Local attractions in Green Spain

As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Green Spain, Ginny Light picks out a selection of visitor attractions in Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country.

Eduardo Chillida’s steel sculptures at Ondarreta beach, San Sebastian. Photo: Christopher Willan

The range of landscapes across Green Spain, with coastline, countryside, mountains and cities in such close proximity makes for a mind-blowing variety of attractions in a compact region. The range of sweeping bays, coves and islands along the coastline means one never knows what to expect around the next corner. This scenery has inspired artists and architects through the centuries and as such visitors can enjoy art and architecture from its earliest beginnings to avante garde modern. Evidence of the extraordinary history of mankind in this area has been left in various forms from Paleolithic cave art through baroque basilicas to cutting edge outdoor sculpture and modern art museums.


The Basque Country


La Concha beach, San Sebastian

Often referred to as one of the world’s finest urban beaches, La Concha is minutes’ walk from the old town and so named for its elegant arching shell-like shape that stretches 1,500 metres. The striking beachside spa and restaurant, La Perla, epitomises the Belle Epoque architecture seen throughout the city and even the ‘Concha Railings’ along the entire promenade are famous for their elegant ironwork. The beach is sheltered from the Atlantic swell by the Santa Clara island in the centre of the bay, which offers a landing point for swimmers and kayakers, and is protected from wind by the Urgull and Igueldo mountains. These are the best viewpoints from which to enjoy the beach, the former is accessible by Spain’s oldest funicular which rattles up for a return fare of E3.15. sansebastianturismo.com/en


Chillida’s Wind Comb, San Sebastian

San Sebastian has numerous public artworks, the most famous of which is Eduardo Chillida’s three dramatic steel sculptures mounted on rocks at the western end of Ondarreta beach. The situation was chosen by Basque architect Luis Peña Ganchegui to be be within the tidal ranges so the sculptures look dramatically different when viewed at high or low tide. These ‘Peigne du Vent’ are the starting point for the Côte Contemporaine walking trail that includes further work by Chillida and fellow Basque sculptor, Nestor Basterretxea. At the eastern end of the beach a pedestrian tunnel below the El Pico del Loro outcrop has a changing display of art and leads to La Concha beach and another Chillida work.

sansebastianturismo.com/en/to-do/what-not-to-miss/ondarreta-beach


Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim is to Bilbao what the Opera House is to Sydney - an icon that is inseparable from the name ‘Bilbao’. The museum celebrated its 20th anniversary last year by welcoming its 20th millionth visitor, drawn by the striking titanium and stone architecture and the vast and varied collection of art. In fact, so successful has been the building been in turning around the fortunes of the city, that the term “Bilbao effect” was coined to describe when a declining area is revived following investment in a prestigious and bold public building designed by a ‘starchitect’, in this case, Gehry. At the very least a stroll around the outside is a must to see the building from every angle and enjoy the sculptures and installations around the perimeter by the likes of Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor. guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en

Cantabria


Centro Botin, Santander

Another monument to culture built by prestigious architect, Renzo Piano, this landmark transformed a former dockside car park. The two wings of the building sit on columns and dramatically overhang the sea. They host an art museum on one side and an auditorium, classrooms and roof terrace on the other. The squares around the building are used for outdoor cinema events and merge into the shady Pereda Gardens beyond. The El Muelle cafe inside the centre is a good spot for afternoon tea. centrobotin.org/en


Santillana del Mar

This historic hilltop town is famous for its well-preserved medieval architecture and nearby paleolithic art but is also known as the town of the three lies, because it is neither holy (santi), flat (llana) or by the sea (del mar). The town grew up around the collegiate church of Santa Juliana, a national monument and one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Cantabria. There are many museums including one dedicated to clocks and another, unusually, to instruments of torture. The pale stone, cobbled streets and window boxes awash with flowers make for a pretty place to amble and consequently in summer, the streets can get crowded with tourists. Take a break with a glass of milk and slice of “Bizcocho”, a traditional delicate sponge cake. santillana-del-mar.com/en


Caves of Altamira

Two kilometres outside Santillana del Mar are the Altamira caves where a series of 145,000-year-old paintings of bison, doe and horses were found. The actual relics are closed to visitors to protect them from deterioration, bar a tiny ballot of ticket-holders each week, but a painstakingly built replica exists, with drawings created using the charcoal and red oxides of the original. The cave was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985 and is often referred to as ‘the Sistine Chapel’ of quaternary art. There is also a museum which is host to temporary exhibitions and workshops alongside information about the paintings and their discovery. The site is closed on Mondays and some public holidays. culturaydeporte.gob.es/mnaltamira


Asturias


Llanes

Llanes (pronounced ‘Janice’) has it all - a pretty harbourfront, sandy coves and the Picos de Europa mountains as a backdrop. Part of the town’s medieval defences remain, including 300 metres of pre-Romanesque walls and a tower now occupied by the tourist office. Of the 29 beaches close to the town the most popular is Playa el Sablon because it is tranquil and reached by the Paseo San Pedro walk, a scenic 800 metres long. However, the most curious beaches are Cobijeru and Gulpiyuri, which face inland and have been created by water and sand rushing through gaps in the cliff. Another beach, Poo, is the most giggle-inducing but beautiful despite the name and pronounced ‘Poe’ in Spanish. Elaborate colonial mansions surround Llana that were built by emigres returning from Latin America bringing with them wealth from exports and a cosmopolitan style termed ‘Indian architecture’. Artisan cheese from ‘queserías’ and cidre houses called ‘sidrerías’ are among the gastronomic specialities. whereisasturias.com/llanes-asturias


Cueva de Tito Bustillo, Ribadesella

An astounding series of prehistoric paintings and engravings were discovered in this limestone cave complex, part of the Massif of Ardines, in 1968 by a group of cavers. They are named after one of the group who died shortly after the discovery in a mountaineering accident. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the focus for visitors is the cave art centre, which has interactive displays, replicas of the art and information about geology, enthnology and about caving. Access to the 12 collections of caves is limited to the ‘Panel Principal’. It includes scenes of deer, reindeer, goats, horses, and bisons painted thousands of years apart. Tours are restricted to certain days and offered only in Spanish. centrotitobustillo.com


Gijón Railway Museum

This museum charts the railway history of Asturias, restores locomotives and offers a meeting place for rail enthusiasts - one of the rooms is dedicated to railway modelling which delights young and old visitors alike. Its rolling stock number 140, many of which can be climbed aboard to take a look inside. The museum is inside the former North Train Station of Gijón, near Poniente Beach. There is free admission on Sundays and is most popular on its ‘Steam Days’ when visitors are able to ride on some of the heritage models. museos.gijon.es


Castro de Coana

The ‘castros’ are a distinctive style of pre-Roman settlement found across the Iberian peninsula. This site is renowned for its size and variety of constructions including an acropolis and the ruins of 80 circular buildings. It is thought that at one time as many as 2,000 people lived here. It has been excavated since the late 19th century and paints a vivid picture of the layout of hilltop villages of the era. The so-called ‘sacred precinct’ houses an area thought to be public baths including a swimming pool and sauna. It is believed that the settlement thrived on the gold trade and was an important defensive position above the Navia river. It is now 4km inland from Navia town outside Coana. castrosdeasturias.es/castros/46/15/el-castro-de-coaa

Galicia


Lugo

Lugo is best known for its city walls - the entire perimeter around what was the Roman town of Lucus Augusti remain intact making them the finest example of late Roman fortifications in western Europe. Visitors can encircle the town on the 2.3km walkway along the top of the walls. Lugo is also one of the main stopping off points along the Camino Primitivo, the oldest Camino de Santiago route, and is famous for its cathedral, Praza de Santa Maria. The 12th century Romanesque building has evolved over time to incorporate elements of Baroque, Gothic and Neoclassical styles. turismolugo.info


The Roman bridge, Ourense

Known as Ponte Vella or Puente Mayor, this striking structure is an emblem of the city and spans the river Miño. Although subsequent repairs have been carried out, the Roman foundations remain with a medieval construction above. The bridge was once considered the largest in Spain and links the historic south of the town with the Franco-era north. The town is also popular, especially among walkers, for its thermal baths which range from the free public ones to expensive private spas with hot pools and treatments. The Chavasqueira pools come recommended as does the Japanese style complex at Outariz. There is even a ‘thermal train’ that travels from the town’s main square to the thermal bath areas. visitaourense.com


For nearby places to stay, local food and drink, and low impact outdoor adventure activities, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Green Spain


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