For those “not in the know,” I’ll let you in on a little secret. As awe inspiring as Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, Granada’s Alhambra or Seville’s Cathedral undoubtedly are; as impressive as Madrid’s Museo del Prado or Bilbao’s Guggenheim might be, and as relaxing as some of the beaches of Costa del Sol are (if visited at the right time of year), none of these really define Spain as a country.
For me, what Spain is really all about are the numerous authentic and seemingly stuck in the last century pueblos (villages); some of the country’s national parks located in the three main Spanish mountain ranges (Pyrenees, Picos de Europa and Sierra Nevada), as well as some of the national fiestas/holidays that Spaniards tend to celebrate with great frequency throughout the year.
In this piece, I’ll outline some of these less known places and Holidays that, I believe, should become a “must” on any traveller’s Spanish itinerary as they offer you a glimpse into the heart and spirit of Spain.
If you have never seen Semana Santa celebrations in Spain, and especially in Andalusia where this week-long religious holiday is celebrated with greatest pomp and fanfare, you better brace yourself. Personally, I will never forget my first glimpse of these festivities, on one early March evening in Granada. Surrounded by hundreds of figures clad in long white coats with red and violet pointy hoods, I could have sworn that I was witnessing a completely different, and much less pleasant, type of a gathering… However, despite their appearance, these celebrations are simply an annual commemoration of the Biblical events that are the foundation of Easter. Each Church and Cathedral prepares its own procession, some of which are very elaborate and festive in nature, while others are much more somber and simple (especially some of the silent nocturnal processions). While Seville’s processions are, arguably, the most-attended and elaborate in all of Spain, those in Andalusia’s smaller towns such as Granada or the silent nocturnal processions in some of Andalusia’s pueblos, such as the one in Osuna, are, in my experience, amongst the most memorable ones.
- Trekking in Navarran Pyrenees
While for some Spain is automatically associated with sun and beaches, after having lived in this country for a while now, I associate Spain more with its numerous, imposing mountain ranges and the national parks and pueblos around them. Of all the mountain ranges that I’ve seen so far, Navarran Pyrenees have impressed me the most. Specifically, Parque Nacional Ordessa y Monte Perdido (featured in our Destinations photo album) and the nearby pueblos of Ainsa (with its medieval old town and main square) and Broto, are most spectacular. The views while trekking through the park are truly breathtaking, with a photo moment at every turn. You can choose a trek most suitable to your level of physical fitness (from easy to very difficult) and if accompanied by a right guide, you can be assured to enjoy views that will be engraved in your memory for years to come. The nearby medieval pueblo of Ainsa offers a great range of traditional Navarran gastronomical options, as does the town of Broto, which also serves as a gateway to the National Park (from there you catch a bus operated by the Park that will take you inside).
- Discovering Cuenca
Located about 1.5 hour from Madrid by high-speed train, the city’s UNESCO-protected old town is perched on top of a high cliff, with some of the houses hanging precociously off the cliff’s edge (the town’s main landmark). However, Cuenca is more than just its hanging houses. The town’s main Cathedral is a great example of gothic architecture and well worth the 4 Euro entrance with audio-guide; the town’s main street leading from the Cathedral down to an outlook point with spectacular views of the surrounding scenery as well as some of the old town’s narrow alleyways with many artisan shops some great gastronomical options (including many interesting fusion restaurants), all make Cuenca a worthwhile destination.
Exploring the Atlantic Coast of Cantabria and Asturias
Many Spaniards consider some of the pueblos lining Cantabria’s and Asturias’ coast as the country’s prettiest. Santillana del Mar in Cantabria (although, technically, not right on the coast, but only some 5km away from it) and Llanes in Asturias (one of the larger coastal villages) are truly sights right out of a fairytale. Santillana charms with its stone-ladden main square surrounded on all sides by one or two-storey stone and wood houses with balconies adorned by colourful flower pots. Llanes, on the other hand, captures our imagination with its colourful fishing boats lining the ocean front; the low stone and red roof houses facing the old port area and the relaxing, almost sleepy-like atmosphere that
characterizes many of the fishing villages and towns in this part of Spain. In short, if you really want to disconnect from the rest of the world while, at the same time, see a side of Spain you’ve never seen (or perhaps even imagined) before, this definitely should be another must on your itinerary.
- A daytrip to Palacio Real de Manzanares
Spain offers no shortage of castillos, palacios and alcazares, some better known to international travelers than others. And while those of Segovia, Seville, Cordoba and, of course, Granada are all spectacular in their own right, in my opinion the most picturesque, while, at the same time, under-appreciated one is Palacio Real de Manzanares. Located about an hour away from Madrid by bus or train, the walls of this small and charming castle are among the most impressive in Spain. The castle’s towers are all accessible by a labyrinth of stairs and offer 360 degree views of the entire Sierra de Guadarrama that surrounds it. A short walk from the castle will lead you to a small pueblo of the same name (where the main square is pretty much the only thing worth seeing) which many Madrilenos use as a gateway to the Parque Nacional de Guadarrama (about which I’ve written before).
If you are wondering how to add these to your already existing itinerary or if you would like to create a personalized itinerary based entirely around Spain’s countless pueblos and national parks (many of which are little known or explored by international tourists), do not hesitate to get in touch with us. We can promise you that, when travelling with us, you will see the side of Spain you have never seen or even imagined before.