I’m willing to bet that when you think of Spain, your first thoughts don’t include rolling green farmland, fog clinging to tree-covered hills, and rocky-cliffed, rugged Atlantic beaches. Surprise! That is exactly what northern Spain is all about.
Where Spain and France border at the westernmost edge is known as Basque Country, and it is lush and green and damp. Few places on earth remind me as much of the Smoky Mountains as Spanish Basque Country. While I had already visited parts of this small region, I had wanted to road-trip the rest of Northern Spain for years. This summer I finally did it, in a rented Fiat Panda and for only eight days, but it was eight of the most visually breathtaking days I’ve ever spent.
I quickly learned that my long-anticipated trip was going to leave me mouth agape time and again, hunting for a place to pull the Panda over so I could snap a photo.
Above, the top three photos are various beaches along the Bay of Biscay, that bit of wild Atlantic Ocean that beats savagely against the sand and rocks that cover the coastline of southwestern France and Northern Spain. The bottom three are scenes in the Picos de Europa, part of the Cantabrian Mountains in the heart of Asturias. On the far left, Cangas de Onís, an excellent base from which to explore, and on the far right, the Basilica of Covadonga, a seemingly out-of-place surprise on the top of a nearby mountain. Truly breathtaking, these mountains attract hikers, cyclists, motorcycle riders, paddlers, and other outdoorsy types from all over the world. I highly recommend a stop here. Stay at the Hotel La Cepeda in Cangas de Onís: decent price, very comfortable, and with an upscale feel.
Nearer the coast, don’t miss Oviedo, a picturesque Asturian town with some spectacular hidden gems, like its beautiful cathedral and a giant statue of Jesus blessing the city from a nearby mountain-top. Oviedo’s stars for me, though, were its two spectacularly well-preserved (and UNESCO World Heritage monuments) PRE-Romanic buildings, as well as a bunch of other old and interesting architecture. And yes, I did say PRE-Romanic. For anyone, that is hard to imagine. For someone from a 240 year old country, that’s impossibly mind-boggling.
I traveled by rental car, and it is a good thing I had unlimited miles because the distances are daunting. Four hours for one leg, the one that took me from Cabo de Peñas in Asturias to La Costa da Morte in Galicia. Yes, that strange “da” is correct; it is the Galician dialect, a sort of mysterious blend of Spanish and Portuguese. And yes, “morte” is similar to “muerte” and it means the same thing. So I traveled from Asturias to the Coast of Death, thusly named for the perilous coastline that has been the downfall of many a ship. I stayed in Laxe and day-tripped to Fisterra, on Cape Finisterre, which in Roman times, was considered “the end of the known earth,” and was also one of the last stops along the Santiago de Compostela. This entire area is one of the most impossibly beautiful places I’ve ever seen: fantastic beaches, excellent hiking trails (some urban), and more stunning views than I could photograph.
On Galicia’s northern coast, just across the shared Asturian border, is a very famous beach, called the Praia das Catedrais, or Beach of the Cathedrals. Of course, they aren’t really cathedrals that line the beaches, but rather huge rock formations that form caves you can explore at low tide. A highlight of the journey from Cabo de Peñas to the end of the earth.
Another treasure I almost missed in Galicia is Lugo. This small city about an hour from Santiago de Compostela boasts a Roman wall that is said to be 1700 years old. You can walk all the way around the old city on the top of the wall and I saw plenty of runners and walkers as I strolled along taking in the scenery. I spent a few hours there as a way to break up the drive back across the northern provinces. It is worth at least a day.
Santiago de Compostela will take a post of its own, as will Bilbao. But I’ll leave you with some recognizable scenes from those two cities, as well as some less familiar, but no less lovely, scenes from all over the provinces.
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Comment or message me for further information on hotels and so forth; happy to share my experiences!