From the moment we touched down at the airport in Santander, our five day trip to Northern Spain was a cultural whirlwind. It propelled us into cable cars on which we glided seamlessly to and from cloud-skimming summits. It carried us deep underground on screeching miners’ train carriages. It took us to winding mountain roads and heavy forests, to bustling towns, tranquil villages and quiet harbours.
Day one was spent exploring Santander. It’s not as you might imagine. A carousel glimpsed beyond a copse of trees set the scene, rotating in silence without any of the accompanying music you might expect.
It’s a city in which tradition and contemporaneousness are spun together with a delicate thread. Here, ancient wooden hut type grain stores balance atop creaky pillars, relics of times gone by. Close by, shiny souvenir shops sell wooden clogs and chocolate bars by the kilo.
We began by racing across the Sardinero beach. That done, we visited the magnificent Magdalena Palace, the onetime summer home of Spanish King Alfonso XIII and his family.
Because royalty attracts a flourish of aristocrats, the monarchs’ holiday habits helped popularise the region amongst the wealthy. They did for Cantabria — located between the Basque Country and Asturias — what Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda did for the French Riviera.
However it was a pilgrim route long before the royals discovered it, forming as it does, part of the Primitive Way, the Camino route which begins in Asturias and ends in Santiago del Compostela.
That afternoon, we went to see the Renzo Piano-designed Centro Botín. Located on the waterfront overlooking the bay it appears to be a building in mid-flight. Maybe that’s because it scarcely touches the ground, resting as it does on columns the height of tree-tops.
That night was spent in an immaculate corner room at the Hotel Chiqui, enjoying spectacular views over the Sardinero Bay towards Mouro Island. So balmy was it, it made sense to leave the terrace doors wide open, so as to hear the sound of the sea.
On day two we visited Cabarceno, where hundreds of species of animals from five continents, live in semi-free conditions in 70 acres of natural parkland. Travelling around by car, it was hippos languishing in the sunshine we best remember. What intrigued that day, was the dearth of bird call, the silence being punctuated only occasionally, by the sound of wingless animals calling.
Later, we climbed into a cable car at Fuente De for an aerial view. There, we spied bears, bison, zebras, elephants and intriguingly, antelopes mingling with rhinos. Park explored, we took to the roads. Leaving San Vicente de la Barquera behind, we passed hayfields and pairs of white horses, then hugged the coast until we reached Comillas. This is a fishing town with a church and walls dating back to the 13th century.
There, we ate a scrumptious lunch, at El Remedio, where the majestic hilltop view could have been of coastal west Cork on a summer’s day, with red roofed houses, and sheep grazing in fields of green beneath a clear blue sky.
It was there that we visited The Caprice, a Gaudi designed house, complete with hand-painted sunflower tiled exterior walls and exquisitely elaborate craftsmanship throughout. Later, we drove twisting roads to Potes, then checked into the Valdecoro, a simple but spotless hotel in the centre of town. That night, we dined at El Cenador del Capitán, a local restaurant owned by the family that ran our hotel.
We loved its eclectic ambiance and beneath the rafters setting. We liked the river views, extensive wine list and perhaps most importantly of all, its proudly cooked locally sourced food.
The following morning we explored Potes, a pretty market town, one of bridges and rivers. It’s a place where traditionally distilled liqueurs, such as Orujo, are drunk and where the region’s infamous ‘green cheese’ is a staple.
Later, we visited the 6th century Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. There, we queued to touch what we were told is the largest piece of the Lignum Crucis (wood of the cross) ever discovered in Jerusalem. This was a moving experience, one which gave me goose bumps and filled me with peace.
On the third day, we set off for the Toribio de Liébana Monastery. That done, it was on to Llanes in Asturias. There we had a great lunch at the Gloria restaurant before driving to Oviedo.
That evening, we stayed at the Eurostar Hotel de la Reconquista, an exceedingly comfortable lodging of the understatedly classy sort. While we heard that the King of Spain stayed there just days before we visited, we didn’t glimpse him or indeed any royalty; bejewelled, becrowned or otherwise.
One reason for that might have been that instead of luxuriating in the decadent splendour of our hotel that night, we hot-footed to the local cider house, the Tierra Astur Parrilla, to learn how the fruity drink should be poured and drunk.
We walked there, marvelling as we did, at the abundance of statuary on the Oviedo sidewalks. Woody Allen’s statue was notable, largely because it portrayed the controversial filmmaker as surprisingly small in height, a fact accentuated by locals who opined that the man himself is centimetres smaller than the metal sculpture in his likeness.
Next morning, we were up and out early for the drive to Gijón, a city of culture. From there we drove to Lastres for a quick mosey around. With so much to see, we were soon on the move again, this time to the wondrous expanse that is the Picos de Europa National Park. As we drove through the winding mountainous roads, the weather changed and grew colder.
By the time we reached Covadonga, a town dramatically encircled by a range of stark and formidably peaked mountains, the air was thick with slowly falling snowflakes. The weather scuppered our plans to see Lakes Enol and Ercina. We didn’t mind as we were enthralled by the beauty of the setting.
Our final stop was at Cangas de Onís, where we checked into the lovely Los Lagos Nature Hotel. The next morning, as we explored the markets and marvelled at the blue locally grown tomatoes we thought the trip revealed a hidden Spain, one we never knew existed.
To best picture it, imagine a marriage between Spain and Switzerland. Imagine the combined natural beauty, scent and flavour. That’s what you find in the north of the country, in Asturias and Cantabria. A secret Spain. A magnificent forest-filled mountainous land. One that’s steeped in history, tradition and culture. A unique region that disperses popular myths about what the essence of Spain might be.
By ferry: Brittany Ferries sail twice weekly from Cork to Santander — www.brittanyferries.ie
By air: Ryanair flies direct to Santander from Cork and Dublin — www.ryanair.com