Somewhere north of Madrid, as you drive toward the Bay of Biscay, the hot blood of Spain subsides to a gentler fettle.
Perhaps it's all that green in the landscape, or the cooler air blowing in from the North Atlantic – who can say for sure? What I do know is this: When you forsake the cities and beaches of the south for the communities along the country's north coast, you see a side of Spain that's less macho Latin lover and more country gentleman.
I'll take the Mr. Natural any day.
On a week-long trip from Madrid through the Basque region, Cantabria, Asturias and, finally, to Galicia, Spain shape-shifted into a softer and more pastoral version of itself: a topo-graphy of mountains and green coast that starts at the Pyrenees and continues west along the 500-kilometre Cordillera Cantabrica mountain range.
"What you lose in temperature degrees you gain in breathing room from tourists," says Toni Aguilar, my guide. "This is among the least visited parts of coastal Spain because tourists prefer the beaches of the south."
They're missing out. While the Basque region – famous for its cuisine and culture – has exploded in popularity in recent years, the rest of the northern coast is just as worthy of attention. Visitors to the area will discover charming medieval villages, some of the prettiest sites in Europe – and, yes, Michelin-starred dining. Here's a roundup of my favourite spots in northern Spain, where the rustic views and lower-key vibe soften the edges of travel.
Once a fishing village, this Basque city-by-the-sea of 183,000 people became a royal hangout more than a century ago when Queen Isabella II and her court started to summer here. Today, it retains an elegant air, with its belle époque buildings and scalloped beach on the Bay of Biscay.
Food is a great source of pride. The San Sebastian area boasts 15 Michelin stars and is home to three of the seven restaurants in Spain that have achieved the top rating of three stars. But I decided to forgo haute cuisine in favour of a bar crawl in search of pintxo, the Basque equivalent of tapas.
My grazing companion was Eli Susperregui, a Basque-born-and-bred culinary guide with San Sebastian Food. I'm usually an independent explorer, but I was soon glad for the local connection. "After every pintxo, you're supposed to wipe up with a napkin and then throw the napkin on the floor," Susperregui taught me at stop No. 1.
The bar owners and staff all knew Susperregui and included me in their banter – even though I had no idea what they were saying. And I sure enjoyed the dishes: patatas bravas in egg sauce, deep-friend pimientos, prawn with bacon, blood sausage with piquillo peppers, and a pig's ear cooked until it was both crisp and melt-in-your-mouth airy.
Bilbao is like a blind date who disappoints at first sight but turns out to be an intellectual who pumps iron. Once you get past the streets of grey and brown buildings and into the city centre, Bilbao's architectural assets reveal themselves like muscles busting through a torn shirt.
Maybe that's why I felt like reaching out to touch the Guggenheim Bilbao, the sculptural museum designed by Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry.
"The museum changed Bilbao, which was historically an industrial town, dirty and rather ugly," explained Aguilar, who grew up in this Basque city. "Now we see a lot of new buildings – new investments that all came about because of the Guggenheim."
While the museum houses an intriguing contemporary collection, it was the art outside that impressed me. Over a bridge just beside the museum, Daniel Buren's sculpture Red Arches gapes like an angry red mouth. Around the corner, a bronze cast of Louise Bourgeois's Maman – a nine-metre spider – seems ready to pounce on a group of joggers.
Santillana del Mar
After a night in the resort town of Santander – where Vladimir Putin supposedly owns a chunk of land – we travelled 30 kilometres west to Santillana del Mar, one of Europe's best preserved medieval villages. Built mostly between the 14th and 17th centuries, this Cantabrian site is pretty, with flower-decorated balconies and cobblestone paths. It's also pretty small; I walked its entire length north to south in about 20 minutes.
Arriving in Santillana del Mar around 10 a.m. was like entering a Middle Ages version of Brigadoon. The village was still and, for awhile, the streets were nearly empty. From the main square I walked south before turning east toward Calle del Rio, where a trough that once served as a washing spot for villagers gurgled softly.
I walked over to the Colegiata de Santa Juliana, a Romanesque church built on a monastery that houses the relics of the village's patron saint. The church was still closed but a cake shop just a few steps away was open. A man sold me two squares of leche quesada, which he explained was made with milk, eggs, sugar and flour. All the basic food groups baked into two blocks I could stuff into my purse – just as compact and sweet as Santillana del Mar.
As we drove the narrow roads of the Picos de Europa mountains in Asturias, I looked toward the sun and saw, high above the trees, the grey spires and rose-tinged facade of the Basilica of Santa Maria la Real de Covadonga.
Up there in a mountain cave, Aguilar told us, is the tomb of Don Pelayo, the eighth-century king whose first major victory against the Moors kickstarted the Christian reconquista in Spain.
Visitors on pilgrimage often get to Pelayo's tomb by climbing, on their knees, a set of steps located just below the cave. I chose the easy way in, through a candle-lit tunnel. The tomb itself is a modest affair – basically an alcove with a stone inscription. The true star is the view: blue sky, mountains and the basilica.
Built with pink marble from the region, the basilica is part of a mountaintop complex that includes the 16th-century San Fernando Collegiate Church, a statue of Pelayo, a 5,000-kilogram bell and the Fountain of Seven Spouts. The latter promises crystal-clear water and marriage within a year to any female who drinks from it – a nice treat for thirsty travellers without commitment issues.
I'll always remember the Asturian capital of Oviedo as the place where I saw a man stick his finger into the nose of Woody Allen. Well, a bronze statue of the director in the city centre. I understood the impulse; the life-sized likeness begs to be messed with.
"Woody Allen filmed part of Vicky Cristina Barcelona here in Oviedo," said Rene, our Oviedo-based guide. "Actually, he filmed a scene right here in this church."
We were inside the San Julian de los Prados church, also known as Santullano, in the suburb of Pumarin. Rene pointed to the frescoes on the walls, discovered in 1912 and considered to be among the world's best examples of pre-Romanesque paintings. About 70 per cent are original.
"That's why, in here, there's no photos, no videos, no sex, no nothing. Unless you're Woody Allen and you're here with Scarlett Johansson," Rene said
Being neither, I left with no interior photos and followed Rene to the Cathedral of San Salvador. He took us to a small, 12th-century chapel inside, where we descended into another chamber. Here are a number of religious artifacts, including the Sudarium of Oviedo – a piece of cloth believed to have been wrapped around the head of Christ after he had died.
"I have a question," said someone in my group. "At what point after Jesus Christ died did they take off his face?"
Woody Allen would have loved that.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Barcelo Costa Vasca San Sebastian This is where James Bond would stay if he were to visit San Sebastian. Yes, it's that cool. Rates start at €72 ($100) a night.
Melia La Reconquista Hotel Oviedo This elegant hotel, built around a light-filled courtyard, is a national monument. Rates start at €105 ($140) a night.
Where to eat
Bar Goiz Argi, Zaporejai and La Vina – all located in the old part of San Sebastian – are great bars to hit for Basque-style tapas, also known as pintxos. In addition to its delicate pig's ear, La Vina serves a wicked cheesecake – all fluffed up with sides browned to a toasty caramel flavour. You can arrange a guided pintxos tour with San Sebastian Food at sansebastianfood.com.
Zapiain From January to April, this cider producer near San Sebastian opens its dining hall and serves up a traditional cider house menu: bacalao (salted cod) and caramelized-onion omelette, cider-cooked chorizo, steak, idiabazal cheese and walnuts. Kale Nagusia 96, Astigarraga.
Restaurante 180ºC in Oviedo serves up modern international cuisine with a nod to traditional dishes. Calle de Jovellanos 25, Oviedo.
Insight Vacations offers 12-day Northern Spain itineraries that either start and finish in Madrid, or start in Madrid and end in Barcelona. Prices start at $2,635 a person.insightvacations.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Insight Vacations. The company did not review or approve this article.