Green Spain: A Journey Through Four Northern Communities of Spain
By Gerrie Summers
Green Spain, is the name given to the natural (and green) region in northern Spain, located along the Atlantic Coast, stretching from the border of Portugal to the border of France. Since it is, for the most part, unspoiled and therefore not yet overrun by tourists, there are areas that are popular holiday spots for the natives and there’s a good reason why. Northern Spain provides beautiful and fascinating destinations to explore.
My trip to this part of Spain included visits to the autonomous communities of Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia. Here are a few highlights.
Basque Country (Euskadi)
My journey into Basque Country took me into the province of Biscay also known as Vizcaya in the Basque language. Basque Country has its own language, Euskera, but Castilian Spanish is also widely spoken.
The first stop on the agenda was Bilbao, the capital city of Biscay, bordering the Bay of Biscay and France. After years of revitalization projects, (Casco Viejo – the Old Quarter – was destroyed in the 1983 flood), Bilbao has re-emerged as a tourist attraction. The Heart of the Old Quarter was once surrounded by medieval walls and consisted of three parallel streets. The walls were later taken down and four more streets were built perpendicular to the river and now comprise the Siete Calles (Seven Streets) where one finds the Santiago Cathedral and other buildings of interest with architecture in Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical and Modernist styles. The neoclassical Nueva Square is the place for people-watching, and where one can sample txiquito and pintxos, Basque names for a glass of wine and local tapas. Next to the Church of San Anton, is the largest covered market in Europe, called the La Ribera Market.
Though I preferred my stroll in the Old Quarter, the popular tourist attraction appears to be the Bilbao branch of the Guggenheim Museum, credited for bringing international attention to the city. One of the first things visitors notice at the entrance to the Frank Gehry-designed museum, is Puppy, Jeff Koons’ giant floral sculpture of a West Highland Terrier puppy that attracts Instagramers with their real-life puppies for cute photo opts. The three-level museum has 20 galleries organized around the Atrium, considered the centerpiece of the building, with its curved volumes and large glass curtain walls. During the day it is bathed in light coming from a huge skylight. The museum also has a gourmet Michelin star restaurant called Neura. From large windows, one can dine on delicious cuisine and watch pedestrians stroll beneath the Maman, a huge nine-meter tall spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois.
The Guggenheim itself is an impressive sculpture, especially when viewed from the Nervion River. In fact, a boat ride is a great way to tour the city to learn about the history and view sites like the Vizcaya Bridge, a transporter bridge that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage monument, designed by Alberto Palacio and inspired by Gustave Eiffel and the Eiffel Tower.
During my brief visit to the region, I also traveled to Galdames to the Castillo Concejuelo for a wine tasting and dinner. On the property is the Torre Loizaga, a medieval tower that now houses classic vintage cars, including a complete collection of Rolls Royces. If you’re a vintage car enthusiast, this is a stop that shouldn’t be missed.
On day two, I traveled to Santander, a lovely seaside city on the Bay of Biscay and the capital of Cantabria. In the 19th century, it was a renowned holiday resort for the king and queen of Spain, as well as for Spanish politicians, aristocrats, and the upper class. The Palacio de la Magdalena, which sits at the mouth of the Bay of Santander on the La Magdalena Peninsula, was once the summer residence of King Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia. It is now used for conventions, meetings, and weddings, and has a museum space that can be visited by the public. The Cabo Mayor Lighthouse on Mouro Island can be seen in the distance. Santander is also known for El Sandinero Beach and the Gran Casino, as well as other beaches, scenic promenades and harbors.
Another place of interest is the Centro Biotin, a waterfront arts and cultural center in the midst of the Pereda Gardens. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, it has galleries on two floors and upper-level viewing platforms overlooking Bahia de Santander. Be sure to ride the elevator (up and down) for an amusing surprise.
Lunch followed at Bodega el Riojano, which resembles a wine cellar. Lids from wine barrels hand-painted by Spanish artists decorate the walls. The restaurant serves Cantabrian food and La Rioja wines.
The region of Cantabria is known for being the location of several impressive prehistoric caves. In fact, Altamira is one of the most important rock art sites in the world, with ancient paintings from the Upper Palaeolithic period, most notably the “Ceiling of the Polychromes” also referred to as the Sistine Chapel of the Old Stone Age. The cave was open to the public in 1917 and was declared a National Monument in 1924 and a World Heritage Site in 1985. It became a well-visited destination to the potential detriment of the cave. Now only a select number of visitors, some chosen via lottery, can visit the actual cave. The Altamira National Museum and Research Centre was opened in 2001 to help preserve the cave and features a replica of the prehistoric cave and its famous rock art.
Then I was off to the historical town of Comillas for a tour at Villa Quijano and cocktail dinner (catered by a local chef from Cosana del Judio). Known as El Capricho (The Caprice) the villa was designed by Antoni Gaudi. With its use of brickwork, ceramic tiles and wrought iron, Islamic touches, as well as influences of India and a tower inspired by a Persian minaret, El Capricho reminded me of a toy house made of fancy Legos. Joking aside, the whimsical villa was made for Maximo Diaz de Quijano and has fascinating details too numerous to mention here, including coffered ceilings and large stained glass windows, including windows designed with metal pipes that emit musical notes.
Day three brought me to Llanes, a seaside town and fishing port at the foot of Picos de Europa. Sites include the 13th century medieval Tower of Llanes (El Torreon), the Gothic Basilica de Santa Maria, Casino of Llanes, which has a mixture of architectural styles, and colonial mansions in the old town. Llanes also boasts cove beaches and a picturesque coastal promenade called Paseo San Pedro.
About a half-hour away, is Gijon, the largest city in Asturias. A visit here must include the old fisherman’s quarter of Cimadevilla, the oldest neighborhood in Gijon, with its photogenic narrow streets lined with colorful buildings. Laboral University (now Laboral City of Culture), is another place to visit to view impressive architecture. As I walked towards the Michelin star restaurant Auga for a cheese and cider tasting, I passed by a huge cider bottle sculpture by the harbor. Cider bars are big here and you should check them out to have a culin (small cider glass) of cider, which is the typical drink of the area.
Another 30-minute bus ride took me to Oviedo the capital of Asturias. One stop of interest was in the medieval old town: the Gothic Oviedo Cathedral (Cathedral San Salvador) that has a 9th century Holy Chamber that contains relics and jewels, including the Victory Cross (now the symbol of Asturias) and the Cross of the Angeles (symbol of Oviedo) and what is believed by some to be Christ’s Shroud.
Day four found me in the historical city of Mondoñedo to view such sites as an old antique fountain built in 1548, the Cathedral de Mondoñedo, which is a Romanesque and Gothic structure with a Baroque-style facade, and other 17th century religious structures.
A short distance away is Lourenzá in Lugo province ( which is part of the Pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela, more on this later) where I visited the Benedictine Monastery of San Salvador monastery founded by Count Don Osorio Gutiérrez. (The name Lourenzá is derived from the names of his children, Lourenzo and Ana.) It is a beautiful baroque structure, with notable features including the 18th century chapel of Valdeflores which contains the marble 6th-century Paleochristian sarcophagus which Count Don Osorio brought in as his resting place. A great place to get a meal is O Forno de Tovas Restaurant on the grounds of a 16th-century medieval fortress. Forno means oven, and the specialty is roasted lamb cooked in a wood oven. Also popular at the restaurants are Iberian meats, artisan bread, scallops, and mussels.
This was followed by a stop at Fuciño do Porco, a protected nature preserve, before heading to the village of Viveiro. The hike burned off calories from the aforementioned meal, starting with a walk along a path between tall eucalyptus trees, then up several wooden steps to the top of O Fuciño do Porco. The reward is gorgeous views of the beaches, the city of O Vicedo and my next stop, the town of Viveiro.
Viveiro is at the mouth of the Landro estuary and where the harbor and the San Roque mountains makes a spectacular backdrop for its charming buildings. There are some remnants of the medieval wall and three gates still stand. The Convent of San Francisco has been declared a historic-artistic site.
The final stop was Santiago de Compostela, which is also the culmination of the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) pilgrimage route to the shrine of apostle Saint James the Great. The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is where the saint’s remains are said to be buried. It is breathtaking to arrive at Obradoiro Square and gaze upon the Cathedral and its tall, pointed spires and elaborately carved stone facades. In the early morning, as the sun rises, it looks like it is bathed in divine light. The cathedral dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries and is located on the grounds of the original 9th Century basilica which was built by the order of King Alfonso II. The cathedral is currently undergoing renovations, which is a little heartbreaking because so many details in the interior is blocked from view, but it is astounding nevertheless, especially the Major Altar (or High Altar). There is a small staircase that leads up to the Statue of Saint James, where the faithful line up to either kiss or embrace it. There is also a passage under the Major Altar where the crypt holds the remains in a silver repoussé urn. Also of note is the Porch of the Glory, the Romanesque sculpture created by Maestro Mateo that represents the Final Judgement. Beside the Cathedral is Parador of the Reyes Catolicos, now a five-star luxury hotel, a beautiful ancient building, with fabulous courtyards, beautifully decorated corridors and, halls and large, comfortable guest rooms. It was a fabulous place in which to stay and a perfect way to end my trip.
See Spain By Train
A great way to see northern Spain is by tourist train to experience local cuisine, art, monuments, and attractions. Costa Verde Express (formerly El Transcantabrico Clasico) operated by Renfe, travels through these regions and has four lounge carriages for dining, entertainment, relaxation and to view the scenery through large windows, and 26 suites. A bus follows the train and picks up travelers at the destination on the itinerary for scheduled excursions, while the train remains at the station. A multilingual guide is provided for excursions. The train stops at night, so one can enjoy the local nightlife (and also to ensure restful sleep.) For more information and itineraries, visit http://www.renfe.com/trenesturisticos/eng/costa_verde_express.html.
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Gerrie Summers is a New York-based freelance writer and has been writing professionally for several years in the areas of entertainment, beauty, lifestyle, travel, and wellness. She is currently the Style Editor for New York Lifestyles Magazine where she also writes about wellness and travel, and a regular contributor to Real Health magazine and Sisters from AARP. Her travel features have appeared in Luxury Living Magazine, Foxnews.com, Trip Savvy, For the Bride and Today’s Black Woman. She also writes the blogs SummersRetreat and The Tranquil Traveler.