Part 3: The North of Spain to Andorra
9 days exploring the north of Spain before curving down to the tiny and beautiful country of Andorra. There are less toll roads here than in the rest of the country and it’s an area when even the main roads are beautiful (but the small spots hidden off the beaten track are not to be missed).
Picos de Europa National Park
- The whole national park is stunning with rocky mountains, green forest, towering cliff faces, beautiful small villages and diverse wildlife. Even just driving through there is a lot to see from the road.
- One of the most well known hikes The Routa del Cares takes you through a valley through caves and ridges carved out of the cliff face a couple of hundred meters up from the river below. It is 12km each way but you can make it as long or as short as you like.
Lakes of Covadonga
- The pristine lakes are the beginning of several hikes around the area. One beautiful hike takes you up through the mountains to Vega de Ario Refuge. It is 15km return and has stunning views over Picos de Europa National Park all the way to the ocean.
Castro de Santa Trega
- Just above Portugal on the top of a small mountain there is Castro de Santa Trega. Here are the remains of a village from 4th century BC. The rooves of the houses were made from vegetation so after all of this time all that is left are the circular stone walls. It is an amazing thing to see and the views are stunning too.
Castello de Monterreal, Baiona
- Baiona is a relaxed old town of stone buildings that are so well preserved they look almost new. Right next to the town is Castello de Monterreal. Hidden inside the walls is a small forest, a secret garden filled with the sound of birds. Walking around the walls you get beautiful views over the ocean (especially magnificent at sunset).
El Castillo Cave
- Many caves with ancient cave art are not accessible to the public for preservation purposes, however this is one cave where you can see the art first hand. Some of the art dates back to cavemen over 40,000 years ago. There are also imprints of hands of cavemen more than 37,000 years ago and they are finding more and more as the dig deeper into the cave. You need to enter as park of a Spanish tour but this costs only 3 euros and is with a small group of people. I have a feeling soon this cave wont be able to be accessed by the public for too much longer.
- Mont-Rebei Gorge takes you through a path carved out of the cliff face while the surrounding hikes take you through the bush up to stunning viewpoints. There are many hikes to choose from of different lengths but the gorge is a must do and only 4km each way.
- The highlight of this place are the enormous and unique caste walls that surround the city. There is a path on top of the walls that makes a great spot for running (or walking).
- A tiny country nestled between France and Spain with vast mountain ranges, beautiful old villages and no taxes. You could spend a very long time here hiking, biking, climbing, shopping and just relaxing surrounded by beauty wherever you go.
Day 18: Braga →Vigo
Starting the day in Portugal, and ending it in Spain. I love Europe. The morning we spent wandering around Braga. A beautiful town with some amazing historical buildings, including a magnificent cathedral, the oldest in Portugal.
Our last stop before heading into Spain was Santuário de Santa Luzia. It is positioned right on the top of a hill with views over the ocean and the small town below. On a beautiful day like we had the views were stunning.
After crossing the border into Spain our first stop was Castro de Santa Trega. Also located on the top of a hill just opposite Santuário de Santa Luzia (but in a different country) it also has beautiful views of the surrounding area. Here are the ruins of a 4th century BC village. The walls of the houses were made in stone while the rooves in vegetation, therefore now what remains are a cluster circles made from rock and remnants of small gutters that would act as water distributors through the village. An amazing place and amazing welcome back to Spain.
We drove the small roads north, through the mist and over the hills. On either side of the road (and sometimes on the road) were horses and cattle that appeared to be wild. As the mist cleared it revealed a beautiful view of Baiona and the Spanish islands of Cíes.
We stopped for a quick view at Virxe da Rocha, a large statue of a woman staring out to the water with a boat in one hand, as if she is protecting all those who sail the seas.
At the bottom of the hill is Baiona. The classic brick buildings nearly felt new, they had been preserved so well. The relaxed atmosphere was calming. It is definitely a place we would like to come back to when we are a bit older (and maybe with a bit more money).
Hidden behind the castle walls of Castelo de Monterreal we found a small forest of tall trees and overgrown green grasses. It was quiet and tranquil. We stood surrounded by green foliage and the sounds of birdlife. It felt like a secret garden, with not a person in sight or a voice to be heard. One beauty of travelling outside of peak season is the absence of large crowds of people, maybe in summer it would be quite different here but for us travelling in April it was amazingly peacful.
We walked around the castle walls, watching the sun set over the ocean. The world stopped for a moment. I don’t think this moment could be any more perfect.
Day 19: Vigo → Santiago de Compostela → A Coruña
Santiago de Compostela, our first stop of the day. This town is famous for its religious significance, and is thought to be the burial site of one of Jesus Christ’s apostles St. James. It is the finishing point for the Camino de Santiago, and several other pilgrimage routes. I think because of this significance, and the fact that millions of people per year walk for months towards this location, we subconsciously thought that our experience here would be something extrodinary. Unfortunately for us I think we set our sights too high, as for us it felt like just another city, a beautiful city but a city all the same. It seemed a bit commercial for a holy center maybe, with street vendors, restaurant owners asking you to come in as you passed, fancy lingerie stores (oh so holy) and crowds of busy people. I’m sure your experience would be quite a lot different than ours if you had just finished hiking for several months (but maybe a bit disappointed to find the main cathedral completely covered in scaffolding). The city was beautiful though with several grand cathedrals and stone buildings throughout the city.
We took the coastal road to the Tower of Hercules. As we got further to the tip of the peninsula the environment changed from golden beaches to rocky landscapes. Scattered on either side of the road were several small rectangunar stone buildings up on stilts, looking a bit like graves in the air. It turns out there are called Hórreos and are used to store grain for farming. Nearly every house had one and they date back to the 15th century. Most are not functional anymore but rather just add a bit of history to the landscape.
We continued along the coast towards A Coruña. Here there is a 2nd century lighthouse on a peninsula called the Tower of Hercules. In Roman mythology Hercules killed the tyrant Geryon and buried his head and weapons in this location, hence the name of the lighthouse. Unfortunately when we were there it was windy, rainy and the ticket office was closed so we could not go in. I’m sure it would have been a lot more interesting earlier on a sunny day… But that’s road tripping, you can follow the sun as much as possible but there will always be the odd rainy day.
Day 20: A Coruña → Lugo → Gijón
We started the day in Lugo. This town is surrounded by castle walls unlike we have seen before. On top of them is a wide path where many people were doing their Sunday run. The walls are really well preserved from the 3rd century, pretty cool spot.
We hit the road and began driving to the coast. The route was stunning, beautiful rolling hills covered in forest and farmland.
Our first stop on the coast was As Catedrais beach. It is an area along the coast with some beautiful caves and rock formations that you can explore at low tide. The water was too high while we were there to wander around the rocks but we walked around the cliff faces instead. It looked like it would have been a lot of fun at low tide, so many hidden spots through the rocks to explore.
The roads close to the coast were again beautiful. The hills in this area at this time of year are so green, it’s stunning. We stopped just out of Gijón for the night. It’s looking like sunny days are on the way!
Day 21: Gijón → Picos de Europa National Park
Picos de Europa was the first national park to be declared in Spain, and it’s a seriously stunning spot. Just driving around there are amazing views of mountains, cliff faces, green forest and snow covered peaks. It is beautiful throughout, definitely an area we would like to come back to.
We drove up to the Lakes of Covadonga to do a small hike up to the Vega de Ario refuge. It was a perfect day without a ripple on the lakes. The hike took us up past the lakes and into the mountains with beautiful views over the peaks of Picos de Europa all the way to the ocean. The hike to the refuge was 15km return, but once we were 2km out and knee deep in snow we thought maybe it was time to turn around. Mid-April is clearly a but too early for this hike without snow shoes, but what we did was stunning.
After the hike we got back in the car and drove through the beautiful landscapes and cute small villages towards Caín de Valdeón, a tiny village of less than 70 people which happens to be the start point of one of the most well known hikes in the national park, the Routa del Cares. Driving towards the small town the road got narrower and narrower until it was literally hanging off the side of the cliff. It then opened up to a few tiny buildings nestled between the mountains.
We asked a barman if it was ok if we pitched a tent in the grassy parking lot next to his building. We expected to pay something for the spot right at the entrance to the famous hike, but he said we could use it for free (but we decided to have a couple of drinks at his bar anyway). Being off-season the only people around were the 70ish people that lived there, but you can tell it’s pretty busy in summer though with every second building a restaurant and hostel. Must be a great hike!
Day 22: Los Pocos de Europa National Park → Santillana del Mar → Boo de Piélagos
We woke from our tent to the sun beginning to shine on the mountains. We wanted to start the hike early just in case the trail got busy later in the day (and we were in a pretty good spot to get a head start on everyone else). In peak season we have heard the trail can be incredibly busy, and as it’s one you can do all year round we didn’t want to take the risk.
The start of the trail took us through caves carved out from the cliff face and opened out to a path formed on a cliff ridge, sometimes a couple of hundred meters from the river below. We found a few friendly mountain goats on our way, and being spring a few mountain goat babies too.
The path was made in 1916 to transport food, water and supplies to the power plant in Poncebos. The track is 12km one way, very flat and with beautiful bur similar views for most of the way. So once we were a little past half way, when the numbers of people on the trail were a little too many for our liking, we headed back to continue our journey.
On our drive out of the national park we found animals everywhere we looked; wild horses, not wild sheep, potentially wild cattle and pigs, but who can really tell when there are no fences or farm houses anywhere in sight. The landscapes were again stunning. Love it here.
Just out of the park we had a small stop at the small town of Santillana del Mar. Like many of the old villages we have been to there are beautiful buildings in stone lining cobblestone streets and a grand stone cathedral near the center. It felt relaxed, for a moment, before the tour busses arrived and we continued on to the beach.
Playa de La Concha, a beautiful beach where we saw some excellent surfers doing flips and tricks on the huge waves coming into shore. It was the first beach we came across that was still a decent beach at high tide, but after googling where we were it got a bit confusing. It turns out there are multiple beaches in the north of Spain with exactly the same name. There is a famous one is in San Sebastián which is a very sheltered beach making it a great spot for swimming and sunbathing. The one we went to was further west and good for sunbathing but maybe less swimming and more surfing, but there is also a town somewhere in the middle called La Concha with a beach of the same name… A little random, but the version we went to was nice anyway. They were also filming a music video there so that’ll be cool to see (if we do see it given that we don’t know a lot of Spanish music).
After relaxing on the beach watching the surfers we headed off to an AirBnB for the night, which turned out to be like a five star hotel and for less than 20 euros for the night with breakfast included (cheaper than all of the campsites here which do not even provide toilet paper). They were new on AirBnB so had no reviews which I think is why it was so cheap. The breakfast was also insane with pancakes, Spanish tomato toast, and a whole table full of breakfast foods to choose from. Pretty lucky find.
Day 23: Boo de Piélagos → El Castillo Cave → Gorliz
After our insanely amazing breakfast we took a walk on the beach by Dunas de Liencres. Great start to the day!
We then headed off to the Cave of El Castillo to see some ancient cave paintings. Many caves with paintings like these you are not able to enter due to the fact that having people in the cave disrupts the air quality and temperature stability of the cave which can cause the paintings to degrade, therefore they sometimes make replica caves or just museums. However, El Castillo is a cave you can actually go inside and see the real deal. They limit numbers per day and you have to go in as part of a tour in Spanish, but this costs 3 euros and is about 45 minutes with only a few others so very worth it!
The cave is incredible, with paintings dating back to more than 40,000 years ago. They painted animals with carbon and mineral stones, and also some abstract art that they think could have been used as a calendar. The cave was also so much bigger than I expected, it seemed to go on and on as we walked deeper and deeper into the mountain. The most amazing thing I found though was the handprints from cavemen over 37,000 years ago. What they did was crush up res mineral stones, put it in a pipe, put their hand on the wall and blew the stone fragments over their hand leaving behind a print. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, so here are some photos of photos of some of the things we saw.
After a lunch of tomato and mozzarella salad at La Arena beach we headed off to Gaztelugatxeko for a little walk. This is a place that is famous for featuring on The Game of Thrones, but is also a spot of religious significance with stairs zig-zagging up to a hermitage from the 10th century built in dedication to John the Baptist.
We ended the day with a classic Spanish BBQ with friends of Elrics in Gorliz, perfect match for today’s heat.
Day 24: Gorliz → Bardenas Reales → Benabarre
We battled out a long day of driving towards Andorra. Starting off through La Roija, an area famous for its wine. You can see why it’s famous, vineyards stretch out in every direction as far as the eye can see. It would be a great spot to do a wine tasting tour, but we just marveled at the landscape and continued on, into the dusty desert of Bardenas Reales.
Bardenas Reales is an area that makes you feel a bit like you are in the wild west of the US. It was also the filming location of the James Bond movie The World is not Enough. There is a circuit you can do by car or bike, and a few hikes you can do but a lot of the area is a military zone so entry is forbidden. Beautiful place, the dust killed us a little though, we were coughing in the car the whole way to our sleeping spot for the night in Benabarre. We found a cool hike to do in the morning bear here before heading off to Andorra, a tiny and beautiful country nestled between France and Spain.
Day 25: Benabarre → Mont-Rebei → Andorra
On our last day in Spain we headed to Mont-Rebei for a walk through the Gorge. When we arrived we found that there are actually several small hikes in the area we had not heard of before so we decided to extend our 8km hike into 15km to take us to some ruins and spectacular viewpoints. The Mont-Rebei Gorge is a small walk through a small path etched in the side of the cliff, much like Routa del Cares in Picos de Europa National Park except half the length and more ‘untouched’. The gorge is stunning, and perfectly cool on a hot sunny day like today was, when we went up the hill to the viewpoints that’s when we really felt the sun.
We took the Altamiris trail up to some small ruins and a view over the surrounding area. I love how the cliffs are beautifully striped from changing composition of compressed minerals and changing water levels over millions of years, it’s really beautiful.
On the way to Andorra we had our last tapas in Tremp. We stopped next to the first place that looked like it had tapas and it turned out to be some of the best we have had, especially the mushroom croquettes… yum.
The road to Andorra was stunning, magnificent mountain ranges with snow covered peaks, and green pine forests covering the base of the mountains.
Andorra is a really interesting place. It is tiny and comprised of one bigger town and several small villages nestled in between the mountains, all connected by long tunnels. It is a place where there are next to no taxes on anything making everything very cheap, especially alcohol and cigarettes which people come from far and wide to purchase. The first thing we saw after passing the boarder were giant billboards advertising cigarettes (clearly that’s legal here) and as soon as we walked into the supermarket we passed isle after isle of alcohol before we got to any food (not to mention the 5L bottles of vodka and free whisky with your pack of cigarettes deals). Somehow with no taxes the infrastructure here is amazing. Everything looks new while keeping a classic look about it and the tunnels, bridges and motorways are very well put together. But I think things like healthcare are lacking, but everyone here has a fair bit of cash it seems (The first place I have seen a person in a suit hitchhiking).
We had a quick walk around the shops before heading to Elric’s aunties house. Our phone company had turned off our plan as Andorra is not in the European Union so we had no method of contacting her but Elric was sure he knew which apartment was hers so we bush bashed through the neighbouring forest and jumped the fence onto the balcony. As it turns out it was not her house. We did find a kind and confused man though who lent us his phone so we could call her. Just a bit of a laugh.
Day 26: Andorra
After a massive sleep in we hit the shops to make the most of a tax free world. But after being adults we pretended we were under 14 to ride the coolest slide I have ever seen in a playground. Very much kids.
The rest of the day was spend in the mountains around Lake Engolasters. There are quite a few hikes you can do around here leading to stunning viewpoints. There is also a really cool track with ramps and obstacles for mountain bikes. We think we will come back here layer in the year, and maybe bring some bikes to test it out!
As I write this I am sipping on a Mojito celebrating the end of another great chapter. Next it’s off to the south of France…