What makes a perfect travel destination?
The short answer is there is not a truly perfect one. There is always some other place in the world that is better for one thing or another... after all that is why we travel so much, isn't it?. The sheer variety Northern Spain has to offer is what makes shine as a destination in my opinion.
FYI: True Northern Spain (as considered by folks here) is Atlantic Spain, the area closest to the Northern coasts of Spain. Barcelona (and all of Catalunya) while technically in the northern half of Spain (for now), is not really Northern Spain... kind of like California in the USA is not considered a southern state, even if it technically is in the southern half geographically. Local nuances missed by non-locals and tour operators who sell tours to Northern Spain and claim to know the area (tours that include flamenco dancing and gazpacho... which is like hosting a Texas hoedown for people visiting New England or serving clam chowder in New Orleans...out of place and silly).
In a world of strictly defined top ten lists for just about anything (which necessarily excludes everything else) and where there appears to be an increasing need to describe things as "epic" to make them sound greater than Homer's Iliad... here are 11 defining qualities that make Northern Spain great. These are in no particular order and I've chosen not to limit myself by being overly specific right now. I love all these things frankly and don´t need to rank them or pick one as better than another. I get them all, all the time, because I live here ;-)
One - Artistic Beauty Big and Small
From tiny to titanic it seems artistic beauty comes in all shapes and sizes in Northern Spain. World class art, at museums and other unexpected places it seems just about everywhere. The architecture is just as interesting and spans over 20 centuries (that is 2,000 years folks). It’s hard to discern where art ends and architecture begins many times, but that is the beauty of great architecture isn't it? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it's hard not to be impressed by Northern Spain's art and architecture.
Iconic structures such as the Guggenheim Bilbao art museum is an obvious example, yet many hidden gems go unnoticed by most. Less obvious, are Northern Spain's smaller art museums that house wonderful collections. Beginning with prehistoric cave art through renaissance masters and onto cutting edge contemporary, the art in ¨Northern Spain spans millennia (yes, thousands of years). Contemporary architecture might stand out because of internationally acclaimed architects like Gehry, Foster or Calatrava, but much of the real architectural magic of Northern Spain lies in its storied past. A broad range of styles: Celtic, Roman, Visigoth, Pre-Romanesque, Mozarabic, Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque. More monasteries and churches than you can shake a stick at. Great fortifications, both restored and ruined. Sumptuous mansions and palaces. Modernista (think Gaudi). Like to gawk at beauty? Bring your bib because Northern Spain will have you agape and drooling.
Two - The First Europeans
Northern Spain is home to many of the finest expressions of prehistoric Paleolithic cave art in the world (that means really old Stone Age pictures) . If you want to go further back (I mean way back, before Homo Sapiens), the area is a hotbed for human evolution. Archaeological sites in Northern Spain have yielded over 80% of the world's pre Homo Sapiens hominid bones. Yes, that's most of the remains in the entire world! Want to know where you came from? Check your DNA and then come find out the rest in Northern Spain.
There are more than 100 caves with Paleolithic art in Northern Spain, 18 of which have been declared World Heritage sites by UNESCO. Altamira cave, is arguably the crown jewel of prehistoric art, is one of the Paleolithic art's masterpieces and world renowned yet there are another 17 caves that are just as marvelous each for their own reason (they were selected by UNESCO for their variety). The caves contain art from every period of the upper Paleolithic, including the oldest known expression of parietal (wall) art in the world at over 40,000 years old (arguably made by a Neanderthal in the Middle Paleolithic). The Atapuerca mountains archaeological sites have yielded a continuous record of human ancestors going back 1.5 million years. Rightfully also granted World Heritage status by UNESCO. From Neanderthals to much older species such as Homo Antecessor, first found there, the trail of evolution continues to unravel at active archaeological sites such as Atapuerca, El Sidron and La Garma.
Three - Magnificent Backdrops Everywhere
Northern Spain is framed magnificent coasts and the Cantabrian mountain range creates its backbone. Rivers flow from snow capped mountains, though dense forests and green hills, down to each of Spain´s three seas: the Cantabrian, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean (believe it or not the watershed divider for all of the Iberian Peninsula is in far Northern Spain).
Flanked by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Cantabrian Sea to the north, Northern Spain has no shortage of coastline. It's no surprise the area boasts Spain´s best seafood and a strong maritime tradition. Quaint fishing harbors, expansive beaches, secluded coves, river estuaries and some of Europe´s highest cliffs dot the rural areas of the coast. Great urban coastal settings as well. Spanning the length of Northern Spain, you can spot the Cantabrian Mountain range from anywhere on the coast. The contrast of ocean and abrupt mountains creates some of Europe's most dramatic landscapes (see photo above). The area between the mountains and coast encompasses a wide variety of natural areas which are a boon for hikers, active travelers and wildlife enthusiasts, but more on that later.
Four - Gastronomic and Wine Bliss
Love to eat well and drink great wine? World renowned chefs shine with their Michelin stars, yet deep rooted traditional foods based on the freshest local ingredients are the real heroes of Northern Spain's gastronomy. Rioja leads the wine charge for Spain, but there are many more historic wine areas with outstanding variety, many of the best unknown to most outside Spain.
Food is an important part of life in Northern Spain. It is a central component of traditional culture and rightfully so. Meals are made to be enjoyed slowly in the company family and friends, not on the run. The geography of the area, with everything from ocean to high mountains, provides the perfect pantry for the freshest, local products including seafood, meats, vegetables, wild mushrooms and game. Love to eat local when you travel? Tons of variety in Northern Spain from one region to the next. Rioja and its tempranillo grapes are on most people’s radar, and deservedly so. Many lesser known, yet equally (or more) impressive varieties and wine growing areas of Northern Spain might surprise you though if you are an oenophile (that's a wine geek, and I am one). Mencia, prieto picudo or txacoli may not be familiar but you will remember them after you meet them. Wineries range from traditional, small family owned operations to larger state of the art, modern facilities. Both are interesting and lucky for us, many of them welcome visitors.
Five - Trails, Active Pursuits and Thrills
The variety of landscapes and terrain in Northern Spain make it the perfect place to get outdoors. There is hiking to suit all abilities, from mountain, forest, river and coastal trails and more. Beyond hiking, active and adventure activities abound to experience as much thrill as you can take.
Whether you like casual strolls on long sandy beaches or more intense mountain trails, the varied terrain offers endless possibilities for hiking in Northern Spain. If you are willing to get out into nature a bit further and off the beaten trail, you will reap the rewards of extreme tranquility. Ready to hit the trail or do you like a little more action? Northern Spain offers lots of it: fly fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking or paddling. Not enough thrill? Adventure and adrenaline more your style? You can try your hand at wild caving, mountaineering, via ferrata, rock climbing, canyoneering, paragliding or zip lining. Pick your poison, braveheart.
Six - Fascinating Past
Northern Spain has a storied past spanning literally thousands of years. The historical period begins when the Romans decided to wreak havoc and start writing about things here over 2,000 years ago. Prior to that, before that silly Latin alphabet recorded things for us, information gleaned from the rich archaeological sites of the area reconstructs what happened going back over a million years or more of prehistory. Like really old stuff and the stories it tells? Listen up, there is a lot to hear.
The Roman Empire eventually conquered all of the Iberian Peninsula by the year 19 B.C.E. Since that time the area has seen many more foreign invaders Germanic tribes, Islamic Moors and other European nations. From warring kingdoms to colonial splendor though a civil war within the last hundred years and onto European statehood, the past literally speaks volumes. Archaeology helps decipher the rest of it. In Northern Spain that goes back a long way (see number two above). Archaeological remains from the Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age periods and beyond seem to literally be under every rock in Northern Spain. Exploring these sites is always fascinating to me. It's fun to think about what happened at these sites that throw you into the past. Ah, to be a fly on the wall at some of these places.
Seven - Local Flair and Flavors
Local cultures and traditions run deep in all of Northern Spain. The mountains and sea tend to form a central axis around which much of traditional life revolves, but there are cultural nuances from one region of the area to the next. Many local customs might come as a surprise.
The geography, climate and history of Northern Spain perpetuated unique cultural characteristics which are unexpected for many. They evolved over hundreds if not thousands of years. Cultural identity in Northern Spain in most areas is tied to specific regional differences in food, language, music, dance and sports. Signature regional dishes, traditional rowed fishing boat races, various types of bagpipes or celebrations rooted in ancient Celtic tribal culture are just a few examples. Drive 100 kilometers and it all changes. Traditional ways of life tied to food production such as fishing, stock raising, farming and viticulture, continue, particularly in the rural areas (lucky for us!). When's the last time you saw someone wearing wooden shoes, cutting pastures with a scythe or a horse drawn cart? Many deep rooted traditions seem to resist modernity in Northern Spain. Getting out into the countryside is a great way to stumble upon these threads in the fabric of life here.
Eight - Into the Wild
Northern Spain's has a wealth of natural environments ranging from coast, wetlands, rivers, forests and mountains. Once endangered wildlife is flourishing aided by proper protection and environmental education. Beaks and wings your thing? Northern Spain has lots of them..
Nature is never far in Northern Spain with over 30 national and regional protected natural areas, and more than a dozen UNESCO World Heritage designated Biosphere reserves. A wide variety of ecosystems can be found, from the alpine Picos de Europa to the coastal Islas Atlanticas flagship National Parks, and everything in between. Enjoy wildlife watching? European red deer and roe deer are quite common in some areas, with the rutting seasons offering particularly close encounters. Chamois, fox, badgers, ferrets, martens and river otters can also be seen with a bit more work. The Cantabrian brown bear has made a huge recovery with a rebounding population in the area. Carnivores such as the endemic Iberian wolf and the European wildcat can be seen as well, but take a bit more effort, a dose of patience and some luck. Good camo and a tight lip are your best allies. Birding enthusiasts can find a wide range of both resident and migrant species, some of which are life list holes for many. Four species of woodpeckers, numerous raptors and alpine species such as the alpine chough, alpine accentor and the wallcreeper are residents here. Bring a good pair of binoculars.
Nine - Bucolic Sophistication
Northern Spain offers stark contrasts between its vibrant historic cities and the bucolic rural areas. The cities are generally easy to walk and offer the services you would expect from any modern city. The rural areas quickly get you away from the hubbub. Civilization is never far but sometimes it feels a world away.
Bilbao, San Sebastian and Santiago have each secured their spot in the hearts of international travelers. Northern Spain's other cities offer a wide variety of regional charm with lots of options for travelers allowing you to experience the regional culture of each area in a urban setting, albeit in a more subdued manner. Want to delve deeper? I suggest you get out of the city, where juxtaposed is the rural side of Northern Spain with its rustic details, verdant pastoral areas and less eroded cultural identity. In the green hills framed by the mountains and the ocean you find traditional ways of life and architecture that speaks through its stone and wood elements. Like to stumble upon the unexpected when you travel? Head out to the countryside.
Ten - Unique to Boutique
Whether you simply enjoy a comfortable home away from home while traveling, or seek unique hotel experiences, Northern Spain offers everything you can think of in accommodations. Lots of one of a kind properties with defining characteristics that simply can´t be recreated elsewhere because of their history, architecture or stunning location.
Enjoy cities and access to a wide range of services when you travel? Go urban. Like quaint, family run rural inns where feeling at home is the goal? Get rural. Maybe you prefer the experience of sleeping like a king in a historic hotel. Think Parador. Looking for state of the art facilities and vanguard architecture? Check. It seems the options are endless in Northern Spain, why not try them all?
Eleven - First World Services and Safety
I´ve gotten the "African massage" travelling overland in various countries, cliff hanged on roads with no guardrails perched thousands of meters above river gorges, flown on Russian made Tupolev jets that seemed to be hanging on by a thread and hurtled down the tracks on antiquated trains in third world countries. All great life experiences, especially if you don´t mind a few safety record issues, but don´t come to Northern Spain looking for those experiences. Unfortunately in Northern Spain you´ll have to bear: access to clean water you can drink and brush your teeth with; food you can eat without hesitation; safe and reliable road, rail, air and sea transportation; and access to first world security, financial and health services. Ever had to carry a money belt with thousands of dollars in it before? That is so annoying, just bring your debit/credit card to Northern Spain. The nearest healthcare is never far if you have the misfortune of needing it. Violent crime is very low in Northern Spain, you won´t need a gun, no one else has one. Like peace of mind when you travel? Northern Spain has it.
The Gist of it All
While there is truly no perfect travel destination, Northern Spain has a lot to offer and I´d put it up against any other destination as having some of the best variety available. It may not be the best for everything, but it sure seems great for an awful lot of things that I love and search for when I travel.