Exploring northern Spain

Mountains, miracles ~ and much more than we can eat 

'Do Australians speak English?' We are asked this question not once, but three times over the several weeks we're on the Iberian peninsula.

Certainly, Spanish people are not fazed by English speakers. The British have used this country as their summer playground for as long as they've had holidays - but Aussies? Maybe not as often.

In fact we were as ignorant of Spain as it appeared they were of Australia. Time to fix that, we decided!

With our jetlag banished after a few days in Madrid (a full story about that coming soon) early on a Monday morning, we set off, pointing our rental car towards the north with just TomTom to guide us, and a hotel booking in Burgos, 250 kilometres away.

True to form we did not get very far before a small town, perched overlooking a river, beguiled us and we followed the twisting road until it dead-ended at a stone archway (see above). Buitrago del Lozoya with a 15th-century castle has a Moorish feel to it, but we were here for the fun, not history. 

Following the crowd of locals towards the cathedral, we discovered a Labour Day festival involving rose petals, the statue of a blue-robed madonna borne shoulder high, and heaps of fun and excitement for everyone.

With no idea what it was all about, for a few minutes we joined in too - a walk-on part as Spaniards - as joyful as they were.

After almost three of decades of intense travel writing - press trips with lengthy itineraries, tight schedules and little flexibility - we now love the freedom of our current independent travel. With nobody waiting for us, no expectations, we are free to pause at a roadside church, ankle-deep in spring daisies....

... or stop to admire an ochre and terracotta town sunning itself on a hilltop, as it has for centuries. We first catch sight of Pedraza, famous for its running of the bulls, from a curve in the road and pull over to marvel at its solidity and prominence. Today, tourist buses clog the perimeters, and people like us spill out to explore the narrow streets, but centuries ago, there would have been serious attempts to overthrow this important bastion.

To show how ignorant I have been about Spain, somehow I expected to find vast tracts of grasslands and bare earth: a sort of northern hemisphere South Australia, if you like.

I often refer to travel as "colouring-in the map". And it is true, for me. Never again will I think of Spain in a tame colourless way. Now, my memories are in technicolour - brilliant and lush - like this field (above) of canola (rapeseed), blooming against the snowy peaks of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the same range we had admired from Madrid the day before.

For colour you don't even have to find a garden. These roadside trees have a beauty of their own.

Friends who had visited Spain just months before us, had lent us their map with notes of the places they'd loved. Just a little further north, on the side road we had taken, looping to the left from the main Madrid-Burgos highway, we discovered one of those places: Sepulveda, a medieval town on a fortified rock, whose Romanesque church dates back to 1093AD.

Our planning was a little awry, though. Although it was Monday, our visit had coincided with the annual May Labour Day holiday and the town was pulsing with markets and events - and not a parking space to be found!

Oh well, we were already behind schedule, so we pressed on, with a mental note to see this place properly - next trip!


Pilgrim paths

Throughout Spain and Portugal, and many parts of Europe, the Camino de Santiago is well known. If you are observant, there are many small clues that will let you know when you are on this ancient pilgrim route: things such as a scallop shell worn on a cord around someone's neck or waist, or embedded in the footpath, denoting the direction a pilgrim should take.

In towns along the route, there are many places where pilgrims may stay for a reduced rate and dine on hearty meals to prepare them for the challenges of the next day's trek.

Pilgrims very quickly learn to recognise these places and anticipate a warm meal and friendly welcome, as well as a chance to share anecdotes about the road just travelled, and hear tips about the one ahead.

Each year, over 300,000 pilgrims make this important journey. Some take many months to complete the entire walk; others do one section each year; still others do a segment once and that is all. There are those who use it as an exercise or a show of endurance, but many more accept its spiritual benefits, believing it to be a way to spend time contemplating their lives and make decisions about the future. 

If you speak to those who are on the walk, or those who have returned, you will find that few remain unchanged in some way.



Burgos - more than just a cathedral

While reaching Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain is the final goal for pilgrims, there are many significant places along the various routes. The cathedral in Burgos is one of the finest and most elaborate in the world, but don't miss all the other things this city has to show visitors too.

This ancient city has been inhabited for over twelve centuries so it has acquired many wonderful treats to share with its visitors.

We visited Spain in early May and the plane trees were still getting ready for spring. These trees that line the riverfront walkway are pruned back at the end of autumn, so that in summer this will be a leafy arcade, sheltering pedestrians and diners at outdoor cafes from the fierce Spanish sun.

At the far end you can see the Arco de Santa Maria  one of the 12 medieval doors rebuilt by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, during the 16th century. It accesses the main square of Burgos. 

No matter what appetite you have for history and culture...a plateful of good food is always appreciated. This city may welcome pilgrims hungry for holiness, but it caters to all others too. Spanish cakes and pastries are among the best in the world. Go on, try one (or more)! Call it essential research. 

There are plenty of other places to eat, of course. Cafes serve light meals and when seen with these signs beside them will almost certainly provide an affordable meal for pilgrims who are passing through.

By lunchtime, many people are ready for some tapas. After all this is Spain! One day we found a place where all items were reduced to a Euro each - but only on Wednesdays and Sundays, we learned. Luckily it was Wednesday, and we had a great meal. The portions were small, as you'd expect with tapas, but this jamon bread roll with potato crisps was excellent.

When travelling we try to only eat the cuisine of the country we are in, but when we came across La Mafia in a laneway in the centre of town, and the breeze brought us the delicious aromas, well, what else could we do? After all, Italian food is everyone's cuisine now isn't it?

Not just a pretty pizza place, La Mafia was very special. Just look at the pizza we shared, Genoese, topped with pesto, mozzarella, pinenuts, raisins, roasted tomatoes and quail eggs.



The heart of Burgos

Later, our bellies full of pizza, it was time to enjoy visiting one of the world's greatest buildings. Whether you are an art or architecture aficionado, or come for spiritual - or any other - reasons, you will always remember this place.

Think you have a good head for heights? Then how would you like to be a 15th-century stonemason or glazier working up there on the spires, a mere 88 metres above the square.

Venture just a few metres from the square and you'll find signs like these - souvenirs for non-pilgrims. Real pilgrims would never add extra weight to their packs. Their reminders are the worn-out soles of their shoes, the scars from blisters and thorn scratches and even more so, their revised attitudes about life - and themselves.

This poor fellow, naked and maimed, typifies some of the early pilgrims who desperately tried to find even greater ways to show their deepest penitence.

From the outside, Burgos Cathedral (or to use its full name, The Cathedral of Saint Mary of Burgos) resembles so many others of its era. I am always fascinated by the humorous little extras that some creative medieval stonemason made the effort to create as a decoration for a spare archway or empty parapet. It appears that this fellow has picked up a thorn, and his only concern is its removal, oblivious to the thousands of tourists that pass him by each year.

When you travel in Europe, it is easy to be overcome by cathedrals. 'A cathedral is a cathedral' I have often muttered as we are led up the nave, into the side chapels (oohing and aahing appropriately) then, around the altar, into the crypt or gallery - and finally (of course!) the gift shop.

Should we explore this one too, given its hype of being one of THE great cathedrals in the world? We paid the money. We took the tour.

Inside we joined the other visitors, silently, respectfully following the marked directions. Some visitors used an audio set; we preferred to simply gaze and make our own assessments.

Come with us and see what you think....

This is just a tiny glimpse. Every time we thought we had seen the epitome of decorative mastery in one chapel (what would a mount to a cathedral of its own in another city), we were directed to another, more recent and richer in its style and finish.

Depending on your world view, this cathedral is either a massive and sincere tribute to God, or a folly; ethereally beautiful, or wasteful. Each visitor will come to their own conclusion.

Whatever your opinion, it would probably be in stark contrast to that of this poor penitent in the square outside. 


When considering Burgos, most people think of Saint James, the patron saint of the pilgrim route. However, this city also has a strong connection with El Cid, a nobleman and military giant who protected the area almost a thousand years ago. His body lies in Burgos cathedral under a marble slab, although we passed his coffin, here on display in a corridor in another part of the cathedral.

As you leave the square, look carefully and you'll again see El Cid featured, posing proudly directly over the arch of the Arco de Santa Maria.

As in many European cities, the young (and the young-at-heart - aka those who find walking too much) have an option for getting around this part of Burgos. Its route is not extensive, but it is bright and fun.

A quiet stroll after a cathedral tour is ideal. Alongside Burgos's river the Arlanzon, edged with gardens and flanked by trees ready to burst into bud any moment, this walkway is the best digestif after such a rich serving of early Gothic architecture.

Stone bridges at several places beckon you to cross the river and admire the cityscape from a different perspective. If you do the latter, you can be sure that you will see the cathedral's landmark spires from any angle. 



Towards the north coast

If  you like surprises, then Spain is the country for you. In Madrid, we had been captivated by distant snow-topped mountain views (who knew?). Yet there was so much more as we left Burgos to drive north to the shores of the Bay of Biscay. This tiny church near Masa, about thirty kilometres north, lured us to stop and contemplate its lonely position, facing the ranges we would soon pass through. 

As we drove on towards our destination for the night, Santillana del  Mar, we had some hints of what was ahead. Firstly, we were climbing, and occasionally saw villages tucked into valleys walled by cliffs.

In Tubilla del Agua, known for its rapids and waterfalls, we stopped for lunch at a roadside cafe and marvelled at cave-like houses built into the rock.

Our road followed the river Ebro gorge, in the shadow of massive threatening rock faces visited only by eagles and vultures.

Soon the trees became sparser, then replaced by poles on the roadside with measurements for when the snows came. Later there were no trees, just forests of wind generators.

In that afternoon's drive we saw a sampler of Spain's variety: all this, then green fields, stone fences, fruit trees in blossom, a lake and finally, horses, cows and donkeys with shaggy hides to outlast the cold season.

Santillana  del Mar is strangely named, because it is not on the coast, but it is nearer than another Santillana, south, and further inland. That is the only explanation we heard that made sense. Some call it the Town of Three Lies because there is no Saint (Santo), it is not flat (llana), nor by the sea (Mar).

Late in the afternoon we explored the car-free town that has given itself over to tourism, albeit in a relaxed and welcoming way.

Cafes and restaurants, hotels and apartments, tapas bars, souvenir shops galore, and some of the town's original landmarks such as the Collegiate Church of Santa Juliana (above). Dating from 870AD, it's obviously still also an attraction for the local youngsters.

Our destination for the night was a small hotel high on a hill in Ubiarco, a few kilometres north of Santillana del Mar. As with most of our trips I had booked on booking.com and was keen to see if Hosteria Fimar was as good as it seemed online.

It wasn't! It was much, much better.

Just look at this generous meal that awaited us at breakfast the next morning....and there was ham and cheese and bread and orange juice already on our table too. We rated it the best breakfast of the trip. 

Next day we headed off along the Cantabrian coast headed west now, captivated by fishing villages and tiny coves like this one, Playa del Santa Justa.....

...and sprawling beaches. Some call these waters the Bay of Biscay, others, the Cantabrian Sea.

Our destination for the day was one some friends had told us about, Gaudi's House (El Capricho) in Comillas. They were emphatic that we MUST take time to visit it.

From 1883-5, this project was one of Gaudi's first commissions to design a house, and it gave him freedom to interpret the mood of this sunny coastal area of Spain, and indulge many of his way-out artistic ideas.

The interior of this summer house is open and airy, taking advantage of the coastal breezes, and there are many porches that were planned so the owners could also enjoy the views of the town and countryside.



Picos de Europa

The Picos de Europa (literally, the Peaks of Europe) were yet another surprise to us. These mountains were the first landmark that Spanish sailors, centuries ago, would sight as they returned from their voyages of exploration. It must have been a great moment to see those snowy peaks on the horizon.

After spending the night in Oviedo we headed for these ranges, beginning our mountain experience in the small city of Cangas de Onis with its 13C Roman-style bridge (above) and a Victory Cross, the emblem of the Principality's war victory in 737AD. Memories are very long in these areas.

You are  not allowed to self-drive to the National Park so we boarded a bus at Covadonga which switchbacked up the narrow mountain road. These cows, seen through the bus's tinted glass, seem about as contented as they could be. And why not, with such rich grass - and that lovely view!

Once there we were free to hike around the area, enjoying dizzying views. As we stood at this lookout, high above the pastureland, the tinkle of cowbells drifted up in the clear air.

Walking trails and the many lookouts allowed visitors to soak up the jaw-droppingly splendid views of these mountains and hanging lakes.

Our visit in May had been short, but we could easily imagine how beautiful this area would be in other parts of the year too.



A glimpse of the Principality of Asturias

Oviedo is the capital of this ancient principality of over 10,000 square kilometres, which extends from Colombres in the east to Castropol in the west and Leon in the south.

Here the late afternoon sun lights up Oviedo's eighth-century cathedral.

The city is surrounded by glimpses of snow-topped mountains and is best explored as a 'walking city'. We stayed a night or two in Oviedo primarily so that we could visit the Picos de Europa and also the national park, so unfortunately we saw less of this lovely old place than we would have liked.

However, on this trip through coastal Spain, there was one piece of local culture that until now we had not been able to see; and it was something we did not wish to miss. This was our last opportunity.

The Asturias region is noted for apples, which are mainly used in cider production. The climate is perfect and the result is a drink with clear sharp flavours that are popular with visitors and locals alike. 

What we had heard about, but not seen, was a sidreria (cider bar) and, more specifically, we wanted to see the impressive way the cider is served - el escanciado - in which cider is streamed into a glass held over a metre away, spilling not a drop. This process aerates the cider, so that when it is served you should drain it all at once, before it goes flat. Order some tapas and join a noisy communal table and have a truly Asturian evening. 

As we travelled onward the next day, we passed many small coastal villages like this one, Rinlo, off the beaten track. Most of these places have one eye on the tourist dollar (of course!) but there is still plenty of local 'colour' to enjoy.

These buildings had us mystified, and there were many of them, so in the end we asked what they were for.  It turned out that they are barns to store produce which needs the be dried.



A Coruna

Our last destination before we headed south towards the Portuguese-Spanish border was this edgy and stylish port-city located on a western peninsula of Galicia. Although there's a history dating back to pre-Roman times, there is plenty of modernity here too.

A Coruna is like many Spanish cities, which means it is better to leave your car in a carpark and walk to where you need to go. The distances are not far and there is so much to see at every turn.

These eyecatching facades allow apartment owners sunshine and shelter on their glass-fronted galleries, while still enjoying the waterfront views. It is these that have contributed to A Coruna's nickname - Glass City.


A Coruna has a very busy working port and many large cruise ships visit here while on Mediterranean voyages.

Of great interest is the Castillo de San Anton, just along from the port. Its museum of archaeology has many exhibits, some dating back to prehistoric times.

And if I needed any more proof that Spain and I are on the same wave-length, then ice cream clinches it. Here is the uber-heathy version that usually had lines of customers snaking down the footpath. I found one even better, I think, near the port which served a white cheese and membrillo (quince paste) version. It was so very good, I went back the next day for a second one!

The city's main square, Maria Pita, commemorates a brave woman who helped foil Sir Francis Drake's attempt to capture the city in 1589. Today it is an ideal place for a sunny walk or to have a relaxed meal in an outdoor restaurant.

Quintessential Spain, sunny and relaxed.

There was one last place we had read about and really wanted to see before leaving A Coruna. The Tower of Hercules dates from Roman times and while it is not maybe the most aesthetically beautiful building, you have to excuse that. This lighthouse has been working since the second century AD.



Finally - Santiago de Compostela

In which Gordon has an impromptu audience with Her Majesty...

...and we experience some of the atmosphere of Santiago de Compostella, the climax to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims' Camino. This place has been their goal, the culmination of many nights spent on hard beds, the dozens of blisters, hungry days, sunburn and aching muscles for days and weeks. For some it may take years, as they add a little more distance each year, to their tally.

Now it is all over and they face returning to their home and families and former lives.

This, then, is the portal, the entrance to the cathedral, built in 1075AD.

For some, loved ones have come to meet the pilgrim, as in this tearful reunion.

Others cannot help but let the joy of conquering the trail show in their faces. You wouldn't know by looking at him, but this young man has an artificial leg and has just completed a 250km stretch of the Camino Way from Porto in Portugal.


Apart from relief and pride, so many other emotions pour out in this cathedral square. Fatigue and almost surprise at finally finishing, and the inevitable let-down of 'what now?' 

The chapel at the Welcome Centre screens wise sayings, such as this one, to help pilgrims reorient themselves back to daily life.

A popular Camino saying is: “Don’t come to the Camino looking for answers. Instead, come with an open heart and you may be surprised by what you find.”

After the short time we'd had, dipping in and out of the Camino Way and being inspired and humbled by the scenery and its people, we felt that this statement should be extended to Spain itself.

Espana - eclectic and surprising - poses so many more questions than it answers.


Gordon and Sally Hammond travelled independently on this trip.

Words: ©Sally Hammond

Pictures: ©Sally & Gordon Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond


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