day 7 :
friday, 1 june
After a quick breakfast visit to our newly-favorite bakery in San Sebastián, we bid farewell and set out for new sights. Our first stop was in Gernika, a small city known for its bombing in 1937 as ordered by General Franco, and for its oak tree. The tree has come to symbolize freedom for the Basque people. From The Basque History of the World: "From the Middle Ages until 1876, Basque leaders had met in front of the oak tree at the edge of Guernica. Once the Basques agreed to live under the monarchs of Castile, each king had been obliged to come to Guernica to stand under the tree and pledge continuing support for the fueros." (The fueros are the Basques' old laws.) Because oak trees don't last forever, the tree has been replanted several times over the centuries, from the previous tree's acorns. Today, you can see the latest incarnation of the tree, which was planted in 2005, when it was 19 years old, as well as the large dried "Old Tree," which is about 300 years old. Inside one of the administrative buildings next to the tree is a beautiful stained glass ceiling, depicting a king making a pledge under the tree.
We left the Vizcaya region, and crossed into Cantabria. The area between Bilbao and Santandar was a particularly beautiful part of the drive, following the coastline, with scenic inlets and coastal towns dotting the way. To avoid winding up and down the hills too much, the highway frequently crossed over long viaducts. Each one was preceded by a sign stating the length of the viaduct in meters; some were quite long! It must have been a significant undertaking to build that many viaducts. It wasn't until a few days later, as we were driving into Galicia, that we discovered where the highway money had run out – the elaborate highway disappeared at that point, and the biggest road through the entire region was at times only a couple lanes wide.
At lunchtime, we stopped in the coastal town of Comillas. We had a recommendation for the restaurant in the Hotel Josein, and the only description we had of its location was from eGullet: "a hotel-restaurant that literally hangs above the beach." We followed the signs to the beach, parked, and spotted it off to the right – the description was apt, as it was the only building built into the side of a hill and hanging right over the sand. The food was simple but very tasty: dishes like salteado de habitas (broad beans with jamón and egg), which Dawn couldn't get enough of, and arroz marinesco (rice with shrimp and clams), a specialty of the region.
Our host was very helpful when we asked him for directions to El Capricho as were leaving. El Capricho ("The Whim") is one of Antoni Gaudí's first buildings, built in 1885, and there's no mistaking it when you see it. Yellow and green sunflower tiles decorate the entire building, with curious turrets and Lego-brick-like roof treatments. It was a worthwhile visit for Gaudí fans like ourselves, plus there were a couple of other interesting buildings within walking distance – Capilla Panteon and El Palacio de Sobrellano.
Back on the road, we entered the Asturias region, and noted how both Cantabria and Asturias had a lot in common with southwest France. Take the rough mountainous landscapes of the Languedoc, add in the lush greenness of the Béarn, and you get this region of northern Spain. We followed our GPS's directions to our hotel, and for the final ten kilometers it wound us through twists and turns and dramatic cliffs with wonderful views of the Picos de Europa mountain range to the south. We checked into Hotel Posada del Valle, a country hotel with an organic farm, all run by a couple of ex-patriot Brits. We settled in and took a stroll along their hillside meadow path, and then it was time for dinner at the hotel. Every night, guests have the option of eating a multi-course meal, where you choose either a meat or vegetarian entrée. Most everything came from their farm or the surrounding area, and was simple and delicious. Each meal (breakfast and dinner) includes homemade breads, which were so tasty we often asked for more. An added bonus was an all-organic wine list, which featured over a hundred different wines from organic wineries on the Iberian peninsula. Eric capped off the evening with a digestif made from apples grown in the valley, which had the taste of calvados and the complex nose of an Armagnac. This is the kind of hotel we could get used to!