When most people think of Spain, they think of the dry arid landscapes of the South, the Mediterranean coastlines, the wine. But, a wealth of the country’s natural and cultural beauty can be found in the green countryside and Atlantic beaches of Northern Spain. We caught up with one of our seasoned Spain Travel Directors, Isabelle, to learn why Spain’s green north is one of her favourite places to visit. Here are some of the highlights of Trafalgar’s Northern Spain holidays that she loves most.
Finding ‘The Way’ along El Camino de Santiago de Compostela
Known in English as The Way of Saint James, this is one of the world’s most famous pilgrimages. The main route can take up to a month to complete, ending in the town of Compostela, where the remains of Saint James were discovered back in the 9th century. Even from a purely secular standpoint, this popular trek is truly inspirational. The path through Northern Spain, originating as far east as France and as far south as Porto, Portugal, see tens of thousands making the journey on foot or by bike every year to take in the stunning scenery and quaint villages of the northern Spanish countryside. Those that have travelled to the south of Spain will be blown away by the lush green forests and temperate climate that dominate this area.
“The Pilgrimage to Santiago is one of the reasons to come to Northern Spain. The pilgrim’s route has recovered popularity since 1992, but especially since 2010, which was the last Holy Year (when Saint James Day, 25 of July, falls on a Sunday). This was also when the movie The Way came out. That year 272,135 pilgrims reached Santiago de Compostela. In 2018, 327,378 pilgrims fulfilled The Way, which shows the popularity is growing. During our trips, we learn all about the pilgrimage, see the symbols, churches, shrines, paths, bridges, meet with the pilgrims along the way and will feel the impact on the pilgrims when they reach Santiago de Compostela, their final destination. It is a unique experience. The next holy year will be in 2021, and Santiago is already preparing for it.”
A side trip you won’t want to miss
The small village of Covadonga lies a little off the main pilgrimage route, but it is a Northern Spain road trip that is worthwhile.
“Covadonga, (the Cave of Our Lady) is the place where we can mark the beginning of the Reconquista or reconquest after the military victory in 718 of Don Pelayo, a Visigoth nobleman, over the Moors who had conquered the Iberian Peninsula seven years before,” Isabelle explained. “A statue of Virgen Mary that was hidden in a cave was said to have helped the Christians with their Victory, as Don Pelayo prayed to the Virgen. Now, Our Lady of Covadonga, locally known as La Santina, is the Patron Saint of Asturias. Since 1901, the beautiful pink limestone Basilica was consecrated and houses the actual statue of Our Lady, but in the cave her image can be found too, together with the tomb of Don Pelayo, the first king of Asturias.”
Covadonga is a parish in the municipality of Cangas de Onís, the first capital of Asturias. The Roman Bridge of Cangas de Onís is well-known, and under the bridge, there is a replica of the famous Victory Cross, the cross carried by Don Pelayo during his battle against the Moors.
Pintxos, pintxos and more pintxos
Whereas tapas dominate the culinary scene in the central and southern regions of Spain, on Northern Spain holidays, pintxos are the bite-sized food of choice. They are gaining popularity around the country and can be found in popular destinations like Barcelona. But their true home is in the north, and the northerners do them best.
“Eating pintxos is a true experience. First making a choice of all those marvellous foods with the eye and then through the palate. Both a complete culinary feast! Don’t forget to order a glass of the local Txacoli, a light sparkling white wine to go with it. Pintxos differ from tapas in that they are more sophisticated, served individually and held together with a skewer on top of a slice of bread. ¡Que aproveche!”
Say ‘Hola’ to the Atlantic Coast
Spain is known as a Mediterranean country, but some of the most beautiful beaches in the Iberian Peninsula actually border the Atlantic Ocean. From San Sebastian to Santander, the beaches of Northern Spain are beyond spectacular. White sand beaches with clear azure water, golden sand flowing into shallow turquoise bays, these beaches are not to be missed.
“Spain’s most beautiful beaches are to be found on the Atlantic coast, and on top of that, Northern Spain has the contrast of its green hills and mountains. Not many visitors expect such spectacular scenery to be seen in Spain. Green, hills and mountains, deep cliffs, golden white fine sand beaches, monumental rock formations, medieval villages, quaint fisherman’s ports, happy cows, wild rivers. It’s a paradise for nature lovers. Even our New Zealand guests are impressed by this beauty.”
Who needs wine when there’s cider!
Now, of course there is wine a-plenty all over the country. But the northerners pride themselves on another locally made libation: cider.
On our exclusive Be My Guest experience just outside the beautiful city of Oviedo, we visit the Castañón family at their cider mill for a taste of their authentic Asturian cider, produced by the family since 1938. This is more than a tasting session; this is a chance to hear the family history savoured with a healthy pouring of the fruit (cider) of their labour — the highlight of our Northern Spain holidays.
“Marta introduces us to her family run business, where they make the very popular cider from Asturias. Not only do we learn all the details of the cider production process, we also learn how to pour it (‘escanciar’ in Spanish), which makes it even more fun. And, we can drink as much as we like, and we are offered a delicious lunch with local specialties. A special heartfelt thank you to Marta for her always warm welcome and contagious enthusiasm.”
Modern art at its finest
A building as iconic as the artworks it houses, the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum is a paradise for art-lovers or anyone looking to take in some of the world’s finest examples of modern art. The museum, designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry, is a gilded masterpiece with an undulating silver façade that seems more sculpture than architecture. Inside, the museum contains some 20 galleries showcasing artists from around the world.
“Walking around the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum feels like being an extra for a James Bond movie, as OO7´s “The World is not enough” was filmed here in 1999. Its extravagant architecture shocked the city when it was built and has since become the icon for Bilbao and a reference in the contemporary architectonical world. The building plays with curves and light which shines and reflects on the titanium plates which refer to Bilbao´s mining past as a main iron ore producer in Spain.”
If these reasons aren’t enough to convince you take venture north on your next visit to Spain, have a look at our exciting Northern Spain holidays that will show you the best the region has to offer, letting you see its beauty through a local lens. Take it from someone who knows the region’s best:
“Come discover our Northern Spain, it is a well-kept secret just waiting to be uncovered!” – Isabelle, Spain Travel Director
Photos by: @isabelletrafalgartd