In the port city of Santander, the capital of Cantabria, I sat among locals at the counter of Chocolatería Áliva, dipping fresh churros into thick, pudding-like hot chocolate. When I asked about an old photo of the city on the wall, the waitress called to the manager, the designated storyteller. What looked like fresh snow on an empty patch where this building was in the heart of town was actually a coat of ashes from a devastating fire in 1941.
“They finally got through the [Spanish] civil war in 1939, and were just starting to pull themselves up—” Here he gestured, pulling his ears up. “—and this comes along and smacks them down. That’s some bad luck.”
Remarkably the only death was a firefighter who had an apparent heart attack while rushing to get to the fire. The disaster, he told me, explains the imperfect grid of the city streets, misaligned, a fraction of a block off, with roads ending in the middle of the next block. The next morning I checked out the cathedral dating back to the Middle Ages and continued driving, a couple more stories in my pocket.
From east to west the autonomous communities of Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia make up the northern Atlantic Coast of Spain. After five days in Bilbao and Basque Country, I headed west on a 500-mile road trip. In planning a Spain trip for July I had worried that the heat would be beastly, imagining the arid stretches around Madrid or throughout southern Spain. Not so in the north. The average temperatures, even in summer, are quite pleasant, and the evenings can dip even further to light jacket comfort. The cool waters of the Atlantic provide the air-con and the mountains from Basque Country through Asturias and into Galicia are deeply green and oftentimes nestled in, or just under, low-hanging clouds. A few lovely beaches exist but much more of the coastline is dramatic, open to big waves tumbling over rock. In particular, Costa da Morte, Galicia’s Coast of Death, turns the corner from north to west coast and is some of the best scenery on this trip.
In Asturias I stayed in Gijón, another port city, admiring the seaside promenade in the evening, then making a day trip inland to Oviedo to see its UNESCO World Heritage cathedral. I took lunch in nearby “cider alley,” where my server raised a 3 euro bottle of local cider above his head and poured a thin stream to aerate it a bit as it spattered into the glass held below his waist—a local tradition that is perhaps best witnessed upwind. Before leaving town I found a bakery to purchase “carbayon,” a local pastry filled with a sweet mixture of egg yolk, almonds, and cognac.
I crossed into Galicia on a bridge over the estuary formed where the Eo River meets the sea. Much like Basque Country, Galicia has its own language (the forbear of modern Portuguese, in fact) and I saw it immediately in signage and place names. Leaving the expressway I headed through fields on narrow lanes, past old-school grain stores on columns like raised tombs, to the fishing village of Rinlo.
A hiking trail—also part of one of the El Camino pilgrimage routes—passes through waves of grasses and wildflowers overlooking the surf tumbling into the jagged coastline. In the village I passed over two bustling restaurants and headed to the center where I ordered a Galicia Estrella beer and the best plate of octopus I had on the entire trip: Galician-style, boiled and served with olive oil, sea salt, and paprika. A rite of passage into Galicia.
The coastal city of A Coruña merited two nights. With a guide, I strolled the waterfront where brilliant white balconies once were shared homes of local fishermen but are now the prime real estate of the wealthy. I visited Picasso’s childhood home, and in the afternoon climbed inside the Roman-era tower, another UNESCO World Heritage site, with views to the horizon and winds so strong my knuckles grew white on the guard rail.
I lunched at Pablo Gallego, the eponymous eatery of the city’s renowned chef, teacher, and radio personality on a local and somewhat pricey delicacy: gooseneck barnacles. A plate of alien fingers arrived. The flesh must be pinched from its plastic-like casing, but once you get past the visual shock, the flavor suggests briny lobster.
I took an indirect scenic route to Santiago de Compostela, following Costa da Morte on the west coast, stopping at Camino-affiliated sites such as the Cabo Vilán lighthouse, the Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Boat—a seaside church at the end of an El Camino route that starts in Santiago—and Finisterre, a lighthouse and overlook on a cliff once thought by Romans to be the end of the world.
All Paths Lead to Santiago
In 2018, El Camino, the famous pilgrimage that has transcended religion to become universally spiritual, drew at least 327,378 pilgrims from nearly 200 nations to Santiago, based on the number of completion certificates granted. More than half of them followed the path that passes inland from France, but the Camino Norte is the trekker’s version of my road route and the third most popular route. Those who pick up the passport must complete at least 100 km to qualify for a Compostela certificate.
The heart of Santiago is primarily a pedestrian zone, and the narrow streets wind out from the Cathedral of St. James (also Iago or Jaime).
San Francisco Hotel Monumento, an 18th-century former convent still owned by monks but managed privately as a four-star boutique hotel, was my home for two nights. From the front door I entered the car-free area and strolled three blocks to where the cathedral square opened up.
Early in the morning, they started to arrive, and then on through the day and even into the evening: The pilgrims.
Some solo, some with a partner; others in groups they came with or groups they formed over the journey. Some wept, some laughed, overcome with euphoria. Some had the remaining strength to dance and sing. Others lay down on the cobblestones and rested their heads on their packs, sleeping, meditating, staring at the clear blue sky. Flushed faces, smiling faces. A personal victory earned; a challenge accepted and met. Maybe for this I loved Santiago best. The medieval layout and history, the lack of cars, the friendly locals, and the joie de vivre of a very international and intentional crowd. While tour groups surely arrive by bus or shuttles from cruise ships in A Coruña or Vigo, the crowd is primarily the sort that would pick up a walking stick and go low and slow for weeks or months from as far away as France or Portugal, passing through small towns and humble country to get here.
Music echoes among the stone walls—an accordion player, a singer, a guitarist or harp player, “tunas,” troupes of university students caroling for their college funds, a tradition that dates to the 13th century. And always at least one bagpiper in a kilt, best heard under the arched passageway alongside the cathedral. To the unaware, the Celtic roots/influence in Galicia may come as a surprise.
Completed in 1211, the cathedral is the finish line for pilgrims and a striking construction in its own right, mixing Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque elements. Its Pórtico da Gloria, painstakingly restored and protected from the elements, requires a special limited ticket. It’s worth every penny.
My journey ended in Vigo, another popular port city, with vineyards and Portugal to the south, winding scenic drives along the coast, and the marvelously preserved pedestrian-haven Pontevedra across the water to the north. My last night I walked up on a street concert featuring a bagpiper with a rock band playing a Queen song, “Don’t Stop Me Now.” The one word I could use to capture all aspects of this trip: unexpected. An amazing road trip, yet one that inspires me to return on foot.
If You Go:
Ask Google maps to avoid tolls and you get a scenic twisting path without losing much time on the clock— unless you stop for views, also recommended.
The car rental was one-way between airports in Bilbao and Vigo.
From Vigo it is a short flight back to Madrid or a bus ride to Porto, Portugal, which has an even better-connected airport.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com