While the northern provinces of Cantabria and Asturias are popular holiday terrain for Spaniards and the French, they remain hardly touched by the mass tourism of the Mediterranean coast, mostly because of the somewhat unreliable weather. But the sea is warm enough for swimming in the summer months, and the sun does shine, if not every day; it’s the warm, moist climate, too, that’s responsible for the forests and rich vegetation that give the region its name, Costa Verde, or the Green Coast. The provinces also boast old and elegant seaside towns, and a dramatic landscape that features tiny, isolated coves along the coast and, inland, the fabulous Picos de Europa, with peaks, sheer gorges and some of Europe’s most spectacular montane wildlife.
Cantabria, centred on the city of Santander and formerly part of Old Castile, was long a conservative bastion amid the separatist leanings of its coastal neighbours. Santander itself, the modern capital, is an elegant if highly conventional resort, linked by ferry to Plymouth and Portsmouth in Britain. Either side lie attractive, lower-key resorts, crowded and expensive in August especially, but quieter during the rest of the year. The best are Castro Urdiales, to the east, and Comillas and San Vicente de la Barquera to the west. Perhaps the pick of the province’s towns, though, is the beautiful Santillana del Mar, overloaded with honey-coloured mansions and, at times, with tourists, too. Inland lies a series of prehistoric caves: the most famous, Altamira, is no longer open to the public but is explained by a great museum, while another can be seen at Puente Viesgo, near Santander.
To the west lie the towering cliffs and rugged coves of Asturias, a land with its own idiosyncratic traditions, which include status as a principality (the heir to the Spanish throne is known as the Príncipe de Asturias), and a distinctive culture that incorporates bagpipes and cider (sidra – served from above head-height to add fizz). Asturias has a base of heavy industry, especially mining and steelworks – and a long-time radical and maverick workforce – but for the most part, the coastline is a delight, with wide, rolling meadows leading down to the sea.
Tourism here is largely local, with a succession of old-fashioned and very enjoyable seaside towns such as Ribadesella, Llanes and Cudillero. Asturias also holds three sizeable cities: Oviedo, a delightful regional capital with a recently restored old centre; Avilés, at its best during the wild Carnaval celebrations; and nearby Gijón, which enjoys a vibrant nightlife and cultural scene as well as good beaches.
Inland, everything is dominated by the Picos de Europa, which in fact take in parts of León, as well as Cantabria and Asturias, though for simplicity the whole national park is covered in this chapter. A quiet pleasure on the peripheries of the mountains, as in Cantabria, is the wealth of Romanesque, and even rare pre-Romanesque, churches found in odd corners of the hills. These reflect the history of the old Asturian kingdom – the embryonic kingdom of Christian Spain – which had its first stronghold in the mountain fortress of Covadonga, and spread slowly south with the Reconquest.
22: Saint’s day fiesta at San Vicente de la Barquera.
Good Friday Re-enactment of the Passion at Castro Urdiales.
Easter Sunday and Monday: Bollo Cake festival at Avilés.
First weekend after Easter: La Folia Torch-lit procession at San Vicente de la Barquera; a statue of the Virgin Mary is carried through town on a fishing boat.
29: La Amuravela Cudillero enacts an ironic review of the year – and then proceeds to obliterate memories.
Throughout July Weekly fiestas in Llanes, with Asturian dancers balancing pine trees on their shoulders and swerving through the streets. Also, tightrope walking and live bands down at the harbour.
First Friday: Coso Blanco Nocturnal parade at Castro Urdiales.
Mid-July: Festival de Folk Cultural fiesta at San Vicente de la Barquera.
15: Traditional festival at Comillas, with greased-pole climbs, goose chases and other such events.
25: Festival of St James Cangas de Onis.
Throughout August: Festival Internacional Music and cultural festival at Santander. This being one of the wealthiest cities of the north, you can usually depend on the festival featuring some prestigious acts.
First or second weekend: Descenso Internacional del Sella Mass canoe races from Arriondas to Ribadesella down the Río Sella, with fairs and festivities in both towns.
First Sunday: Asturias Day Celebrated above all at Gijón.
12: Fiesta at Llanes.
15: El Rosario The fishermen’s fiesta at Luarca, when the Virgin is taken to the sea.
Last Friday: Battle of the Flowers At Laredo.
Last week: San Timoteo Fairly riotous festivities at Luarca: best on the final weekend of the month, with fireworks over the sea, people being thrown into the river and a Sunday romería.
7–9: Running of the bulls at Ampuero (Santander).
19: Americas Day In Asturias, celebrating the thousands of local emigrants in Latin America; at Oviedo, there are floats, bands and groups representing every Latin American country. The exact date for this can vary.
21: Fiesta de San Mateo At Oviedo, usually a continuation of the above festival.
Last Sunday: Campoo Day Held at Reinosa, and featuring a parade in traditional dress.
29: Romería de San Miguel At Puente Viesgo.
First or second weekend: Orujo Local-liquor festival in Potes.
30: San Andrés Saint’s day fiesta, celebrated with a small regatta at Castro Urdiales. The tradition is to sample sea bream and snails.
Asturian food is not for the faint-hearted, and it’s certainly not for vegetarians. The signature dish is fabada, a dense haricot-bean stew floating with pungent chunks of meat: black pudding, chorizo and ham. It’s served in a round terracotta dish, and you mop up the juice with the ubiquitous hunk of solid bread. Seafood is another feature, from sea urchins – particularly popular in Gijón – to sea bream and squid. The region produces a huge variety of handmade cheeses, most notably the veined and slightly spicy cabrales, which, in its purest form, is made with cow-, sheep- and goat-milk combined. Another variety is a small cone-shaped cheese, known as afuega’l pitu, which sometimes has a wrinkled exterior owing to its having been hung in cloth.
One sight you won’t miss is waiters and punters pouring sidra (cider) – which you can only order by the bottle – from above their heads into wide-rimmed glasses. The idea is that you knock back the frothing brew in one go. Since it’s a point of honour for the waiters to stare straight ahead rather than look at the glasses, and any residue that you don’t drink within a minute or two is summarily discarded on the floor, it’s hardly surprising the region seems to reek of stale cider.
Easily accessible by car but still appealingly rural, the coast east of Santander is becoming ever more developed for tourism. The best-known resort is Laredo, with its enormous beach, but lower-key alternatives include the fishing ports of Santoña and the congenial, handsome resort of Castro Urdiales, 20km east of Laredo and only a short drive west from the huge conglomeration of Bilbao.
Castro Urdiales retains a considerable fishing fleet, gathered around a beautiful natural harbour. Above this looms a massively buttressed Gothic church, Santa María, and a lighthouse, built within the shell of a Knights Templar castle. These are linked to the remains of an old hermitage by a dramatic reconstructed bridge, medieval in age, but known locally as the Puente Romano, under which the sea roars at high tide. The old quarter, the Mediavilla, is relatively well preserved, with arcaded streets and tall, glass-balconied houses.
The outrageously picturesque village of SANTILLANA DEL MAR is the first major tourist destination west along the Cantabrian coast from Santander. No less an authority than Jean-Paul Sartre, in Nausea, hailed Santillana as “le plus joli village d’Espagne”. The crowds that flock here in summer have unquestionably diminished its appeal, but on a quiet day it remains as beautiful as ever. Its cobbled lanes abound in gorgeous sandstone churches and mansions with flowery overhanging balconies, while the farms and fields that climb the adjacent hillsides give it a lovely rural atmosphere. Strolling is a delight, even if most of its ochre-coloured buildings now hold restaurants, hotels or souvenir shops.
Despite consisting of little more than two pedestrianized streets and a couple of plazas, Santillana feels more like a sizeable medieval town that never grew beyond its original core than a village. Its unusual name derives from a bastardization of “Santa Juliana”, whose remains were brought here 1200 years ago after she was put to death by her husband for refusing to renounce her virginity. Referring to its literal translation, the locals jokily call it the “town of the three lies” – as it’s neither very holy (santi) nor particularly flat (llana), and despite the del Mar actually stands a few kilometres back from the sea.
Many of the fifteenth- to eighteenth-century mansions clustered close to the Plaza Mayor still belong to the original families, but their noble owners have rarely visited in the last couple of centuries. Among the finest is the Casa de los Hombrones, on c/Cantón, named after the two moustached figures that flank its grandly sculpted escutcheon.
The Caves of Altamira, which burrow into the hillside 2km west of Santillana, consist of an extraordinary series of caverns, adorned by prehistoric human inhabitants around fourteen thousand years ago with paintings of bulls, bison, boars and other animals. Etched in red and black with confident and impressionistic strokes, and sealed by a roof collapse a thousand years later, the murals were in near-perfect condition when rediscovered in the 1870s, their colours striking and vigorous; as Picasso put it, “After Altamira, everything is decadence”. During the 1950s and 1960s, however, they seriously deteriorated due to the moisture released in the breath of visitors, and the caves are now closed to prevent further damage.
Alongside the site, the fascinating Museo de Altamira centres on a “Neocave”, a large and very convincing replica of a portion of the caverns that gives a spine-tingling sense of how the paintings look in situ. Comprehensive displays in the adjoining galleries trace human history all the way back to Africa, with three-dimensional replicas and authentic finds from Altamira and other Spanish sites, and plentiful captions in English. No one knows exactly why the Paleolithic art at Altamira was created, but according to archeologists it was not primarily related to hunting, in that the specific animals depicted were not eaten any more than other species
Genuine prehistoric caves can still be visited just outside the attractive village of Puente Viesgo, set in a river gorge amid magnificent forested escarpments on the N623 to Burgos, 15km southeast of Santillana or 24km southwest of Santander. Guided tours (in Spanish only) depart from an informative visitor centre located 1.5km up a winding mountain road from the village bus stop (served by SA Continental buses from the main station in Santander). Two of the four caves, 700 metres apart, are open to the public, Las Monedas and the slightly better El Castillo, but places are limited, and in summer it’s best to book at least 24 hours in advance. The caves are magnificent, with weirdly shaped stalactites and stalagmites, and bizarre organ-like lithophones, natural features used by Paleolithic peoples to produce primitive music, while the astonishing paintings, depicting animals from mammoths to dogs, are clear precursors to the later developments at Altamira. Should you be unable to find a place on a tour, the visitor centre has an excellent digital exhibit enabling 360-degree views and interactive “tours”.
The coast west of Santillana, as far as drab little Unquera on the border with Asturias, is dotted with a succession of small, low-key resorts. Both the main towns, Comillas and San Vicente de la Barquera, are worth a visit, having retained a traditional, earthy feel long since abandoned elsewhere in a flood of high-rise hotels and apartments. The FEVE line runs inland along this stretch, but the towns are linked by regular bus services.
Comillas, 16km west of Santillana del Mar, is a curious rural town with pretty cobbled streets and squares, which in its centre seems almost oblivious of the proximity of the sea. It nonetheless boasts a pair of superb beaches: Playa de Comillas, the closest, has a little anchorage for pleasure boats and a few beach cafés, while the longer and less developed Playa de Oyambre is 4km west out of town towards the cape.
The approach to San Vicente de la Barquera, 12km west of Comillas, is dramatic: marooned on both sides by the sea, the town is entered via a long causeway across the Río Escudo, the Puente de la Maza. Local lore maintains that if you manage to hold your breath all the way across the bridge, your wish will come true. Inland, dark green, forested hills rise towards the Picos de Europa, strikingly silhouetted as the sun goes down.
The town itself, a thriving fishing port with a string of locally famed seafood restaurants, is functional rather than pretty, with not all that much left of its historic core. If you’re looking for a beach, there’s a good sweep of sand fifteen minutes’ walk away, across the causeway on the east side of the river and flanked by a small forest.
A hot climb up from the modern town soon brings you to the remnants of the hilltop medieval town, which despite its intriguing setting and spectacular views turns out to be somewhat humdrum. At either end of the ridge, you’ll find an impressive Renaissance ducal palace (Tues–Sun 11am–2pm & 5–8pm; €1.40) and a sturdy Romanesque-Gothic church, Santa María de los Ángeles. The latter, at the highest point, holds a famous reclining statue of the Inquisitor Corro, born here in 1472.
Once you get into Asturias, the coast becomes wilder and more rugged, as it parallels the Picos de Europa just 20km inland. The FEVE line hugs the shoreline as far as Ribadesella, an attractive little fishing port, before turning inland towards Oviedo. Beyond Ribadesella, towards Gijón, there are fewer appealing towns, though the fishing village of Lastres makes a pretty stop.
Ribadesella, 18km west of Llanes, is an unaffected old port, split into two by the Sella river, and bridged by a long causeway. The attractive old town, crammed up against the hillside to the east, consists of successive, long stone alleyways, running parallel to the fishing harbour and bursting with great little bars and comedores. Freshly caught fish is still unloaded after midnight at the lonja and, although the catch is increasingly small, it’s fun to hang out in the bars and watch it being hauled in. In the seafood joints lining the harbour you can sample delicacies such as centolla (spider crab) and lubina (sea bass), as well as Asturian specialities.
Across the bridge to the west, ten minutes’ walk from the old town, the excellent town beach, Playa Santa Marina, is lined with the impressive nineteenth-century mansions built by returning emigrants who’d prospered in the Americas. The seafront itself is a pleasant pedestrian promenade.
Asturias’ easternmost resort, Llanes, is a delightful seaside town, crammed between the foothills of the Picos and a particularly majestic stretch of the coast. To the east and west stretch sheer cliffs, little-known beaches and a series of beautiful coves, yours for the walking. The three town beaches are small but pleasant and very central, while the excellent Playa Ballota is only 3km to the east, with its own supply of spring water down on the sand (and a nudist stretch). A long rambla, the Paseo de San Pedro, runs along the top of the dramatic cliffs above the western town beach, the little Playa del Sablón.
In the centre of town, a tidal stream lined with cafés and seafood restaurants runs down into a small harbour. In the old town itself, a tangle of lanes twists around a small hill to the west and tall medieval walls shelter a number of impressive buildings in various stages of restoration or decay, which include the Torre Medieval, housing the turismo; the semi-ruined and overgrown Renaissance palaces of the Duques de Estrada and the Casa del Cercau (both closed to the public); and the Basílica de Santa María, built in the plain Gothic style imported from southern France.
Determined to consign its gritty, industrial reputation to the past, the city of Avilés, 23km west from Gijón, has greatly cleaned up its act in recent years. Its arcaded old town, on the west bank of the namesake Ría de Avilés, is looking spruce, while immediately across the river the new Centro Oscar Niemeyer is an architectural showcase that sadly looks unlikely to match the impact of the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Carnaval, the Mardi Gras week of drinking, dancing and excess, usually takes place over late February and early March. In Spain, the celebrations are reckoned to be at their wildest in Tenerife, Cádiz and Asturias – and, in particular, Avilés. Events begin in Avilés on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, when virtually the entire city dons fancy dress and takes to the streets. Many costumes are veritable works of art, ranging from toothbrushes to mattresses and packets of sweets. By nightfall, anyone without a costume is likely to be drenched in some form of liquid, as gangs of nuns, Red Indians and pirates roam the streets. On Calle Galiana, central to the action, the local fire brigade traditionally hoses down the street, and any passing revellers, with foam, while a parade of floats threads its way amid the frenzy.
The festivities, which include live music, fireworks and fancy-dress competitions, last till dawn. It’s virtually impossible to find accommodation, but the celebrations continue throughout Asturias during the following week, so after a full night of revelling you can just head on to the next venue. Sunday is, in fact, a rest day before Carnaval continues in Gijón on the Monday night. Much the same ensues, and fancy dress is again essential; La Ruta is the place to be for the start of the night, with people and events shifting between Plaza Mayor and the harbour area till dawn. On Tuesday night, the scene shifts to Oviedo: the crowds are smaller here and events are less frantic, but a fair part of the city again dons costume. There’s a parade along Calle Uria, a midnight fireworks display in the Plaza Escandelera, and live bands in the Plaza Mayor. Finally, on the Friday after Ash Wednesday, Mieres, a mining town just southeast of Oviedo, plays host to Carnaval. Celebrations take place in an area known as Calle del Vicio, which locals claim contains the highest concentration of bars in the entire province.
The coast west of Avilés, as far as the Río Navia, is rugged, with scarcely more than a handful of resorts carved out from the cliffs. The most appealing are the old port and resort of Luarca, and pretty little Cudillero, a delightful, picturesque fishing port, squeezed so tightly into a narrow, corkscrewing valley 25km west of Avilés that none of its buildings manage to face directly out to sea. Nonetheless, the brightly coloured arcaded houses that rise, one above the other, up the steep horseshoe of cliffs that surround the port give it the feel, and appeal, of a Greek island village, and it’s usually thronged with visitors in summer. As you climb the twisting main street away from the water, the architecture becomes grittier, but the whole town still oozes character. There’s no beach here, however – the nearest is the lovely cove at Playa Aguilar, 3km east – so the most obvious attractions are the fish tavernas in the cobbled plaza just above the seafront.