Our exciting Northern Spain and the Pyrenees tour really encapsulates all that is special about this terrific part of the word. From the rolling vineyards of the Rioja region to Spain’s very own Costa Verde and the might French Pyrenees. These often unexplored regions of Spain and France delight travellers with stunning scenery, unique culture and a rich history.
A peek at two peaks!!
Right across Europe there are mountain ranges, and mankind has always had this strange urge to stand on top of them. To conquer them! To that end you will find cable cars, aerial gondolas and funicular trains working summer and winter taking people to dizzy heights and to look out platforms with views that seem to often go on forever. And here’s the trick, every mountain viewpoint is different. They have their own inspiring uniqueness. That is precisely why we include two cable car rides on this tour.
Picos de Europa
You see, it is not just about the dramatic views from the top of each mountain, it is about the journey, the experience – it is about the whole day itself. Take the Picos de Europa ride in Northern Spain for example. First stop is in San Vicente de la Barquera, by the sea, with the dramatic Picos mountains rearing up behind. This builds anticipation for our journey through the dramatic gorges and villages, deep into the wild Picos National Park. Here we also enjoy a ‘Fabada’ mountain lunch which is included in the price of the tour, of course, after all this is Albatross. So there we are at the end of the road in a craggy gorge and the only way on is by cable car - of course we take it (and include it). The cable car is not just the destination, but an excuse for a great day out!
Pic Du Midi
Our visit to the Pic Du Midi in the French Pyrenees is also an experience. This mountain is much higher, has much bigger views and a huge observatory at the top, like something out of a James Bond movie. And the journey? We follow a part of the famous Tour de France bicycle route over the Tourmalet Pass, an experience enhanced by the struggling cyclists we pass up hill. Rising up nearly 3,000 metres we are in a weather micro-system where the sky is clear and the views down onto, and along, the Pyrenees are staggering. To me it looks like a scene from ‘Lord of the Rings’ - Mordor!
The Rioja region is also the Pilgrim’s Way
Mountains aside, our Northern Spain and the Pyrenees tour really opens up a less explored part of Europe. We have set departures right through the European summer because these regions don’t experience the fierce heat you get in the South. For our first three nights we stay in a converted 13th century convent in a small town called Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Set on the banks of the river Oja, this town sits astride the Pilgrims Route to Santiago de Compostela - The Way of St James. In fact our convent served those pilgrims for hundreds of years. History abounds in the area and one of the highlights will be a visit to Pamplona. No, we are not there for the bulls, but instead the architecture, elegance, style, the food and yes, the wine. We also spend time in Laguardia, Logroño, Haro and Vitoria, capital of the Basque region.
35,000 year old rock paintings
On one day during our three nights stay on the north coast in Santander, we make an unusual visit to the UNESCO World Heritage listed Altamira Caves. These caves date back 35,000 years, and are said to be the highest quality cave art found anywhere in all of Europe. So perfect, that when discovered, archaeologists doubted they were actually genuine. To preserve the astonishing cave art, depicting bison, horses, wolves, and more, the caves have been sealed but we can still see and admire them in the amazing replica cave built as part of a fascinating museum. The local guide will breathe life into the ancient story.
We also include a three night stay in the European gourmet capital of San Sebastian. One day we devote to the stylish town centre with its Pintxo bars (the Basque style of tapas) and the other in Biarritz on the French Atlantic Coast.
Time to sip ‘bubbly’ in St Hilaire Abbey
On the way to Carcassonne we stop at the staggering, half-timbered town of Mirepoix then later at St Hilaire. Everyone thinks ‘bubbly’ was invented in the Champagne region. Not so! A full 100 years beforehand, the monks of St Hilaire Abbey created this celebratory brew, and they did it so well too! Known as ‘Blanquette de Limoux’, it tastes terrific. Maybe that is because the abbey and cloisters where it is made is a 600 year old jewel of Romanesque architecture, or maybe because sipping it, where bubbly was first invented, adds dreaminess and nostalgia to the flavour. Either way, it is just so good!
The walled city of Carcassonne and the mysterious Cathar Country
Carcassonne is justifiably the most visited site in France, outside of Paris. The massive, beautifully preserved citadel, and double walled castle was an important defensive refuge during the Cathar wars. 800 years ago, in what is also known as the Albigensian Crusade, the Catholic Church clashed with the strongly emerging Cathar church and, by the end of it, the Cathar belief and people had been virtually exterminated. One special town, Minerve, is well worth a visit. Decimated in the wars and now voted one of the most beautiful villages in France, Minerve was totally re-built and we explore this 700 year old, perfectly preserved time capsule. On the same day we also enjoy a visit to the charming little town of Le Somail, which sits astride the picturesque Canal du Midi. To me there’s so more to travel than simply ticking major attractions and ‘highlight’ cities off a list.
There are also the experiences. We do these extra things like travelling from peak to peak, visiting a cliff top citadel and enjoying the cafes by the Canal du Midi because they simply can’t be missed! Perhaps why our Northern Spain and the Pyrenees tour is just so popular.