As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to Green Spain, our travel writer Ginny Light experiences the culture and heritage of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country - the prehistoric, the medieval and the modern.
Prehistoric Green Spain
The climate of Green Spain and its bounteous soils and plentiful seas, have been a draw for populations from prehistory to modern day, all of whom have left their mark in an extraordinary trail of heritage through the ages.
In Cantabria exists one of the largest collection of prehistoric art and artefacts in Europe, matched only by those discovered in southern France.
Visitors to the area can see cave art at a number of sites including at Altamira (pictured above), where there is a state-of-the-art museum and replica cave alongside the original. Visits to the actual cave art are limited to one tour per week for five people, drawn by ballot from visitors who buy tickets on a Friday morning. But seeing the replica, or Neocave, is astounding and will surprise those who may not expect this to be one of the highlights of the region.
The cave has been recreated as close as possible to the real thing, with the art covering the ceiling of the rear chamber. There's a quiet beauty to this art - bison in bold charcoal outlines and sweeping ochre shading with eyes full of emotion. In fact, when the art was first discovered in 1879 the authenticity of it was doubted because of the prowess of the paintings. It was also difficult to believe that palaeolithic man would produce art on this scale when life was so challenging and focused on survival. The quandary was why so much time would be spent on something without any practical use. There are a few theories - that it is regarded as ritual, or as a good omen to aid hunting or as a record of events.
The power of the drawings owes to the effectiveness of the setting. The rock surfaces are authentic and together with the videos and explanation, it is not a leap of imagination to conjure images of prehistoric man daubing the paint into the cave walls. The museum has numerous exhibits about prehistoric life, how the discoveries at Altamira were made in 1879 and other palaeolithic discoveries from across Spain, much of it from Cantabria. Not all displays are translated into English but there is enough for non-Spanish speakers. There is also a gift shop and drink and snack machines.
Close to Altamira is a beautifully preserved medieval town, Santillana del Mar, which developed around a collegiate church some 15,000 years after the cave paintings were created. The pale stone cobbled streets have been smoothed by foot traffic, not just of modern day tourists but also the thousands of pilgrims who have passed through en route to Santiago de Compostela.
They have also left their mark on the walls outside the town’s most famous building, Santa Juliana. Deep carved crosses adorns the wall where tourists now sit to admire the gallery of cloisters over the church door and the comings and goings of the town’s main square.
There are fine examples of Roman architecture across Green Spain but nowhere is it more intact than in Lugo. The town, known during Roman times as Lucus Augusti, remains completely encircled by its original Roman walls. They are considered the best example of late Roman fortifications in western Europe.
Visitors can walk around the 2.3km walkway along the top of the walls for a bird’s eye view of the city. It is a good opportunity to walk off the ‘pinchos’ - tapas style small plates of food - that come free with a drink in many of the bars in the Old Town. Lugo is famous for its cathedral, Praza de Santa Maria, a 12th century Romanesque building with additions in the Baroque, Gothic and Neoclassical styles.
Also popular, especially for walkers, are the Roman baths, now part of a modern spa complex in the Hotel Balneario de Lugo, close to the Roman bridge over the River Mino.Such is the town’s history that every year, it is transformed for Lucus Augusti, a re-enactment festival each June.The other great festival is Fiestas de San Froilán in October, a celebration of music, theatre, parades, street markets and tapas, notably Galician style octopus.
Azpeitia has a handful of historical buildings but this does include the spectacular Sanctuary de Loyola. It takes a leap of faith to get here - it is a largely industrial area along the River Urola so it is all the more surprising when a monumental basilica with two wings and surrounding gardens loom large. It was built in the 17th century in honour of St Ignatius of Loyola, who was born nearby. The basilica is breathtaking.
The dome is painted blue, pink and gold gilt with coats of arms radiating out from a glass cupola from which dangles a vast crystal chandelier. There’s a mirror in the centre of the basilica, which means you can look down, rather than straining up, and give the ceiling the lengthy attention it deserves. The altar is also extraordinary, inlaid with intricate images - a drum, a pierced heart, a fortress and all around is marble in every hue.
Extravagance and colour also run wild in one of Gaudi’s most eccentric buildings, The Caprice, in Comillas, Cantabria. The exterior of this private house is a chequerboard of enamel yellow sunflowers and bright green tiles. It has a lookout tower, metal balconies shaped like musical notes and star-shaped chimney funnels.
It was built in 1883 for a wealthy lawyer and property developer called Maximo Diaz de Quijano. He chose Comillas because it was the fashionable summer retreat of wealthy and noble Spaniards - even the Spanish royal family spent holidays there.
Much of the wealth in this region during the 19th century was generated by emigres, or Indianos, who made their fortune in south America and wanted to show off their wealth back home. There are colonial style mansions with arched windows, terraces with balconies and distinctive yellow, cream and terracotta paintwork. Maximo Diaz de Quijano wanted to out do them all. The house has a complex history including a time spent derelict but has been bought and restored as a museum with information about Gaudi as well as many of his drawings and some of his furniture.
For modern art and architecture, Green Spain has so much to offer. From the whacky vineyards of Rioja such as the Marques de Riscal (pictured above) or Bodegas Ysios (pictured below), to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim and Renzo Piano’s Centro Botin in Santander, or Chillida’s wind comb sculptures in San Sebastián (also pictured below), there are so many arresting and thought-provoking sights.
The Guggenheim Museum (above) in Bilbao is art in itself and if your time or budget is short, then it is even worth just a perambulation of the exterior to enjoy the extraordinary building from every angle and the various sculptures and temporary exhibits around the outside.
The bridges across the Nervion River are also a good viewpoint from which to enjoy Gehry's metal curves. Otherwise, there is free art across the region, including a contemporary art trail in San Sebastián to see Chillida’s wind combs as well as some of his less well known works.
Words by Ginny Light. Photos by Christoper Willan.
Spanish Tourist Office: www.spain.info
Basque Country: www.tourism.euskadi.eus/en
Disclosure: Ginny Light was a guest of the Spanish Tourist Office. Ginny had full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Green Spain in the winter of 2018 for Greentraveller's Guide to Green Spain. All opinions are the author's own.