Northern Spain by Rail
As you realise I have a thing about travel by train so the thought of the narrow gauge trains which go along the north coast of Spain appealed.
I joined a tour run by Explore, an UK travel company for 12 days travel, we were 2 other couples and a fantastic Basque guide John.
The tour started in Bilbao and I spent day before at the wonderful Guggenheim Museum, don’t be concerned if you will like the art. The building is worth a visit.
Our first stop was the picturesque village of Santillana del Mar which is a short drive from the station at Puente San Miguel. This is the village of the 3 lies as it is not saintly, not flat (llana) not near the sea (del mar). Strict planning rules were introduced for this town in 1573 and today only residents or guests in hotels can bring their cars in.
Next train and bus into the Picos de Europa, limestone mountains and a funicular ride to Bulnes, a village which was only accessible by walking track until the funicular in 2001. I rashly agreed to walk the 5km down from Bulnes with no idea of how narrow, (to me) the path was and how the sides fell away to nothing way below. Very beautiful scenery however.
Then to Llanes, once the centre of the whaling industry but now a fishing town and holiday destination.
Then to Gijon, a large town and beach destination.
With 2 nights in Gijon we went to the historic capital of Asturias, Oviedo. We visited 2 pre Romanesque buildings, a church and a royal household dating back to the 9th century. Oviedo has a lovely old town centre.
Then train to Ferrol, Franco’s birthplace, and as the train stops here by taxi to Santiago de Compostela. The trip is scenic but as the driver and one of our group had an animated conversation in Spanish on food I was not happy as I prefer drivers to have at least one hand on the steering wheel.
Santiago was buzzing with tourists and pilgrims with their telltale shell constantly arriving.
We stayed in the main square opposite the Cathedral in the Parador Santiago, dating back to 1499 and said to be the oldest hotel in the world. We went to mass crowded with pilgrims and saw the botafumeiro (large censer) fly. It weighs a 100 kg and is swung by eight attendants. I was told the last time it fell was when Katherine of Arragon was at Mass.
Then by train to Ponterrada in the Castille Y Leon region, away from the coast, which has an imposing fortress built by the Knights Templar between the 12th and 14 centuries.
Our final stop before returning to Bilbao was the beautiful city of Leon, once the centre of Christian Spain, with its great Gothic Cathedral.
Leon also has a house designed by Gaudi. There is a bronze statue of him outside the house.
Of course there was much more to this tour than I have described. We started in the Basque country, went into Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia and Castille Y Leon before returning to Basque country. The food changed as we went and each town we stayed in had a specialty, which I tried. In Santiago it was almond cake and spiced octopus (pulpo a feira), in Cantabria it was fabafa asturiana (bean dish with meat and sausage) and of course cider, poured from a great height to add the bubbles to the drink.