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Discoveries in the North of Spain

Mary loves to travel and shares her discoveries about the places she found fascinating.

The Picos in northern Spain

The Picos in northern Spain

A Trip to the North of Spain

I'd been to Santiago de Compostela in the north of Spain before but had driven in from Portugal. On other visits, I stopped in Zaragoza and did not go further. I had gone through this area into France once, but it was at night, and I stopped only to visit the tomb of Ignatius of Loyola.

This time, an opportunity presented itself. A friend in Madrid knows someone who drives people to wherever they want to go. Since I was on my own, I thought this would be a better option. I booked a ride, first to go to Segovia and Escorial, which was only a day trip from Madrid.

Since I felt comfortable, I booked a trip to the Asturias, Navarre, and Cantabria the week after. My targets were San Sebastián, Bilbao, the Picos and the coastal towns of Asturias. Friends also told me food in this region is some of the best in the country, so I had all that in mind.

We went straight to the Pico de Europa, which somehow did not entrance the driver as it did me. We looked at the map and identified Llanes as a coastal place for lunch.

Exploring Northern Spain

We searched for restaurants, but our first choice was closed until March, so we drove around for ones that were open and close to the water. But while driving, I saw a charcuterie and asked to be dropped there, knowing it would close soon. Spain has a unique schedule and lives faithfully by it. I went there and asked to buy their traditional cheese from the area, and the lovely couple gave me two types to taste and purchase.

I asked for a pastelería and proceeded there, where I ordered their typical sweets again. We finally found a restaurant on the water where you could smell the sea. I was delighted and ordered my favourite seafoods pulpo, zamborinas, and mussels. They’re grilled and taste like the sea. For the first time, I tried percebes (goose barnacle). Not having the slightest clue how to eat it, I asked the waiter. It ended up being a delicious meal.

From there, we went to the capital of Cantabria, Santander. I was impressed by its waterfront. The draw here was Magdalena, the former palace of the Asturias kings. It's beautiful, but I did not want to miss the Guggenheim, so I did not stay here long.

This trip was meant to be exploratory—to discover the places I want to spend further time in. So, off we went to Bilbao, and this did not disappoint at all. I had planned to see this place in 2018 when in Barcelona but somehow didn’t get to it.

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Staying in San Sebastian

Next, I chose San Sebastián to stay for the night, and I was glad I did. I checked into my hotel, an old converted convent that retained its old chapel as the reception area.

After I settled in, I immediately went for a walk on the beach. The receptionist assured me it was very safe, so I went out with confidence. It was a joy to hear the waves lapping from the Bay of Biscay—there is something so comforting in that sound.

After the pleasant stroll, I returned to the hotel and stopped at a bar to drink Tempranillo, their wine in the area. The waiters were generally friendly, and the atmosphere was inviting.

Getting back to the hotel lobby, I took in the convent vibe; it’s funny to be in a bar where around you are religious symbols. I ordered some pintxos with my tea, the tapas of this area. I enjoyed these as they are smaller sized versions of tapas.

San Sebastian

San Sebastian

The next day I went for a walk on the beach and saw some brave souls swimming. I took in their fun and went on enjoying my walk.

When I reached the center, I went looking for coffee. Since most of the places were full, I kept exploring the old churches and the area until I found a coffee shop with some space. The waiter immediately spoke English when he saw how I struggled with my Spanish. I had two solo espressos and went on exploring, looking for the cathedral.

The driver put the address in the GPS and found that it was an hour and 40 minutes. I was determined to go, so we drove through small towns to Navarre.

We finally reached the Palacio de San Javier in the village of Javier, an old palace where this missionary saint was born. I admired Francis Xavier for his courage to go to places unknown to him after coming from this tiny village. He was in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Japan.

This old palace is now a museum on St. Xavier. Beside it is a basilica and the Jesuit center of spirituality. It’s a place to have a retreat, and it’s ambience is so conducive to that.

Javier Castle

Javier Castle

An Unexpected Pilgrimage

I have heard how beautiful the north of Spain is from a friend—who I know never exaggerates! She has lived in Spain for more than five years, three of which were in Galicia. When she started talking about the north, I got so fascinated. However, little did I know that the universe had a pilgrimage in store for me in that part of Spain.

Why I Was So Fascinated With the Castillo del Javier

I had been a student at a Jesuit University, so persons and places came to mind when travelling in the areas where the Jesuit founder, Ignatius of Loyola, lived. As a student, I got familiar with Francis Xavier. On travels later in life to Malacca and India, we found statues of the saint there. His work in those countries (as well as Japan) is recognized.

This place caught my attention when I saw it mentioned in tourist magazines. Having a car, I found the site after driving through what looks like parkland.

The saint was born in this castle in 1506, and today, the place is a museum on his life and the works he did in countries like Japan, Malaysia, and India.

Another View of the Javier Castle

Another View of the Javier Castle

Returning to Madrid, we drove through the rioja valley, where bodegas were selling wine directly. I, of course, looked for a restaurant where we could taste local wine.

What an experience this trip was. As if the forces of the universe conspired to have a pilgrimage to that hamlet of Javier. It is part of the Camino de Santiago.

I thanked the person who went out of his way to bring knowledge of this far-off land and interact with the people there. He shared his faith with the people while giving us a fulfilling experience of the culture there.

© 2022 Mary Norton