Pulgarita traveled to...

A roadtrip in the North of Spain

Hey all! As I write this, I am getting ready to go on vacation to Norway, how exciting! I love summer to go to nature destinations and run away a bit from the heat. In 2015, I did the same, in a roadtrip to the North of Spain, also in the last weeks of August. This is an excellent way to get to know a part of Spain that is definitely not as famous as Madrid, Barcelona or Andaluzia, but features places of incredible architecture and natural beauty. Plus, most of the highways in Spain are free of toll, making this a perfect destination for a roadtrip. This roadtrip lasted for 10 days but I would recommend a full two weeks to do all this to make more nature activities in Picos de Europa. Anyway, this was a good way to know a bunch of places!

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Pontevedra

This city is a stop of the Portuguese Camino de Santiago and is very pleasant for walking, with very well kept narrow streets in the old town, stone houses, and a mix of gothic and baroque buildings. We also went to the Pontevedra museum, featuring the history of occupation of Galicia and also some paintings and sculptures from local artists. The admission is free of charge! We stayed here for only one morning.

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Pilgrim’s church in Pontevedra

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Santiago de Compostela

This is probably the most visited city in Galicia due to being the finish of the Caminos de Santiago, ending in the splendid Cathedral. These pilgrimage routes exist since the 9th century with the pilgrims wanting to venerate the relics of the apostole St. James, who is assumed to be buried here. You can also hug the statue of the apostole. Other than the Cathedral with the massive square, the city itself is very well kept and quiet for strolling with lots of narrow streets but there’s not much more to see in terms of monuments, despite a few smaller churches around. I had already been there in February and had gone to the Contemporary Art museum which is free of charge and also nice if you like this type of art. We spent there one afternoon and I think it’s enough to get a good taste of the city.

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Look at the pilgrims resting
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Main façade of the Cathedral of St. James. Photo by Pedro Martins

A Coruña

This city really surprised me! Spending one day here is super nice and my only regret is that we didn’t go to the beach, the day was super warm and the water is so clear. It must be really cold though. We started by going to the most famous attraction, the Tower of Hercules, a lighthouse that exists since the 2nd century A.D., believed to be the oldest in the world, despite several reconstructions. We had to wait a long time in the queue because only 20 people are allowed in simultaneously due to the fragile structure inside. The peninsula is also associated with Celtic mythology, since Galicia was also a Celtic kingdom, and has a compass showing the directions to all of the Celtic kingdoms. This area is windy but really beautiful! We also strolled around the sea promenade, the Old Town and the Maria Pita square with the Town Hall, and walked all the way to Mount of San Pedro but didn’t go inside the fortress.

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Photo by Pedro Martins
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Town Hall. Photo by Pedro Martins

Oviedo

The capital of Asturias is really surprising and nice! We stayed there for two nights and had one day to visit it. The first thing we noticed was the typical Asturian cider. You see the bartenders serving the cider with the bottle pouring to a glass from above the head. We thought at first it’s just show off but that’s a tradition. You have to drink the cider fast because it has less gas than the English one and it has a sour taste but it’s good to eat as well with traditional Asturian meals.

We went to the pre-Romanic churches on the Naranco mount, a little outside the city. The two churches (San Miguel de Lillo and Santa Maria del Naranco) must be visited with a guide. It’s worth it because seeing churches of this architecture is really rare.

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Church of San Miguel de Lillo
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Santa María del Naranco

In the afternoon we spent quite a long time in the stunning Cathedral of San Salvador, that contains relics such as what is said to be the Sudarium (the linen with which Jesus Christ was covered when he died) and the Cross of the Angels, a relic from the 9th century donated by Asturian King Alfonso II when he returned to the throne after being incarcerated in a monastery. The visit of the Cathedral is really convenient with the audioguide included in the admission price (7€).

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The foggiest photo of Cathedral of San Salvador you can find

We wanted to have an Asturian meal and had dinner at Tierra Astur in the Gascona street, known as the cider street. I had boar meat for the first time ever and it was great! And I think I ate enough cholesterol for the whole year.

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Gijón

We spent about two hours in this cute town by the sea. We were mostly in the city center but I loved the very colorful houses in the centre along the remaining parts of the city walls, the sculpture with what must be hundreds of cider bottles and the promenade along the beach and the port. We also tried to go to the Roman Baths but unfortunately they were closed on Saturday afternoons. It’s a good idea to plan your trip there around the opening times of the baths. This is also a great spot to get your Asturias souvenirs, we checked out a lot of shops with great variety of gifts.

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Picos de Europa

This was the ABSOLUTE highlight of the trip and we only regret not having managed to stay there longer! Picos de Europa is a group of mountains and the National Park spans three autonomous communities: Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y Leon. This is a paradise for lovers of outdoors activities, with several hiking trails, water courses for water sports and climbing points. We only stayed one full day in the Park and we entered it by the village of Cangas de Onis and stayed in houses in the nearby village of Soto de Cangas. In one day, even though I recommend much more, we had a taste of two very different sides of Picos de Europa:

Lagos de Covadonga – This place is so peaceful with the very green mountains, pure air, cows and goats walking around everywhere and a soft hiking trail that spans the two lakes, Enol and Ercina. The easiest way to get here is either by car or bus from Cangas de Onis. If you’re with a car, be mindful that you have to cross the access to the park before 8:30 AM. The road is quite steep and be prepared for lots of turns. In the road you can also stop in some viewpoints that offer stunning views of the mountains! In the base of the mountains you can also visit the Holy Cave of Covagonda, a Roman Catholic adoration site to the Virgin of Covadonga. It is said that the cave was important in the battle of Covadonga, fought in th 8th century, when Pelayo, who became the first King of Asturias, won against the Muslim invaders, and was dedicated to the Virgin by King Alfonso I. In the cave these two kings, along with other noble figures of Asturias, are buried.

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Garganta del Cares – This side of Picos is much more raw and gray but stunning in a different way. Unfortunately we only managed to do a very small part of the Ruta del Cares, a hiking trail along the canyon that river Cares forms. We did it from the side of the village of Poncebos, but a lot of wind, threats of rain and having arrived there quite late in the afternoon made it a bit too dangerous to keep going. We definitely wanted more and will try to come back to make the whole 11 Kms trail!

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Santander

We stayed one day in the capital of Cantabria and, while this was not our favorite because it doesn’t have as many interesting points, it’s still a nice city to stroll by. We went to Palacio de la Magdalena, in a peninsula in the same name, which is a stunning building that used to be a summer residence of the Spanish Royal Family. It is now a University and you cannot visit it inside, but strolling around the peninsula you still get great sea views and there is also a free mini zoo with sea lions and seals.

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Palacio de la Magdalena. Photo by Pedro Martins
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Can you see him?

Other sights that we visited were the Cathedral, with a price of 1€ to enter and with a guided tour in Spanish that was not very good. This Cathedral is not the best when we compare it to the Oviedo or Burgos ones, but it’s a good place to know more about the history of the city, which unfortunately suffered a huge fire in 1941 that destroyed the medieval buildings and the original Romanesque cathedral. In the end we also went to the Casino, which is located by the sea and in a very beautiful and classic 19th century building. I wasn’t very lucky, but two friends won 20€, not bad!

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Cathedral of Santander side view
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The Casino. Photo by Pedro Martins

Bilbao

This was a short visit of one morning to this industrial city in the Basque Country. It’s not typically beautiful and it has some interesting contemporary architecture. Apart from strolling around the estuary (formed by the convergence of rivers Nervión and Ibaizabal), it is worth it to take a look at the Athetic Club de Bilbao stadium, with all its white and red edges, the Guggenheim Museum and the Puppy, a statue of a puppy filled with flowers by Dutch artist Jeff Koons. Other thing that I found curious is that we found a Portuguese restaurant with several codfish menus but we had not been away from Portugal for that long to have a huge desire of eating “bacalhau” =D

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Athletic Club de Bilbao stadium
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Side view of Guggenheim Museum

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Azpeitia (Loyola)

This small town also in the Basque Country was also a short stop to visit the Sanctuary of Loyola. This sanctuary is dedicated to Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuist Roman Catholic religious order, who was born in Loyola and lived in the 16th century. He came from a noble family but, after suffering an accident in Pamplona, started reading religious books and changed his life, becoming the founder of the Society of Jesus in 1540. Pope Francis also belongs to this religious order. While the Jesuist order preaches the poverty vows of its members, the church is quite rich inside as a Baroque church generally is. Still worth to take a look if you’re interested in religious history!

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Pamplona

This city is known worldwide for the San Fermines, the party with the bulls where, every year, someone that decides to run alongside the bulls gets really injured. We went on a much calmer time but the route that the bulls make is carved in the floor of some streets. We went to a souvenir shop that takes photographs in a studio with fake bulls and even fooled our family thinking we had been running with the bulls. What I liked the most about the city is the neat and cozy streets, the fancy Plaza del Castillo, and strolling around La Ciudadela. Also make sure you eat some delicious “pintxos” (a small snack similar to “tapas” but on top of bread and pierced with a toothpick) like we did, unfortunately I didn’t registed the name of the place. I also expected that the bullfighting square would be very beautiful but unfortunately it was not the case, it’s very big but very simple and in concrete. Another interesting place to spend a day at!

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Photo by Pedro Martins
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La Ciutadela. Photo by Pedro Martins

Burgos

This city is a must see. The Gothic Cathedral is absolutely wonderful, with very complex ceilings and it also includes an audioguide with the admission price of 7€. Expect to spend probably about 2h there. Other interesting points are the Arch of St. Mary, which marks the entry point to the Old Town, the El Cid (Spanish hero) statue, Plaza Mayor and the Castle. If you’re into science, you might like the Museum of Human Evolution, that I also visited. It is related to the Sierra de Atapuerca findings of fossiles of four homininis. Two of the remains are related to the earliest known in Western Europe, dating back from 1.2 million years ago. In the museum there are also some areas explaining the evolution of species. The general admission is 6€ but with an European Youth Card the entrance is free of charge!

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Arch of St. Mary
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Cathedral of Burgos

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León

So this trip was almost closing! It was still time to spend a day here since afterwards we had to return to Portugal. It is a cozy city with lots of great shops and we visited the collegiate Church of St. Isidoro and the Pantheon of the Kings. The entrance if 5€ with a guided tour. One of the highlights of this place are the Holy Grail, which is believed to be the true Holy Grail (the cup Jesus Christ drank wine from in the Last Supper) and was brought to León in the 11th century. The other highlight is the Pantheon, with the well preserved frescoes in the ceiling that probably date back to the 12th century. 33 royal family members were buried in the Pantheon, but the remains of the bodies are assumed to be all mixed up because the Pantheon was turned into a horse stable by the Napoleonic troops that invaded Spain in the 19th century and the tombs were used to feed the horses. We also made a quick stop by the Parador, which used to be the Convento de San Marcos, an important Renaissance building in Spain. Fans of Gaudi and Barcelona will also like Casa Botines by the famous artist, which serves as headquarters of a bank.

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Casa Botines
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Real Colegiata. Photo by Pedro Martins

So that’s it! Unfortunately back then I didn’t take many notes from each place to make a more detailed post about each one, but I hope this fed you appetite to make a similar trip!

What are your favorite tips to visit the north of Spain? Let me know in the comments!

Cátia

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