Road trip through Northern Spain…. Part one

No, we were not doing the Camino to Santiago de Compostella, though at times it felt like it, there were so many pilgrims everywhere.  We did a road trip through Northern Spain, with the car, from Bilbao to Santiago, to visit Tom who is working at the University there, and back via Burgos to return from Santander.  It took 12 days.  This post is about the Guggenheim in Bilbao and our journey along the coast.

The Guggenheim, Bilbao

We travelled on the 24 hour ferry from Portsmouth. It is a trip I have always wanted to do – a proper voyage and the chance to see whales and dolphins. Unfortunately it did not turn out quite like that. Think Bay of Biscay? Think storms and shipwrecks. The journey out was very rough indeed – we watched ‘The Favourite’ in a cinema that was heaving all over the place, and so noisy with vibration from the ship you could scarcely hear. We were not allowed to go outside at all. No wildlife viewing, no sunning ourselves on deck….

Bilbao was a much bigger city than I imagined – we got thoroughly lost getting from the port to the city centre on a tangle of Spanish motorways. Philosopher drove and I navigated – we did OK overall despite some degree of garment rending, effing and blinding…. We stayed in a truly excellent hotel – the Barcello Nervion, just up the road from the Guggenheim. Ultra-modern, lovely room, and breakfast buffet to die for – Battleaxe would totally recommend.

The Guggenheim, for me, was one of the highlights of the whole trip. The architecture just blew me away. When we arrived in the morning a fog installation from some Japanese artist was being shown, which bathes the foot of the building in eerie mist. The giant Louise Bourgeois spider looked very scary.  The views of the building, inside and out, were just amazing. Battleaxe says – a ‘must-see’.

Unfortunately the art did not impress us so much – the two exhibitions, Jenny Holzer and Georgio Morandi were not satisfying in totally different ways – I won’t go into why. They had scarcely any of the permanent collection on show. However, we liked the huge hall full of massive Richard Serra metal shapes.


We didn’t really see much of the rest of Bilbao – took a walk in the old town – not that impressed…

Next, for a complete contrast, we drove along the coastal motorway – which is amazing by the way – virtually empty, just hugely expensive viaducts followed by even more expensive tunnels – and the scenery is fabulous. Sort of alpine by sea, and so green and fresh at this time of year. Arrived in Santillana del Mar, a preseved medieval village, where I had booked us into the preserved medieval Parador de Gil Blas.  In my experience, it is always a mistake to book into ancient piles following modern luxury, and this hotel was no exception.  A lovely old place right in the centre of the village, and a nice garden and bar area, but our room was so dark – the bed was hard, the pillows were harder, the lighting was dim… we just had a dormer window overlooking the square. Romantic I suppose….
Parador de Gil Blas
View from our window

The village itself is pretty, but a total tourist trap – it probably has no life except for tourism. We wanted some authentic tapas for our supper, but all the restaurants just seemed to offer all-in-one tourist menus. Eventually we ordered tapas from the hotel – and very strange it was too – leathery squid kebabs and strange cold soup stick in my mind.

We saw our first signs of the Camino way – an arrow on the wall, a brass scallop-shell set into the roadway.

All along this stretch of the North Spanish coast there are caves once inhabited by Neolithic people, known for their cave paintings There are some famous ones near Santillana, the Altamira caves, but it is impossible to see the originals. I wanted to see the real thing, so had booked us a tour of the Tito Bustillo cave, along the coast at Ribadesella.  This cave was only discovered in 1968, so the paintings are better preserved and can still be viewed, and it is less well-known. It was all very interesting, and quite moving in a strange way.

No  photos were allowed in the caves, so these pictures are off the internet.

After looking round the museum, which we needed to do because the tour was all in Spanish, we had to walk a very long way to reach the paintings, through massive caves with the most amazing stalactites and stalagmites. The wall we were allowed to see had paintings of horses and reindeer from around 22,000 to 10,000 BC – incredibly, the people had painted and overpainted the same stretch of wall for around 10,000 years… Why would they do that? We have no idea. I first saw these Northern Spanish caves advertised on the wall of the ladies loo at Kent’s Cavern, near Torquay – which we visited recently – see this post. The folk in Kent’s Cavern were not into painting…. However, we did learn there that stalagmites grow about 1cm in a thousand years. Some of the ones we saw in Spain were about 8 foot high…. those folks who lived in the caves must have seen much the same structures… I wonder what they thought they were…

Next, we checked into the most wonderful little hotel near the pretty seaside village of Cudillero. The hotel, the Casona de la Paca, was an old manor house set in a peaceful garden.  Our room was lovely, the place was just beautiful inside and out,, and Battleaxe would again, totally recommend. The people who kept it could not have been nicer, and it was an oasis of peace and calm.



View from our room

One slight downside, they did not do dinner, and the lady recommended a ‘family’ restaurant just down the road. More like the Addams family… Philosopher ordered ‘gulas’ thinking it would be some goulashy stew – and got – baby eels. They are not even real eels, but synthesised things made like crab sticks. Horrible.

I ordered fabada, which I always like in English ‘Spanish’ places, but this was a huge plate of beans with some sort of tough salted horsemeat floating in it, plus chunks of soggy black pudding and greasy sausage. Horrible.  Add to all that a plate of supposed ‘Patatas Bravas’ which was chips with ketchup, and it was a memorable meal…

The little village of Cudillero was down an incredibly steep road, tucked into the side of a cliff a bit like those Italian villages on the Amalfi coast… It was very pretty, but again, very touristy. Must be impossible in the summer.




Next day, we headed along the coastal motorway for the last time, before turning inland. Battleaxe would recommend the journey – it is easy driving and very scenic. There were loads of places we did not see – like Oviedo… We saw so many pilgrims – we were surprised – all heading for Santiago de Compostella, where I’ll be in my next post…



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