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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


Navarra Revisited: A Pyreneen Odyssey

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Lacha sheep grazing in the Navarran Pyrenees.
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Text & Photographs copyright 2010 by Gerry Dawes
(Contact for publishing rights.)

(Author's version of an article (without the map) that originally appeared in
The Sunday New York Times - Travel Section, June 12, 1994.)

Navarra, the northern Spanish province that shares a wild stretch of the western Pyrenees with France, has long been one of my favorite places. This fascinating region has some of Spain's most beautiful scenery, important historical sights, excellent cuisine, good wine, and a recently developed network of private lodgings that makes travel there downright cheap.

Navarra's spectacular terrain runs the gamut from snowy Pyrenean peaks soaring above wild canyons and pristine green valleys to terraced vineyards and shimmering heat-baked southern hills that overlook farms growing superb white asparagus, red peppers, and artichokes. Picturesque villages, medieval castles, and major shrines on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim's road to Santiago de Compostela, grace this former kingdom (from 1234-1512, Navarra included part of southern France).

Castillo de Olite (Navarra).

On my fifty-odd visits to Navarra since 1970, I often attended Pamplona's Fiestas de San Fermín, made famous by Ernest Hemingway; stayed in storybook Olite; made pilgrimages to Camino de Santiago sights--Romanesque Sangüesa, monumental Estella, and Puente la Reina's lovely 12th-century bridge; malingered in Jewish-Moorish Tudela; and photographed the harvest that produces Navarra's lovely dry rosados (roses) and sturdy reds.

Because of what must be an atavistic attraction to Spain's mountain villages, it was inevitable that I would re-explore those of Navarra, so when I read about a local network of family homes offering bed and breakfast for under $15 a night (mid-1990s prices!!; now they cost from $40-$60), I made plans to return. Many of these lodgings, called casas rurales after the stone village houses and huge stone farmhouses typical of this region, are in the heart of the Pyrenees, where cold trout rivers rush through mystical stands of beech trees into deep-green valleys sheltering some of Spain's least-spoiled villages - - Burguete in the Irati river valley, Ochagavia in the Salazar valley, and Roncal and Isaba in Roncal Valley.

To stimulate this isolated region's economy, which once depended on timber sales, sheep, and handicrafts, the Navarrese government made low interest loans to villagers willing to renovate their homes to accommodate tourists, mostly Spaniards who come here for skiing, hiking, mountain climbing, cave exploring, cycling, fishing, and hunting (wild boar, deer, partridge). Now that Spain's famous paradores have become expensive, casas rurales are Spain's lodging bargains of the 1990s.

Some casas rurales offer home-cooked meals. The Navarrese are noteworthy cooks and many families grow their own vegetables and make ewe's milk cheeses and cuajada (a delicious yogurt-like dessert). Even if meals aren't offered, most Pyrenean towns have simple restaurants serving such typical dishes as espárragos blancos (white asparagus), alubias (bean stew),  pochas (delectable, fat, cranberry bean-like white beans cooked with chorizo and, sometimes quail), pimientos rellenos (stuffed peppers), huevos revueltos (eggs scrambled with mushrooms, green garlic shoots, shrimp, etc.), fresh trucha (trout) from Pyreneen rivers, costillas de cordero (lamb chops), and cuajada (northern Spain's wonderful, yogurt-like ewe's milk dessert, complete only when you add wild mountain honey)In spring and autumn, there are dishes with exceptional native hongos (mushrooms). This good country cuisine is usually accompanied by one of Navarra's first-rate rosados (rosés) or sturdy reds. And usually, for an after-dinner drink, homemade Navarrese Patxaran, a potent anís liqueur in which sloe berries are macerated for several months, sometimes with a few coffee beans. 

Navarra rosado.

I decided to begin my trip in the spring of 1994 with a nostalgic drive up to Burguete and on to Ochagavia for the night, explore the Salazar Valley the next day, and end up in Roncal the following night. I first stopped at the Tourist Office of Navarra in Pamplona (see box), where the multi-lingual staff found rooms at casas rurales in Ochagavia and Roncal.

On the road to Burguete, I saw emerald-green pastures and tawny, fresh cut wheat fields whose straw bales would provide comfort this winter to the stocky cattle the Basque farmers raise here. I passed pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, cyclists on mountain bikes, and fishermen heading for trout streams. I was reminded of scenes in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises when Jake Barnes rode atop a bus up these mountain roads drinking from wine skins offered by friendly Basques. Re-reading Don Ernesto’s passages, I found his descriptions still good. In some places, little has changed.

In the 1970s my late former wife Diana and I used to go to Burguete in early July with Alice Hall, the late irrepressible doyen of Spain aficionados. We would spend a quiet time in the pastoral farming villages of these verdant mountains before surrendering to the cacophonous joys of Pamplona's wild fiesta. We would read, stroll along the road to Roncesvalles picking wild strawberries, and have long talks about Spain over dinners irrigated with plenty of vino tinto.  

 Hostal Burguete, Burguete.

We stayed at Hostal Burguete, which was still much in style and comfort, or the lack of, as when Hemingway stayed there in the 1920s and made it the setting for several scenes in The Sun Also Rises– Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton came here to trout fish on the Irati, a good hike east. The hostal's owners claim the upright piano is the one mentioned in the novel. Under the lid is Don Ernesto's picture and "E. Hemingway" and the date 25-7-1923 scratched in the wood (there is reason to be skeptical about Hemingway scratching his name on the hotel piano).

Trout fishing in a Pyreneen river.

The Camino de Santiago crosses the French border 15 miles north of Burguete and winds through the hills above Roncesvalles where Charlemagne's nephew Roland was immortalized in the epic French poem, Chanson de Roland. The Roncesvalles woods are a mystical place haunted by the spirit of Roland and by the millions of Santiago-bound pilgrims who have tread this ground. Seeking a respite from the fiesta in Pamplona, every year Diana and I used to bring a group of San Fermín celebrants up here. In the deep-green mossy forest's icy rivulets, we cooled our wine, melons, and other picnic items for glorious camaraderie-filled al fresco luncheons.

The much restored 12th-century monastery of Roncesvalles, was a proud hospital and hospice for pilgrims, renowned for its hospitality - - good food, real beds, and a cobbler. Of interest here is the 13th-century Virgin of Roncesvalles, a Gothic cloister, King Sancho VII of Navarra's pantheon, and a treasury with several venerated objects of colorful heritage.


On this trip I could spend only a few moments in Burguete - - stopping for coffee at a bar, gazing wistfully at our old Hostal Burguete haunt and paying homage to Alice Hall, who had died in February at age 90. I had to press on to Ochagavia before night-fall. Driving along curvy, well-paved roads through rocky green forests, I passed pretty, bucolic Garralda; Aribe with its fine medieval bridge over the Irati; and Garayoa with its 13th-century Gothic church.

Abaurrea Baja / Abaurrepea in the Spanish Navarran Pyrenees.

High escarpments towered over the twisting roads to Puerto de Abaurrea pass (3320 feet), where I got my first glimpse of the dramatic, snow-capped Pyrenean peaks, now suffused with a lovely peach glow in the late afternoon sun. Several miles of hairpin turns led me down a dramatic valley past Ezcároz, an attractive village on the swift Salazar river just below Ochagavia, the Salazar valley's main town.

Quintessentially Pyrenean, Ochagavia is charming mountain-bound village of just under 800 inhabitants that is laid out along two sizeable streams, the Zatoya and the Anduña, which form the Salazar just south of town. A passerby showed me to Casa Osaba, a big stone house on a cobblestoned street. Gabriela Moso, the owner, led me up two flights to a plank-floored bedroom with an armoire, a big bed with warm coverlets, and a night stand with the obligatory Spanish dim-bulbed lamp. Down the hall, Señora Moso showed me a new, spotless bathroom with plenty of hot water. The family's second floor dining room/living room had a big table, a fireplace also used for cooking, a pair of armchairs, a television, and a few decorations including a herrada, a gleaming brass-and-steel inverted-cone shaped utensil - - once used to carry water - - that has now become an object of folk art. Gabriela invited me to return for dinner at 10 p.m.

I took advantage of the remaining light to explore the picturesque village and look for some tapas (hors d'oeuvres). Most of the houses are two- and three-story stone homes with white facades, tiled roofs, shuttered windows, and geranium-filled wrought iron balconies. The dates (1768, 1908, 1926) on arched stone portals above the wooden doors, speak for the durability of these homes. The rough streets are hand-paved with river stones.

I crossed a quaint stone bridge over the swift Anduña and found the Pension Auñamendi, whose upstairs restaurant offers an inexpensive menu, but alas, there were no tapas at the ground floor bar, where some men were playing cards. As I returned to Casa Osaba, wood smoke curling from the village's chimneys laced the fresh mountain air with a homey smell that sharpened my hunger. I hoped Gabriela was a cook worthy of Navarra's culinary reputation.

In the dining room, I met Gabriela's family: Her husband, daughter, grandson, and her son-in-law, who spends his days near Tudela tending a large herd of sheep. In front of the crackling fire, Gabriela and her daughter served us a fine salad of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and white asparagus; garlicky green beans and potatoes; merluza rebozada (hake in batter); pork chops grilled in the fireplace; and fresh cherries. The wine was a decent rosado, purchased in bulk at Puente la Reina.  After dinner, there was coffee and homemade patxaran, Navarra's sloe berry-anise liqueur. After the pacharán and an amiable chat about life in America, I went to bed, quickly gave up reading in the dim light, burrowed under the covers, and slept soundly until morning light. I came down to toasted pan, butter, and homemade plum jam; galletas, the snap cookies ubiquitous to Spain's breakfast tables; and good coffee. Bed and breakfast was about $12).

Pacharan Navarro, homemade in most of the rural lodgings of the Navarran Pyrenees.

From Ochagavia I followed the Salazar down the valley through fresh forests punctuated by awesome cliffs, striking rock formations, and green hills with grazing sheep. The ancient stone houses, block-tower churches, cobbled streets, and rustic bridges give this valley's fifteen villages a medieval air. Below Ezparza, a pretty, photogenic village with a three-arched Romanesque bridge, an impressive 16th-century church, and a large pisifactoria (trout farm), the scenery gets very dramatic as the road goes through spectacular gorges with falcons soaring above them. Beyond the gorges, fields of flaming-red poppies lined the road to Navascués, where I stopped to admire the 12th-century Romanesque church of Santa María del Campo, which stands in ancient solitude alongside the village cemetery southwest of town.

North of Navascués, the road to Roncal becomes much rougher, curving up steep, craggy, pine-covered hills to the pass of Las Coronas (3120 feet), where a spectacular vista overlooks the vast Valle del Roncal and its awesome backdrop of snow-covered peaks.

After nine more miles of beautiful, but twisting, steep roads, I reached Burgui, where the excellent Roncal cheese, Larra, is made from the ewe's milk of the very photogenic Lacha breed of sheep.

Lacha breed of sheep, whose ewe's milk is used to make Roncal cheese.

Burgui is a dramatically picturesque river town with a Romanesque bridge and a breathtaking canyon to its south.
Along the river banks here, I saw log rafts used by modern-day daredevil almadieros (rafts are called almadías), who reenact the dangerous feat when, before trucking and a downriver dam was built, each spring daring loggers used to ride such log rafts down the swollen river to the sawmills.

At Burgui the Navacués road joins the smooth main road from Pamplona that runs up the Roncal valley, following the Esca river through picturesque gorges, where dramatic bluffs rise above the road, waterfalls gush from the rocks, and suspension bridges over the river link hiking trails.

The Roncal valley is famous for its cheeses, bucolic villages, splendid scenery, and colorful folklore. Every year on the first Sunday in July, the Roncalese dress in colorful regional costumes for a romería (pilgrimage cum picnic) at the mountain hermitage of Idoya near Isaba. On July 13, the mayors of Roncal valley's seven villages turn out in typical costumes to receive the Tribute of the Three Cows offered by their French neighbors from the Baretous (Bearn) valley. The event, dating to the Middle Ages, annually draws thousands to a site near the French border.

Roncalese houses, like those of Ochagavia, are of the same stout stone and timber construction, but richer Roncal has more distinctive architecture. Like most towns here, Roncal's interior streets are paved with river stones, which are like walking on a washboard and require sturdy footwear. At Roncal's northern edge, the Esca runs by a trout farm just across a small bridge from a park with picnic tables and fine views of Roncal's massive church.

Tenor Julián Gayarre (1844-1890), the greatest Spanish opera singer of his epoch, was from Roncal. Gayarre's funeral monument in the village cemetery is by Mariano Benlliure (1862-1947), the Valencian sculptor who did the equestrian statue of Alfonso XII in Madrid's Retiro Park and torero Joselito's funeral monument in Sevilla. Gayarre's home is now a museum displaying momentos from his illustrious career.

Roncal's excellent sheep's cheese, queso Roncal, somewhat reminiscent of Italian Parmesan, but milder and softer, was the first Spanish cheese to earn an official denominación de origen (like wine). Once an artisan cheese, much of today's queso Roncal is produced in a local factory and can be purchased in markets or shops all over Navarra. If you want a homemade cheese, look for signs that say "Queso Roncal del Pastor" (shepherd's cheese).

Queso Roncal, a ewe's milk cheese that is the pride of the Navarran Pyrenees.

At Roncal's southern edge, on a hill overlooking the town, I found Casa Indiano, the charming two-story fieldstone home of Ana Maria Donazar, a grandmother who dotes, with equal amounts of cariño, or tender loving care, on her young grandson and her casa's rustic pine-timbered interior. The living quarters, including a kitchen with spectacular valley views, were on the second floor. Señora Donazar put me in a small room with a double bed, a dresser, and an armoire, just across from a clean, modern bathroom.

For lunch, on the main road just below Casa Indiano, I found Restaurante Begoña, a small cafe on Hostal Zaltua's second floor overlooking the river, where fishermen cast for trout. On the wall was a "celebrity" photograph of a man wearing a huge Basque boina (beret) and displaying several trophies - - Roncal's 1991 trout fishing champ. When I asked for trout, Begoña, who answers the jangling telephone, waits tables, and cooks, informed me, "If you had told me ahead of time, I would have had trout." I settled for a salad; red beans and chorizo with guindillas (hot peppers); superb revueltos con ajos y gambas (eggs scrambled with garlic shoots and shrimp); and queso Roncal. When I ordered a bottle of rosado, Begoña handed me the corkscrew and returned to the kitchen. The bill was about $10.

Pochas con guindilla.

North of Roncal is beautiful Isaba, a village in a lush green valley below the rugged peaks culminating in the Mesa de los Tres Reyes (Three Kings' Table), Navarra's highest mountain (7984 feet). Saving a more thorough inspection of Isaba for evening, I headed north toward the high gray-stone peaks that poke up through the surrounding forests like giant teeth. On the way I saw fishermen working the picturesque Belagua, a trout stream criss-crossed by rustic stone bridges. On the high plain below the peaks were verdant pastures where herds of sheep grazed with bleating newborn lambs and mares nursed wobbly-legged foals. Signs on farmhouses offered homemade Roncal cheeses.

Beyond the plain the road climbs steeply for several miles to the heights of Belagua with its stunning views down the valley towards Isaba. Incredibly, I encountered cyclists pedaling all the way to the summit; Miguel Unduráin, the Navarrese cyclist who won the Tour de France, trains here. On the way up the mountain is the rustic Venta de Juan Pito. In the rock-and-timber dining room, one can sit in front a big fireplace and lunch on migas ("shepherd's crouton's") and grilled lamb chops.

At Belagua is a ski refuge with spectacular cross country and downhill trails, but no lifts. With the temperature in the 70s in Roncal, I was in shirt sleeves, but it was cold at these heights, where there was still snow in the high crevasses. The road climbs through increasingly rugged terrain, where lovely little clumps of intensely blue wild flowers were a strikingly juxtaposed against the rocks and snow. Finally, the road ran level through a pass where I got breath-taking airplane views of France before heading back down to Isaba.

That evening, I explored the picturesque streets of Isaba, admiring the streets and houses that seem to be made of the same rectanagular-shaped stones; the flower-festooned balconies; and quaint doorways. After inquiring, I was directed to the gift and ski rental shop at Hotel Isaba where I purchased a herrada, like the one I had seen at Casa Osaba in Ochagavia, for $130.

Since Roncal has few places to eat, I decided to stay in Isaba for dinner. Isaba has several choices including upscale Hotel Isaba's reasonably priced, Restaurante Leyre, which offers good regional fare. I chose Isaba's popular Hostal Lola restaurant, where pimientos rellenos (piquant peppers stuffed with salt cod puree), trout cooked with cured ham, superb cuajada, a bottle of rosado, and coffee came to about $20.

Back in Roncal I found a lively bar that served homemade pacharán. The place was packed with young people eating, drinking, and listening to music. A sign on the wall, translated, said "If bullfighting is art, cannibalism is gastronomy."

Tired, but exhilarated from my day in the mountains, I returned to Casa Indiano and spent a restful night. The next morning, Señora Donazar and her husband, with "help" from their grandson, gave me a breakfast of cafe con leche, pan tostado with homemade mermelada (jam), and galletas (thin Spanish cookies). I paid my bill, which was about $14 with breakfast. As I was loading my car, I saw the little boy and his grandmother waving from an upstairs window. I waved back and reluctantly began the day-long drive out of these splendid mountains to Madrid and the plane ride back to New York.

- - End - -

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  Shall deeds of Caesar or Napoleon ring
More true than Don Quixote's vapouring?
Hath winged Pegasus more nobly trod
Than Rocinante stumbling up to God?
Poem by Archer M. Huntington inscribed under the Don Quixote on his horse Rocinante bas-relief sculpture by his wife, Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington,
in the courtyard of the Hispanic Society of America’s incredible museum at 613 W. 155th Street, New York City.
 Gastronomy Blogs

In 2019, again ranked in the Top 50 Gastronomy Blogs and Websites for Gastronomists & Gastronomes in 2019 by Feedspot. (Last Updated Oct 23, 2019) 

"The Best Gastronomy blogs selected from thousands of Food blogs, Culture blogs and Food Science blogs in our index using search and social metrics. We’ve carefully selected these websites because they are actively working to educate, inspire, and empower their readers with frequent updates and high-quality information."  

36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

About Gerry Dawes

My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life." -- Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019

Gerry Dawes is the Producer and Program Host of Gerry Dawes & Friends, a weekly radio progam on Pawling Public Radio in Pawling, New York (streaming live and archived at and at

Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 
Pilot for a reality television series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.


  1. 'Margarita'5:43 PM

    I LOVE that website, Gerry ! Where can I get your books? I watch a wee bit of it every day. I too am enamored with Spain, and especially their cuisine and wines...
    I'd like to know more about your '7days/7 nights' trips. PS: I am a retired Spanish teacher, so speak fluent Castellano, and have lived a year in Madrid and been to los Sanfermines about 20 times since 1977.

  2. Rex Freriks5:27 PM

    Outstanding article. The best tour of Navarra I never had. I can recall the taste of so many of those dishes during San Fermin. I do miss it so.
    Thank you for sharing this. I look forward to your book very much.

  3. Dear Margarita, Many thanks for your kind comments. I wish I had a book done that you could buy, but I do not. I do have a trip going to Spain in October, but you would have to join the Commonwealth Club of California ($60 for a national membership) to participate. You can find out about my Taste of Southern Spain Tour from October 8-20 at Would love to have you join us.
    My best, Gerry
    P.S. Put "Navarra" in search line and you will find more articles.


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