THROUGH THE PI­COS DE EUROPA

The food is the big at­trac­tion on this ex­hil­a­rat­ing drive through north­ern Spain. No, the scenery; or maybe the peo­ple. Ah, the drink! No, it ’s the food. I think...

Lonely Planet (UK) - - Travel Quiz - Peter Thoem­ing

From the Basque Coun­try to Gali­cia, past jagged peaks, plung­ing val­leys and spine-tin­gling passes

There can be few bet­ter be­gin­nings to a road trip, or any other trip, than Frank Gehry’s con­vo­luted ti­ta­nium Guggen­heim Mu­seum in Bil­bao. Let its oth­er­world­li­ness work on you, have a snack and a glass of the lo­cal cider in its out­door café and you’ll be ready for new ex­pe­ri­ences. There are many of them on this tour. Head north and east from Bil­bao and en­joy the ad­ven­tur­ous coast road which takes you to San Se­bastián, the real be­gin­ning of this drive. San Se­bastián, on its sweep­ing bay, is a twin city. The new is all rec­tan­gu­lar and for­mal as it hugs the beach, and the old a war­ren of back­streets and lanes tucked away un­der Monte Ur­gull. I spent an evening – a long evening, which ac­tu­ally didn’t seem long at all – en­joy­ing the su­per-sized tapas called pin­txos, paired with lo­cal white wine and in­creas­ingly amus­ing com­pany as I en­deav­oured to im­prove my ba­sic Span­ish. I spent much of the next day rid­ing through the pretty and fer­tile coun­try south of San Se­bastián, cross­ing Usategui­eta Pass and fi­nally reach­ing Vi­to­ria-Gasteiz. The cap­i­tal of the Basque coun­try is an open, green and re­laxed city with a strong cider her­itage of its own. Beware the pour­ing cer­e­mony – it’s best done by a lo­cal! I wasn’t smart enough to do that and ended up soaked in cider from the knees down. An­other great night.

From here I stayed in the back­coun­try, head­ing for the Pi­cos de Europa moun­tains over snaking coun­try roads – some in bet­ter con­di­tion than oth­ers. I passed the So­brón Reser­voir on a nar­row road through small tun­nels. Rivers fre­quently flow in deep canyons here, their slightly slop­ing walls cov­ered in vines or other crops, and, on the roads, the 180-de­gree ‘paella turns’ (as they’re known lo­cally) made for a par­tic­u­larly en­thu­si­as­tic ride. Traf­fic is al­most un­known here, al­though you may see the oc­ca­sional pil­grim head­ing to­wards San­ti­ago de Com­postela. The vast stone pil­lars of the Pi­cos point to the sky, de­riv­ing their name from the fact that their height made them the first land vis­i­ble to ships re­turn­ing from the New World. They of­fer won­der­ful photo ops in dif­fer­ent light, and I was tempted to stay to see in the evening, but the road was call­ing and I went on. One lo­cal told me the mo­tor­ways were paid for by the EU, but the back­roads – some good, some, well... not so good – ‘are all our own’. They cer­tainly take you to out­stand­ing places such as the Redes Nat­u­ral Park and the Tarna Pass, the León–As­turias bor­der at 1492 me­tres. Oviedo –its ‘real’ name Uvieo in the lo­cal but na­tion­ally un­recog­nised Bable lan­guage – is a sur­prise. It’s not just the statue of Woody Allen but the many oth­ers dot­ting the city’s streets. Head­ing west and then south took me through the moun­tains and Somiedo Nat­u­ral Park, a won­der­ful drive along wind­ing roads, with good sur­faces, into the moun­tains and up to a high pass by the same name which is one of the first to be cov­ered in snow ev­ery win­ter. Even­tu­ally the road drops to the Babia Val­ley, a favoured hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion for León roy­alty, where they could for­get their

trou­bles. The phrase ‘es­tar en Babia’, mean­ing to be dis­tracted or dream, de­rives from here. So did El Cid’s fa­mous horse, Ba­bieca. The Pozo de las Mu­jeres Muer­tas is a rel­a­tively un­known pass road which is one of the trea­sures of north­ern Spain. I’m usu­ally keen to see new things when I’m trav­el­ling, but I rode a stretch of this pass three times – up, down and up again. I was booked into the Parador at Mon­forte de Le­mos, and I could see the old, re­fur­bished Bene­dic­tine monastery on its steep hill from miles away, across one of the few flat bits of coun­try I en­coun­tered. My tar­gets for this ride were San­ti­ago de Com­postela and Cabo Fin­is­terre, both to the north­west. But I had been told about the chal­leng­ing ride along the Sil River, to the south, so I turned that way and en­joyed a drive through a coun­try that might have been made by gi­ants – enor­mous slopes, 500 me­tres down to the river, cov­ered in vine­yards – and a road that fol­lowed ev­ery twist and turn of the huge hill­sides. No paella bends here; the cor­ners were gen­tler, but also longer and even more ex­hil­a­rat­ing. I even­tu­ally turned north to San­ti­ago de Com­postela. The tar­get of thou­sands of pil­grims ev­ery year fol­low­ing the Camino de San­ti­ago, Gali­cia's cap­i­tal some­how re­mains an im­pres­sive ex­am­ple of clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture and de­vo­tional grav­ity. It also has one of the grand­est ho­tels in Spain, on the cathe­dral square, the Parador de San­ti­ago de Com­postela. But my jour­ney wasn’t over. The Camino doesn’t end in San­ti­ago. There is an­other stretch of road to cover, to Fin­is­terre – the end of the world. I rode out past the wind tur­bines through the Montes de Bux­antes to Cee, a fish­ing vil­lage just short of Cabo Fin­is­terre. This isn’t re­ally the most west­erly part of Europe, but it was thought to be since pre­his­toric times when pil­grims came here and burned their clothes as a sign of a new life. No need to burn your clothes now, but it’s al­ways a good idea to re­con­sider your life’s path…

‘I’m usu­ally keen to see new things when I’m trav­el­ling, but I rode part of this pass three times – up, down and up again’

Clock­wise from top: de­li­cious Span­ish spe­cial­i­ties; a re­laxed res­i­dent; San­ti­ago de Com­postela’s cathe­dral; culinary cap­i­tal San Se­bastián. Pre­vi­ous page: the Pi­cos de Europa

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