Northern Spain – more than great beaches

Experience a different Spain – travel north!

Northern Spain

In 2002 we travelled around Spain for 14 days in a motorhome together with friends. The camper was ordered on the net and we picked it up in Barcelona. First distance was across the mountains to Bilbao where we looked forward to visit the Guggenheim Museum. From Bilbao we then travelled west and then south towards Andalusia. On Palm Sunday we arrived in Cordoba and experienced our first Semana Santa procession. After that we enjoyed Easter processions in every town and they where all different. We have long wanted to visit Spain again. It took eleven years, but this Easter we headed for Spain again. We choose Northern Spain this time mostly because this part of Spain is known for good food and a beautiful wild coast along the Bay of Biscay. The route was carefully planned and all accommodations where ordered on the net half a year before. Spain is so much more than bright sun and great beaches along the Mediterranean. The roads are superb and it’s very simple to rent a car and travel on your own.

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Northern Spain
Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Northern Spain

Bilbao:
We flew to Bilbao where we rented a car and set off westward after lunch the first day. But first we went to see Guggenheim Museum and then a small trip to Bilbao`s old town center. Bilbao is really worth an extended visit but that has to be another time. Next time we will also choose to stay at Hotel Silken Gran Domine. This hotel is situated just opposite the Guggenheim Museum. From the rooftop terrace you can have your excellent breakfast along with an amazing view of the museum. The hotel is only 11 years old and has 5 stars. We have written a separate post about the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Train Station in Bilbao, Northern Spain
Train Station in Bilbao, Northern Spain

The first day`s destination was Santillana del Mar only 130 km away.  The coast around Bilbao is very pretty with many small idyllic cities and villages. So you should take time to do some detours from the highway and enjoy life in small fishing villages.

Santillana Del Mar:
Santillana Del Mar is like a living museum. We stayed 2 nights at Hotel Casa del Marques. Inigo Lopez de Mendoza was appointed Marquees of Santillana in 1445. He had built this magnificent building as his home. Today it’s beautifully restored. You feel like transported back to the Middle Age when you enter the curved gothic doors. We got spacious rooms and because we were two couples travelling, they gave each of us a separate room with a nice private sitting room in between. From the hotel`s reception you went straight into the long and narrow main street of this picturesque town.

Early morning in Santillana del Mar, Northern Spain
Early morning in Santillana del Mar, Northern Spain
Santillana del Mar, Northern Spain
Santillana del Mar, Northern Spain

Santillana del Mar is also famous for its caves with cave paintings from the Stone Age. Altimara Cave nearest to Santillana del Mar is closed for the public. The reason for this is to preserve the painting and protect them from being destroyed from human breath and light. But you can visit the museum and se nice copes of the cave paintings.

There are many other caves in the area. They are open for visitors and they have cave paintings as well. We visited the caves in Monte Castillo in the city of Puento Viesgo. Its always fun and interesting to see with your own eyes things you have read about and seen pictures of. The cave paintings are depicting bisons and human hands. These paintings are very famous and it’s amazing to see how well they are preserved in spite of everything. Only drawback with our visit is that all information, oral or in writing is in Spanish. None of us speaks Spanish so we had no idea what the guide was talking about. I would recommend a visit to the caves but read about the topic in advance. The caves in Cantabria district are all on Unesco World Heritage List.

Viveiro:
From Santillana del Mar we travelled to the city Viveiro in the province of Lugo. Vieiro is situated at the mouth of the river Landro and the Viveiro estuary. This estuary is the biggest in the Cantabrian Sea. The town is not very big; but the surrounding areas are fantastic with a lot of beaches and perfect for hiking. The population increases with many thousands during summer. It’s a very popular place for Spanish tourists. The beaches are white and long and sheltered in beautiful bays. The authorities have made many arrangements for visitors, like showers, toilets and cafes.

We stayed CA 2 kilometer from the city center on a hill with a great view of the bay. We choosed the hotel Boa Vista Gastronomico because of its name. Who dare to serve bad food with such a name? And we where right – the hotel`s restaurant was very good and very popular. The hotel itself was simple and cheap, but the rooms were spacious and we enjoyed our stay there.

Faro Estaca de Bares, Northern Spain
Faro Estaca de Bares, Northern Spain

Among other things we visited the northernmost point in Spain; Faro Estaca de Bares. This little spit into the Bay of Biscay has a lighthouse and a foghorn. We just managed to walk out on the tip in sun and practically no wind before rain and hard wind came with full speed towards land. The only option was to seek refuge in the nearest village. We ordered lunch and sat under the awning looking at the gulls circling around the fishing boat just outside the little beach.

View from the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Northern Spain.
View from the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Northern Spain.

Santiago de Compostela:
Our trip was no pilgrimage. But we drove many routes parallel to the northern pilgrim path. Santiago de Compostela was a goal we looked forward to and we have all some times dreamt about walking the pilgrim path. But we want to have a lot of time if we do it, so I believe it has to be when we retire.

Santiago de Compostela is the goal for the famous pilgrimage from France and through Northern Spain. In the year 813 a grave with what they thought was the remains of the Apostle Saint James was found in Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage is called Camino de Santiago and that means Saint James road. The whole Camino is on the Unesco`s World Heritage List. They built a church over Saint James grave and later this church was replaced with the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela in 1128. The city is also the capitol in the district Galicia.

Santiago de Compostela is not only pilgrims, a beautiful Cathedral and an old city with charming narrow streets. The city has also taken into competition with Bilbao to have to most spectacular building. On a hill with a fantastic view over the city, the American architect Peter Eisenman has been given the task to build a new cultural city district; Cidade da Cultura de Galicia. Eisenman has said that the building, unlike Guggenheim`s explosion, is an implosion. The building breaks up from the ground and spreads out in the landscape. Peter Eisenman is also the architect behind the Holocaust Monument in Berlin. The relationship between the two is obvious.

Cidade da Cultura de Galicia, Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain
Cidade da Cultura de Galicia, Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain

We discovered these strange buildings spread beyond the hill at a distance while we were walking in the town center. Per found the explanation in his little travelling guide for Northern Spain. This guide was some years old and he read loud for us that this city development project had created great discussions because of its design and also the enormous amount of money used. So at that moment we decided that this had to be next day excursion. We have written a separate post about Cidade da Cultura de Galicia.

The old town in Santiago de Compostela is a charming place extending southeast from the big place in front of the Cathedral. In the narrow streets you will find small tapas bars and restaurants close together. The streets nearest to the Cathedral are of course characterized by the fact that many hundred pilgrims arrive in the town each day. It’s not far between souvenir shops and they sell scallops, rosaries and other religious gadgets. In Rua do Franco every little tapas bar and restaurant is trying to get you to come into their establishment. The street is what I will call a tourist trap! So walk further away and the chance to get fantastic tapas and food increases.

We found our favorite the first day.  At Antollos pinchos e vinos the whole family works together. Mother and daughter in law in the kitchen and the sons behind the counter. It’s a very simple place with the best tapas in Santiago de Compostela. Try it out; the address is Rua Orfas 25, in the old city center.

New times meet old times in front of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Northern Spain
New times meet old times in front of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Northern Spain

The Cathedral is the final goal for the pilgrims. On the place outside, Plaza do Obradiro we could witness wild outburst of joy many times each day when groups of pilgrims came singing in to the square. Some had problems walking and the many blisters caused a lot of strange way of walking. Everyone had to go through the mandatory photo of themselves in front of the Cathedral.

The Cathedral to west, the old university buildings in south and the Famous Parador Hotel to the north surround plaza do Obradiro. A Parador is a Spanish phenomenon and just a super great idea. Old historical buildings are used as luxury hotels and are run by the state. The income from the operation of the hotel are used to maintain the building. Paradors are known for their high standards but the prize is often less than private hotels with the same standard.

Per in one of 4 gardens at the Parador Santiago de Compostela, Northern Spain.
Per in one of 4 gardens at the Parador Santiago de Compostela, Northern Spain.

We stayed at Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos. This hotel is considered as the oldest hotel in the world. It was finished in 1499 and built to provide lodging for all the pilgrims visiting the town. This Parador is considered one of the most luxurious hotels in Spain. In the cellar there are 2 restaurants, on very gourmet like and one more informal. One the ground floor there are many nice public rooms with nice and soft sofas and a big bar. The bar is nice for a light lunch or a drink before or after dinner. The building is filled with antiques and has a very cozy atmosphere in spite of its enormous size.

Leon:
Next stop for us was Leon. The city is part of the Camino and marks that at this point you have only one third of the road left that is if you started in France. Many people start in Leon and walk the pilgrimage for 300 kilometers. Before we went to Northern Spain we saw a film about walking the Pilgrimage: The Way by Emilio Estevez and with his father Martin Sheen in the lead role. A beautiful film I recommended strongly even if you are not planning to walk the Pilgrimage.

Semana Santa in Leon, Northern Spain
Semana Santa in Leon, Northern Spain

Leon is the capitol and the biggest city in the district Castilla y Leon. And at last we got to experience the famous Easter processions, Semana Santa processions. Leon is also known for its processions. The Cathedral in Leon is one of the towns most important buildings and famous for its stained glass windows. But these windows are also part of the church`s problems. The building stile is gothic and they have had to put in reinforcements to the nave of the church. It disturbs the impression somehow but still the Cathedral is worth a visit.

Another important building in Leon is Basilica of San Isidore. This is a roman church and the burial place for one of Leon`s Middle Age kings. We stayed at Hotel Real Colegiata de San Isidoro, which is part of the same building complex. The hotel has only 3 stars but with its historic surroundings and beautiful renovated old building you can imagine yourself that you actually are staying in a luxury hotel.

From the hotels reception in Leon, Northern Spain.
From the hotels reception in Leon, Northern Spain.

The first Semana Santa procession started early in the afternoon on Good Friday. We got a glimpse of it just before the rain poured down and the whole procession with all the big floats had to head back to the big white tents where the floats are temporary stationed during Semana Santa. But later that evening the sky cleared and the next procession could safely make its way through the narrow streets of Leon`s beautiful old city center.

San Sebastian:
The route from Leon to San Sebastian follows largely the Camino to Santiago. We have fantasized about walking the Camino some time we have a lot of spare time, may be when we retire? But after driving nearly 100 kilometers over the plateau east of Leon and seen the pilgrims along the road wandering in pouring rain straight foreword across the endless plains we was not that keen any more! My dream to walk the Camino did not get greater when we drove down to the coast through a fantastic mountain landscape. I could not help thinking about how it would be to walk up and up and up for weeks. My respect for the pilgrims has increased considerably.

The last 200 kilometers before you reach San Sebastian is an amazing mountain landscape and if you want to enjoy it you have to keep away from the private freeways. The freeway is a toll road and runs through tunnels and you loose the opportunity to see both the landscape and all the small villages along the road.

View of San Sebastian`s longest beach, Northern Spain.
View of San Sebastian`s longest beach, Northern Spain.

San Sebastian or Donostia as it is called in Basque is situated on the coast and on your way towards the town you get a nice overview of the topography. The city is split by the river Urumea and is situated on a kind of peninsula between two bays. Each bay has a marvelous beach. The biggest beach is nearly like a perfect circle.

We arrive at our accommodation Pension Joakina. A dark staircase gives us a creeping feeling but the rooms are OK. It was hard to find accommodation in San Sebastian so this pension was the last opportunity. The alternative would have been another pension with shared bathrooms and that was no option at all! Or we would have to live some distance from the city center. Pension Joakina was perfect situated in the midst of the shopping center and only 5 minutes walk from the beach and the old city center.

The old city center in San Sebastian is situated in the end of town against a hill. On the top of the hill it is an old fortress and a big sculpture of Jesus Christ. A hike up to the top of the hill is a nice morning activity before you have your breakfast in one of the many bars down in the old city. San Sebastian is the Mecca of food in Spain. No other place has so many Michelin stars per capital than this beautiful town. In 2016 they will be European Capitol of Culture together with Wroclaw in Poland.

With so many excellent restaurants the competition is hard and you can walk into nearly any bar or restaurant and get fantastic food. The tapas here are called pintxos and are a bit unlike those you get further south in Spain. Pintxos is most often a lot of delicious food on a small piece of bread. In the pintxos bars the plates with pintxos are placed close together across the counter. Ask for a plate and help yourself. Some times you have to fight your way to the tempting food. It’s a wonder how they can keep track of who should pay for what. You can also take your bier, wine and food out on the street and mingle with the crowd. Here are no restrictions!

Pintxos in a bar in San Sebastian, Northern Spain.
Pintxos in a bar in San Sebastian, Northern Spain.

We had pintxos for breakfast, lunch twice and dinner the first day. We went to different bars each time and everything was just as good. Next day we wanted more quiet circumstances. We wanted to sit down and enjoy a larger dinner in a slow pace. Many pintxos bars also have a sitting area at the back or in the cellar. Here you can enjoy tasty and exciting food without hanging out at the bar counter.

The beach promenade along the largest beach La Concha that means the shell is worth a walk. Victorian houses are located up the hill and you can sit down and enjoy a bier or a glass of vine in the old Victorian beach houses along the promenade. If you walk all the way you will end up below Monte Igueldo. This mountain is opposite of the other mountain with the fortress. You can take a cableway to the top. The view is magnificent and I believe it is a must activity if you visit San Sebastian even if the amusement park for children on the top is very worn out and really out of place.

San Sebastian, Northern Spain.
San Sebastian, Northern Spain.

San Sebastian is rich in culture, culinary experiences and shopping. Every year they arrange a film festival among the largest in Europe. During summer the city attracts thousands of tourists and the climate is more pleasant in summer than further south. The beaches are very suitable for surfing.

It’s about an hours drive from San Sebastian to Bilbao on the freeway. But if you want to experience the beautiful coastal landscapes chose the coastal road and calculate some more time. A trip to Bilbao can easily be coordinated with a visit to San Sebastian. Then you can enjoy the most famous museum building in the world and also get a culinary experience you can hardly imagine. But note that hotels in San Sebastian have to be ordered far ahead just in case.

Our Round trip in Northern Spain was for 12 days 11 nights. We flew to Bilbao. The airport is only half an hour outside the city. San Sebastian has an airport as well.

Skjermbilde 2013-03-19 kl. 20.15.20
Map of the round trip in Northern Spain Easter 2013.
Marked in Santiago de Compostela, Northern Spain
Marked in Santiago de Compostela, Northern Spain
On the coast lina along the Bay of Biscay
On the coast line along the Bay of Biscay
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