10 Days in Spain (or at Sea) and What I Read

(Susan is the queen of the holiday travel and reading post – see her latest here.)

We spent the end of May in Northern Spain, with 20+-hour ferry rides across the English Channel either way. Thank you for your good thoughts – we were lucky to have completely flat crossings, and the acupressure bracelets that I wore seemed to do the job, such that not only did I not feel sick, but I even had an appetite for a meal in the ship’s café each day.

Not a bad day to be at sea. (All photos in this post are by Chris Foster.)

With no preconceived ideas of what the area would be like and zero time to plan, we went with the flow and decided on hikes each morning based on the weather. After a chilly, rainy start, we had warm but not uncomfortable temperatures by the end of the week. My mental picture of Spain was of hot beaches, but the Atlantic climate of the north is more like that of Britain’s. Green gorse-covered, livestock-grazed hills reminded us of parts of Wales. Where we stayed near Potes (reached by a narrow road through a gorge) was on the edge of Picos de Europa national park. The mountain villages and wildflower-rich meadows we passed on walks were reminiscent of places we’ve been in Italy or the Swiss and Austrian Alps.

The flora and fauna were an intriguing mix of the familiar (like blackbirds and blue tits) and the exotic (black kites, Egyptian vultures; some different butterflies; evidence of brown bears, wolves and wild boar, though no actual sightings, of course). One special thing we did was visit Wild Finca, a regenerative farming project by a young English couple; we’d learned about it from their short film shown at New Networks for Nature last year. We’d noted that the towns have a lot of derelicts and properties for sale, which is rather sad to see. They told us farm abandonment is common: those who inherit a family farm and livestock might just leave the animals on the hills and move to a city apartment to have modern conveniences.

I was especially taken by this graffiti-covered derelict restaurant and accommodation complex. As I explored it I was reminded of Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment. It’s a wonder no one has tried to make this a roadside eatery again; it has a fantastic view!

It so happens that we were there for the traditional weekend when cattle are moved to new pastures. A cacophony of cowbells alerted us to herds going past our cottage window a couple of times, and once we were stopped on the road to let a small group through. We enjoyed trying local cheese and cider and had two restaurant meals, one at a trendy place in Potes and one at a roadside diner where we tried the regional speciality fabada, a creamy bean stew with sausage chunks.

Sampling local products and reading The Murderer’s Ape.

With our meager Spanish we just about got by. I used a phrase book so old it still referred to pesetas to figure out how to ask for roundtrip tickets, while my husband had learned a few useful restaurant-going phrases from the Duolingo language-learning app. For communicating with the cottage owner, though, we had to resort to Google Translate.

A highlight of our trip was the Fuente Dé cable car to 1900 meters / ~6200 feet above sea level, where we found snowbanks, Alpine choughs, and trumpet gentians. That was a popular spot, but on most of our other walks we didn’t see another human soul. We felt we’d found the real, hidden Spain, with a new and fascinating landscape around every corner. We didn’t make it to any prehistoric caves, alas – we would probably have had to book that well in advance – but otherwise experienced a lot of the highlights of the area.

On our way back to Santander for the ferry, we stopped in two famous towns: Comillas, known for its modernist architecture and a palace designed by Gaudí; and Santillana del Mar, which Jean-Paul Sartre once called the most beautiful town in Spain. We did not manage any city visits – Barcelona was too far and there was no train service; that will have to be for another trip. It was a very low-key, wildlife-filled and relaxing time, just what we needed before plunging back into work and DIY.

Santillana del Mar

What I Read

On the journey there and in the early part of the trip:

The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius (translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves): Sally Jones is a ship’s engineer who journeys from Portugal to India to clear her captain’s name when he is accused of murder. She’s also a gorilla. Though she can’t speak, she understands human language and communicates via gestures and simple written words. This was the perfect rip-roaring adventure story to read at sea; the twisty plot and larger-than-life characters who aid or betray Sally Jones kept the nearly 600 pages turning quickly. I especially loved her time repairing accordions with an instrument maker. This is set in the 1920s or 30s, I suppose, with early airplanes and maharajahs, but still long-distance sea voyages. Published by Pushkin Children’s, it’s technically a teen novel and the middle book in a trilogy, but neither fact bothered me at all.

& to see me through the rest of the week:

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy: Originally published in 1950, this was reissued by Faber in 2021 with a foreword by Cathy Rentzenbrink – had she not made much of it, I’m not sure how well I would have recognized the allegorical framework of the Seven Deadly Sins. In August 1947, we learn, a Cornish hotel was buried under a fallen cliff, and with it seven people. Kennedy rewinds a month to let us watch the guests arriving, and to plumb their interactions and private thoughts. We have everyone from a Lady to a lady’s maid; I particularly liked the neglected Cove children. It took me until the very end to work out precisely who died and which sin each one represented. The characters and dialogue glisten. This is intelligent, literary yet light, and so makes great vacation/beach reading.

Book of Days by Phoebe Power: A set of autobiographical poems about walking the Camino pilgrimage route. Power writes about the rigours of the road – what she carried in her pack; finding places to stay and food to eat – but also gives tender pen portraits of her fellow walkers, who have come from many countries and for a variety of reasons: to escape an empty nest, to make amends, to remember a departed lover. Whether the pilgrim is religious or not, the Camino seems like a compulsion. Often the text feels more like narrative prose, though there are some sections laid out in stanzas or forming shapes on the page to remind you it is verse. I think what I mean to say is, it doesn’t feel that it was essential for this to be poetry. Short vignettes in a diary may have been more to my taste.

Two favourite passages:

into cobbled elegance; it’s opening time for shops

selling vegetables and pan and gratefully I present my

Spanish and warmth so far collected, and receive in return

smiles, interest, tomatoes, cheese.

 

We are resolute, though unknowing

if we will succeed at this.

We are still children here –

arriving, not yet grown

up.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.

 

I’d also downloaded from Edelweiss the recent travel memoir The Way of the Wild Goose by Beebe Bahrami, in which she walks sections of the Camino in France and Spain and reflects on why the path keeps drawing her back. It’s been a probing, beautiful read so far – I think this is the mild, generically spiritual quest feel Jini Reddy was trying to achieve with Wanderland.

Plus, I read a few e-books for paid reviews and parts of other library books, including a trio of Spain-appropriate memoirs: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee, Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, and A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart – more about this last one in my first 20 Books of Summer post, coming up on Sunday.


Our next holiday, to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, is just two weeks away! It’ll be very different, but no doubt equally welcome and book-stuffed.

28 responses

  1. I love abandoned places, that restaurant is very Cal Flyn. The Murderer’s Ape sounds great fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe I’ll share some pictures with her on Twitter 🙂

      My library also has the sequel, so I’m going to take that on the train to Inverness later this month — fingers crossed our holiday can go ahead, as a rail strike has been called for our travel day.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. We’ve only dipped a toe into the water of this lesser-known part of Spain but as you have shown, it’s such a rewarding part of the country. I love transhumance too. That twice yearly journey was a real part of our lives in southern France.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did wonder if you were familiar with this area. Where we stayed was in Cantabria, but we kept crossing back into Asturias during the week and that’s where a lot of the speciality foods we ate came from. Before the trip I had blithely thought, “oh, we’ll go to Barcelona for a day” but then realized just how far it was, and no trains available. I’d like to see it on another trip.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Spain is just imMENSE. It’s hard to get to grope with. Yup, Cantabria to Barcelona in a single day was unthinkable. My daughter, the one in Barcelona, points out that that this part of Spain is not great for vegetarians, much less vegans. She had a hard time on holiday in Asturias, much as she loved it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. In English terms, yes, most countries on the Continent feel enormous. In U.S. terms, of course, they’d be the size of one state 😉

        Funny you should mention that. We’re flexitarian so had no issue. But we had actually considered inviting our vegan friends along to share costs and in the end were relieved we didn’t — they would have really struggled to find food out, so would have had to bring lots with them and cook every meal at the accommodation, which only had a hob and microwave.

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  3. Looks like a wonderful trip Rebecca – so glad you got through the crossing unscathed! This is a part of Spain I would really like to explore.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My first time in Spain. I wish my Spanish had been up to scratch — I probably had more vocabulary when I took after-school classes in kindergarten! But these days it’s fairly easy to get by with Google Translate.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely post, Rebecca. I’m so glad you had a calm crossing. We’ve had several holidays in northern Spain including a walking holiday but haven’t yet made it to the Picos. Way back when, there was an advertising campaign with a brilliant, spot on strapline – ‘So you think you know Spain’. And thank you – I’m just off to shine my crown.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is the perfect slogan! Apart from the cable car, we did feel that we’d discovered somewhere completely off the tourist track. All those Brits on the ferry with us must have dispersed to other parts of the country.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Gosh, this looks so beautiful and tranquil! And looks like you had some great reading, too. The Murderer’s Ape keeps popping up in my periphery, with excellent reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have some exciting trips coming up too. I hope they are just as relaxing and/or adventurous as you hope for.

      I came across The Murderer’s Ape while shelving in the rolling stacks for overflow (older and lesser used) material. I was slightly wary because of the Teen label and the possibility of an animal narrator being hokey, but it drew me in right from the start and exceeded my expectations.

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  6. So glad you got to Comillas. We stayed there for 3 days a few years ago and loved exploring the area. It does take time to travel around doesn’t it but it does force you to slow down and appreciate what you can see.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the recommendation; it was a nice thing to do on our last day. Almost everywhere we went was an hour or more away from the gite, often due to the twisty roads!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Looks like you had fun! Your description of the book about the ape made me laugh. I have a friend who has walked the Camino many times. She seems to love going there.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It seems like people get ‘the bug’ for the Camino and keep going back. I wish it had been more obvious where the route was and that it was closer — I would have liked to walk a tiny part of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s too bad.

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  8. Sounds like a lovely break! And The Feast is just marvellous!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was. The next holiday can’t come soon enough! The Feast was a great rediscovery, well done to Faber.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The lowest I’ve got where you went is via a mini-cruise to Santander (four hours visit to the town) and skiing in the Spanish Pyrenees (or rather my family skied, I housekept). You two do seem to have been more adventurous!

    I have a copy of The Murderer’s Ape but have yet to get into it – maybe another mini-cruise is called for…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Gorgeous pictures! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What a lovely break! My best Spanish-learning adventure so far has been starting the Drops app, getting frustrated it kept forcing me to learn the names for all the different kinds of nut, then inadvertently almost immediately going on holiday to the nougat capital of Spain and finding it useful! But in earlier pre-Google days we struggled to explain a mouth ulcer to a pharmacist (when in doubt, add an a and lisp: it is indeed “ulcera”). Lovely pictures and glad you had such a good time and reading time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s funny, the pronunciation of Spanish in Spain is significantly different from the Mexican Spanish I learned in kindergarten. (Perhaps closer to the literal spellings of things, like the way American English is said to adhere more to archaic English?!)

      Have you read The Feast? It seems like just your sort of thing!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t (yet) but I feel it will come to me in time!

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  12. […] reviewed the above four across my Spain trip and 20 Books of Summer […]

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  13. […] in public transport and want to support it, this experience gave us pause. Getting to and around Spain by car was so much easier, and that trip ended up a lot cheaper, too. […]

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  14. […] read sequels. The Murderer’s Ape was a pure delight and perfect companion on my long sea voyage to Spain back in May. Its every character and plot twist twinkle and the pages flew by. By contrast, this […]

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  15. […] the metaphorical setup of The Feast by Margaret Kennedy, a rediscovered classic that I read on our trip to Spain in […]

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