An excellent spot to combine wine, coast and mountains, vastly underrated Northern Spain offers some of the best cuisine, landscapes and hidden gems in the Mediterranean…
I was always brought up with the English view of Spain – cheap beer, white beaches, high rise hotels and cringey cabaret acts to make your toes curl. If it wasn’t Benidorm, Magaluf or Ibiza, nobody talked about it. Yet, there’s a whole world of Spanish culture which remains untouched by package holidays. Places where there are snowy mountains and rolling hills and stoney beaches and flourishing wildlife as far as the eye can see. All along the northern coastline there are wonderful pueblos and tiny tapas bars to capture your heart and mind. And, if you’re lucky, they’ll fill you with a little of that latin soul too. Here are seven of the most incredible hidden gems that will turn that old English stereotype upside down, and show you what Spain is really like.
1. Zarautz, Basque Country
Zarautz is often overshadowed by its bigger, more famous neighbour, San Sebastian. But that shadow has managed to nurture one of Spain’s best kept secrets. The town is a tasting platter for everything the Basque Country has to offer. To the east, and a short climb up a hill, you’re at the gateway to wine country, with vineyards and rolling green hills as far as the eye can see. Come back down the same hill, head west and you’ll find yourself on a walk down nearly two kilometres of unspoilt white sandy beach. With hundreds of metres of space around you to relax and listen to the soft crash of the waves from the Bay of Biscay, this makes for a perfect getaway.
Once you’re all walked out, you can head to the little-known Plaza del Pilar to immerse yourself in hand-made local Basque cuisine. This plaza is designed for you to crawl from one place to the next, eating and drinking local Riojas to your heart’s content. The wine is big, the food is small and the culture is rich. What else could you ask for?
2. Markina Xemein, Basque Country
Makina Xemein sits beneath the watchful gaze of Mount Oiz, and is cradled in a valley that keeps it protected from almost every angle. While this village exists mainly for cattle herding and the mining of black marble, it shows you what real life for the Basque people is like – quiet, unassuming, full of celebration and built on a strong sense of community. There are two main reasons to visit. The first is to tackle the local hiking trails that take you through untamed woods to silent views of the valley, before enjoying a well-deserved rest at one of the many Pintxo restaurants. The second is to see Basque Culture first hand at one of the farmer’s markets and fairs, where you can hear the crackle of the local dialect carried through the air, alongside the smell of fresh wine and even fresher produce. Whichever you choose, you won’t be disappointed.
3. Santillana Del Mar, Cantabria
Santillana Del Mar is known to the locals as the town of three lies: there’s no saint (San), it’s not flat (Llana) and it’s not near the sea (Mar). But I’d prefer you call it by it’s other given name – Spain’s prettiest village. The entire town is perfectly preserved in medieval condition, so much so that after a few minutes absorbing your surroundings, you’re surprised to see a car and not a horse coming towards you. Where most places in this vain become tacky and tired, the charm here is timeless and immersive. Each corner your turn, every restaurant you visit and local you interact with enriches the experience here by adding a new, more exquisite, texture.
4. Luarca, Asturias
Luarca is an active port town located on the far edge of Asturias with just over 5,000 inhabitants. And it’s this small town, work-driven, feel of the place that makes it so attractive. While it’s considered a pleasure port for the Spanish, there’s little in the way of tourism from English speaking countries. Which always provides a much more cultural experience when you arrive, don’t you think? The main reason to come here is for the seafood – caught daily and brought into port, or so I was told by the local fisherman – which tastes divine. But the reason to stay is to stand at the end of the bay, first looking out into the ocean, before turning back a glimpsing the innocence of this quaint Spanish town.
5. Playa Catedral Del Mar, Galicia
Forget Benidorm, Malaga and Mallorca, this is the Spanish beach you need to see. Located on just outside the town of Ribadeo, Playa Catedral del Mar is a natural wonder to behold. This display of raw natural power and beauty has created immense rock formations that tower over you, and cavernous regions of rock you can lose yourself within. The stone arches, formed by the sea, are the main attraction. But even if you arrive when the tide is in and the arches are hidden, the surrounding beach – as you can see above – is still enough to add some perspective to your place in the world, and fill you with awe.
6. Mondonedo, Galicia
Mondonedo is one of the seven capitals of Galicia, and it’s by far my favourite location on this list. From the outside, this town doesn’t appear to be much. A normal Spanish city resting in the valley of the Cantabrian Mountains. But once you pass through the industrial suburbs, you find yourself amidst a Romanesque thirteenth-century paradise. The views of the mountains, the intricate architecture and the desire to keep alive the traditions of the past all culminate in what is one of the most beautiful places you will ever visit. And, if you’ve got a sweet tooth, the Tarta de Mondonedo is freshly made in the Pastelerias and is a local delicacy you’ll always want a second slice of.
7. Cape Finisterre, Galicia
Cape Finisterre was known by the Romans as The End of the World and as you stare out into the never-ending horizon of the Atlantic ocean, as the sun starts to dissolve into the sea, it’s easy to understand why. This town has become the unofficial endpoint for the Camino de Santiago, where pilgrims can avoid the crowds and take a relaxed walk after their (much longer) walk across the country. And, over the years, it’s become a hippy paradise that brings an entirely new flavour to a once forgotten fishing port. There is little the way of activities to do here, so I’d recommend taking a picnic, hiking up to the smooth stones behind this lighthouse, and watching the sunset, before taking the last bus home.