Discover the delights of northern Spain

Set your satnav for a driving tour of northern Spain, where the coastal provinces of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia provide a culturally-rich and laid-back alternative to all-day breakfasts, packed beaches and crowded nightclubs.

Luarca cemetery

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 their bosses going bankrupt from all the dry-cleaning bills,” tour guide Ernesto Fernandez tells me as we 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 when I die – my tomb with a view.”

A waiter expertly pours Asturian cider

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 “Ten Spanish cemeteries to see before you die”.

Down in the main square, a sign on a help-yourself tap outside a cafe 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 villages I’ll visit during a week-long east-to-west driving tour of northern Spain that begins in Cantabria, continues into Asturias and ends in Galicia.

Up here on the breezy Bay of Biscay, where families from sizzling Seville take their summer break to escape the oppressive heat of home – 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.

San Vicente de la Barquera

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 Lebaniego, 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 the scenery, and walkers would be wise to add a fourth day as a lot of time is spent stopping to take pictures.

El Soplao Cave is one of the world’s greatest geological wonders
Ice Age drawings from the ceiling of Altamira Cave

Photography isn’t allowed in El Soplao Cave (elsoplao.es), but the millions of stalactites, stalagmites and physics-defying helictites – these last mentioned grow sideways, which the biggest brains in science still can’t explain – leave long-lasting mental images.

Close to the cave’s Chamber of the Phantasms, where the bigger and bulkier stalagmites resemble ghosts of the white bedsheet variety, one three-metre-tall and 45,000-year-old example looks more like a mitre-wearing Pope while another beside it reminds visitors of Homer Simpson.

Just outside medieval Santillana del Mar – arguably the most beautiful town in Spain – the Altamira Cave, with its 15,000-year-old ceiling paintings of wild bison and deer, had to be closed to the public in 2002. Exhaled breath was causing mould to form on the Ice Age artists’ work, but actual-size reproductions can be seen in the replica cave next door, which 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 printed-out golden tickets at the entrance and are given a guided tour of the real thing, which was discovered by a local hunter in 1868. 

Gaudi’s Caprice in Comillas

In the coastal resort of Comillas, which has more multi-millionaire residents per capita than Monaco, no one has to ask who dreamed up the whimsical Villa Quijano.

Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia 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 Maximo Diaz de Quijano, was completed in 1885 and has been attracting envious looks ever since.

Better-known as Gaudi’s Caprice, it’s clearly influenced by Arab architecture and Oriental art, but an excited little boy gets it spot on when he says: “Mama – the tower is made from LEGO!”

Gaudi met an ignominious end in Barcelona in June 1926 when, at the age of 73, he was knocked down and gravely injured by a tram. Because he had taken to dressing in ragged clothing and was carrying no ID, he was presumed to be a beggar and taken to a hospital for the poor.

On the third day after the accident he was finally recognised, but he died that evening. Thousands of citizens lined the streets for his funeral procession, and he was laid to rest in the crypt of his art nouveau masterpiece. If he hadn’t been identified, his remains would have been buried in a pauper’s grave.

T-rex and a terrified me at the Jurassic Museum in Colunga

Cantabria has delivered big time on culture and natural history, 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, we head off on a full-day exploration of the principality’s seaside communities, each laying claim, and not unreasonably, to the title of “Spain’s prettiest”. 

Luarca, with its des-res cemetery, is in with a shout, as are Tazones, Ribadesella and Colunga, where the Jurassic Museum is a must-see if you’re travelling with children. Little ones go nuts to have their photos taken beside its life-sized dinosaur models, and then probably wake up screaming at three in the morning, having dreamt they were being eaten by a tyrannosaurus.

However, Cudillero, a higgledy-piggledy pile of pastel-coloured shops and houses clambering up a steep gorge from the sea, gets my vote, although I don’t tell that to Ernesto – the shock might dispatch him prematurely to his tomb with a view.

Cudillero gets my vote as Spain’s prettiest seaside village

We say adiós the following lunchtime in Ribadeo, on the western side of the River Eo estuary that separates Asturias from Galicia.

The “handover”, as Ernesto ominously calls it, to “the Galician authorities” conjures up images of a midnight spy swap at fog-shrouded Checkpoint Charlie, but they’re quickly dispelled – it’s a beautiful day, and instead of being greeted by George Smiley, smiling tour guide Gabriela Garcia is waiting to whisk us off for a dip in the sea.

Unfortunately for me, but a lucky let-off for the public, I haven’t brought my Speedos, so I content myself with an hour-long stroll along Cathedrals Beach, which is only a short hop from Ribadeo.

The beach, with its 30-metre-tall sea arches that resemble flying buttresses, hence the name, is accessible only at low tide, and in the busy summer months you need permission, but free online reservations are available from ascatedrais.xunta.es.

Small section of Cathedrals Beach, which runs for several kilometres
Botafumeiro in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The Galician capital, Santiago de Compostela – my ultimate destination – has loads 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.

At 7.30pm mass each day, the 1,000-year-old cathedral is thronged 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 instead of getting giddy on smouldering incense, I’m treated to the heady aroma of Deep Heat sprayed on hundreds of aching legs.

Pilgrims with money to burn can pay 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 after several pathetic attempts at pouring my own cider in Asturias left me looking like I’d peed my pants. Some things are best left to the experts.

A pilgrim arrives at the end of her long Camino journey in Santiago de Compostela

GET THERE

Ryanair flies to Santander and Santiago de Compostela from Dublin; Brittany Ferries sails from Rosslare to Bilbao, from where it’s a one-hour drive to Santander.

For further information, see turismodecantabria.comturismoasturias.esturismo.gal and spain.info

Author: Tom Sweeney

Chief sub-editor at Independent News & Media, Dublin, Ireland, and award-winning travel writer and blogger.

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