Trekking El País Vasco, Navarra y Aragón

February 2022 —

As part of my time here in Spain, I want to visit all of the autonomous regions in Spain. Thus, two regions of which I had not yet visited were Navarre and Aragón, as well as the coastal area of San Sebastián which is in the Basque Country. In spite of there being less and less Covid-19 travel restrictions, I felt it still was easier to remain in Spain prior to tackling the various requirements of entering and returning from another country. This trip did not disappoint! Picture a landscape where lush green meets deep blue while transcending mountains. For this 3 day and 3 night journey to the Northeastern region of Spain, I wanted to make the most out of my long weekend, or puente as they call it in Spain. 

If you are not familiar with the geographical layout of the regions, this is the zone of Spain that borders France, and as such I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see France’s Atlantic coast from afar. I planned a multi-city journey whereby from San Sebastián and Irún I took a bus to Pamplona and from there a train to the Medieval village of Olite from which I caught a train to the city of Zaragoza. Leaving on a Thursday afternoon and returning on Sunday evening does not seem like too much time, but I can assure you that it was quite jam packed with all you could ask for in an adventure. 

After finishing teaching on Thursday I raced home to eat lunch and complete a few last-minute tasks prior to leaving by metro to catch my four o’clock train. Luckily, I was able to pack everything the night before and I was already wide awake so taking the metro was no problem time wise. Once inside the station I had a slight delay waiting to pass through security, but shortly after, I boarded and found my lovely window seat. The ride from Madrid-Charmartín station to San Sebastián-Donostia is approximately five and a half hours long, so a window seat was a must. 

Given the many transfers and all of the walking that I had planned, I knew that my REI Outfitters 46L Osprey Kyte  backpacking backpack was the best option. Packing super light was my goal for this trip, although I did bring plenty of layers to fend off the wind and chill that comes with being on the ocean in February haha. Additionally, I had enough room for my lunch-pal full of snacks and dinner for my first night. On this trip, I was exceptionally proud to have made a super detailed budget plan. For absolutely all of my journey I only spent 250€!! That is including food, primary transportation, public transport, hostel accommodation, and attraction entrances.  

 

My Travel Course 

San Sebastián y Irún 

Exploring the border of Spain and France led me to visit the ocean in two cities of the Basque Country. When you enter the Basque country you immediately get a sense of green paradise, wispy salty air, and how lively the people are there. After arriving late the night before, it was only a brief walk from the station to the hostel that I had booked for two nights in the city center, A Room in the City Hostel. I reserved a place in a 6-bed all female room with a private bathroom for only 22 euros per night. This was a rad hostel as it had lots of common rooms, a kitchen, a rooftop terrace, and an outside courtyard with tables for sitting. The security is a bit more high-tech as they have ‘electronic wristbands’ for entering/exiting the building, your room, and for securing the storage lockers under the beds in the rooms. I rather liked how there was no need to stress about ones personal belongings and how it gave you flexibility for coming and going. Overall this was an excellent hostel, super clean with friendly staff, and really well located. 

I decided to prepare myself for a full day by departing around 7 a.m. to see the sunrise on the ocean. ‘Twas only a few blocks to the beach and at first there was just a crescent of light in the horizon. What I did not realize is that the sun wouldn’t be directly in line with the beach, Playa de la Concha, so in fact I couldn’t watch the whole thing, but no matter. To be awake at twilight was invigorating for my day ahead. There is also a canal that runs through the city center, but since it is wide open to the ocean the waves roll right through the canal, which is perhaps not the usual situation. It adds a true ocean feel to the city, which I really loved. Next I made my way towards the bus stop to head to the nearby city of Irún to witness first-hand the Atlantic from the perspective of two countries. Along the way I was able to spot a cafe that was open early for a bit of breakfast. The Café Rolls had only just opened but the man working couldn’t have been any friendlier. In Irún, there is an abandoned lighthouse, or Faro Higer, as well as many natural hiking trails along the rocky beaches and mouth of the Bidasoa river. The river is in fact the literal border but from one side to the other is only perhaps fifty yards. As I made my way towards the outer most point of the peninsula I came upon a secret trail that went down to ocean cliffs below.

To my surprise it was magical, imagine exiting a shrub enclosed pathway and suddenly there is ocean spray, sunny sparking waves, and a sailboat in the distance. What was more, there wasn’t another person in sight!! In the distance, you could see the massive waves crashing into the boulders along the French coast. 

A little further down the pathway there was a set of stairs that led to the cobblestone beach. Covered by ferns and vines, the pathways seemed to be like that of a Disney movie. However, enchanting as it was I advise to not be fooled as I was haha. For I no sooner started looking at the assortment of treasures that lay about when I was stuck by a rather large wave. Seriously I felt slightly moronic for letting my guard down but also it was hilarious because I am not accustomed to the ocean movements. Lesson learned! From there I proceeded to follow the path the the tip of the peninsula where the lighthouse is. This part of the shore was more elevated and indeed why they had placed the lighthouse here, but upon noting the smaller rocky island just off the shore I noted that there was a pirate flag in the middle of the largest outcrop. I imagine this would have been prime pirate territory back in the day. I paused to eat my lovely lunch while gazing at the never-ending waves and taking in the calming noises of seagulls and saltwater motions. Late morning, I headed back towards the city center and walked out onto a boardwalk made of large monoliths. The waves were coming in with such a force that their splashes were some 20 feet tall. A short walk later and I was boarding another bus to return to San Sebastián. 

As I made my way towards the main beachfront, Playa de la Concha, where I had been just hours earlier, I happened upon a lovely cafe, Bar Ciaboga, to eat lunch where the local dish of ‘Patatas al ajillo,’ also called Platillo, was served. I would recommend trying these delightful garlic infused potatoes if you find yourself in the locality! Next I proceeded to walk the whole length of the (Playa de la Concha), the main beachfront of the city towards the ‘Antigua San Sebastián,’ or old part of the city. When looking out the beach is rather horseshoe shaped and there is a small island, called Santa Clara Island, where in the busy season you can take a ferry to visit the small chapel perched in the middle of the island. About two thirds of the way you have to climb up a staircase and pass through a really cool pedestrian tunnel that portrays an artists rendering of the beach coast, called Tunel del Antiguo, to then reach the other part of the beach. I will note that these beaches were not abundant with seashells, rather, there were hardly any seashells to be had. But there are incredible layered rock formations that litter the section between the two beach sides. 

Next I knew that I had to do a roundabout and scope out the opposite side of the beach where a family tall hillside peaks over the city below. The hillside park, Parque de Urgull, was once a formidable fortress, called Castillo de la Mota, which was used to protect the seaside port. By the time I climbed and explored every inch of this breath taking ocean fortress there was only an hour or so til the sunset. Thus, I gradually made my way down to the beach for the ideal Spanish oceanside sunset! I often wonder with awe how blissful the simply things are in life, like watching the sun set and rise. For me, it couldn’t be more rejuvenating and captivating at the same time. On my way back to my hostel, I spotted a 24-hour grocery store and decided upon a gourmet salad among other things for my dinner. 

 
Pamplona y Olite 

Waking up before the crack of dawn to catch my bus to Pamplona, Navarre ensured the loveliest starry sunrise for my bus ride. My bus left at 7 a.m. and arrived about 8 a.m. to the central bus station. Before heading out I was able to order a ‘cafe con leche,’ the typical coffee, and a crescent for a quick breakfast inside the station. At first I had been sceptical of the bus stations location, but apparently, it was directly below the train station where I had arrived just two days earlier. Once I arrived I suited up with all the layers that I had because believe it or not it was only about 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Although there are plenty of things to do in Pamplona I was primarily focused on spending got day in Olite. Thus, I only had about an hour and half from when my bus arrived to when my train was leaving for Olite. And these stations were located on opposite sides of the city. So to make the most of my visit I really wanted to view the famous bull running statue, Monumento al Encierro. As it happened this was super close to the bus station and I was able to speed walk over to snap a few pictures and before heading directly to the train station. Since it was a 40 minute walk I needed to hightail it through the bustling morning activities of the city. Along the way, I was able to encounter a fascinating ancient wall system that was once the defence of the city, and I passed through the Portal Nuevo, which was once a main entrance into the city center. With luck by my side I arrived to the train station with just 10 minutes to spare. 

Olite is a very famous Medieval village in the region of Navarre due to its impeccably well preserved castle that engulfs the village below. By train it is approximately 40 minutes from Pamplona. I arrived about 10 a.m. to the delightful peaceful village station, where I was greeted by the Renfe train manager who lives above the station. As it happened, I was the sole passenger to get off at this stop, and he was curious what I had come to see. The station is only about a five minute walk from the town center, and since I am always hungry, I immediately stopped into the first cafe that I saw, Casa Vidaurre – Obrador Artesano. This cafe was nicely lit with all sorts of yummy pastries to gobble down, and that’s just what I did! Here I even learned about another crescent variation called the ‘mariposa’ or butterfly. It is slightly flatter and more buttery, so of course I devoured two plus another coffee. 

Almost the whole of the village is Medieval oriented, so just walking along the winding cobblestone streets is like taking a journey back through time. I paused to enter the Visitors Center prior to entering the Palacio Real de Olite , or the Olite Royal Palace, as it was not quite my entrance time. This is a super unique palace because it was home the Northern rulers of Spain prior to the two kingdoms joining around the year 1500. It was originally built in the 13th century but had some periods of deterioration until it was partially rehabbed in the early 1900s. This is one of the most well preserved castles in all of Spain and as such I just had to explore its wonders! Since I went on a Saturday, it was fairly busy with families from various nearby regions, but that did not take away from the experience. The other small detail that I hoped would not be a problem was that I had my backpacking backpack on me, but the ticket window worker was kind enough to allow me to store my backpack in the office. With the general tickets, you have freedom to explore as you would like and they suggest that your visit should be between one and half to two hours. However, I found the castle to be soo fascinating and neat that I stayed for approximately three hours. They do not have any particular manner in which they regulate ones stay, so I figured what the heck, why not?

Let me tell you, all of the parts of the castle are superb! The little towers are all accessible, the large towers are all climbable, and there is even access up to the tallest rooftop patio. Once I had soaked up my three hour’s worth, I decided to collect my backpack and find a restaurant for some lunch. As it happened, this was also the day of Carnival, a popular holiday even in the villages of Spain. So, at first I could not find a place with available seating, however, I soon found a very adorable restaurant tucked away in a small alley called TXIPI Cerveceria. Here I was able to sit being that I was just one person, and in no time the scrumptious quinoa salad and patatas bravas I ordered were up. To conclude my afternoon there, I discovered some of the various nooks n’ crannies of the village streets before boarding my next train to head to Zaragoza. 

 
Zaragoza 

Zaragoza, Aragón is said to be very picturesque and tourist friendly, and it is known for its Spanish Tapas. My train ride from Olite was approximately two and a half hours, but I did not mind since I watched yet another glorious sunset from my window seat. I arrived to the Zaragoza-Portillo station around 7:30 p.m., and from there it was about a 15 minute walk to the hostel where I was staying, The Botanic Hostel. I had secured a place in another six person all female room with individual lockers for about 22 euros per night. This hostel was quite well located with only a 10 minute walk to the city’s historic center, and offered a super clean kitchen with 24 hour free coffee/tea. Check-in was really easy, but the room was rather dark with the windows having a film layer over them. I admit that this was not the greatest, but I like the rest of the hostel, as well as the price. Overall not a bad place to stay if you find yourself in the city of Zaragoza. That night I happened upon a grocery store where I decided to take a few things back to my hostel since the kitchen and sitting area was so nice. 

The next day I checked out, left my backpack in luggage storage, and set out towards the center in search of a cafe for breakfast. It was a brisk yet sunny Sunday morning, and as such there were very few people out and about. I wandered along the Rio Ebro, or Ebro River taking in the scenic Medieval Roman bridge, the Puente de Piedra, that I could see in the distance. I’ll note that this is the same river that I spent time around on my journey through La Rioja in December. If you did not have the opportunity to read the story, here it is! Making some twists and turns throughout the Plaza del Pilar, I happened to find a swell place to eat breakfast, The Black Horse. What a great little cafe, filled with locals, and delicious pound cake! From there I went straight to the Catedral de Zaragoza, also call Cathedral of the SEO for my 10 a.m. visit. Something that I did not expect, but that is oftentimes common, is the you are not really supposed to take photos while inside. A rather disappointing fact because it is truly astonishing inside, and the craftsmanship of every piece cannot be measured. In combination with this entrance ticket you can scope out the tapestries that are on display in an offshoot of the cathedral. They are so very intricate, and every time I see one I wonder just how much time it took to create. From there I had an entrance to climb the tower of the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, called the Torre Ascensor del Pilar. Prior to entering the backside of the building for the tower entrance, I decided to pass through the inside, but Sunday mass was in progress so I did not want to interrupt the service. The rooftop of this building is in my top five church visits of Spain, for the detail and intricateness of the multicolour rooftop tiles is just gorgeous. To conclude this part of my visit, I made my way to the Museo del Rosario de Cristal, or the Glass Rosary Museum. Although this may not be everyones cup of tea, I felt that viewing the giant glass figures illustrated the detail that is required to form them in the first place. 

Lastly, there is a castle, the Aljafería, in Zaragoza that is certainly worth a visit, for it is filled with timeless Arabic artwork and architecture. To get there from the city center you need to walk for about thirty minutes, so make sure that you arrive on time because they have a process for security control. Once inside the gardens, designs, and stonework are comparable to that of El Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Immense attention to detail is needed to not miss something! I will say that only negative is the they don’t let you access the castle walls and towers which are perhaps the most appealing part from the exterior. Nevertheless, I would suggest encircling the sight afterwards to take in the glory of the building. Upon ending my visit here, I headed back towards the historic center to eat some lunch and then retrieve my backpack. For lunch, I decided upon a pizza place, Cafeteria las Catedrales near the central plaza. It was a good Margherita pizza, and quite cheap! My bus was scheduled to leave around 5 p.m., so afterwards I made my way back to my hostel grabbed my bag and was off to the central bus station. The weather was quite nice by this time, perhaps in the mid 60s Fahrenheit, and as such the 40 minute walk was more than pleasant. I did have some extra time before my bus was scheduled to leave, so I proceeded to reorganise my things. The bus dock was easy to find, and there was a fair amount of people waiting. The boarding process was smooth, and to my surprise this was a double-decker bus! I had never had the opportunity to ride on a double-decker, so of course I had to sit on the upper floor. Finally after about a 4 hour bus ride I returned back to my flat in Madrid Sunday night around 9:30 p.m.. 

 

Journey Advice

All of my entrances were purchased in advance, as was all of my transportation and hostels, hence I did not have any problems entering, coming nor going between locations and sights. I would definitely recommend this because I think that in Zaragoza, for example, you cannot secure entrances that are not otherwise purchased online. When you go online to the website, for the Catedral de Zaragoza, they give you the option to buy the package visit, which I would suggest, since all three only cost me about 7 euros. The entrance for the Palacio Real de Olite was 2 euros, and the Aljafería was only 1 euro – a total of 10 euros. Arriving on time is also essential because they are quite strict with the entrances, though sometimes you can get in 15 minutes early. Therefore, with a little planning ahead, you can secure these tickets without a problem, and for very little ‘pasta,’ or money as they sometimes call it here in Spain. 

Aside from my large backpacking backpack, I brought only a packable mini backpack for my day trips away from the hostels. This I would highly recommend because for a few euros at Decatholon stores in Spain, you can get yourself a nifty weightless 3 or 5 liter backpack that packs into a little ball the size of two fingers. Therefore you are not loosing any space, and it is super easy to just grab the few things you need for the day. Additionally, I always utilize either a small fanny-pack or crossbody when traveling. Given that this was a tip that involved a lot of walking, I opted for the fanny-pack that I can tuck under my inside layers for optimal protection of my valuables.

Lastly, the layers are so so important and I cannot stress enough how vital they are! For this journey I had packed my LL Bean packable Trail Model rain jacket, my LL Bean packable Primaloft Vest, my Blundstone boots, a pair of hiking wind pant to wear over my leggings, lot of wool socks, a hat and gloves, my packable lightweight Eddie Bauer jacket, two different long sleeves, and two different sweaters. With a combination of these items I was never really cold, despite the temperatures hovering near freezing during the mornings and the almost constant wind. As usual, I booked my transportation through a combination of the Spanish Renfe train company and Omio.com app. My hostels were both booked through Booking.com, which I would absolutely suggest using as they are 100% international and once you stay so many nights you start to get discounts which only grow with time. For sleeping in hostels I often bring my Puffle Vegan 40 degree Adventure blanket from SierraMadre and my Westhikers inflatable sleeping mattress pad to ensure a restful nights sleep.

Without a doubt this trip was utterly and completely planned down to every 30 minutes, but it was well worth it and I stayed within my travel budget which can never be a bad thing!!  : ) 

* Don’t forget to check out some of my other tips for a great travel experience!!

San Sebastián

Irún 

Pamplona

Olite

Zaragoza

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