Review - Shipwrecks, dinosaurs and tomatoes the size of cricket balls on the northern Spanish coast
PUBLISHED: 17:00 27 November 2016 | UPDATED: 14:22 07 December 2016
Roger Hermiston and Eileen Wise found more riches than they could have imagined exploring the Northern Spanish coast.
The people of northernmost Spain exude an air of quiet, innate self-confidence.
Their pride derives in part from their history - the ancestors of Asturians were the first to start to roll back the tide of Moorish domination in the 8th century and begin to forge a national identity. But more particularly is the pleasure today’s inhabitants of this ‘Green Spain’ take from their stunning land, from the verdant countryside and beautiful mountains of the Picos de Europa National Park to the wild yet magnificent shores at its western extremity.
The sunnier, more hedonistic south might claim more obvious delights for the traveller, but here in the provinces of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia there are so many physical and cultural contrasts, so much varied experience to savour.
The coastline is a case in point, dazzling with an eclectic mix of lively towns, characterful fishing villages and secluded, pretty inlets.
But it was on an invigorating walk along a spectacular strip of coastline on the famed Costa da Morte (‘Coast of Death’) that the full majesty and mystery of this region revealed itself to us.
We had set off from our delightful countryside hotel outside Camarinas (fortified with a home-made apple pie in our knapsack, courtesy of manager Alberto) along a lovely shaded forest path, with the clean, crisp smell of pine and eucalyptus in our nostrils.
Emerging into the bright sunlight, a host of giant birdlike wind turbines (common to this part of Spain) and the lighthouse at Cabo Vilan provided a dramatic backdrop as we wended our way along the shoreline road.
We were heading for the Cemeterio Ingles - the English Cemetery – whose story may be over a century old, but still remains the perfect illustration of the wild and dangerous nature of the stunning Galician coastline.
Here, on November 10, 1890, the British Navy torpedo cruiser HMS Serpent, on her way from Devenport to Madeira, struck the rocks in a violent storm and was smashed to pieces within half an hour.
Of her crew of 175, only three managed to swim to the safety of the beach at Punta del Buey.
The Royal Navy has always viewed the disaster of HMS Serpent as its own ‘Titanic’.
Many of the young seamen who were killed might have survived if there had been more than a handful of lifejackets available that night (the naval authorities would make them compulsory in the wake of the tragedy).
We found the actual memorial to the sailors to be simple yet poignant, an unmarked grave encircled by a pile of stones, protected by a surrounding stone wall, and with a simple inscription ‘in memory of the captain, officers and crew … cast away here’.
But even more affecting was what we discovered just a few yards outside the cemetery, nearer the sea.
Here there is an extraordinary collection of simple stone ‘sculptures’, apparently built up in an impromptu fashion over the years by pilgrims on the final leg of their journey south to Cabo Finisterre, the so-called ‘end of the world’ (in medieval times).
These creations – merely piles of differently shaped stones - are all constructed to resemble the human form, giving the dramatic impression – to our imaginations, anyway – of a village, or an army of people, gathered to keep watch, to protect the cemetery, their own homes, even their land against the timeless threat of the savage ocean.
Such is the spell that the Galician coast casts over its visitors, such is the geography and history that makes this part of Spain so entrancing.
Camarinas is renowned not only for its exceptional landscape, but also for its centuries-old tradition of ‘bobbin’ lace making.
One night, while we savoured our (by now customary) evening meal of ‘pulpo’ (octopus) – the regional favourite – at a portside restaurant, next door at Ma Julia’s lace shop, intricate little purses with personalised names stitched into them were being sown for us, which made delightful presents for family and friends.
A poet’s daughter
We had chosen to explore this lesser known area of Spain – specifically Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria – with the specialists in this area, the Cambridge-based Casas Cantabricas, as our guides.
The company, vastly experienced with over thirty years on the ground in the region, is run with great dedication and flair by an Englishwoman, Catherine Feron, who hails from Long Melford: she is the daughter of the great World War One poet, Edmund Blunden.
Catherine has fashioned imaginative holidays that offer a range of carefully selected self-catering homes and villas, and captivating small hotels.
Over the years, she and her Cambridge-based sister Lucy and brother-in-law Graham Edgley have become the experts for these tailor-made holidays in Northern Spain.
A partner in the business, Andy McCullough, also provides customers with a custom-made and utterly invaluable ‘app’ for their smart phones and computers, packed with information on hotels, routes and places of interests.
We sampled five of the company’s residences in our week long stay as we toured around in our open-topped Audi Cabriolet (the weather was gorgeous for late September; ignore the naysayers who bemoan the rainy climate here!).
Tomatoes like cricket balls
We were able to cover vast distances so quickly because of the almost flawless network of motorways and scenic ‘A’ roads – a delight after the habitual struggles of the M11 and M25.
First stop was a comfortable semi-detached stone house – La Casona - on the edge of the pretty hilltop village of San Vincente del Monte, in Cantabria.
This was next door to Catherine and her partner Luis, and here we sampled superlative food in their cosy kitchen which hailed from nearby fields and vegetable gardens – including some wondrous mushrooms, and tomatoes the size of cricket balls!
We delight in encountering animal life – wild and domestic – and were well served by some beautiful wild horses we met on a walk into the valley, and making friends with two donkeys who were the spitting image of our own Yollo and Bruno back home. We also ‘adopted’ an attentive, visiting black cat.
A whaling village
Further west, on the Asturian coast, at Puerto de Vega, we stayed at the nautically themed Hotel Pleamar.
Whaling was once the mainstay of this picturesque village with its cobbled streets and fishermen’s cottages, and the hotel’s prints, artefacts and furniture – imaginatively arranged by owner Mila – are all designed to capture and maintain the heritage of the area.
Our stylish room was named La Saboga, after one of the local catches.
In Alberto’s establishment in Camarinas, the Hotel Rustico Lugar do Cotarino, we were surrounded by woods and maize fields and experienced a feeling of glorious isolation.
This family-run hotel (Alberto Snr is also on hand during the day) has been superbly created from a series of old farm buildings, and centres around a lovely courtyard, with a well-kept garden to the rear.
The afore-mentioned apple pie was followed up with a scrumptious cake the following morning: breakfasts here set up you for a rigorous day of walking and sightseeing.
Another affectionate black cat inveigled himself into our room, while Cotta the dog was a good-natured, sleepy watchdog and companion at the front door.
Our slice of city life came in the chic, vibrant Santiago de Compostela, which has headed up the revival of the pilgrimage tradition in recent years with over 120,000 visitors descending annually to visit the cathedral tomb of Spain’s patron saint James the Apostle.
Our base for exploring the exquisite medieval streets was the charming Hotel Residencia Costa Vella, just inside the city wall and a mere stone’s throw from all the shops, restaurants and churches. From our comfortable room on an upper floor we had a stunning view of the cityscape, while below us was the hotel’s magical garden with its plentiful apple and lemon trees – a lovely peaceful spot for breakfast or an aperitif.
The dinosaur coast
Last, but certainly not least, was the Palacio de Libardon, a large, lovely old hotel (originally built by adventurers returning from Latin America) nestling in the Asturian mountains at the foot of the Sierra del Sueve – yet only a short drive from pleasant beaches and lively fishing villages.
Sandra and her staff provided us a warm welcome, delicious food and a splendid room with a balcony and stunning views across the valley. This is the ‘Dinosaur Coast’ where the big beasts trod millions of years ago, and we spent a happy couple of hours touring the nearby Museo Jurasico, rekindling our childhoods with Tyrannosaurus Rex and friends.
We returned to our Brittany Ferry boat, the newly built Cap Finistere, laden with produce from this plentiful region – superb cheeses, red and white wines, and some of Santiago’s special almond cakes.
The two 24 hour ferry trips from Portsmouth and Santander were the perfect way to begin and end a holiday – with comfortable cabins, decent food and – above all – seats in the sunshine on the top deck, gazing out across the endless ocean while immersed in a good book.
How to get there
Casa Cantabricas’s one-week touring holiday in Galicia, Cantabria and Asturias costs from £450 - £650 per person fly-drive (including car hire), with own vehicle on Brittany Ferries £550 - £1000.
Flights are available from Stansted or Luton on Easyjet, Air Nostrum and Ryanair (from £40 per person) to Santander, Bilbao, Santiago and Biarritz.