Top 5 Reasons to Visit Northern Spain

A few years ago we spent two weeks in northern Spain, which receives fewer tourists than the more well-known southern Spain. There are a number of fascinating “out-of-way” spots in this part of the country, but for sake of brevity I’m sharing my top 5 reasons to visit this part of Spain below.

Pedraza de la Sierra - a perfect medieval village - one of the "out of the way" spots in northern Spain

1. Santiago de Compostela. The Cathedral and town are the end points of the El Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrimage route to the relics of St. James, said to be housed in the Cathedral (spreading the word of sacred relics was a way of encouraging pilgrimages and therefore money for the churches). Santiago de Compostela was the 3rd most important place of pilgrimage in Christendom (after Jerusalem and Rome). I’ll say more about the pilgrimage in another post. The Cathedral is a sight to behold, the current building dates from the 11th – 13th centuries, with Baroque exteriors and towers added in the 18th century. The interior altars, carvings and decorations are some of the finest in Europe. Due to the wetter climate in this part of the country, the towers are tinged with moss. In the Praza do Obradoiro (square) in front of the cathedral is the sea shell marker (symbol of St. James), which marks the end of the pilgrimage route.

The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The end of the El Camino de Santiago in front of the cathedral

2. Segovia. Segovia is located only 50 miles north of Madrid. What a perfect city for the tourist looking for layers of history: The Roman aqueduct is one of the largest in existence (built during the Emperor Trajan’s time – about 100 AD), still functional, and made of stone blocks without any mortar. The castle (known as the Alcazar) is one of the most picturesque in Europe (admittedly rebuilt after a fire in the 1800’s). Close to the castle is the Vera Cruz church, a 13thcentury 12-sided Romanesque structure, built by the Knights Templar. Entering this church is a step back in time. This is a great spot to get a picture of the castle too.

The Alcazar of Segovia

The Roman Aqueduct of Segovia (built around 100 AD)

3. Salamanca. One of my favorite cities in Europe, let alone Spain. It has a famous university, plaza and two intertwined cathedrals. The city’s architecture is beautiful, dating from many historical periods. The Plaza de Mayor is one example—I had heard this was the most beautiful Plaza in Spain, and I now know why. Built in the early 1700’s, it is the “living room” of Salamanca. The university, founded in 1230, provided Columbus with travel information for his famous voyages. In one of the old lecture halls, there are wooden benches and tables dating from the 1200’s. The old (12th century) and “new” (16thcentury) cathedrals, built around each other, are some of the most fascinating structures in Europe, with unique paintings, frescoes and tombs. An old Roman bridge on the south side of the city is still in use.

Plaza de Mayor, Salamanca

The Roman bridge (foreground) and the cathedrals of Salamanca (in background).

4. Two of the greatest gothic cathedrals in Europe (Leon and Burgos). Although Spain has had many different cultural influences over the centuries, as evidenced in the varied architecture, it was definitely influenced by the medieval gothic cathedral construction of France. The 13th century cathedral of Leon is world-renown for its stained glass, all 19,350 square feet of it, much of it original. The Burgos gothic cathedral, also 13thcentury, has extremely elaborate stone carvings, and was altered and expanded in the 1400’s and 1500’s.

The gothic cathedral of Leon

Burgos Cathedral

5. It’s cooler and greener. Even in June, the weather in northern Spain was very pleasant, and could even be considered cool, with rain always a possibility (it rained on us one afternoon in Santiago de Compostela). The countryside was green and fresh. Visiting the mountain town of O Cebreiro felt more like Ireland than Spain, both due to the architecture and the surrounding green hills.

The beautiful green countryside of northern Spain

The stone houses of O Cebreiro

Information Sources: Rick Steve’s Spain 2006 and DK Eyewitness Spain 2006.