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!

Photo of the day – Icelandic lighthouse

photo day icelandic lighthouse

Today’s photo of the day, taken by Flickr user Samer Farha, depicts an Icelandic lighthouse. Nothing speaks to the isolation of the ocean like a lighthouse. This one, taken in the county of Gullbringusýsla in the west of Iceland, is weatherbeaten. And while its bold red stripes may compensate somewhat for its worn state, the overwhelming sense here is of a place stranded at the end of the world.

Got an image of a lighthouse in your personal photo archive? How about another symbol of solitude upon which viewers will be able to project their every last instinct toward wistfulness? Let your fingers run–not walk–to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr and upload some sentimental magic. If we like what see we might just choose your melancholic image as a future Photo of the Day.

P.S. And if you do upload an image, be sure not to disable downloading on it. If we can’t download your image and resize it we certainly won’t be able to feature it.

Photo of the Day (9.12.10)

Who recognizes the subject of today’s Photo of the Day shot? Any guesses? This wild colored light show is actually the inside of a lighthouse, taken by Flickr user Theodore Scott. This is not your typical lighthouse photo, which is exactly what caught my eye. As you take your own photos, think about how you can get up close, inside or even underneath your photo subjects. You’re likely to capture a one-of-a-kind image that breaks with the usual “travel cliches.”

Have any great travel photos you’d like to share with the world? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

My own private Michigan

Labor day cometh–that final round of summer’s three 3-day weekends. Are you going anywhere special?

Honestly, I don’t know of a better time to travel. Most of the kids are back at school, ticket prices begin to drop, the air cools and the best parts of summer team up for one last hurrah: a lingering outdoor barbecue, a chance to go hiking in shorts, and a final dip in the lake that will last us ’til next spring. Sometimes I feel like Labor Day is meant for filling up on summer memories, an almost-pagan rite of preparation for the coming schedule of winter.

Labor day is also a time to go back to the places we love-to return to those most magical places we knew and loved as children. For me, that place is northwestern Michigan.

If Michigan is a left-handed mitten, the Leelanau peninsula sits right at the tip of the ring finger. It’s not really close to anything-five hours from Detroit and even farther from Chicago or Toronto. I remember it took a long time to get there–the best places do.

When you see them for the first time, the Sleeping Bear Dunes are unexpected, mammoth and impressive. A scientist might explain how during the last ice age, retreating glaciers dumped a few million tons of fine-grain sand in a long ridge. A little kid will tell you that it’s just this huge mountain of sand and that you can run and jump and fall down and not ever get hurt. These massive dunes form the steep-sloped shoreline of the Leelanau peninsula-the highest of which is covered with a wind-shaped mound of soft black sand.

Back when I was a kid, the black sand offered a boggling mystery and a bedtime story. Unlike the phony campfire Indian legends that get dropped on the heads of young innocents, the legend of the sleeping bear is legit. Chippewa tradition recounts the story of a mother bear swimming across Lake Michigan to escape a forest fire. Her two cubs follow behind but drown. The mourning mamma bear became the black-tinted dune and the cubs were transformed into the two sandy islets offshore: North and South Manitou.

When I was a boy, there were still heaps of black sand sitting at the top of the mountain-time has eroded much of the sleeping bear’s color away, though the dunes themselves remain. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore protects and preserves a 35-mile stretch of pristine beach from the kind of “development” that has ruined so much of our American coastlines. There are no radios on the beach here, no gas-guzzling dune buggies or gaudy sno-cone stands. All you have are the clear waves gently slapping the sand, the backdrop grassy dunes and blanket of green forest. Honestly, it’s probably the quietest place in Michigan.Climbing to the top of the dunes is tough work but well worth the unforgettable 360° view. Who knew that Michigan cool feel so exotic?–Like the Sahara pushed up against the Caribbean but dressed up in British Colombia’s vegetation.

. . . and you don’t hike back down from the sleeping bear dunes. Much better to tumble–running, leaping, cartwheeling-doing suicidal jumps only to crash your body into a cushion of several tons of the softest sand. Perhaps that’s the reason our parents took us there. The Great Bear Dunes offer over 30-miles of expendable energy.

Afterwards, the bravest and sweatiest go swimming in Lake Michigan, which is never warm in summer and pretty much solid ice in the winter. Still, nothing ever kept me from diving right in. Around labor day, the water might get up to the mid-60’s, which is refreshing enough to pull your chest into such a tight ball that you become aware that you do in fact have two lungs and a heart right in between. It’s cold, clear, clean water and it’s perfect.

The beachhead is soft and sandy but the bottom of the lake is covered with smooth, rounded stones that tumble with the water. Decades later, I still have several colored rocks collected from those Michigan beaches, including several petoskey stones-round fossils polished smooth by the waves and covered with a distinctly warbled hexagonal pattern.

Quiet nature is still master in this secluded shoreline of Lake Michigan. My only memory of anything manmade is the prominent Point Betsie Lighthouse, built back in 1858 when shipping was constant, as were shipwrecks. Still working, the lighthouse tower is exactly how you want your lighthouses-white and cylindrical with a black top hat, attached to a sturdy station house with a bright red gambrel roof. Interesting fact: Point Betsie is so the second-most photographed lighthouse in America (the first is Portland Head, Maine). That’s how picture-perfect it is.

You can still climb to the top of Point Betsie in summer, and like the dunes, the experience tattoos itself into one’s memory. Growing up, we used to rent the house next to the lighthouse, but nowadays there are plenty of affordable vacation homes and condos scattered in nearby towns further up the coast. Alas, Frankfort, Michigan is the closest civilization around—a town of a whopping 1,500 inhabitants who are all quite proud of their official title as Tree City, USA. (If you ever wonder what people should do on Arbor Day, visit Frankfort.)

Still, it’s the getting away from towns and cars that drives so many up to northern Michigan. Hikers can grab the daily ferry to North and South Manitou Islands and disappear off on their own piece of beach and forest. The camping, hiking, swimming and fishing on these islands has yet to be mass-produced-there are no crowds here.

For culture, take a day or an evening to visit the nearby Interlochen Center for the Arts–a kind of woodsy boarding school/summer camp that’s like Julliard, Tisch and Oberlin College all rolled into one (except with black bears in the woods). The evening shows in summer are spectacular, be it theater or an outdoor symphony. Even nowadays, if I am sitting in some grand theater before a performance–anywhere in the world–and I read in my program that some artist spent time at Interlochen, I feel a true affinity to that person They have shared this same corner of Michigan that I love and I feel a connection from this common destination.

I hope to make it back to Leelanau someday soon. Perhaps not this Labor Day, or the next, but someday. During the rest of the year, you’ll find me traveling all over the world, but on that one weekend when the government informs us it is time to rest from our labors–Well, I’ll choose Michigan.

Santander: a beautiful port in northern Spain

Yesterday we talked about some of the things to do while visiting Cantabria, Spain’s often-overlooked northern province. The best place to use as a base while touring Cantabria is the provincial capital Santander.

Santander is a port and owes its life to the sea. It has a northern bay and a southern bay divided by a thin peninsula. The southern bay is home to downtown, the port, and the popular ferry coming from Plymouth, England. The northern bay is more touristy along the shore, and more residential inland. Beaches stretch both to the north and south of town and if you don’t want to share the sand with bikini-clad Spanish women (or speedo-wearing Spanish guys) you can always walk for a bit and find an isolated cove to claim as your own. Be careful of the riptides, though. Inexperienced swimmers should stick to the main beaches in the two bays.

The water is pretty chilly but there’s steady surf that attracts surfers from all over Spain. It’s also quite clean considering that it’s so near a major port. If you’re not up to braving the water (which would be no challenge to the Alaska Polar Bear Club) you can sit in one of the many seaside cafes and sip some wine while watching the boats go by.

When asked what to do around town, every local told us to walk to the lighthouse at Cabo Mayor. It’s less than an hour’s easy stroll to the north of the northern bay. The rocky coastline is picturesque with strange geological formations, little beaches nestled between towering rocks, and windswept promontories with wide views of the sea and shoreline. The lighthouse is home to an art gallery dedicated to, you guessed it, lighthouses in art, plus a massive and somewhat obsessive collection of lighthouses on lighters, ashtrays, matchboxes, book covers, etc. Someone spent way too much time rummaging through junk shops for lighthouse ephemera!

%Gallery-96013%If you get a rainy day (and you will get a rainy day) your first stop should probably be the Museo Marítimo del Cantábrico, a fun and informative museum about the ocean. There are hundreds of ship models and a big display of fish, including a pickled squid, a sardine with two heads, and some weird deep sea beastie with glowing teeth that looks like it’s from an H.P. Lovecraft story. In the basement is a large aquarium teeming with sharks, manta rays, and other aquatic life. The terrace cafe offers a fine view of the port where you can watch the freighters go in and out.

Of course, the town offers the usual Spanish sights such as a medieval cathedral, a nice art museum, an archaeological museum, and a variety of bars and cafes. You won’t get the nightlife here that you would in Madrid or Barcelona, but you’ll get it a lot cheaper. A night out with five pinchos (appetizers), two rum and cokes, and a glass of wine came out to €19.50 ($24). The pinchos were delicious and large enough that they served as our dinner.

Local hotels are used to hooking visitors up with tour groups that can take you around the sights of Cantabria. You might want to get in touch with one of the many hiking groups too. Spanish trails aren’t always well marked, and with the unpredictable weather and high altitudes of some of the mountains, it’s best to go with a group.