Spain's foremost National Park is the central attraction in Green Spain. The western Picos give you glacial lakes at Covadonga, the hike along the Cares Defile, or the funicular railway to Bulnes. In this Cabrales area, famous also for its Asturian cheeses, is the most photographed and emblematic mountain in the Picos: the Naranjo de Bulnes, whose 550-metre vertical wall presents the highest of challenges to climbers in Spain.
The eastern Picos have heartbreakingly pretty walks for all levels of fitness in the microclimate of Liébana's beautiful forested valleys and mountains. For high altitude walks, the cable car from Fuente Dé takes you up to 1,800 metres.
Entered from Spain's northern coast by road thanks to a defile cut through the mountains by the River Deva, Liebana is giant bowl of valleys formed by the surrounding mountains and protected by them, create a microclimate that is warmer and dryer than anywhere else in Green Spain. It's a fantastic destination for the holidaymaker who wants to walk trails amidst picturesque scenery and enjoy Picos de Europa at their mildest. Old villages, rivers, wonderful exploring and plenty of opportunities to enjoy Green Spain's celebrated cuisine.
SIERRA DEL SUEVE
Overlooking the sea and offering more wonderful walking, the coastal Sierra del Sueve is atmospheric with swirling sea mists, out of which is not unusual for the unique asturcón horse to materialize. Drive to the Mirador del Fitu (Pico Pienzu) viewpoint for a panoramic view that ranges along the coast and out to the ocean.
PEOPLE OF GREEN SPAIN
The inhabitants of these sister regions are alike in many respects. They are a genuine people who maintain a sober reserve. You'll generally find the people to be reserved and cordial, Asturians being especially proud of their land and what it has to offer. Little about them has changed since English Protestant missionary George Borrow travelled here in the 19th century and praised their honest, upright character.
The asturianos and cántabros may not have the spontaneous cheer of Andalusians, but they are just as serious about socializing. Taking twenty minutes from work for a coffee and a chat in a café is quite typical of a people who work hard but are jealous of their quality of life. An invitation from an Asturian to share a glass or two of freshly decanted cider is virtually a social obligation.
CIDER COUNTRY (PILOÑA)
Comprising most of the inland region south of Sierra del Sueve and traversed by the N-634 road that runs from Nava, home to the Cider Museum, in the west to Arriondas in the east. It's also the main cider area, where Green Spain's best-known drink is produced and enjoyed with a ritual pouring Cider is important in local culture here. You'll find a sidrería (cider house) in most villages of any size.
Cider Country is more like a shire, enchanting to walk and explore. Country lanes follow trout-filled rivers though gorges and wind through wonderfully preserved villages of old stone cottages, valleys with views of the Picos de Europa, traditional homesteads and ecclesiastical architecture, mossy country homes and woods of beech, chestnut and oak where edible mushrooms sprout. The hills have abundant populations of deer and wild boar.
Walkers will be in their element in Green Spain but other outdoor activities are available, too, especially in Picos de Europa. Agencies offering canyoning, 4 x 4 trips, mountain biking, horseriding, kayaking and rafting are concentrated in Cangas de Onis on the Asturias side and Potes in Liebana on the Cantabrian side. At the small town of Arriondas, the River Sella is swelled by the Piloña river, making it a big draw for the number of small operators offering downriver canoe and kayak trips. It has become such a popular activity that you'll have no problem hiring a boat if you want to try it.
Green Spain is at its natural best for beach lovers, particularly the strands and coves along the Asturian coast. Rodiles beach, backed by pine forest, is deservedly well-known but there are plenty more options, in thrillingly natural settings. Sample them in our online guide to the most special Asturias beaches that we have found and photographed. Cantabria has real beauties, too: Valdaliga and Comillas, Laredo, Noja, Sardinero and Covachos...
OYAMBRE NATURAL PARK
The coastal Natural Park of Oyambre offers more totally unspoilt beaches and dunes at San Vicente de la Barquera.
FISHING VILLAGES AND TOWNS
In popular Llanes, enjoy strolls along the cliffs, the riverside or the harbour to the lighthouse, past Basque sculptor Agustín Ibarrola's Cubes of Memory, and then dine excellently at a choice of bars and restaurants along the cobbled streets of the old town. Lastres is one of the nicest of the seaside towns, with its own beach, a fishing harbour and great views out over the sea. From the beach at elegant San Vicente de la Barquera you have views of snow-topped Picos de Europa.
Beaches and fishing villages are strung out along what is popularly known as the "Dinosaur Coast," owing to the impressive fossil record found here, including fossilized dinosaur footprints. Children will like the Jurassic Museum: close enough to be visible from Lastres, a visit to the museo jurásico can then be followed up by going down to La Griega beach, which the museum overlooks, to search for dinosaur footprints. They really are there, fossilized in the rock. Preserved for us to find 65 million years later, dinosaur footprints are to be found all along the coastline of Green Spain, between Ribadesella and the town of Gijón, Asturia's main port.
Much more than an entry point for visitors to Green Spain by plane and ferry, this elegant town on a curved bay was for many years the resort of choice for Spanish royalty and today you can visit King Alfonso XIII's summer palace and the Grand Casino. A 30-minute walk from Santander train station (by the ferry terminal) brings you to the Maritime Museum of Cantabria with its giant aquariums. There are some fine beaches at Santander, too: Playa del Sardinero, Playa de los Milagros and Somo.
Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao combines an architectural wonder with one of the world's foremost museums of modern art. A cultural must if your visit to Green Spain brings you via Bilbao by plane or ferry.
The International Cultural Centre designed by Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer, was inaugurated in 2011. After being temporarily closed due to political disagreement, it is open again and starting to find its feet as a major reference in the cultural world. It's situated at Avilés, close to Asturias Airport, where it represents the showpiece of a large-scale scheme to regenerate the Avilés waterfront.
CAVES AND CAVES PAINTINGS
Human prehistory and history is important here, too. This cultural aspect of Green Spain is simply fascinating and evidenced above all at the Altamira caves near Santillana del Mar, west of Santander. The caves of Altamira were the first ever where prehistoric art was found. None of the paintings in the series of 17 caves is less than 13,000 years old. Today, conservation measures mean they are closed to visits, but a replica cave and museum built here bring the story of European ancestors to life.
In Asturias, the Park of Prehistory at Teverga similarly recreates caves and their paintings. Anf for a real experience of Palaeolithic paintings, you can visit the caves of Puente Viesgo and Pendes. Another exciting cave experience there is the terrific El Soplao complex, whose galleries of stalactites and stalagmites are a subterranean fantasy.
The narrow-gauge FEVE train is a very pleasant and inexpensive way to travel the coast and stops at villages by beaches. The network extends across all of Green Spain.
PASIEGOS AND ASÓN VALLEYS
These magnificent valleys south of Santander are Green Spain off the beaten track. Rural retreats and superb drives within easy reach of Santander and the coast of eastern Cantabria. The three Pasiegos valleys each have something special: Cábarceno Wildlife Reserve in Pisueña Valley, Puente Viesgo in Pas Valle and the architectural spendours of Liérganes village in the Miera Valley. The little FEVE train runs in this area to La Cavada village. The Asón valley's highlight is a high waterfall in a beautiful landscape, driving south from Arredondo.
Wildlife flourishes in Green Spain. Thanks to the health of the natural environment, some inaccessible mountain hideouts and legal protection, the endangered Cantabrian brown bear still survives here and efforts are being made to increase its very low numbers. Otters, wildcats, foxes, eagles, falcons, badgers, chamois deer, occasional wolves and the rare capercaillie all live here, along with a comprehensive population of lizards and frogs.
The endangered Cantabrian brown bear is Green Spain's most precious animal. They are very few breeding pairs and the bears are sensibly shy of humans, making them difficult to spot. The bears are respected by local people, for whom they represent a link with their history and patria, or homeland.
SANTO TORIBIO MONASTERY
One of the cultural highlights of Liebana, Santo Toribio dates back over 1,000 years.
BEST OF THE REST
Explore Green Spain
Heading off on hiking trails is immensely satisfying and yet getting in the car to explore can be just as exciting. You can get off the beaten track on roads that snake along rivers and pass through defiles to open up to natural wildernesses where undisturbed villages rarely see a stranger. In Cantabria, Saja-Besaya is paradisiacal mountain parkland of oak, beech and hazel inhabited by wildlife. In Asturias, the beech woods and meadows of Redes Park are wonderful to roam on foot or mountain bike. The thatched mountain cabins of Somiedo gave shelter from the elements to herders migrating livestock to winter or summer habitats. Today, Somiedo is a living example of an ecosystem where man and beast live in successful equilibrium, and the mountainsides are home to a small number of bears. The route south into Ponga is perhaps the most amazing of all. The road snakes through the gorge of the Desfiladero de los Beyos into virtually uncharted territory of mountain fastnesses, waterfalls, the vast Peloño Forest, and unfolding scenes of increasingly wild nature.
Cabárceno Nature Reserve
Exotic living creatures are collected together in Cabárceno Nature Reserve, a well-designed safari park of some 750 hectares just ten minutes from Santander. Elephants and tigers, lions, kangaroos and giraffes all wander freely within the park's boundaries. Anyone who has set their heart on seeing a Cantabrian brown bear, extremely difficult to spot in the wild, can see them here.
Fuente Dé cable car
A popular day out takes you to Fuente Dé and the cable car up into the high mountains. Not for the faint-hearted, it climbs up to double the altitude to 1,450 metres, where it then drops you off to contemplate an extraordinary panorama of the National Park.
On the coast east from Santander, Santoña is surrounded by a unique Natural Park of marshlands. Santoña is well known for its delicious anchovies.
Look out for the curious phenomena known locally as bufones. These are spouts of water that gush high into the air whenever waves rush into caves and are pressurized into escaping through eroded blowholes. The water roars out! We recommend the Bufones de Arenillas 8 km east of Llanes and the Bufones de Pría between Llanes and Ribadesella.
Santillana del Mar
Visitors to Altamira will be delighted by the architectural heritage of local Santillana del Mar, sometimes described as a living museum.
Green Spain's cows
The humble cow deserves championing here. Not only do pretty brown cows add life and alpine charm to the hillsides of Asturias and Cantabria, they provide us with a wealth of dairy produce and quality beef. Without the cows, nobody's experience of Green Spain would be the same.
FOOD AND DRINK
Gastronomy and Green Spain go together like honey and bears. There's no excuse for going hungry here. Typical dishes in Cantabria are Tudanca beef, venison, mountain stew made with beans or chickpeas and Potes chorizo. In Asturias, the regional dish is fabada, a stew of tender white beans flavoured with salt pork, chorizo and morcilla. And Asturian cider is more than just a drink: it's a culture all to itself, a ritual imbued with social significance, and worth reading up on before you go.
From sea and river come monkfish and sea bass, sea bream, prawns and trout. Servings are commonly generous. By the time you reach desserts such as sobao pasiego, a lemony sponge cake, you may be wondering how to walk it all off.
Both regions are a wonderful choice for food lovers, with beef and dairy cattle generally roaming free on green hillsides. Try organic steak or mountain stew in Cantabria, the famed fabada bean stew of the Asturians, or one of their cheeses washed down by tingling cider.
Asturias has a tradition for hearty eating that only mountain folk could maintain. Only light eaters and vegetarians might find it a challenge. Expect tasty, hot and generous servings. Fabada is a slowly cooked, rich stew based on a special white bean and flavoured with pork, chorizo, black pudding and saffron. Beef and lamb generally come from animals that have fed on the green and healthy Asturian pastures. With the sea never far away, the local gastronomy also includes fish and seafood.
Less sparkly and more tart than its English Somerset counterpart, Asturian cider is drunk with meals, with relish, and at the drop of a hat. Much more than just a drink to the Asturians, it has its own ritual pouring – being decanted from a considerable height directly into the glass- as upon this depends both its taste and its power to refresh. Sidra is the beverage par excellence in Asturias and you'll soon see how much is a essential element of the culture when you see friends a sharing a bottle or two, decanting it in a brief cascade from above shoulder height, not out of bravado, but to give it its live and zesty taste.
Cider is typically enjoyed at a cider bar (sidrería) but also in restaurants and you can also visit cider factories where apples are pressed and fermented in giant vats.
Cangas produces its own wine but quite frankly it's not a shade on Spain's major reds such as La Rioja, Ribeira de Duero, Priorato or the whites of neighbouring Galicia, which you'll find on the wine list at any decent restaurant. Sidra is classically accompanied by the local Cabrales cheese, spicy and creamy. Cabrales isn't the only cheese: Gamonedo is also excellent.
Another local delicacy is cecina: air-cured smoky beef.
"Hearty stews and salads and a variety of cheeses alternate with fish and seafood from the nearby coast."
Cantabria is a land rooted deeply in tradition, which you will see expressed in dress and dance at local fairs, but also in the fine culinary style. Cheeses, boletus mushrooms and beef are outstanding. The rewards of a healthily watered land, in contrast to sun-parched Andalucia, are plenty and some of them will end on your table, since fresh farm produce is the staple in Cantabrian gastronomy.
Hearty stews and salads and a variety of cheeses alternate with fish and seafood from the nearby coast. Food is taken seriously here. There are weekend country inns where kitchens are constantly busy with clanging pots, hurrying plates out to hungry wayfarers. Tudanca beef, lamb, wild salmon are as common in mountain dishes as lima bean and tender chickpea soups. Try sirloin with Tresviso cheese, hake in parsley sauce, chorizo, anchovies, squid with onion, and Pasiega cheesecake. Tresviso – or Picón Bejés – is a blue cheese matured for months in local limestone caves, presumably ones chosen for their absence of bears. Orujo de Liébana, made from wine-pressings, is the local, fruity brandy.
Here are Cantabrian dishes in Spanish with their English equivalents:
Cocido lebaniego – Liébana mountain stew made with chickpeas, potato, collard greens, and chunks of bacon, chorizo, ham and black pudding.
Guiso marinero – Seaman's stew, commonly of fresh tuna, potato, onion, peppers, tomato and flavoured with chili pepper, white pepper and white wine. In San Vicente de la Barquera, this dish is called sorropotún. In Santoña y Laredo, it's called marmite (sic).
Variations on the guiso marinero are:
Merluza en salsa verde – Hake in parsley sauce
Calamares encebollados o en su tinta – Squid with onion or in its own ink
Bocartes - Anchovies
Almejas a la cazuela – Clams
When it comes to fish dishes, Cantabria has shines more for quality and variety than quantity.
You're most likely to find merluza (hake), rodaballo (turbot), sardinas (sardines), bonito (tuna), lubina (sea bass), rape (angler fish) and rabas (fried squid). In Santoña, which presides over marshes on Cantabria's eastern seaboard, you will eat the best anchoas (anchovies) in all of Spain.
There's less seafood than elsewhere on Northern Spain's Atlantic coast, where Galicia is the country's main producer, but expect centollo (spider crab), langosta / bogavante (lobsters), almejas (clams) and nécoras (small crabs).
River fish such as trucha (trout) and salmón (salmon) are also common.
Cantabrian cream cheeses (queso de nata) are made from cow's milk. Local cheeses in Liébana, typically strong in flavour, may be made from sheep, cow or goat's milk. There are three main types. Picón is a spicy cheese, of which the superior comes from Tresviso. Ahumado is smoky and we recommend the Aliva variety. Quesucos are little cheeses, of which we like the Lebeña.
The Pasiego valleys produce their own fresh cow's cheese (queso pasiego fresco).
Cheeses are nicely complemented by sidra (apple cider), which is a popular drink in Cantabria, if not quite as deeply embedded in local culture as in neighbouring Asturias.
Cream cheese also features in desserts, where it may be served with honey and walnuts or as cheesecake (quesada pasiega). Perhaps the best-known Cantabrian dessert are the sponge cakes known as sobaos, but there are other local specialities such as almond cake or the frisuelos (pancakes) of Liébana.
The one drink that is authentically Cantabrian is the Orujo de Potes, a digestive liquor made from pomace. For wine in restaurants, you will find reds from elsewhere in Northern Spain: La Rioja or Ribera de Duero, and fruity whites from Galicia: Ribeiro or Albariño.