I’m back from a two week holiday in northern Spain so watch out for several blog posts charting my adventures over the next few days.
‘The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain’ or so the famous My Fair Lady song would have us believe.
The reality is a little different – the heavy showers mainly fall on the coast and mountains of northern Spain – and not the plain.
The northern Spanish coast is one of the prettiest parts of Spain, known as ‘Green Spain’ for one good reason – it rains a lot!
We arrived by boat at Santander – and despite the dire warnings of friends about the wet weather in this part of Spain, we were greeted with sunshine and balmy temperatures.
In fact over the two week trip it was hot and sunny the whole time, apart from the very last day when we drove back to Santander in heavy rain. It was then that we realised that the weather is a bit of a lottery when you visit Spain’s coolest northern region.
The area’s reputation for being wet can be seen everywhere. The verdant landscape with its mosaic of picturesque farms, lush fields and green hills looks like somebody turned up the colour dial to bright emerald or dazzling jade.
Over the next few blog posts I’ll be telling you about the many remarkable places in this part of Spain, one of the country’s unspoiled areas.
OK, there are some touristy honeypots along the coast but this is a largely underdeveloped and quiet area especially in the spring, one of the best seasons to visit if you like rural retreats.
The landscape is stunning along much of the coastline – known as the Costa Verde. Jagged cliffs cascade dramatically down to the sea with waves battering the coves and secluded beaches. The views are simply breathtaking…
Some coastal areas boast gentler scenery with attractive harbour villages and small fishing areas backed by rounded hills.
In spring there are pretty wildflowers everywhere from sea thrift to bright pink daisies and golden blazes of yellow flowers hanging from cliff tops.
Far from the madding crowd
Beach lovers and sun worshippers will love the numerous quiet beaches where you can hang out far away from the madding crowds of Spain’s Costa del Sol and its overpopulated commercial resorts.
On several walks we were the only people on the beach despite pleasant temperatures in the early 20s which would have sent most Brits into bikini and briefs mode.
We were more modest about our attire, although Tony’s toes did get sunburned after our sand castle competition on the beach west of Comillas.
Northern Spain is a luscious treat for nature and countryside fans with a brilliant selection of wildlife in its national parks from the Picos de Europa to the Reserva Nacional de Saja and Somiedo.
Somiedo is serious hiking territory, a vast wilderness of 7,000 feet peaks and dense woodlands which boasts Spain’s largest number of brown bears. Needless to say we didn’t see any bears, although in fairness we only skirted this huge area.
Rather more accessible is Cantabria’s impressive Picos de Europa – a small mountain range – which is a wildlife and wilderness paradise with golden eagles and alpine birds.
Its peaks were still covered in snow, even in spring, giving it an alpine atmosphere and providing great panoramic views from its higher reaches.
Further south, venture into El Bierzo to the south in Leon and you’ll discover the authentic ‘back of beyond’ with villages that have changed little since medieval times.
Its villagers live the same way as they did hundreds of years ago, running small holdings, growing beans and vegetables, and raising chickens on the fertile land of the Ancares valley.
Even the houses with their overhanging balconies and roughly hewn stone slabs take you back several centuries.
Out in the countryside you’re likely to see wild horses and cattle being herded through villages – a real throwback to an earlier age.
At times Northern Spain is like walking back several centuries in time. As well as medieval villages, there are vestiges of early human settlements, some dating back to prehistoric times.
Much of this evidence of early man in the Spanish landscape is well-preserved, from ruined Celtic hill forts and abandoned settlements of straw ‘palloza’ huts to prehistoric cave dwellings.
Perhaps most impresssive are the famous Altamira caves, one of the masterpieces of Palaeolothic art, dating from around 12,000 BC.
Lost in translation
There’s a fascinating mixture of people, culture and communities in northern Spain, each with their own indiginous language.
Having tried to master the basics of Spanish whilst driving the camper van, we arrived in Galicia only to find that the preferred local tongue is Gallego, which we heard being spoken by locals in the back woods.
It has more in common with Portuguese than Spanish – and I was surprised to hear that it is spoken by 91% of young people.
Over the other side of the coast in Bilbao and its surrounding region most people speak Basque – and the road signs are bilingual. Grasping even a few carefully chosen Basque words is pretty tricky with its proliferation of xs, qs and ks!
Even neighbouring Cantabria and Asturia have their own language strains – Cantabrian (or Montanes) and Asturian, which make life on the road even more confusing for us travellers!
Northern Spain is a great place for an overload of art and culture, not least Bilbao with its internationally famous art museum, the Guggenheim designed by Frank Gehry.
Its shining, folded metal sheaths and unconventional design are visible from every street leading down to the riverfront. This is a piece of destination architecture in its own right… and a ‘must’ if you’re travelling to northern Spain.
Bilbao also boasts a wealth of impressive, contemporary architectural projects as well as classic Modernista buildings and a veritable catalogue of earlier architectural styles to impress the visitor.
On the other side of northern Spain the artistic story is much more about religion and pilgrimage with many beautiful cathedrals, churches and monasteries.
The Camino de Santiago is the backbone of any historic or religious journey, the walking route for pilgrims heading to the ultimate shrine – Santiago de Compostela.
Around half a million pilgrims made the journey to this beautiful city in the Middle Ages, but today the pilgrims still come in their droves, wearing modern day hiking boots and carrying the scallop shell symbol to symbolise their pilgrimage.
We cheated and travelled by car, stopping off at the many cathedrals and castles along this extraordinary route.
If you like cathedrals and sacred art this is the place to come!
Then there’s the remarkable regional food and wines – but that’s a story for later.
Northern Spain is full of surprises… and I’ll be unfolding them over the course of the next few posts. I hope that you’ll join me on this great adventure…