The Costa Verde, otherwise known as the Green Coast, stretches over 350 kms along the Cantabrian Sea from the border of France through to Galicia.
It is a favourite holiday spot with Spanish families, with pristine sandy beaches, secluded coves and a backdrop of green rolling hills and mountains.
My journey began in Santander, arriving on Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth. For me, ferries are a great way to travel and save the hassle of airports. Brittany Ferries operate a frequent service from Portsmouth or Plymouth and the 24 hour ‘mini cruise’ is complete relaxation.
A road trip is one of the best ways to explore the area and here are some of the highlights I discovered.
We chose a very central hotel overlooking the bay, the Bahia Santander. The hotel offers secure underground car parking (for an extra cost), so while we explored the city we could forget about the car. All the main sights, train station and bus routes were within easy walking distance.
Cantabria’s lively capital is a great place to spend a few days before setting off to explore further afield. As you sail into the wide Bahia de Santander you’ll spot beautiful sandy beaches leading into the city on one side, and mountains on the other. The city suffered a devastating fire in 1941, but since has become an interesting mix of old and new, as a popular coastal resort.
A wide boulevard runs along the waterfront and for a few euros a small ferry will take you across the bay to the village of Somo, well known as a surfer’s paradise.
The golden beaches of the sweeping sand bar are a great favorite with Spanish families, with views back to Santander.
Back at the waterfront in Santander, we hopped on a bus to the Parque de la Magdalena, home to the fairytale castle that was built as a summer palace for King Alfonso XIII. The castle sits on the headland surrounded by extensive parkland with a number of excellent beaches close by and is perfect place for a picnic.
The futuristic building that is the Centro Botin dominates the waterfront and is well worth a visit both for the art exhibitions and the views. Exhibitions change regularly, for information check the website.
As with most Spanish cities, the daily market, held in the historical Mercado de la Esperanza, is a great attraction. I love a market and always try to arrive early to admire locally caught seafood and fresh produce from the surrounding area.
Nearby is the elegant Plaza Porticado, rebuilt after the fire in traditional Spanish style. As with all Spanish plazas, it’s the perfect place to sip a coffee and try quesada, a sweet little cheesecake, and sobaos, a little mouthful of sugary sponge cake.
Driving West – Beautiful Beaches & Historical Villages
If you are looking for long stretches of sandy beach then head for Suances, a popular holiday resort and a thriving fishing port.
We strolled along the cliffs above nearby Tagle beach to admire the views, before continuing on to Santa Justa beach. Following the signs, we discovered the tiny chapel and hermitage of Santa Justa – clinging to the rocks and barely visible but well worth a detour.
A few miles inland is the medieval town of Santillana del Mar. A charming maze of cobbled streets and buildings bedecked with flowering window boxes. Nearby are the Cuevas de Altamira, the famous caves that are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Paintings dating back to 16,000BC adorn the walls of these magnificent caverns. Visiting is a bit of a challenge as numbers are restricted so check the website for details.
Further along the coast is the village of Cóbreces, you will soon spot the magnificent Cistercian Abbey of Santa Maria, that dominates the skyline. The local beach is Lunaña, a perfect bay with a good car park and well laid out picnic areas.
Crossing into Asturias is Ribadesella, one of the prettiest and interesting towns along the coast. Situated alongside the River Sella and famous for hosting a prestigious International Canoeing Festival, held each August. As a result, there are plenty of outdoor activity companies offering a selection of canoeing and kayaking adventures along the river.
Pressing on we came to the elegant resort of Comillas, an active fishing port and favoured holiday destination for the Spanish Royal Family. The town has its fair share of historical buildings including the Sobrellano Palace and the Caprichio de Gaudi, a summerhouse designed by the great man himself in 1883.
San Vincente la Barquera is a seafaring and fishing town at the mouth of the San Vicente estuary. Yet more lovely beaches and an interesting town to stroll around. A visit to the 15th century monastery of El Santuario de la Barquera and the Convent de San Luis is recommended for a peaceful afternoon.
Magnificent Mountains – Picos de Europe
We swapped our flip-flops for walking boots to explore the imposing Picos de Europe. These mountains are a fabulous backdrop to the seaside resorts but the proximity to the coast means the weather can be very unpredictable. A sunny day can quickly change if the fog rolls in!
Formed from mainly limestone, glaciers have forged deep valleys where rare flora and fauna can be found. The Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa is a vast area and has several entry points. From Ribasadella it takes just 30 minutes to reach the northern gateway to the mountains; Cangas de Onis. Cangas is a bustling town, full of walkers and holidaymakers, and inevitable traffic.
Most of the tourists are en route to Covadonga where the amazing 19th century basilica clings to the hillside and attracts visitors by the coach load. To escape the crowds and find some peace and tranquillity high in the mountains, we headed to the glacier lake, Lago de Ercina. The views are breathtaking across the icy blue water to the rugged mountains beyond, and only cowbells echoing across the valley break the silence.
There are plenty of footpaths to follow to suit all abilities and if you don’t feel like walking then make yourself comfortable in the small restaurant adjoining the car park and admire the view.
Our journey had come to an end and as we retraced our steps back to Santander we realised we had only scratched the surface of this delightful area – there is much more to see. Exploring the coastal route of the Costa Verde will immerse you in history, nature and a Spanish way of life that you won’t find anywhere else.
Sally’s Tips for Costa Verde Travel
- The weather along the coast and in the mountains constantly changes so be prepared for four seasons in one day. Dress in layers and pack a waterproof jacket.
- Asturian Sidra (Cider) is a popular tipple in this region. In every town you will find Sidra bars, where the waiters make a great show of pouring just a little at a time into glasses from a great height. The perfect accompaniment to a plate of tasty tapas.
- Look out for the yellow scallop sign by the side of many roads showing the way for modern day pilgrims walking the ancient Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The signs also indicate resting places and refreshment stops for weary travellers.