Autonomous Community Spotlight: Navarra

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

spain collage

Navarre, to me, has always been a funny place – it’s wedged between the Basque country, France and the ancient kingdom of Aragón (plus La Rioja), making it a hotbed when it comes to political upheaval and culture.

Even if you can’t place it on a Spanish map, if you grew up in the USA and took literature class, you’d know it’s famous hijo adoptivo, Ernest Hemingway, who put Pamplona and the San Fermines festivals on the map.

Name: The Kingdom of Navarre, or Navarra in Spanish

Population: 647,000, with over a third in the capital city of Pamplona

Navarra Spain

Provinces: Just one, with the administrative capital in Pamplona.

When: 9th of 17, March 2008

About Navarra: Navarra has a strange mix of Visigoth, Basque, French and Mediterranean heritage and has been populated since before Roman times by the Vascones, a precursor to the Basque peoples. And throughout the jockeying between kingdoms, the navarros remained fiercely independent – even today, their tax system is kept local instead of being relegated to the central government, a responsibility that few autonomías have.

The name of Navarre has two widely-believed hypotheses: either nabar, a Basque word meaning ‘brown’ or ‘ruddish,’ and, more commonly, nava, which refers to the wide plain. Regardless, the linguistic heritage hints at the region’s origins.

pamplona houses

It’s a doozy, so I’m going to sum it up quickly:

Before the Navarrese kingdom was established in 934, Navarra was: Vascon, then conquered by Charlemagne, Basque, then Moorish, followed by a stint under the Franks. Rebel leaders then took control, but the Basques defeated them and ruled for 80 years. Borders changed frequently, and Pamplona and Navarre were considered to be two different entities for decades.

In 934, Sancho II declared himself King of Navarra, and under the successive king, the region grew prosperous, thanks to the fertile plains and trade routes. Sancho III, long considered one of Spain’s great rulers, expanded his kingdom before his death, upon which he left great claims of land to his four sons. This would alter the course of the kingdom – of both Navarre and Spain – over time.

But not without a fight – the kingdom jockeyed once more between French dynasties because of marriages and treaties. It didn’t give into pressure from Castilla to join the Inquisition but its greatest cities fell in the Battles of Chambrai to the strong Spanish crown. Nowadays, Spain’s coat of arms bears the navarro flag.

Pamplona scenes

The region remained mostly independent, prospering under individual fueros, or power holds governed by local law. But with the Spanish Constitution of 1812, all fueros lost power, eventually leading to the Carlist wars of the 19th century (and possible origin of the word guiri!) – and its eventual inclusion under the Spanish crown. 

Must sees: Navarra boasts its own wine region, lies along the French route of the Camino de Santiago and is home to one of Spain’s most globally known festivals. The Holy Trinity of navarro tourism is rural tourism, the region’s history and the Running of the Bulls. 

Rural and outdoor tourism is an important crux of local employment and income, and the so-named “Land of Diversity” offers mountains, a deep river basin and plenty of outdoor activities, like hiking and rafting, and nearly a dozen national parks and forests. This means that local meats and cheeses are also exquisite! The Camino de Santiago also passes through the Pyrenees on the Spanish side, Pamplona and several small towns before crossing into La Rioja.

Navarra was truly a sought land, thanks to its strategic position and fertile valley. As evident above, cultures clashed and left their mark on this region. Apart from Pamplona, check out the Frankish castle of Olite, the medieval stone towns like Roncesvalles, and monasteries dotting the little-used highways.


The Running of the Bulls, or Sanfermines festival, is undoubtedly the most famous Spanish festival, characterized by terrifying races, bullfights and parades. After the chupinazo rocket has been sent into the sky, signaling the start of the party, revelers have a week dedicated to the province’s patron saint, said to have been killed and dragged thru the streets, with angry bulls charing after him.

Nowadays, Navarra retains its linguistic and cultural heritage thanks to deep-rooted values. It almost seems a little behind the times, in the best sense of the word.

My take: We only spent a day in Navarra, visiting Pamplona on a cold March day when we were staying in San Sebastián. I was impressed with the tenacity of the people we met, at the rural landscapes ranging from mountains to lush valleys and the small but quaint old city. There is even a small animal park tucked into an old city fortress, so I was won over immediately.

Like nearly the all places in Span I’ve visited, I’d like to go back!

Have you ever been to Navarra? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña | Extremadura | Galicia | La Rioja | Madrid | Murcia

Uno de enero, dos de febrero…Experiencing the San Fermines festival of Pamplona

Author’s note: This article was written by a guest author. While I have been to quaint Pamplona, I have never seen the bullfights or the running of the bulls that has made this city so famous. Therefore, none of the sentiments expressed in the post belong to me or to Sunshine and Siestas.

What images appear in anyone’s mind when they encounter the words “tour,” “tourist,” “touring,” or “leisure travel”? For me, it brings back memories of my stay in some of the best hotels in Costa Brava, my scuba diving adventure off the coast in Thailand, my long-distance trekking in the Lower Himalayas, and other countless visits in top destinations in the world. However, I’ve always known that tourism is more than that. It includes interacting with locals, tasting local cuisine in the region’s humble restaurants, learning more about the region’s history, shopping and haggling in bazaars and souks, or discovering less-known areas. In other words, to truly complete and enjoy a tour, I usually make an effort to experience a nation’s culture first-hand by doing what locals do every day.

Through my experiences, I learned that one of the best ways to experience a region’s culture is to witness and, better yet, join its festivals. Festivals embody and encapsulate a lot of the nation’s history and culture in a single event. For locals, it is a way to commemorate something significant, historical, or inspirational that made them the way they are today. For tourists, partaking in a festival is a way to learn something about the place while having a great deal of fun.

San Fermines

Spain is one of those countries where festivals are seemingly almost a daily occurrence, which is not surprising considering that it has a rich history and culture whose influence echoes to almost every corner of the world. Each Spanish city, town, village, or municipality may have its own plethora of festivals. And in Pamplona in Navarre, Spain, tourists can have more than just travel and leisure when they partake of the festival of San Fermin, locally known as San Fermines.

The festival, which is celebrated from July 7 to July 14 every year, is held in honour of the co-patron saint of Navarre, St. Fermin, which the festival is named after. It is considered as the one of the most popular and well-attended festival in Spain. In fact, every year, vastly more than 1 million people participate in the San Fermines.  During the festival, the entire populace wears white shirts and red scarves.  I’ve witnessed the San Fermines celebration – it’s spectacular!

Daily Events

Each day of the San Fermines festival is marked by daily activities that are fun, and sometimes dangerous, apart from the festival’s main attraction.

The Running of the Bulls – this event, which begins at 8 AM every day, involves masses of people running for their lives in front of enraged bulls: six bulls to be exact! The participants run half a mile of narrow streets in a part of old Pamplona, a run that usually lasts for 3 minutes, while being chased by big, strong bulls. The run ends at the bullring where the beasts will be held until the bullfight in the afternoon. Needless to say, the event is inherently dangerous. (Cat has walked these narrow, slippery cobblestone streets – it’s not for the faint of heart!)

The Parade of Giants – every morning from July 7 to 8, a parade of giant mascots is held in the streets of Pamplona. The giants, some of them over 150 years old, represent the rulers of different places and races. A skilled performer “wears” the giant costume while dancing to the rhythm of classical Spanish music. It’s a fun event as the giants playfully run after children.


Bullfights – Spain has always been associated with bullfights. Each afternoon from July 7 to 14, fully costumed toreros step out into the arena and perform their dance with angry, powerful bulls. The stadium is always full during the afternoon, and those interested are advised to book tickets ahead of time if they wish to check out bullfights.

Classical sports – Forget football, basketball, and other modern Spanish sports. During the San Fermines festival, tourists and locals are re-introduced to traditional Basque sports that were once played hundreds of years ago. Every afternoon, in a square near the city’s citadel or bullring, local Spaniards and tourists either watch or participate in sports like hay bale lifting, woodcutting, stonelifting, and Jai ali. You can bet on your favourite “athlete,” by the way.

Fireworks Shows – at the end of the day, the city launches a fireworks show. These colourful shows in the sky have been a part of San Fermines since 1595, and  Pamplona has been hosting international fireworks competitions since 2000. During the night, thousands of people sit down on the grass around the city park to marvel at the exploding, brilliant colours in the night sky.

Take part of the San Fermines, one of the most popular festivals in Spain.

Author bio: Ariana Louis is a backpacker, traveller, and blogger. For more than a decade, she has experienced spending hotels in Costa Brava, exploring the jungles of Thailand, hiking the wilderness of the Lower Himalayas, and travelled to the corners of the globe. She keeps a cool photo blog of her adventures which also includes practical travel and adventure tips.

I’m headed to the Tomatina festival this August, a bit more my style than the heart-pounding (not to mention, life-threatening) action. Have you ever been to the San Fermines festival? Was it absolutely mad?!

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