This tour takes us off the tourist map into the heart of Green Spain and early Spanish history. Against a spectacular and diverse backdrop of rocky coastline, vertiginous gorges and lush rolling hills, various chapters of history have left their mark in remote hilltop villages and deep caves.
The vast underground caverns hold remnants of Spain’s earliest civilisations, with some of Europe’s most significant, well-preserved Palaeolithic cave art dating back to 30,000 bc at sites such as Tito Bustillo and the superb facsimile of Altamira.
However, it was in the Middle Ages when Asturias and Cantabria would play a central role in the formation of Catholic Spain. The intriguing cave shrine at Covadonga, perched dramatically above a waterfall, marks the site where the independent-minded Asturians rose up against the Moors in the eighth century, thus beginning the Reconquista.
This was the only corner of the Iberian peninsula not occupied by the Moors (Asturians still proudly declare that ‘Asturias is Spain; the rest is conquered territory’), and Iberian Christians sought refuge in these secluded hills from Muslim rule in the south. At the end of the winding road through La Hermida gorge, with its soaring limestone peaks, concealed caves and waterfalls, their Mozarabic churches dot the hilltops around the ‘Shangri La’ valley town of Potes. They supposedly brought with them the largest piece of the True Cross, which remains on display in the Monastery of Santo Toribio.
With the reconquest underway, the ninth century saw a proliferation of Asturian pre-Romanesque churches. We see the finest examples, including the imposing royal palace and church on the slopes of Mount Naranco and the church of Santullano, the largest Christian construction in Spain until the 11th century, with well-preserved mural paintings.
Later medieval architecture is also well represented, particularly in the Asturian capital Oviedo. Likewise we glimpse the renewed prosperity of the 19th century, when a coal boom coincided with the return of indianos – natives who emigrated to make their fortune in the Americas. These new world riches funded the construction of fantasy modernist villas – none more striking than the Capricho summer villa, an early Gaudí commission in the unlikely setting of Comillas, a once-tiny fishing port.
Fly at c. 4.30pm from London Gatwick to Oviedo (Vueling). Arrive at the hotel in Oviedo at c. 9.00pm for the first of two nights.
Oviedo. Morning visits to pre-Romanesque churches in and around Oviedo. Santullano is richly decorated with well-preserved mural paintings. Overlooking the city on the slopes of Mount Naranco sit San Miguel de Lillo and the hauntingly beautiful palace-cum-church of Santa María, built by King Ramiro I (842–850), the greatest artistic patron in the history of Asturias. The Archaeological Museum houses artefacts rescued from Naranco and other sites to be visited throughout the week, and the Fine Arts Museum has an impressive collection of Spanish art.
Oviedo, Villaviciosa. Begin at Oviedo’s Gothic cathedral, with tombs of the early Asturian kings, and the adjoining Cámara Santa, the original pre-Romanesque church of King Alfonso II the Chaste (791–842) with fine sculpture. Drive eastward, stopping at San Salvador de Priesca, one of the latest Asturian pre-Romanesque churches with mozarabic influences. San Salvador de Valdedios, nestled at the foot of a lush valley, was built for Alfonso III as part of a palace complex in the ninth century. Overnight in Cangas de Onís.
Covadonga, Cangas de Onís, Tito Bustillo. The shrine of Covadonga marks the spot where the Asturians repelled the Moors in 718, the cradle of the reconquista. A stroll through Cangas de Onís takes in the bridge, a medieval construction on the site of a Roman crossing. Continue to Tito Bustillo, one of the most remarkable sites of palaeolithic cave art in Europe, whose complex decorated panel sits at the end of a long walk past impressive stalagmites and stalactites. Cross into Cantabria and continue to Santillana del Mar for the first of three nights.
Comillas, San Vicente de la Barquera, Altamira. The Capricho in Comillas is the most notable of the region’s 19th-century modernist villas and one of Gaudí’s lesser-visited works, commissioned by a Cantabrian who made his fortune in the Americas. Stop for lunch in San Vicente de la Barquera, a traditional fishing port dominated by a fortress-like church. Optional afternoon visit to the extremely accurate facsimile cave at Altamira, which is just as astonishing as the original, one of the most significant sites in cave art.
Lebeña, Potes, Altamira. Drive (c. 1 hour 45 minutes each way) through the dramatic scenery of La Hermida gorge, ascending towards the soaring Picos de Europa mountain range. En route visit the remote and striking mozarabic church of Santa María de Lebeña, before arriving at the Monastery of Santo Toribio, with a chapel holding the largest piece of the True Cross. Lunch break in the picturesque town of Potes before returning to Santillana for a little free time.
Santander. Cantabria’s bustling capital is home to the Palacio de la Magdalena, an architecturally-eclectic and English-inspired palace perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking El Sardinero bay, gifted by the city to King Alfonso XIII in 1912 and used by the royal family as a summer house until 1930. Scenic drive along the bay before visiting the Centro Botin, a cutting-edge work of 21st-century architecture housing a modern art gallery, opened in 2017. Fly from Bilbao to London Gatwick, arriving c. 7.15pm.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,220 or £2,080 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,420 or £2,280 without flights.
Air travel (economy class) with Vueling (aircraft: Airbus 320); travel by private coach throughout; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts and five dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Eurostars Hotel de la Reconquista, Oviedo: 5-star hotel in a converted 17th-century hospice. Parador de Cangas de Onís: 4-star hotel in a rural setting; converted 12th-century monastery with modern extension. Parador de Santillana Gil Blas, Santillana del Mar: 4-star Parador, traditionally furnished. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
There is a lot of walking in town centres and to access some churches, often on cobbled streets, rough paths and up steep gradients. Visits to caves involve walking over rough, slippery ground. Sure-footedness and a good level of fitness are necessary. It should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair-climbing. There are some long drives. Average distance by coach per day: 103 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.