Navarra is an ancient and independent kingdom that has been at the crossroads of European history for more than 1,200 years—and has played a role in history that is far larger than its geographic size. Located in the foothills of the Pyrenees between France and Spain, Navarra shares a role in the history of both countries, while still retaining its unique character as part of Spain.
Under Roman rule in the 1st Century A.D., Navarrans were governed with a light hand—able to retain their Basque language and culture while gaining Roman architecture as well as the Roman city of Pamplona, today the capital of Navarra . In the early 8th Century, while most of Spain was being conquered by the Moors, Navarra managed to fend off a Moorish foothold in the region. Navarra was thrust into fame when Charlemagne and his Frankish armies successfully conquered the region. It was during this time that the legendary knight Roland fought his epic battle that has been immortalized by the Chanson de Roland (one of the oldest known works of French literature). Roland was killed and Charlemagne defeated by a guerilla band of Basques during this battle at the Roncevaux Pass between France and Spain. Often thought of as a battle between Christians and the Muslim Moors, this was actually a fight of Christians against Christians—Franks against Basques who were unhappy with their treatment at the hands of Charlemagne.
Charlemagne’s retreat from the region in the 780s did not last long. He and his armies later returned to northern Spain and extended Frankish rule into the south. Within the territory he captured, called Marca Hispanica, Charlemagne created a province which acted as a buffer zone between his empire and the Muslims in the south—making Navarra an important frontier between Islam and Christianity. In the 11th Century, Navarra became an incredibly powerful Kingdom under King Sancho III, gaining control of all of Christian Spain.
During the Crusades, Navarra and its capital, Pamplona, became an important gathering point on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Twelfth century guidebooks recommend the wine of Navarra to pilgrims making the journey. Along with Canterbury, Camino de Santiago or St James Way is one of the great pilgrimage routes in Europe. This steady traffic of religious visitors from all over Europe gave Navarra exposure to many different cultures and traditions, including contact with winemakers in the major wine regions of France.
After the death of King Sancho III and divided rule by his sons, the 12th Century brought new alliances–Princess Berenice of Navarra was the wife of the legendary Richard the Lionheart, King of England, and that marriage created a strong tie between the two kingdoms. French rule came to the region in the 13th Century and was maintained for the next 300 years. King Henri of Navarra became King Henri IV of France. Perhaps most importantly, it was King John II of Navarra who arranged the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castilla, a marriage that not only succeeded romantically, but also created the political union that became imperial and now modern-day Spain.
The region today remains an autonomously ruled kingdom within Spain. Navarra’s capital, the lovely city Pamplona, is famous for its festival of San Fermin and the running of the bulls through the ancient historic center. San Fermin is the social expression of a local culture. In this week-long festival, the city comes alive with hundreds of thousands of people, all celebrating a history and shared experience that goes back more than a thousand years. And while the early morning running of the bulls is the signature event of the San Fermin Festival, it lasts only a few minutes. Far more time is spent in parks, plazas, and streets of Pamplona, singing the traditional songs of Navarra, dancing to the sounds of the traditional bands, and drinking the rich wines of the region.