On the pilgrim trail in Northern Spain

San Sebastian,Spain
San Sebastian,Spain

TRAVEL: Delays due to broken down vehicle on A27

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The throb of Spanish guitars and the frantic click of castanets provided thrilling accompaniment as I was swept by coach into the Basque country.

Our guide had decided to enliven our journey with music and could not have chosen a more appropriate CD to soundtrack the dramatic scene outside.

On either side of the road, jagged black and yellow mountains reared up like the teeth of prehistoric monsters. On my first visit to Spain, I was succumbing to the country’s magic.

We were being driven many miles north of Madrid to San Sebastian, in the Basque region, on the Atlantic coast.

This area tends to be overlooked by overseas visitors, who are more drawn to the warmer south.

But, as I discovered, it is well worth exploring at the right time of year.

Our tour would begin in San Sebastian and take us west, by coach, via Bilbao, Santander and Oviedo, to Santiago de Compostela, venerated by countless Christians as a holy city.

After a journey of a few hundred miles, we arrived at the fashionable resort of San Sebastian.

It is not far from the French border and has a superb beach and Old Quarter, and is set on the sweeping La Concha bay.

On the promenade beside the sea, stands the controversial ultra-modernist 1999 Kursaal, designed by Italian architect Rafael Moneo.

It consists of two huge, linked cube-like glass buildings, where conventions, exhibitions and, above all, the famous annual San Sebastian international film festival are held.

Unfortunately, by day the bland Kursaal looks as anachronistic as a space rocket beside the ornate, old-fashioned buildings around it, but when illuminated it becomes a focal point of great beauty.

The next day we moved on to Bilbao, calling en route at the picturesque old fishing town of Getaria, containing the 14th-15th century Church of San Salvador.

Our drive then took us along a coastline called the Costa Vasca, with alpine-type scenery studded with beech and oak trees and more fishing villages.

Bilbao is the capital of the autonomous community of the Basque country.

It was heavily industrialised right into the 20th century but things have moved on. Its buildings have been cleaned up and the city now focuses increasingly on services and culture.

This process has been accelerated by the presence of the Guggenheim museum and art gallery, completed in 1999. The exterior of this building, whose architect was Frank Gehry, is astonishing.

Our journey continued through the mountains and gorges of Picos de Europa, Spain’s second-largest national park.

We moved on to the Cantabrian capital, Santander and our tour ended in Santiago de Compostela, in whose ornate 12th century cathedral are interred the reputed remains of Christ’s disciple, St James.

The atmosphere inside the cathedral’s huge gloomy interior, where people have worshipped for about 1000 years, is humbling.

The tomb has made the cathedral a place of pilgrimage, and every year thousands walk for hundreds of miles to pay homage.

Tony Looch travelled with Insight Vacations on its premium 11-day Northern Spain holiday. The itinerary starts in Madrid with stays in Santiago de Compostela, Oviedo, Santander, San Sebastian and Barcelona, visiting towns, villages and places of interest. It costs from £1,965 per person including return international flights, VIP UK airport transfers within 150 miles, bed and breakfast accommodation, some meals, sightseeing and activities. Visit insightvacations.com or call (0800) 533 5622.