It was raining when we woke and this shouldn’t really have surprised us because this part of Northern Spain is one of the wettest places in Europe with an average one hundred and eighty-one days in a year when it rains. This compares with one hundred and fifty-two days in London and only sixty in Seville in the south of the peninsula.
Cantabria is part of Green Spain, the name given to the strip of land between the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Mountains and it is so called because it has particularly lush vegetation, due to a wet and moderate oceanic climate that is strongly influenced by Atlantic weather systems that get trapped by the mountains and turn to rain. It is a place of complete contrast to the dustiest and driest parts of Spain in the arid South-East where most Northern European visitors head for the beaches and the sun-loungers of the concrete and tarmac strip.
While Northern Europe goes to the South, Northern Spain by contrast is a popular holiday choice with Spanish people living in the south and the central cities of the country because they like to holiday in the north to escape the oppressive heat and enjoy the famous seafood. In August alone, eight million Spaniards travel north from cities like Madrid and Valencia to the more temperate climate of Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria with its green scenery and spectacular beaches. The climate though is changeable and the region is often referred to in Spain as the wet or rainy region.
After breakfast we borrowed umbrellas from the hotel lobby and set off in the car and our intended destination this time was the Basque capital city of Vitoria-Gasteiz. We drove east along the Autovia and soon passed out of Cantabria and into Euskadi and as we did so the weather took a turn for the worst and it started to rain quite hard. The route took us back around the suburbs of Bilbao and through large matchstick high rise housing estates of the working class. The road dipped and weaved between the buildings and their individual accommodations each with a tiny balcony, some with flower pots, some dripping with colourful washing and all with satellite dishes and television aerials. It really wasn’t very attractive at all and we were pleased when the motorway split in two and we started to head south and away from the city.
What we weren’t pleased about however was the weather because as we headed into the mountains it continued to deteriorate and yesterday’s white lace bonnets were today grey skull caps and as it continued to rain the spray from the traffic made the journey difficult and miserable. In the rear view mirror we could see that it was brighter behind us and to the west so after a couple of junctions we abandoned the excursion to Vitoria-Gasteiz, left the motorway and began a much earlier than planned return journey.
We kept away from the motorway however and plotted a route that kept us inland and on the minor roads through the small villages and green fields of the Basque Country and as we drove west the weather improved and it stopped raining. We had no plans now so we just drove through the swirling mists of the clouds as they crawled over the sides of the hills and down into the valleys and then we reached the little town of Artziniega, which looked busy and interesting so we parked the car and went to investigate.
It was only a small town but with an interesting historical centre with narrow cobbled streets, grand villas (some abandoned), honey coloured stone buildings and an altogether different style to that in Cantabria. Whatever had been happening ten minutes previously and had encouraged us to stop however was clearly all over now because the town was languid and quiet and we met only a few people as we dawdled around the attractive streets stopping regularly to admire views of the surrounding countryside that was so green a leprechaun would surely feel at home.
We drove on and although it remained overcast the weather was still improving when we reached the larger town of Balmaseda and stopped again. There was nothing especially picturesque about the town which has a rather functional appearance but it seemed friendly enough and this being a weekend and a festival day as well (May 1st, Labour Day) the main square in front of the Town Hall and Church was full of people just wandering aimlessly from one conversation to another in that sociable, Saturday morning sort of way that Spanish people do.
After a drink in a traditional bar with a room full of excitable local people we left Balmaseda and continued our journey on a route that unexpectedly took us out of the Basque Country and for a few kilometres through neighbouring Castilla y Leon on our way towards the town of Valle de Villaverde. Due to a historical quirk Valle de Villaverde is a municipality with an interesting geographical arrangement because it is an exclave Cantabrian town that is surrounded by the Basque municipalities of Carranza, Arcentales and Trucíos. Basque nationalists want to incorporate Valle de Villaverde into the surrounding Basque province but Cantabria is not minded to cooperate and Basque nationalism is less strong in the west of the region and the residents of Valle de Villaverde are generally speaking happy to remain Cantabrian.