Best of northern Spain: the ultimate road trip
In this itinerary of less than 1000 kilometers, I want you to travel from a path in the heart of the Picos de Europa National Park to imposing cliffs that fall into a furious sea, passing through the most beautiful villages in Spain and several places off the beaten path. Emulating my father who arrived in Argentina after crossing his native Asturias to take a boat in the wonderful city of Vigo, I want to take you on a journey as diverse as unforgettable. This is the best of northern Spain.
Are you ready to visit one of the most beautiful places in Europe? Let us begin!
- 1 THE BEST OF NORTHERN SPAIN:
- 2 NATURAL WONDERS OF SPAIN
- 3 THE BEST OF NORTHERN SPAIN:
- 4 RUTA DE CARES: A BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAIN PATH
- 5 COVADONGA LAKES AND THE SANCTUARY
- 6 CANGAS DE ONIS AND ITS ROMAN BRIDGE
- 7 RIBADESELLA, AMONG PREHISTORICAL CAVES AND INDIANO HOUSES
- 8 CAPE PEÑAS
- 9 CUDILLERO, ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL TOWNS IN SPAIN
- 10 PLAYA DE LAS CATEDRALES (CATHEDRALS BEACH)
- 11 REFUGIO DE VERDES
- 12 CAPE FINISTERRE
- 13 VIGO: WHERE MY STORY BEGAN
THE BEST OF NORTHERN SPAIN:
NATURAL WONDERS OF SPAIN
Many of our readers were delighted with the article on the 5 natural wonders in Spain to disconnect and wanted us more about this wonderful country. That’s why I decided to bring you this 750 km road-trip of the best of northern Spain that you can enjoy in a week, in ten days, in two weeks, or in the time you want.
As I always say, there is nothing better than slow traveling, but the way people like to travel is very personal, so I leave that in your hands.
Spain is a country that concentrates a large part of its tourism in large cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Seville. But without doubts, its natural wealth competes hand in hand with its enormous historical and patrimonial wealth.
And if we talk about nature in its maximum splendor, then there are two Spanish regions that fight for the first place (at least to me): Asturias and Galicia, two of the best of northern Spain (please, readers of Cantabria, Andalusia, the Basque Country, and other autonomous communities, don´t get angry! There will be room for each one of you in subsequent articles).
This road-trip begins in the heart of the Picos de Europa National Park, with you, reader, surrounded by immense mountains, between natural caves and narrow roads, until arriving at the port of Vigo, to see the ship Don Pedro de Mendoza departing, the one who took my family to unknown lands.
So let´s get ready for the best of northern Spain.
THE BEST OF NORTHERN SPAIN:
RUTA DE CARES: A BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAIN PATH
This is perhaps the best-known hiking route in the Picos de Europa National Park, and it definitely deserves the first spot. We have two options from where to start it: from Castilla y León or from Asturias since during this hike we will go from one autonomous community to the other.
No matter where you start, you will have to return to your car (unless you have the brilliant idea that we will tell you at the end of this segment). Here we propose to start the hike from the town of Caín, León, taking the N-625 from Riaño.
As soon as you leave your car, this beautiful 12 kilometers hike (one way) welcomes us with a steep hill that will make us rethink whether to continue walking or go back to sleep in the car. But it is not the time to regret, as the climb will only take you a couple of minutes and will then lead you to an almost 100% flat-road-hike, with a 2 kilometers descent to finally reach Poncebos.
That is why we recommend starting from Caín and not from the Asturian side to avoid that steep climb (“But how? If I left the car in Cain, I have to return!” Do not be impatient! We will tell you the little trick in a while).
This hike, of approximately 3/4 hours, runs along the gorge drawn by the River Cares as it passes through the Picos de Europa National Park. It is known as the “Divine Gorge” and the omnipresent landscape of the mountains and the path carved on its slopes makes it one of the most spectacular hiking trails in Europe, so it should definitely be in the best of Northern Spain hikes.
You can go with dogs (on a leash) and with children (with extreme care as there is no protection at the edges of the cliff).
Logically, you have to be well prepared. Not only it is necessary to be able to walk for a good amount of hours but it is essential to wear good shoes and above all to take a good amount of water since there are very few parts of the road that are protected from the sun. And if you plan to go back and forth, I would recommend bringing something to eat as well. But here’s the trick to avoid those returning 12 kilometers:
For this trick, we will assume that you do the hike with at least one more person who knows how to drive (otherwise you will have no choice but to do the 24 kilometers or return in a taxi). Let’s talk about Subject A and Subject B, and let’s name them to make it easier: Juan and José. Juan and José go by car to Poncebos and Juan gets off and starts the hike from there (yes, one of the two will have to make a little sacrifice and do the 2-kilometer climb).
José goes by car to Caín and begins the hike from there. Halfway they cross paths (it is a single path so it is impossible not to find each other) and José gives the car key to Juan. Juan arrives at Caín, gets into the car and picks up José at Poncebos. And that´s how you get to walk “only” 12 kilometers.
COVADONGA LAKES AND THE SANCTUARY
You can´t talk about the best of Northern Spain without talking about these lakes.
Twice I visited the lakes of Covadonga, this idyllic region of Asturias, and both times, and during different times of the year, I ended up wrapped in a fog so thick I could barely see two meters from my feet. But that fog gave the landscape an even more wonderful feeling (even though it did not allow me to see the surrounding lakes and mountains).
That’s why I recommend that if you have a good day, leave the Sanctuary stop for later on and then head straight for the lakes, just 12 kilometers away from the Sanctuary.
There are two lakes: the Enol and the Ercina, both of glacial origin (although there is a third less known lake, called Bricial that has water only during the thaw). The first, the largest of the two, can be found at 1070 meters high and in its depths, protected in an underwater cave, “you can find” the image of the Virgin of Covadonga who emerges to the surface every September 8th (with the help of some divers, of course).
From the Enol, you can follow several mountain trails, such as the one that reaches the Ordiales viewpoint, at more than 1600 meters high. The second, the Ercina, is at 1108 meters high and it is very common to find cows grazing there.
It is an ideal place to visit with children and dogs since the land is huge and they can walk around freely (dogs always on a leash since it is a National Park). And even if you do not do any hiking other than the one that joins a lake with another, it is a place to spend all day and enjoy the purest nature.
As you start your return, the Santa Cueva de Covadonga and its Basilica await for you. It was in the cave, according to tradition, that King Pelayo and his army protected themselves from the attack of the Muslim army and managed to defeat them in the so-called Battle of Covadonga in 722, which marked the beginning of the Reconquista of the peninsula.
Logically, the Spanish version talks about the miraculous action of the Virgin that the army carried with it at the time of the dispute. The Muslim version talks about the bees honey left inside the cave rocks with which the army of Pelayo was fed and managed to survive in the cave.
Whatever the reality was, this is a site of a very strong spiritual energy and one of the most important pilgrimage centers of the Christian world.
CANGAS DE ONIS AND ITS ROMAN BRIDGE
Cangas de Onís is only 10 kilometers away from the Sanctuary of Covadonga, so it can serve as an ideal place to spend the night. In addition to its charming natural surroundings and its village atmosphere, Cangas has one of the most beautiful bridges in all of Spain, known as Puente Romano (Roman Bridge), although it is not Roman and was built during the Middle Ages.
By the bridge, there is a restaurant where you can eat cheap and well while enjoying the river views.
RIBADESELLA, AMONG PREHISTORICAL CAVES AND INDIANO HOUSES
Ribadesella is one of those coastal towns that you fall in love with and invites you to return in order to enjoy it slowly. Not only is known by the historical canoeing competition that descends the River Sella dating from the year 1930, but its infinity of attractions make it an indispensable stop when organizing a road-trip around Asturias.
If we talk about beautiful towns, this might be one of the best of northern Spain.
One of the great attractions of Ribadesella is the Tito Bustillo Caves (named after one of its discoverers who died in a mountain accident), natural canvas for 20 thousand-year-old paintings. But what fascinated us the most was Ribadesella´s coastal walk, on the shores of the Cantabrian Sea, where you can see the wonderful Indianos mansions.
The Indianos were those Europeans who, in search of better opportunities, went to “make the America” and triumphed, returning to Europe as living examples of success and remodeling or building large opulent mansions, many of them with palm trees in their gardens that spoke of their triumphant experience on the other side of the ocean.
Several of them even acquired titles of nobility. Nowadays some of these properties work as hotels, or as museums. Ribadesella is just one of those towns where you can admire these large mansions that make the coastal walk a very interesting one between the sea and these huge houses.
At the entrance to Ribadesella, there is a very nice viewpoint from where you can see its surroundings. Right there you can leave the car and descend on foot to walk the town.
The last stop of this first part of the best of northern Spain takes us to the northernmost point of the Asturian coast: the Cape Peñas, with a lighthouse dating from 1852 that has been in operation since then. Much less known than Cape Finisterre in Galicia, Cape Peñas is a 100 meters high rock formation that falls abruptly to the Cantabrian Sea, which is a strong, treacherous sea with huge waves.
So the sensation of looking down from above and seeing the water crashing against the rocks is dizzying. From here, you can take a circular route of a little more than 4 kilometers that runs around the Cape that takes us near the cliffs to enjoy the views towards the sea.
Now that you have already discovered that first stage of the best of norther Spain that went through wonderful and varied natural places, you are ready to follow me for the other treasures that this region has to offer.
Remember that we will rarely tell you about the number of days you need to do it since we consider that the best way to travel is to travel slowly, as we did with our motorhome where every single day we had a great opportunity to improvise and let ourselves go.
So fasten your seatbelt and follow me as I continue this road trip of less than 1000 kilometers: The Best of Northern Spain: the ultimate road trip.
CUDILLERO, ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL TOWNS IN SPAIN
As soon as we leave the car on the sea promenade by the port, Cudillero appears to us as a wonderful postcard town, with colorful houses covering the hill where they were built almost like a puzzle.
From a distance, they seem to fit one above the other, circumventing the law of gravity, hanging from the heights with enviable views towards the Bay of Biscay. It reminds us of places like Positano or Cinqueterre in Italy.
Cudillero is 50 kilometers away from Cabo Peñas, our last stop on the first part of this road trip. It all begins in the Plaza de la Marina, one of the most beautiful squares in Spain, also known as The Amphitheater since all the houses are “born” here and go up to the top of the hill. Right from the heights is where you get the best views of the town.
And it is not only from the Mirador de la Garita from where you can see the best from above. Cudillero is full of beautiful viewpoints. It’s just a matter of going up the stairs and ramps, getting lost in its internal streets, and reaching the corners that look out to sea.
There is no better way to enjoy the town than by sitting on one of the terraces of the main square, ordering a seafood dish and simply looking at the houses, the hill, and the sea. We can spend the night there or continue to our next stop on this road trip through the best of northern Spain, less than an hour away.
PLAYA DE LAS CATEDRALES (CATHEDRALS BEACH)
Less than an hour’s drive separates Cudillero from one of the most beautiful places in Galicia: the Aguas Santas Beach, better known as the Cathedrals Beach. 10 kilometers from Ribadeo, this beach is characterized by its cliffs, its arches, and the caves that give it its name.
These formations can only be seen during the low tide, so before going you have to read the sea schedule in order to discover this natural wonder from the best place: the sand. Although equally impressive are the views from the top of the cliffs, the ideal place to be when the tide is high.
The walk in the sand is wonderful, crossing these arches created by the erosion of the sea and the wind, entering the caves, and enjoying these 30 meters high cliffs, on a totally flat beach. Of course, we must be very cautious with the rising tide as the water rises quickly and without warning. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most interesting natural places in Galicia, visited a lot in summer, but that does not stop it from being spectacular.
REFUGIO DE VERDES
If you have already read our article about the Five natural landscapes of Spain to disconnect, you can directly go to the next place. If you have not done it yet, we invite you to know this Galician wonder.
We might be able to say that if you are not from Galicia it is very rare that you know this place unless you are a traveler very interested in places outside the tourist circuit. But without doubts, it is one of the most beautiful places in which we were lucky to be.
The river Anllóns in its passage through the parish of Verdes, in the municipality of Coristanco, passes through a mountain of 151 meters high and begins to draw waterfalls and rapids that flow between small islets linked by wooden bridges.
Originally it was a fishing ground but then mills were built to take advantage of the speed of the river and today twelve of them can be enjoyed, some even in their original state.
If you want to enjoy full tranquility, the ideal option is to visit it on weekdays when the place is empty. Anyway, the weekends´ atmosphere is very pleasant since the locals gather to prepare barbecues in the grills arranged along the paths.
It is an ideal place to go with dogs since the paths along the river are very easy to travel. Nothing better than the sound of waterfalls and rapids to disconnect from the city.
Without a doubt, we are facing one of the most famous capes in the world, whose name tells us about its historical significance and its location. Finisterre comes from Latin and means “The end of the Earth”. The Romans believed that the world ended there and that beyond that immense sea there was nothing else (despite the fact that Cabo Roca, in Portugal, is the westernmost point of the European continent).
Today we know that this is not the case, but the Cape continues to be the end, in this case, the end of many pilgrims on the Saint James Way (Camino de Santiago) who walk the 90 kilometers that separate this place from Santiago de Compostela, to look at the sea and finally be able to say: “We did it. We did the Way”.
The Cape lighthouse was built in 1853 and its 17-meter high tower is located 143 meters above sea level. It witnessed great shipwrecks like that of 1870, when a ship with 472 crew members sank on the coast; and great battles.
The sunset from the Cape is a wonderful experience, and definitely one of the best of norther Spain, with the infinity of the sea as a backdrop and that magical air of feeling that we are facing one of the final points of the continent and we are facing thousands of kilometers of water.
VIGO: WHERE MY STORY BEGAN
I saved for the end of this tour a city that means a lot to my family history. It was from there when, in 1949, my Asturian grandparents with my father, who at that time was just 5 years old, and my aunt, just 1-year-old, embarked on a ship that would take them forever to the city of Buenos Aires, to start a new life, away from post-war Europe.
As soon as I put a foot in Vigo, the first thing I wanted to see was the place where the ship Don Pedro de Mendoza departed. Nowadays the city of Vigo is a modern port city, with a lot of movement, with terraces where you can have a drink while feeling the sea breeze. But that did not stop me from closing my eyes and imagining my family’s past.
Undoubtedly the most exciting thing happened when I entered the Registry and Information Office of the Xunta de Galicia. I took the risk of entering knowing that the information I had about my father’s departure was perhaps not enough. I had the name of the ship and the date of departure.
And there on the table, after fifteen minutes of searching, they put down a notebook from the 40s, opened the pages and in front of my eyes I could read “Secundino Rosón” and “Felicidad Rosón”, handwritten, and their respective signatures. Yes, my grandparents had set eyes on that same notebook that was in front of me almost 70 years ago.
You will understand that my trip to Vigo revolved around that family history and that is why I added it to this itinerary. But although it is not part of your history, it is a very interesting city to visit.
There is a video that I found on the internet in the blog Mis Viajes por Ahí, which was very interesting for me and I share it with you so that you can discover what the city of Vigo looks like. I hope that Ines, the author of the blog, allows me to:
And it is in Vigo where this road trip around the best of northern Spain ends. Logically these are places that fascinated us, but it does not mean that your tastes are the same. That’s why I invite you to take them as inspiration to build your own route.
There are always more places to discover! Hopefully, if you find one that you love, you can leave your comment below so we can visit it the next time we visit Spanish lands.
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