Spain's traditional culture pays off

PETER LYNCH

A mere 90 minutes from London and I'm among the green hills surrounding Coruna in Galicia - north-west Spain. The green hills of Spain - home of the spaghetti western and hundreds of square kilometres of blisteringly dry olive groves - surely that can't be right?

This is the Costa Verde and it's like nowhere else in Spain.

The region is separated from the rest of the Iberian Peninsula by the wild and rugged Cantabrian Mountains - a haven of protected areas and national parks - home to bears, wolves, wild boar and adventurous hikers.

The rain in Spain doesn't actually stay mainly in the plain - a song obviously written by someone who's never been there.

The rain falls mainly on the mountains, which is why the green northern coast is so lush with forests, fields of wheat, maize and potatoes.

Not only is the landscape unlike anywhere else in Spain, the people of these autonomous regions don't think of themselves as Spanish.

"We're Galicians," they say and if you're not convinced they'll get their bagpipes out and play a haunting Gaelic melody.

It's a beautiful coastline but only attracts a tiny portion of Spain's 30 million overseas visitors. But it is where Spaniards like to holiday. The two big exceptions are Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) in the west and Bilbao's Guggenheim museum (Euskadi) in the east.

The Costa Verde hasn't become over-reliant on mass-market tourism or the lemming-like rush towards over-development, so the region is weathering the national economic crisis better than elsewhere.

Unemployment is currently half that of the rest of Spain and there's an air of confidence and pride that its reliance on traditional life and culture is paying off.

It's almost another country. Surprisingly green, edged with rugged inlets, dotted with sandy bays and the restaurants literally crawl with fantastic Atlantic seafood.

Appropriately I'm using the greenest transport available, a train from near Coruna to San Sebastian. The track is an old narrow-gauge freight line but the train is the luxurious El Transcantabrico.

Immaculate staff welcome passengers on board Spain's smartest train, which is home for the next week. A welcome glass of bubbly and then I unpack and settle into my tiny cabin.

Before boarding the train I took a detour to Santiago de Compostela.

It's a glorious city dominated by the Praza do Obradoiro with the baroque cathedral on one side, the portico fronted Pazo de Raxoi (town hall) opposite and to the side is the up-market Parador the Hostal Reis Catolicos.

Ironically, the Parador was originally built for the sick and poor but has now become the most expensive lodgings in town.

The central square heaves with visitors and pilgrims who have trekked the 1000-year-old Way of St James - some walked and others cycled but all brandished the scallop shell symbol of El Camino (the path).

Related: THE PILGRIM'S WAY

The medieval town is a mix of alleyways, squares, bars, cafes, shops and a covered market with dazzling displays of fruit, vegetables, fish and great legs of ham. This is where I tasted my first regional speciality - pulpo a la gallega (spicy octopus).

Cooked by a street vendor in a vast cauldron, he snipped it up with scissors and served it on wooden platters sprinkled with olive oil and paprika. Having tasted plenty of chewy octopus this was amazingly tender.

The Moors never successfully invaded this region and Santiago de Compostela became a rallying point for resistance against the invaders. It was at the little town of Covadonga where the first successful battle turned the tide and the victory reinforced the survival of a Christian stronghold in northern Iberia. Today it's regarded as the beginning of the Reconquista.

Covadonga has a special place in Spanish history and lies at the entrance to the Picos de Europa National Park. This spectacularly wild place is one of the last real wilderness areas of western Europe.

The narrow winding road takes visitors up to the beautiful Lago Enol (1134m) but from there the mountains go on and on where only hardened hikers can follow ancient tracks. Brown bears inhabit places beyond the road and simple refuges shelter hikers from the fickle and very changeable weather of the Picos.

On the way down from the Picos we stopped at a farmhouse restaurant in Sirivella for two other memorable regional specialities fabada (white bean and pork stew) and Spain's greatest cheese, the queso de cabrales - a local soft and creamy blue cheese, wrapped in chestnut leaves.

I love the street ethos of Spain, so un-Anglo-Saxon; evenings throng with every age group - strolling, sitting, chatting, drinking, eating, window-shopping or just apparently standing about.

A fabulous bar snack in Cantabria and the Basque country is pinchos - like tapas but bigger and more sophisticated.

Pinchos are a cornerstone of Basque culture and perfect eating for socialising in crowded bars that spill out on to the pavement.

Bilbao, the Basque country's biggest city, was the biggest surprise.

My ill-informed image was of a dreary port with a shadow of terrorism but it's undergone extensive regeneration while carefully preserving its old town.

The Guggenheim Museum attracts a vast number of overseas visitors but the biggest impression for me was the incredibly friendly people.

Most seemed to be trying to cram into the Victor Montes bar, for their famed pinchos but twice as many people spilled out under the portico surrounding the plaza.

From end to end the Costa Verde is a marvel of scenery, food, traditional culture, beautiful cities and fabulous little villages. So different from the rest of Spain and the hotel train is a luxurious way to explore this green and pleasant land.

FACT FILE


• Spanish Tourist Office is at www.in-spain.info.

• The Transcantabrico runs from April to October and costs from $3600 per person for eight days, seven nights, including all meals and side trips. See www.transcantabrico.com/index.asp.

• Vueling Airways flies direct from London to the Costa Verde. Go to www.vueling.com.