Some things are best left to the experts, like pouring exactly 1 inch of cider from a bottle held high over your head into a waist-high glass. In Asturias, aspiring bar and restaurant workers have to practice with water for weeks before being let loose on paying customers.
It’s to keep the boss from going broke on all those dry-cleaning bills,” tour guide Ernesto Fernandez tells me as I admire the small port town of Luarca from its hillside graveyard.
“Look, that’s where I live,” he says, pointing to his house. “And here,” he adds, turning and pointing to the Fernandez family mausoleum, “I will find my final resting place – my grave with a view.”
Necrotourism is new to me, but people take a holiday marveling at cemeteries, and Luarca’s, full of white marble statues of angels, the Virgin and Christ crucified, makes the list of 10 Spanish cemeteries to see before you die’.
Down in the main square there is a sign on a self-service tap in front of a café that reads: “Sidra. Free.” Asturian cider is so cheap – €3 for a liter bottle – that many bars make it available for free to walkers (pilgrims) on the Northern Way of St. James, which runs through Luarca.
It’s one of the many picturesque towns I visit during a week-long east-west drive through “Green Spain” that starts in Cantabria, goes to Asturias and ends in Galicia. Up here on the breezy Bay of Biscay, where Seville families take their summer breaks to escape the sweltering heat – 25ºC is chilly compared to the 40+ to which they are accustomed – the landscape increasingly resembles Donegal the further along I travel, with flights of fancy, cliffs, lonely beaches and peaked mountains.
An hour’s drive from Santander, the capital of Cantabria, brings me to the fishing port of San Vicente de la Barquera, where the 13th-century fortress and Gothic church of Santa Maria set against the snow-capped Picos de Europa offer one of the most photographed sights in Spain.
San Vicente is the starting point for the little-known Camino de Lebaniego (www.caminolebaniego.com), which is only 72 km long and can be completed in three days. It may be Camino-Lite, but this inland hike, which takes pilgrims to the Santo Toribio Monastery near Potes, is very scenic, and hikers should allow a fourth day to allow time for photography.
Photography is not allowed in El Soplao Cave (elsoplao.es), but the millions of stalactites, stalagmites and eccentrics that defy physics – they grow sideways, which the greatest minds in science still can’t explain – leave long-lasting mental images in visitors’ minds.
Just outside of medieval Santillana del Mar, arguably Spain’s most beautiful town, lies the Altamira Cave (culturaydeporte.gob.es) with its 15,000-year-old ceiling paintings of wild bison had to be closed to the public in 2002. A cave was recreated next door and is now a world-class tourist attraction. It’s hardly Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but every Friday five lucky people drawn from a years-long waiting list present their golden tickets and are given a tour of the real chocolate factory.
In the coastal town of Comillas, no one needs to ask who came up with the quirky Villa Quijano. Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona, work on which began in March 1882, will be beautiful when finished, but the villa he designed for the super-rich lawyer Máximo Díaz de Quijano was completed in 1885 and has always attracted envious looks. Better known as Gaudí’s Caprice, it’s clearly influenced by Arabic architecture and oriental art, but one excited little boy nailed it when he said, “Look mom – the tower is made of Lego!”
Cantabria has delivered plenty of culture, and now it’s on to Asturias to join Ernesto in Llanes for a late-night seafood dinner at a small restaurant overlooking the marina. After breakfast the next morning, we embark on a full-day tour of the Principality’s coastal towns and villages, each of which rightfully claims the title of ‘Spain’s most beautiful’.
Luarca has a reputation for doing so, as does Tazones, Ribadesella and Colunga with its Jurassic Museum (a must-see if you’re traveling with kids; museojurasicoasturias.com), but Cudillero — a motley collection of pastel-colored shops and houses climbing up the steep gorge from the sea — gets my top mark.
The Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela, where I arrive the next day in time for a delicious cooked squid lunch at the Abastos food market, has a lot to offer foot-sore hikers at the end of their long Camino journey, but there’s really only one show in the City after emptying blister pads from local pharmacies.
The 7.30pm pilgrimage mass at the 1,000-year-old cathedral fills the place, with 1,200 people hoping to see the giant botafumeiro (censer) being swung from the ceiling by eight priests pulling on thick ropes.
It’s a centuries-old ritual with a practical purpose. In the pre-deodorant Middle Ages, pilgrims arriving at the cathedral to pray at the tomb of Saint James stank after months on the road to heaven, so the billowing clouds of herbal-scented smoke helped mask the stench. Disappointingly, my visit does not coincide with a scheduled “show” so instead I am treated to the intoxicating aroma of Deep Heat rubbed into hundreds of aching legs.
Pilgrims with money to burn can pay well in advance to see the Botafumeiro in action, but the privilege comes at a staggering price – up to €800. That’s a bit out of my budget as I’m faced with a hefty dry cleaning bill back home after several filling attempts at pouring my own cider in Asturias. Some things are best left to the experts.
Do not miss
Cathedrals Beach, with its soaring sea arches near Ribadeo, Galicia, is only accessible at low tide, but it’s worth the wait for a stroll. In summer you need a permit to access the beach, but it is free ascatedrais.xunta.es
Ryanair flies from Dublin to Santander and Santiago de Compostela. Britanny Ferries operates from Rosslare to Bilbao, which is an hour’s drive from Santander. The crossings last 27-33 hours with at least one night on board. ryanair.com; brittanyferries.ie
Tom has been a guest of the regional tourist offices of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia and the Spanish Tourist Office in Dublin. For more information on visiting “Green Spain” go to www.turismodecantabria.com, turismoasturias.es, tourism.gal and spain.info.
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/my-grand-tour-of-green-spain-from-cantabria-to-asturias-and-galicia-41888193.html My grand tour of “Green Spain”, from Cantabria to Asturias and Galicia