Northern Spain

July 29, 2012

The longest driving day of our trip dawned a bit cloudy and muggy. We had really enjoyed our time in Portugal but it was time now to get back on the road. Our plan was to drive all day until we were tired and then to find a hotel somewhere near the northern coast of Spain. I had booked a hotel for every night of our trip – either before we left (not that many) or a day or two before we got to a new place. This time, we just had no idea how far we’d want to drive and so we decided to leave our accommodations up to chance. In the “old” days when we traveled by car around France and Italy, we had rarely booked ahead and usually (but not always!) found great places. It was time to live dangerously again.

We found the highway after a few false turns and with a bit of white knuckling made it through the spaghetti tangle of freeways that surround Porto. Unfortunately on this trip we didn’t have time to visit Porto which I hear is a great city. Next time!! If we end up doing a show in Espinho, we’ll have lots more opportunities to check out Porto. I know I’d like more opportunities to do a bit of port tasting.

The skies began to clear as we drove north into Spain through extremely beautiful rolling green countryside. We were in the environs of the Douro Valley which on another trip I hope to explore more. The countryside we saw was certainly gorgeous and unlike the other parts of Portugal that we explored. As was usual in Portugal, the freeway, once we got out of Porto, was completely empty. Many times during our ten days in Portugal, we marveled first the quality of the roads (amazing) and second at their relative emptiness. The trucks seem to stick to the secondary roads leaving the huge three-lane freeways virtually empty. Often we would be the only car we could see for miles in each direction. Gregg had a great time pushing our rented Puegot above the speed limit.

We drove and drove and drove and eventually passed Leon which is in the middle of northern Spain and one of the big stops on the Santiago da Compostela pilgrim route. Actually there are several routes as we discovered when we drove into northern Spain. Apparently Leon has an amazing cathedral but lately I’ve been going off cathedrals. I think I’ve seen just a few too many in my day and all that gold, particularly in the Spanish cathedrals, just kind of depresses me.  I still like a good solid Norman cathedral – the kind in northern England. The ornate Spanish catehdrals kind of leave me cold. Anyway, it was still early afternoon and so we decided to press on to the north coast.As we drove north, we began to encounter some pretty stunning mountain vistas–the beginnings of the Picos de Europa.

Mountain vista in northern Spain
Beginnings of the Picos de Europa

When we finally decided it was time to call it a day, we were pulling into the lovely little town of Llanes right on the northern coast about an hour west of Bilbao. At the time we found a hotel we didn’t actually know just how lovely Llanes was. I remembered reading somewhere that it was a pretty town and so going just on that memory I directed Gregg off the freeway and into the town. We drove around fairly tight streets and found one likely looking hotel. However, when I took a look at the room, I decided we could do better! So we drove around a little more and ended up getting a room at another hotel about a block away (shared the same parking lot as the first hotel) that had once been a convent. The hotel Don Pasos turned out to be a lovely find. The dining room alone was worth the very reasonable nightly rate. You could almost hear the nuns still singing.

 We set off to explore the little seaside town of Llanes without a clue about what we would find. We figured it was a resort-type town and prepared ourselves for a beach scene rather like Nazare. But no, Lllanes is a really delightful little Asturian town with beautiful buildings all covered in very find woodwork and small windows.

Charming buildings in lovely Llanes in Asturias

The center of the town was an inland waterway lined on both sides with cafes. We enjoyed some tapas and beer at one of the cafes along the water.

Inland waterway in Llanes
Hanging out in Llanes

We had a good long walk out to the breakwater. An artist had painted the huge concrete blocks used to protect the town from high tides with all sorts of crazy patterns. We were pretty darn enchanted as we wandered along the pier and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

Colorful blocks form the breakwater at Llanes
Looking back along the pier towards Llanes
Sunset over the Atlantic

We found a network of tiny lanes all lined with more cafes. Gregg has a sudden craving for spaghetti when he saw someone eating a plate of it at one of the cafes so we sat down and ended up with a three course meal that cost 10 euros each. I had sardines which I can’t say I’d recommend but since I was in northern Spain and fish is the dish du jour I figured I needed to try them. Gregg had spaghetti and enjoyed it thoroughly! Oh – and the meal included several glasses of red wine. What a bargain!

The waiter was very nice and insisted on giving us several of his cards so we could tell everyone we met about his restaurant. We wandered back through lovely squares to our ancient convent hotel. In the middle of the night, I woke up terrified that something was in the room. Of course it must be my imagination (!) but it was odd that I felt such a strong presence. Perhaps some nun long dead was not happy that I was sleeping in a room that had once been her cell. Who knew, but I must say I was pretty frightened at the time. I had to wake Gregg up!

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