When Spanish diplomats cut their deal to enter the EEC years ago they made a brilliant group of negotiations which brought home the richest package of subsidies of any Common Market country. The result: an incredible burst of prosperity, which transformed the shabby remnants of Franco's legacy into a vibrant economy, a creative hotbed, as well as the world's largest construction site. At one point, only Dubai had more cranes at work. Happily, some of the wealth went to significant place branding, a vast improvement of the road system, and admirable infrastructure development. Spain today is modern, connected, yet still in touch with its rich cultural heritage.
The Navarre region, which sits to the northeast of Barcelona on the road to Pamplona, is small enough to drive end-to-end in a day, but you could easily spend a week looking around. It stretches all the way to the French border. Think of a letter Y, backslanted. At the bottom point of the Y sits Zaragosa, a fine southern port of entry to the region, home to a spiffy new airport. There are regular, cheap flights available from all the European capitals. An unhurried atmosphere prevails. If you return your rental car after hours you just park it in the parking lot, note the space number, and drop your keys and the ticket at the drop box, no sweat. Drive 75km northwest, to the point where the two arms of the Y branch out and you reach the city of Tudela, founded in the 9th century, today's population around 35,000. The city enjoys a reputation as a place where Christians, Moslems and Jews lived together peacefully for over 400 years. What's attracted people to Tudela in the past has been a famous Easter pageant, baroque architecture, a medieval bridge over the river Ebro, old city walls and the medieval Jewish quarter, still intact. It's a charming, modest, quiet, slow-moving place.
Hip people have been drawn to Tudela in the last couple years by Aire de Bardenas, a boutique property of 22 rooms, dramatically situated on the outskirts of town on an elevated plateau just below a wind farm. The property sits at the edge of the Bardenas Reales, an extensive, semi-desert-like unpopulated area with striking geologic formations. The hotel has been featured in every major design and architecture magazine in the world, recipient of many awards and the darling of travel magazines. It's a minimalist construction with container-like residence cubes interconnected by glass-walled geometric passageways. You feel like you've stepped into the set for a fashion shoot, or perhaps a sci fi movie. The very austere lodgings turn out to be surprisingly comfortable, and Habitacion 22 has the best view, privacy, and a cast iron outdoor tub, an amazing place to just soak at dusk and stare at turbines lazily rotating on the distant horizon. The hotel has its own organic vegetable garden, and a well-regarded restaurant, a medium size meeting room, isolation, agreeable staff who have seen it all owing to so much press and attention. One definitely has the feeling of being supremely cool there, and the location is optimal for day trips throughout the Navarre. It has calm and tranquility to recommend it, a fine lodging to come home to each night. Might be a suitable venue for a small corporate meeting or retreat, or a mountain biking holiday due to the flatness of the surrounding terrain.
The city of Tudela is good for one afternoon walk, and tapas at an outdoor table in the town square, not a lot more. The taperia 'San Jaime' in the Plaza San Jaime has good food, reasonable prices and a lively young crowd in the evening. Include a day trip into the Bardenas Reales as part of your itinerary: it takes a half-day, easily navigable by good surface roads, or some rougher unpaved routes. Long hiking paths can be found, and well-marked bike trails. Bring drinking water.
Head 80km to the northwest and you arrive in the city of Logroño, capital of the Rioja wine region, at the upper left point of the Y. While not particularly well-known outside of Spain, Logroño is a prosperous, modern city with a thriving night life, wonderful tapas bars, exceptional food and outstanding wines. The city's broad boulevards fronted by 60s-style highrises recollect Miami or Beverly Hills, expressing a confident and unexpectedly cosmopolitan air. You can tour some of the higher profile wineries who send their vast production -the largest in Spain- all over the world. But a visit to a smaller viñedo reveals the process at a more human scale where the handmade aspect of winemaking can be appreciated up close. Consistently fine wines in Spain are made under the brand name Contino, whose vineyards are an easy 25 minute drive north of the city. The Contino winery is set on an alluvial plain whose terraces slope gently west to a bend in the Ebro, a perfect microclimate for raising grapes. The quality shows in the finished product, result of meticulous craft devoted to intentionally low production. Both Contino's Gran Riserva and Graciano of any vintage would make excellent bottles to take home.
On the other stem of the Y, 40km north of Tudela you reach Olite, seat of the Count of Navarre in the era of Carlos III (1387-1425). This medieval town on a hill, has a low skyline dominated by the silhouette of the Palacio Real. Built in the French Gothic style, it contains all the sumptuous features of the best French palaces of the time. You can walk at your own speed through a complex of rooms, gardens, moats or patios, surrounded by high walls, a constellation of towers rising overhead, and views of the countryside from all the ramparts.
Olite turns out to be another of those unknown treasures you find along the road. Its narrow medieval streets are lined with noble houses and Renaissance and Baroque palaces. La Joyosa Guarda, an interesting hotel renovation behind ancient walls, tucked away on the Rúa de Medios, has modern design and conveniences, but the rooms inexplicably do not have safes. Strange! Everything else about this hotel is wonderful, especially helpful staff and the advantage of a private garage. Another big plus is the hotel's kitchen: the owner doubles as the chef, and he knows his food, only working with local and seasonal fare, including serving his own label of wine and olive oil. This is a restaurant worth trying and every meal taken there was a winner. A block from the hotel is the Casa del Preboste restaurant. It says pizzeria on the outside, but don't let that deter you. Walk in, go all the way through the smoky bar to the back wall, and behind the swinging doors you'll find a sit-down restaurant which faces a wall-sized open fireplace where meats are being grilled. Defintiely eat there, order beef chops and lamb chops, a plate of pinchos, some fried potatoes and a bottle of the local Rioja. The server doesn't speak English, but it doesn't matter, you'll be understood. Few tourists go to this place: it's all locals. Prices are reasonable, and the flavors authentic.
It's only 40km to the northwest of Olite to Pamplona. Much has been written about this bustling city of 250,000, and its yearly running of the bulls. Those descriptions are best left to Papa Hemingway, and you are advised to wave hello as you drive by, and instead head west through lush mountain valleys of the Pyrenees, towards the coast, to Bilbao, a comfortable ride of about an hour and a half. Gehry's Guggenheim Museum focused attention on a place that had lost its vigor, delivered to Bilbao a global profile, revived tourism, turned a forgotten backwater of a million residents on the Bay of Biscay into a happening destination filled with groovy people. Yet the architect's grandiose statement sits on the bank of the river Nervión like an oversize piece of klunky reflective jewelry, an incongruous monument to the ego, with a dysfunctional interior guaranteed to induce vertigo or acute disorientation. Huge works by Richard Serra are displayed in a vast hall, yet claustrophobia happens and his remarkable sculptures definitely want more space to breathe. This Guggenheim is a must-see, and speaks so eloquently about the time we live in, where works of art get housed in gaudy, thin-skinned barns, and people who call themselves artists build huge replicas of cutesy puppy dogs covered in flowers. You can be back in Olite in time for dinner.
About 10km north of Olite you'll find the turnoff for Sangüesa, on the banks of the River Aragon, an historic town (population 5,000) whose origins can be traced back to the Bronze Age, and once a traditional stopover on the ancient pilgrim's route to San Juan Compostela. Important Roman ruins can still be visited there. Until around 1500, this was a strategic hotpoint in the defense of the Navarre against the adjacent kingdom of Aragon, which lies to the west. The old quarter has some lovely classical facades, but unless churches and convents interest you, continue through town and follow the road northwest into the hills to the Castillo de Javier, an impressive restoration with a fine museum. Several good hotels and restaurants stand next to the castle, and it's an excellent stopover on the ride through the mountain passes, which lead into Aragon. Sos del rey Catolico, a resort town at the crest of the range, has quaint walking streets and good hotels, with views of forest and gorges, all very picturesque. You continue down the hill headed south, passing old castles and small settlements, onto the flats.
Ctra. Ejea NA- 125 Km 1,5
+34 948 11 66 66
La Joyosa Guarda
Rúa de Medios, 23
+34 948 741 304
Casa del Preboste
Rúa Mirapies, 8
+34 948 71 22 50
Finca San Rafael
+34 945 600 201