At last, after months of waiting, Britons can finally go to Spain again. The usual caveats apply: the Foreign Office still advises against all but essential international travel (though they do say ‘whether travel is essential or not is a personal decision’) and you’ll still need to spend two weeks in quarantine when you return to the UK. However at the Spanish end of things, at least, you shouldn’t encounter any problems. Spain’s borders are now open to British tourists, with no need for quarantine. So, where should you go?
Like a lot of Brits I’ve had some great times in big cities like Barcelona and Valencia, but now, more than ever, this is surely a good time to get off the beaten track. There are loads of destinations where British travellers rarely venture, where it’s easy to escape the crowds. A lot of these places are inland, in remote regions like Extremadura or La Mancha, but there are also some quiet spots on the coast, especially in Asturias and Cantabria. Here’s my top ten.
La Mancha is a part of Spain that’s almost untouched by tourism, and it’s easy to see why. The landscape is flat and often featureless. It’s a long way from the sea. Yet to travel across this arid plain is to encounter the real Spain. Its towns are unspoilt and authentic, and one of the most dramatic is the little citadel of Alarcón. Perched on a craggy promontory, encircled by the Río Júcar, its ancient castle has been converted into a cosy Parador (staying in these smart state-run hotels, in historic buildings in out-of-the-way locations, is an excellent way to explore the less familiar parts of Spain).
A centre of wealth and power during the Golden Age of Spain, and a sleepy backwater thereafter, Almagro is an architectural treasure, untainted by the march of time. Almagro’s Parador, in an old convent, is a good starting point for a road trip around La Mancha. The town boasts some beautiful Renaissance buildings, particularly the Corral de las Comedias, a 16th Century theatre in a perfect state of preservation – still staging plays today.
Barely 70 miles from Madrid, the walled city of Ávila feels a world away from modern Spain. Santa Teresa, Spain’s patron saint, lived here, making Ávila a favourite destination for pilgrims from all over the country. Its robust battlements, built by the Reconquistadors in the 11th Century, still encircle the old town. A walk around these walls is a great way to get your bearings, and the views over the town below and the fields beyond are sublime.
Cangas de Onis
España Verde (Green Spain) is popular with Spanish holidaymakers, but it’s often overlooked by foreign tourists because of its variable weather. More fool them. Sure, you get the odd rainy day, but that’s what makes it so lush and verdant. Straddling Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country, it’s an enticing mix of rocky coves, rolling hills, fishing villages and small farms. The bustling market town of Cangas de Onis is an ideal base for touring this vast area. The Parador, in an old monastery, is a lovely place to stay.
On the overdeveloped Costa del Sol, traditional Andalucía feels a long way away, but you only have to travel a few miles inland to discover the pretty hilltop settlements where the old ways endure. One of the most picturesque of these Pueblos Blancos (white villages) is Casares, a short drive from Estepona. Just a few thousand people live here, but it has a long and vivid history. The Romans were here and then the Moors before it was taken in the Reconquista. It’s also the birthplace of Blas Infante, the father of Andalucían nationalism, who was killed by Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War.
Consuegra is famous for its white windmills – eleven of them, in a long row on a windswept ridge above the town. It’s of the most iconic sights in Spain, but most sightseers merely stop to take a few snapshots, then drive off again. They don’t know what they’re missing. The town is charming, with hardly any tourist traffic, well worth an overnight stay. Its attractions include some Roman ruins and a castle straight out of El Cid, but the main appeal is simply unwinding in the Plaza Mayor of this typical Manchegan town.
Built on a steep rocky outcrop, surrounded by deep, dizzy gorges, Cuenca is a spectacular city, but it’s not just a place to gawp at – there’s also lots to see and do. The archeological museum has some marvellous Roman relics, but the undisputed highlight is the Museo de Arte Abstracto, located in one of the ‘hanging houses’ that cling to the clifftops. During Franco’s reign dissident artists found a safe refuge in abstraction, and this serene museum is a fitting forum for their work, with vertiginous views over the ravine below.
One of the nicest seaside towns in Northern Spain, Hondarribia is a cluster of colourful half-timbered townhouses huddled round a rugged castle – now a wonderfully romantic Parador. It’s also the gateway to the Basque Country, on both sides of the border. Fifteen miles west, into Spain, is San Sebastián, with its lively nightlife and fantastic seafood. Across the river, into France, is Hendaye – a jolly bucket-and-spade resort with a broad sandy beach.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, on account of its magnificent Roman ruins, Tarragona should be swarming with sightseers, but thankfully the big tour groups are conspicuous by their absence and so the character of this gutsy seaport has survived. There are some fine medieval buildings too, but it’s the classical ones which really grab the eye. The reason Tarragona hasn’t become a tourist trap is due to its heavy industry, but the tankers and refineries give the place a gritty flavour, and there are some splendid beaches nearby.
If it hadn’t been for a bandito called Francisco Pizarro, Trujillo would be just another one-horse town. Born here in 1471, Pizarro sailed to the New World to seek his fortune, and ended up defeating the Inca Empire and conquering Peru. For several centuries thereafter wealth flooded into Trujillo, and today the town is littered with the palacios his Conquistadors left behind. Hidden in the rural hinterland of Extremadura, Trujillo has scarcely changed since then. It’s intensely atmospheric, with a castle that appeared in Game of Thrones, some super holiday apartments, and lots of good places to eat and drink.