Winning tip: Basque Coast Geopark
If you’d rather stray far from the tourist trail, the Basque Coast Geopark is a delight. It’s a protected area of the coastline around Mutriku, Deba, and Zumaia. There are 13km of cliffs made up of flysch (shale bed) deposits which have created layered and bizarre rock formations. We felt as though we were on the set of Jurassic Park. These staggering cliffs show how the Earth changed over millions of years and fossils are plentiful for the kids to admire. A boat tour is a great way to see it and costs €20 adult, €10 under-12s.
The Camino Inglès (the “English Way”) is the shortest of the routes to Santiago de Compostela, and fits neatly into one week. Starting in Ferrol and passing through the historic towns of Pontedeume and Betanzos, it also takes you along beautiful fjord-like rías and through magical forests, and tiny forgotten villages.
Unexpectedly beautiful Vigo
Vigo won’t be top of many people’s lists when thinking of Spain but one of the largest cities in Galicia is well worth a visit, with cheap flights from the UK. What Vigo may lack in Mediterranean warmth it makes up for in Atlantic charm. The Casco Vello (old town) has some glorious fish restaurants along with pintxos and tapas galore. This bit of the Atlantic produces some of the finest seafood in Spain.
Exploring the woods: Illa Cortegada
In Galicia, there is an island whose woods smell of bay and seafood: the most mouth-watering combination. The sand banks of the Ría de Arousa produce clams, cockles, razor clams, and other types of shellfish. And the Illa Cortegada provides the bay leaves to flavour these delicious seafood products.
Stunning scenery and great food: Cudillero
Cudillero is a picturesque fishing village accessible from Oviedo on the Feve train. Whether it’s watching the boats unload their catch in the harbour or exploring the narrow, winding streets, this is a beautiful place to experience everything that’s great about Asturias. Local restaurants offer delicious, fresh seafood and there are scenic coastal walks. Pension Alver is a wonderful budget place to stay (doubles from €40 room-only), run by a friendly Anglo-Spanish couple who are full of tips on walks and places to eat.
Small city with a big heart: Avilés
Just 20 minutes from Oviedo airport lies the city of Avilés, whose old town is among the most vibrant I have ever visited. Cobbled streets, beautiful architecture and locals who like any excuse for a party. With doubles in the five-star Palacio de Avilés hotel on the main square from €95 room-only and complimentary tapas in most bars, this city is heavy on fun while light on the pocket.
Embarrassing the children at Torimbia beach
I had been embarrassing the kids with my rather bad Spanish when we went to Torimbia beach near Llanes. It’s a beautiful white-sand beach in a perfect semicircle, backed by the most emerald green cliffs I have ever seen. We parked in a field and climbed down the steep path to the beach, passing a little snack bar. As it happens, it is also the largest nudist beach in Asturias – and the bashful children were slightly embarrassed for the second time that day!
Gorge walking: Picos de Europa
The Cares gorge in the Picos de Europa is one of Northern Spain’s most spectacular walks. Above a deep ravine winds a 12km path, interspersed with tunnels in the rock and bridges crossing the river. Start at the town of Poncebos early in the morning and follow the path (impossible to get lost) to the hydro-electricity station at Caín. There, you can soothe weary legs in the stream before walking back. The stunning views, narrow path (at times precarious) and friendly mountain goats made it the highlight of our trip across northern Spain. Sun cream and plenty of water are essential.
A journey into the past: Montana Oriental
Serendipity, in the shape of a traffic jam en route from Santander to Bilbao, diverted us into the lushly forested foothills of the Montana Oriental. A few kilometres up vertiginous, winding roads and we had travelled back centuries. Red-bereted shepherds walked their flocks past tumbledown stone watermills and over rushing streams; a griffon vulture circled above the limestone peaks. The Guggenheim could wait. In the village of Beranga we watched a game of petanque, and picnicked on hams and cheeses from a tiny, smoke-blackened shop. Then it was time to return to the main road east and the 21st century.
Take a lead from the locals: Castro Urdiales
Castro Urdiales in eastern Cantabria makes a perfect base. Just 30 minutes from the cultural delights of Bilbao, it’s a popular weekend getaway for locals and close enough to the Basque Country to boast a great line in pintxos and crisp, chilled txakoli in the narrow streets of the old town. Head for Somo’s long sandy beach to surf or take the ferry to Santander.
Santander: don’t just drive away
Santander is often unfairly ignored by travellers who arrive on the car ferry and move on almost immediately. It lacks the chic of San Sebastián and the radical grit of Bilbao, but it does have one of the world’s most beautiful bays, a host of good fish restaurants (visit the Barrio Pesquero for the best of the day’s catch), a fantastic week-long fiesta at the end of July, a great museum of prehistory, and – opened this June – a fantastic art and cultural space overlooking the sea in the Centro Botín. If it rains, and it probably will, you can always head off to see prehistoric cave paintings at Altamira or Puente Viesgo. On fine days, and you’ll be unlucky not to have several, you have at least six beaches to choose from, or you can take a boat ride across to El Puntal, the pointed spit of sandy beach you pass as the car ferry sails into port. Or take a picnic lunch to the Magdalena peninsula, the hub of Spanish court life in the 1920s, when King Alfonso XIII spent his summers here. Two weeks will barely do it justice.
Tourists don’t go home: a Basque welcome
The medieval fortified town of Segura is 50km south-west of San Sebastián heading into Basque mountains. The Imaz Hotel’s friendly staff suggest walks on the Camino, places to eat, local bakeries, goat’s cheese and cider and the quickest route to Vitoria-Gasteiz, the Basque capital. Walk to St Adrian’s cave in the Aizkorri-Aratz natural park for eagles and breathtaking views of distant peaks and the gentle ringing of bells from goats grazing in the thick beech forest.
Bilbao Fine Arts
Bilbao may be famous for the iconic Guggenheim, but families with young kids may find several hours in the museum and a €16 (adult) ticket a bit much. As an alternative I recommend the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum on Museo Plaza: it’s accessible and free from 6pm-8pm every day, so you can pop in before the restaurants open for dinner.
Museum in the former whaling capital of Europe
Albaola, a maritime factory-museum, is in the picturesque village of Pasaia, 4km from San Sebastián. Tours are frequently led by the chairman himself, Xabier Agote, a modest Basque with an international outlook, which adds up to the museum’s special concept and its working atmosphere. It is also a shipbuilding school, and visitors can observe craftsmen building an actual replica of a historic whaling boat.
Dragon castle: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
Recently immortalised as Daenerys Targaryen’s Dragonstone in Game of Thrones, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is an ancient hermitage on a rocky islet 20 miles north-east of Bilbao. Revered by Basques of all ages, this magical place is rumoured to have once belonged to the Knights Templar. Climb the 241 narrow stone steps to the top, and ring the church bell thrice to make a wish. Once you’ve had enough of the spectacular views, head back to nearby Restaurante Eneperi for a well-earned pintxo and glass of spritely txakoli white wine.