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San Vicente de la Barquera in Cantabria.
San Vicente de la Barquera in Cantabria.

The Spain you need to see: 5 sights not to miss Add to ...

Somewhere north of Madrid, as you drive toward the Bay of Biscay, the hot blood of Spain subsides to a gentler fettle.

Perhaps it’s all that green in the landscape, or the cooler air blowing in from the North Atlantic – who can say for sure? What I do know is this: When you forsake the cities and beaches of the south for the communities along the country’s north coast, you see a side of Spain that’s less macho Latin lover and more country gentleman.

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I’ll take the Mr. Natural any day.

On a week-long trip from Madrid through the Basque region, Cantabria, Asturias and, finally, to Galicia, Spain shape-shifted into a softer and more pastoral version of itself: a topo-graphy of mountains and green coast that starts at the Pyrenees and continues west along the 500-kilometre Cordillera Cantabrica mountain range.

“What you lose in temperature degrees you gain in breathing room from tourists,” says Toni Aguilar, my guide. “This is among the least visited parts of coastal Spain because tourists prefer the beaches of the south.”

They’re missing out. While the Basque region – famous for its cuisine and culture – has exploded in popularity in recent years, the rest of the northern coast is just as worthy of attention. Visitors to the area will discover charming medieval villages, some of the prettiest sites in Europe – and, yes, Michelin-starred dining. Here’s a roundup of my favourite spots in northern Spain, where the rustic views and lower-key vibe soften the edges of travel.

San Sebastian

Once a fishing village, this Basque city-by-the-sea of 183,000 people became a royal hangout more than a century ago when Queen Isabella II and her court started to summer here. Today, it retains an elegant air, with its belle époque buildings and scalloped beach on the Bay of Biscay.

Food is a great source of pride. The San Sebastian area boasts 15 Michelin stars and is home to three of the seven restaurants in Spain that have achieved the top rating of three stars. But I decided to forgo haute cuisine in favour of a bar crawl in search of pintxo, the Basque equivalent of tapas.

My grazing companion was Eli Susperregui, a Basque-born-and-bred culinary guide with San Sebastian Food. I’m usually an independent explorer, but I was soon glad for the local connection. “After every pintxo, you’re supposed to wipe up with a napkin and then throw the napkin on the floor,” Susperregui taught me at stop No. 1.

The bar owners and staff all knew Susperregui and included me in their banter – even though I had no idea what they were saying. And I sure enjoyed the dishes: patatas bravas in egg sauce, deep-friend pimientos, prawn with bacon, blood sausage with piquillo peppers, and a pig’s ear cooked until it was both crisp and melt-in-your-mouth airy.

Bilbao

Bilbao is like a blind date who disappoints at first sight but turns out to be an intellectual who pumps iron. Once you get past the streets of grey and brown buildings and into the city centre, Bilbao’s architectural assets reveal themselves like muscles busting through a torn shirt.

Maybe that’s why I felt like reaching out to touch the Guggenheim Bilbao, the sculptural museum designed by Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry.

“The museum changed Bilbao, which was historically an industrial town, dirty and rather ugly,” explained Aguilar, who grew up in this Basque city. “Now we see a lot of new buildings – new investments that all came about because of the Guggenheim.”

While the museum houses an intriguing contemporary collection, it was the art outside that impressed me. Over a bridge just beside the museum, Daniel Buren’s sculpture Red Arches gapes like an angry red mouth. Around the corner, a bronze cast of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman – a nine-metre spider – seems ready to pounce on a group of joggers.

Santillana del Mar

After a night in the resort town of Santander – where Vladimir Putin supposedly owns a chunk of land – we travelled 30 kilometres west to Santillana del Mar, one of Europe’s best preserved medieval villages. Built mostly between the 14th and 17th centuries, this Cantabrian site is pretty, with flower-decorated balconies and cobblestone paths. It’s also pretty small; I walked its entire length north to south in about 20 minutes.

Arriving in Santillana del Mar around 10 a.m. was like entering a Middle Ages version of Brigadoon. The village was still and, for awhile, the streets were nearly empty. From the main square I walked south before turning east toward Calle del Rio, where a trough that once served as a washing spot for villagers gurgled softly.

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