Northern Spain - Galicia, Cantabria & Basque regions

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April 22nd 2018
Published: April 22nd 2018
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Northern Spain

City Council of Santiago de CompostelaCity Council of Santiago de CompostelaCity Council of Santiago de Compostela

We didn't get a photo of the Cathedral because it had lots of scaffolding for restoration works
Sabbath, 14 April – Santiago de Compostela, Spain

It was an overcast day for a change, so we slept in and then wandered around Santiago de Compostela. This is the end of the famous Camino Trail – a traditional pilgrimage originated in the 9th century by Christians to the alleged burial place of St James (son of Zebedee, brother of John). It is highly unlikely that he is buried here, given he was beheaded in Jerusalem in AD44, but local tradition says his body was brought here after his death so people believed it and followed. These days, many pilgrims are less interested in the religious aspect of the trail and more interested in challenging themselves or taking time out to reflect and find perspective.

The old town has a distinct French/British feel to it, with architecture that is more like St Malo in France, but it doesn’t feel as old as some medieval towns. It is nothing like Spain, except for the language and smoking! They are very protective and proud of their Galician heritage, which actually stems way back to the Celts. The language is different enough that many of the names for things we’ve slowly picked up have completely changed and we’re starting from scratch again.

We were lucky enough to see a Galician wedding, complete with a 30-40 person band in full black dress with kilts and Amish style long dresses, playing drums, bagpipes and tambourines. Half of them stood in formation outside the church doors, another 10 on the steps overlooking the church and another 10 or so up on the street looking down to the church. They played a catchy tune to usher in the guests and groom, and then played another tune when the bride walked in. The way those girls worked the tambourines was pretty impressive, making sounds I’d never heard before. If you closed your eyes though, you would have sworn you were in Scotland. I had to laugh when the bride arrived and the florist was still erecting the wood and floral arch for her to walk through. She had to sit in the car and have photos whilst the florist and her helpers lugged this heavy archway from one side of the courtyard, behind the bride and over to the church entry. The whole shebang was a sight to behold and it was quite a highlight to
A Galician weddingA Galician weddingA Galician wedding

No, she's not pregnant. It's just the pose :-)
stumble across.

The food is somewhat different. We are near the coast so it’s very seafood based, but they have a delicious moist, brown bread that we haven’t seen anywhere else so we’re scoffing that down. Dwayne tried a plate of pimentos de padron (seared green chillies) and I tried the Empanada Gallega – a savoury pie. We also tested the local delicacy, Torta de Santiago (almond tart).

We’ve well and truly left behind the crowds, which seemed to stop after Lisbon. Everywhere we’ve been since then has been almost devoid of international tourists, which is excellent.

Sunday, 15 April – Picos de Europa (NP)

We said goodbye to bustling Santiago – although not so much on a Sunday! – and headed north to the Galician coast. The 2hr drive was a little different to everywhere else, because there were no olive trees and no vineyards. All of the land is paddocks with either animals or crops and it’s still as green as Portugal.

If I could do my time over again, I would drop Morocco (my least favourite country thus far) and spend extra time in southern Portugal and northern Spain. Oh well, if we didn’t see Morocco now, we would never have seen it so we had to do it.

We arrived at the coast where it was sunny (yay!) with green grass right to the cliff edges, to a spot called Playa des Cathedrals. This beach has several arches that have been worn down by the Atlantic winds and waves, and when the tide is low, you can walk down to the beach and walk through and around them. At high tide, they are inaccessible. We wandered down to the beach and through the main arch, taking note that the tide was coming in. We scampered over the slate layered pancake rocks to see as many of the arches as we could. After about 30 minutes we started heading back, as the tide had already covered the stones over one of the access channels, so much so that Dwayne tried to jump the now watery gap and landed ankle deep. I took off my shoes and socks and walked through. We walked up along the ridge of the cliffs and watched as the few local tourists made a beeline for the shore. There was a guy selling the yummy Galician bread out of the back of his van so we picnicked at the nearby tables with our leftover bread, and then went up to the car park to find the van man. Woe is us – he had left while we were having lunch! Such a shame as that was our favourite bread since we left Australia.

Another frustration with Spain – we could not find an open supermarket to save our life because it’s a Sunday. Not one! Usually we could find one in Portugal but Spain shuts down on Sunday. Good if you’re a local and need the day off, bad if you’re a tourist and didn’t want to buy milk the night before and transport it unrefrigerated in the car for 7 hours.

We left the Galicia region and entered Cantabria. The drive into Europa NP was rugged and beautiful, with craggy grey shapes and green grass hugging the steep slopes below. Unfortunately, the tops were fogged in with cloud and given tonight and tomorrow is forecast to rain, we’re hoping that Tuesday will show us the goods. We arrived at our mountain apartment to the tinkling of cow bells. How very un-Spanish!

Monday, 16 April – Picos de Europa (NP)

Given the rain we heard overnight, we decided to sleep in until 9am. When we arose, we opened the curtains and holy cow!...I thought I’d died and gone to Switzerland! In front of us was a sunny morning with blue skies that soared above snow capped mountains. It was gorgeous, and we had to change gears quickly and get ready for a day of sightseeing.

After some grocery shopping, we drove an hour along narrow, winding roads and through small villages, climbing from sea level to 1100m during the last 12km. As we crested the slope that we’d been climbing for 10km, those snowy mountains came into view and took our breath away. Sharp, jagged peaks reaching for the sun and at the base, two lakes glimmering like jewels. All we could see in every direction was rows and rows of craggy mountains. We did the 3.5km loop walk in a leisurely fashion, trying to capture the moment with photos. We also sat down for a while just to soak it all up. In Dwayne’s words, “this is the prettiest part of Spain we’ve been in.”

Tuesday, 17 April – Picos de Europa (NP)

Another sublime day with not a cloud in the sky and balmy temperatures of 23C. I had seen pictures and reviews of a cable car in one of the valleys so we hot-shoed it there in the morning, hoping that off-season wouldn’t mean too many crowds. It was 75km away and after 25km in only 20 minutes, we were well ahead of the 1.5hr Google estimate. However, with 50km still to go we ended up behind a double decker bus from Granada, and as we entered the beautiful but narrow gorges, the speed slowed to 20kph at each corner to allow the bus around the sharp curves. A stunning but painful hour later and with still 10km to go, I was finally able to pass and zoom on to our destination at the end of the valley.

We were almost completely surrounded by peaks in a 270 degree fashion, with the road being the only wedge of valley between the left and right edges. They towered above the floor in a majestic manner with sheer cliffs that reminded us of the Dolomites.

Funicular Fuente De is a cable car at 1078m at its base, climbing to 1800m at the top with no support pillars in between. There was a small crowd at the entry but it was the 80 French school kids that took up all the line and as such, we waited 30 minutes. It whisks you up to the top in only 4 minutes and as you pass the car coming down, it whizzes by so quickly that if you blink you would miss it. It doesn’t feel like you’re going that fast so it’s quite a shock when you see it pass by in a flash. Before we knew it we were at the top and we exited to a landscape full of snow.

Well, that was a complete surprise because we had planned to do a 4hr hike from top to bottom and hadn’t for a moment contemplated that there would still be knee deep snow. We expected remnants of snow here and there but not several feet of snow. We couldn’t even do the 3.5km walk to the hut. The most we could manage was about 150m of sunken steps before our shoes and jeans started to get wet. We quickly canned the idea of the hike and had peanut butter sandwiches on an exposed rock instead, taking in the magnificent view 1km above and below.

After an hour of cool wind, we descended and made for home. Thankfully, no buses or traffic to slow us down. We stopped at a cute little village on the way back, called Potes, and looked around before continuing. Within 2km of leaving Potes we saw another bus ahead and couldn’t believe it – the same bus from Granada!! 4 hours and 2 stops later and we still end up behind the same darn bus. Another 25km with no passing opportunities, and we got yet another good look at the gorges as they dwindled on by. We finally arrived at the turn off where I was going left and since he had come from straight ahead, I couldn’t wait for him to return from whence he came. But you guessed it – he turned left in my direction. Arrrgh!!! That was it – as soon as the smallest section of passing road came up, I revved the little Skoda to the red line and passed. I could not sit behind him for another 25km.

Our last stop for the day was a viewpoint up another little gorge where we walked down to the emerald green river and up to the viewpoint, patting affection-starved goats and donkeys along the way. We returned home and sat on our balcony, watching the sun set over the mountains. Apart from the Alhambra, it’s hard to top this day.

Wednesday, 18 April – Bilbao

After three quiet nights and two glorious days, it was time to say goodbye to our Cantabrian mountain retreat and head for the Basque capital, Bilbao, an hour south of the French border to return the car. We made a lunchtime stop at a beautiful seaside resort town called Llanes, a mere 30km away from the middle of Europe NP! I reckon that retirement to Llanes would be pretty sweet with a balmy coastal temperature but access to the NP any time you wanted a day out.

In Llanes we happened to notice an info board talking about “bufones” (blowholes). The tourist info centre gave us a map and we drove east to the holes. We were following the directions from Google, and as it turned out, we ended up driving part of the Coastal Camino Trail to get to them. You can tell it’s mainly used for walking because there were potholes from left to right and for the entire 6km round trip! We’re guessing that people walk to these rather than drive, as we only saw one other car the whole time. The hikers were friendly though and didn’t mind moving to the side to let us pass.

The blowholes themselves were deep, as we were at the top of the cliffs and while they weren’t blowing water due to the calm sea, the caves below must be low and narrow because air was shooting up the shaft with a bone chilling whoosh. There are no security fences or signs to say stay back, so we were able to walk right up to the edge of the loudest one. It was quite an adrenalin rush because it felt and sounded like a screaming dragon was going to fly out at any minute. Incidentally, the Spanish word “Bufida” actually means an animal’s snort! On rough days, you can stand on the cliffs and be surrounded by 10-12 water jets coming out of various shafts. It would be quite something to see.

The 2hr drive to Bilbao was stunning with coast on one side and the mountains on the other. The architecture does not look like Spain at all. They have terracotta rooves and colours like the Italians, wrought iron balconies like the French, v-shaped rooves and bells on animals like the Swiss, and stone walls and features like medieval England. The houses are well kept and modern compared to the south. It still amazes us how super green everything is.

We arrived in Bilbao, dropped off the car without incident and made our way to our apartment. We’re back in tapas and bar country, so dinner was tapas at a little bar in the old town, with wonderful patatas bravas (roast potatoes with spicy tomato sauce, mini veggie quiches and jaffa brownies. I wasn’t expecting Bilbao to be so…pretty and liveable. From what I’ve seen, I like it a lot and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it tomorrow.

Thursday, 19 April – Bilbao

For the first time since we left home, I wore shorts and a t-shirt today. It was a burning 27C, which is a nice change from all the cool weather we had down south and in Portugal.
It seems to have changed overnight since we left Santiago.

Bilbao is as liveable as it appears. It seems to take inspiration from Paris and Barcelona, in that the architecture is very French and apart from the odd high-rise here and there, most of the buildings are 6 or so storeys, letting lots of light into the centre. The ground floor is always shops and cafes, with the floors above all being residential. It means that people actually live in the CBD so there is always something going on and people out and about. Not like Australian cities where businesses dominate the building space.

There is an old centre and a new centre, and both are as nice as each other. A river meanders through the middle and there are wide, open public spaces either side with parks, benches, playgrounds and cafes to watch the world go by. There is a Guggenheim Museum here, with all its architectural design glory, but we didn’t go in because we’re not into art. We were happy admiring it from the outside.

One thing we’ve noticed overwhelmingly in Spain, apart from the prolific smoking, is that most younger women have either tattoos or piercings or both. It’s not pretty but they would disagree.

We did ride a funicular up to the highest hill to get a view, and that was fun although the view was closed due to construction works. We ate gelati, had siesta and went back out for night shots. A great way to spend a day in Bilbao. I’m impressed with this little town.

That brings our time in Spain to a close. Excluding Granada, I definitely prefer the north over the south and east. I would never have associated the words “Spain” and “green” together, but now that will be one of the lasting memories of this area. I could easily do a month around Galicia, Cantabria and Basque regions. However, neither Spain nor Portugal has been kind to me from a gastronomic perspective though. If you don’t eat seafood or ham, it’s slim pickings. If we don’t get a chance to return to Spain or Portugal because, let’s face it, it’s a big world out there, I feel we’ve done justice to both countries.

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