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Pyrenees villages full of small, startling beauties

Looking over Isaba, in the Valle de Roncal.
Looking over Isaba, in the Valle de Roncal.ERICA ROSENBERG FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The Pyrenees are dotted with one charming village after another, each with its own virtues, character, and architecture, but all with spectacular scenery, geranium-bedecked balconies, narrow cobblestoned streets, medieval castles and churches, and continuous cowbell concerts. So while your children hone their Spanish and equestrian skills, you can go exploring.

Jaca, the first capital of the kingdom of Aragon, is pleasant enough with an Old Town and 16th-century citadel, but within an hour or two's drive of the equestrian camp are several particularly lovely villages, none of which has a large tourist presence in the off (non-ski) season.

To the west of Jaca are the delightful Valles de Echo (Hecho) and Anso. With the largest population around — just over 600 — Echo makes a great base for heading up the valley to an unsung natural area, Park Natural Valles Occidentale, which you'll have virtually to yourself. You could easily mistake its lush meadows, their babbling creeks, wildflowers, and belled tawny cattle — all with backdrops of snow-capped peaks — for the Alps.

WHERE TO GO AND STAY AND EAT

Casa Blasquico, tiny and basic with an effusive and helpful host, Pepe. Restaurant Gaby on the first floor, packed with framed needlepoint and awards, serves local wines and specialties like mushroom crepes and rabbit. Around $70 per night for a double. www.casablasquico.es/index.php/es/

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A short drive to the west takes you from the province of Aragon to Navarre and the Valle de Roncal; the eponymous town (pop. 250) straddles the Rio Esca. Navarrian villages tend to be white-washed stucco with red terra-cotta roofs, but dark gray stone predominates in Roncal. The loop drive up the valley into France takes you through dramatic scenery with gorges and waterfalls, mist-shrouded passes, herds of livestock, and cyclists training for the Tour de France.

Cliffs of the Pyrenees, seen from La Torrecilla, a pueblo near Aínsa, in Aragon.
Cliffs of the Pyrenees, seen from La Torrecilla, a pueblo near Aínsa, in Aragon.DAN sAREWITZ

Casa Texte has five simple rooms with wood beams and shutters. The owner comes from a long line of shepherds and can tell you all about Basque culture. Doubles around $70 per night. www.tetxe.com

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To the east of Jaca is the well-preserved and picturesque Ainsa (pop. 2,180). Perched on a hill, it has exceptional panoramic views of the mountains, rivers, and foothills, and offers easy access to the national parks.

If you don't mind being slightly away from the action, consider staying in the tiny pueblo of La Torrecilla (pop. 24). Fifteen minutes outside of Ainsa and with several suites, Casa Lanau has heavenly views — watch the thunderstorms roll over the distant massif — and an enormous centuries-old wooden door. Enjoy country drives and walks, excursions into "the big city," and utter tranquillity. Around $150 per night, sleeps up to six. www.casalanau.com

Ujué, a tiny town on the plains of Navarre, surrounded by terraced fields.
Ujué, a tiny town on the plains of Navarre, surrounded by terraced fields.ERICA ROSENBERG FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Villages on the drier plains south of Jaca are as intriguing as the valley ones. Although decidedly more on the tourist track than many of these villages, Alquezar (pop. 300) rises out of the plains and sits on a cliff capped by an imposing castle ruin.

Hotel Villa de Alquezar has great rooms, several with balconies and castle views for about $100 per night. www.villaalquezar.com

Other highlights within range of Jaca and worthy of day trips are Sos del Catolico del Rey, hewn from golden stone, Olite, with a fabulous turreted castle to traipse through, and tiny Ujue, with its cathedral surrounded by terraced fields and famous for its sugared almonds.

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ERICA ROSENBERG


Erica Rosenberg can be reached at erosenb1@asu.edu.