The Valle de Roncal – Navarre

August 17th, 2009 | Written by Simon Rice|

The Valle de Roncal, in the extreme east of the Autonomous Community of Navarre, runs due north and  is deep and dark, with dense, seemingly impenetrable forest lining the steep mountainsides. But at the extreme head of the valley, beyond its ‘capital’ Isaba (Izaba in Basque) the valley of the river Belagua takes a turn for the east and opens out very markedly.

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This area, known as the Macizo de Larra is based on karstic rock formations, one of the most important in Europe. The formation has been widened by the effects of glaciation that allows long daylight hours and encourages the growth of deciduous trees at higher altitude than is usual. The area is notable for its virgin forest, especially with the presence of beech (Fagus sylvatica) and we walked among them, following a marked trail, the Mata de Haya, in the Reserva integral del barranco de Aztaparreta nature reserve.

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The dark, dense and damp forest made a sharp contrast to our home in Catalonia; the other end of the Pyrenees does not benefit from the Atlantic weather systems and by July we yearn for the temperate climate enjoyed by lands on the Atlantic seaboard – including the British Isles! It’s strange to see plants and flowers that were once too common to be of any note to us; we haven’t seen bracken in half a dozen years and the common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) seems exotic to our eyes!

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Indeed, the lush vegetation seemed voluptuous, tropical even, in the mid-summer heat (rare for the western Pyrenees – and only in the daytime as we were to discover later whilst camping at Isaba!). A paradox here is that although the pine forests of the Mediterranean regions are quicker growing, they don’t exude the sense of flux, the physiology if you will, of deciduous growth – and death!

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Leaving the forest via the summer pastures it was difficult to imagine how much the scene would be different in winter, but we have vowed to return in the autumn. The herdsmen, (and women!) return with their cattle to the tiny, close knit village communities like Isaba or Roncal itself – the latter giving its name both to the valley and the famous, and delicious, sheep’s milk, Queso de Roncal, which is a mainstay of the local economy.

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Isaba has a grim, rather unfriendly face, much to do with the severe black masonry of its older buildings and their forbidding adornments.

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But the people themselves were warm and welcoming, despite the obvious impact of tourism, which is also vital to the economy there. Friends, even Catalan friends, all agreed that we would eat well in Navarre, and indeed we did – what a pleasure it must be to garden here with all this lovely water to hand!

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