• Photo: Carles Fortuny / Shutterstock

Baztan Valley

Tucked neatly above the headwaters of the Bidasoa River, beneath the peak of the 3,545-foot Gorramendi Mountain that looms over the border with France, is the Valle de Baztán. These rounded green hills are a scenic halfway stop-off point between the central Pyrenees and the Atlantic. Here the roads of this enchanted Navarran valley meander through picture-perfect villages of geranium-covered, whitewashed, stone-and-mortar houses with red-tile roofs grouped around a central frontón (handball court).

This once-isolated pocket of the Basque-Navarran Pyrenees is peppered with smugglers' trails and is the site of the Camino de Baztanas, the oldest stretch of the Camino de Santiago. You can follow the ancient footsteps of pilgrims starting from the historic village of Urdax. Nearby, close to the village of Zugarramurdi, you can visit a collection of limestone caves, otherwise knowns as las cuevas de las brujas (witches' caves), which bore witness to so-called witches' covens and their pagan rituals before their eventual and brutal persecution in the 1600s. In the valley's main town, Elizondo, stately homes and ancestral mansions built by nobles returning with their fortunes from the Americas, straddle the banks of the Baztán River.

Try to be in the village of Ituren in late September for its Carnival, the Day of the Joaldunak, which has been recognized as one of the oldest celebrations in Europe. Here you can see striking costumes hung with clanging cowbells as participants parade from farm to farm and house to house paying homage to their ancestors; some anthropologists argue that the rituals go back to pagan times. Check the exact dates of the event with the tourist office, as each year’s schedule depends on the phases of the moon.

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