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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Millions of holidaymakers will head this year to Spain’s costas and vibrant historical cities to soak up the sun, immerse themselves in the country’s culture and enjoy their favourite dishes. Here’s a tantalising taste of the most popular Spanish fare to try while you’re there, plus some recommendations that might not be so familiar. Buen provecho!
The dish associated worldwide with Spain originates in Valencia and the real deal contains rice, chicken, rabbit, green beans and often snails. In the 18th century, when meat was unaffordable for many, water voles were one of the main ingredients as they were abundant in the Albufera rice fields not far from the city.
A proud Valencian wouldn’t touch the touristy versions, which contain prawns, crayfish, mussels, clams, calamares and, for some strange reason, garden peas.
The best paella I’ve ever had – and the one by which all others are judged – was in Casa Carmela, facing Valencia’s Malvarrosa Beach. Cooked in a pan as big as a wagon wheel on an open range fuelled by orange-tree wood, it’s so popular that reservations are a must, especially on Sundays when families pack the place.
TOP TIP: Valencia is a hugely enjoyable city break destination, and the outrageously ornate Cafe de Las Horas bar is a must-visit to try Agua de Valencia – gin, vodka, cava and freshly-squeeze orange juice.
Cochinillo asado (Segovia)
My most memorable meal (apart from the best-forgotten bull’s testicles I was tricked into eating) during the many years I lived in Spain was Christmas dinner in a friend’s house in Marbella in 1984.
The star of the spread was cochinillo asado – roast suckling pig – which my pal’s mother, like all the other mammies in the neighbourhood, had entrusted to the local baker to cook overnight in his bread oven.
When Señora Fay came to carve it at the table, she didn’t use a knife – the meat was so tender she sliced through it with the edge of a saucer. It was like watching a magic trick.
TOP TIP: Chefs in Segovia, north-west of Madrid, will tell you the city is famous first for its cochinillo asado and then for its 160-arch Roman aqueduct. If you’re spending some time in Madrid, take a half-day excursion to Segovia (high-speed train from Chamartin station, 30 minutes, renfe.com, then hop on the local bus to the centre) and have a cochinillo lunch in Meson de Candido in the shadow of the aqueduct.
At the end of a three-day, 72km trek along the Camino Lebaniego in the northern province of Cantabria, I could have eaten a horse. It wasn’t on the menu in the attic dining room of El Cenador del Capitan in Potes, but cocido was.
Every Spanish region has its own version of cocido, which is a vegetarian’s nightmare – a hearty winter stew that contains ham, pork belly, beef, baby goat, black pudding, sausages, chickpeas and beans. It’s ladled out in glutton-sized portions and has the same restorative powers Popeye gets from spinach.
TOP TIP: The Camino Lebaniego goes inland from the Cantabrian fishing port of San Vicente de la Barquera to the monastery of Santo Toribio just outside Potes, and every step of the way is a scenic delight. Fly to Santander and take a bus to San Vicente, then back from Potes (busbusgo.com).
Pulpo a la Gallega (Galicia)
Octopus Galician-style isn’t to everyone’s taste, especially after that Netflix film, My Octopus Teacher, but I’m a sucker for it, and the very best is found in Santiago de Compostela.
Nothing could be simpler – it’s boiled, cut up with scissors, served on a wooden board, sprinkled with paprika and accompanied by sliced boiled potatoes and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. The texture is rubbery and the taste divine.
TOP TIP: In Santiago de Compostela, the ancient and beautiful cathedral city at the end of the several Caminos de Santiago (unless you carry on walking to Finisterre), Meson do Pulpo (Calle Vista Alegre 57) serves octopus to beat the band.
Grilled sardines (Costa del Sol)
The sardines that come in tins are tiddlers compared with those you’ll see – and smell from afar – being grilled on the beaches along the Costa del Sol.
These big bruisers are skewered on wooden sticks stuck in the sand in front of a wood fire, then served whole with a sprinkling of sea salt and half-a-lemon to squeeze over them.
They’re available from May to October, but are at their best in June, and a cold beer washes them down nicely.
TOP TIP: If you’re in Torremolinos or Benalmadena, wander along the seafront to La Carihuela, which is famous throughout Spain for its seafood restaurants, all of which serve grilled sardines.
Tortilla de patatas (Nationwide)
If any dish can be said to occupy the throne of Spanish cuisine, it’s the tortilla de patatas, the simple but splendid potato omelette, which is made with only three ingredients – eggs, sliced boiled potatoes and onions.
Tortilla de patatas needs no adornment, but if the onions are caramelised before being added to the mix, the omelette steps up from perfecto to perfectisimo. Some misguided cooks put chopped red peppers in their tortilla to add a dash of colour – a sacrilege akin to putting honey on a Highlander’s porridge.
TOP TIP: The tortilla de patatas served in Juana La Loca is considered the best in Spain. Juana La Loca (Joanna the Mad), the elder sister of Catherine of Aragon and sister-in-law of Henry VIII, was Queen of Castile from 1504 to 1555, but never actually ruled due to her mental instability.
Salmorejo and oxtail (Cordoba)
Just about every cafe and restaurant in Cordoba serves the city’s two signature dishes.
Cold soup salmorejo – a simpler version of gazpacho – is made from tomatoes, bread, extra virgin olive oil, garlic and salt and is sensational, especially on a hot day (July and August temperatures in Cordoba often reach 40C).
Braised oxtail (rabo de toro) is what Cordobans dream of when they’re living away from home. Served on the bone, it’s a bit fatty, but the morsels of meat melt in the mouth.
TOP TIP:Cordoba is the only place in the world where Catholics go to mass in a mosque – the Mosque-Cathedral, with its vast forest of pillars and ornamental arches. The mosque was completed in 988AD during the Moorish occupation of Spain, and the cathedral was built inside it in the 16th century. If you’re spending time in Sevilla or on the Costa del Sol, Cordoba is only a 50-minute high-speed train ride away (renfe.com).
Jamon, queso y chorizo (Nationwide)
A plate of wafer-thin slices of Serrano ham with half-a-dozen half-centimetre-thick triangles of Manchego cheese and some not-too-chunky circles of chorizo constitutes the Holy Trinity of Spanish snacks.
Available in every bar, cafe and restaurant in the country, this winning combination is eaten at all hours of the day as a stop-gap between meals and is best accompanied by an ice-cold glass of lager or a chilled dry sherry.
TOP TIP: Think Spanish lager and the names that immediately spring to mind are San Miguel and Cruzcampo, but the best two brews by far are Mahou and Estrella Galicia. As for chilled dry sherry, Tio Pepe stands alone.
Visitors to Majorca who set aside a day of their holiday to stroll around the island capital, Palma, will be glad they did. Among its many attractions is the indoor Santa Catalina market – the beating heart of the city.
In any of the market’s many bars and coffee kiosks you can enjoy a cafe con leche and an ensaimada – a soft, sweet and fluffy breakfast pastry sprinkled with icing sugar. This uniquely Majorcan treat is the perfect way to start the day, and they’re available in several sizes to take back home in souvenir boxes.
Top tip: Palma’s Apuntadores/La Lonja neighbourhood is home to the most beautiful nightspot in the world, the flower-filled Bar Abaco. Gregorian chants murmur from the speakers, doves flutter around the rafters, rose petals rain from the minstrels’ gallery and incense fills the air. This former nobleman’s townhouse is as posh as they come, so don’t wander in wearing shorts – only local hero Rafa Nadal, who’s a regular, is allowed to do that.
Churros con chocolate (Nationwide)
Churros are long fingers of deep-fried doughnut batter that you dip in thick hot chocolate and are a great start to the day, although they’re also devoured by nightclubbers on their way home at OMG o’clock when most people have been asleep for hours.
Top tip: In Madrid, Chocolateria de San Gines (Pasadizo de San Gines 5), which opened in 1894, never closes, so there’s no excuse for not feasting on this breakfast of ‘campeones’. Recognised nationwide as the best in the business, Chocolateria de San Gines serves 10,000 freshly-made churros and 2,000 cups of hot chocolate every day.
San Sebastian is the gastro capital of Spain, where you can’t move for tripping over Michelin-star restaurants, but Bilbao, home to the remarkable Guggenheim Museum, has many more visitor attractions.
Pintxos are the far-superior Basque version of tapas, and the selection appears endless, with bars, cafes and restaurants coming up with new versions on a weekly basis. My favourite Bilbao pintxo palace is Cafe Iruña.
Top tip: In Bilbao (a long-weekend top recommendation), rugby-loving and kilt-wearing cocktail expert Manu Iturregi owns Bar Residence, an award-winning Aladdin’s Cave of Irish, Scotch and world whiskies with regular live music sessions. A half-hour metro train ride from the city centre takes you to the beach.
Everyone has heard of the Camino de Santiago, the collective name for the ancient Christian pilgrimage routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of Saint James in Galicia. However, very few people outside of northern Spain know of the Camino Lebaniego in Cantabria, which is a pity. At only 72kms, or roughly 95,000 steps, the ‘Secret Camino’ is the road less travelled but the most scenic of all. (First published in October 2017.)
In the Franciscan monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana, close to the picturesque town of Potes, two thick walls either side of a courtyard separate the church from the souvenir shop cum pilgrimage office – which is just as well. Were it not for the sound-absorbing stone, visitors queuing in solemn silence before the altar to kiss a piece of the cross on which Christ died would have heard a little Spanish girl squeal: “Daddy! Look! The baby Jesus is riding Noddy’s scooter!”
She was right. Standing out from the array of rosary beads and religious statuettes in the shop was a small, red and yellow ceramic Vespa with the Holy Family on board. The little girl’s daddy was mortified, but the footsore pilgrims waiting to get the final stamp on their special passports (credenciales) nearly wet their pants laughing.
They had chosen a good time (mid-May) to walk the Camino Lebaniego – a few weeks earlier and they might have arrived at the monastery with their pants already sodden. Cantabria didn’t get to be as green as Ireland without getting drenched; in summer it can be scorching, but at other times the rain in Spain falls mainly here.
The purpose of the pilgrims’ journey is to venerate the Lignum Crucis, reputedly the largest surviving piece of the True Cross, which would be a lot larger but for its early monastic custodians’ readiness to exchange fragments for favours.
When it arrived in Cantabria in the Middle Ages from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, brought by Saint Turibius of Astorga, it was the entire left arm of the cross, but splinter by splinter it was whittled away until it resembled a walking stick well on its way to becoming a chopstick.
In 1679, the monks cut what remained into two pieces and encased them in a gilded silver cruciform reliquary. The longer, vertical piece is exposed near its base, revealing the hole where the nail was hammered through Christ’s wrist.
The wood is Mediterranean cypress, which was and is common in the Holy Land, and carbon dating shows the tree from which it came grew 2,000-odd years ago. Science puts it in the right place at the right time, while faith verifies its bona fides for believers.
The Secret Camino is walked almost exclusively by in-the-know Spaniards, but that’s not because they’re keeping it quietly to themselves; rather, it’s put in the shade by the more famous long-distance routes, especially the busy, 790km Camino Frances, which has become even busier on the back of the worldwide success of the 2011 film, The Way, in which it and Martin Sheen co-starred.
Now, however, it’s the Lebaniego’s turn to shine – without the help of Hollywood lighting – because 2017 is a Jubilee, or Holy Year, on the Cantabrian Way, which occurs only when the feast of Santo Toribio, April 16, falls on a Sunday (the next one is in 2023).
During the current special 12-month period, which ends next April 15, pilgrims who pass through the monastery’s Puerta del Perdon (Door of Forgiveness) and comply with a handful of simple conditions will have the time they’ve accrued in Purgatory annulled. It’s like getting penalty points wiped from a driving licence.
Beginning at the fishing port and holiday resort of San Vicente de la Barquera, the Lebaniego can be walked in as few as three days or incorporated in a weeks-long trek that takes in the North and French Ways, which it partly connects, en route to Santiago.
For those keen on keeping in touch with the outside world while getting in touch with their inner selves, there’s free wifi every step of its modest length, making even the narrowest forest trail a lane on the information super-highway.
Spiritual fulfilment aside, the reward for walking the Lebaniego is a certificate of completion (a lebaniega), but it’s the coastal, riverside, woodland and mountain scenery that make the journey such a joy. Snappable sights that nature crafted or man made present themselves at almost every turn, so pilgrims should factor into their daily schedule time spent stopping to take photos.
Those who opt to spend a pre-pilgrimage night in San Vicente should stand on the eastern shore of the estuary just before twilight and look across the water. With some moody clouds to better highlight the historic towers, turrets and rooftops against the snow-capped mountains, the town looks like it should be hanging in a frame.
The mountains are the Picos de Europa, so named by 16th century cod fishermen and whalers from the Basque Country returning after months of hooking and harpooning in the waters off of what are now Newfoundland and Maine. When the Picos came into view, they knew they were nearly home – the Basques are the Cantabrians’ next-door neighbours to the east.
Pilgrims and holidaymakers are not alone in flocking to San Vicente. Thanks to the estuary and the nearby marshes, cliffs and dunes, many species of migratory aquatic birds congregate here; in the Picos, vultures, eagles, hawks, falcons and owls rule the roost.
Anyone with even only a passing interest in our feathered friends will find Fat Birder a fascinating online resource. Clearly a labour of love for English ornithologist Richard Crombet-Beolens, whose surname looks suspiciously like an anagram but isn’t, it includes a comprehensive section on Cantabria’s birdlife.
The Lebaniego has three stages – San Vicente to Cades (28.5kms), Cades to Cabañes (31.3kms) and Cabañes to Potes and the monastery (12.1kms) – and most people walk them in three days. However, the journey can be broken into four or five, which allows time for some peripheral exploring.
Any visitor attraction described as “the subterranean Sistine Chapel” had better live up to its billing. The natural cave of El Soplao, near Cades, does so with its extraordinary stalactites, stalagmites and helictites, these last also known as eccentrics because they grow at gravity-defying angles.
The 240-million-year-old cave was discovered in the early 20th century during exploratory drilling for zinc deposits, which were there in abundance. Unfortunately for the prospectors, they knocked through into what became known as the Gallery of the Ghosts; fortunately for posterity, what they saw – before they turned tail and ran, screaming – helped ensure El Soplao has remained unspoiled.
The gallery is named after the group of 500,000-year-old man-sized stalagmites that look like spooks of the white bedsheet variety. Fear of the supernatural meant miners gave this part of the cave a wide berth, although apprentices were tricked into a first-day-on-the-job initiation they would never forget. Disappointingly, photography in the cave’s several galleries isn’t allowed, but on the plus side there are no bats.
A day on the go can be taxing, and food becomes a fixation. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but with a three-course menu del dia including coffee and a half-litre of wine costing as little as €10 in roadside restaurants, it’s as good as gratis.
For dinner, Cantabrians love hearty stews (cocidos) and ladle them out in glutton-sized portions. That might sound off-putting, but the spectacle of skinnymalinks feverishly polishing their plates with chunks of bread is unremarkable.
Cocido lebaniego and cocido montañes, which feature on most menus along the way, differ only in that the former contains chickpeas while the latter has white beans. Otherwise, the big terracotta dishes from which both are served are piled high with ham, pork belly, beef, baby goat, black puddings and sausages.
Cocidos are nutritious and delicious and more than replace all those calories burned on the hoof, allowing pilgrims to set off each morning with a spring in their step. These beauts are made for walking.
At the 55km mark, two of the Lebaniego’s most photographed sights stand, in jarring contrast, a few metres apart. One is the small, 10th century church of Santa María de Lebeña with its tiny, overgrown graveyard where wildflowers have been spared the hoe. The other is the gnarled, barkless and sun-bleached trunk of a lifeless yew that has inexplicably been spared the axe.
Resembling a fist with the middle finger raised, it’s the rudest tree in the world. The parish powers-that-be must have a mischievous sense of humour or are blissfully oblivious to the obvious; either way, there it is – dead, defiant and crying out for a photo to be sniggered over later in the El Hayal hostel in Cabañes, 5 kilometres distant.
Typical of most hostels on the Lebaniego, El Hayal (+34 942 744203) offers B&B for around €20, and half and full-board are also available. It’s not the Ritz: guests sleep in singles or bunk beds in six rooms accommodating from four to 18 people with half-a-dozen shared bathrooms, but it’s well-run and spotlessly clean.
Although not exclusively for pilgrims, being principally a base for hillwalkers, cyclists and birders, everyone’s welcome to enjoy the food and facilities, which include a pool, and drift off beneath its rustic timbered roof.
Birders rise with the larks, but pilgrims needn’t get up early for the last stage of the journey. With only 12kms to go, there’s time to tarry over lunch in Tama, where a chunky tuna salad in the Hotel Corcal’s Casa Fofi restaurant is sufficient sustenance for the home stretch; anything more substantial might spoil the appetite for a mission-accomplished dinner in Potes.
After collecting that certificate from the monastery, there’s not a lot to do back in Potes apart from pottering around the narrow streets, admiring the medieval houses and dandering by the Deva River that runs through town; still, it’s a pleasant way to kill time until the best restaurant on the Lebaniego opens at 8pm.
In the attic dining room of El Cenador del Capitán, where reservations are a must and tall people should beware the rafters, choosing from the menu isn’t easy: diners who spend 10 minutes deciding what to order frequently change their minds as soon as they see what those at neighbouring tables are having.
To avoid trying the waiting staff’s patience, opt for the house’s award-winning cocido lebaniego; a bottle of local red wine, rarely seen outside of Cantabria but top class; a dessert selection of local cheeses, which are among the best in Spain; and, to round things off, a pot of herbal rock tea (té de roca) with a generous splash of the regional firewater, orujo. At around €30 a head, it’s a steal.
As soon as that orujo hits the spot, it’s time to hit the pillow. The pilgrimage is over – but not necessarily so the adventure. Those with time to spare and a head for heights should hop on the bus the next morning to Fuente de, half-an-hour from Potes, for a daredevil cable car ride in the Picos de Europa National Park.
There are two cars, which sway and sometimes lurch in anything more than a breeze, each with a capacity for 20 passengers. The bottom station is at 1,090 metres above sea level and the top one is at 1,850 metres – a vertical ‘drop’ of 760 metres, or six-and-a-bit Dublin Spires. The trip, which covers a cable distance of 1.45kms, takes three minutes and 40 seconds and the cars can reach a top speed of 10 metres per second, or 36kms per hour.
Nervy passengers tend to observe the ascent and descent through splayed fingers, but even a peek-a-boo view of the mountains high above and the valleys far below draws admiring gasps. Only a fibber would deny it’s frightening: countless prayers are said in the church in the monastery, but plenty of Hail Marys are whispered aboard the cable cars, too.
The phenomenal international interest in the various caminos shows no sign of abating – year after year, they register sizeable increases in the number of people walking them. When next April 15 comes around and the Jubilee ends, the souvenir shop cum pilgrimage office where everyone nearly wet their pants laughing will have issued more lebaniegas than in any previous 12-month period.
As people continue to return home to regale family and friends with tales of their experiences and share treasured photos, the Secret Camino won’t stay secret for much longer. It will, however, remain the loveliest pilgrimage route in Europe.
Talking of lovely: somewhere in Spain, a beautiful little girl is the proud owner of a unique souvenir of her visit to the monastery in the mountains. Her father may have been mortified by her excited outburst, but no doting daddy could refuse to buy his daughter a model of the baby Jesus riding Noddy’s scooter.
GET THERE:Ryanair flies from Dublin to Santander and Aer Lingus from Dublin to Bilbao. Flights arrive in late afternoon, so stay over and take an early Alsa Lines bus to San Vicente (book well in advance). To reserve a bed in a pilgrims’ hostel (again, book well in advance) and for detailed information on the Lebaniego route, see caminolebaniego.com. Autobuses Palomera (+34 942 880641) operates a three-times-daily service from Potes to Santander, from where Alsa serves Bilbao.
PILGRIM PASSPORT: You’ll need a credencial to sleep in cheap pilgrim hostels, where it will be stamped as proof of your journey, and to obtain a certificate of completion at the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. Collect your credencial (€2) from the Church of Santa María de Los Ángeles, Calle Alta 24, in San Vicente. Apply at email@example.com or call +34 942 211563 (it might be wiser and quicker to phone, because they’re frustratingly slow at responding to emails).
TOP TIP: There are no ATMs or supermarkets between San Vicente and Potes, so carry sufficient cash for lunch stops and commandeer pastries and fruit from the breakfast buffets of your accommodation, where vending machines offer water (always carry a litre), chocolate and energy bars.
Artists of every kind make all of Madrid a stage. From footballers on the playing field to painters in world-renowned museums, and from buskers and flamenco dancers to cooks preparing haute or homely cuisine, visitors will find the Spanish capital a hotbed of talent waiting to be discovered.
It’s a balmy Wednesday night in April, and 59,000 football fans are swarming out of the Santiago Bernabeu, where Real Madrid have just drawn 1-1 with Athletic Bilbao. On a traffic island in front of the stadium’s main entrance a digital display shows the temperature is 17C and the hour 23.02. Time for dinner. In a city where long, leisurely lunches often last beyond five o’clock and the evening meal rarely starts before half-past nine, eating late is the norm.
A 12-minute ride on the Metro from Santiago Bernabeu takes me to Plaza España, where my hotel is located. I squeeze through the throng into a nearby bar bunged with disappointed Real supporters. The result has left a sour taste in their mouths – they expected an easy win – and they’re doing their best to wash it away with glasses of Madrid brew Mahou, for me the best lager in Spain.
The kitchen is working overtime turning out tapas and the noise is off the scale. Customers bawl their orders at the barmen, who acknowledge them with a bellow. The floor is a debris field of discarded serviettes, toothpicks, prawn shells and olive pips, but every five minutes a boy with a broom clears it all away. In a lacklustre match the Real and Athletic sweepers did little of note, but this kid is playing a blinder.
All eyes are on the TV. In the studio, the football pundits are giving their considered analyses of the game. In the bar, the fans are giving them dog’s abuse. It’s great fun – cursing in Spanish is colourful and not a little cringe-inducing – but it’s nearly 1am and time for bed. The bill for three bottles of Mahou and a plate each of Serrano ham, Manchego cheese and potato omelette comes to €16.50. That’s what you call a result.
Around the corner from the VP Plaza España Design hotel, where I’m staying, is the 18th century Royal Palace. With its five-metre-high doorways, the 3,418-room official residence of the Spanish monarchs is one of the few buildings that six-foot-four King Felipe can enter without doing a limbo dance.
At midday in front of the palace, tourists gather around street musicians. These aren’t any old buskers: as befits the regal backdrop, they’re the best in town and have had to audition to earn a city hall permit and a coveted performance spot.
An elderly gentleman in a pristine cream suit and Panama hat, looking every inch the man from Del Monte, plays Glenn Miller favourites on a clarinet. When he follows Moonlight Serenade with Little Brown Jug, a middle-aged American couple can’t contain themselves and start dancing like professionals.
A teenage girl with an acoustic guitar and a mane of natural red hair – a much-admired rarity in Spain – enchants her audience with the haunting second movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. When she finally takes a bashful bow, coins rain into her instrument case.
The Golden Buzzer, however, goes to the man playing movie themes on an array of stemless brandy bowls and champagne flutes stuck with putty to a trestle table. Dipping his fingertips into a flask of water at his hip, he runs them around the rims and the Titanic signature tune fills the air. He must dread the day when a mezzo-soprano sets up nearby and hits a glass-shattering high C.
It’s a 20-minute walk to Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, which has its street entertainers too, and among them is a man dressed as Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp character, known in Spain as Charlot. At his feet is a sign that reads: “English spoken here by man who left City Cork 65 years ago.”
This is former millionaire builder Tony O’Connor, who made a fortune and then lost the lot a decade ago when the construction boom went bust. Don’t expect to hear a lilting Leeside accent, though – his parents left Cork for London when he was small and he’s as Cockney as they come.
Tony, who has emphysema, has a pitch in front of the famed La Mallorquina cake shop, whose display windows need to be wiped a couple of times a day to remove child-sized palm prints and smudges left by little noses pressed against the glass.
“I don’t have the breath to sing and I can’t compete with those young guys over there doing their acrobatics,” says Tony. “I’m lucky to collect €400 a month in winter, though I can make around €1,400 in the summer, just sitting here chatting with whoever stops to hear my story. A couple of years ago, a guy handed me an envelope and disappeared. When I opened it, there was €600 inside. I couldn’t believe it.”
On the third floor above La Mallorquina is the luxury apartment that Tony and his wife had to sell when it all went wrong. If it came on the market today, the owner would be looking for at least €700,000. “Ah, well, that’s life,” says Tony, and breaks off to direct an English couple to Madrid’s top visitor attraction, the Prado Museum.
The Prado and its near neighbours, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, form the 1.5-kilometre-long Paseo del Arte (Art Walk), otherwise known as the Golden Triangle. No other city in the world has three treasure houses in such close proximity. The English couple are in for a treat.
The Prado is a 15-minute stroll from Puerta del Sol and houses the most important collection of Spanish art in the world. It also has the best air-conditioning in Madrid, a godsend in July and August when afternoon temperatures hit 30C and forget to stop.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez (1599-1660) and Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) are the stars of the show, with El Greco as the main support act on a bill that includes Rubens, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Van Der Weyden, Ribera, Zurburan and Murillo, which sounds like a Real Madrid starting XI.
While the galleries and halls of the Prado are dripping with masterpieces, two paintings attract the biggest crowds: Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656), which is most visitors’ favourite, and Goya’s Carlos IV of Spain and His Family (1801).
Goya’s portrait depicts King Carlos, his wife Maria Luisa, seven of their 14 children, including Crown Prince Ferdinand who later ruled as the despised Ferdinand VII, and other relatives in a line-up more motley than majestic.
The focal point of Las Meninas is King Felipe IV and Queen Mariana’s five-year-old daughter Princess Margarita, who stands with two ladies-in-waiting, a nun, a dwarf, a jester and a mastiff dog. In an open doorway in the background lurks the queen’s chamberlain, and reflected in a mirror on the back wall are Felipe and Mariana.
In perhaps the first example of a selfie, Velazquez has included himself in his most-admired work, eyes front as he paints the out-of-shot royal couple, hence their reflection in the mirror. Not to be outdone, fellow bighead Goya appears in the background of his painting of Carlos and his kin.
French painter Edouard Manet (1832-1883) said Seville-born Velazquez was “the greatest painter that has ever existed. He alone is worth the trip to Madrid”. Few who stand before Las Meninas would disagree, but it’s another painting by another Andalucian, in the Reina Sofia, that art lovers from all over the world do make the trip to see.
Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is arguably the best-known painting of the 20th century. Measuring 7.8 by 3.5 metres, it’s certainly one of the biggest. Completed in black, white and grey oils on canvas, it’s a denunciation of the aerial bombing on April 26, 1937 of the eponymous Basque town by Hitler’s Condor Legion.
Picasso, or to give him his full name, Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santisima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, which added five minutes to the morning roll call in school, was born in Malaga in October 1881 and spent most of his long adult life in France, where he died aged 91 in April 1973.
It was in his Paris loft that he painted Guernica for the Spanish Republic’s pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in his adopted city. On learning of the attack – the town was the northern stronghold of the Republican resistance during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which made it a target for Franco’s Nationalist forces – Picasso abandoned his intended commissioned work and produced instead the most powerful anti-war painting of all time.
The bombs fell on market day, and many women and children were among the at least 300 people killed. A mother holding a dead baby features large in the work, but the two most prominent figures are a bull, representing the onslaught of fascism, and a gored horse, representing the people of the town (horses were often disembowelled by the bulls’ horns during a corrida).
The death and destruction visited on Guernica were appalling; that the attack was used by the Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria to try out new carpet bombing techniques on a civilian target was atrocious. At the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering said Guernica was a “testing ground” – confirmation, if any were needed, that Picasso painted the nightmarish result of a cynical experiment in extermination.
Portraiture rules in the Thyssen-Bornemisza, and its most instantly recognisable portrait is of a ruler. German artist Hans Holbein the Younger’s (1497-1543) painting of Henry VIII of England is one of scores of contemporaneous copies of the original (1537), which was lost in a fire in 1698, but this is the only one by Holbein (the others were by apprentices). Think of Henry, and this is the bejewelled and bejowled image that springs to mind.
While the Prado and the Reina Sofia allow art lovers to study specific painters’ bodies of work, the Thyssen-Bornemisza is more a Hall of Fame of all-time greats, who are represented in abundance.
Bacon is here, as are Freud, Pollock, Munch and Hockney, whose 1972 Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold recently at auction in New York to an anonymous buyer for $90.3m, setting a new record for a work by a living artist. Visitors can also gaze upon paintings by Spaniards Dali and Miro; France’s Gauguin, Manet, Renoir, Degas and Matisse; Dutch masters Rembrandt and Vermeer; and Italy’s Caravaggio, Canaletto and Tintoretto. It’s like rubbing shoulders with Hollywood royalty at the best Oscars after-party.
The museum’s most poignant painting is not a portrait. Vincent van Gogh’s French rural landscape, Les Vessenots, is the last work he completed, only days before his suicide in 1890. In late May of that year, the Dutch post-impressionist (born 1853) travelled 35 kilometres north from Paris to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. For several weeks he worked outdoors in glorious weather, producing many landscapes, until he surrendered to his demons. On the morning of July 27, Van Gogh put down his paintbrush, lifted a gun and ended his torment. He was 37.
Some of Madrid’s best-loved artists work mostly anonymously behind the scenes in kitchens. The city has 20 Michelin-starred restaurants, but in this most cosmopolitan of capitals where all of the world’s great cuisines are on offer, humble fare is preferred to highfalutin.
Cocido is the comfort food that exiled Madrileños yearn for in the way Irish people living abroad dream of Tayto crisps. A hearty but not mushy stew, it typically contains chicken, beef, bacon, pork belly, morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and chickpeas. It’s among the top choices when eating out, but even as they’re tucking in, diners are thinking: “Mmmm, tasty, but nowhere near as tasty as Mama’s.” In a word, albeit a makey-uppy one, cocido is stewpendous.
Merluza (hake), bacalao (cod), rape (rah-pay – monkfish) and dorado (sea bream) are the most popular fish dishes, but when time is pressing, the seafood snack of choice is the bocata de calamares, a hot bread roll that’s crispy on the outside, moist inside and loaded with deep-fried squid rings. No sauce, no garnish, no need.
A close second in the snack stakes is the bocata de jamon Serrano. The air-cured, mildewed legs of ham from which wafer-thin slices of succulent Serrano are carved with expert precision bordering on the parsimonious cost up to €500 each, but a bocata will set you back a mere €3. Traditionalists prefer their ham on a plate, accompanied perhaps by slices of Manchego cheese and some big fat juicy olives that have been marinated so long they’re falling apart.
Chocolateria de San Gines, which opened in 1894, never closes, so there’s no excuse for not feasting on the quintessential Spanish breakfast of chocolate con churros. These long fingers of deep-fried doughnut batter (and the fatter version, porras) dipped in hot chocolate are a great start to the day, though they’re also devoured by nightclubbers on their way home when most people have been asleep for hours.
If any dish can be said to occupy the throne of Spanish cuisine, it’s the tortilla de patatas – the ubiquitous potato omelette. It’s made with only three ingredients: eggs, sliced boiled potatoes and onions. Some cooks who don’t know any better add chopped red peppers, a sacrilege akin to putting honey on a Highlander’s porridge. Tortilla de patatas needs no adornment, although if the onions are caramelised before being added to the mix, the omelette steps up from perfecto to perfectisimo.
In his 1932 novel, Death In The Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.” No better man, then, to have written The Sun Also Rises (1926) – he witnessed the dawn often enough during his many long stays here in the 1920s, 30s and 50s.
On the wall of the Antigua Farmacia de la Reina Madre on Calle Mayor, the illuminated green cross shows the temperature is 19C and the hour 22.05. Time to walk the short distance to one of the author’s favourite haunts, Plaza de Santa Ana, where hundreds of people are eating and drinking on the terraces of some of the most popular bars and restaurants in the city (‘Don Ernesto’ drank daily in Cerveceria Alemana).
Jazz and other live music venues abound around here, but in the plaza itself is Villa Rosa where, every night, art and soul fuse in a frenetic performance of raw passion that makes audiences’ hearts beat faster and throats go dry. It’s called flamenco, and Villa Rosa, which staged its first show in 1911, is the temple to which aficionados and tourists flock. It’s not the only place staging this most Spanish of spectacles, which consists of three parts – guitar, song and dance – but for me it’s the best.
A statue of Granada-born poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) stands in Plaza de Santa Ana. Lorca, who was executed without trial by a right-wing firing squad in the opening month of the Spanish Civil War, lived in Madrid for 17 years and never missed a chance to see a flamenco show. No one has better described the principal performer.
He wrote: “The dancer’s trembling heart must bring everything into harmony, from the tips of her shoes to the flutter of her eyelashes, from the rustles of her dress to the incessant play of her fingers. Shipwrecked in a field of air, she must measure lines, silences, zig-zags and rapid curves, with a sixth sense of aroma and geometry, without ever mistaking her terrain. In this she resembles the torero, whose heart must keep to the neck of the bull. Both of them face the same danger – he, death; and she, darkness.”
Flamenco, football, food, fine art and a fella with an orchestra at his damp fingertips are only a few of the attractions that make a long weekend in the Spanish capital a memorable experience. There’s an old saying: “If you’re in Madrid, you’re from Madrid.” Well, maybe; but one thing’s for sure – if you’re in Madrid, you have very good taste in cities.
GET THERE:Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly daily from Dublin to Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas airport. The Airport Express yellow bus service to and from the city centre operates 24 hours, every 15 minutes during the day and every 35 minutes at night. There are only three stops – O’Donnell, Atocha and Plaza de Cibeles (this last one is the most central). The journey takes around 40 minutes and a one-way ticket costs €5 from the driver.
EAT:Cocido In 2015, the multi-award-winning Cruz Blanca Vallecas (58 Martin Alvarez) received the National Catering Award for its cocido, and quite right too. Try also Casa Paco (11 Puerta Cerrada), a family-run restaurant that serves a wide range of fabulous homemade food.
Bocata de calamaresEl Brillante (8 Plaza del Emperador Carlos V) serves 2,000 bocatas de calamares every day, and that’s recommendation enough.
Bocata de jamon Serrano The excellent kosher restaurant La Escudilla (16 Santisima Trinidad) is one of only a handful of establishments in Madrid that doesn’t offer bocatas de jamon Serrano or anything else containing pork. Otherwise, every bar, cafe and restaurant serves this simple yet sensational staple.
Chocolate con churrosChocolateria San Gines (5 Pasadizo de San Gines) serves 10,000 freshly-made churros and 2,000 cups of hot chocolate every day. Chocolateria Valor (7 Postigo de San Martin) is the pretender to San Gines’s crown.
Tortilla de patatas The potato omelette served in Juana la Loca (4 Plaza de la Puerta de Moros) has no equal. Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad), the elder sister of Catherine of Aragon and sister-in-law of Henry VIII, was Queen of Castile from 1504 to 1555, but never actually ruled due to her mental instability.
VISIT:Prado Museum Paseo del Prado (Metro Banco de España). Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-7pm; general admission €15.
Reina Sofia Museum 52 Santa Isabel (Metro Atocha). Mon-Sat (closed Tuesday) 10am-9pm, Sun 10am-7pm; general admission €10.
Santiago Bernabeu Avenida de Concha Espina (Metro Santiago Bernabeu). Stadium tour, including trophy room, dressing room, press room and pitch, Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 10.30am-6.30pm (except match days); from €14.
Tablao de Flamenco Villa Rosa 15 Plaza de Santa Ana (Metros Sol, Anton Martin and Tirso de Molina). Shows: Sun-Thu 8.30pm and 10.45pm, Fri & Sat 8.30pm, 10.45pm and 12.15am. Admission to show, including a drink, costs €35; show plus meal, including a drink, from €65. Book well in advance online.
STAY: I was a guest of the 5-star VP Plaza de España Design. On the 12th floor, the Gingko Restaurant and Sky Bar with its swimming pool and wraparound terrace welcomes non-guests and has quickly become one of the city’s most popular nightspots for wining, dining, partying and 360-degree views of the city. Double rooms cost from €220.