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
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