Could this be the silhouette of Disney’s palace, or is it the castle that gives shelter to one of the many fairy tales of childhood? These are the questions raised by the images of the Royal Palace of the Kings of Navarre, in Olite, one of those places that seem to have come straight out of a fictional novel. However, this palace does exist and can be visited. Just half an hour’s drive from Pamplona, this luxurious mediaeval palace is one of the great tourist attractions of northern Spain and is definitely worth a visit.
The Royal Palace of Olite is one of the most important medieval monuments in Spain and the most visited in Navarre. Although it is popularly known as a castle, the truth is that it is a palace, as it was built for courtly rather than military purposes. Such is the fantasy evoked by this construction that its walls inspired even Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer himself.
In terms of architectural styles, Olite is in the French Gothic style, although it does retain some Mudejar-style details, such as the remains of plasterwork and stucco work. This palace, of huge dimensions, is divided into three parts. Firstly, there is the Old Palace, which is now a Parador. Then there are the ruins of the chapel of San Jorge. Finally, there is the New palace, also known as the castle of Olite. This is the largest part and the one that can be visited inside.
It was especially in this third part that no expense was spared. There were all kinds of luxuries. Among them, several vertical gardens up to 20 metres high and a zoo which was a gift from the King of Aragon, Peter IV the Ceremonious. It also had a pelota court and a game of Basque pelota rackets, which are mentioned in a 15th century document.
To understand the history of the Royal Palace of Olite, it is important to put in context the place where it is located. Today Olite is a medieval town of around 3,000 inhabitants with an old quarter in which echoes of other times can be heard. Olite has Roman walls, Renaissance and Baroque palaces and many medieval streets that bear witness to the town’s historical events.
If visitors would like to delve even deeper into the medieval atmosphere of the municipality, they need only attend its Medieval Festivals. During these days, the residents of Olite are transformed into merchants, craftsmen, puppeteers, troubadours and clerics for a few hours. Tourists can travel back in time.
Returning to the history of the castle, specifically to the history of the New Palace, it was built in the 15th century by order of the King of Navarre, Carlos III the Noble and Doña Leonor de Trastámara. From that time onwards it became the seat of the Court of the Kingdom of Navarre. During those years it was a geographic point of great importance.
However, in 1512 the Crown of Castile and Aragon invaded the Kingdom of Navarre and the palace of Olite came to be used only as a holiday residence for some viceroys. As a result, it fell into disrepair over the next three centuries. It finally hit rock bottom when the Spanish military officer Francisco Espoz y Mina set fire to it during the War of Independence in order to prevent Napoleon from fortifying it.
Fortunately, in the 1940s it was rebuilt and restored, allowing it to be open to the public today. In 1925 it was declared a National Monument. It also currently houses the Olite Classical Theatre Festival.
On the outside, the apparent disorder of the palace, which can be explained by the continuous renovations and extensions carried out, is what gives it its fantastic appearance. The building is also surrounded by high walls with moats. The palace is entered through a semicircular arch that leads to the Orange Tree Courtyard, which was once a garden full of fruit trees. As a curiosity, although there were many gardeners, the kings of Navarre also used to take part in the care of these trees.
The palace, one of the most luxurious in Europe at the time, consists of numerous rooms, courtyards, gardens and galleries. However, only three rooms on the ground floor, the royal apartments, the queen’s garden and the six towers are open to visitors. From the latter, you can enjoy magnificent views of the entire palace complex and imagine what it would have been like to live in such a palace at that time. The most remarkable rooms are the Excavations Room, the Arches Room, the Queen’s Room, the King’s Room and the Plaster Chamber.
As for its courtyards, two of them stand out. It is said that the Mulberry tree, which is still there, was planted by King Carlos III himself. The history of the courtyard of La Pajarera is also curious, as it was so named because it was home to the palace’s birds.
As for the chapel of San Jorge, what has survived to the present day are only ruins, which can be seen from the tower of the Three Crowns. This private chapel of the kings was built in the 14th century by order of Leonor of Castile, but the poor quality of the materials meant that it deteriorated much faster than the rest of the palace. In short, the palace of Olite is a place to enjoy at leisure, to breathe the fresh air from the top of its towers and to fantasise about what life was like for the kings of Navarre in its interior rooms.