Falling in love with Green Spain: Asturias and Cantabria
I'd last been to mainland Spain when I was 15; the memory has abided because a) my mother, sister and I travelled almost 800 miles by bus to get to our Costa Brava campsite; b) when we got there, we immediately decided we hated it and wanted to go home, NOW; c) we stayed, had a ball, and I had my first proper kiss, courtesy of Miguel, a dashing Spaniard.
So as you can imagine, any mention of Spain transports me back to that teenage summer of 30-odd years ago, a time full of promise and possibilities in a place that seemed oh-so exotic to my provincial eyes. When the opportunity arose to revisit the Land of Cervantes, I jumped at it, but my destination this time was not south to the sun-bleached Costas, but north, to the verdant regions known collectively as Green Spain.
My rediscovery of Spain began in Santander, capital of Cantabria province. Due to the outstanding beauty of its bay and beaches, the port city was, in the 19th Century, a favourite spot for royalty intent on escaping Madrid's ferocious heat. In their wake, came throngs of nobility and bourgeoisie to enjoy the spas' seaweed baths - their influx marking the beginning of tourism in Spain.
My entry point into Green Spain was Santander's airport, named for a famous Cantabrian, the late golfer Seve Ballesteros, who was born in Pedrena, an adjacent village. The city owns the Ballesteros-designed Matalenas golf course, which is spectacularly located with views of Santander Bay, Magdalena Palace and Sardinero Beach, and has cheap-as-chips green fees: €14 for the nine holes. My whistle-stop tour took in the aforementioned majestic Magdalena Palace, cannily gifted by the city authorities to King Alfonso XIII and Queen Eugenie. The duo fell in love with the area, significantly boosting the area's fortunes as a result of its newly chic status. Today, the palace is used for weddings; its grounds are a public park with stunning views of the bay. Despite not having a traditional centre - as a port, its focus is the sea - Santander is a gorgeous city to meander around, with much stunning architecture, most of it relatively recent, as the great fire of 1941 destroyed the city's early 20th Century buildings. It burned for two days, and, miraculously, only one life was lost. The area's sardines are legendary, and later, at my hotel, the gorgeously located Hotel Chiqui, perched facing the panorama of Sardinero Beach, three silver specimens certainly lived up to the hype.
The next morning, I headed south along the bay and inland to the vast acreage of the Pisuena Valley, and Cabarceno Nature Park, a former mining area, and now home to more than 118 species from five continents, including the white rhinoceros and African elephant. From there, it was on to the pretty seaside town of Comillas, home to some of Cantabria's most important art nouveau buildings, the jewel in the crown being Gaudi's fantastical El Capricho ('whim'), a house built for Maximo Diaz de Quijano, brother-in-law of the town's Marquis. It's notable as one of Gaudi's early works and features the eclecticism that became his trademark. The extravagant building is replete with symbolism and musical references - the sash windows chime notes via concealed bells; while a ceiling features 88 cast-iron dandelions, reflecting the owner's family heritage in blacksmithing and the number of keys on a piano. El Capricho - which its owner enjoyed for a mere seven nights, before dying - ran to dereliction for a time, but is now fully restored to its former glory. A must-see.
High on Gaudi, I bussed it along the coast to a magnificent lunch stop, El Remedio, a parochial house turned restaurant, with incredible food, set in splendid isolation facing the azure Bay of Biscay. Belly full, I dozed while the driver navigated inland to El Soplao, possibly the most magnificent of Cantabria's 6,500 caves. The cave's interior is reached via train, similar to those used by the miners who extracted lead and zinc here until the 1970s. El Soplao (meaning 'blown', a reference to strong fresh air currents the subterranean miners encountered) is considered one of the five best caves of the world, because of the quality and eccentricity of its formations: they are massive, incredibly white, and in parts, defy the laws of physics, twisting and turning rather than obeying gravity as most stalactites do. Around every turn is another awesome geological wonder; despite the gloom, the snow-white calcium carbonate dazzles against the terracotta iron-rich rock.
The sun is setting as I exit the speleological gem, and having made the hour's trek to Potes, and Hotel Valdecoro, I am famished as I sit to dine at El Cenador del Capitan, a quirky top-floor eatery overlooking the confluence of the Deva and Quiviesa rivers. The rustic food is a joy - think bone marrow; cocido lebaniego (chickpea stew); chased with orujo, local brandy. Cantabria is noted worldwide for its food, boasting no fewer than six Michelin star restaurants, while Potes's microclimate lends itself to the cultivation of cherries and grapes (originally brought by the Moors) .
Next morning, the first stop is Picos de Europa National Park. The visitor centre succinctly outlines the area's rich natural wealth, ranging from mineral deposits to vast forests of holm, cork, Pyrenean and Portuguese oak. My final pit-stop in Cantabria is the Santo Toribio de Liebana monastery, on the route of the Lebaniego Way, a variant of the Camino that traverses this part of Spain. Most striking is the Forgiveness Door with its effigies of 15 saints, encircled with stars representing compos stella, the 'way of the stars' that culminates in Santiago de Compostela, all Caminos' endpoint. Inside the monastery is the Lignum Crucis - the largest existing piece of the true cross. A resident priest is kind enough to remove the lavishly gilded cross from its reliquary so I can touch the inset cypress wood (verified in 1958 as being over 2,000 years old) in the hope of receiving grace.
My Green Spain odyssey continues into the principality of Asturias, previously a Christian kingdom and the only part of Spain not invaded by the Muslims in the 8th Century. Known as the Cradle of Spain, it's an area that is rich is history, tradition and beauty, and has its own language, bable. I travel through lush landscapes dotted with eucalyptus - a link to Asturias's emigrant past, as poverty forced many 19th Century Asturians abroad, to South America, in search of a better life. Some made their fortune in tobacco, food and textiles, and about 5pc, known as Indianos, returned, building grand, vibrantly coloured casonsas to herald their new status. These houses - the picturesque seaside town of Llanes abounds with them - are easily identifiable as each has a palm tree next to it, brought back, along with the aforementioned eucalyptus, from the New World.
I stop at El Balamu, a pescatarian haven with an adjacent fish market, to lunch on the freshest of gambas al ajillo and a selection of the region's 40 artisan quesos. Then it's onwards to Oviedo, the cleanest city in Europe (its 200,000 inhabitants are liable to get a whopping €3,000 fine if they put out their rubbish before 7pm). With over 120 pedestrianised streets dotted with 118 sculptures, the city is a joy to explore, and I view it first from Naranco Hill on the outskirts, the site of two of the finest pre-Romanesque monuments in Europe: the 9th Century sandstone churches of Santa María del Naranco (originally a recreational royal palace; the world's oldest still standing) and San Miguel de Lillo, luminous in the evening light. That night's hotel, the centrally located Hotel de La Reconquista, a national monument that dates to 1752, is pure luxury, and, it transpires, often frequented by Spanish royalty. Dickied up, I head to Gascon Street, the famous 'boulevard of cider', named for the troops from Gascony who settled in the area during the Napoleonic wars. Asturian sidra must be poured from a height of one-and-a-half metres, until the glass contains a scant inch, and must then be drunk within four seconds. It's zesty and delicious and perfectly complements my feast of Spanish meats and crusty bread at sidreria Tierra Astur Parrilla, where I enjoy the cider-pouring spectacle just as much as the terrific food. The place is only really hotting up as I leave at 11pm; as in much of Spain, people here dine late and party into the wee hours. On the city streets, I spot an occasional shell marker pointing the way towards Santiago, 344km away. Oviedo is both the beginning of the Camino Primitivo, the oldest, and original Camino route - in 814, King Alfonso II set out from here to verify the remains of Saint James; and the end of the Camino del Norte. Morning sees me move on to Gijon, an ancient port city located on the Via de la Plata or Silver Way, from Seville, an old commercial route. After a stroll through the beautiful seaside city, I lunch in Gloria, a snazzy spot, the patron of which is Nacho Manzano, whose Casa Marcial restaurant has made Le Chef's top 100 restaurants in the world list.
I'm nearing journey's end, and my circuitous route re-enters the vast Picos de Europa (it spans three regions, Cantabria, Asturias and Castilla y Leon) to Covadonga: a place of pilgrimage, and the birthplace of Asturias. Here, in 722, Pelagio, King of Asturias, defeated the Moors and secured Asturian independence. He believed Our Lady had aided him and a monastery and chapel were built on the site in honour of Our Lady of Covadonga.
Unseasonal snow, considered lucky, fell as I arrived, lending a festive air, despite it being nowhere near Christmas. Having visited the Basilica, I joined the shuffling queue of pilgrims that snaked into the cliffside cave-chapel that holds the 16th Century statue of Our Lady of Covadonga. The strains of the Salve Regina filled the freezing air as I glimpsed the tiny white-clad statue of the Virgin, her almond eyes gazing past the cave mouth to the distant Basilica. It was magical and surreal, but I left Covadonga with an undeniable feeling of peace. My final night was spent in nearby Cangas de Onis, the first capital of the medieval Kingdom of Asturias, now a small town, buzzing with pilgrims. Lodgings are at the Hotel Los Lagos Nature, a simple, modern establishment near the main drag. The Asturian cuisine is as fine as I've had, with excellent wine so cheap it results in a double take at the bill.
I depart Green Spain more than a little in love. Decades ago, it was a brown-eyed Spaniard who captured my heart, but this time I'm in thrall to a land certain to enchant me further when I return to its singular embrace.
Take Two: Top attractions
"I wanted the building to fly," architect Renzo Piano said of Centro Botin, a stunning arts and cultural centre on Santander waterfront. Designed to resemble a sailing vessel, the structure is covered in 250,000 mother-of-pearl discs resembling fish scales. The ground-floor Cafe El Muelle is a perfect spot to while away an hour, after viewing the galleries' diverse art.
Cangas de Onis
Cangas de Onis has much to offer, not least the iconic Puente Romano, above, a magical bridge that spans the salmon-rich Sella River. From it hangs a replica of the Victory Cross; the 10th Century original is to be found in Oviedo Cathedral.
* For more information on Cantabria, see turismodecantabria.com
* For more information on Asturias, see turismoasturias.es
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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