| 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.
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.
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
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.
Basque Country (Pais Vasco)
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.