice walk with a great view of the Pyrenees.

Sources: “Sehenswürdigkeiten und interessante Gebäude” von Tourismus Navarra und Marion Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakosbweg”, Dumont Reise-Handbuch, Ostfildern 2018.

On the Road to Spain: Roncesvalles, where Roland was ambushed

In November 2019 we drive from Moissac to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, then up to the pass Ibañeta and to Roncesvalles, where Roland was ambushed in 778 and where pilgrims stay overnight on the Way of St. James (Via Podiensis).



Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a fortified small town on the river Nive de Béhérobie.

We stroll through the narrow streets, climb up to the town wall and look at the half-timbered houses from the backsides, with lush gardens.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is the last larger stop on the French side of the Pyrenees, located at about 200m above sea level. From here our car climbs up into the Pyrenees.


Puerta de Ibañeta (1057m)

We reach the pass of Ibañeta on 1057m and look back north towards Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where we came from (Valcarlos). Two young pilgrims from South Korea reach the pass at the same time. They look exhausted and thankfully accept the lift to Roncesvalles in our car.

A small and modern chapel greets the pilgrims on the pass. The legend goes that monks used to ring the bell of the chapel to make sure, they do not lose their way in the fog. The chapel is locked. We look through the tiny hole. It is full of atmosphere with the colored windows and the sober altar.

Above the chapel, the Roland monument reminds us that he has been ambushed somewhere here in 778, when returning with Charlemagne from their campaign to Spain. Charlemagne had been called by the governors of the northern Islamic principalities to support them against the Emir of Córdoba. When returning to France, Charlemagne had Pamplona destroyed, before leading his army up to the Puerta de Ibañueta. The Basques revenged the destruction of Pamplona by ambushing the Franconian rear guard led by Roland, governor of the Breton March. This is the monument – the rain has started again.

The hikers on the Way of St. James are directed to use this path down to Roncesvalles, which is at a 2kms’ foot walk from here.

Our exhausted pilgrims happily jump into our car and we drive to Roncesvalles. We settle in the Hotel Roncesvalles. They continue their way to another hostel.


Roncesvalles (Orreage in Basque)

We spend two nights in the cosy Hotel Roncesvalles. Roncesvalles means “valley of thorny bushes”.

The complex of the former Augustinian monastery from the 12th century is beautifully located below green hills and on green meadows.

The emblem of Roncesvalles is the green bishop’s crook. It is present all over here, in windows, on fountains, tombstones, doors, ground slabs etc.

The Collegiate Church Santa Maria is of Gothic style (the construction followed the model of Notre Dame in Paris).

The choir holds the much venerated Virgen de Roncesvalles from the 13th century. It is said that a shepherd found her.

The cloister has been rebuilt after heavy snow falls that made the old gothic cloister collapse.

Sanchez VII, king of Navarra (1194-1234) has been buried here. He is known for the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) which was decisive for the further course of the Spanish Reconquista.

The window above his tomb tells about the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

The Chapel of St. James from the 12th century reflects in the ground slabs that are wet from all the rain of the last days.

In a guided tour, we visit the Museo-Tesorio. Amongst the treasures, we admire the so-called chessboard of Charlemagne. It is not a chessboard, because it has only 63 fields. Furthermore it is not from around 800 (when Charlemagne lived), but it is a beautiful work of email from gothic times (14/15th century). But – it is known as the chessboard of Charlemagne.

As I have just come back from Usbekistan, this map from the early 17th century fascinates me. It shows Central Asia with the country of the Tatars. In the very east, China is presented as a relatively small country, separated from the Tatars by their Chinese Wall.

The sheep of Navarra have black legs, black tails and black faces. There are many of them here. The cheese made from them is called Roncal.

We say good-bye to Roncesvalles and continue to Pamplona.

Marion Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakonsweg”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ortsfildern 2018.