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A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Old Castile and the Cantabrian Coast

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This itinerary takes you through the north-central section of Spain. Beginning in Old Castile, it includes Asturias, the Basque region, then Navarre (originally Basque, but later "Romanized"), and back to Castile. It features some of the best-preserved medieval villages in the country, gives you an authentic taste of Spain in the 11th through the 15th centuries, and will amaze you with some of the most spectacular natural landscape on the continent. This is an area filled with ancient cities, even more ancient caves, seaside resorts (which are favorites of Spaniards on their summer vacations because of the cooler climate), and, in the Basque region, Spain's premier cuisine. (The Costa Brava runs a close second.) Along the way, you will enjoy some of Europe's best hotels and some of Spain's finest scenery.

The coastal areas of Asturias and the Basque provinces were the only areas to escape Moorish occupation, and it was from there that the Reconquest (led by the legendary Pelayo) began in 718. The region similarly resisted Roman domination and thus retains the most remarkable prehistoric sites to be found in Spain. Castile traces its beginnings to the 9th century when the Christians built fortress-castles to establish and hold their frontier against the Moslems. Soon it was joined with the kingdom of León, became the major power in the Reconquest, and, ultimately, in the creation of the modern nation. The Spanish language is still called Castellano, after Castile. Geographically, the itinerary includes the high central meseta, or large mesa, the spectacular Cantabrian mountain range, and the coast along the Cantabrian Sea.

RECOMMENDED PACING: After overnighting in Salamanca, drive north to the Picos de Europa to spend time soaking in the scenery before heading off for a couple of nights along the busy northern coast. Conclude this itinerary with at stay in Olite or Sos del Rey Católico before going to Madrid.

This itinerary begins in the old university town of Salamanca. The Tormes River flows below the city with pedestrian roads leading up from the riverbanks to meet at the top of the hill in the bustling Plaza Mayor, an architectural masterpiece built in the 18th century by Philip V. It is enclosed by three-storied buildings constructed with a pastel ochre-colored stone, whose ground levels are fronted by a series of identical arches that form a dazzling arcade all around the square. Along with all of this come crowds and lots of souvenir shops. To explore the city, start at the river and follow San Pablo up to the Plaza Mayor, then loop back down to the river by the Rua Mayor. Be sure to include the characterful buildings of the University (universidad), the catedral nueva (New Cathedral), the catedral vieja (Old Cathedral), and the Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells). Be sure to find the "frog on a skull" on the façade of the University of Salamanca, a delightful old university city. From here, the N630 takes you north into the older part of Old Castile: the traditional Spain of castles and earth-colored towns in the vast meseta.

If you have time, detour into Zamora, which sits on the bank of the Duero River. Visit the Cathedral on the main plaza and take a peek inside the Parador de Zamora across the square. It is magnificently installed in the 15th-century palace of the Counts of Alba and Aliste, and the public rooms are decorated with beautiful tapestries, coats of arms, and suits of armor.

Continue north, following the signs for León as you bypass Benavente, and follow the N630 into Leon. Leon, now a large provincial capital, was the heart of the ancient kingdom of the same name and the center of Christian Spain in the early days of the Reconquest. As the Christians drove the Moors ever farther south, León was united with Castile, and thereafter, began to lose its power and importance. It's is a great pedestrian town, so procure a map of the city and head for the Cathedral Santa María de la Regla, one of the country's outstanding Gothic edifices and an important stop on the Way of Saint James pilgrimage route. It features some of the most fabulous stained-glass windows in all of Europe (hope for a sunny day), which should not be missed. There are 125 windows of every period since the 13th century, said to total some 1,800 square meters of glass. If you are lucky enough to be there when the choir is practicing, you will have a thrilling experience. North of the cathedral are portions of the old city walls. To the south is the medieval quarter of the city and the small, colorful Plaza Mayor, overhung by ancient buildings and mixed with new shops. Down by the river, the Hostal de San Marcos a huge elaborate building was begun in 1513 and completed in the 18th century. It houses a parador and a museum in the cloisters.

Leaving León, take N601 in the direction of Valladolid. In the middle of the little town of Mansilla de las Mulas, follow the sign pointing to the left to Villomar and the Picos de Europa, and you find yourself on a flat, straight road paralleling the Esla River through numerous, quaint little villages. The first glimpse of the sharp, gray Picos de Europa (European Peaks), into which you will soon be climbing, appears and beckons as you leave the town of Cubillas de Rueda.

The Picos de Europa are indeed spectacular. They rise to almost 2,743 meters within 25 kilometers of the coast and provide stark, desert-like landscapes that contrast vividly with the humid, lowland zone. Sheer cliffs, broken only by huge slabs of jutting granite, pierce the sky. The Torre de Cerredo is the highest peak at 2,648 meters. The entire range, rivaling the Dolomites in dramatic mountain splendor, occupies some 1,330 square kilometers of northern Spain. This region is a haven for mountain climbing and has very controlled policies on hunting and fishing. Inquire in any of the numerous guide centers in the towns for information about these activities.

In Cistierna, take the N621 following signs to Riaño, and start your ascent into one of the most scenic, natural landscapes in Europe. From Riaño, continue on the N621 for about 50 kilometers to Potes and continue north on N621 to Panes; then turn left and follow AS114 west in the direction of Cangas de Onís. This scenic drive follows the crystal-clear Cares River. Along this stretch of road are numerous picturesque mountain villages. No apartment blocks around here-the architecture is strictly local-old stone houses with red-tile roofs and wooden balconies, usually hung with drying garlic, are the typical sight. About 23 kilometers after leaving Panes, you come to Arenas de Cabrales, noted for its blue cheese. Cabrales cheese is made in these mountains from a mixture of cow's, goat's, and ewe's milk. If you want to sample some, watch for the signs found all along here for queso de Cabrales. The cheese can also be found in other towns of the area.

In this region, you will also notice many horreos, or grain-storage sheds, raised above the ground outside the farmhouses. These horreos, supported on pillars of rock, are especially colorful when viewed with the Picos de Europa in the background.

Leaving Arenas de Cabrales, continue west for about 26 kilometers until you see a road heading south to Covadonga. On the approach into town is a breathtaking view to the right of the Romanesque-style Basilica of Our Lady of the Battles, built in the late 19th century. This tiny town is touristy, but its setting is spectacular. Tourists also come to visit the Santa Cueva, a shrine tucked into a cave in the mountain, dedicated to the Virgin of Battles. It is the legendary place where Pelayo initiated the Reconquest of Spain from the Moslems in 718. The religious war raged on and off until 1492. Inside is the famous image of the Virgin of Covadonga, patron saint of Asturias, along with the sarcophagi of Pelayo and several of his relatives. In the treasury are the many gifts presented to the Virgin. Beneath the cave is a small pool, with a spring on one side, where you see visitors to the shrine collecting "holy" water.

If you are faint of heart, read no further. The area's main attraction is reached by a very steep, incredibly narrow road uphill from Covadonga (Los Lagos). About 7 kilometers further is the Mirador de la Reina (overlook) with views of the Sierra de Covalierda and the sea. If you persevere about 5 kilometers farther, you come to Lago Enol and Lago Ercina, crystal-blue mountain lakes in a spellbinding setting in the Montana de Covadonga nature reserve. Though the road is tortuous, it is worth every twist and turn. You pass through green fields strewn with boulders before you reach the icy lakes. At a point called, logically enough, Entre Dos Lagos (Between Two Lakes), both lakes are visible from the top of a hill.

From Covadonga, return by the same road and rejoin the AS114, where you turn left to skirt Cangas de Onís and follow signposts for Santander onto the N634. (Cangas De Onís is a most attractive town, well worth a detour-it has a picture-perfect, 13th-century, humpbacked bridge adjacent to the modern road bridge.) You soon come to the N634, where you turn right in the direction of Santander joining the autopista A6, which whisks you along through some very pretty countryside, to the exit for Santillana del Mar.

In Santillana Del Mar, the major attraction is atmosphere. It could fairly be called the most picturesque village in Spain and has retained its harmonious old-world feeling to an uncommon degree. The pure Romanesque architecture, from the Collegiate Church to the houses along Calle de las Lindas, will delight and amaze you. Just walk around and soak it in, there are some delightful shops and museums. One of the joys of the town is that it is completely pedestrian, though you are allowed to take your car in if you are staying here.

Another attraction of this area is its rich archaeological heritage. The Altamira Cave with its 14,000-year-old paintings of bison and other animals became so famous that visitors were damaging the ancient paintings with the large quantities of carbon dioxide they exhaled in the caves every day. To solve the problem, a full-scale reproduction has been made at the Altamira museum. Information on this and other caves that are open to the public is available at the Santallina del Mar tourist office just adjacent to the town car park.

When you have finished sampling the unforgettable atmosphere of Santillana, head east on the autopista (A6 which becomes A8) around Santander, a mostly modern provincial capital whose old city was destroyed in 1941 by a tornado and the resulting fires. The road turns south to skirt the bay and continues inland through cultivated farmland around Colindres, where you regain sight of the sea. Shortly afterward, you bypass Laredo, a popular seaside resort with a beautiful, large beach on Santona Bay. The freeway moves away from the coast, for a bit, through green rolling hills.

As you continue east on the A8, enter the Basque Region (Vizcaya), where you notice many of the town names indicated in both Basque and Spanish. Unlike the other languages in Spain, Basque is not a "Romance" or "Neo-Latin" language. Indeed, no one is sure where it comes from.

An hour's drive from Santander brings you to Bilbao, a huge city whose most outstanding tourist attraction is the Guggenheim Museum with its prime location along the bank of the Nervión River, with the Puente de La Salve, one of the city's main bridges, above it. Designed by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, it makes a statement for Bilbao, as the Opera House makes for Sydney. It is an extraordinary melding of interconnecting shapes with soaring blocks of limestone, gigantic curved forms of titanium, and massive curtains of curving glass-resulting in an enormous sculpture said to resemble a ship. The Guggenheim collection includes a broad range of modern and contemporary art-much of which is displayed in an ongoing series of contemporary exhibits. Be aware that a detailed map of Bilbao is needed to find the Guggenheim-the Bilbao oueste exit avoids the maze of downtown streets and brings you out on the riverbank opposite the Guggenheim.

Heading east from Bilbao (following signs for Irun and Francia), the A8 traverses over more attractive countryside of rolling hills, farms, and fields. Take exit 2 for Hondarribia (called Fuenterrabía in Spanish) and the airport (aeropuerto). Continue for several kilometers and enter under the narrow stone gate into the cobbled streets of old-town Hondarribia. On the main square is the Parador de Hondarribia located in a 10th-century castle that was considerably remodeled in the 16th century by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. It has served as host (while a palace) to numerous monarchs in its long history. Hondarribia was often coveted by the French because of its strategic position. The castle was constructed with stone walls many meters thick. The small plaza in front of the parador overlooks a marina filled with colorful sailboats. On the other sides of the square are colorfully painted houses with iron or wood balconies. Stroll the narrow, cobblestone streets of town and walk down to the newer part of Hondarribia by the harbor, with its shops and cafes.

Leave Hondarribia towards France and take the N121A to Pamplona. It's a very scenic drive where the road goes from narrow, as it traces the River Bidasoa along the French border, to a major road, as it travels through tunnels and around picturesque villages of red-roofed houses surrounded by verdant fields, with the Pyrenees as a backdrop. After traversing the summit via the Puerto de Velate tunnel, the scenery quickly becomes more urban as you approach Pamplona.

Pamplona was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Navarre from the 10th to the 16th centuries, and is now best known for the "running of the bulls" festival of San Fermín (July 6-20), made famous by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises (published in Britain as Fiesta). If you are not a fan of big cities, simply follow the ring road in the direction of Zaragosa, bringing you onto the autopista A15, and exit at Olite.

Olite, surrounded by agricultural lands and vineyards, is known as the "Gothic city," and you see why as the massive 15th-century fortress of Charles III, the Palacio Real de Olite, dominates the town. It has been restored to a semblance of its former glory. Visit royal bedchambers, grand halls, and climb the battlements for excellent views of the delightful old streets of the town. Part of the castle is the magnificent Parador de Olite. Just beside the parador is the 13th century former royal chapel, Iglesia de Santa Maria la Real Olite, with its carved Gothic portal. Among the town's old streets you'll find several wine bodegas.

If you want to visit the birthplace of Spain's most famous monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragón, head east to Sos Del Rey Católico perched atop a hill in the middle of the large flat plain. It seems as though it might blend into the brown mountain, if it were not for the square tower that juts up above the town. Sos is more museum than lived-in town and has undergone lots of restoration. Park beyond the walls and head for the Sada Palace, a museum where you can visit the very bedroom (so it is claimed) where Ferdinand of Aragón was born. He was a model for Machiavelli in his classic study of governing in the days of monarchy. He was also the husband of Isabella, and the two were known as "The Catholic Monarchs" (Los Reyes Católicos) because of their strong support of the Church during the time of the Protestant Reformation Plan. There are splendid views of the fertile countryside from the castle and church at the top of the hill.

You might also want to make a trip to Javier to visit Javier Castle via Sanguesa (bear right). It is an 18th-century castle built on the site of the birthplace of Saint Francis Xavier (1506), one of the early members of the Jesuit order and a very effective missionary to Japan in the service of the Portuguese. If you happen to be there on a Saturday night in the summer, you can see a sound and light show.

Return to Pamplona and continue west on N111, which was the Way of Saint James, to Estella where, in the Middle Ages, pilgrims stopped to venerate a statue of the Virgin reportedly found in 1085 by shepherds guided by falling stars. The Kings of Navarre chose this as their place of residence in the Middle Ages. Be sure to see the Plaza San Martín with, among many beautiful historic edifices, the 12th-century palace of the Kings of Navarre, one of the oldest non-religious buildings in Spain.

Rejoin the N111 and travel around the modern city of Logroño. Between Logroño and Burgos is the rampart-encircled Santo Domingo De La Calzada, whose most impressive 12th-century cathedral has a live rooster and hen in residence-in commemoration of a miracle which supposedly occurred when a young pilgrim's innocence was proved by the crowing of an already roasted cock. (They are replaced each year on May 12th.) On signs leading into town, you see the brief poem summing up the legend, which says, Santo Domingo de la Calzada/ cantó la gallina/ después de asada. Although the legend says a cock, the poem says a hen was his salvation. Maybe it just rhymed better. In any case, there is one of each in the cathedral. Its 18th-century belfry is famed as the prettiest in La Rioja.

From Santo Domingo, continue on the N120 through undulating wheat and potato fields (still following the Way of Saint James) to Burgos. Burgos is a large, not particularly charming city, but of historical interest. The capital of Old Castile from 951 to 1492 (when it lost its position to Valladolid), Burgos, has strong associations with the victorious Reconquest. Spain's epic hero, El Cid Campeador (champion), was born Rodrigo Díaz in nearby Vivar in 1026. His exploits in regaining Spain from the Moslems were immortalized in the first Spanish epic poem in 1180 and subsequent literary works. He and his wife, Ximena, are interred in the transept crossing of the cathedral.

The Cathedral is, without doubt, the leading attraction of Burgos. Surpassed in size only by the cathedrals of Seville and Toledo, the flamboyant Gothic structure was begun in 1221 by Ferdinand III (the Saint) and completed in the 16th century. The artworks in the many chapels inside constitute a veritable museum. The two-story cloister contains much stone sculpture of the Spanish Gothic school. Do not fail to walk around the outside to see the marvelous decoration of the various portals. On the south side of the cathedral, if you walk toward the river, you pass through the highly ornate city gate called the Santa María arch. After crossing the river, you continue down Calle Miranda to the Casa de Miranda, an archaeological museum. North of the cathedral, you can ascend the hill that harbors castle ruins and affords excellent city views. Enjoy the pretty pedestrian street along the riverfront, with its shops, lively bars, and cafés.

When it is time to leave Burgos, head south on the N1 to Madrid. For details of what to see and do in and around Madrid, refer to our itinerary Madrid and More


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Carabias, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain

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