Northern Spain Road Trip – Day 16

After yesterday’s disastrous weather day we’re on the move again with barely the need to unpack. We leave Cangis de Onis headed for Gijion and our next base for 3 nights, Oviedo as we continue to move along Northern Spain.

Gijón is the Asturias’ largest city and produces iron, steel and chemicals, and is the main loading terminal for Asturian coal, but don’t be fooled by its industrial core its pedestrianised streets, parks and seafront walks along a huge beach present a lively and vibrant city. On arrival, we head for the old town which is concentrated on the headland, Cimadevilla, the old fisherfolk quarter. We headed specifically for an Eduardo Chilida sculpture entitled, Elogio del Horizonte, a 10 metre high, 500 ton piece made of reinforced concrete. It’s name translates to Praise of the Horizon and with its welcoming arms and its solid body, the sculpture seems to want to catch anything that flies along the horizon and bring it into the safety of its embrace. Situated high above the city in splendid isolation it’s a beautiful blue sky day to admire another of Chillida’s magnificent sculptures.

The rain arrives and it’s time to depart from Gijion. It’s been brief but beautiful. The rain may have driven us away from Gijion but it’s not going to spoil our next stop. We’re off to visit a museum just outside Oviedo that’s dedicated to the whole of the professional life of the Asturian born racing driver, Fernando Alonso. The museum houses over 300 personal items, including the first-ever kart he drove when he was 3 years old to all the single-seater’s he’s driven in F1 excluding of course his current Aston Martin team car. In addition, there’s the Toyota he drove when he won Le Mans, the Toyota he drove for the Paris-Dakar rally along with his Indy 500 car. The array of cars is just dazzling, especially the Ferraris which to me contain their own uniquely special aura. Alongside the magnificent display of race cars are Alonso’s trophies, driving helmets and overalls. In addition, he has a large collection of F1 competitors helmets including those of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton together with many many others. It’s a brilliant museum and well worth a visit to take a walk through the incredible career of Spain’s most successful racing driver.

We hit the road at a sensible speed and head to our hotel nestled in the soft hills above Oviedo where we’ll be based for the next 3 nights.

Northern Spain Road Trip – Day 15

We’re on the move again this morning leaving Arenas de Cabrales after an excellent two days and moving out to the edge of the Picos to Canges de Onis for just the one night.  We’re headed there specifically to visit Covadonga and Lakes Enol and Ercina.  After a late breakfast we again load up the car and head for Covadonga. It’s raining and an awful grey miserable day.  We arrive at Cannes de Onis and take the road up to Covadonga and by now the rain is pouring from the sky.  We decide against stopping to visit the basilica and continue on the road for a further 12km to reach the top.  It’s a twisty narrow road that’s barely wide enough to fit two cars let alone a Winnebago or a coach, a number of which we have to squeeze past. The rain abates slightly and as we ascend the mist descends. A cue for the cars in front become even more cautious and their respective speeds decrease dramatically.  We’re now stuck in a slow tortuous uphill procession.  Dodging cows as we ascend there’s nowhere to turn around and we’re committed to reaching the top.  But it’s ok we reassure each other when we reach the top the traffic jam will end and we’ll be rewarded with the sight of two beautiful little lakes, potentially set against snow capped peaks.  

It’s not our day to be rewarded, the views were absolutely non-existent. We’ll never believe another Lonely Planet or Instagram photo again🙄!!  We don’t even get out of the car, we eat some car snacks and prepare for the snail like drive down the hill dodging livestock and in addition some mad cyclists for good measure.  It’s pouring again when we reach Covadonga, we don’t stop to walk to the basilica and continue driving down to the valley floor.  Finally, the rain abates and we stop for a walk along the river we have to do something this has been a ridiculous afternoon. We return to town and locate our hotel and an early dinner. It’s been a thoroughly dreary day, but fortunately it’s the first one since we commenced our road trip not bad for 15 days.  We’re on the move again tomorrow and console ourselves with the thought that the weather is due to improve, fingers crossed.

Northern Spain Road Trip – Day 14

Very fuzzy heads from last night’s drinking and dancing shenanigans and fuelled by donuts and chocolate milk we get our kit together and make the short 6km drive from Arenas de Cabrales to just past the village of Poncebas.

Today we’re going to walk the Cares Gorge trail. This magnificent 1km-deep, 10km-long gorge of the River Cares separates the Picos’ western massif from its central side. This dramatic canyon extends between the hamlets of Poncebos and Caín. People flock here year-round, but especially in summer, The trail is carved high into and through the rugged walls of the gorge, with limestone peaks soaring far above rising nearly 2,000 metres.

In 1916, a winding, precarious path began to be marked out so that workers belonging to the Electra de Viesgo electricity company could monitor and maintain a water canal. This canal carried part of the River Cares water supply to be used for hydroelectric generation at Camarmeña Power Plant. Subsequently, in the 1940s and 50s, the current path was built to provide better access for canal maintenance.

The hike commences with a steady climb, it’s a rough path that’s very narrow in places. As it’s a Sunday it’s very busy and we step in to let hikers walking the other way past us and vice versa. The trail is reminiscent of the Tugela Falls hike we undertook last last year in South Africa. It’s rough and rubble strewn you certainly have to have your wits about you. There’s no guard rails and one wrong move could see either of us tumbling down into the gorge below. On the upside however, the alpine scenery is just stunning and we have good weather to soak in the majesty of the soaring peaks as we walk.

We meet a number of photogenic goats en-route who are completely oblivious to the presence of hikers. The walk is fantastic but hard going and we turn round to return to Poncebas after about 2.5 hours. Our descent is slightly quicker but our knees are seriously not enjoying the return journey. It’s been a beautiful hike and the scenery is just wonderful.

We return to Arenas de Cabrales for a well needed shower and go off in search of dinner exhausted but all the better for experiencing this fantastic hike. We have to pack again tonight as we’re on the move again tomorrow. This trip is relentless but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Northern Spain Road Trip – Day 13

We’re on the move again today, continuing our stay in the Picos but this time we’re moving over to Arenas Cabrales for 2 nights, there’s an epic hike that Brownie thinks we should tackle. As we’re packing our bags we hear a cacophony of cow bells outside. We look out the window and see numerous herds of beautiful tan coloured Cantabrian cows being ushered down the main road. We later drive past the livestock market that they were headed for about two villages down the valley, imagine the chaos this would cause on the roads back at home.

One cow clearly can’t bear the thought of being parted from a luv interest 😂

We load the car up and head back up in the direction of Fuente De where we were yesterday. There’s a walk that’s been recommended by one of the hotel receptionists back in San Sebastián and also by a lovely lady in the local tourist office. We climb the steep switch back roads and marvel as we arrive at our destination. Mogrovejo village, one of Cantabria’s most picturesque villages, with a population of 40, hugs a hillside 10km west of Potes. This picturesque village with a medieval watchtower, 16th-century houses and 17th-century church are brilliantly set against a stunning Picos de Europa backdrop.

We walk up a steep hill to commence our walk and ascend through green pasture and an array of trees and spring flowers. There’s hardly anyone around and we frequently have the walk to ourselves. We know that the mountains are there but can’t see them. We come across occasional vistas affording us views of the beautiful starkly jagged peaks. It really is quite a stunning walk. We descend and stop in the village for some refreshments before heading off for our next stop.

We have to head down the valley back the way we came in order to join the road to Arenas de Cabrales and friends recommended that we stop at a spa en-route with the mineral rich water naturally heated and bubbling out from 3 springs. It’ll be rude not to we have after all just had a good walk. So for 17 euros each we can soak our aching limbs in a variety of virtually empty hot mineral pools for 90 mins. Oh and only the outside ones are open so we get to enjoy the gorgeous Hermida gorge scenery and marvel at the golden eagles as they swoop and soar high above us on the thermals. It’s a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Refreshed and relaxed we reluctantly leave the spa and hit the road for Arenas Cabrales.

We arrive in Arenas de Cabrales locate our hotel and once again disgorge the contents of the car, here’s hoping we have a big enough room for all our paraphernalia. Fortunately we do, so once everything’s sorted we venture out into town in search of something to eat.

A local band entertains us in a food market. The gaita asturiana is a traditional Asturias bagpipe consisting of 2 pipes as opposed to the 4 pipes of the traditional Scottish bagpipe

We find a restaurant but are informed that the dinner menu won’t be available until 8pm – with the Spanish eating late it’s often difficult to find anything other than tapas available between 4-8/9pm. We choose a meat and cheese board with some delicious tangy blue Cabrales cheese and discuss the plan for tomorrow’s hike. As luck would have it we’re still in the restaurant at 8pm and have delicious veal for dinner. There’s a music and culture festival on in town under an enormous marquee so we wander along to listen to have a listen the bands. The music is very folk Celtic influenced and we jig the night away with the locals it’s been a brilliant day and no doubt we’ll have slightly sore heads in the morning.

Northern Spain Road Trip – Day 12

We’re very excited today as we’re headed for the cable car at Fuente Dé. We hoping to be able to go for a walk when we reach the top and take it some stunning views but it’s all weather dependent. However, it’s raining so we pack lots of kit and have a suspicion that we’re going to encounter some snow when we reach the summit. We drive the 23km through a twisty mountain road and gorgeous alpine-esque scenery. Its really quite beautiful. We park at the cable car station and buy our tickets. It’s 17 Euros return each and in less than four minutes, the cable car whisks us up from the valley floor to the top of the 600m-high sheer southern wall of the Picos’ central massif – an ascent of 753m in a horizontal distance of just 1.45km. It’s not busy and we have the cable car to ourselves. We ascend in the rain which very swiftly turns to snow. Yikes we have to remind ourselves it’s actually 11th May.

It’s b****y freezing. We layer up and add hats and gloves, thank goodness we packed them. We walk up from the cable car station and take some pictures. We see a pathway and decide that we’re going to take a walk it’s not like we’re in shorts and flip flops or anything, it’ll be fine.

Initially the sun comes out, there’s even a bit of blue sky as the clouds swirl around so we crack on with our walk. However, as we start to ascend and turn around a bend we’re greeted by the beginnings of a snow flurry and retreat to the restaurant at the cable car station that serves excellent chips and hot chocolate. We’re shrouded in mist and the windows offering a panoramic view are made completely and utterly redundant.

Below what we should’ve seen vs what we actually saw!!

It stops snowing and the clouds start to make a move. We walk out onto the viewing platform and finally the valley floor is revealed, it’s quite spectacular. The unpredictability of the weather forces us to descend we’re not going to be walking up here today. We descend in the cable car.

When we reach the bottom it’s raining and we spot a collection of climbing walls. There is a European Cup bouldering and speed climbing event taking place which we stay and watch. The flexibility and athleticism of the climbers is quite something to behold as they work out how to ascend the boulder courses and they only have 4 minutes to achieve it.

We return to Potes for dinner of pizza and red wine. We walk back to our hotel in the rain grrrrr. We’re on the move tomorrow so we’ll need to pack, again.

Northern Spain Road Trip – Day 11

After a great few days by the beach at Lekeitio and assorted day trips we’re on the move again. Today we’re headed for the Picos de Europa, the jagged deeply fissured mountains that straddle southeast Asturias, southwest Cantabria and northern Castilla y León with some of Spain’s most spectacular mountain scenery and best hiking. It’s a wild landscape of imposing limestone peaks, glistening lakes and open meadows filled with grazing cattle, sheep and goats. Eagles soar on the high mountain thermals as glacial water plunges down sheer rock faces into stunning river gorges.

We cram everything back into the car and head for the motorway. The rain is biblical as we approach Santander this is ridiculous. Beyond Santander, we leave the motorway and the rain eases. We follow the River Deva southward upstream through the stunning Desfiladero de la Hermida gorge to the town of Potes where we’re staying for 2 nights. Potes is a hugely popular staging post on the southeastern edge of the Picos, with the Macizo Ándara rising close by and as we’ve now climbed into the mountains the drop in temperature is quite distinct. It’s now 13 degrees eek! Apparently Potes is overrun in peak periods so we’re hoping that early May means it won’t be to busy. The heart of Potes is a cluster of bridges, towers and charming cobbled backstreets that have been restored in traditional slate, wood and red tile after considerable damage during the civil war. The Quiviesa and Deva rivers meet close to the heart of this distinctly charming town.

We take an exploratory cycle into town and beyond. It’s been a long day in the car and we need to stretch our legs. We return to our hotel to shower and change and head out for dinner. Brownie finds a restaurant that serves fantastic enormous entrecôte steaks which we wash down with a local red wine. Tomorrow we’re headed 23km west of Potes to Fuente Dé, where a dramatic cable car provides the main access to the high hills and some scenic walks in this area.

Northern Spain Road Trip – Day 10

Exhausted after yesterday’s trip to Bilbao we’re on a go slow today and remain in Lekeitio. We manage to get out to St Nicolas Island without having to rush back this time to beat the tide. Although the weather decides to conspire against us as a small squally shower comes in from the Atlantic and I’m instantly regretting not bringing my waterproof jacket, hey ho. The sun comes out as we return to the beach and tradition dictates that a game of bat n ball is now in order.

Exhausted after our athletic pursuits we take a walk around the harbour and admire the large gothic church that dominates the town. It’s very quiet with hardly anyone around, there’s very few tourists and we’re the only Brits here.

We seek liquid refreshment from a harbour side bar and munch on Athletico Bilbao crisps. We ponder whether sport sponsored salted snacks could actually be considered an essential food product for the amateur or professional athlete. No conclusion was reached and we agreed that more research was required. We move on to a tapas bar and enjoy salt cod ceviche and tortilla. We’ve switched to chilled Rioja, this has all the trademarks of a very slippery slope. Cheers.

Northern Spain Road Trip – Day 9

Having previously visited Bilbao for a long weekend in 2005 we were very keen to return and visit the world famous Guggenheim Museum. So with a drive of just over an hour, we jumped in the car and headed for one of the great treasures of the Basque Country. Surrounded for years by an environment of heavy industry and industrial wastelands, Bilbao’s tough upbringing meant its river front landscapes and quirky functional buildings were barely acknowledged or appreciated by travellers. Since the late 1990s, the city has under gone a huge metamorphosis, most prominently with the opening of the gleaming titanium ship inspired Guggenheim Museum reflecting the strong nautical traditions of the city.

But before we head for our culture fix we drive to the end of the city to visit the Bizkaia Bridge that crosses the River del Nervión. Designed by Alberto Palacio, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Bridge was the world’s first transporter bridge, opening in 1883. The bridge, which links Getxo and Portugalete, consists of a suspended platform that sends cars and passengers gliding silently over the river 24 hours a day. We take the trip across the bridge and ascend in the lift. We’re up 46m atop the superstructure and take a very breezy walk across the bridge and back again taking in some great views of the city. I ask Brownie if we can take the car across on our return from the Guggenheim, she flatly refuses. Boooooo!!

We jump on the metro and travel 11 stops up town headed for the shimmering titanium clad Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum, the building that firmly placed Bilbao in the international art and tourism spotlight. The art starts as soon as you reach the outside of the museum. An installation by Fujiko Nakaya: a simple pool of water that emits an ethereal mist. On the riverbank is Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, a skeletal spider said to symbolise a protective embrace. In the open area west of the museum, a fountain sculpture randomly fires off jets of water. But the star is surely Jeff Koons’ kitsch Puppy, a 12m-tall highland terrier made up of thousands of begonias, on the city side of the museum. The dog that is permanently in bloom.

It’s so good to be back. We head inside and shed our soggy brollies and jackets. It always rains in Bilbao. The interior of the Guggenheim is vast and cathedral like at 45m high it’s also packed, there are 3 cruise ships in the harbour. Surely we can find some quite space somewhere in this vast building. We start by exploring Richard Serra’s towering maze-like sculptures in weathered steel and love the twists and turns not knowing where we’ll end up.

We move up to the 3rd floor and marvel at Jeff Koons Steel Tulips, Andy Warhol and and a rather more conservative piece than we’re used to from our favourite artists, Gilbert & George. There’s a fabulous Miro exhibition and a mirror installation from Yayoi Kusama famous for her dot paintings.

The gallery is groaning with vibrant creativity and before we take the metro back we walk up to the bridge beside the museum to take a moment just to appreciate its incredible magnitude. It’s stopped raining but the wind has picked up again and plays havoc with Brownie’s hair 😆. We leave the Guggenheim exhausted but beaming from the absolute riot of artistic inventiveness and again board the tube bound for the swing platform across the river to the car.

It’s been a great day and we haven’t even scratched the surface of everything that Bilbao has to offer. Fingers crossed we’ll be back again in the not too distant future.

Northern Spain Road Trip- Day 8, Lekeitio

Our base for the next 4 nights is the town of Lekeitio on the Basque coast situated halfway between Bilbao and San Sebastian. It’s a small town with a very long fishing tradition and in common with many other towns along the Basque coast, Lekeitio was known for the bravery of its whale hunters. With the passing of time, whales sadly started to disappear but fishing and maritime related activities remained and the harbour is full of small very active fishing boats.

Today is a life laundry day as we haven’t stopped since we left London and need a bit of a catch-up. We take a late afternoon walk to the beautiful beach in town to discover that the tide is out revealing a causeway that leads to St Nicholas Island just across the bay. We walk across but have to return swiftly as the water is starting to rather rapidly over the causeway and we really don’t want to get trapped. We return to the beach and catch some rays. It’s good to dial it down a notch and not be rushing around attempting to see everything. Besides, we’re off to Bilbao tomorrow so need to enjoy the rest whilst we can.

Salt cod & prawn paella for dinner made in the paella pan we bought last month in Valencia

Northern Spain Road Trip – Day 7 – Guernica & Gaztulgetxe

Today we’re heading for Guernica, a name synonymous with the brutality of the Spanish Civil War. The town suffered a devastating bombing raid that levelled the city in 26th April 1937. The German and Italian forces who undertook the bombing were supporting Francisco Franco to overthrow the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War. The bombing almost entirely destroyed the city and many civilians perished.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), Guernica was considered to be the northern bastion of the Republican resistance and the center of Basque culture. For this reason, it became a prime target for Francisco Franco. It also came to prominence thanks in part to Pablo Picasso. The events of the horrific bombing which inspired his most famous piece of artwork – “Guernica.” While “Guernica” does not contain any direct reference to the bombing it does show suffering and destruction. The painting gained monumental status serving as a visit reminder of the cruelties and tragedies of war.

We visit the Picasso mural first and then walk to the Park of the People’s of Europe which features two enormous sculptures by Eduardo Chillida and Henry Moore. The sculpture by Chillida is called “Gure Aitaren Etxea” which means “The house of our father.” It was ordered by the Basque Government to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Guernica bombing. It is a monument dedicated to peace. The sculpture by Henry Moore is entitled “Large Figure in a shelter” and is part of the collection “War Helmets,” that the artist started during the World War II.

The bombing raids suffered in the Basque country from July 1936 onwards meant that the Basque Government decreed that air raid shelters be built in all towns. The Mayor of Guernica instructed municipal architect Castor Uriarte to build at least six shelters for public use. At the same time a large number of private shelters were also constructed. We visit two of the shelters dug into the mountain side in Union Square and the audio visual and sound effects are chilling and give us goosebumps. It’s a stark reminder of the ferocity of the air raid in 1936.

The Talleres de Gernika factory built two shelters for is workers in September 1936. We visited one of them, the “Astra” shelter that took its name from the renowned Astra 400 “la puro” handgun which was manufactured in Gernika in the first half of the 20th century.

This year’s Tour de France is starting in Bilbao and the first three stages of the race will commence is the Basque region of Northern Spain. There is huge pride that the region is once again hosting race stages and whilst in Guernica we visited a fan park setup to encourage locals and tourists to watch the race when it starts on 1st July. It’s an uplifting end to a very sombre visit to Guernica.

We leave Guernica and head to the coast and San Juan de Gaztelugatxe a tiny island off the northern coast of Spain. The island is connected to the mainland by a thin, winding, manmade pathway and 242 steps need to be climbed in order to reach the chapel at the top. The chapel is dedicated to John the Baptist, and has been standing in the same place since the 10th century. There have been several tombs discovered in and around the church dating back to the 9th and 12th centuries. The site was attacked by Francis Drake in 1593 and has also suffered several fires.

The hermitage is also home to several offerings from sailors who survived shipwrecks. It’s said that at the start of the tuna fishing season local fishermen come and say a prayer and make an offering to wish for a successful season.

It’s a steep climb down from the top of the hill to the start of the causeway and we’re dreading the return walk. It’s a warm afternoon and we get quite hot walking to the top but it’s so worth it and the views out across the Atlantic are fantastic. It’s a grim climb back up the hill but we encourage each other and eventually make it to the top. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan you’ll recognise the site and it’s definitely worth a visit. It’s free to visit you just need to book a ticket online in advance as visitor numbers are limited for safety reasons.

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