Spain,  Travel

On The Road in Northern Spain

For as long as I can remember, I have held a fascination for Spain. Having visited Madrid, Barcelona, Granada and Sevilla between 2004 and 2013, I had my sights on northern Spain, in particular Basque Country, and by early 2018 it was time to plan in earnest. I even took Spanish classes to make it a more enriching experience.

It was to be a self-drive tour across the north of Spain, once again with my indomitable travel buddy Eileen (our third trip together). Six months planning the trip and booking a couple of top restaurants finally came to fruition in September 2018.

Fifteen days on the road, covering the autonomous communities of Basque, Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia, Castile and León, and Aragón, we stayed in seven cities and drove to at least 10 other towns along the route. That’s the benefit of having a car – the freedom to explore at one’s convenience. We covered approximately 2,400 kms, and it was well worth it.

¡Viva España!

My overall enduring memories are of the glorious Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, churches and monasteries, the true meaning of Siesta, and of course the outstanding gastronomy.

Many people know San Sebastián and Bilbao for pinchos (“pintxos” in Basque language), and for its Michelin starred restaurants. However, Asturias and Galicia are well known for their seafood – grilled octopus is a Galician speciality – and León for its variety of cured meats. So much more was on offer: prawns, scallops, spider crabs, squid, razor clams, mussels, cockles, hake, salted cod, monkfish, langoustine, even barnacles. We were not disappointed with anything we ate wherever we went, even when we opted for dinner at our hotel (after a long day out).

One rarely goes wrong with the “menu del día,” almost always great value

We crossed part of El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St James, one of the most important pilgrimages of the Middle Ages. This network of pilgrim routes all end at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, at the magnificent Catedral de Santiago, where it is said the remains of the Apostle are interred. Along the route is the familiar scallop shell symbol on road signs, carved into pavements, and on building walls. Many people take months off to walk part of or the whole El Camino, for their faith or other reasons. We saw walkers from as far as Colombia and Japan, as well as from other parts of Europe.

¡Surprising Discoveries!

Beyond food and cathedrals, we discovered interesting facts about the places we visited. For example: in 2013, the United Nations declared León as the birthplace of European Parliamentary Democracy, due to the fact that King Alfonso IX of León joined three states in 1188 and developed laws that protected the people. For context, the Magna Carta came about in 1215.

We discovered that the visionary and influential architect, Antoni Gaudí, designed three buildings outside his home region of Cataluña – two in the region of Castile and León, and one in Cantabria – which were actually built. The Leonese are rightly very proud of Gaudí’s building, Casa Botines, in their city.

The Basilica de San Isadoro in León is the second most visited church in northern Spain, after the Catedral de Santiago in Galicia. The remains of many Kings of León are kept here, and a cup said to be the Holy Grail – the cup from which Jesus Christ drank at the Last Supper and the same cup used to collect the blood of Christ at the crucifixion – is on display at this church. There are, of course, other churches that say they have the Holy Grail, but it comes down to one’s faith. Who is anyone to dispute?

Basilica de San Isadoro

In Burgos, we discovered how seriously Siestas are taken. After parking our car in a designated city parking lot and feeding enough coins into the machine for the maximum two-hour limit, we noticed the ticket recorded our expiry time four hours from entry. It so happened that our visit coincided with Siesta hours, and parking is gratis for those hours! Four hours for the price of two – a bargain, indeed!

We discovered a decent Jurassic museum in this small coastal town of Colunga in the region of Asturias. What’s a dinosaur museum doing in the “middle of nowhere,” one may ask. Well, dinosaurs roamed that part of Spain back in the day, and there are recorded footprints of the beasts along the coast. Who knew…  The only thing here is that all display explanations are in Spanish, so I’m glad I took language classes.

In Zaragoza, capital of Aragón, we discovered a city with a different vibe. As we entered the city centre, the splendid Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar filled our vision. It reminded me of the mosques in Istanbul, with its Moorish influence on display. The Moor Empire had spread as far north as Aragón – reclaimed in the 12th century – and left a rich artistic and cultural legacy. Travel guides have referred to Aragón as an under-rated region in terms of tourism, and I intend to return while it’s still under-rated.

¡Needs Must!

The Bilbao Guggenheim Museum is the city’s landmark building. Designed by Frank Gehry, it’s a sexy structure with its seemingly random curves. One can only marvel at the combination of glass and titanium catching the sun’s rays at sunrise or sunset, on the banks of the Nervion River. The imposing sculptures by Jeff Koons (“Puppy”) and Louise Bourgeois (“Maman”) provoked feelings at opposite ends of my emotional spectrum.

Lastly, the trip provided ample opportunity to discover the gastronomic delights of northern Spain, in particular this whole pintxos culture. We were told of the practice of pintxo bar-hopping, in which you eat one or two pintxos at one bar and move to the next one. The accompanying drink is txakoli, a dry, semi-sparking white wine, but you can have beer or water.

The variety is enormous; some bars have as many as 25 different types of pintxos while others may have 10. And because it’s rather competitive, the pintxo chefs have to be creative in their concoctions. After hitting a few bars for sustenance, we popped into any pintxo bar we spotted, just to gawk (and salivate) at the selection.

As for the Michelin starred restaurants, suffice it to say that if one visits San Sebastián or Bilbao, going to at least one Michelin starred restaurant is akin to a rite of passage.

It was a truly memorable trip with so many highlights. León and Zaragoza would top my list for return trips – the cities and their environs. In fact, one can say “Mi corazón está en España” – my heart is in Spain!

Planning a visit to Northern Spain?

  1. If you are hiring a car, remember to specify automatic transmission if that’s your preference, otherwise it is assumed you know how to drive a standard manual transmission.  Also, streets in the old town centres are narrow, so avoid large SUVs.
  2. Book your Michelin starred restaurant months ahead; allow three hours for the experience. Lunch is a better bet than dinner, so you can walk off the feast after!
  3. One hears a lot about pick-pockets nowadays. Fortunately, we weren’t victims, and it’s probably best not to keep anything in pockets, including zipped pockets. The deft “handiwork” of these professionals can leave you in the lurch. Invest in anti-theft bags or backpacks for better personal security.
  4. Do your currency exchange before arrival. The money changers we encountered used a highly unfavourable exchange rate. Banks are no different, even in the larger and more tourist-friendly cities of Santiago de Compostela and León.