As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to Green Spain, Ginny Light samples the food scene and the great outdoors in Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country.
Food is often a product of geography and history, and no more so than in Green Spain where the local fare goes far beyond the typical seaside menu - there are many familiar items like tortilla, paella and squid but also products of the ‘terroir’, such as beef, cheese and beans.
Gastronomy is a big draw for Green Spain, but so too is the huge variety of activities and attractions in a relatively compact area, especially given the proximity of the mountains to the coastline and the region's avante garde cities such as Bilbao and San Sebastián.
You say Tapas, I say Pintxos
What is considered tapas in most parts of Spain is called ‘pintxos’ in Green Spain. It is best known in the bars of San Sebastián, where pintxos culture is very much part of city life. The pintxos experience is a multi-generational affair, and on a Friday or Saturday night one can expect pintxos bars in San Sebastián to be spilling their customers onto the street
From the tiny matchbox neighbourhood bar to the latest fashionable eatery, this is no tourist tarry - everyone tucks in from 6pm. But come 10pm, the crowds disperse and the floors are littered with little napkins and cocktail sticks - all that is left of a bar once overflowing with a rainbow of pintxos dishes.
Many items come on toasted bread resting on a napkin - tortillas, mushrooms, padron peppers and cured ham, crab or salt cod. Or there are sticks that pierce a chunk of chorizo, an anchovy, olive and jalapeno pepper or a garlicky mushroom. Tortilla is always served runny, as it should be, not dried out and rubbery, and often comes sandwiched around a central filling of something like ham and cheese or spinach.
These plates could cost anywhere between €1 and €5 depending on the institution, or on rare occasions, come free with a drink. But more often than not, you are charged for each plate of food that you choose while your drink is prepared.
A sweetshop mentality is essential - restraint is the order of the day but it is hard not to take too much - towers of morcilla sausage atop sweet roasted pepper and bread, crispy croquettes of jamon Iberico, and tempura salt cod.
Grazing cows, cheese matured in caves and hearty stews are a staple of the upland regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country. This is a consequence of the lush pasture that supports pastoral farming.
Nigel Burch owns the Hotel Posada del Valle in Asturias and grows much of his own produce but sources the rest locally. He explained to me that: “The mountain landscape of Asturias means it is difficult to farm on a commercial scale so there is a huge diversity of cheese in the area owing to the many smallholdings”.
The beans in traditional dishes such as fabada stews, have their roots in the influence of Latin America culture, brought back by emigres who fled Spain and found their fortunes from across the Atlantic.
There is another change from southern Spain; the menus mostly come in two languages - Spanish and Basque. The latter is a mythical and exotic tongue - all x’s, z’s and k’s. It is quite unlike any other European language, and together with the influence of beef, cheese and beans, can make navigating a menu in this part of Spain feel like unfamiliar territory.
Eating in can be just as enticing in Green Spain - there are fresh produce markets across the region. Bilbao, Santander and San Sebastián are among the cities with superb fish markets that also have stalls selling vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese and deli items.
The fish comes from the Bay of Biscay and includes the somewhat alien-like local delicacy - percebes, or goose barnacles. These crustaceans are indigenous to this coastline and are usually steamed or boiled, then the insides pulled out and eaten. The taste is said to be rather like octopus and oyster.
What to drink
A popular drink with seafood and pintxos is the local white wine, txakoli, and, particularly in Asturias, cider. Both drinks are poured from a great height into a glass - the idea being that the liquid is ‘broken’ on contact with the glass and left aerated with a slight fizz.
Burn it off
In between meals, the variety of landscape across Green Spain means there is a vast range of activities from the sedate to the intense. Exploring the cities on foot is the best way to get your bearings and in San Sebastián there is a fascinating route around the arc of La Concha Bay.Two hills mark the entrances to La Concha Bay like standing sentries, and offer spectacular viewpoints from which to see the city and the hills beyond.
Urgull Hill is to the east and on the other side is Monte Igueldo, which has been served by the same rickety wooden funicular for over 100 years. At the top is a shabby but charming amusement park and cafes and restaurants.Tourists and locals have been taking the train since Victorian times when a casino and dance hall were the big draws at the summit. It is worth the ride just for the the changing panorama as the train ascends the hill and the sudden refreshing blast of Atlantic air as one emerges from the shadow of the hill.
Along the arc of the bay one can take the upper promenade on the arching sweep of the famous La Concha iron railings.Or escape the heat in the covered lower walkway, onto which countless surf and paddleboard schools open out - many of them year-round. Also on this route is a big Ferris wheel and behind it the Old Town, home to the fish market, pintxos bars and the beautiful baroque church, Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus.
On and under the water
Watersports stretch far beyond the city beaches. Surfing is hugely popular the entire length of the coast because of the range of breaks and reliability of the swell in the Bay of Biscay. Kiteboarding and windsurfing are also on offer in destinations such as Somo and Oyambre.
There is quiet water here too - the many rivers that carry run-off down from the Picos de Europa open into broad estuaries along the coast and many are protected by coves and outcrops. These are superb to explore by paddle board - notably San Vicente de la Barquera and Llanes.
The wind and waves of the Bay of Biscay have made it a treacherous stretch of water for shipping over the centuries and many vessels have fallen foul of rough weather. This makes it exciting territory for wreck dives. The Aries shipwreck in Galicia is a dive site offered by Wild Sea and is known for its well preserved cabins and the marine creatures that live within it.
One of the most extraordinary things about the region of Green Spain are the vistas - the backdrop to the coastal scenery is the Picos de Europa mountains, part of the spine of the Cantabrian mountains that run east-west across northern Spain. All over the mountains are miradors, or viewpoints, as well as walking routes and stunning glacial lakes.
Some of the most popular published walks, which tend to be between three and six hours long, are Cares Route, the Covadonga Lakes, the Ordiales viewing point, the Vega de Ario plain and the ascent to the Fuente Dé cable car. Like walking in the Scottish Cairngorms or the Lake District, one should be prepared for rapid changes of weather with a variety of clothes and good boots. Pack a picnic of Cabrales cheese, fresh bread, crisps from Asturian potatoes and the local biscocho cake with apple juice or cider and you can enjoy a regional feast, often with miles of the Cantabrian mountains all to yourself.
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.