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.