A circuit through the northern reaches of Spain, incorporating colourful local festivals, is an Odyssean journey juggling sacredness and savagery, often transforming the traveller in a way sublimely spiritual.
Starting in Galicia, don your white linens for the Catholic festival of Corpus Christi in June: a perfect excuse for the citizens of Allariz to have a primal soirée. The Festa do Boi (Festival of the Ox) pits tethered oxen running the cobblestoned streets against drunken revellers, to the rowdy tunes of Portuguese drummers and Celtic pipers (gaiteros). Off to the port of Baiona for a morning with a local fisherman prying Europe’s most opulent seafood, percebes (goose barnacles), from dangerous crags along tempestuous shores.
Hitch a ride to Morgadans to participate in a cowboy Rapadasbestas (the Taming of the Beasts), an annual rancher round-up of wild Galician horses from the sierra to the corral. Then catch a train north for the summer solstice in A Coruña on the Noche de San Juan (Night of St John), a beach bonfire bonanza led by meigas (witches).
Leaving Galicia, head southeast to Rio d’Onor, a tiny cross-border town on the Spanish–Portuguese frontier which has the feel of a medieval micro-realm. Flag a bus to Asturias and the Picos de Europa National Park: adventure-sport mecca and site of world-class hiking, climbing and canyoneering. Hire a local to guide you down the class 3 and 4 rapids on the upper reaches of the River Sella, or spend a day with a shepherd in the misty foothills to learn how wolves, the protected park and the march of modernity are threatening traditional lifestyles. Edge down towards Castilla y Léon, stopping in Cervatos to stand with mouth agape at the naughty Church of San Pedro, festooned with lusty gargoyles having improper relations with animals and each other. Forge onward to Castrillo de Murcia for the end of Corpus Christi and the annual celebration of El Colacho, a mysterious pre-Christian devil.
Rent a Harley and motor up to Basque Country, the curious nation within a nation, home to Bilbao and birthplace of jai alai (Basque pelota), a game best viewed at the modern Guernica Stadium. If you’re lucky you’ll get invited to a txoko, a Basque gastronomic society, where traditional dinners, drink and ballads in Euskara (the singular Basque tongue) are shared. Throttle to Azkoitia, encircled by a phalanx of lofty bridges ideal for puenting, an adrenaline-pumping cousin of bungee where the jumper springs from the bridge to pendulum beneath. Drop your bike in Mundaka, site of one leg of the ASP World Tour of Surfing and home to a mythically long left break. If the seas aren’t cooperating, wander the seaside towns till serendipity delivers you a folkloric festival with sword-wielding dancers and garlanded maidens.
Glide south now to the vineyards of La Rioja for the Batalla de Vino, a mock battle on the slopes of Mount Bilibio where the weapon of choice is wine, and your white clothes will be stained crimson. To complete your circuit, join up with the famed pilgrimage trail, Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James). Follow this spiritual yellow brick road past Santiago, back to where you started, to the Coast of Death.
Dominic Bonuccelli travelled to Spain on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.