TRUE NORTH

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Tess

Paterson ex­plores

north­ern Spain

It’s not ex­actly what I ex­pected.” That’s my sis­ter-in-law An­nalet, sound­ing just a tad less ex­cited than she ought on her first ven­ture to Europe. We’d just spent an epic week in France – all chateaux and stun­ning Bordeaux reds and cherry-laden trees in the back yard of our gîte.

From Bordeaux we’d driven to­wards Spain, the Pyre­nees sil­very and snow- topped to our left, the prom­ise of the Bay of Bis­cay to our right. Pass­ing the revered towns of Biar­ritz and San Se­bas­tian, we’d re­luc­tantly traded their sweep­ing bays and mid­night tapas

Al­though less renowned than the south­ern re­gions, north­ern Spain has an ex­traor­di­nary

amount to of­fer, says Tess Paterson

in favour of mak­ing some dis­tance west­wards. To be hon­est, what emerged was not en­tirely pretty.

Naïvely I’d ex­pected a gen­tle ex­ten­sion of France, a few Gal­licly chic vil­lages where we could prac­tise our Span­ish while plot­ting a trip to the Guggen­heim at Bil­bao. The re­al­ity of the Bizkaia prov­ince on the north­ern Span­ish coast­line is that it’s prop­erly in­dus­trial. Much of the lovely green hills have been ter­mi­nally aff licted by high­tech steel and petro­chem­i­cal plants. The re­gion’s well known for its aero­nau­tics and au­to­mo­tive hubs too; the lat­ter ac­count­ing for a quar­ter of the Basque coun­try’s GDP.

What’s in­ter­est­ing is that this is noth­ing new. Ac­cord­ing to my guide­book, over 80% of the iron brought into Eng­land in the 15th cen­tury came from the Basque prov­inces. The ex­ploita­tion of nat­u­ral re­sources has been hap­pen­ing for a while. And the up­shot? A sort of bipo­lar land­scape that’s part ex­quis­ite ver­dant coast­line, part in­ter­minable high-rise blocks. The ar­chi­tec­ture has a Swiss­chalet-type same­ness – a sort of Heidi meets Hill­brow, which as An­nalet points out, is not en­tirely the un­spoilt Riviera we’d imag­ined.

Un­de­terred, we choose a stretch of coast­line north of Bil­bao. Our base is a ‘casa ru­ral’ run by the de­light­ful Maria Lour­des Ro­driguez Echevar­ria. Maria speaks five lan­guages f lu­ently, and at break­fast I over­hear her switch­ing ef­fort­lessly from Dutch to Ger­man.

“you could head to Bakio,” she sug­gests, “and carry on east­wards from there.” Hud­dled around a lovely bay, Bakio is a short drive from San Juan de Gaztel­u­gatxe. This 10th-cen­tury her­mitage sits atop a nat­u­ral islet, con­nected to the land by a me­an­der­ing stone bridge. Once you’ve panted up all 240 steps and braved the wind, the re­ward is a glo­ri­ous, for­ever view of the At­lantic.

We take a short de­tour in­land, head­ing south east to the town of Guer­nica-Lumo. In high school we’d learnt about Pi­casso’s epony­mous paint­ing, a com­men­tary on the bru­tal­ity of the Span­ish civil war. Stand­ing in front of the tiled replica, it’s hard to be­lieve that hun­dreds of cit­i­zens were killed here dur­ing the Luft­waffe’s bomb­ing in 1937. Pi­casso’s orig­i­nal oil paint­ing Guer­nica now hangs in Madrid’s Reina Sofia mu­seum. Eighty years on, it seems that we still have a lot to learn about peace.

Amid the high-rise de­vel­op­ment of Bizkaia, some of the nat­u­ral world has thank­fully been pre­served. The Ur­daibai Bio­sphere Re­serve cov­ers 23 000 hectares, in­clud­ing the Mun­daka es­tu­ary mouth, which is the most im­por­tant wet­land in the Basque coun­try. Closer to Guer­nica, the Ur­daibai Bird Cen­tre is a well-run gem. With in­door view­ing across the wet­land and gen­uinely help­ful staff, it’s a wel­come respite for na­ture lovers.

Our last stop is Elan­txobe, the epit­ome of small, fish­ing-vil­lage charm. On a Sun­day af­ter­noon in spring, there’s a smat­ter­ing of lo­cal fam­i­lies pot­ter­ing around with boats. Treed hills rise steeply be­hind the colour­ful blocks of f lats. For a quiet mo­ment, you can imag­ine a pre-mo­torised world when fish­ing was the be-all of this beautiful coast.

The fol­low­ing day it’s off to Bil­bao, half-an-hour’s drive away. We park atop a prom­i­nent hill, and via fu­nic­u­lar and tram ar­rive at the Guggen­heim Mu­seum. For 20 years I’d dreamed about see­ing this up close – Frank Gehry’s ti­ta­nium-clad spec­ta­cle on the banks of the Nervión River. The travel gods, though, are hav­ing a bit of a laugh, be­cause it’s Mon­day – the only day that the mu­seum is closed.

We marvel at the gleam­ing façade, take self­ies with Ma­man, the 9m-high spi­der sculp­ture, be­fore seek­ing

con­so­la­tion at the food mar­ket.

Walk­ing into the Mercado de la Rib­era, we’re greeted by a ca­coph­ony of sound, colours and aro­mas. We’re talk­ing three f loors of fresh, Basque coun­try pro­duce and not much English. We’ll be self-cater­ing for the next few days, and stock up with ev­ery­thing from spicy tx­is­torra sausage and sheep’s milk cheese to glossy green olives and fruity Tx­akoli de Ge­taria wine. The pin­txos stalls are ir­re­sistible – pricey but fill­ing snacks laden with any num­ber of com­bi­na­tions: roasted red pep­pers, an­chovies, cala­mari, salt cod and warm Camembert. With the car loaded to the hilt, we drive on west­wards.

We’ve rented a villa in the heart of the Pi­cos de Europa in Cantabria. Just 20km from the coast, this rugged moun­tain range rises sharply to 2 600m. The real joy of the drive starts at the Des­filadero de la Her­mida – a stun­ning ravine that fol­lows the Deva River. On a gen­tle green hill near the town of Potes, the villa is a solid stone-built beauty. An hour later, the braai’s lit, and four of us are gaz­ing through the wood smoke at snow-clad peaks, the clam­our of cow bells all around; wine in hand.

On our first day we opt for a

9km hike, start­ing at the vil­lage of Mon­grovejo. The Bajo lo Pi­cos trail stretches along the eastern mas­sif, a mix of farm­land and de­cid­u­ous woodland with some steep hills for good mea­sure. On an early spring day it’s sheer heaven; I can’t think of a bet­ter way to spend a morn­ing out. On our way back, puffed and happy, we savour a few rounds of icy Estrella beers.

For an un­for­get­table over­view of the Pi­cos, a trip up the Fuente Dé ca­ble­way is a must. In three and a half min­utes we’re whisked high above the peace­ful green val­ley. This is real Heidi scenery – rugged lime­stone peaks and crisp air that’s un­can­nily like the Swiss Alps. From hard-core hik­ing to chilled ram­bling and rap­tor-spot­ting this is un­spoilt Spain at its very best. Af­ter an easy me­an­der around the still-frozen snow drifts, An­nalet and I head to the self-help restau­rant. Armed with cof­fee and a wedge of Madeira cake, we put our feet up and peo­ple-watch like it’s St Moritz.

North­ern Spain may have had less air time than the south, but there is some ex­cep­tional beauty amid the in­dus­trial chaos. We’ve barely scratched the sur­face – there are count­less draw­cards, from the fêted San Se­bas­tian eat­ing scene and Rioja bode­gas, to the more in­tro­spec­tive Camino de San­ti­ago. Life is short, you should def­i­nitely go.

The stone wall lead­ing to SanJuan de Gaztel­u­gatxe.

The Cantabrian town of Potes.

View from our villa in the Liebana Val­ley, Cantabria.

A wel­come Span­ish beer.

A pin­txos stall at the Bil­bao food mar­ket.

Guggen­heim Mu­seum, Bil­bao. Olive fest at the Mercado de la Rib­era.The gar­den of our villa near thetown of Potes.

The Pi­cos de Europa in Cantabria.

View of Elan­txobe.

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