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(2014 - Spring/Summer Issue)


This wasn’t at all the Spain any of us expected.

While our group was keen to explore the northern coastal regions, many of us expected the clichés associated with all things Spanish: sun-scorched beaches, flamenco dancing, exotic cuisine and a veritable landscape of vibrant colours.

After a five-hour drive from our starting point in Madrid north to San Sebastian our thoughts took a very different turn. The swirling winds, climatic mood swings, sombre colours and rugged terrain told us we were a long way from the warm sunshine and serenity of the Mediterranean shores.

However we quickly discovered the dramatic landscape and weather were an integral part of this region’s charm. While more popular havens attract tourists in droves, the relative isolation of the coastal district means more time to absorb the cultural history, art and artifacts that permeate a district that has seen more than its fair share of political turmoil over the centuries.

A Coastal Pearl 

As the chosen starting point for our coastal journey, San Sebastian with its distinctive shell-shaped La Concha Bay is known as the Pearl of the Cantabrian Coast. While the winds can be unpredictable and send you huddling into nearby cafés to escape flying debris, it’s well worth taking a stroll along the winding beachfront boardwalk and visiting local shops and restaurants as you go. At the extreme end of the boardwalk, a sinuous sculpture by Eduardo Chillida, aptly named“Comb of the Wind,” stands tall in the turbulent waters, a homage to the strength and fortitude of the northern regions.

The liveliness of the northern-facing waters explains why this unique town is a haven for wannabe and hard-core surfers. In fact it is said the city ranks as one of the world’s top surfing destinations. The regional food is a wonderful eclectic mix of pinchos(tiny sandwiches that are a Basque staple), tapas, fresh seafood and hearty soups and bean concoctions. Surprisingly, it is home to chefs that have collectively won 16 Michelin stars.

A Religious History

Next stop on the road trip was Bilbao, whose claim to fame is the Guggenheim Museum, where Jeff Koons’s towering 12-metre Puppy sculpture made of flowering plants greets you at the front entrance. Inside you shouldn’t miss the stunning “The Matter of Time” installation by Richard Serra, where you can snake your way through the maze of tunnels. For those who prefer the classical style, it’s only a few steps to the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

While both modern and traditional art can be found at every turn, the most striking thing about this region is the pervasive religious history. Even the most cynical traveller can’t help but be affected by the stories of devotion of the countless pilgrims—ancient and modern—who have visited religious sites throughout the centuries. Many cathedrals and churches along the way feature incredibly intricate altarpieces that house layer upon layer of religious artifacts and icons.

A truly unique and inspiring sight along the coastal journey is the holy cave of Covadonga, situated in the foothills of the Picos de Europa where a shrine to Pelayo, who led the first Christian victory over the Moors in 722, is literally embedded in a cliff wall overlooking a tumbling cascade. In Oviedo, the capital of Christian Spain in the ninth century, the pre-Romanesque church of San Julian de los Prados is home to 1,000-year-old religious murals that were featured in Woody Allen’s Vicki Cristina Barcelona.

A favourite spot along the journey was Santillana del Mar, touted as being the most beautiful village in Spain. The perfectly-preserved medieval village features a quaint stone bridge, rustic cobblestone streets and houses with carved heraldic symbols dating back centuries.

A Pilgrim’s Nirvana

The absolute jewel in the crown on our travels, however, was Santiago de Compostela, the destination point for the renowned El Camino walk made famous by Martin Sheen in the movie The Way. It’s a veritable melting pot of Romanesque, baroque and romantic architectural styles. Despite the fact it was early in the year, there was already a steady stream of exhausted pilgrims ending their four- to six-week journey to visit the cathedral that is reportedly home to the remains of the Apostle St. James.

We were told pilgrim traffic in town can reach 800 to 2,000 people a day during the high season. Given it was March it was relatively quiet, providing us with ample opportunities to explore the unique relics and architectural features of the iconic cathedral.

Highlights of the 12th-century cathedral are many, from the towering altar to the world’s largest swinging incense burner, an engineering marvel that is hoisted over celebrants during special masses. Sections of pillars are worn away by the many hands that have touched them over the centuries in their quest for redemption. Look to the St. James statue, which serves as the altar centrepiece, and you’ll see a constant stream of visitors walking through to embrace it.

While a truly spectacular showpiece, the cathedral is only a part of the beauty of this historic city. The stone streets in the Old Quarter are full of eager merchants keen to sell their beautiful silver trinkets and handmade confections while cosy restaurants overflowing with fresh produce abound.

Our own somewhat luxurious pilgrimage ended with a short flight back to Madrid where we then made our way home. And while Northern Spain may not have met our initial expectations, it gave us a unique opportunity to experience an entirely different kind of adventure.

Travel Planner

Air Canada (aircanada.com) flights connect via Frankfurt or Munich. From April 11 to October 17, Insight Vacations (insightvacations.com/ca)  offers a 12-day coach tour of Northern Spain. Flights are extra.

For accommodation, consider:

Barcelo Costa Vasca, San Sebastian: barcelo.com

Hotel Santos Santemar, Santander: hotelsantemar.com/en

Meliá Hotel de La Reconquista, Ovideo: hoteldelareconquista.com

NH Obradoiro, Santiago de Compostela: nh-hotels.com

The Londres Hotel, San Sebastian: hlondres.com/en

The Villa Soro Hotel, San Sebastian: villasoro.es/en

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