The ancient land of Navarre (Navarra in Spanish, Nafarroa in Basque) shares a 130km (81-mile) frontier with France, with nine crossing points. This province with a strong Basque tradition is an important link between Iberia and the rest of the Continent.
As a border region, Navarre has seen its share of conflict, and to this day the remains of lonely castles and fortified walled towns bear witness to that. But somehow this kingdom, one of the most ancient on the peninsula, has managed to preserve its own government and identity. Romans, Christians, Muslims, and Jews have all left their stamp on Navarre, and its architecture is as diverse as its landscape. It is also a province rich in folklore. Pagan rites were blended with Christian traditions to form a mythology that lives on today in Navarre's many festivals. Dancers and singers wear the famous red berets, the jota is the province's most celebrated folk dance, and its best-known sport is pelota -- sometimes called jai alai in other parts of the world.
Navarre is also rich in natural attractions, but most foreign visitors miss them when they come in July to see the Fiesta de San Fermín and the running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona, Navarre's capital and major city. Even if you do visit for the festival, try to explore some of the panoramic Pyrenean landscape.
Adjoining Navarre is La Rioja, the smallest region of mainland Spain -- bordered not only by Navarre but also by Castile and Aragón. Extending along the Ebro River, this province has far greater influence than its tiny dimensions would suggest because it is one of the most important winegrowing districts in Europe. The land is generally split into two sections: Rioja Alta, which gets a lot of rainfall and has a mild climate, and Rioja Baja, which is much hotter and more arid, like Aragón. The capital of the province is Logroño, a city of some 200,000 that links the two regions.
The most-visited towns are Logroño and Haro, the latter known for its wineries. Santo Domingo de la Calzada was a major stop on the ancient pilgrims' route on the way to Santiago de Compostela, while Nájera once served as capital for the kings of Navarre. Now little more than a village, it lies along the Najerilla River.