Bears, tigers and shepherd's schools - welcome to the hidden Spain
Muriel Bolger finds out why Spaniards want to keep the Cantabria and Asturias their secret
Forget the Costas, but don't by any means eliminate Spain from your holiday plans. Head instead to its northern Riviera and the districts of Cantabria and Asturias and prepare to be astonished.
By the time I left I knew why the Spaniards don't shout about it - they don't want the 'guiri' to hear about it. It's their secret and they want to keep it that way.
I hadn't expected to find myself watching families of wild brown bears doing what wild brown bears do, or birds of prey answering to human whistles, or herds of rhinoceroses roaming around the plains in the vast National Park. Nor had I expected to spend a day at a shepherd's school.
We landed in Santander, living proof that a good tourism initiative has long-lasting consequences. In the mid-1900s sea bathing became fashionable and the powers that be started an initiative called 'los banos de ola' or wave bathing.
It caught on and the wealthy of Europe began flocking to the area. Once King Alfonso XIII and his family summered here in the imposing Palacio de las Magdalena, there was no going back. Ever since it's where the Spanish elite head.
It's easy to see why, miles of beaches, and miles of promenades and boardwalks, along El Sardinero, perfect for that Spanish pastime of evening rambling, dressed in all your finery.
Santander lost most of its medieval centre and its wonderful cathedral in a horrific fire in 1941, nonetheless it's a large and sophisticated metropolis with great public transport.
Walkers and pilgrims will recognise it as a starting point for the Camino de San Tiajo de Compostela, and the walks and trails are well signposted
Heading into the countryside Cavárceno, the magnificent natural park, was where we found the above mentioned wildlife, along with camels and giraffes.
They have a breeding programme for white tigers and a fascinating colony of majestic silver back gorillas, who despite being behind inches thick shatterproof glass, let us know who was watching whom and took the odd running leap in our direction to keep us in our place.
We were reluctant to leave but a date with some cave drawings dating from Palaeolithic times saw us wandering along the shadowy underground caves amid stalactite and stalagmite formations, and eventually to the famous Tito Bustillo site to view drawings that are believed to be millions of years old.
This would not have been on the top of my must-see list - I don't like caves and I'm not particularly interested in prehistoric things - but I was converted and would include this now on my highly recommended list.
Our journey then took us on a cider and cheese route, two specialties of the area. The cheeses are mainly a strong blue called Cabrales, made from unpasteurised cow's milk mixed with goat's or sheep's and Manchego - a hard sheep's cheese. These are taken up to the mountains where they are left to mature in natural caves for up to two years. I felt like a bit of a mountain goat myself as I scrambled up the alps up to see where this process took place, only to be marched back before even getting a sniff of the produce. But they were worth waiting for! Of course it's mandatory to wash them down with their cider, which is poured ceremoniously from a height to aerate it. After this indoctrination into artisan life the shepherd school had a definite appeal. No tourist trap this - but an authentic sheep fold and homestead overseen by the resident shepherd, who makes a bit of cheese as a sideline. His home is humble - just one room with bunk beds, a blackened grate, microwave, radio and fridge and an assortment of mismatched mugs and plates.
For location it has everything, green pastures and the towering mountains, the Picos de Europa. It's near the lakes of Enol and Ercin, and about as far removed from urban life as you can possibly get. His sister brings him fresh supplies every Saturday.
Driving further into the Picos we came across Covadonga in the middle of nowhere - an improbable town with seminaries and convents and a towering Basilica of Santa María la Real of Covadonga. It's apparently one of Spain's foremost Marian shrines. After another night of feasting on local produce - tapas, wild boar and blood sausages, and of course more cider ensued before we had to think about heading back.
But not before visiting Llanes, the principal city of Asturias. With its inlets and quays, all the timeless activity of a fishing village, it quaint streets and historic town centre, I felt that I'd love to come back here for a week, and give the Costas a miss.
We flew with Ryanair to Santander and hired a car but there is an excellent and affordable bus and train network through these regions if you're travelling from other cities or areas. Discover more on www.spain.info