Sniffing out Spain’s secrets
Madrid - If you’re even mildly adventurous, there is no better way to unlock the secrets of Spain than to head out on the road and follow your nose to the places that entice you most.
Dig out tempting tapas bars on old cobbled streets. Watch birds of prey wheeling in plummeting canyons. Dine on freshly caught fish with local wine in small ports. Find your own way to romantic hilltop castles and medieval monasteries nestling in verdant valleys. What you’ll run across on the way will probably be just as enchanting.
Away from the big cities and the holiday costas, Spain rarely fails to surprise and please the eyes, be it with the huddled stone houses and red-tile roofs of ancient villages, a set of rolling wooded hills rising from the plains, or a line of cliffs washed by strong Atlantic surf.
Nowhere in Spain is untouristed, but it’s never hard to get well off the beaten track and make surprising discoveries – especially in the less-travelled north, west and centre of the country.
The northern coast of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque country are sometimes described as “green Spain”, because this is the rainiest part of the country. But in the most popular travel months, from June to September, you have as much chance of sunny days as you have by the Mediterranean. The greenery extends from high inland mountains right down to a coast that is liberally endowed with dramatic capes and curves of sandy beach.
The so-called central plains – the regions of Castilla y León and Castilla-La Mancha – are drier, but are more rolling than flat and even break out into high mountains and deep canyons. Castilla y León (north and west of Madrid) was the heartland of the medieval kingdom of Castile that laid the foundations of the Spanish nation. Its cities and villages are perhaps most quintessentially Spanish of all.
In the west, bordering Portugal, lies Extremadura, a land of more rolling plains, olive groves, oak forests and surprisingly abrupt mountains rising around its edges, along with villages, towns and cities such as Mérida and Cáceres, that still echo the Middle Ages.
It was from here that many Spanish conquistadors hailed, including Francisco Pizarro; moreover cities across the Americas – Albuquerque, Mérida, Medellín – were first founded in Extremadura.
A trip along the remote upper reaches of the Ebro River in Cantabria takes in rural valley scenery and sites from early Christianity in the form of rock-cut churches, some of which date back to the 7th century.
Start with the multi-arched, two-nave Iglesia Rupestre de Santa María de Valverde (if locked, get the key from the house across the road) 40km south of Reinosa, and don’t miss the Centro de Interpretación del Rupestre (+34 94 277 6146; closed Monday, call ahead for weekday visits mid-September to mid-June).
Some 30km east, Arroyuelos and Presillas de Bricia both have rock-cut churches. Most exciting of all is the wonderful El Tobazo cave-church, high in the Ebro gorge near Villaescusa del Ebro, which requires a 700m uphill walk past a beautiful waterfall.
Asturias’ Parque Natural de Somiedo, (parquenaturalsomiedo.es) has gorgeous mountains, cute stone villages, and you might even glimpse one of Spain’s 200 brown bears. The Parque Natural Arribes del Duero (patrimonionatural.org), west of Salamanca, has the World-Heritage-listed prehistoric rock carvings of Siega Verde.
Meanwhile, Parque Nacional de las Islas Atlánticas de Galicia (iatlanticas.es) has the Cíes Islands which are ideal for swimming and lolling around on beaches. A 45-minute ferry trip leaves from Vigo between June and September.
Camping is the only option on the islands and you’ll need a permit from the ferry building in Vigo first (mardeons.com; €16/R190). Once there, Camping Islas Cíes (campingislascies.com) has sites from €6.30p/p. The costas may have warmer waters, but for beauty and lack of crowds, you can’t beat the sandy strands on the north coast.
In Cantabria, there’s Playa de Sonabia, beneath high crags on a rock-lined inlet near Oriñón. Watch griffon vultures circle above, then enjoy creative tapas at Somera, nearby in Laredo. Playa de Torimbia near Niembro in Asturias, is a golden crescent bounded by rocky headlands and a bowl of green hills.
West of Ribadeo in Galicia, the 1.5km-long Praia As Catedrais is named after awesome rock arches. Head down to Praia do Picón at the foot of the Acantilados de Loiba cliffs. The Semáforo de Bares (hotelsemaforodebares.com) is a former maritime signals station .
In north-east Extremadura, between Madrid and the Portuguese border, a series of verdant valleys, dotted with streams and medieval villages, run down from the Sierra de Gredos.
In La Vera (the Río Tiétar valley), don’t miss the Monasterio de Yuste, (patrimonionacional.es) where King Carlos I retired to die in 1557 having overseen the creation of the Spanish empire. The 28km Ruta del Emperador retraces the monarch’s final mountainous journey to Yuste.
If you are looking to venture further off the beaten track then visit these cities. The port of La Coruña, perched on a promontory in Spain’s north-west (turismocoruna.com) is historic, cultured, culinary, beachy and festive.
León (turismoleon.org) to the north of Spain’s central plains, attracts tens of thousands of Camino de Santiago pilgrims but few others. It has a breathtaking gothic cathedral and its big student population brings the Barrio Húmedo alive with nocturnal revelry.
Capital of the Basque region yet relatively unheard of, Vitoria (vitoria-gasteiz.org) has a charming medieval quarter, a top modern-art museum in Artium (artium.org; €6), and great tapas bars.
If rural boltholes are what you are after, then deep in green Galicia, the 16th-century manor, Casa de Trillo (casadetrillo.com), has lovely gardens and cosy B&B doubles from €60. It’s also a great base for exploring the Costa da Morte (Coast of Death).
Trujillo, in Extremadura, is packed with churches and mansions, one of which is now the Posada Dos Orillas (dosorillas.com). – The Independent