Wednesday , August 10 2022

Hidden Spain: where to stay and what to do off the beaten track

A lot of us have been rather surprised to discover how much we like being in nature and all that outdoorsy stuff over the past couple of years. Of course, we all still love our city breaks – nothing like an exhilarating weekend in Madrid, Barcelona or Valencia to pep us up – but Spain is also really good for getting away from it all, whether in the mountains, an unspoiled stretch of coast or in a village you just happen to come across on a road trip. The Spanish love rural tourism and there are gorgeous small hotels and self-catering places all over the country.

spain map.

Rías Altas, Lugo province, Galicia

Those who like proper beaches – the sort of long stretches of golden sand backed by cliffs and fields that you find in Devon, Cornwall and the Gower peninsula – will feel right at home in the Rías Altas. This is the north coast of Galicia, between the town of Ribadeo on the border with Asturias and Cape Ortegal, a distance of about 75 miles. It seems longer, though, because of the estuaries that form a crinkly seaboard along the Bay of Biscay. Shallower than the more fjord-like inlets of the Rías Baixas in the south-west of Galicia, the Rías Altas shelter a string of seaside towns that morph into makeshift resorts in summer.

While having a car or campervan allows the freedom to explore, a lot of the area can be seen by hopping on and off the little trains on the Feve narrow-gauge railway that run along Spain’s north coast. There are about 30 stations on the Rías Altas section and it would take two hours to travel the length of it in one go, but it would be easy to dawdle away a few weeks getting off wherever takes your fancy – the views from the train are often spectacular. A month’s pass costs €88.90 for unlimited travel (bikes can be taken on board for free, too).

Viveiro: a great place to stop off for octopus and Galician wines.
Viveiro: a great place to stop off for octopus and Galician wines. Photograph: M Ramirez/Alamy

At the eastern end of the Rías Altas, Playa de las Catedrales is the most well-known – and photographed – beach, with rocks forming arches and caves that are only accessible at low tide. Heading west, you come to the Ría de Viveiro, an inlet shaped like a teardrop. Stop off in the historic town of Viveiro to sit outside traditional bars, devouring plates of octopus and Galician wines.

At the western end of the coast is the Ría de Ortigueira, the largest inlet in the Rías Altas. The Ortigueira festival, a renowned celebration of Celtic music, takes place from 10-17 July in 2022. Acts include Tanxugueiras, a female vocal trio who put a contemporary spin on traditional Galician folk music.

Where to stay

Semáforo de Bares hotel
Semáforo de Bares hotel. Photograph: Luis Dafos/Alamy

West of Viveiro, the Estaca de Bares headland is the northernmost point of Spain and home to the Semáforo de Bares hotel (doubles from €80) in a former military maritime station. Or stay in a hamlet near Ortigueira, in a characterful if basic cottage that sleeps four in three bedrooms (from €74 a night).

The Matarraña, Teruel province, Aragón

Valderrobres: a labyrinth of cobbled lanes
Valderrobres: ‘a labyrinth of cobbled lanes’. Photograph: Gabor Kovacs/Alamy

It’s possible to spend months exploring the vast region of Aragón, which remains stubbornly off the mainstream tourism radar. One of my favourite parts is the Matarraña, in the south-east corner of the region in the province of Teruel, 90 minutes’ drive from the beaches of the Costa Daurada – though it feels like it takes ages to get here from anywhere.

Vineyards and olive and almond groves cover the landscape of rolling hills, which are peppered with gorgeous medieval villages of honey-coloured stone. Sounds a bit like Tuscany? You wouldn’t be the first to think so.

Valderrobres
‘There are no shortage of picturesque locations in Valderrobres.’ Photograph: ChaviNandez/Alamy

Valderrobres, on the banks of the Matarraña river, is the main town, with a labyrinth of cobbled lanes topped by a 14th-century castle. A couple of gothic churches, a Renaissance town hall and a medieval bridge mean there is no shortage of picturesque selfie locations.

This is a pretty, arty sort of area, and the hilltop village of Calaceite has plenty of galleries and artists’ studios. The village is home to quite a few writers, too, following the precedent set by the Chilean author José Donoso, who settled in here in the 1970s and was visited by Gabriel García Márquez and other Latin American literary figures. Just outside Calaceite, visit the Mas de Flandi olive mill to stroll through the olive groves and taste the organic oils.

For those who fancy a leisurely bike ride, the Vía Verde Val de Zafán is an old railway line that passes through Valderrobres and leads down to the market town of Tortosa. There are some great swimming spots, too, such as El Salt de la Portellada, where the Tastavins river cascades down the rocks to form a pool.

Where to stay

La Torre del Visco near Fuentespalda, Spain
La Torre del Visco

La Torre del Visco (doubles from €325) may be pricey but it’s a beautifully restored 15th-century mansion in an idyllic riverside spot near Fuentespalda. It was one of the first luxury rural hotels in Spain when it was opened nearly three decades ago by British couple Piers and Jemma Markham, who had been working in publishing in Madrid. With an organic approach to food long before it became fashionable, the restaurant is one of the best in the area. In the heart of Calaceite, the Cresol (doubles from €127) oozes rustic chic and has six rooms named after olive varieties.

Valle del Ambroz, Cáceres province, Extremadura

La Chorrera waterfall in Valle del Ambroz
La Chorrera waterfall in Valle del Ambroz. Photograph: Alf/Getty Images

In the north of the Extremadura region in western Spain, the Valle del Ambroz is a bucolic, sparsely populated area with an abundance of beech and birch forests and lots of wild swimming spots. Cherry and plum orchards flourish on the terraced hillsides and peppers grow in the meadows. While it is off the radar of most foreign tourists, it is popular with the Spanish, who head west from Madrid, north from Seville and south from Salamanca for a blast of rural bliss and long lunches in village squares.

The Ambroz River forms natural pools in the villages of Casas del Monte and Abadía – for those wary of wild swimming, these are good entry-level options for literally taking the plunge. Next to the pools in Casas del Monte is the shady terrace at Aurora Boreal for platters of Extremaduran ham and cheese, homemade croquettes, lamb chops and salad.

Hervas, Caceres.
Hervás, Caceres. Photograph: Jose Miguel Sanchez/Alamy

Hervás, below Pinajarro mountain, has one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in Spain. Narrow, winding lanes flanked by houses with rickety wooden balconies lead up to a Templar castle at the top of the little town. Install yourself in the porticoed Plaza de la Corredera and try a few of the local specialities in one of the traditional taverns. Lots of dishes are flavoured with the pimentón paprika made in the adjacent and equally appealing La Vera valley. Try zorongollo (peppers with pimentón and garlic), morcilla sausage with pumpkin and escabeche de patatas (fried potato slices with a punchy vinegar dressing). Order the local pitarra red wine, aged in earthenware vats.

Walk from Hervás to Cascada de la Chorrera, a waterfall close to the source of the Ambroz River, or to the village of Gargantilla along a path lined with chestnut and holm oak trees.

Where to stay
Hospedería Valle del Ambroz (doubles from €169 B&B plus dinner) in Hervás occupies a revamped 17th-century Trinitarian convent and has an outdoor pool surrounded by gardens. The Parador de Plasencia (doubles from €122 B&B), in the heart of the medieval town and just south of the Valle del Ambroz, is ideally situated for exploring the La Vera and Jerte Valleys, Las Hurdes and the Sierra de Gata, as well as the Monfragüe national park. One of the best-designed paradors, the building dates back to the 15th century and was originally a monastery.

Costa Trasmiera, Cantabria

Playa de Berria, near Argonos.
Playa de Berria, near Argonos. Photograph: Robin Weaver/Alamy

While Santander has a string of lovely urban beaches, head east and you immediately come to a surprisingly rural stretch of coastline. The Costa Trasmiera, popular with Spanish holidaymakers, stretches for 30 miles from the Cantabrian capital to the fishing town of Santoña – where there are quayside canning factories to visit and see the best anchovies you’ll ever taste being filleted at lightning speed by nimble-fingered workers.

If you arrive in Santander on the car ferry from Plymouth or Portsmouth you’ll soon leave the city behind and be driving through open countryside with just a few cows for company. Half an hour away is Langre beach, where a crescent of limestone cliffs frames a bay of pale golden sand.

Langre beach
Langre beach. Photograph: David Crespo/Getty Images

Noja is the main holiday town in Trasmiera, with a couple of dozen hotels and lots of bars and restaurants. It’s not exactly charming but there are four superb beaches to choose from, including Ris where eerie rock formations punctuate the sand. Your next swim should be at Berria, where two kilometres of glittering sand are bookended by rocky headlands. Whoever thought this was just the spot to build a massive ugly prison must have been on mind-altering substances, but just try to ignore it.

Look instead beyond the beach to the nature reserve formed by the Santoña, Victoria and Joyel marshes. This is the most important wetland area in northern Spain and attracts migrating wading birds from autumn to spring, particularly spoonbills, curlew sandpipers and avocets. Part of the reserve is designated as the Trasmiera ecopark, a sustainable tourism project with several observation points and visitor centres, including the restored Santa Olaja mill, where you can see how the force of the tides was traditionally harnessed to grind wheat.

Where to stay

Casa de las Marismas, Escalante, Spain
Casa de las Marismas

The three-bedroomed Casa de las Marismas (from £790 a week) is in the village of Escalante by the Marismas de Santoña wetlands and three miles from Berria beach, which is accessible via a cycle path as well as by road. There are several campsites along the coast, including Playa Joyel (pitches from €98 a week, two-bedroom lodges from €448 a week), which has a pool and kids’ club and is right next to Ris beach in Noj.

Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas natural park, Andalucía

Segura de la Sierra
Segura de la Sierra. Photograph: Japhotos/Alamy

In the underrated province of Jaén, in the north-east corner of Andalucía, this mountainous nature reserve is the biggest protected area in Spain and an idyll for birdwatchers, cyclists and walkers. Olive, cork oak and Aleppo and Austrian pine trees carpet the hillsides and valleys, which are home to ibex, wild boar and deer.

You might spot a golden eagle, Egyptian vulture or even a lammergeier here. The mighty Guadalquivir River rises in the Cañadas de las Fuentes, and flows across Andalucía for 400 miles until it reaches the Atlantic at Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

The hub of the area is the small town of Cazorla, which was voted Spain’s capital of rural tourism for 2022, in recognition of its efforts to promote sustainable holidays in natural surroundings. In the north of the reserve, which gets far fewer tourists, the castle seems to merge into the rock in the village of Segura de la Sierra.

Baeza has Unesco world heritage status.
Baeza has Unesco world heritage status. Photograph: Ventura Carmona/Getty Images

Bus services only link the main places in the region so, ideally, take a car. On the way, stop off in the extraordinary towns of Úbeda and Baeza, where the wealth of Renaissance buildings has gained both of them Unesco world heritage status. It is possible to manage without your own transport, however. Set up base in Cazorla and follow walking and cycling trails from there, such as the GR 247 Forests of the South, the longest circular route in Spain.

Where to stay
The Parador de Cazorla (doubles from €113 B&B) is modern but built in traditional Andalucían style. In a gorgeous location in the hills, there are sweeping views of the surrounding countryside to be enjoyed while lying by the outdoor pool.

The Puente de las Herrerías campsite (cabins from €54 a night for two people) has pitches for tents, caravans and motorhomes, as well as cabins and chalets. The site also has a pool and offers activities including ziplining, treetop challenges and rock climbing.

Somiedo natural park, Asturias

Lake La Cueva.
Lake La Cueva, in the park’s south-east. Photograph: Svetlana Zhukova/Alamy

There are very few places in Europe where brown bears roam freely, but in late spring or summer it’s just possible to spot a few ambling around this lush mountainous area in Asturias, northern Spain. Establish a base in the village of Pola de Somiedo and find out more about the project to protect the population of about 280 Cantabrian bears at the Fundación Oso Pardo information centre. To maximise chances of seeing them, venture out with the guides at Somiedo Experience.

A mother brown bear with her cub in the Asturias.
A mother brown bear with her cub in the Asturias. Photograph: Arturo de Frias/Alamy

Spectacular glacial lakes, limestone peaks and beech forests define this alpine landscape, which is a Unesco biosphere reserve. Spanning five valleys, Somiedo is home to wolves, chamois, golden and booted eagles, and griffon vultures. Thatched stone shepherds’ huts, known as teitos, dot the hillsides, which are covered in flowers from May to September.

It is possible to get here from the UK without flying or driving on the ferry to Santander, taking a train to Oviedo and then a bus down to Pola de Somiedo. You can set off on walks or bike rides from the village itself and sign up for other activities once there. Combine hiking with mindfulness and meditation on a retreat with Walking in Spirit (from £650 for two sharing an apartment) led by therapist Frankie Sikes.

Where to stay

Hotel Palacio Florez-Estrada, Pola de Somiedo, Spain
Hotel Palacio Flórez-Estrada, Pola de Somiedo.

The Palacio Flórez-Estrada (doubles from €65) – parts of which date back to the 15th century – in Pola de Somiedo has nine cosy rooms (no televisions) in the main house and four one-bedroom apartments in the former stables. The family who run it make everyone feel at home. Surrounded by lush gardens, with a pool, playground, tennis court, organic vegetable plot and a stream tinkling alongside, this is an idyllic spot for switching off. It often runs cultural events as well as birdwatching excursions and other activities.

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