Touring Northern Spain: From Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela
By Marina Solovyov
In a week-long tour across Northern Spain, I got the chance to appreciate how the zone’s rolling green hills, mountainous terrains, food and climate compare with other parts of the country.
Yet, it was even more interesting to observe was how the culture of one community differed from the other along the route.
Intriguingly, from Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela, a distance of only two hundred and fifty-eight miles, I heard three different languages: Spanish (referred to as Castilian in Spain) which is spoken most everywhere, Euskera, which is unique to the Basque Country, and Gallego, which is common in the province of Galicia.
The Basque Culture
The metropolis of Bilbao is full of modern architecture and is perhaps the busiest part of Northern Spain. Bilbao, once known as the ugliest city in Spain, has been restored in the past decades and is now a tourist hotspot.
Bilbao has a hustling financial district and a culture where the locals maintain a strong national identity and preserve their age-old traditions by speaking their own language.
Heart of Bilbao
One of the best examples of how Bilbao has changed into a modern city with thoughts towards the 21st century, is its titanium marvel the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry. It is Bilbao’s number one tourist attraction and an integral part of the city.
In front of the Guggenheim, a giant size structure of a dog decorated with colorful flowers marks the famous entryway into the three-story building. Don’t forget to take a picture in front of this landmark or you’ll surely regret it.
Besides Bilbao’s interesting construction and modern sights, one thing that must be experienced in this city is it’s gastronomy. While the entire north of Spain is known for its excellent cooking, Bilbao is a place where the creation of food is a work of genius. In fact there are many cooking societies (some secret) in the city. The reputation of the gastronomic center brings students from all around the world to study the art of designing edible fantasies.
On my trip I was fortunate to experience the cooking of one most famous chefs in the Basque Country, Daniel Garíca. His restuarant, Zortziko, is only minutes from the Guggenheim, yet dining there is a bit more complicated. Reservations must be booked months in advance.
After a luxurious sleep at Bilbao’s Hoteles Silken, where the internal design of the hotel closely reflects the style of the Guggenheim, we proceeded to Navarra.
Even though the landscape along the route to Navarra mimicks the lush green hills and wave-beaten shores of the Basque region, once inside the domain, one can sense that its towns have a more intimate and consequentially warmer personality.
One stop that stood out was in Pamplona, the capital of Navarra. Here, Ernest Hemingway spent much of his time socializing with the locals at the Iruña Café, located in the town Plaza Castillo.
Actually, it was Hemingway’s writing about Pamplona and its people that first gave the city world wide recognition. However today, Pamplona is most famous for its annual festival, San Fermin. The holiday lasts from July 6th to the 14th.
During this week, the small town quadruples in population to nearly a million people, with tourists coming from all over the world to experience the festival.
Of particular interest to many is the encierro, the famous running of the bulls. The bull run starts at Calle Santo Domingo, passes through Plaza Consistenial, and ends in the bullring where the corridas (bullfights) are held.
A word of caution: If you are considering taking part in the action, you should know that the tradition of jumping in front of a running bull is extremely dangerous. While many enjoy the thrill of trying to outrun the animals, others get hurt and need serious medical attention. Whatever you do, make sure to participate in the festivities and be more than an observer; Spanish festivities can not be fully enjoyed unless you get into the spirit.
La Rioja is the smallest autonomous community in all of Spain, yet is well visited. The region is well known for producing some of the best wine in Northern Spain. Although it is true that the majority of Spanish wine is delicious, la Rioja has a strong reputation for its wine because it is one of the few areas in Spain that produces wine on an international level. For example in the States, most local liquor stores will carry “Rioja Red”.
One especially fun thing to do in Rioja is visit a bodega (wine vineyard). During our travels we stopped at the Don Jacabo vineyard.
Most bodegas allow visitors the opportunity to appreciate wine through wine tastings. Two of the most important tips I learned before drinking my wine are: 1) never hold the cup near the top of the glass, always by the stem or bottom, otherwise you may warm the wine, and 2) hold the cup steady and swirl the wine gently to allow the bubbles in the wine to pop and thus make each sip more potent.
Churches and More
Throughout our journey, we passed cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and other impressive monuments. While many countries throughout Europe, as well as other parts of the world, demand that you dress in certain attire to enter, this is not true of churches in Spain. Since the end of the dictatorship of Franco in 1975, Spanish people no longer feel compelled to attend church frequently or to dress up as they did in the years of strictness and regulation.
Castilla y León
In Castilla y León, another community of Spain, we entered some of the most exciting and interesting places of worship seen on the trip. The Cathedral of León has an astounding display of stain-glassed windows and the Burgos Cathedral, a Gothic-styled masterpiece from the 13th century, is equally impressive.
For lunch, we stopped in the lovely Meson del Cid in Burgos, a restaurant/hotel on Plaza de Santa Maria that offers regional food. While this restaurant serves food in the traditional order of appetizer then meal, it is common in Castilla y Leon to get served the largest part of the meal first.
Our last stop was Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The way to Galicia is memorable because the route becomes filled with old towns, small villages, and traditional homes.
The roads to this place are especially magnificent to travel because you must go in between valleys, mountains, lakes, and lively passages buried with flowers. One of these charming tracks is found on the route to Bierzo, a starting point of a path that takes hikers through several historic villages on their way to Santiago.
The green landscapes and grassy mountains passed make the track a must on the list of many travelers coming on foot, bike, or horse. Yet, this is not the case for those traveling in large vehicles. There are many narrow curves to the road that make it impossible for buses to turn; as a result, the route does not see many tourists.
Besides stopping at the villages of Bierzo to take note of the local life, stop at the Cruz de Ferro. Make sure to bring a stone with you; for ages pilgrims/hikers pass through this spot to drop a stone representative of leaving behind their sins. Thus, you too can leave Spain with a clean conscience.
Finally when in Santiago, try a piece of the traditional town cake called “El Torte de Santiago” as well as the city’s famous almond cookies. All around the Cathedral are side streets with shops selling these artisan snacks.
Employees stand outside with trays to hand out samples to passersby. Once you’ve had a taste of these yummies, you may decide to bring some home.
Also nice to try is the Galician cheese, which takes the shape of a woman’s breast and is therefore known as el queso de la teta, or the cheese of the breast.
Don’t worry about the calories in these tasty treats, you can worry about that when you get home. Besides, when is the next time you will be in Spain?
Marina Solovyov is a writer and blogger for GoNOMAD. She is currently teaching English in Japan.