~basque, cantabria, asturias: beginning a quixotic journey~

December 21st, 2008

Valle de Cabuerniga, Cantabria. A long, stately bull parade blocks the road.

Let’s begin by laying out the premise: for our honeymoon trip Alfonso and I set out to explore Spain and Portugal by car, covering 6000 km–aka 3,725 miles door to door–in 16 days, over Christmas and just beyond New Year’s Day. Good god woman! That’s madness! I hear you say. Indeed it was.


We began with this handicap–the automatic navigational bickering (though Ali later conceded I have become an expert map reader–I can get us out of any pickle, and on roads that don’t suddenly and repeatedly demand 30 euro (!) toll–which is a fact I am quite proud of), packing and unpacking and schlepping of suitcases (Alfonso-superhero), and likelihood that given the number of places we would visit and lay our heads–all of them unknown–some would be less than perfect. (see: heart-wrenchingly depressed Porto and flooded with drunken dudes Madrid).


Add to this a general lack of funds and the timing of an adventure over “the holidays” in a very Catholic country–necessitated by my husband’s job (timing, not Catholicism)–and well, it was a more challenging trip than usual. There were of course many magical surprises as well, but it was not without effort to stay open and seek them out, especially for the lady who got such a flu her nose was still peeling five weeks later.

Santillana del Mar.

Every trip has a theme, and this one was, “accept what is.” It was a trip to take it in, allow it to be, listen, learn. No amount of trying to mold it to the shape of expectation was rewarded, not once. To begin with, all painstakingly researched non-natural delights–museums, restaurants–were closed.

Santillana del Mar.

Only once before have I experienced this kind of travel, in Dublin this time last year. I had the same response then that we arrived at this time, eventually: have a good (maniacal) laugh. We simply gave over to the journey’s quietly insistent rhythm, finally taking a tip from national hero Don Quixote. We stopped tilting at windmills.

Santillana del Mar is known as The Town of Three Lies, as it is neither a Saint (Santo), nor flat (llana) and has no sea (Mar).

Our first day out we drove through the south-east corner of France and landed just on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, in Hondarribia. Through a fantastic promotion we were able to stay in several paradors–monasteries and castles turned 4 star hotels and dotted all over Spain. I cannot recommend these more highly–some are just incredible. Here is our view from parador number one, in a 10th century castle. We were in Spain looking at France across the water.

click on image to expand

Northern Spain is gorgeous. This and the southern most region were my favorite areas–city girl loves wilderness badlands every time. We began by driving along the coastline, stopping first at the cemetery of Comillas. Every trip (of ours) has a cemetery, and this was the one, day one. It was built within and on top of the remains of XVth century church.





The Angel was made by the Catalan sculptor Josep Llimona i Bruguera. The view of the sea from our perch and the light was lovely.

Carmona, Valle de Cabuerniga, Cantabria, Spain.


Further inland we explored the incredible Valle de Cabuerniga. The most interesting areas are the most remote, but these too give one an invasive feeling that is hard to dismiss. We stopped in Barcena Major but sailed past Carmona, Ali too spooked to get out and wander in someone’s tiny remote village uninvited. I was disappointed, but didn’t protest, I felt it too.


We saw an old man walking along the road wearing incredible shoes (if I had had two euro to rub together, I would have bought a pair instantly)—wooden Birch clogs that have sort of platform knobs, called Albarcas.

IMG_4621.jpgWe met horses, one of whom took a real liking to Alfonso.

Spain is second only to Switzerland as far as mountains of Europe go, and Picos de Europa are some of the most enchanting we’ve seen. Its jagged range divides the areas of Asturias and Cantabria. I wish I had filmed the experience of driving for miles down wind-y teetering roads, the mountain walls just pushing up with the force of the ages around us. It was fantastic and far more dramatic than these images show. The formations are epically tall and craggy and the valleys are quite dark and eerie. We loved it.

Picos de Europa, Asturias.

That night we stayed at another lovely parador in Cangas de Onís. In town we found a joint where as the only non-Spainards we ordered our first tapas. The Rioja, Queso Manchego and Gambas and garlic were shockingly yummy.


Santa Cueva de Covadonga, Picos de Europa, Asturias.

A good day.

One Response to “~basque, cantabria, asturias: beginning a quixotic journey~”

  1. […] the kids at home may recall, the premise of this trip was to cover 6000 km within Spain and Portugal in sixteen days. This meant an extreme […]

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