Today we set out to explore, for the first time, the two most remote northern valleys of Navarra : Valle de Roncal y Valle de Salazar . It was, initially, just the Roncal we set out to explore – drawn by the prospect of tracing those wonderful Roncal cheeses back to their source at the foot of the Pyrenees ; but lacking any concrete information on where to go – and lacking confidence in our language skills to ask anyone, we came home without any cheese – but by no means disappointed with our day out. We had intended also to hike amongst the mountain forests and streams, but whilst just 60 miles south back at home in home in San Martín de Unx it was above 10ºC, in the Roncal there was frost on the ground even at mid-day, and much of the valley remained in the shadow of the hills all day long.
So, instead of time well spent hunting cheeses and communing with the trees and water nymphs, we contented ourselves with café con leche y pinchos in Isaba (principal settlement of the Roncal), and ticked the ‘mountain-climbing’ box with a drive up to the head of the valley and then up the mountainside and – at 1800m / 6000ft altitude, and rubbing shoulders with the snowy peaks! – we crossed over the border into France.
I say France, but our daughter Catherine – showing proper loyalty to her husband’s cultural roots – says Iparralde : which in Basque means ‘North Country’ or something similar. Iparralde is that part of the medieval Kingdom of Navarra which lay north of the high peaks of the Pyrenees, and which – torn off from Navarra more than 500 years ago by dynastic politics and the sword – eventually became an integral part of modern France – just as Navarra is now an autonomous province of Spain.
Anyway, Catherine messaged us by WhatsApp to warn that the road down to Iparralde was extremely difficult driving, so at a big lay-by just before the road started it’s roller-coaster descent into France (sorry, Catherine – I forgot!), we turned about and headed back to the green alpine meadows at the head of the Roncal valley. There, we turned west for yet more hair-pins and switchbacks, crossing into neighbouring Valle de Salazar.
The Salazar valley, being wider-bottomed than the Roncal – thereby letting in more light, is also more fertile and productive ; and having easier connections by road with the rest of Navarra, it also has a significantly larger population and a greater variety of public and commercial services.
In the principal settlement of the valley, Ochagavia, as in Isaba, the air is scented heavily with wood smoke. The houses of the prominent families (of the late 18thC, that is) and the public buildings are laid out formally along both sides of the valley, facing each other across the Salazar river. But where Isaba, with its houses and churches tumbling untidily among the buttresses of opposing mountainsides, has an air of stoic self-sufficiency, Ochagavia carries itself with an air of self-importance … except, that is, when a herd of the Navarran Letxa sheep are driven through town, to pastures new!