The stunning fishing village of Cudillero on the Bay of Biscay.

TRAVEL: A pure abundance of delights across northern Spain

There’s so much to explore for Camino pilgrims or those simply seeking a memorable holiday

There is nothing quite like spending time in northern Spain to reinvigorate the soul.

When the generous invitation came from the Spanish Tourism Board in Dublin to join a week-long press trip along the Camino del Norte from Santander to Santiago de Compostela, it was simply impossible to turn down.

In the company of four Dublin-based journalists, one of whom, Kayla Walsh, hails from Westport, the busy itinerary was designed to provide an insight of the history, culture, popular tourism attractions and culinary delights of three regions along the Bay of Biscay coastline, namely Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, very proud provinces in their own right along the northern way of the Camino Walk.

The journey started in the capital of Cantabria, the city of Santander, rightly considered to have one of the most beautiful bays in the world.

Its splendid climate enticed the King and Queen of Spain to make it their summer court from 1913 to 1930, their residence being the Royal Palace of La Magdalena, today a popular tourist attraction.

Now the home of a museum, the staff kindly showed us around, providing us with the best vantage points for photographs of the grounds and stunning sea views.

A view of the promenade in the city of Santander.

Santander is such an elegant city and it was wonderful to spend time walking the promenade that stretches for miles. It’s a place worthy of a return visit in order to explore it further.

Our guide, a student of history, could not wait to bring us to the town of Comillas to show us El Capricho de Gaudi, a residence described as a hidden gem of modernism, designed by Antoni Gaudi and built between 1883 and 1885 for the summer use of a wealthy gentleman named Máximo Díaz de Quijano, who sadly died a year after the project was completed.

Everywhere you look in Comillas, history is looking back at you, the eye-catching Pontifical University standing proudly on its elevated site.

Camino pilgrims passing through are immediately struck by its splendour, seating on benches in a nearby park giving their limbs some light relief after a long day’s walking.

A map of the Northern Way of the Camino Trail with each stage and distance along the way to Santiago de Compostela.

The cobbled streets led us to the El Carel Restaurant where we savoured our first Spanish lunch, an impressive selection of calamari, rabas de rejo (octopus), mussels and fresh sardines followed by sea bass on the bone, a meal completed by the finest cheesecake in Cantabria.

Needless to say, even in early afternoon, wine is an integral part of the dining experience!

We arrived at our hotel, the Abba Comillas Golf Hotel, to find a delegation representing local anchovy business interests awaiting to tell us that they needed greater support from the EU to protect their jobs and investment.

Who could have imagined that anchovies could lead to a political story but this is the area of Spain that produces the finest and the fishermen clearly believe they are getting a raw deal.

Day two began with a history lesson in the village of Cades, a popular stopping point for Camino pilgrims.

A directional sign for the Camino trail in the old town of Cades.

Here we were taken back in time to an ironworks where smiths spent long hours over hot coals in a forge crafting flat iron bars that had a variety of uses, a large hammer powered by a watermill central to the success of their work.

It was a challenging way to make a living back in the 15th and 16th centuries, having to live on-site for long periods of the year and put up with the persistent hammering noise night and day.

But it was people like those who helped to lay the foundations for Spain’s splendid infrastructure.

From the heat of the forge, a visit to the chilly El Soplao Cave was a welcome diversion.

Judging by the crowds waiting to board the next train underground, this was clearly a leading tourist attracting in Cantabria.

Located in a wonderfully scenic spot in the Sierra Soplao Arnero, the cave is recognised as one of the greatest wonders of geology, dating back 240 million years ago.

The tour, which took about an hour, was very well organised but required additional English-speaking guides.

Next on the itinerary was a tour of a beautiful town rich in monumental heritage, San Vicente de la Barquera, where medieval history lurks around every corner.

It was lovely to see pilgrims relaxing in the local restaurants after a long day in their walking boots.

We got an opportunity to enjoy the walking experience along the Nansa River, a very old section of the trail with beautiful water views and leafy lanes.

Our lunch stop was at Restaurant Casa Jandro in the quiet village of Celis where roast lamb chops dressed in sea salt and rosemary were mouth-watering.

This brought our time in Cantabria to a end as the province of Asturias now beckoned - and an unexpected surprise.

The town of Llanes introduced us to the local cider and, more fascinatingly, the art of pouring it.

Beautiful streetscape from the town Llanes

Because it is a natural product, it does not have the effervescent quality with which cider is associated in these parts.

So, when sitting for a meal, it is the task of the waiter or waitress to pour it for you with considerable skill and concentration, extending the hand holding the green bottom to a point as high as possible over the head before tipping about an eighth of the bottle’s content into the glass being held in the other hand.

The recipient is then advised to drink the cider immediately before the cider loses its fizz and the process, which occasionally leads to some spillage, is repeated again and again throughout the meal and is very much a novelty to those experiencing the ritual for the first time.

Needless to say, greenhorns have to master the art themselves should they wish to continue drinking the cider in a pub afterwards, although there is never a shortage of willing advice from the locals.

Llanes is a very welcoming town and clearly one accustomed to the persistent flow of visitors savouring the cobbled streets, imaginative he harbour.

A busy schedule awaited us on day three with visits to Colunga, Ribadesella and Lastres, where we enjoyed a marvellous lunch at Barrigón de Bertin before arriving in the imposing coastal city of Gijón.

We strolled through the old fisherman’s quarter of Cimadevilla, located on a hill overlooking the 15th largest city in Spain with a population of over 270,000.

The green cider bottle tree, known as Arbol de la Sidra, in the city of Gijón which promotes the concept of reuse and renewal.

The green cider bottle tree, known as Arbol de la Sidra, caught our eye. It was built at the city’s marina in 2013 using 3,200 bottles and weighing up to eight tonnes.

Its message is very clear in this era of reuse and renewal: every time we reuse something we are saving a part of nature. The tree even has its own dedicated website.

The courtyard of the imposing the Universidad Laboral, a remarkable structure built by General Franco between 1946 and 1956 as an orphanage for children.

A few miles from the Gijón we were introduced to the Universidad Laboral, a unique and quite remarkable structure built by General Franco between 1946 and 1956 as an orphanage for children who lost their parents to mining accidents in the region.

Originally constructed as a symbol of a new Spain in the aftermath of the Civil War, its church has one of the biggest elliptical domes in the world as well as the tallest stone clock tower in Spain.

It seems it never reached its full potential due to its political association with General Franco and many Spaniards today don’t even know it exists. However, sections of it are now being used as an institute of education, a local television station and a theatre.

It is certainly worth visiting, even to glean an insight of how the dictator wanted to portray himself to the world during that era, his ulterior motives not winning him many admirers in his own land.

A step from the past into the ultra-modern and fashionable city of Oviedo was a welcome leap. Here was a city rich in confidence, style and pride.

No wonder the famous film director Woody Allen loved it so much and there’s a statue in his honour on one of the streets close to San Francisco Park. Allen, of course, chose Oviedo as one of the settings for his 2008 film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

This writer would strongly recommend a trip to Oviedo at any time of year.

There is something very uplifting about the place and, for dedicated Camino walkers, it is where the 320-kilometre Pilgrims’ Way starts and can be completed in two weeks.

Although very modern in so many ways, Ovievo is rich in pre-romanic monuments and a visits to its old town, market and cathedral are a must.

Asturias was proving another lovely adventure and a tour of the captivating Niemeyer Centre, after spending some time in the historic town of Avilés, was another highlight.

Located on the Avilés estuary, the large cultural centre, with its distinction architectural spaces, hosts a wide range of events, including concerts, conferences and exhibitions, and is a facility of which the locals are very proud.

Our time in Asturias concluded with visits to a number of beautiful coastal villages including Cudillero, Cabo Busto, Luarca and Tapia de Casariego, all of which would appeal to Irish visitors who enjoy a sunny climate in the lower rather than higher 20 degrees.

The province of Galicia awaited, a region with strong similarities to Ireland due to its Celtic traditions.

After a stroll and swim on the magnificent Cathedral Beach (Playa de la Catedrales), of which the local environmental and conservation authority take great care, our appetites were adequately appeased by the staff of the San Miguel Restaurant in the attractive port town of Ribadeo.

From there our guides accompanied us to Lourenzá to visit the Monastery of San Salvador, another popular Camino stopping point, before venturing to Mondonedo and its spectacular, medieval cathedral.

Our overnight resting place was the National Parador Hotel in Vilalba, a former fortress and tower dating back to the 13th century.

When you see the prices being charged by some hotels in Ireland, you have to say that, at €67 per night, this is wonderful value after a long day on the road and the rooms are simply class.

Located in the heart of Vilalba, it was lovely to see so many walkers on the street preparing for the final leg of their journey into Santiago de Compostela.

While we arrived in the magical city by bus rather than on foot, there was still an immense sense of having completed a memorable journey rich in culture, heritage and joyful experiences.

The bell tower of Cathedral of Santiago.

A world heritage city since 1985, every aspect of life seems to rotate around its centre point, the Cathedral of Santiago.

We attended the Pilgrims Mass, a congregation of several nationalities, before joining in the celebration of walkers in the cathedral square.

A stroll through the historic centre brought us to the Horta D’obradoiro Restaurant and its spectacular range of dishes we had not savoured previously, including beef cheek and rare tuna steak. A feast fitting of the occasion.

The weekend social scene in the city goes long into the night with music, both modern and traditional, filling the air.

If you have not been there, Santiago de Compostela must go down on your bucket list.

There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world.

We’ll be back.

Footnote: Thanks to the Spanish Tourism Board in Ireland for the generous invitation; our guides for showing us all the best places along the Northern Camino Way; the other members of the media group who helped make the journey so enjoyable; to the people of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia for making us feel so welcome.