Green Spain: Exploring Iberia’s Celtic north

Green Spain, Cantabria, Santander
When people think of Spain, they tend to think of a sun-soaked, dry land with a hot climate and beautiful beaches. For the most part that’s true, but Spain’s northern region is very different and equally worth a visit.

Spain’s four northern provinces are often called Green Spain. From west to east, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country are a verdant strip between the North Atlantic/Bay of Biscay and a chain of mountains that traps the rain. Lush, with a mild climate and rugged coastline, it feels more like the British Isles than Iberia. Indeed, the old Celtiberian culture that existed before the Romans has survived more here than in the rest of Spain. You can even drink cider and listen to bagpipes!

I’ve covered the Basque region in my series Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque Region, so let’s focus on Green Spain’s other three regions.

Cantabria is the smallest region of Green Spain, but packs in a lot of fun. Santander is the main city. I’ve been here for the past three days lounging on the beach with my wife and kid. The weather has been warm but not too hot, and the water cold but bearable. I actually prefer these beaches to the jam-packed tourist hellholes of Benidorm and spots on Costa del Sol in the south. Fewer drunken Englishmen, more space. More risk of rain, though, which is why I’m inside today talking to you folks.

%Gallery-127797%Like the rest of Green Spain, Cantabria has a rugged coastline you can follow on a series of trails. Jagged rocks break the surf while far out to sea you can watch freighters and tankers sail off for distant lands. Picturesque lighthouses dot the shore at regular intervals to keep those ships safe, like the one on Cabo Mayor pictured above, an easy stroll from Santander. The currents and tides make this and the Basque Country good spots for surfing, but wear a wetsuit!

If you go inland you can hike, ski, and rock climb in the towering mountains, many of which reach higher than 2,000 meters. Lots of little villages lie nestled in the valleys, where you can sample local produce and relax at outdoor cafes watching the clouds play over the peaks. Prehistoric people were attracted to this region too. The Basque Country, Cantabria, and Asturias have dozens of caves with prehistoric paintings dating back as much as 20,000 years. The most famous is Altamira, which is temporarily closed to visitors, but many more caves are fully open. There’s something deeply moving about standing in a cool, dark chamber and playing your flashlight over some paintings of bison and shamans left by your distant ancestors.

Asturias is bigger than Cantabria and famous for its cider. Alcoholic cider, that is. Personally I think Asturian cider is the best anywhere, and there’s some tough competition in England and Galicia! Many brands of Asturian cider are only available in Asturias. I can’t even get them in Madrid. The Asturians claim that cider doesn’t travel well over the mountains, but I think they’re just keeping the best for themselves!

Galicia is a bit different than the rest of Green Spain. Sticking out from the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, it gets the full blast of Atlantic winds. It’s even more rugged, with more amazing views. A big draw here is the Santiago de Compostela, where the Cathedral of St. James has been a pilgrimage center for more than a thousand years. It’s the destination of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James) a network of pilgrimage routes across Green Spain. Some trails start as far away as France, and they all join together eventually to make their way to this holy cathedral where St. James is said to be buried.

Hiking is big in Green Spain. If you don’t want to walk all the way from France to Galicia, there are plenty of shorter trails and day hikes. If you’re more interested in what’s under the land than on top of it, the Picos de Europa in Asturias and Cantabria have some of the best caves in the world. I’m not talking about the homey caves of prehistoric Spaniards, but massive labyrinthine networks of tunnels reaching more than a kilometer into the earth. If you’re not a dedicated spelunker, take heart. Every guidebook lists “show caves” you can go to with the kids.

This is just a quick overview of what northern Spain has to offer. You’ll be getting more from me in coming months about this fascinating region because we’re moving up here in September. If you have any specific questions, drop me a line in the comments section and I’ll try to turn your questions into day trips and posts!

Hiking through Spain’s Basque region

Basque
Most tourists who visit Spain stick to the central and southern parts of the country–Madrid, Granada, Seville, Barcelona, and the Costa del Sol. They generally skip the greener, more temperate north. If they head north at all, it’s to stop in Bilbao in Spain’s Basque region to see the Guggenheim.

Yet the Basque region has much more to offer. In Spain, it’s an Autonomous Community, something more than a province and less than a country. The Basques have never had their own nation but have a fierce sense of independence. With a distinctive culture and unique language, as well as a deep history and beautiful landscape, the Basque region rewards those who want to see more than the usual Spanish sights.

I’ve joined Country Walkers to hike through Spain’s Basque region and even pop into the Basque region of France. Every day I’ll be hiking through a different part of this varied landscape, meeting farmers, priests, chefs, and historians, while sampling the local cuisine. That’s the sort of tour Country Walkers offers: hikes every day, and then plenty of local cuisine and wine to get rid of the bad effects of all that unnecessary exercise.

%Gallery-123934%The first day’s hike starts at Retes de Llanteno, a village so small it doesn’t even have a bar. Anyone who has been to rural Europe knows exactly how small that is. It does have a lovely little church, however, with a bell tower covered in curling vines. As we unload our gear an old man standing by the road asks Josu, one of our Basque guides, where we’re headed.

“The Tower of Quejana,” he says. “We’re taking the old mule track.”

The old man looks surprised. Nobody uses that track anymore, and in fact Josu had to go along the trail a month ago and hack away the vines.

“My father used to use that track,” the old man remembers.

Josu explains to us that mule tracks used to connect villages, but in the age of the automobile that intimate connection has been lost. People are more likely to drive to the nearest big city than visit the next village over. He’s reopening the tracks in the hope of restoring that connection, as well as attracting hikers.

The rains and rich soil have covered up most traces of his work. We duck under branches and trip over creepers. The woman in front of me stumbles, sending a thorny branch thwapping into my face, then she slips and undercuts my feet. We both end up in the mud. I pick myself up and start to remove ticks.

Soon we’re through the woods and climbing up a steep, open field under a blue sky. The contrast with the dark, damp forest couldn’t be greater. We keep climbing, up and up, until we reach a high promontory with a sweeping view of the valley below in three directions. We’re only ten miles from the sea, and I think I can detect a salty tang to the cool breeze.

This was a Celtic hill fort during the Iron Age, before the Romans conquered the region. A double set of walls protected perhaps 300 people, and its position ensured a good view over the entire region. Forts like this are found on hilltops all over Europe. I visited a Pictish hill fort very much like it in Scotland.

“See that far mountain peak?” Josu says as he points to a distant summit, “That’s Anboto, a mountain sacred to Mari. She’s an old goddess who’s very popular with the Basques.”

The Basques may still honor an ancient goddess, but they’re good Catholics too, as we discover when we explore the hilltop. Little porcelain figures of the baby Jesus and Mary are preserved under glass bowls, left as offerings by devout hikers.

Another mile or so over rolling hills and we come to Josu’s home, where his wife Begonia has prepared a huge lunch of local cheeses, chorizo, freshly baked bread, and vegetables. There’s also a generous amount of txakoli, a sparkling white wine for which the Basque region is famous. Light and refreshing, it’s a good wine to drink while taking a break from a hike.

“People talk about the slow food movement, with all the ingredients coming from local sources,” Josu says with a shrug. “We just call that Basque food.”

This is hardly unique to the Basque region. One of the joys of traveling in Spain is trying out all the local specialties. Village butchers often have game shot the day before, restaurants in small towns serve vegetables taken from the back garden, and every region seems to have its own wine.

Stuffed and a bit buzzed, we put on our packs and head out to our goal–the medieval convent and fortress of Quejana. It was built by Pedro López de Ayala in the 14th century. He ruled the local area with an iron hand, and became famous as one of the pioneers of the Spanish language when he wrote some of the first poetry in the language. He also wrote a veterinary manual for birds and was an adviser to both Castilian and French kings. The alabaster tombs of he and his relations grace the interior of the chapel, and a soaring church with a grandiose gilt altar stands close by.

A climb up the tower that defended these lands gives a good view of the surrounding countryside. The green hills and thick forests are so unlike the common picture of Spain. The tower gives some insight into more recent Spanish politics too. During the 1970s the tower was crumbling. The government was still ruled by General Franco, the Fascist dictator who was the victor of the Spanish Civil War. Franco showed a rather medieval attitude to the Basques and is the cause of many of the political tensions today. He gave money for the tower to be restored, but the top part was rebuilt not as it would have looked when Pedro lived there. Instead, it was rebuilt to look like a Castilian tower.

In this part of Europe, you can’t get away from politics even at a historic site.

This is the first in a new series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.