Ferry good: Take in the best of northern Spain

A new Cork to Santander route opens up this region for a driving holiday, taking in Bilbao, Santiago de Compostela and the Basque Country. It’s worth the day-long voyage

Ireland's geographical position on Earth is changing just a little bit this summer; from May we shall be reconnected to Spain, as we were before the ice sheets melted 15,000 years ago. The new "bridge" will be in the form of a 195-car Brittany Ferries cruiser, that will ply the Cork to Santander route twice weekly. It means that a whole new swathe of Europe is opening for easy exploration. It, along with a brand new Irish Ferries 50,000-tonne vessel on the Ireland to Northern France route, is going to make driving holidays significantly easier.

After over 40 years of ferry service to Northern France we are reasonably familiar with the region around Roscoff and Cherbourg, but Santander in the Spanish region of Cantabria is an unexplored frontier for many of us. Of the more than 2 million Irish people who travel to Spain annually, only a tiny fraction ever make it beyond the costas. So, once you've completed your 26-hour journey across the Atlantic, what awaits you?

First off, some geography: if Spain were SpongeBob Squarepants then Santander would be his eyelids. It is the capital of the autonomous community of Cantabria; to the east lies the Basque region and to the west are Asturias and Galicia, each of which boast long, glorious beaches and Medieval treasures in the form of churches, pilgrim hostels and palaces, dating from when this Northern coastal region was considered a safer route for pilgrims to walk the Camino de Santiago during the centuries of Islamic occupation. This northern route of the Camino is called the Ancient Way and pilgrims still walk it today, as it is less developed and, consequentially, feels more authentic. It offers a perfect route for driving the Camino along beautiful coastal roads.

The debarkation point of Santander is a bright modern city with 18th- and 19th-century thoroughfares and a food culture that is almost as obsessive as that of its Basque neighbour San Sebastián. It has beautiful public gardens, fine beaches, a restored 13th-century cathedral and pretty balconies overlooking the Cantabrian Sea.


If you are heading east from here your first stop should be Castro Urdiales, a medieval seafaring and fishing village on a bracing headland above a vast bay on the Cantabrian coast. The village, with its narrow streets and wooden balconies, is coiled around a Gothic church and a lighthouse where a castle once stood. As with this entire stretch of coastline there are long, alluring beaches and cave paintings from 15,000 years ago. Hidden in the earth 2m beneath Castro Urdiales is the Roman site of Flavióbriga, which adds a frisson to every step.

Cycling trails

As you drive along this stretch of coastline you encounter wild inlets, unspoilt traditional villages and alluring sandy beaches; above you are low hills and mountains with way-marked walks and cycling trails (vías verdes).

Crossing over into the Basque region the main lure is Bilbao, a depleted steel-making and shipbuilding city that has reimagined itself with the help of the Guggenheim Museum, a titanium-clad, iron-girded structure with soaring cliffs of limestone leaning at impossible angles. The wealth of the Basque region from iron-mining and steel production are encapsulated in it and by it, though its scale can threaten to eclipse the city unless one purposefully delves into the old quarter, the Casco Viejo, a motley blend of Renaissance, Baroque and Modernist buildings stretching out from the original seven streets, Las Siete Calles, which date from the 1400s. For some fine pintxos (Basque tapas) head to the 19th-century arcaded Plaza Nueva which has a great Sunday morning flea market, selling everything from baby terrapins to football cards.

The other key Basque destination, Guernica, a sleepy town that is etched in global consciousness since Hitler air-bombed it during the Spanish Civil War, has a mural reproduction of Picasso's vast rendering of the scene, as well as a Peace Museum and a Peace Park to go with its status as a member of the World Union of Martyred Towns.

This entire area of Cantabria and Asturias is laden with pretty little market towns of winding lanes, 15th-century farmhouses and 12th-century hermitages

It’s a sombre, but nourishing visit and can be enriched by heading north to the Urdaibai nature reserve, a UNESCO biosphere reserve around the Gernika estuary. It encapsulates the natural beauty of the Basque region with its uplands clad in oak, pines and beech, and long-eaved, red-roofed tower houses surrounded by orchards and meticulously manicured fields and vegetable plots.

This part of the Basque region is only 90 minutes' drive east of Santander, but what happens if we turn west instead from Santander, towards Santiago de Compestelo, five hours westwards? The first thing you'll notice is an enormous, jagged, jutting mountain range, like something from a terraforming planet. These are the Picos De Europa, three major massifs, with peaks in excess of 2,000m (the highest being Torre de Cerredo at 2,648m). In geological terms they are relatively young and so have not had their sharp summits eroded yet. They dominate the autonomous communities of Asturias and Cantabria. If the sheer, sharp ridges seem too intimidating to climb, one can always opt for the Cares Gorge, a mile-deep rift dividing the central and western massifs.

Above you will be Naranjo de Bulnes, 2,519m, with its bright limestone peak that glows orange at sunrise and sunset, while lower down are verdant rolls of pastureland leading up to slopes clad in cork oaks, chestnuts and hazels, in which animals lurk: wildcats, chamois, foxes and even some remaining Cantabrian brown bears.

Market towns

This entire area of Cantabria and Asturias is laden with pretty little market towns of winding lanes, 15th-century farmhouses and 12th-century hermitages. Santillana del Mar, 40km west of Santander, is a good example, with its 12th-century Romanesque church surrounded by buildings dating from every century since then. The famous Altamira caves are nearby, and if you haven’t already visited one of the many show-caves along the route, you ought to explore this Sistine Chapel of Palaeolithic art, to see potent renditions of bison, deer and horses made by our ancestors 14,500 years ago.

Heading further west along the coast, one soon reaches the autonomous community of Galicia, and for an Irish person the shock of encountering such a redolently Celtic land, complete with ring forts (castros), dolmens and higgledy-piggledy field systems that follow the lie of the land, can be profound. It is instantly apparent that these are our kinsmen. You see it in the endearing shabbiness of their traditional farmhouses, which are low-slung and humble with patches of crumbling plaster and, most extraordinary of all, have tiny traditional grain stores in the shape of tabernacles standing on columns in their farmyards. They look prehistoric, and clearly served as much a pagan totemic role as a functional one.

In even the smallest bars the bite-sized morsels that line the counter are artworks far too elegant to be described as mere tapas

You'll want to dawdle in Galicia because it feels like home, but do make sure you reach the capital, Santiago de Compostela. Arriving without having walked a few hundred kilometres feels like cheating, particularly as you pass elated pilgrims streaming towards the soaring Romanesque portal of the Cathedral of Santiago, which has housed the bones of St James for 1,200 years. Inside, with the sore and shuffling pilgrims gazing up in wonder at the Botafumeiro, the ancient shimmering silver urn that swings through the cathedral nave, showering pilgrims with incense, you feel transported to the Middle Ages, but do bring yourself back to the present to explore this eccentric city of pilgrimage and in particular its culinary specialities.

Local cuisine

In fact, this entire article could justifiably be devoted to extolling the local cuisine along the route, for the food of Northern Spain is revelatory. In even the smallest bars the bite-sized morsels that line the counter are artworks far too elegant to be described as mere tapas. These are pinchos, divinely-inspired pieces of food heaven: a tail of octopus marinated with strawberries and pine nuts, pickled duck foie scented with cider, a slice of blood sausage on a cushion of oregano and anchovies. The elitism that accompanies gastronomy in Ireland is absent.

Signature dishes in most areas are stews, such as the pote asturiano, made with pork shoulder, cured pork, white beans, blood pudding and vegetables – it’s as though the landscape had been condensed into a warm cauldron. Cider too is vital, with 30 varieties of apple grown, each carefully blended to produce the ideal flavour. Even backstreet bars will have an expert cider server (escanciador) to properly pour the drink.

Clearly, 54 hours on a ferry is a lot of time to devote to reaching and returning from your holidays, but, with a place as captivating as Northern Spain, it surely warrants it.

Getting there

Cork to Santander: Brittany Ferries, departs Cork on Wednesdays and Fridays from late April to November. Cost: approx €880 for a return trip for four people in early May with an internal cabin (€,1380 for mid-July)