Green Spain

Northern Spain, or Green Spain, is not usually where the tourists go, and certainly not where most people choose to buy property. This could be a mistake, but I suppose it depends on what you want to find.
The sea, and indeed the weather, is not so hot as it is down on the Costa del Sol. There is more rain, and the countryside is more like green England.

There are the Picos de Europa, which are steep and rugged, and have snow on them during the winter, and of course the Pyrenees are not far away.
The bays and charming little coves are really sweet, and I would certainly recommend the area for a holiday expedition.
Cantabria is the name given to the strip of land between the Cantabrian Sea, otherwise known as the Bay of Biscay, and the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain.
Biscay is a corruption of the Spanish word Vizcaya, meaning a mountain or cliff, and probably relates to the way the Picos de Europa dominate the northern coast of Spain facing the bay.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Cantabria regained its independence from the rule of the Visigoths, and remained independent until the Arab invasion. In the year 714, a mixed Arab/Barber army invaded the upper valleys of the Ebro and succeeded in capturing Amaya, then the Cantabrian capital. However, they did not get beyond the mountains, and this strip of Spain was the one area the moors did not manage to settle.
When I last travelled along this northern coastline with Julie we stopped in the little town of Castro Urdiales, which is Roman in origin and was originally called Portus Amanus. In AD 74 a Roman colony was established under the name Flaviobriga, during the reign of Vespasian, probably to mine the abundant iron ore in the area.
The chief industries now are mining, fishing, and the preservation of fish in oil, especially sardines and anchovies.
Many people from Bilbao and other parts of the Basque Country and Cantabria as well as Northern Spain in general keep summer homes in the town.
By its name I assumed it was an old Roman town. The centre is certainly old, but not much of the very old is left. There is a charming small inner harbour filled with the usual bobbing boats, but one or two of the ancient houses in the suburbs are rather fine villas.
All along the north coast of Cantabria are the foothills of the Picos de Europa, covered in lush green, with small valleys funnelling into the sea; small inlets where the sea brushes in beside the hills, and, as it retreats, leaves a bank of sand overshadowed by woodland clinging to the steep sides of the hills.
Inlet after inlet cuts the coastline. Here and there are villages, usually set back from the coast behind a rise in the land for protection from the winter winds. Farmers are cutting small patches of grass. Behind are wife and children with rakes, collecting the new-mown grass into rows, and then into small domes.

Down on the beach another farmer is raking up the seaweed left by the retreating tide and bundling it into a cart. The tractor tows the cart up a perilous track, and the seaweed is dumped in what look like giant molehills on the fields as fertilizer. This is then spread slowly with a long-handled rake wielded by a farm-hand with a bent back.
Further along the coast is a large valley where the river runs from tiny stream to estuary over the space of half a mile. Set in behind the trees, and in amongst the folds in the rock, are secret houses.
The sun is shining, the beaches are empty, the leaves glisten with the drops from yesterday’s rain, the fields are green, there are cows with massive horns, farmers are tilling tiny plots, and up in the sky a few white clouds define the clear pale blue.
Further west are the high mountains of the Picos de Europa, with snow shining on them. The mountains are a jagged lot, and all around them are the lesser mounds of the Cantabrian mountain range, which seems to stretch almost from the Pyrenees to the edge of Asturias. To the north is the blue calm sea, and dozens of little bays. For every steep valley that cuts into the foothills, there is a small rushing stream tumbling down the rocks and fanning out onto a small flat lea before being claimed by the waves toppling onto a crescent sandy beach.

Galicia-2

It is time to move on down towards the Portuguese border, past the town of Cambados, with its 11th century church and square, and a group of Spanish tourists with guide.

This is a charming town, which boasts the official title of Most Noble Town, and the guide books boast about the white wine that is made locally. The town certainly does have a kind of stateliness in its architecture, and obviously boasts an important past.

A festival is held on the first Sunday in August based around the Albariño wine. The grape is noted for its distinctive aroma, very similar to that of Viognier, Gewurztraminer and Petit Manseng, suggesting apricot and peach. The wine produced is unusually light, and generally high in acidity, with alcohol levels of 11.5-12.5%.The thick skins and large number of pips in the grapes can cause residual bitterness.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Albariño vines could be found growing around the trunks of poplar trees and in bushes along the outside margins of a field. When grown in a vineyard, the vines need to be wire trained with large canopies to accommodate the 30 to 40 buds per vine that is typical.

We stayed the night in a small town overlooking one of the rias. The next day we drove down to Santiago de Compostella to look at what lay at the end of one of the most famous pilgrimages of the middle ages.

I have been obsessed with the road to Santiago for years, and have always wanted to make the pilgrimage. Well, there it is. I have mixed feelings about it all, but most of my feelings are not sympathetic. What I see is something that is now irrelevant of course. Only a few people today care about the bones of one of the disciples of Christ, if they are his bones, which is highly unlikely. They were dug up from an old Roman graveyard after about 800 years. But what one sees is a vast church burocracy in stone.

The actual cathedral is in a poor state. The colors that were on the stone are no more. There is no stained glass. The stonework is not dressed. However, the main altarpiece and its immediate surrounds are covered in gold leaf and silver. The whole place reeks of wealth and power. But I dont see any spirituality anywhere. I look at the altarpiece and remember that Christ was born in a shed amongst the cow-shit, and find it impossible to reconcile that with what is before me. There is something fundamentally obscene about it all. It is not so much impressive, as oppressive.

Just to the east of the city is a more intriguing church. I dont usually go out of my way to look at churches, but this one is a trifle odd. It is the Colegiata de Santa Maria la Real de Sar.
Colegiata de Santa Maria la Real de Sar
The Sar is a small stream that winds a mainly hidden way around the city. I had to ask several people where the place was. Somehow I expected it to be a quaint little village church, but nothing in Santiago is as it seems. Santiago is the patron saint of Spain. The bones of one of Christ’s disciples are supposed to buried in the city. This is the end of a great medieval trail. The church infrastructure is massive. Despite all this the place is a sleepy little country town, much smaller than I’d expected, with a small industrial estate that also looked rather sleepy.

The church is sitting in the middle of a car park. There it is squat and absurdly massive because it is supported in all directions by huge buttresses that seem to take up more room, and more stone, than the actual church. On one side is a charming colonnade. Inside is a simple nave with three aisles, and here is the intriguing bit: the church has been built deliberately askew.

I walked back outside and looked at the buttresses. It was all rather strange. Some of the walls seemed to be perfectly vertical, other parts of the walls were leaning seriously askew.

Back inside I stood just inside the door and looked down the nave. The whole church is ridiculously massive. It is built as though someone had to get rid of a heck of a lot of stone. For a small area of worship the height of the church is more than one would expect, and the columns reaching up are deliberately built angled out towards the side aisles. It is all most odd.

There were no tourists. Julie and I had the place to ourselves. I guess virtually no-one knows about the place. But it is worth a visit for the curious.

By dark we make it to Ponteareas, which is close to the Portuguese border. All the restaurants are shut. Apparently they dont open till nine o’clock. However, we had passed one on the way in called Casa Pino that appeared to be open, so we double back.

The menu looks daunting. I order two starters, and wonder if that will be enough. I want to have local specialities so I start with a plate of mussels followed by gambas. A plate of mussels with chopped peppers and tomato is placed in the middle of the table. This is just an appetizer. It is quickly followed by empanadillas (pasties) containing tomato and squid.

The plate of mussels is supposed to be a starter. It contains 20 or 30 of them. And they are huge. I have never eaten such large fat ones before. They are cooked in a delicious sauce, which I spoon up with the shells.

I am beginning to flag by the time the second starter turns up. It is a plate containing about a dozen enormous prawns. I order more wine. I am drinking a rather fine house white.

The price of the meal comes to £16, or thereabouts. I think I am going to have to move down here. I lean back in my chair thinking what a wonderful world it is. When it comes to the bill I find to my horror that they dont accept cards. Apparently that is not a problem, I can come back tomorrow and pay. There are obviously no tourists in this part of the world. How nice.

When I pass by a year later I naturally call in. Sometimes that can be a mistake, but not on this occasion. I shall be returning many more times. This is a very special part of Spain.

To read more about My Travels Around Spain, have a look at my online book.

Galicia-1

Towards Galicia the land becomes flat, and the fields run down to the sea’s edge. The port of Ribadeo, on a rather fine estuary, was obviously once a rich port. It now looks washed out, but the town hall is a rather fine building with an amazing roof, and a cupola supported by four angels. The main windows contain stained glass. The secret would seem to be next door: the customs house. Presumably a lot of useful dosh was made from import duties. But I have no guide book to enlighten me.

There’s a big house right on the cliff edge of town just waiting to be returned to a fine dwelling.

It is beginning to get dark as we cross another range of hills towards Corunna. All across the north I have been reminded of Austria, with the way the roofs are built, and the way the wide steep valleys fan out around one.

The further we get, the more the language seems to slip into dialect. Great chunks of Spanish words are missed out. La Coruña becomes A Coruña. Los becomes os, and so on. Ciudad becomes cidade. The language is morphing into Portuguese. As we cross the watershed a wet red sunset fills the western sky above the city, and we descend into the early evening dark.

The weather is dull damp and boring. There are clouds everywhere, threatening rain, but the Corunna penninsular is really beautiful.

There are lots of little coves in amongst the estuaries. I must come back in finer weather and explore. I would think spring here would be wonderful. Everywhere is a strange mixture of plants. It’s as if the seasons are all muddled up. We have the leaves dropping in sudden lurches under an erratic gust of wind. And in one street there is a line of camelias just coming into flower. There are geraniums still blooming, date palms are laden with thick dates, and the ferns are going rusty on the hills.


There are a couple of interesting properties which intrigue me. One is the old army barracks. And round the corner is an abandoned church overlooking the cove below.


There are ruins in amongst the wooded hills overlooking the rias (estuaries). They would probably cost a fortune to redevelop.

Everywhere in these estuaries are platforms, which apparently consist of a series of drums linked together by wooden planks (young trunks of eucalyptus trees), which are strapped to the drums, with decking on top. These platforms are simulating rocks, so that mussles will grow on them. From these structures dangle ropes, on which more crustacia are encouraged to grow.

Of course, whenever we stop for food I go for the absolutely amazing shellfish. They are huge and delicious, and cheap.

We drive on down to Cambados, with its 11th century church and square, and a group of Spanish tourists with guide. This is a charming town, which boasts the official title of Most Noble Town, and the guide books boast about the white wine that is made locally. The town certainly does have a kind of stateliness in its architecture, and obviously boasts an important past.

A festival is held on the first Sunday in August based around the Albariño wine. The grape is noted for its distinctive aroma, very similar to that of Viognier, Gewurztraminer and Petit Manseng, suggesting apricot and peach. The wine produced is unusually light, and generally high in acidity with alcohol levels of 11.5-12.5%. The thick skins and large number of pips in the grapes can cause residual bitterness.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Albariño vines could be found growing around the trunks of poplar trees and in bushes along the outside margins of a field. When grown in a vineyard, the vines need to be wire trained with large canopies to accommodate the 30 to 40 buds per vine that is typical.

We stayed the night in a small town overlooking one of the rias. The next day we drove down to Santiago de Compostella to look at what lay at the end of one of the most famous pilgrimages of the middle ages. But that’s another story.

Cantabria

Cantabria

As you move towards Santander you cross into Cantabria. Things will be very different from now on. You are entering a largely rural, agricultural area. The countryside is green with hills and valleys, small coves, pretty towns, and picturesque harbours.

There is a new motorway which goes from the frontier right the way to Oviedo, but there is no need to take that. This is an area that cries out for a slow erratic meander.

Back in the sixties I wandered all around this area on foot. I stayed with families who housed me, and often fed me in return for me reading stories from books about the lives of the saints, and over the years I have been back many times to this friendly and simple part of Spain.

Just west of Bilbao the little town of Castro-Urdiales sits by a small sheltered bay, with some old houses, but very little to show that the town was first built by the Romans.

Further west is the inlet at Barcena; ideal for the sailing enthusiast. Further still you come to the bay of Santander. The town is new, clean, open, pleasant, friendly, and not too busy. The harbour shelters a port at which the Plymouth ferry docks most of the year. But the interesting towns lie even further west.

One of the most interesting and picturesque is Santillana. It is an old town, and was obviously a place with pretensions back in the middle ages. The houses are quaintly bent, the stone is warm and attractive. The upper floors have their walls rendered and painted white. The windows are of dark stained wood, and so are the balconies, making for a very attractive street-scape. The entire town is a national monument and living museum of a medieval 9th century village.

One other attraction is the family escutcheons which are set into so many walls. Here, everybody seems to have been an hidalgo. The word stands for someone with a pedigree. The word is an amalgamation of the words ‘hijo de algo’, son of someone (of importance).

There are charming restaurants, a quiet town square surrounded by sixteenth century houses, each with its wooden balconies, and massive stone walls. Beyond is the gently undulating countryside of small fields and grazing cows. But the main attraction is under the fields: the caves of Altamira, which you can no longer visit. However, you can visit the museum, which has a representation of the caves. So you can see copies of the famous cave drawings of bison.


12,000 years ago the area was inhabited by Stone Age man, and the caves are covered in black and red drawings of bison. Unfortunately a build up of white mould, the result of people breathing in the caves, led to the deterioration of the paintings in the fifties and sixties, and the caves were re-sealed.

Further along the coast is the town of Comillas with its large university building on the hill. This is now lying disused, and seemingly abandoned. It is, like so many official buildings in Spain, large, solid, and forbidding, more like a prison with a flashy frontage.

Further west are salty marshes where the trees have died, leaving white stumps sticking up from the shallow water behind great dunes of sand.

If you turn inland you are immediately engulfed by the steep rocky defiles of the Picos de Europa. They are snow covered in winter. Another twist and a turn and you are in a mountainous maze with only a tiny patch of sky visible above. There are no houses here. There is no room to build. Then you turn another double bend, and there, right by the side of the road, its back against a massive cliff, is a three storey house. What crazy person lives here with the road beside his window, the rock crowding his back, and the river roaring just below the road?

Another bend, another twist, another rough sentinel standing ominously on a hairpin bend, and the road opens out. The valley must be 150 yards wide. There is obviously plenty of room for a village, and the street is lined with houses. What do these people do? There isn’t even room to graze a goat in these mountains. There is certainly nowhere to grow anything.

We are right on the border between the two provinces of Cantabria and Asturias. Asturias is one of the most rural of Spain’s provinces, with only a couple of large towns up on the northern coast; Oviedo, the provincial capital, and its port of Gijon. The rest of the province is deeply rural.

The gorge is narrow, with rock lurching up on all sides. You wind around and around until you reach the village of La Hermida, which is a few kilometres along the gorge, and gets no sunlight from November to April. There is no land to cultivate, and no industry except for the occasional hotel and bar, but the village is a respectable size, and seems to be thriving.

Once thru the village you are immediately back in the defile of precipitous rocks. But as you approach the town of Potes the valley widens considerably, and the town sits in the middle of a mini-plain which is set right in the centre of the Picos.

Potes is a charming, alpine-style town which is the centre for walking and climbing trips in the Picos. It dates back to before the middle ages, and there are several old wooden houses and many twisty narrow streets only large enough to take a loaded donkey. There is a bent and crumbly eleventh century church, and a large medieval tower.

The town sits astride a deep gorge, with the river tumbling along the bottom. There is even a medieval bridge across the river, and just beyond the huddle of houses the alpine fields with sheep and cows. It is a charming country idyll, and a homely town.

The bars sell a raw-tasting cider, something akin to farmhouse scrumpy from Somerset. Even I found it a bit hard to take and I am used to scrumpy. It’s very much like the home made scrumpies you can get, many of which are sold too young and hence are rather raw, and so they give your stomach a hard time.

Outside some of the bars you will find a strange contraption fixed to the wall. The idea is that you buy a bottle of this cider, take it outside and fit it into the pump; push the plunger, and some of the contents are sucked out of the bottle and squirted into a glass that you have set in the holder at the bottom.

This area is mainly national park country. Here’s an extract from a local guide book:

“Parque del Macizo de Peñacabarga, which includes within its borders the Cábarceno karst, a spectacular reddish geological formation, encompasses a nature park with partially free roaming animals. The Parque Natural de Oyambre is a scenic park amid marshes and meadows with the Picos de Europa mountains as a backdrop. This is the place where the most diverse ecosystems co-exist. The Parque Natural Saja-Besaya sits between the basins of these two rivers and preserves considerable forests of beech and oak trees, where animal species threatened with extinction such as the brown bear and golden eagle can still be found. The Reserva Natural de las Marismas de Santona y Noja is a nature reserve around one of the most valuable estuaries ecologically in northern Spain. There are regularly more than 80 species of birds in the marshes .The Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa, a national park containing the highest peaks in the Cantabrian mountains, has elevations exceeding 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) and landscapes of long narrow canyons and deep valleys.”

This would be ideal country to buy somewhere that you could live in yourself and rent out to tourists. There is skiing in the winter months, mountain climbing all year, and it is ideal for walking holidays from early spring till late autumn, with a summer season based around the coast. It must be the only part of Spain which is not over-subscribed with places to let.

I’d forgotten how much I like this area. I must go back this autumn.

john