Hope you’ve had a good summer – it’s great to be back on the Sofa after the break and I’ve spent the last couple of days fine-tuning an autumn programme featuring brilliant authors and some really interesting and original books. But it’s not always just about books here, so the new season kicks off with a post on our recent trip to northern Spain, split between Cantabria and Asturias the first week and Galícia, in the northwest corner, for the second half.
‘Green Spain’ is completely different to the stereotypical image of the country and although popular with Spaniards for good reason, it’s largely off the radar of overseas tourists in search of guaranteed heat and sun – we barely registered any other foreigners outside the city of Santiago de Compostela where the camino pilgrimage ends. My hastily brushed up Spanish (my children also speak it) proved really useful and came as a surprise and a relief to the locals who don’t have much call to speak English. I love the language and as always, being able to communicate adds so much to the experience. People were generally very friendly towards us, a rather conspicuous quartet of giant outsiders, and I received a number of maternal compliments on the handsomeness of my tall blond sons!
I was in my early twenties when a Spanish colleague told me about the Picos de Europa mountain range near her home town of Oviedo, and had been wanting to go there ever since. We’ve been to Spain a few times over the years and have always had a great time, starting with three weeks travelling around by train in 1990. That was the only time we’d spent more than a week there and back then we were a broke young couple staying (literally) in fleapits where you had to pay extra for a cold shower. You need your own transport to cover the areas we visited this summer and it’s more accessible than it used to be now you can fly direct to Asturias (Oviedo) airport halfway along the north coast.
We spent our first day in the beautiful city of Oviedo, not a place of unmissable sights but of historic buildings, narrow streets and atmospheric plazas full of people relaxing on café terraces (beer seems to be regarded as a soft drink in Spain). Serving rough local cider from a great height – either manually or from various weird contraptions – and splashing most of it on the ground or the table is a big thing in Asturias, although the one time we tried it we weren’t that convinced. There’s a lot to be said for the Spanish rhythm of life, which suits me better than my one back home. After an exceptionally frantic few months we arrived exhausted and had no trouble at all adjusting to a routine of getting up late (9 hours sleep most nights!), eating lunch at 2 or 3pm, dinner at 9 or 10 and staying up until at least midnight. You’re never in a rush and you actually have time to do things between meals.
Once we’d collected the hire car we headed straight for the Picos, which are only a short drive from the coast. In the mountains, moving around is a slow business on very windy roads – there are no road passes across the range so it’s best to use one of the three main centres catering to visitors as a base. We stayed four nights in a beautiful chalet style hotel just outside Potes on the eastern side, in the Liébana Valley in Cantabria. I didn’t realise when I booked, but this valley apparently has a Mediterranean microclimate, different vegetation and more reliable weather. Northern Spain, especially Galícia, has a reputation for rain and low temperatures – the forecast was stuck on 19 degrees and grey before we left – but apart from two days we had the most glorious hot weather throughout the trip, probably the bearable edge of the serious heatwave going on in the rest of Spain. We couldn’t believe our luck.
We’re not serious hikers but went for a 2-3 hour walk every day and the scenery was breathtaking. The highlight of the Picos for us was taking the cable car ride from Fuente Dé, in perfect conditions that more than justified 57 euros and a 3.5 hour wait (luckily you didn’t have to stand in line – we spent most of it drinking coffee on the shady terrace of the parador down the road). This delivers you to the heights of the central massif of Los Urrieles and despite the huge crowds at the bottom, like most places we visited, there was a profound sense of tranquillity at the top (the sheep picture captures it), and trails which mortals wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. One of the reasons I love travel is the way you can recall the state of mind that went with places which made a real impression – I’ll be mentally returning here when in need of some head-clearing serenity…
We took an inland route when moving on from the Picos, staying overnight in the pretty town of Ponferrada. For the second week in Galícia we rented a modern house by the sea in a place called Sada in the Rías Altas area, near the big city of A Coruña. Galícia has a lot in common with Brittany and Cornwall in its culture (it has its own language, similar to Portuguese), wildness and westerliness; the rías, a kind of fjord, are a key feature of a coastline as spectacular as any I’ve seen – in such gorgeous weather bits of it reminded me of Big Sur in California and Australia’s Great Ocean Road. After a week in hotels it was great to have our own place and especially to be able to cook for ourselves, although in culinary terms we got it the wrong way round. The exchange rate is so abysmal that eating out the first week was not only disappointing but horribly expensive, without a vegetable in sight – I’m not a big carnivore and vegetarians were finding it a challenge.
Galícia was a very different story, with some of the best fish and seafood – spicy octopus is a speciality, which we liked, although we had to politely decline the offer of goose barnacles (percebes) harvested at great peril from the cliffs when the waitress brought us a few uncooked to the table. We did sample local cooking a few times alongside all the big salads and pasta dishes we made ourselves, sitting out on the terrace until late with a glass of Rioja or the excellent local whites made from the Albariño grape.
I really fell for Galícia and wish we’d had longer there. You could spend years seeking out deserted beaches and soaking up all that natural beauty (it would be bliss to stay for six months to write my next book). It’s not all about the coast either – we spent one idyllic afternoon in the ancient Atlantic forest of the Fragas do Eume, one of the woodland areas home to endangered species not found anywhere else, with spectacular views of a large reservoir from the highest point. One day it would be great to go back and explore the Rías Baixas on the west coast north of Portugal – it looks stunning but was too far to drive.
When we vacated the house, we took advantage of the bank holiday weekend to see a few of the standout beaches along the north coast mentioned in this piece in The Guardian: ‘Cathedral Beach’ near Ribadeo in eastern Galícia (photo below), where we stumbled across a simple restaurant with a menú del día of dreams, Cabo Busto in Asturias, where we stayed overnight, with far-reaching views along the coast in both directions and finally Playa del Silencio, an unspoiled spot near the touristy fishing village of Cudillero. It’s hard to do justice to these places in words – the pictures do it far better (more at the very end)!
Tell me tales of your own summer travels, please! You can find my travel pieces on New York, the Côte d’Azur, Paris, Provence, West Coast of the USA, Malaysia, Sorrento, Barcelona, two on South Africa and more under the ‘Places’ menu tab.
Next week I’ll be sharing the traditional Verdict on my Summer Holiday Reading, including several Spanish titles in translation, a big name autobiography and a critically acclaimed novel – a real mixed bag, if I’m honest (and I will be…)
French Property News are kindly featuring my novel Paris Mon Amour in this month’s issue to coincide with the upcoming French Property Exhibition at Olympia – in addition to a very nice review there’s a competition to win one of three copies of the book.
Stunning pics! Glad you enjoyed it.
A friend just returned from walking to Santiago and has also been raving about the countryside. It’s not an area of Spain I’ve ever visited but you have me itching to take a look – just keep me away from winding roads though. I have no head for heights.
I’m sure you’d love it – I’m not one for twisty roads either but they are hard to avoid in this kind of landscape…
I visited this area briefly while on a cruise in 2010. I loved it and my children and I vowed to return one day for a holiday. You’ve inspired me to look into it for next summer!
Let me know if you want any tips! I feel like I’m working for their tourist board at the moment. The house we stayed in was perfect for a family and more relaxed than hotels.