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Last updated : Nov 2009
Northern Spain
Northern Spain -
This region comprises northwestern Spain and the northern coast stretching as far as the French border. The two outstanding natural features are the Cantabrian Mountains and the Rías Gallegas estuaries in Galicia. The highest peaks are the Picos de Europa (2615m/8579ft) in Asturias, favoured by climbers, walkers and wildlife enthusiasts. There are excellent beaches along the entire coastline, mostly of beautiful fine sand, often surrounded by cliffs and crags. Much of the hinterland, however, is green, lush and forested as the climate is noticeably wetter than in the south of Spain.


Galicia is a mountainous region with large tracts of heathland broken by gorges and fast-flowing rivers. The coastline has many sandy bays, often backed with forests of eucalyptus and fir, and deep fjord-like estuaries (rías), which cut into the land. The dominant building material is granite. Galicia has its own culture and language, gallegowhich is influenced by Portuguese and many of the roadsigns are in two languages.

La Coruña is one of the largest towns in the region and is said to have been founded by the Phoenicians. Since then it has enjoyed a tempestuous history.

The Armada set sail from here in 1588 and Sir John Moore’s British Army had to evacuate the town following an ignominious retreat from Napoleon’s forces in January 1809. Moore died in the encounter and is buried in the Jardín de San Carlos.

La Coruña’s most attractive feature is the Ciudad Vieja (old quarter) on the north spur of the harbour. Santiago de Compostela has been a centre of pilgrimage since the early middle ages and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The focal point for all visits is the Gothic Cathedral completed in 1188. Apart from the revered image of St James, it boasts a magnificent portico and crypt. For further information, see The Way of St James section.

The Roman town of Lugo is noted for having one of the finest surviving examples of Roman walls. Orense first attracted the Romans on account of its therapeutic waters. The 13th-century cathedral was built on the site of one dating from the sixth century. Pontevedra, is the region’s fourth provincial capital, is a granite town with arcaded streets and many ancient buildings. Further to the south is the important port of Vigo, the centre of a region of attractive countryside. A good view of the town and the bay can be had from the Castillo del Castro.

The Way of St James

During the Middle Ages, the tomb of St James at Santiago de Compostela was regarded as one of the most holy sites in Christendom and thousands of pilgrims travelled through Spain each year to visit the shrine. This route, the Way of St James, was lined with monasteries, religious houses, chapels and hospices to cater for the pilgrims. Many of these buildings still survive, and any traveller following the route today will find it an uplifting introduction to the religious architecture of medieval Spain. The route began in Navarre, at Canfranc or Valcarlos. From there, travelling west, the main stopping places were Pamplona, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga and Santiago de Compostela. The Saint’s feast day, 25th July (the duration of the festival is a week not a day) is celebrated in vigorous style in Santiago de Compostela and accommodation should be booked well in advance. There are several specialist books on the subject of this and other old pilgrim routes that may be followed, both in Spain and elsewhere in Europe.


This small, once independent principality is predominantly mountainous although there are also large parts which are forest. The resorts are known collectively as the Costa Verde on account of the rich vegetation.

Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, is an historic town with an outstanding 12th-century Gothic Cathedral. The Camara Santa has some impressive Romanesque wall paintings and other artistic treasures. Asturias has a remarkably rich legacy of Romanesque churches, several of which can easily be visited from Oviedo. San Julian de los Prados dates from AD 830 and is decorated with medieval frescoes. The Palacio de Santa Maria del Naranco was also built in the ninth century for Ramiro I as a hunting lodge. The chapel of San Miguel de Lillo is nearby. There are many excellent beaches along the coast, especially around the large fishing village of Ribadesella and Lastres.


The Cantabrian resorts make a convenient base for trips to the mountains. Cantabria and Asturias are important centres for skiing and winter sports. The main stations are at Alto Campo, San Isidro and Valgrande-Pajares.

Santander is a busy traditional resort located in a beautiful bay ringed with hills. The Gothic Cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1941, but has since been carefully restored. The Municipal Museum contains a fine collection of paintings by many 17th and 18th century artists. Close by are the fine beaches of El Sardinero and Magdalena. Santander hosts an impressive music festival during August. There are a number of smaller beach resorts to east and west of Santander including, Comillas, San Vincente (an old fishing port with a hill-top Gothic church and ducal palace), Laredo and Castro Urdiales (an attractive village with a fine harbour, overlooked by a medieval church and the remains of a Knights Templar castle).

The Caves of Altamira are decorated with wall paintings dating back 13,000 years. Note however that admission is strictly limited and advance applications are essential. 100 metres away is Neocuerva, a reproduction of the prehistoric original. Nearby is the well-preserved historic town of Santillana del Mar with buildings dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries. Solares is noted for the therapeutic qualities of its mineral waters.

The Basque Country (Pais Vasco)

Guipúzcoa, Alava and Vizcaya form the Basque provinces to the east of the Cantabrian Mountains. The economy of this fertile region is based on agriculture, despite having been highly industrialised in the 19th century. The Basques are an ancient pre-Indo-European race and the origins of their language have baffled etymologists for centuries. An independence movement started to make headway around the turn of the 20th century and the separatists still have a following in parts of the region. The Spanish constitution allows the Basques a degree of autonomy, but Nationalist politicians are demanding a greater say in their own affairs.

A large though declining port, Bilbao is the main city of the region. Bilbao was founded in the early 14th century and the Old Town is quite extensive with a Gothic Cathedral and an attractive Town Hall. Bilbao’s pre-eminent attraction is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, hailed as a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture. The vast exhibition spaces are given over to rotating exhibitions of modern art in all its forms. The Palacio Euskalduna is Bilbao’s new congress and music centre.

The provincial capital of San Sebastián, located very close to the French frontier, is one of the most fashionable and popular Spanish seaside resorts. Just 7km (4 miles) west of the town is Monte Ulia, which offers wonderful views across the countryside and the Bay of Biscay. The art treasures found in the 13th-century Castle of Butron, near Bilbao, are also worthy of note.

The third provincial capital of the Basque region, and also the regional capital, is Vitoria, famous as being the site of a British victory during the Peninsula War, an event commemorated in various places in the city. Vitoria is remarkable for having two cathedrals, one was completed in the 15th century, whilst the other, on which work commenced in 1907, has yet to be finished.