Often overlooked in favour of the Mediterranean Costa del Sol, Spain’s northern coastline boasts not only classy seaside stops like San Sebastian but a verdant hinterland of farming country and the dramatic heights of the Pico de Europa. So if you fancy discovering a hidden cove or sampling the local vines of La Rioja, you can find a totally different side to the Spain of the holiday ads and package deals.
If it’s beaches you’re after, the province of Asturias has enough to rival the sun-blanched south, but here, rugged, natural shores are the order of the day. Many of the beaches are only accessible on foot and are often likened to the wild beauty of Cornwall or Ireland. To the east, the elegant port of Santander harks back to the golden age of the Victorian seaside, albeit with more pleasing temperatures and tantalising tapas restaurants.
Further inland, it’s the rural settlements that become the star of the show, with places like Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, a medieval village that might have been frozen in time, complete with stoney lanes and wooden balconies. Don’t miss the famous cave paintings at Altamira if you have a few days in the area.
If you’re up for the challenge, the eco-village of Matavenero lies to the North-West and is reached only by way of a footpath, but the 1000–metre altitude rewards intrepid travellers with outstanding views and a self-contained community that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘off the beaten track.’
Northern Spain also has its fair share of historic cities, but the distance from the main events like Barcelona and Grenada make places like Santiago de Compostela out of the way for some. With the native language of Gallego, it can certainly feel like another world but the incredible cathedral facade, museum culture and distinctive seafood – boiled octopus is a local delicacy – are not to be missed.
At the other end of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail, Logrono is another underrated Spanish destination, but with its riverside setting and prime location in the heart of the La Rioja region, this remains a mystery. Surrounded by good food, peaceful streets and the opportunity for some serious wine-tasting, Logrono definitely merits more than a stop-over.
Of course, Barcelona’s or Grenda’s appeal is not diminished by the influx of tourists (though the same might not be said of Benidorm), but it’s worth making some room in your itinerary for a trip up north.
With rustic villages, historic cities and cheap flights all-year round, northern Spain is long-overdue some overseas attention. Just not too much.