Contrary to the old My Fair Lady song, the rain in Spain does not stay mainly in the plain. A good deal, it seems, falls on the Northern coast turning it so beautifully lush that it is actually known as Green Spain.
It is apparent even from the air. Descending into Bilbao and seeing, not the usual aridity one would expect heading towards a Mediterranean resort, but verdant woodland and misty meadows worthy of Surrey I began to wonder if I should have packed an umbrella.
I need not have worried: there was plenty of sunshine but since this is the Atlantic side of the Iberian Peninsula it always feels fresh and temperatures rarely rise much above 25 degrees C or the mid 70s. This relative coolness is what in fact draws the Spanish themselves. Ever since the Royal family took up summer residence here in the 19th century it has been a favourite destination for the well-heeled escaping the oppressive heat elsewhere. After all if you’re already boiling in Madrid the last kind of holiday you want is baking in Marbella.
Yet despite its popularity with the locals and the French just across the border it is still relatively unknown to outsiders. Certainly it has escaped the madness of mass tourism that has blighted other parts of the country and though keen to welcome discerning visitors it is determined not to jeopardise what it has. The result is a enticing mix of sophistication and simplicity, traditional and modern, rural and urban.
One of the first things that struck me was how empty this area is. You can drive for miles on excellent highways and see only the occasional habitation among the fields, forests, woods and hills which give way to mountains in the distance and where it is possible to ski in the winter. The area guards its natural resources jealously and huge swathes are protected reserves or national parks.
The empty open spaces are in sharp contrast to Bilbao, the once declining industrial giant that has been transformed by a single building, Frank Gehry’s astonishing Guggenheim Museum, itself a work of modern art with its shimmering titanium covered curves and 55 metre atrium. Apparently when it first opened the fur coat-clad bourgeoisie came to stand and gawp as bewildered as if it had arrived from outer space.
Today those same citizens will be mingling with the cosmopolitan crowds the building draws from around the world, strolling down the Paseo de la Memoria with its massive outdoor sculptures or sampling some of the chic new restaurants that have sprung up. The modernism of the museum is echoed in the wonderfully minimalist Hotel Gran Domine opposite. (The complimentary soaps and gels are so brilliantly designed I was hard pressed not to take them home and pass them off as Christmas gifts).
Despite its size Bilbao is not the official capital of the Basque country, one of the four regions, along with Cantabria, Galicia and Asturias, that make up Green Spain. The capital and seat of local government is Vitoria-Gasteiz which was recently calculated to be one of the top three Spanish cities in terms of quality of life (the others were Gerona and Palma, Mallorca).
It is certainly an attractive place: pedestrianised boulevards lined with attractive shops, classic squares, picturesque narrow streets and timber buildings in the old town and splendid churches. The cathedral of Santa Maria is currently undergoing a massive Euro30 million restoration and a guided tour of the project which included the discovery of 600 skeletons is well worth taking.
Vitoria-Gasteiz is inland, however, and however charming could not for me compete with Donostia-San Sebastian, known as the pearl of the Bay of Biscay, with its three beaches, headland crowned with the giant Sacred Heart statue and miles of promenade. If you don’t want to walk, the tourist bus has 24 stops and you can get on and off as often as you wish. Alternatively there is a little train doing a 30 minute circuit. Everything is in the Basque language as well as Spanish so this is known as the ‘tren txu-txu’. Euskera, as it is called, is peppered with xs and bears no relation to any other known Indo-European tongue.
It is an elegant stylish place which flowered in the second half of the 19th century after Queen Isabel came to take the spa waters and rather reminded me of the South of France. In fact its annual film festival ranks alongside Venice and Cannes as a major cultural event.
It is also a place to indulge the senses, particularly eating and drinking. The city has 300 gastronomic societies, a feature of the area where friends gather in club houses to cook for each other. These are not open to outsiders (the most traditional are not even open to women) so visitors have to make do with a variety of restaurants – there is a greater density of Michelin stars here than anywhere outside central Paris – or tapas bars. Pintxos as they are called in Basque country have become an art form in themselves with chefs vying to create ever new morsels of ‘miniature cuisine’. My favourite featured chorizo and black pudding, the latter rice filled and less fatty than ours at home.
Green Spain is well suited to a short break holiday. In five days we got as far as Santander, another stylish coastal resort in Cantabria, and packed in a variety of stop-offs en route ranging from the sensual to the spiritual to the cultural. If you had longer you could press on to the west and Santiago and if you felt your brain becoming overwhelmed by culture or your body by food and drink you could always offset it by physical activities like hiking, riding, golf, swimming, surfing, cycling and hot air ballooning.
Fly to Bilbao or Biarritz just over the border in France. Or for a more leisurely approach take Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Santander.
Must See Sights
- The Guggenheim Museum: The collections and exhibitions of modern art might not be to everyone’s taste but the building itself is breathtaking. Closed Mondays.
- Bilbao also has many other attractions including historic buildings, a cathedral, parks, bustling squares and shopping centres, a funicular railway and one of the most modern metros in the world designed by British architect Norman Foster.
- Cabarceno Park, 20 km from Santander has a wonderful collection of animals including elephants, rhino, bear and tiger living in natural surroundings. Don’t miss the falconry display.
- The ‘neo-cave’ at Altamira which exactly replicates the site’s real 15,000 year-old cave paintings. These had to be closed to the public because they were in danger but the fakes used digital technology to reproduce every last detail of the coal and ochre drawn bison and other creatures. An excellent museum explains life in the Palaeolithic Age.
- The exquisite mediaeval town of Santillana del Mar nearby, a stop on the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela for nine hundred years.
- Gaudi’s sunflower-themed house at Comillas.
- The ancient walled town of Laguardia, centre of the Rioja area, with its narrow streets, subterranean wine ‘cuevas’ or caves and the church of Santa Maria de los Reyes with its perfectly preserved Gothic front façade.
- The indoor and outdoor museum of the renown sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s massive abstracts at Zabalaga, ten km outside San Sebastian. Pensioners pay a reduced entrance fee of Euro4.50.
- Match your trip to a festival. These happen throughout the year on saints’ days and other occasions and range from the devout to the uproarious – often in the same day.
- Food is flavoursome and robust: try the bean and sausage stews, anchovies, barnacles, crabs, baby eels, squid in its own ink, beef (think of all that lush grass), rice puddings and donut-like churros.
- Go on a ‘tapas crawl’ to see how many varieties you can spot – and sample. Originally meant to mop up the alcohol for bar hoppers they’ve now become a draw in their own right.
- Visit one of the Rioja region’s wine cellars for a tour and a tasting but put your cardi on – it’s 12 degrees down there.
- As well as Rioja drinks include the light, fruity and slightly sparkling txakoli white wine plus local cider. The annual opening of the new cider barrels in winter is a major fun-fest for villagers and visitors. In Cantabria try the sweet digestive Orujo spirit.
- Be prepared to eat late. The Spanish start lunch at 1.30 or 2pm, dinner at 9pm.
Table linen, ceramics, woven baskets and shoes are all good value. If you want to go really folksy buy Basque berets or wooden milk jugs.
The area is well suited to being explored by hire car. The roads are good and well-signed. But if you prefer not to drive public transport is efficient, clean and cheap.
For further information abouit Green Spain, visit Spain Info.