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!

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.

Welsh lighthouse plans statue for local ghost

Caretakers of an historic 17th century lighthouse in northern Wales are planning to erect a statue to a famous resident–the ghost of a former lighthouse keeper.

Locals and holidaymakers have had numerous sightings of the man standing atop the old lighthouse, pictured here. He is described as wearing old-fashioned clothing and is sometimes seen quite clearly during broad daylight. The building has been locked and unused for a century.

Now Talacre Beach Leisure Group who own the building and the beachfront property around it, want to erect a stainless steel statue to the ghostly figure. Because the lighthouse is a listed historic building, they have to make an application to the local county council, who appear to be enthusiastic about the idea.

Hey, in these hard economic times, anything that helps bring in tourists can’t be all bad.

The ultimate vacation home: a lighthouse

Thinking of curing those recession blues by investing in a vacation home? Why go for the traditional beach-side bungalow or alpine chalet when you could get something a little more original?

Perhaps 76 acres of undeveloped beach and a famous lighthouse in the southwest of England would be just the thing?

Upton Towans beach in Gwithian, Cornwall, is up for sale. It was here that a young Virginia Woolf used to vacation with her family, and the broad beach and beautiful view of the offshore lighthouse are said to have inspired her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse.

The 86-foot tall Godrevy Lighthouse, pictured here, was built in 1858 after the SS Nile crashed into the nearby rocks and sank with all hands. It’s one of the most attractive lighthouses on the English coast and draws in thousands of tourists a year, who also stroll along the beach and surf in the rough waters.

Bidding for the land, which will benefit Hall for Cornwall theater, is expected to start at £50,000 ($81,000). The sale comes with a couple of conditions: the land must remain open for public use and it cannot be “developed” (i.e. ruined). That means visitors will still be able to enjoy this rugged stretch of Cornish coast and its literary associations.

So if you are looking for some real estate and you don’t want to wreck it, this may be the thing for you. You’ll have to get used to sleeping in a lighthouse, though.

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