Northern Spain is one of the prettiest parts of Europe. It’s a far cry from the beaches and Mediterranean coast of Spain, beloved by armies of sun seekers and party animals.
We were looking for a road trip which took in the mountains, coast and historic towns for our motor home.
Having arrived in Santander by boat, we opted to take the scenic coastal route before heading inland to some of Spain’s historic towns and rural retreats. Here are a few of our adventures as they unfolded in late March.
Picos de Europa and Leon
After spending a relaxing three days on the coast, we headed for the hills, taking a steep road up into the Picos de Europa, a verdant national park with stunning mountain views.
Drove up to the Fuente d’e cable car where Tony took the 16 Euros ride to the top where there was still lots of snow.
Fabulous views from the summit, but too many French school kids. Tony battled his way through the crowds and found a quiet spot where he saw rare Alpine choughs hovering three feet above his head. A top piece of bird watching!
Couldn’t find the wild camp site in the Camperstop book and there were “no motorhome signs” everywhere.
So we went back down the valley to a very quiet commercial site next to a stream with great views of the hills. Top marks for atmospheric cow bells and animal noises from the fields next door. Spotted interesting birds including a Mohican-headed, bright orange Hoopoe, Wheatear and Golden Eagles.
Peaceful camping experience, only marred by Tammy slipping in the shower and nearly breaking her back. Note to self – beware of Spanish showers with slippery ceramic tiles.
Next morning, we stocked up on food supplies in historic Potes where a herd of cattle and calves were being driven through the centre of town.
Then took off in the camper van towards the Picos mountains where another group of animals – this time sturdy horses and a tiny foal – were being taken up the road with random foraging and craziness en route.
Finally by-passed the animals and got up to a height where there were superb views of the Picos mountains before disappearing into the mist on the top. Z-bend hairpins all the way up – a fun ride punctuated by a riverside picnic lunch and short walk to look for birds.
Down to the city of Leon on the plains, taking the small roads from which we saw dozens of storks on trees, church tower nests and telegraph poles.
Parked up in Leon but no sign of the Camperstop book’s recommended camp site. Frustrating so parked up to rethink our overnight plans.
Sightseeing around the town with its attractive historic centre, the cathedral (very dark but impressive stained glass windows) and a strange Gaudi ‘Cinderella’ castle (now a bank).
Slightly off-road trip over the back country to find a camp site. All sites were shut for ‘the season’ – mid April is clearly not a popular time for tourists in northern Spain.
Tammy saved the day, spotting a town centre site in Astorga, ideally placed between the bull ring and heliport! Luckily, the bull fighting wasn’t on the night of our stay.
Woke up the next morning to the sound of a helicopter whirring overhead. Funny old camp site but it does the job for an overnight stop plus you get the bonus of helicopter spotting.
Astorga and Ponferrada
Drove further up the road to Astorga and strolled around the historic quarter. Slight strop over bad navigation on foot but Tammy’s spirits lifted when she saw the Gaudi Palacio, built between 1889 and 1913. Escalating building costs meant that Gaudi quit before finishing the job and several other architects had to step in to finish the bishop’s palace.
Nevertheless, Gaudi’s vision still bursts through in this part castle, part temple of a building which is a surreal mix of Art Nouveau, Neo-Gothic and Modernista styles. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of La Chapelle in Paris, a striking palace to religion, notably the stained glass chapel and throne room.
Back outside, we made a quick detour to the excellent old town walls followed by a walk to the impressive Cathedral of Astorga. It’s much lighter and airier than Leon’s cathedral. Many styles compete for attention including Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Spanish Mannerism and neo-Classical.
Somehow it manages to keep some sense of continuity.
Trip to the palace museum – beautifully presented but Tony lost the plot halfway around. “I can’t take any more religion,” he muttered heading for the exit. Tammy persevered through the giant bibles, ecclesiastical robes, large pulpits and the silver collections. All top-notch stuff, if you enjoy religious art.
Tony missed out on the excellent Arab thurible incense burner (10th Century), the rare altars, the recumbent marble effigies and the beautiful 13th Century painted Ark chest. Not to mention the weird Gothic walnut choir with 97 seats.
Time to go back to the van via the supermercado with its impressive counters of fresh fish and live lobsters crawling around. Felt inclined to liberate a lobster… but there was a big queue of burly locals looking for seafood diners.
Brief trip to Ponferrada not too far up the road. Saw more storks flying around and one sitting on top of an ancient church. Parked up by the magnificent Knights’ Templar 12th Century castle with 12 original towers reflecting the shapes of the constellations.
The Castillo de los Templarios was shut for lunch – which often happens in Spain – so we took a quick walking tour of the town before heading off in the van.
Ate our delicious local food in the van overlooking the castle and had a quick look at the town walls.
The castle seemed to be shut for far longer than necessary and we’d run out of time so reluctantly decided to press on. I’m told that the castle houses the Templars’ Library and the Ponferrada Study Centre but that’ll have to wait for another trip.
Next stop was the UNESCO World Heritage site of Las Medulas… which is not easy to find especially if your Spanish pronunciation is as bad as ours.
You also need to have the correct pronunciation of Las Médulas to make yourself understood to the locals who speak in a very strong Galician dialect. It sounded something like ‘Las Methutcthas’.
Spent late afternoon exploring Las Médulas. It’s an amazing place – it’s here that the Romans dug out millions of tonnes of hillside to extract gold. During their excavations, they destroyed the landscape, exploited local people and worked thousands of slaves to death or near exhaustion.
All that is left today is a landscape of pinnacles, stacks and an amphitheatre of orange rocks which looks like Bryce Canyon in Utah. It’s strangely beautiful… but also terrifying to discover that this is an early environmental disaster zone.
Back to the van for giant prawns and pasta dinner. They have great seafood here… but strangely there’s no herbs to be found in any shop. Guess you’re supposed to grow them at home – or pick them naturally?
Spent the night on a superb wild camp site overlooking the Las Médulas amphitheatre – superb views over the hills at sunset.
Solitude and nature – you can’t beat it!
On the road again, this time to the rural hinterland of Northern Spain and El Bierzo. This wasn’t one of our designated stops but looked interesting so that we decided to go off piste.
This is truly the back of beyond, with strong hints of early medieval Spain where people can be found growing fruit and vegetables, making honey and growing vines.
The route over the hills is wild and beautiful, with Z-bands all the way up and down again. Come nose to nose with a vehicle passing in the opposite direction and life could get tricky. We had a few very close scrapes.
Eventually we made it to the end of the road and found ourselves in the remote village of Berbier with its overhanging houses made from roughly hewn stone slabs. People working on their small holdings looked like time had stood still.
This is a truly rural retreat with a panoramic view of the hills. The view from our quiet camp site was one of the best ever with close-up views of a waterfall and the mountains.
Sat around looking at the wildlife, supping the excellent El Bierzo wine, and enjoying the solitude.
Woke up the next morning to the sight of a red squirrel chasing a nuthatch around the base of a tree a few feet from the van where we were eating breakfast al fresco. The Spanish red squirrel is larger that our cute English version with a blackish bushy tail. It’s equally appealing but a little more gregarious.
On another tree, a striking pink and white jay bird asserted its control of a small patch of woodland.
On the return journey we were tempted to take the scenic hike to look at traditional ‘palloza’ straw huts which originally dated back to medieval times, but realised that it involved a 20 mile return walk.
No way was Tammy going to do that heavy-duty hiking expedition which would have required an overnight camping stay in a tent! Instead we headed off in the camper van to Santiago della Compostella after hitting the gas and returning via a slightly less vertiginous mountain route.
Santiago by camper van
This is one of Spain’s top pilgrimage sites so it seemed appropriate that we should make our own trip by camper van. I didn’t have the stamina to walk the whole of the Camino Santiago pilgrim’s route, although we did drive past a lot of pilgrims on the way. It looked like extremely hard work.
The most popular route is the Camino Francés which stretches for nearly 500 miles from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz to Santiago. I’m told that walking the Camino is not difficult – most of the stages are fairly flat on good paths. But it does require 20-30 days continuous walking which is a big commitment if you’re not a seasoned walker.
We arrived late afternoon and parked up the van at an official wild camping site at a hilly location by the Santiago della Compostella people’s park with lovely views over the city.
Enjoyed a relaxing walk around this beautiful city and ate at a local fish restaurant with fabulous Spanish fish soup, monkfish and a giant salmon steak, washed down with a bottle of cheap and cheerful Albarino wine.
Early start the following day to make the most of the religious sites and a walking tour of the historic town. Wasted a frustrating hour looking for a car parking space for the van, but Santiago della Compostella doesn’t seem to have any. It was a big mistake to bring the van into the town with its crowded and congested streets.
On the positive side, we saw virtually the whole city centre including the swanky Norman Foster communications building on top of the hill. Finally we found a space near the university, 20 minutes walk from the town.
We headed straight to the impressive twin-towered cathedral before it shut for lunch. Mass was taking place inside which added to the reverent atmosphere.
There were lots of call-outs to pilgrims who’d made it from as far afield as Italy, Germany and Switzerland. I felt guilty that we’d arrived in a van, and had only walked about a mile to get there.
The cathedral was built over several centuries in a variety of styles from the original Romanesque to Gothic and Baroque. Walking through the magnificent Pórtico de la Gloria at the west entrance is a treat if you love architecture. I found myself swooning, looking up at the 200 Romanesque sculptures.
The tomb of Santiago is a highlight of the cathedral’s interior but you’ll need to join the snaking queue. Fortunately, the tourist queues were mercifully short when we visited during off-season. The special shrine contains the sacred remains of St James and you’re supposed to touch kiss it as you pass by.
For those seeking aerial views of the city, there’s a rooftop tour with incredible aerial panoramas of Santiago della Compostella. Just the thing for your tired feet if you’ve recently completed the 500 mile pilgrim’s route into town!
Tammy’s Top Travel Tips – Northern Spain
- I can strongly recommend this region as a tourist destination, but take a decent map and tourist guide if you’re heading into its remote heartlands.
- Santiago della Compostela gets very busy in high season so try getting there early to avoid the long queues at the cathedral shrine.
- A lot of camping sites close for the winter until Easter so check beforehand, if you can. Many smaller sites listed in our Motorhome and Camperstop books were hard or impossible to find.
- This is a relatively cheap area of Europe so expect to eat like a king or queen, especially if you like seafood and local produce.
- Look out for interesting birds and wildlife in the Picos Europa.