The small northern regions of Cantabria and Asturias are a delightful discovery. Green valleys stretch down from snow-topped peaks to beautiful beaches. Locals drink cider and eat fantastic seafood and cheese, and the region’s fascinating history begins with some of the world’s most outstanding cave art.
Spectacular Peaks – Rising majestically only 15km inland, the Picos de Europa mark the greatest, most dramatic heights of the Cordillera Cantábrica, with enough awe-inspiring mountainscapes to make them arguably the finest hill-walking country in Spain. You can ramble past high-level lakes, peer over kilometre-high precipices or traverse the magnificent Garganta del Cares gorge (p494).
Glorious Beaches – Wild, rugged and unspoilt, the hundreds of secluded sandy stretches and mysterious coves that line the 550km-long Cantabrian and Asturian coast are some of Spain’s most beautiful and breathtaking beaches, and when the waves are up, the region’s surf scene comes alive.
Ancient Cave Art – Humanity’s first accomplished art was painted, drawn and engraved on the walls of European caves by Stone Age hunter-gatherers between about 39,000 and 10,000 BC, and reached some of its greatest artistic genius at the World Heritage–listed caves of Altamira (p468), El Castillo (p462) and Covalanas (p464) in Cantabria.
PICTURESQUE TOWNS ALONG THE COAST
Santillana del Mar – They say this is the town of the three lies, since it is not santi (holy), llana (flat) or del mar (by the sea)! This medieval jewel is in such a perfect state of preservation, with its bright cobbled streets and tanned stone and brick buildings huddling in a muddle of centuries of history, that it seems too good to be true. Surely it’s a film set! Well, no. People still live here, passing their precious houses down from generation to generation. Strict town planning rules were introduced back in 1575, and today they include the stipulation that only residents or guests in hotels with garages may bring vehicles into the old heart of town.
Comillas – Sixteen kilometres west from Santillana through verdant countryside, Comillas has a lovely golden beach and a tiny fishing port, but there is more: a pleasant, cobbled old centre, and hilltops crowned by some of the most original buildings in Cantabria.
San Vicente de la Barquera – The last town on the Cantabrian coast before you enter Asturias, San Vicente de la Barquera sits handsomely on a point of land between two long inlets, backed by dramatic Picos de Europa mountainscapes. The eastern inlet, the estuary of the Río Escudo, is spanned by the low-slung, 15th-century Puente de la Maza. San Vicente was one of the Cuatro Villas de la Costa, a federation of four dominant medieval ports that was converted into the province of Cantabria in 1779 (along with Santander, Laredo and Castro Urdiales). The long beaches east of town make San Vicente quite a busy summer spot. (photo below)
* Descriptions are taken from Lonely Planet.