About-Spain.net - the alternative guide to Spain
Vineyards in Southern
Alava, near the border with Rioja.
Northern Spain stands out for two particular reasons. On the one
hand there is the fact that it is so little known to visitors from
on the other hand that it has so much to offer.
From the prehistoric heritage of the caves at
Altamira in Cantabria to the stunning architectural forms of Frank
Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; from the beautiful sandy coves and beaches
of the Atlantic coast to the arid hills and the vineyards la Rioja
in the south of the Basque Country....
this area is rich in contrasts, rich in monuments, and rich in places
to discover for those in search of the great
The top two photos on this page - a valley near the
coast and a vineyard in southern Alava
illustrate the diversity of this beautiful part of Spain.
Santander - harbour and city.
While quite a few travellers visit Cantabria,
just pass through. The port of Santander
is at the Spanish end of one of the direct ferry
from the UK, avoiding the long drive down through
France; and for those who do drive from France the
motorway along the north coast of Spain is an easy route
towards Galicia and northern Portugal.
A stopover in Cantabria is worth considering. Like the Basque country
to the east, and Asturias
to the west, Cantabria is a region where
mountains come down to the coast, a region whose climate is
tempered by the Atlantic ocean. This is one of the regions of "Green
Spain" where the summers are not too hot, the winters not too cold, and
spring comes early.
Almost half the population of
Cantabria live in the Santander
metropolitan area, meaning that the
rest of the region is essentially rural, with small towns. Santander is
a prosperous port city whose name has been taken worldwide by its most
famous company, the Banco de Santander, Spain's largest bank, and the
fifth largest in Europe.
Humans have lived in this area
since prehistoric times, and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Altamira
has one of the finest collections of paleolithic cave paintings. The
caves have been closed to the public since 2002 for reasons of
conservation; however as at Lascaux
in France, a replica cave
been constructed nearby.
Statue outside the spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
Basques were among the earliest inhabitants of Europe, and their
language is unrelated to any other European language. Remarkably they
have maintained their identity and their homeland since pre-Roman
times, meaning that today's Basque Country is not only one of
"historic" parts of Europe, but in many ways most distinctive.
Like Catalonia, the historic Basque Country, which the
Basques call Euskadi
includes areas on both sides of the Pyrenees – in France and Spain, as well as much of Navarre
to the east. And
while the French Basque Country is just part of the Pyrénées
Atlantiques department, the Spanish Basque Country is one of Spain's
fully-fledged "autonomous communities", or regions. It is also the
wealthiest region in Spain, measured in terms of per capita
The wealth of the Basque Country stems from its natural
and its industrial heritage. With its steep valleys, easy access to the
sea, and (by Spanish standards) abundant rainfall, the Basque country
of Spain was the home of the Industrial Revolution in Iberia; and while
deindustrialization has taken its toll, Bilbao
, the largest
city in the
Basque country, remains the third wealthiest city in Spain after Madrid
For visitors and tourists, the Basque
Country has plenty to offer, and its most visited attraction is the
in Bilbao, designed by Frank
and opened in 1997 as the focal point in the regeneration of
city's old docklands. The museum is recognised as one of the most
stunning buildings of the 20th century, and one of the world's leading
contemporary arts museums. A short walk south along the quays
is the Casco Viejo or old town, with its narrow
streets, squares, cafés, restaurants and shops and other museums.
The Basque Country's other major city is the port city of San Sebastian
(in Spanish) or Donostia
(in Basque), located just 20 km into Spain
from the French border at Irun. Though there has been a city here since
the Middle Ages, today's San Sebastian is mostly a 19th and 20th
century city, popular for its festivals; however the Parte
or Old Quarter, situated on an isthmus at the foot of Mount
Urgull, is older. Mount Urgull, dominated by the fortress of
Mota, offering spectacular views over the city, along the coast, and
into the interior.
La Concha beach in the middle of San Sebastian, from Mount Urgell and
.Indeed, it is the coasts of the Basque country that are its major
attraction; the Basque Country hills come right down to the sea, giving
the area a rocky coast characterised by steep cliffs, small seaside
villages and harbours, inlets sandy coves and
beaches many of them well off the tourist trail.
Most of the Basque Country is hilly or
mountainous, and after San Sebastian, the motorways in the
direction of Central Spain rise steadily through narrow valleys and up
to an altitude of around 800 metres, before dropping down to Vitoria /
, the capital of the Basque Country at 500 metres
level.. Vitoria, reputedly Spain's "greenest" city, has an old quarter
with attractive squares, old churches and museums, is also capital of
district, the drier part of the Basque Country,
which extends to the Ebro
valley and the border with the Rioja region.
The southern part of Alava, around the Ebro valley is itself a reputed
wine growing area, with some fine wineries to visit, including one with
a hotel designed by Frank Gehry (See Guggenheim museum above).
Other places, other sites
Historic narrow gauge train at Azpeitia
The Basque Country / Cantabria area is popular with hikers and
ramblers; in summer time the coastal strip is cooler than
inland Spain, and the sea is never far away. Along the coast, the Camino del
the coastal variant of the Compostella hiking / pilgrimage trail, runs
all the way from the
French border to the border with Asturias in the west, and then on
towards Santiago de Compostella, taking in spectacular coastal scenery
as it goes.
In the hills and along the coast there
are plenty more hiking trails, such as the Arcos de Llanegro
circuit at Lienda
on the Cantabrian coast northwest of Bilbao, and
some grulling high mountain trails in the Picos de Europa
on the border with Asturias.
Railway enthusiasts, or just
thouse in search of a bit of nostalgia, will find two attractions in
the Basque Country. The first is the Basque Railway Museum at Azpeitia
reputedly one of the best in Europe (Open April to November), where
visitors can enjoy a 5 km trip in an old train pulled by a historic
For longer journeys, Northern Spain as a
historic network of narrow gauge routes that actually connect with
French TGV services in Hendaye. In the San Sebastian and Bilbao areas,
the metre-gauge routes are an integral and modern part of the urban and
suburban transit networks. Elsewhere they offer bucolic trips through
the spectacular scenery not just in the Basque Country and Cantabria,
but as far as Leon in Castile, and Santiago de Compostella in Galicia.
Spain's most famous luxury train, the Transcantabrico makes the journey
once a week in each direction in the tourist season. The
trains are like moving luxury hotels, taking a week to travel from San
Sebastian to Santiago de Compostella, or vice-versa, with stop-offs to
visit the most interesting sites along the route.
However there's no need to pay thousands
of euros to enjoy a week of mobile luxury. Ordinary train services
operate two or three times a day in each direction along the coastal
route, so for example a day trip from Santander to the picturesque
fishing port of Llanes is easy to arrange. There is a daily train each
way between Bilbao and Leon. Take care if wanting to book. The narrow
gauge lines are run by FEVE, a parte of Spain's RENFE, but tickets are
not available from online booking sites including Trainline and Renfe's
own booking site. Try using these and - unless things change - you'll
either get no offer, or get a ticket on a normal Renfe route. Travel
blogs suggest that it's best just to turn up at the station and buy a
ticket. There are no reserved seats anyway.