If the Mediterranean coast is awash with package tourists, travelers in cars and buses, and retirees all seeking the sun, the North Coast has so far been spared the onslaught of mass travel. Made up of the Costa Vasca, Costa Cantábrica, Costa Verde, and the Rías of Galicia, the one thing this coast cannot guarantee is sun. But its extensive beaches, intimate coves, towering cliffs are amongst the finest in the peninsula, and they are not as crowded.
The Cantabrian Sea (or Bay of Biscay), however, is wilder and certainly colder than the Mediterranean, and the winds blowing off the Atlantic can bring a chill to the air. Spaniards from the sun-baked interior are your likely tourists along this coast, although there is now an increase of Europeans who are looking for something more authentically local than what they might find on the Mediterranean costas.
A recently constructed major highway (Autovía del Cantábrico) running along the coast from Bilbao in the Basque Country (País Vasco or Euskadi in Basque) to Galicia will undoubtedly open up the coast even more.
Fishing is a way of life on the coast, although depleted fish stocks and quotas in the Atlantic have reduced the size of the fleets. Still, Spain has one of the largest fishing fleets in the world and Basque, Cantabrian and Galician boats bring in the biggest catches in Spain.
Running along the coast is a narrow, lush green strip backed for the most part by the Cordillera Cantábrica mountain range. “Green Spain,” as it is called, is just that, as bucolic a place as you could hope to find. Here cattle and sheep graze on the emerald coloured slopes, orchards abound and in the heavily wooded uplands and into the mountains there is a wide variety of wildlife: squirrels, deer, chamois, martens, wild boars, foxes, wolves and the endangered Iberian brown bear.
Mountain streams abound and fresh water fishing is popular, particularly trout and salmon. Isolated valleys have allowed the inhabitants to preserve almost intact ancient traditions, even linguistic peculiarities which go back centuries (e.g. Bable in Asturias, which is identified as a “regional language” rather than a dialect). In some Basque valleys contact was historically so limited owing to their isolation that it required some effort for the inhabitants of one valley to understand their neighbours in the next valley.