Spanning from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic, Northern Spain has always had an air of mystery about it. Used for centuries as a hideaway from the major powers that occupied central Iberia, its broken terrain (from the lush peaks of Picos de Europa to the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela) has often hosted the rebels of history. Now more famous for culinary capitals like San Sebastian and Bilbao, as well as bull-fighting and miles of undeveloped coastline, we’re throwing the clock back to an older Northern Spain, where Visigothic churches still stand and Baroque beauties bask under the golden glow of the midday sun.
Raised on the ruins of an earlier church, Pamplona Cathedral took over a century to build and assumed immediate importance upon completion. Chosen as the spot where the Kings of Navarre should be crowned and parliaments convened, visitors should not be put off by the cathedral’s rather sober neo-classical façade, as inside it’s the cloister that tends to impress. One of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world, its tracery and relief work are rich, varied and gorgeous.
Basilica of Santa Maria, San Sebastian
Located in the old town of San Sebastian, this Minor Basilica is famous for the fine stonework that stands between its two towers. Depicting the tortured figure of San Sebastian alongside papal insignia, it was built over a much older temple and deploys a great variety of styles, from Churrigueresque to Plateresque. Stories about the city’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary, abound as well. One of the favourites is that when a clergyman tried to remove her portrait (after becoming tired of ascending the stairs it stood at the top of) he was immobilised.
Colegiata de Santa Juliana, Santillana del Mar
Everyone raves about the picturesque qualities of Santillana del Mar, which has a reputation not unlike Italy’s San Gimignano. Its main church, named after the young Juliana of Nicomedia (a martyr of the Diocletian persecution) hosts a community of canons, making it one of the most important churches in Cantabria. Delightfully Romanesque in design, much of the church’s artistic significance stems from its antique capitals (that display electrically charged encounters involving miracles and lurid violence), as well as its early medieval statuary.
Our Lady of Covadonga, Covadonga
Amid the crags of Asturias sits the shrine of Our Lady of Covadonga. Gaining prominence after the Battle of Covadonga in AD 722 (the first time the Moorish invasion was resisted), it’s named after the Marian statue discovered hidden in a cave during the battle, and was immediately believed to have brought about the subsequent victory. Visited by Pope John Paul II, its basilica houses a 16th century version of the statue, and the power of its legend still attracts pilgrims today.
Santiago de Compostela
Perhaps the most beautiful city in all of Spain, Santiago de Compostella’s winding cobbled lanes, vast squares and historic church towers are well-known the world over. Famous as the terminus of the St James’ Way (an ancient pilgrim route), people walk for hundreds of miles to pay their respects to St James at the cathedral’s main altar. This is not a place of understatement, however. Be prepared for baroque extravagance on an immense scale; with golden altars, colourful porticos and saint-lined chapels, it’s simply overwhelming.
If you’d like to see the spiritual glories of Northern Spain, why not click here to see what a Trafalgar trip offers in this splendid corner of Spain.
Image Credits: Basilica of Santa Maria, San Sebastian © iStock/deymos. Colegiata de Santa Juliana, Santillana del Mar © iStock/curtoicurto.. Santiago de Compostela © iStock/Duescreatus1. Cathedral, Pamplona © iStock/venemama. Stone Bridge © iStock/Marques Photography. Our Lady of Covadonga, Covadonga © iStock/SusanaValera.