These are some of the places I visited in Northern Spain, in the Summer of 2003.
San Sebastián was celebrating semana grande and hosting an international fireworks festival. San Sebastián has a wonderful air of slightly faded grandeur about it. The balconies over looking the plaza mayor have numbers on them from when they could be hired to watch bullfights in the square below. The fun fair on Monte Igueldo is wonderfully old-fashioned with its Montaña Suiza and the Río Misterioso. There are great, sweeping beaches and there are dozens of bars, many serving wonderful tapas in the old town or parte vieja.
Castro Urdiales seemed slightly run down on first arriving but definitely grew on us. Apart from being a busy fishing port, it also has an impressive group of monuments: the castle-lighthouse, church and roman bridge formed a terrific backdrop to another firework display.
Because of all the fiestas going on, finding accommodation was proving rather difficult, but after much telephoning we found a place in Torrelavega. It being an hostal, (‘Puerta del Sol’) it had no reception on the ground floor, but on reaching the second floor, we were admitted to an amazing apartment, full of heavy, old furniture, mirrors, and fancy lamps. Our room had windows on two sides with medieval music pouring in from the street outside. The town was also hosting a festival of music and dance, including a terrific group called Luétiga who were joined on stage by a choir of shepherds in their clogs, belting out a song in Cantabrian dialect. It rained while we were there but our kind hosts lent us an umbrella and when we left the next day, presented us with local biscuits and a box of chocolates! Torrelavega is a fairly unremarkable town, we were just lucky to hit it when there was plenty of interesting cultural stuff happening and to have chanced upon some wonderful accommodation.
We then had our first ever stay in a parador! It was at Cervera de Pisuerga in the Picos de Europa mountains. The room was enormous and there were magnificent views of the mountains on all sides. The local town had plenty of old buildings and arcaded streets and was pleasant to stroll around. We also went on a fairly gentle walk, but this made us feel quite justified in sitting around at the parador eating the superb regional dishes and admiring the terrific view from the terrace for three nights before heading off to our next destination.
This was Potes in the heart of the Picos de Europa. a busy road passes through the town, but there were plenty of charming cobbled streets and picturesque views and the surrounding scenery was magnificent, including the spectacular Hermida defile on our way to our next stop.
Santillana del Mar is a wonderful medieval town and World Heritage Site. It’s a very popular tourist detination, but largely unspoiled and practically traffic free and it felt absolutely magical to be sitting outside the church at dusk, listening to the choir practising and watching a bat flying around the square… I also couldn’t resist chatting to the proprietor of the milk-and-sponge-cake shop that features in the BBC España Viva video! The hotel we stayed in (‘Solar de Hidalgos’) was like a museum: full of statues and suits of armour.
Finally we stayed in San Vicente de la Barquera on the coast and visited the castle and church despite more rain. There was a barrage across the river mouth because of the oil spill the previous November and in fact, we had seen evidence of the spill on a beach near Santillana, many miles along from the actual incident.
I thoroughly recommend visiting Northern Spain: the towns were fascinating, picturesque, the scenery spectacular and you not only could practise your Spanish, you had to!