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

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.

Hiking England’s oldest road

England is an old land where you can drink in the same pubs as the Crusaders did and watch a play in a Roman theater, so it’s a rare treat to touch or experience anything that can legitimately boast of being the “oldest.”

The Ridgeway Trail in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in southern England just might have the claim of being the country’s oldest road. The 87-mile route runs along a chalk ridge from the fantastic megalithic complex of Avebury northeast to the River Thames. People were using this as a road all the way back in the Neolithic 6,000 years ago and perhaps even earlier. Various tribes left their mark in the form of megalithic ruins, forts, and enigmatic chalk figures. There were many of these “ridgeway” routes in prehistoric Europe, allowing travelers to bypass the thick woods and primeval swamps that covered much of lowland Europe at that time.

While not as scenic or rugged as other National Trails such as the one that runs along Hadrian’s Wall, the Ridgeway still makes for a pleasant ramble. B&Bs and campgrounds dot the route so you’ll never have to worry about where to stay, as long as you reserve ahead of time in the peak season. Another big plus is that you can see the trail’s two greatest prehistoric sights, Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse of Uffington (pictured here) in a long day hike.

The day hike starts in the pretty little village of Bishopstone, a short taxi ride from the railway stop at Swindon. Signs point you up the steep hill overlooking town and onto a broad field that narrows and ascends to the Ridgeway proper. From there head east, and it’s easy sailing from then on. There are no great changes in elevation, just some gentle swells.

Once you’re on the Ridgeway, it’s only five miles to the White Horse, but two miles along there’s a road heading south that takes you to the old stately home of Ashdown House and its grounds. Hidden in the forest is Alfred’s Castle, attributed in local folklore to King Alfred the Great, who defeated the Vikings nearby in 871. In fact it’s a hill fort dating to the about the 6th century BC. Hill forts were settlements or refuges enclosed by ditches and earth palisades. They tended to be on high spots to make them easier to defend. There’s not much to see of the old earthworks here, but the birds tweeting in the branches makes this place a good spot for a picnic. The detour is two miles each way plus another mile or so of wandering through the woods.

%Gallery-84894%Back on the Ridgeway, it’s not long before you reach Wayland’s Smithy. This megalithic tomb was built about 5,500 years ago in the Neolithic, the last phase of the Stone Age. A low, narrow passageway of stone slabs leads to three burial chambers set inside a long earthen mound. Archaeologists believe it was the burial place for an important chief and his family. It’s similar to West Kennet Long Barrow at Avebury. Like West Kennet, Wayland’s Smithy is completely open and you can explore the entire tomb, as well as pick up trash left by less respectful visitors. The place is named after Wayland, an old Germanic blacksmith god a bit like the Roman Vulcan. Local folklore says if you need your horse shod, you can leave it and a silver coin here overnight and the god will do the job for you!

After Wayland’s Smithy the ridge becomes more exposed and you get broad views of the lowlands to the north. Soon you’ll come across Uffington Castle, a hill fort that’s much easier to see than Alfred’s Castle because it stands on a high, treeless promontory. On the hillside nearby is one of England’s most famous monuments–the White Horse of Uffington. This horse, drawn in the Celtic style, was made by cutting off the topsoil to reveal the white chalk underneath. Nobody knows exactly how old it is or its original form since it’s been recut numerous times over the centuries, but most archaeologists agree that it dates to the same time as the hill fort, the 7th or 8th century BC. A recent excavation, however, suggests the horse may be a few centuries older.

The White Horse is fascinating to see up close, but there’s no good way to see it in its entirety. The photo attached to this article is an aerial shot for a reason! Only when you walk down the ridge and towards to village of Uffington to take a bus back to Swindon will you see the horse as it was meant to be seen–from the valley with Uffington Castle next to it. Back in the day it must have been a powerful symbol of the local tribe’s dominance over the region.

The entire walk from Bishopstone up to and along the Ridgeway and down to the village of Uffington is about seven miles, plus another five or so for the Alfred’s Castle detour.

Three points to remember. The path can get gooey in parts if there’s been a recent rain, so be prepared. Also, sources of water are scarce along much of the trail so bring a full day’s supply. Finally, rural bus service tends to be poor in England. Plan ahead with the schedules. I got to the village of White Horse at 4:10 PM, just in time to miss the last bus for the day, so I ended up having to hike another five miles to Faringdon to catch another bus. My legs weren’t happy, but it did give me a chance to see the White Horse from a distance.