By Jen Mullen
From San Sebastian, past Santander and as far as the Picos de Europa National Park, this dramatic part of northern Spain promises to stimulate your senses. Taste your way through some of the best restaurants in the World, listen to the waves roll off the Bay of Biscay on a stormy day and of course, shield your eyes well from the glare off some of the most pristine beaches being caressed by the Atlantic. If you ask a Spanish tour guide about the most popular destinations in Spain, you will get directed to cities such as Barcelona and Madrid; however the regions up in the northern corner almost seem to be Spain’s best-kept secret.
Euskal Herria – that’s Basque to you
The Basque Country is an up and coming destination from a tourist perspective and you will almost feel for a while that you have left Spain (a thought endorsed by some of the feistier locals!) As one of Europe’s oldest and most culturally vibrant regions, a holiday here includes a rich canvas of quaint villages, rolling green landscapes, as well as modern cities. Natives of the Basque Country refer to their land as Euskal Herria, which means land of the Basque speakers. Although Spanish and English are widely spoken in the region, the immensely proud Basque citizens can date their language back to well before Roman times. Furthermore, your Basque tour guide will tell you that their language is a bit of an anomaly as it is not related to the Latin based languages of neighbouring France and Spain. The significance of Basque culture is also very clear through its rich tradition of music, dance, sports, food and of course wine.
San Sebastian - the crown jewel
With its turquoise waters peppered with small white boats, San Sebastian is often referred to as the “crown jewel” of the Spanish Basque Country. The town has become one of the top destinations for foodies, given two of its restaurants have been ranked in the top ten of the World’s Fifty Best Restaurants. And if this wasn’t enough, it has fifteen Michelin stars spread across seven restaurants! San Sebastian boasts of three glorious bays: La Concha and Ondarreta, plus the less popular Playa la Zurriola. Framed by steep mountains, you couldn’t wish for a better setting for a holiday location. San Sebastian locals refer to themselves as ‘Donostiarras’ and proudly play host to numerous music and film festivals, and even a carnival. After all these festivities, the best fresh air and exercise in San Sebastian, try a walk along the sea wall and taking some photographs at the Combs of the Winds sculptures, which are particularly impressive on a windy day, when the waves crash aggressively on the rocks.
Hondarribia - another foodie mecca
Not far from San Sebastian is the town of Hondarribia, yet another mecca for food lovers. Set against the backdrop of a charming maritime town, the cheerful looking houses have brightly coloured balconies bursting with flowers in summer. Some of the top attractions here include the Santa Maria church, the fortified city walls and the Castle of Charles V. The Bay Path and the long sweeping beach should also provide ample opportunities to burn off all the calories, having feasted on local seafood fare.
Bilbao - the architecture hub
Bilbao has metamorphosed in the last few years from a run-down industrial town, to a hub for architecture and design. One of Bilbao’s most famous attractions is the Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by Frank Gehry. The building itself is extremely impressive and the principle aim of the place is to challenge the way people think about art, architecture and collecting. Perhaps of the best photo opportunity has to be the giant puppy, which combines the guidelines used in creating 18th century floral gardens, along with modern computer modelling techniques. So effortlessly does Spain harmonise successfully the old and the new!
Walk around Bilbao’s old town, to inhale an atmosphere rich in street artists, old squares, restaurants and charming architecture. When you have worked up an appetite, pull up a chair for a spot of people watching, accompanied by traditional pintxos, often compared with Spanish tapas. For the best views in Bilbao, however, take a trip on the funicular all the way up Artxanda hill, which is very reasonably priced and tremendous fun.
Rioja - The most famous wine region in Spain
For wine lovers, the number one destination in northern Spain has to be the Rioja region. The area spreads itself over 54.000 hectares and around three different Communities (La Rioja, Basque Country and Navarre). The best journeys round Rioja country not only include old and modern wineries, but one also gets to see serene vineyard landscapes, small fortified villages and towns with castles, such as Briones. Some of the best wineries in the area can be found near the medieval town of Haro, which aside from great vineyards and a famous yearly “wine battle”, holds the claim to fame of being the first town in Spain to have electric lighting! Another walled historical town is Laguardia in the Alavesa region, which is built at a hilltop, offering breathtaking views of la Sierra de Cantabria.
Santander - more stunning beaches
The coastal city of Santander lies in the Cantabria region and has been a popular holiday destination for the Spanish themselves since the 19th century, when it was a summer retreat for Spanish politicians and aristocrats. Santander also has some lovely beaches, such as Playa de la Magdalena and El Sardinero, a historic city centre, and some very good tapas bars. For an impressive view of Santander from a distance, take a walk up to the Parque de Cabo Mayor, with its iconic lighthouse. Santander also boasts of some beautiful parks, such as the gardens of Magdalena, which has a palace and even a small zoo where one can watch penguins and sea lions being fed.
Back to nature at the Picos de Europa
Nature lovers will be drawn to exploring the Picos de Europa National Park, which lies west of Santander. The geological landscape of the park is dominated by limestone massifs, glaciers and enormous peaks, which make up the Cantabrian Mountains. The proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and Bay of Biscay can make the area prone to sudden changes in weather, such as mists rolling in from the water; therefore do consult your Spanish tour guide before unpacking your hiking boots. A good place to base oneself is Potes, from where you can reach the cable car at Fuente De, and hence access to the best parts of the mountains.
Whether you are able to visit this captivating region for a long weekend or a few weeks, a trip to the north of Spain will leave you with some profound memories, and possibly if the rioja flows freely, you may even master a few words of Basque: Eskerriska!
(Jen Mullen is a seasoned traveler, having lived and worked in the UK,Germany, Switzerland, Australia and most recently Southern India. In her opinion, the best parts about traveling are meeting the locals, sampling as much new food as possible and making an effort to learn new languages)
Image Details and Licenses: https://flic.kr/p/7gwvW2 (Alfredo Miguel Romero, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/drJUDq (Fougerouse Arnaud, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/9q1gSh (Nigel's Europe & beyond, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/4RdeCG (Rodney, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/Xc6KN (Ian Turk, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/9Zsjxf (Andrea Ciambra, CC BY-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/5LtGTM (oalfonso, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/pDcGyW (Víctor Gómez, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/7dw83e (Yellow.Cat, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/hSqEjo (达 李, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/fAsCeA (JOSE LUIS HEREDIA, CC BY-SA 2.0)