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Turn Basque time; TONY LOOCH takes a coach trip through northern Spain and discovers a wealth of history.

Byline: TONY LOOCH

THE throb of Spanish guitars and the frantic click of castanets provided thrilling accompaniment as I was swept by coach into the Basque country. Our guide had decided to enliven our journey with music and could not have chosen a more appropriate CD to soundtrack the dramatic scene outside.

On either side of the road, jagged black and yellow mountains reared up like the teeth of prehistoric monsters. I was entranced and, on my first visit to Spain, already succumbing to the country's magic.

I had arrived by air in Madrid from London, the previous day, to join a luxury coach tour. There was time for a few hours' sightseeing in the city, with its wide, tree-lined avenues and magnificent buildings, but the main purpose of our visit to the Iberian Peninsula lay elsewhere.

Now we were being driven many miles north to San Sebastian, in the Basque region, on the Atlantic coast.

This area tends to be overlooked by overseas visitors, who are more drawn to the warmer south, and it is true that outside the summer months the weather can be capricious in the north, but, as I discovered, it is well worth exploring at the right time of year.

Our tour would begin in San Sebastian and take us west, by coach, via Bilbao, Santander and Oviedo, to Santiago de Compostela, venerated by countless Christians as a holy city.

For me, it was the best way to see Spain - from the inside of a comfortable, air-conditioned coach containing a loo, with a safe driver at the wheel and a good guide who spoke excellent English.

At last, after a journey of a few hundred miles, we arrived at the fashionable resort of San Sebastian. It is not far from the French border, has a superb beach and an Old Quarter, and is set on the sweeping La Concha bay.

On foot, we ascended the steep Monte Igueldo and were rewarded with a magnificent panorama of the town and bay.

San Sebastian is full of smart shops and restaurants, with high prices to match, even in small cafes, but this is not surprising in a resort popular with celebrities and which hosts Hollywood stars.

I was keen to sample unusual dishes from the local Basque cuisine, which runs heavily to exotic stews and bean dishes, and is rich in fish and seafood.

A street in of Oviedo in One snack lunch was squid served up with rice and a sauce made from its own black ink. It sounded disconcerting but I found it tasty, even the ink. The same night in a restaurant I enjoyed cheek of pig, a wonderfully tender dish with an unfortunate, though accurate, name.

Next day we moved on to Bilbao, calling en route at the picturesque old fishing town of Getaria, containing the 14th-15th century Church of San Salvador.

Bilbao is the capital of the autonomous community of the Basque country. It was heavily industrialised right into the 20th century but things have moved on. Its buildings have been cleaned up and the city now focuses increasingly on services and culture, rather like London.

This process has been accelerated by the presence of the famous Guggenheim museum and art gallery, completed in 1999. The shape and exterior of this astonishing building, whose architect was Frank Gehry, almost defies description. Clad in glass, titanium and limestone, it undulates like a huge beached whale on an open space beside the river that runs through Bilbao.

the old town Asturias Driving on, we called in at the medieval village of Santillana del Mar, with its cobbled streets and quaint stone houses decorated with carved heraldic symbols. Many writers have described it as the most beautiful village in Spain.

Our journey continued through the spectacular mountains and gorges of Picos de Europa, where we visited the holy cave of Covadonga.

Here, a shrine exists to King Pelayo, who achieved the first Christian victory over the Moors in about 722, which is regarded as the start of the ultimately successful move to drive them out of Spain. The imposing shrine is set in a cave in an almost vertical cliff, with a waterfall thundering below.

We moved on to the Cantabrian capital, Santander, a resort popular with wealthy British tourists in the 1920s.

Oviedo, capital of the Asturias region, was our next port of call. It is famed for being a clean, well-kept, pedestrian-friendly city and its attractive street furniture includes many eye-catching modern statues.

Our tour ended in Galicia's capital, Santiago de Compostela, in whose gloriously ornate 12th century cathedral are interred the reputed remains of Christ's disciple, St James. The other-worldly atmosphere inside the cathedral's huge gloomy interior, where people have worshipped for about 1,000 years is, to say the least, humbling.

And so my tour ended. I had enjoyed excellent accommodation and meals, and seen amazing art and architecture, both ancient and modern.

NEED TO KNOW | TONY LOOCH travelled with Insight Vacations on a premium 11-day Northern Spain holiday.

Travel is by business class coach, with overnight stops including Santiago de Compostela, Oviedo, Santander, San Sebastian and Barcelona.

Prices are from PS1,965 per person including return international flights, bed and breakfast, some meals, sightseeing and activities.

For more information, visit www.insightvacations.com or 0800 533 5622.

CAPTION(S):

A street in the old town of Oviedo in Asturias

A view of San Sebastian, above, and Bilbao, left
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:May 24, 2014
Words:908
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