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'Going traditional': New York Times' top three 'real-Spain' destinations
By thinkSPAIN Team Sun, Jan 12, 2020
TAKING a trip to Spain, or exploring it further if you already live there, offers literally whatever you want to get out of a holiday, whatever your age, tastes or budget – although too often, it's only famed for its hot summers and beaches. Naturally, these are popular magnets for good reason (nowhere else in the world has as many blue flag beaches as Spain), but if these are not your idea of fun or you'd prefer something radically different for your next break, chances are you'll find yourself looking at other destinations.
Stop right there: Unless you have an urge to explore a specific region or to go to a country you've never seen before, it's almost certain you needn't look farther afield than Spain.
Sure, you've seen documentaries on TV, travel brochure photos, and television comedy dramas, and you know it's not hard to find tourist-heavy sunshine hotspots where most of the other guests are of the same nationality, and a lot of the bars and restaurants are run by them, too. But these are only a tiny proportion of the country; if you want to escape the Brits, the chip shops and the crowds, you still have about 95% of Spain to choose from.
You can still find tourist hotspots without bumping into a single Brit all week; if you seek hustle and bustle, there's lots of it out there in places northern Europeans rarely visit; there's no need to give up the beach to avoid the package holiday resorts; although peace and quiet, relative isolation and inland destinations are abundant – and often just as cheap.
The New York Times has recommended three great parts of Spain to travel to if you want to 'go traditional' – and although we could name you hundreds without having to think about it, that's another story for later (but we will just mention the easy-to-reach coastal towns in the province of Castellón – Peñíscola, Vinaròs, Oropesa del Mar and Benicàssim, among others – and that of Valencia, including Tavernes de la Valldigna, Cullera, Sueca and Gandia, all of which guarantee full beach holiday infrastructure, a lively summer atmosphere, but which are practically 100% Spanish as they're not yet properly discovered by foreigners, and all served by cheap flights with public transport from their nearest airport).
Here are The New York Times' top three 'traditional' holiday destinations – and we have to admit, they're excellent choices.
Although you won't have to compromise on warm summer weather in this northern coastal region, the hot season tends to be milder than farther south – rather more like a 'proper' English summer and guaranteed for at least two or three months. But in winter, you can warm yourself up with a typical local fabada, or hearty bean stew, and wash it down with some Asturian cider, which tends to have more of an 'apple' taste than the stuff you buy in supermarkets outside of Spain.
It's much greener – emerald-green – than the Mediterranean and south coasts, with rolling hills and dramatic coastal cliffs, and remote villages with very central-European style architecture that appear to be lost in time. One of these is the colourful fishing village of Cudillero, and the view over the clifftop is said to be even more spectacular on a misty day.
The quaint little city of Oviedo, with its numerous cider bars, pavement cafés and Gothic cathedral is where Formula 1 ace Fernando Alonso was born, is more than worth the detour and rarely disappoints, and a perfect contrast is found in the ancient village of Taramundi, a mini-paradise of rural history (see second photograph, by José Luis Cernadas Iglesias on Flickr).
The bright and sunny city of Gijón, with its seafront walk and Art and Industrial Creation Centre – based in the Universidad Laboral and described as 'like something straight out of Harry Potter' – makes an excellent day trip, whatever the weather, and a miniature version comes in the shape of the delightful fishing town of Luarca (first picture); and if you're feeling energetic and want to explore the countryside, Asturias is home to some of Spain's most stunning hiking routes. These include the Senda del Oso ('Bear's Path'), between Tuñón and Entrago, a 22-kilometre stretch through breathtaking, dramatic countryside, crossing white-water rivers, tree-tunnels, and even a known native brown bear habitat. Paca and Molinera have lived in a cave at kilometre 6 of the route since they were orphaned, released back into the wild after being hand-reared – and although there's no guarantee you'll see them, they have often been known to pop out and hang around when tourists trek by.
More rural paradise is guaranteed if you head for the Picos de Europa mountains, shared with the neighbouring region of Cantabria – a visit to the Covadonga Lakes (third picture), which sit at 1,000 metres above sea level, the La Santina nature reserve and the La Reina viewing point are some of the most beautiful and dramatic sights in Asturias, rivalled only by its Somiedo nature reserve in the Cantabrian mountain range. Replete with forests, meadows, lakes and lagoons – which reflect the landscape in them on clear days, creating an optical illusion – the Somiedo is universally held to be the one part of Asturias that you cannot leave the region without seeing.
The Arán Valley (Valle de Arán, or Val d'Aran)
This tiny enclave in the Pyrénéen province of Lleida (Catalunya) has its own language, which locals have been trying hard to keep alive, and a campaign was staged a few years ago for it to secede from Catalunya and become a region in its own right.
Aranese, or aranés, is a variation of Occitan, a Romance language spoken in southern France since at least the 11th century, and the Valley's name also has an official French version (Val d'Aran, the same as in catalán) because of its being just a few kilometres from Spain's nearest neighbour.
Right on the French border and close to the ski resorts in the province of Huesca (Aragón) and Lleida – which are open and active from around mid-December until at least March or even April if snows permit – the Arán Valley is paradise at any time of the year, whether coated in white or with its verdant slopes drenched in sunlight. A unique part of the world of singular beauty, dotted with impossibly-blue lakes known as Ibones, the Arán Valley is another part of Spain which the brown bear is native to: a conservation programme aimed at preventing the species dying out has led to 10 cubs being born in recent years, so you may spot the odd one on your trek.
Head to the flint village of Bausen, where 'roads' are actually grassy footpaths about wide enough for two walkers side by side, a fairytale hamlet which is normally visited at the same time as the lush, verdant Carlac forest; Bossost, with its stunning Romanesque, slate-roofed buildings and 12th-century church; the quaint 'regional capital' of Vielha, split in two by the river Nere, and the last village before you hit France, that of Les, where you can catch the local fiestas and maypole dancing in Mediaeval costume if you're there at the right time of year or, if you're not, submerge yourself in its famous and healing thermal waters and taste its locally-farmed caviar.
Pack some suitable footwear and a camera, and set off on the so-called 'Seven Lakes Route' (see fourth picture) to truly get the best of some of the most mind-blowing countryside you'll ever have passed through in your life.
Didn't we tell you there was no need to sacrifice popular beach destinations to 'go traditional' on your Spanish holidays? Well, despite frequently appearing in travel agency windows and a staple among package tour operators, The New York Times considers the second-smallest of the Balearics' inhabited islands (after Formentera) to be a great choice for those seeking a 'traditionally-Spanish break'.
And we agree, because even if you're based in a mainstream resort (and these can be the cheapest options), you never have to move far beyond it to find a bit of 'real Spain'. Even without a car – the island is only about 56 kilometres from end to end, bus links are regular and connections from all towns and villages lead to its capital, Mahón (Maó in the local language, menorquín, and in catalán).
Prehistoric sites abound – it's not all modern apartment blocks. In fact, Menorca is home to what is thought to be the oldest building in Europe – the Naveta des Tudons (fifth picture), a dry-stone, upturned-boat-shaped mausoleum believed to have been built in around 1,000 BC, very much in the style of the local Talayot people who inhabited the island at the time.
Roman ruins atop a hill, the Torre d'En Galmés offers spectacular views across the coast as well as being pretty spectacular in itself; the Torralba settlement, built between the days of the Naveta des Tudons and the Roman era, one of the most iconic of Menorca's Talayotic sites and believed to have been home to up to 500 inhabitants at one time; the Talatí de Dalt Bronze Age settlement just four kilometres out of Mahón; the Trepucó Talayotic village; the Torretrencada ('broken tower') and Torrellafuda settlements; and the intriguing Cala Morell necropolis, a Talayot-to-second-century AD mausoleum, structured like a cave with pillars and arches, all offer some incredibly unique and very-visitable history that you won't find anywhere else in Europe, or even the world.
A bit of British – and French – history comes in the shape of the Marlborough Fort, one of the key sites in the conflict between Spain and these two countries over which was going to have Menorca for itself; the S'Hostal mines, where most of the sand-coloured stone used for the island's buildings comes from; the Fornells defence tower, built during the time of the British occupation; the Favàritx lighthouse, overlooking a lunar landscape of slate beach, often combined with a trip to the beautiful, green S'Albufera des Grau marshes, home to numerous native and endangered species of plants and birds of prey, and the stunning views from the peak of Monte Torro, Menorca's highest at 358 metres, are just a handful of non-beach activities you can pack into your trip.
Visits to the quaint fishing villages of Binibeca – a recent construction of whitewashed homes that gives the impression of being a model-town theme park – and Ciutadella with its aristocratic feel, a port that is said to be one of the most iconic on the island, and elegant plazas, are a must, as is a trip to Mahón, which looks more like a large fishing village than a district capital (it's actually only home to 28,000 people) with its attractive architecture, excellent shopping, and – of course – bars selling Menorca's famous Xoriguer gin and bright-green herbal spirit, hierbas.
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