Spain’s near north

A new Cork to San­tander route opens up this lesser ex­plored re­gion for a driv­ing hol­i­day, tak­ing in Bil­bao, San­ti­ago de Com­postela and the Basque Coun­try. It’s worth the day- long voy­age writes Manchán Ma­gan

The Irish Times Magazine - - TRAVEL -

Ire­land’s geo­graph­i­cal po­si­tion on Earth is chang­ing just a lit­tle bit this sum­mer; from May we shall be re­con­nected to Spain, as we were be­fore the ice sheets melted 15,000 years ago. The new “bridge” will be in the form of a 195- car Brit­tany Fer­ries cruiser, that will ply the Cork to San­tander route twice weekly. It means that a whole new swathe of Europe is open­ing for easy ex­plo­ration. It, along with a brand new Ir­ish Fer­ries 50,000- tonne ves­sel on the Ire­land to North­ern France route, is go­ing to make driv­ing hol­i­days sig­nif­i­cantly eas­ier.

Af­ter over 40 years of ferry ser­vice to North­ern France we are rea­son­ably fa­mil­iar with the re­gion around Roscoff and Cher­bourg, but San­tander in the Span­ish re­gion of Cantabria is an un­ex­plored fron­tier for many of us. Of the more than 2 mil­lion Ir­ish peo­ple who travel to Spain an­nu­ally, only a tiny frac­tion ever make it be­yond the costas. So, once you’ve com­pleted your 26- hour jour­ney across the At­lantic, what awaits you?

First off, some ge­og­ra­phy: if Spain were SpongeBob Squarepants then San­tander would be his eye­lids. It is the cap­i­tal of the au­tonomous com­mu­nity of Cantabria; to the east lies the Basque re­gion and to the west are As­turias and Galicia, each of which boast long, glo­ri­ous beaches and Me­dieval trea­sures in the form of churches, pil­grim hos­tels and palaces, dat­ing from when this North­ern coastal re­gion was con­sid­ered a safer route for pil­grims to walk the Camino de San­ti­ago dur­ing the cen­turies of Is­lamic oc­cu­pa­tion. This north­ern route of the Camino is called the An­cient Way and pil­grims still walk it to­day, as it is less de­vel­oped and, con­se­quen­tially, feels more au­then­tic. It of­fers a per­fect route for driv­ing the Camino along beau­ti­ful coastal roads.

The de­barka­tion point of San­tander is a bright modern city with 18th- and 19th- cen­tury thor­ough­fares and a food cul­ture that is al­most as ob­ses­sive as that of its Basque neigh­bour San Se­bastián. It has beau­ti­ful pub­lic gar­dens, fine beaches, a re­stored 13th- cen­tury cathe­dral and pretty bal­conies over­look­ing the Cantabrian Sea.

If you are head­ing east from here your first stop should be Cas­tro Ur­diales, a medi- eval sea­far­ing and fish­ing vil­lage on a brac­ing head­land above a vast bay on the Cantabrian coast. The vil­lage, with its nar­row streets and wooden bal­conies, is coiled around a Gothic church and a light­house where a cas­tle once stood. As with this en­tire stretch of coast­line there are long, al­luri ng beaches and cave paint­ings from 15,000 years ago. Hid­den in the earth 2m be­neath Cas­tro Ur­diales is the Ro­man site of Flav­ióbriga, which adds a fris­son to ev­ery step.

As you drive along this stretch of coast- line you en­counter wild in­lets, un­spoilt tra­di­tional vil­lages and al­lur­ing sandy beaches; above you are low hills and moun­tains with way- marked walks and cy­cling trails ( vías verdes).

Cross­ing over into the Basque re­gion the main lure is Bil­bao, a de­pleted steel- mak­ing and ship­build­ing city that has reimagined it­self with the help of the Guggen­heim Mu­seum, a ti­ta­nium- clad, iron- girded struc­ture with soar­ing cliffs of lime­stone lean­ing at im­pos­si­ble an­gles. The wealth of the Basque re­gion from iron- min­ing and steel pro­duc­tion are en­cap­su­lated in it and by it, though its scale can threaten to eclipse the city un­less one pur­pose­fully delves into the old quar­ter, the Casco Viejo, a mot­ley blend of Re­nais­sance, Baroque and Modernist build­ings stretch­ing out from the orig­i­nal seven streets, Las Si­ete Calles, which date from the 1400s. For some fine pin­txos ( Basque tapas) head to the 19th- cen­tury ar­caded Plaza Nueva which has a great Sun­day morn­ing flea mar­ket, sell­ing ev­ery­thing from baby ter­rap­ins to foot­ball cards.

The other key Basque des­ti­na­tion, Guer­nica, a sleepy town that is etched in global con­scious­ness since Hitler air- bombed it dur­ing the Span­ish Civil War, has a mu­ral re­pro­duc­tion of Pi­casso’s vast ren­der­ing of the scene, as well as a Peace Mu­seum and a Peace Park to go with its sta­tus as a mem­ber of the World Union of Mar­tyred Towns.

It’s a som­bre, but nour­ish­ing visit and can be en­riched by head­ing north to the Ur­daibai na­ture re­serve, a UNESCO bio­sphere re­serve around the Gernika es­tu­ary. It en­cap­su­lates the nat­u­ral beauty of the Basque re­gion with its up­lands clad in oak, pines and beech, and long- eaved, red- roofed tower houses sur­rounded by or­chards and metic­u­lously man­i­cured fields and veg­etable plots.

This part of the Basque re­gion is only 90 min­utes’ drive east of San­tander, but what hap­pens if we turn west in­stead from San­tander, to­wards San­ti­ago de Com­pestelo, five hours west­wards? The first thing you’ll no­tice is an enor­mous, jagged, jut­ting moun­tain range, like some­thing from a ter­raform­ing planet. These are the Pi­cos De Europa, three ma­jor mas­sifs, with peaks in ex­cess of 2,000m ( the high­est be­ing Torre de Cerredo at 2,648m). In ge­o­log­i­cal terms they are rel­a­tively young and so have not had their sharp sum­mits eroded yet. They dom­i­nate the au­tonomous com­mu­ni­ties of As­turias and Cantabria. If the

The Guggen­heim Mu­seum in Bil­bao, a ti­ta­nium- clad, iron- girded struc­ture de­signed by Frank Gehry; Op­po­site page: Cas­tro Ur­diales is a me­dieval sea­far­ing and fish­ing vil­lage on the Cantabrian coast

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