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

Camino Lebaniego: The ‘Secret’ Camino in Cantabria

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.)

The monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. Photo: Cantabria Tourism

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 Lignum Crucis, which is kept in the monastery

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 Door of Forgiveness in the monastery

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.

Walking the Camino Lebaniego on a beautiful summer day

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.

San Vicente de la Barquera and the Picos de Europa. Photo: Cantabria Tourism

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.

Gallery of the Ghosts in the 240-million-year-old cave of El Soplao, near Cades

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 big plate of cocido lebaniego looks a tough task, but that food disappears pretty quickly

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.

Arguably the rudest tree in the world

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.

Wander by the Deva River in Potes before an end-of-pilgrimage feast

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.

One of the Fuente de cable cars in the clouds. Photo: Cantabria Tourism

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.

Maroon arrow and cross for the Lebaniego, yellow arrow and scallop shell for the Camino de Santiago

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.

A little taste of why the Camino Lebaniego is the loveliest pilgrimage route. Photo: Cantabria Tourism

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 parroquiaelcristo@gmail.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.

FURTHER INFORMATION: See cantur.com, turismodecantabria.com and spain.info