Northern (Green) Spain
Text and Photos: Andreas Staab
2,200 km/1,400 miles
2 - 3 weeks
Horrendous downpour as I made my way down south towards the French-Spanish border. Driving through the mountainous and impressive landscape of the Basque region for a brief stopover in San Sebastian; the rain mercifully now down to just a light drizzle. Stunning place: more a resort than a city, with impressive architecture, and lively streets packed with bars and restaurants and – the pièce de résistance - a beautiful, crescent-shaped beach. I had to press on, but made a mental note, that this town seems to be the prefect destination for a short break. Great food, lively atmosphere, beach vibes …
I picked up my travel companions at the shiny new airport at Bilbao, and we drove a short one hour into the hills to our first overnight stop in Beranga, where we had a reservation in a small spa hotel called Posada la Torre; 20 comfortable rooms, excellent breakfast, and a much-appreciated indoor pool area. A quick dip to de-stress and rinse off the travel dirt before heading down to the nearest seaside village for dinner. We ended up in Santoña: an industrial, in parts fading place, but who cares when a lively ‘paseo’ is going on, with kids playing football (an impressive tiki-taka style was all too evident; hey, these youngsters were barely 10 years old). A decent fish dinner and the sight of toddlers taking their parents out for an evening play rounded off a perfect evening. Back to the hotel.
Bilbao was on our itinerary for the next day, but before entering the city, a brief stopover at nearby Beria Beach, which gave a hint of things to come: a lovely, and very impressive stretch of fine sand with some smaller hotels tucked behind the dunes and Spaniards (throughout this trip we barely encountered any cars with foreign license plates) who had descended on to the northern coast to escape the heat and to cool off in the chilly Atlantic.
Bilbao: just a couple of decades ago, the town was on its knees: a ship industry that seemed to be in mortal decline, rising unemployment and a sense of desperation in a place that in the first instance could never have been described as pretty. For once, politics at local and regional level pulled together, the Guggenheim came on board, a famous architect (Frank Gehry) was hired, and since then, the town had never looked back. Tourism money came flooding in, enough to fund new bridges, parks, a tram system, and to spruce up older buildings. Revitalised Bilbao seems to brim with optimism in what is now a very pleasant urban setting. Growth-pole cohesion at its finest (for those numerous regional policy buffs amongst you).
the Guggenehim, Bilbao
The Guggenheim is out of this world (I guess that was Mr. Gehry’s intention) with interesting shapes, angles, and light reflections at every turn. Just as everyone else, we were happy to snap away. The modern art can’t quite compete with the world-class architecture, but who cares, when you have such a magnificent building as the star of the show. We could barely drag ourselves away from it to wander along the river front and through the pretty streets of the old town.
Bilbao, Old Town
Onto Laredo for a tapas dinner (hooray: more fried food, please). It just so happened that the town, which at first looked rather uninspiring, staged one of its annual fiestas in the narrow lanes of its old town, and we happily mingled with the crowds. Another wonderful evening. We woke up to a sunny morning, but it soon started to cloud over. This happened rather a lot. The climate on the northern Spanish coast is moderate. It never really gets that hot, but moisture from the cold Atlantic gathers as clouds and mist on the nearby hills and mountains. But at some stage during the day, the sun always seems to make an appearance.
We headed westward and into Cantabria towards San Vincente de la Barquera. I once saw an image of this seaside village with the snow-capped peaks of the nearby Picos de Europa looming very impressively in the background. Not today though, the peaks were mostly shrouded in clouds. We weren’t quite sure what to make of the place. Despite an attractive location at the end of an estuary, the town all too often was an uninspiring jumble of architecture. But the magnificent Church of Santa Maria de los Angeles won us over. We had just sat down in front the church, listening to a classy busker playing her harp when the clouds lifted. I am not usually a man of faith, but on this occasion, it certainly appeared like divine intervention.
Estuary near San Vincente de la Barquera
Further up the coast, and we could not resist to visit the remarkably named Playa de Poo (Sorry, it just had to be done); a small, yet perfectly shaped crescent which the sea had carved out of the rocks, offering perfect shelter from the crashing waves. The clouds had started to appear again, so we drove into Asturias and up into the mountains to the former mining town of Felechosa. During winter, a small skiing industry has established itself here, but in the height of summer, it felt eerily quiet. But I like one-horse towns. We encountered one of those scenes when the local outlaw enters the saloon, the music stops playing and the pool billiard game is temporarily suspended. That happened to us when we walked into one of the two restaurants, that were open on a mid-week evening. Local heads stopped talking and turned our way, wondering what the hell we were doing. Well, we ordered food, and got copious amounts of it, all of the down-to-earth, meat, potatoes, and eggs variety. It was hilarious. And they even gave us a deck of cards for a post dinner game of Uno (or whatever the Spanish equivalent is).
in the mountains above Felechosa
But the culinary delights of Felichosa were not the reason why I insisted on coming here. My travel companions are of the beach bum variety and I had put my foot down, that at some stage, we should go for hikes in the mountains. And this was the place, which in a mad spur of optimism, I had identified. To make matters slightly more acrimonious, we booked into a small pension called Peña Pandos, where some of the members of our party had planned to while away the hiking-induced recovery time to catch up on social media. Alas, when inquiring about the Wi-Fi code, I only received a condescending smirk, which I took as a ‘No Wi-Fi here. What do you think this place is? The Ritz?’. The next morning therefore started on a somewhat sour note, but the mood quickly changed when we drove up the AS-253, up the mountain pass (at 1,700 m) and into the region of Castille y Leon. Right at the top, we parked the car and went for a modest (okay, 5 hours) hike down and up a beautiful valley: a truly stunning landscape which I found hard to pinpoint. Yes, it looks like the Alps, but then again, it didn’t with many shrubs and vegetation that one can only find in more southern climes. But best of all: no one around (which comes as little surprise in light of the population density that we had encountered in Felechosa). The only companions were two remarkably ugly dogs who took a break from shepherding their assigned herd of cows to walk us back up the hill. Back to Felechosa, and back to the saloon (where else?) for another calorific meal. On the morning of our departure, the theme of local friendliness that was so charmingly established by the slobbering dogs was continued by the landlady of Peña Pandos, who pampered us with extra slices of cake and coffee refills.
Playa de Aguilar
A short hop back down to the Asturian coast. And what a coast it is: green fields reminiscent of Ireland coupled with Alpine peaks and Mediterranean vegetation. Sandy beaches, crushing waves that would delight any surfer, and pretty coves everywhere. We stopped at yet another wonderful beach with excellent body-surfing conditions: Playa de Aguilar (which is just east of the town of Cudillero), before driving to our next overnight stop: The Finca Portizuelo on the eastern outskirts of Luarca, a wonderful gem of a boutique and design hotel: a minimalist haven where meticulous attention is paid to every detail. Classical music fills the entrance hall and the lounge, which fittingly also houses a grand piano. The owner is quite a character. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, he is a former conductor, who is fluent in Spanish, Italian, English and Portuguese. (I am sure he speaks French too, although I didn’t check). He is also a fabulous cook and baker, and a true aesthete who seems to be lost in the noise and image pollution of the 21st century. He told me an unpleasant story of a guest who got right under his nose (apparently quite literally) and threatened him with violence over the lack of a television set in his room. Apparently, shunning plastic screens and messy wires and cables are not part of everyone's design ethos. We stayed at his place for three nights. The breakfasts and dinners that he prepared for us were superb, and when we said our heartfelt goodbyes, he rushed to his larder only to emerge with three pots of homemade marmalade. What a man!
At one evening, we ventured into the nearby town of Luarca and followed the by now well-established and pleasant script: walk around the harbour, which is picturesque in places but also has plenty of run-down buildings, and a stroll through narrow lanes with a mish-mash of architectural styles. Agreeable, but certainly no touristic highlight, although I developed a fondness for these fantastic wooden balconies, which are elaborately decorated and often fitted with windows to keep out the elements. Charming. During our days spent in the area, we also came across two fantastic beaches called Frejulfe and Barajo. The sun came out (for some of the time), the sea was calm, the views were spectacular: perfect days.
A half-day drive Into Galicia and to the naval base of Ferrol, a rather unremarkable place, but just outside of its city limits you can find another selection of yet more spectacular beaches. We had rented a holiday home overlooking Doniños Beach. Why have I not come across a major travel write-up of this location? Surfers though seem to know it, but it certainly looked as if it was almost completely off the tourist radar. We arrived there in August, the height of the season, but it was very easy to find a quiet spot on this grand, sweeping, sandy bay, with dunes, marshlands and a lake just tucked behind it and wooded hills of pine and eucalyptus rising on either side. The sun was out for the first couple of days and the setting took our breath away. But then the weather changed once more and for the remainder of our time stayed ‘interesting’. After months without rain, we were privileged to experience frequent and horrendous downpours. The scenery was dramatic though, with gushing winds and thunder clouds roaring in. Yet, every day there was a - sometimes rather brief - break in the weather with just enough time for a stroll across the sand.
A long drive back to Asturias and green fields with cows and horses grazing right up to the edges of cliffs. Our next stopover was in the small town of Pravia, a couple of miles inland and just north-west of Oviedo: some very grand mansions and a pleasant old town ring-fenced by 1970’s architectural sins. Charming though, as was the Hotel Casona del Busto Pravia, a 500-year old former convent and a listed building, so no air-con here and little noise insulation. But still majestic and very comfortable. Next day’s agenda was a trip to the nearby beach resort of Santa Maria del Mar, nestling between dramatic cliffs, but also housing a giant and somewhat oversized campground right next to a lovely black sand beach. The wind picked up, the lifeguards put up yellow flags – hooray – the crowds disappeared, and we spent the afternoon buggy boarding, cliff walking and sunbathing.
Santa Maria del Mar
The evening excursion was to the small fishing village of Cudillero; impossible beautiful, built on a steep hillside with houses cascading down to the sea and a picturesque harbour. For once we encountered throngs of fellow tourists who like us snapped away during sunset. Nice dinner too: I went local, with a beans and clam stew accompanied by smooth, farmyard-smelling cider. Interesting cuisine here: fish of course, but also farm staples such as dairy products and root vegetables. Usually it is either or.
Onto Oviedo the next day, just under an hour away. This is the capital of Asturias so there were plenty of government offices and representative buildings, in addition to a well-established university, a monumental cathedral and a nicely preserved old town with lovely houses and historic squares. Wonderful place; so pretty that you might want to live there. For dinner it was back down to the sea to San Esteban de Pravia: another small harbour hamlet with a proper end-of-the-world feel: a pier, some cranes, some cafes, hardly anyone around and a nice meal in the local bar.
A timely comment on the main traffic artery along this coast: the magnificent A8 motorway, which stretches for 500 miles from San Sebastian in the east to Coruna in the west, up and down hills, over gorges, and farmland, and across a succession of viaducts, most of the time hugging the coastline closely with spectacular views across the sea and mountains. And no tolls (apart from some stretches around San Sebastian and Bilbao). Simply wonderful.
Back into the mountains with a brief stopover at Santillana del Mar. Not close to the ‘mar’ at all and a tourist hotspot, heaving with cars. Yes, the town is very pretty, but given over to tourist commerce. What’s the point? You might as well re-create the whole thing in a Disney theme park. The experience would be the same (although with more ample parking facilities). Completely lacking in authenticity and designed for the FOMO brigade who are doing it for the ‘Gram’. It is a plastic, disassociated engagement; the antidote of what we have been experiencing so far during this trip. We’re off.
Picos de Europa
Onto our last stop before taking the ferry back to the UK: the Picos de Europa. Mountains mean hiking and the faces of my travel companions started to have an ever more grim expression. We drove along the N-621, the road narrowing in places to barely one lane with cliffs and rocks towering above us. Spectacular though potentially a little hair-raising for the faint hearted. Our base was in the small hamlet of Espimana, where the local Hostal Nevandi (with small pool!) rented out Chalet style self-catering apartments. The weather turned picture perfect with not a single cloud in the sky. To my pleasant surprise, we as a group managed to hike (a lot): through the lush valley forests, up mountain ridges with wonderful Alpine-like vistas, only compromised on occasion by 4WDs, which seems rather counterproductive in a national park.
From a purely scenic point of view, this was my highlight of the trip. On one morning, we had to get up nice and early to beat the queues at the nearby funicular Fuente Dé. We got there at 8.00 in the morning, and still had to wait one hour before the 20-person cable car whisked us up to 2,500 m to reveal a truly spectacular mountain scenery of craggy cliffs and rugged peaks. My travel companions took the cable car back down why I embarked on the 4-hour descent back into Espimana through alpine meadows filled with wildflowers and the occasional lizard (which at this altitude was rather impressive). Once more the odd, noisy 4WD attempted to spoil matters by leaving behind trails of dust, but the walk was just too wonderful to have this minor inconvenience compromise my mood. The path ended at the Hostal Levandi where my travel companions were enjoying the day poolside (who said it’s the Germans who always seem to hog the best sun-loungers).
On one evening, we ventured into the regional hub of Potes, which was very busy with day trippers and holiday makers – once more practically all Spanish – who filled the numerous bars and restaurants in the narrow alleys of the old town: nice atmosphere and a lovely setting by a mountain stream. Almost like a Swiss village but with different architecture, a warmer climate (and yes, more gregarious people). All somewhat familiar, yet quite different.
In short, northern Spain has a lot – A LOT – to offer; from food (San Sebastian), to culture (Bilbao’s Guggenheim), to cute harbour settings (Cudillero), to beach life (Doniños) and mountain scenery (Picos). That must be - by anyone’s yardstick – a very impressive list. And yes, should you stay at the Finca Portizuelo, say ‘Hi’ from me.