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...
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