Like a true Madrileña, for my August holidays, I escaped the oppressive heat of Madrid. Instead of fleeing the country, or going to my usual beachy hangout on Spain’s Costa Tropical (Nerja), I headed North, to some of Spain’s best-kept secrets: the regions of Asturias, Galicia, and Cantabria. Unlike San Sebastían and País Vasco (Basque Country), the more popular travel destinations of the north, these three regions see very few international tourists. They are truly Spain’s hidden gems.
This was not my first trip to the North of Spain as I have dear friends from both Galicia and Cantabria. On several occasions, they’ve proudly shown me their corners of Spain from a local’s perspective. But I had never been to the north in the summer when it is (sometimes) possible to swim in the Cantabrian sea, while the weather is much cooler and milder than the rest of Spain. With the complete freedom of being a solo traveler, and with a rental car for total flexibility, I spent ten blissful days in Asturias and also visited Cantabria and Galicia again.
Many of my clients, especially repeat travelers to Spain, are looking for unique trips off the beaten path in. Thus, I recommend and I customize itineraries to the North for them! A world away from Andalucía, the cities of Madrid and Barcelona, and the southern coastal areas that most travelers see when they visit Spain, the provinces of Asturias, Galicia, and Cantabria offer travelers a totally different view of Spain. There are so many things to love about the North, but here are a few of my favorites:
The Sea – Spain is (practically) surrounded by sea. With nearly 3100 miles of coastline, there are all sorts of different beaches and sea views. But the northern coast is special. With so few crowds compared to some of Spain’s other coastal regions, it is still possible to find hidden beaches. Even in the summer. And even the beaches that are more popular and crowded don’t have a fraction of the crowds as the beaches on Costa del Sol or Costa Blanca. Aside from lazing at the beach, the coastline is beautiful in these parts. There are many great coastal hikes, some which follow portions of the Camino de Santiago (the North Coast Camino). Parts of this area are referred to as the Costa Verde (green coast), and it won’t take you long to figure out why.
The Mountains – Had enough time on the coast? Need some cool mountain air? The mountains are right by the sea here. In fact, you can spend a morning hiking in the mountains and a lazy afternoon relaxing on a beautiful beach. Asturias’ and Cantabria’s Picos de Europa are a designated national park. The drive there takes you through various small mountain towns, notably the cheese making area (see the next item) of Cabrales. Further west, the remote Somiedo Nature Park offers postcard-like views of Asturias. For something very totally different, in Leon, very close to the border with Galicia, Las Médulas look like they belong in New Mexico or Arizona. Asturias is nicknamed Paraiso Natural (natural paradise), and it certainly lives up to that name too!
The Food – Ask just about any Spaniard or Spaniard wannabe, and they will tell you that the north is home to Spain’s best food. This is no lie. It is a little-known secret, but Spain produces some of the best cheeses in the world, well beyond the typical manchego. And the north is where so much of this amazing cheese comes from. From creamy, smooth Nata de Cantabrico from to Asturias’ pungent, strong, veiny Cabrales from Asturias to Galicia’s tetilla, named for its shape (not to mention my personal favorite), and so many more, the north is where queso lovers everywhere must visit. And this is still Spain, so there is plenty of meaty variety like fabada found on every menu in Asturias (a stew with beans and chorizo). The Cantabrian version is called cocido montañés and is, according to my dear friend from Santander, “way better” than fabada. Yay for regional pride. Hardcore carnivores love cachopo, an Asturian dish that consists of ham in between two pieces of veal with cheese on top. And being on the coast, the seafood is top notch. Anchovies are a Cantabrian specialty, and if you’re looking to try Spain’s famous pulpo (octopus), Galicia has the best. Don’t fear fellow vegetarians! You will appreciate the abundance of Pimientos de Padrón in Galicia, especially in the summertime. The north has something for every palate. (Full disclosure: I am a vegetarian, but my meat eating friends swear by the deliciousness of the meaty food in the north)
The Drink – … And it’s not only wine! Cantabria is famous for its brandy-like Orujo. In Asturias, you won’t find cervecerias (beer bars) because this is the land of Sidra. Look for Siderias instead; they’re everywhere. Made from apples that grow in the area, part of the fun is watching how they pour the Sidra – it is a true art form (and one that I learned in a local dive Sideria just outside of the regional capital of Oviedo). And this still Spain, so of course there is wine. Spain’s famous winemaking region Rías Baixas is in Galicia and produces my favorite white wine, albariño, amongst others. The north has it all: hard alcohol, their own cider, and plenty of wine.
The People – I always say the locals make (or break) a region or a country, And in this case, the Northern Spaniards add even more beauty to their stunning landscapes. A more reserved than people areas further south, Galicians, Cantabrians, and Asturians are friendly, hospitable, helpful, and eager to show off their gorgeous homeland. True story: While trying to find a smaller beach in Asturias, I turned down a road which my map said led to the beach. But it turned out to be an absolute dead end with no space to properly turn around. It didn’t help that the road was extremely narrow and had walls on both sides. My only choice was to back my rental car up nearly a half kilometer. Driving in reverse isn’t my forte, and the idea of having to do it in a rental car that I did not want to destroy was terrifying. But thankfully not one but three older locals saw that I was stuck helped direct me in reverse. The debacle took about 30 minutes and once I was safely turned around I thanked them profusely. They were impressed by my Spanish and I was impressed by their patience to help a stupid guiri who took the wrong road. If not for them, I would have surely been making a claim on my auto insurance. All over the north, I find people to be absolutely wonderful. It is no surprise that some of my closest Spaniard friends are northerners.
Convinced? Is the north of Spain calling your name? Want to road trip through the North of Spain like I did (minus the wrong turn on the dead-end walled road)? Let’s talk. I can help you plan it all out, from the minor details of reserving your car (or helping with alternative transportation if you don’t want to drive) to the major life-changing details of where to find the best cheese. I love designing customized, off the beaten path itineraries for trips to Spain and would be happy to build one for you too.
My name is Karen & travel is not only my passion but also my profession.