A driving tour of Northern Spain ‘increasingly resembles Donegal the farther I travel’, our travel writer says
Some things are best left to the experts, such as pouring exactly 3cm of cider from a bottle held high above your head into a glass at waist level. In Asturias, trainee bar and restaurant staff have to practise for weeks with water before they’re let loose on paying customers.
“It’s to prevent the boss going bankrupt from all the dry-cleaning bills,” tour guide Ernesto Fernandez tells me as I admire the small harbour town of Luarca from its hillside cemetery.
“Look — that’s where I live,” he says, indicating his apartment building. “And this,” he adds, turning and pointing at the Fernandez family mausoleum, “is where I’ll be laid to rest — my tomb with a view.”
Necrotourism is a new one on me, but people do make a holiday out of gawping at graveyards, and Luarca’s, full of white marble statues of angels, the Virgin and the crucified Christ, is on the list of ‘10 Spanish cemeteries to see before you die’.
Down in the main square, a sign on a help-yourself tap outside a café reads: “Sidra. Gratis.” Asturian cider is so cheap — €3 for a litre bottle — that many bars provide it free to peregrinos (pilgrims) walking the Northern Way of the Camino de Santiago, which passes through Luarca.
It’s one of the many picturesque towns and cities I visit during a week-long east-to-west driving tour of ‘Green Spain’ that begins in Cantabria, continues into Asturias and ends in Galicia. Up here on the breezy Bay of Biscay, where families from Seville take summer breaks to escape the oppressive heat — 25C is cool compared with the 40-plus degrees they’re used to — the landscape increasingly resembles Donegal the farther I travel, with soaring cliffs, secluded beaches and pointy-topped mountains.
An hour’s drive from Santander, the Cantabrian capital, takes me to the fishing port of San Vicente de la Barquera, where the 13th-century fortress and Gothic church of Santa Maria, set against the snow-capped Picos de Europa, provide one of the most-photographed sights in Spain.
San Vicente is the starting point for the little-known Camino de Lebaniego (caminolebaniego.com), which covers a mere 72km and can be completed in three days. It might be Camino-Lite, but this inland hike, which takes pilgrims to the monastery of Santo Toribio near Potes, is heavy on scenery, and walkers would be wise to add a fourth day to allow for time stopping to take pictures.
Photography isn’t allowed in El Soplao Cave (elsoplao.es), but the millions of stalactites, stalagmites and physics-defying eccentrics — they grow sideways, which the biggest brains in science still can’t explain — leave visitors with long-lasting mental images.
Just outside medieval Santillana del Mar, arguably the most beautiful town in Spain, the Altamira Cave (culturaydeporte.gob.es), with its 15,000-year-old ceiling paintings of wild bison, had to be closed to the public in 2002.Decades of exhaled breath from crowds of visitors was causing mould to form on the Ice Age artists’ work, so an actual-size replica cave was built next door and is today a world-class tourist attraction. It’s hardly Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but every Friday, five lucky people drawn from a years-long waiting list present their golden tickets and are given a tour of the real thing.
In the coastal resort of Comillas, no one has to ask who dreamed up the whimsical Villa Quijano. Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona, on which work began in March 1882, will be nice when it’s finished, but the villa, which he designed for super-rich lawyer Máximo Díaz de Quijano, was completed in 1885 and has been attracting envious looks ever since. Better-known as Gaudí’s Caprice, it’s clearly influenced by Arab architecture and Oriental art, but an excited little boy gets it spot on when he says: “Look, Mama — the tower is made from Lego!”
Cantabria has delivered big time on culture, and now it’s onward to Asturias to hook up with Ernesto in Llanes for a late-night seafood dinner in a little restaurant overlooking the marina. After breakfast the following morning, we head off on a full-day tour of the principality’s seaside towns and villages, each laying claim, and not unreasonably, to the title of “Spain’s prettiest”.
Luarca is in with a shout, as are Tazones, Ribadesella and Colunga, with its Jurassic Museum (a must-see if you’re travelling with children; museojurasicoasturias.com), but Cudillero — a higgledy-piggledy pile of pastel-coloured shops and houses clambering up the steep gorge from the sea — gets my top marks.
The Galician capital, Santiago de Compostela, where I arrive the next day in time for a delicious lunch of boiled octopus in the Abastos food market, has much to offer footsore hikers at the end of their long Camino journey, but there’s really only one show in town once they’ve emptied the local pharmacies of blister pads.
The 7.30pm pilgrims’ mass in the 1,000-year-old cathedral packs the place out, with 1,200 people hoping to see the giant botafumeiro (censer) being swung from the ceiling by eight priests pulling hard on thick ropes.
It’s a centuries-old ritual with a practical purpose. In the pre-deodorant Middle Ages, pilgrims arriving at the cathedral to pray at the tomb of St James stank to high heaven after months on the road, so the wafting clouds of herb-scented smoke helped mask the stench. Disappointingly, my visit doesn’t coincide with a scheduled ‘show’, so I’m instead treated to the heady aroma of Deep Heat rubbed in to hundreds of aching legs.
Pilgrims with money to burn can pay well in advance to see the botafumeiro in action, but the privilege comes at an eye-watering price — up to €800. That’s a bit beyond my budget as I’m facing a hefty dry-cleaning bill back home after several saturating attempts at pouring my own cider in Asturias. Some things are best left to the experts.
Cathedrals Beach, with its towering sea arches, near Ribadeo, Galicia, is only accessible at low tide, but it’s worth the wait to go for a stroll. In summer, you need permission to access the beach, but it’s free from ascatedrais.xunta.es
Ryanair flies to Santander and Santiago de Compostela from Dublin. Britanny Ferries sails from Rosslare to Bilbao, which is a one-hour drive from Santander. The crossings take 27-33 hours with at least one night on board. ryanair.com; brittanyferries.ie
Tom was a guest of the regional tourism boards of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia and the Spanish Tourist Office in Dublin. For further information on visiting ‘Green Spain’, see turismodecantabria.com, turismoasturias.es, turismo.gal and spain.info.