The lack of a few more rays of sunshine is compensated for by great satisfaction for the eyes, for the mind and for the palate too! Most leave Madrid and head south, where the climate is temperate and you can visit Moorish castles or east to Barcelona or Valencia. Without taking anything away from these destinations, they do not know what they miss!
Santiago de Compostela
Probably the most famous destination in northern Spain, Santiago de Compostela is the final stop of the famous Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage with several routes (one of which, the Camino Ingles, runs right through northern Spain), which ends right at the Cathedral (and tomb, so it is believed) of St. James. But the city offers much more than just culture and religious experience. It is an interesting mixture of history and strong energy brought by the joyful influx of pilgrims. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered one of the most beautiful urban areas in the world. Among its narrow streets leading to crowded squares, medieval streets and arcades and picturesque squares, dotted with artisan shops, tapas coffins and much more.
Santillana del Mar
Speaking of medieval towns, comfortable shoes on your feet to visit Santillana del Mar, a perfectly preserved village limited to pedestrian traffic. Located on the west coast, this little treasure is only 30 km from Santander, and near the famous Cave of Altamira, with its rock paintings. Santillana is said to be the City of Three Lies because it is neither Holy, nor flat, nor close to the sea. The town takes its name from Santa Juliana who is buried in the famous Collegiate Church. Another interesting attraction is the Museum of the Inquisition with its inevitable instruments of torture.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
The small (and unpronounceable!) island of Gaztelugatxe is connected to the Basque mainland by 241 steps and a stone passage and is one of the most stunning places in the region. I recommend that you take the steps slowly, the view is worth the effort! It is located about 30 km north-east of Bilbao and the name can be translated as “dangerous castle”. Visitors can explore the church, where the custom of ringing the bell three times and making a wish is widespread. But beware: the island’s fame exploded when it became the location for the filming of the seventh season of Game of Thrones (Daenerys Targaryen’s Dragonstone fortress).
No trip to Northern Spain would be complete without a visit to La Rioja, the main Spanish province in terms of wine production. With its spectacular monasteries, picturesque old villages, and more than 500 wineries scattered throughout the landscape, La Rioja gives us the typical Spanish experience that many wants. In addition to tasty wines, and a wide variety of tastings, the region offers many activities. You can go skiing in Valdezcaray; visit the UNESCO World Heritage Monasteries of San Millan or the medieval town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada; follow the dinosaur footprints in Enciso; and enjoy the region’s famous tapas in Logrono, the capital of Rioja.
These and many others are the places to see in Northern Spain (San Sebastian, Bilbao, Oviedo, Salamanca and Galicia), often forgotten in favour of other more “summer” regions. But the real traveller follows untapped paths.