Full of surprises

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Why go?

Spain’s landscapes are incredibly varied, from wide, open plains to soaring mountains. Some of its historic towns are often too far inland to catch on a beach break. Ditto its national parks and world heritage sites

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Pros

You’ll get a taste of the real Spain when you turn away from the beach. Book into a Parador: hotels housed in historic castles and palaces; on a tighter budget try a turismo rural. Sample Rioja’s vineyards or the Cava region

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Cons

You need a car to get the most out of inland Spain, although the rail/coach networks will deliver you to its most historic sites, and many of its ski stations. Avoid the centre of the country in August… or you’ll fry

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Practical info

Look at Spain’s tourist information website for seasonal ideas and cultural events: spain.info/en. Low-cost flights land in Madrid, Seville, Santiago de Compostela, Zaragoza and Jerez. renfe.es for rail info

World heritage sites

World heritage sites

Las Medulas, Leon

One of the country’s least known jewels and a UNESCO World Heritage site, no less. The Romans transformed these mountains in northwestern Spain, carving out a gold mine, the largest open one in their Empire. Explore – ideally with a guide – on foot, by bicycle or on horseback. At sunrise and sunset, the landscape’s red hue is even more spectacular. Las Medulas rarely features on travel itineraries but the area really is worth exploring, so stay overnight, maybe in Ponferrada. whc.unesco.org/en/list/803

Abandonded towns

Abandonded towns

Belchite, near Zaragoza

This town was the site of fierce battles between Franco’s forces and the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, resulting in thousands of deaths. It has been left untouched since 1939 and now represents a moving memorial to the devastation wreaked by armed conflict. Check times of the official tours, some of which are conducted at night, at belchite.es/turismo/visitas

Cycle paths

Cycle paths

Teruel to Valencia

Old railway lines in Spain are being transformed into cycle paths and grouped under the Vias Verdes (Green Ways) network, More info at viasverdes.es. Here, part of the Ojos Negros trail in eastern Spain, which winds down through the countryside towards the Valencian coast. A parallel train line means you can ride up in the morning and cycle down slowly: check villages with stations on the route.

Hotels on the cycle routes

Hotels on the cycle routes

EL Secanet

A small B & B we checked into after a day on the Ojos Negros trail. The rooms are fine, the garden is lovely but it is the food that stands out: innovative but simple dishes inspired by ingredients from the owners’ vegetable patch and orchard.

National parks

National parks

Bardenas Reales, Navarra

Well off the tourist trail, the extraordinary landscapes of this desert-like region can be explored on foot, by bike, in a quad or on horseback. Located near Tudela, in southeast Navarra, the Bardenas’ chalk, clay and sandstone soil has been eroded over the centuries to create lunar-feel plateaux and gullies. The ultimate adventure playground… but inadvisable in high summer.

Bardenas Reales hotels

Bardenas Reales hotels

Aire de Bardenas

An award-winning avant-garde hotel ideally placed for exploring the park (recommended, though we haven’t yet stayed; image © the hotel). Our group, on a boys’ cycling weekend, checked into mid-range Hospederia de Alesves, with helpful owners and easy parking: hospederiadealesves.com

National Parks

National Parks

Parque Nacional Sierra de Guadarrama

Located just 40 minutes by car from Spain’s capital, few tourists head up this way – but they should. One of the loveliest places to hike or picnic in central Spain, with the river Manzanares meandering or thundering (depending on the season) down through huge boulders. Pine woods provide welcome shade in summer, though, sadly, you can no longer swim in the pools. Drive or catch a bus to Manzanares el Real.

Adventure sports

Adventure sports

Rafting in the Pyrenees

Looking for ideas for a dads and sons weekend, our party came across a rafting experience on the Gallego river, at Murillo de Gallego, near Huesca. They booked with River Guru, who organize a host of other activities, from kayaking to canyoning (see Facebook link). For accommodation, our lot checked into reasonably priced El Corral de Concilio: a small, family-friendly B&B in what claims to be the smallest village in the world! elcorraldeconcilio.com/contenido/main-page-english

Picnic stops

Picnic stops

Covanera, Burgos-Santander drive

Two main roads link Burgos to Santander: the N623 is the winding, picturesque one, which crosses the Escudo mountain pass and is best avoided in bad weather. On a fair day, though, it is a gorgeous drive – and Covanera, on the Rudron river, is the perfect picnic stop. A ten-minute walk, along a marked trail, will take you to the Pozo Azul, a very deep, vivid-blue pool beneath which cave divers have mapped out a vast underwater system.

Picnic stops

Picnic stops

Arija, Ebro lake

Further up the N623, heading north, you’ll reach the vast Ebro reservoir. Turn off for Arija: a village once made rich by a famous French glass company, which set up a factory there in 1906. Many of its fine buildings can still be seen, while others are falling into ruin. You can picnic on the lake’s beaches or eat steak on sizzling plates at the rustic Meson La Piedra. Avenida de la Playa 12, tel: +34 942 77 33 16.