Updated: Jul 3, 2018
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I have just had a whistle-stop tour of Northern Spain.
I jumped at the chance to join friends who were having a long weekend in Bilbao for some sort of European rugby match. And then to explore a little deeper into northern Spain with my international jet setting friend.
I have to say that northern Spain is a destination not to be missed; it’s so different to the busy Costas further south. There are loads of things I now love about this part of the world but for now here are five favourite things about Spain’s spectacular Cantabrian and Asturias region.
Taking a car on Brittany Ferries ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao across the Bay of Biscay was not my fav part of the road trip, but I did it!
There’s nothing like the feeling of sand between your toes and I was keen to kick-off my flip-flops and walk along the long sandy beaches.
The gorgeous north-facing bay at Suanceshas acres of golden sands (when the tide is out) perfect for a relaxed amble. Sitting on the headland watching the tide creep up the San Martin estuary was interesting.
Llanesin Asturias is a beautiful coastal town with lots of beaches. Playa El Sablon is the most popular, a small beach of fine sand with calm waters, perfect for paddling!
The coastline is packed with secluded sandy beaches between headlands and estuaries all along the coast eastwards towards France where then unfurls the long surfing beaches of the Basque regions.
Paradores de Turismo de España is a chain of Spanish luxury hotels. This state-run business has hotels that are often located in adapted castles, palaces, fortresses, convents, monasteries and other historic buildings. They add to the attractions of heritage tourism and provide uses for large historic buildings.
I have stayed in several Paradores in Spain and really would not want to stay anywhere else. A bonus is to take advantage of their Amigo rates for over 55s!!
My fav of this trip had to be the Parador de Cangas de Onisin the Asturias region.
On the banks of the Sella River, surrounded by the spectacular Picos de Europa mountains, the Parador de Cangas de Onís is in an incomparably beautiful spot. The hotel is located in the former San Pedro de Villanueva Monastery, a beautiful building with spectacular rooms of stone and wood. The décor is elegant, warm and traditional. The bedrooms were enormous!
You can take yourself on a walking guide of the monastery which is also a national museum previously inhabited by the Benedictine monks for a millennium. During the 19thcentury, the monks were ordered by decree to leave as part of the seizure of church lands and property. It was transformed into a Parador in 1998.
A serene and elegant place to enjoy a tranquil few days.
The next Parador was quite different in Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, tucked away in a village only open to pedestrians. It was challenging to locate with sat nav giving directions along the narrowest of streets.
Parador de Santillana Gil Blasis a hotel in the lovely mansion of the Barreda-Bracho family, the doors opened to reveal stone and pebbled halls ways and wooden floors, but with the quality and elegance that Paradores are good at providing.
The bedrooms here were smaller with wood floors and balconies overlooking the garden courtyard. I loved the free book bank in each bedroom.
This was a great base for exploring on foot this mountainous village, now declared a National Monument, the origins which date back to the 8thcentury.
You can’t write about Spanish food without mentioning the famous paella. It was exciting to have my first taste in a Spanish restaurant overlooking the sandy beach in Llanes. A lovely Sunday lunch!
And then there is tapas…. great for when I need to eat a little often!! I think I tested the ham croquettes and tortilla most days.
The Paradores do produce the best of Spanish food.
The Parador de Cangas de Oníshad a restaurant on the terrace overlooking the river and a small café onsite. Both served traditional Asturias food with a nod to monastic cooking. Their house specialities were fillet of hake in cider sauce with baked apple, fabada (white bean stew), and to sweeten the palate, Azucena's delicious caramelized rice pudding. Doesn’t it sound lovely? I’ve brought home the recipe!
The breakfast buffet was amazing in wonderful surroundings, a variety of fruit, a fruit and vegetable smoothie station and egg dishes made to order, their speciality being shirred eggs with toasted bread, stewed vegetables and ham. More than enough energy to start the day!
The culinary offerings at the Parador de Santillana Gil Blasrestaurant, El Jardín de Gil Blas, were based on traditional Cantabrian cuisine.
I really enjoyed grilled Tudanca beef sirloin with vegetable ratatouille and potato pie. And for a sweet finish I had to have Santa Julianas cheesecake with a biscuit base topped with peach preserve. Breakfasts here were of smaller choices thankfully!
A Spot of Culture
This trip was firmly about relaxation plus a maintenance dose of culture, and no trawling of shops.
The highlight of Bilbao, which is a working and industrial city, was the Guggenheim museum. The tram was a great way to get around Bilbao, the end of line being outside our hotel! The city was full of European rugby fans both French and Irish, all good humoured and relaxed.
But the walk around the outside of the Guggenheim was the highlight of my visit to Bilbao. Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbaobuilding represents a magnificent example of the most ground-breaking 20th-century architecture.
Gehry used software to design the building initially conceived for the aerospace industry. The outer skin is finished with approximately 33,000 extremely thin titanium sheets providing a rough and organic effect, adding to the material's colour changes depending on the weather and light conditions. The other two materials used in the building, limestone and glass, harmonize perfectly, achieving an architectural design with a great visual impact that has now become a real icon of the city throughout the world.
The second highlight of northern Spain was a visit to the Museo de Altamira. Visitors wanting to see Spain's prized prehistoric Altamira cave paintings have had to settle for a replica in a museum a few hundred feet away.
Only a few people a week are allowed into the deep and actual caves to ensure its proper conservation. But the museum gives you a realistic feel of this cave of scientific importance.
The Neocave, a Palaeolithic site, presents the cave of Altamira as an inhabited place when Palaeolithic groups lived and painted in the cave. From 30,000 to 13000 years ago Altamira became a repository for the expression of the transcendent thoughts of hunter-gather groups that repeatedly returned to the cave throughout the Palaeolithic Period.
The art of Altamira is noted for the high quality of its paintings and engravings, charcoal used from hearths and the red or brown tones obtained from the mineral ochre.
So interesting to learn about the first place where Palaeolithic rock art was found. Its discovery in 1879 had a revolutionary impact on European prehistory.
And the entry to the museum is free to people of a certain age!!
The provinces of Asturias and Cantabria offer the rare combination of spectacular mountains and fine beaches in proximity. From the northern valleys of the Picos de Europa, a ravishingly beautiful little range of lofty limestone peaks and lush, high-altitude pastures.
For me, however, the highlight here was the Picos. I'll never forget the amazingly tumbledown villages of ancient stone and pan-tiled dwellings.
Driving through the valleys, where I did have to squeeze myself in as the roads were so narrow, high above us were near-sheer walls of limestone rock and soaring griffon vultures.
High in the mountains is the atmospheric Covadonga sanctuary, a famous pilgrimage site. Worth the walk up the hill, slowly!
We had a smashing time though sadly it was all over far too quickly! The road trip then took us three hours driving through six long tunnels, several toll booths, over the border into the Basque region of France.