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Spain holidays: Exploring the unspoilt beaches and mountains of the little-known Cantabria region

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Dining alfresco in rural Spain, my daughter, Hannah, 16, points on the menu, horrified. Her finger hovers above the interpretation of local specialty cabrito guisado: stewed kid. Minutes later, her brother Gabriel, 18, bravely orders it.

We’re on a long-awaited getaway. My husband, Marc, has an aversion to flying and reasons it’s far easier to load up the automotive and stick it on a ferry.

So we booked a Brittany Ferries crossing to northern Spain and located an inexpensive hotel. Just 72 hours later, we’re driving off the boat in Santander and up a winding road towards the Picos de Europa mountains in Cantabria.

The Cantabrian coast. Jo Kessel and her family explore the Spanish region on a ‘long-awaited getaway’

Jo drives from Santander, pictured, up a winding road towards the Picos de Europa mountains in Cantabria

Jo drives from Santander, pictured, up a winding road towards the Picos de Europa mountains in Cantabria

The appeal of this region is its variety — nothing is just too far-off, which implies you may spend a morning at altitude and the afternoon on golden beaches or surrounded by lush countryside.

Our two-star Hotel Infantado is a surprise hit. It looks out on to the Picos foothills and resembles a rustic-chic parador, with a riot of pink geraniums garlanding its picket balconies. It even has a pool set in beautifully landscaped gardens.

A 15-minute walk away is the medieval town of Potes. Its cobbled streets and ancient bridges huddle across the twists and turns of the river Deva. We pronounce it ‘Diva’, which is ironic considering the town’s lack of pretension. It’s a world away from the Costas; Spain at its most quiet and authentic.

At the center of Potes is the Fifteenth-century Infantado Tower, a former duke’s residence. It could be climbed for views, and clustered at its base are several restaurants, including the one among ‘stewed kid’ fame. (Next time, my son will order a burger.)

Above is the medieval town of Potes. 'It’s a world away from the Costas; Spain at its most quiet and authentic,' says Jo

Above is the medieval town of Potes. ‘It’s a world away from the Costas; Spain at its most quiet and authentic,’ says Jo 

At the heart of Potes is the 15th-century Infantado Tower (pictured on the left), a former duke’s residence that can be climbed for views

At the center of Potes is the Fifteenth-century Infantado Tower (pictured on the left), a former duke’s residence that might be climbed for views

Monday is market day and Potes thrums with locals stocking up on cheese, salami and olives. We decide on a picnic lunch of empanadas to take to Fuente De, where a funicular whisks passengers 6,000 ft high within the Picos.

The cable automotive attendant describes the walk down from the highest: ‘It’s nine miles downhill, easy.’

What we haven’t bargained on is the whiteout on the summit, making it tricky even to discover the trail. But soon enough the sun burns through the cloud to disclose a vista of imposing, jagged limestone peaks whose ashen color gives the illusion of them being snow-capped.

From Fuente De, pictured, a funicular whisks passengers 6,000 ft high in the Picos de Europa mountains. Jo and her family set off on a 'hilly, five-hour hike' from the summit

From Fuente De, pictured, a funicular whisks passengers 6,000 ft high within the Picos de Europa mountains. Jo and her family set off on a ‘hilly, five-hour hike’ from the summit

Bring the family: Jo with her children, Hannah and Gabriel

Bring the family: Jo together with her children, Hannah and Gabriel 

The trail meanders downhill at a mild gradient. Mountain tops give solution to pastures of horses, cows and sheep, who eye us once we tuck into our empanadas. The pastry is deliciously light and flaky, oozing with bacon, tomato and cheese. It’s the fertile valley towards the underside, nonetheless, that’s probably the most striking: an abundance of Mediterranean Sea Holly — a spiky blue flower indigenous to the Picos — tints the grass sapphire.

At 636 square miles, the Picos de Europa National Park is one among Spain’s largest. 

Our receptionist advises: ‘The important trails are overcrowded. Stay here and also you’ll have the mountains to yourselves.’ Her suggested circuit starts within the distant farming village of Tudes, whose inhabitants still use horses for transport. They trot past and bid ‘hola’ with a tilt of their gaucho hats.

Jo lounges on Oyambre beach (pictured) — 'a wild stretch of sand near the seaside resort of San Vicente de la Barquera'

Jo lounges on Oyambre beach (pictured) — ‘a wild stretch of sand near the seaside resort of San Vicente de la Barquera’

TRAVEL FACTS

Three nights’ B&B at Hotel Infantado from £310pp, including a cabin and automotive booking on a return Portsmouth to Santander sailing (brittany-ferries.co.uk). Extra nights from £37 pp. A wine and tapas tasting tour is from £60 pp including transport (toursbylocals.com).

The Picos are omnipresent during our hilly, five-hour hike. We go through Porcieda, an abandoned hamlet. A ‘SE VENDE’ sign on a crumbling house prompts Gabriel to wonder if he could afford it. Later, we learn the complete hamlet is on sale for €1 million.

For the following few days we lounge by the pool or on Oyambre beach — a wild stretch of sand near the seaside resort of San Vicente de la Barquera.

And on a tailor-made tour with ToursByLocals, guide Hans introduces us to regional delicacies. We visit an artisan dairy to taste blue cheese (aged traditionally, in caves) and one among Cantabria’s blended sheep and cows’ milk cheeses. Each are rustic, robust and have a spicy kick.

Our last stop is a vineyard where we try some wines and ‘Orujo’, a Cantabrian grappa that’s like rocket fuel. Our favourite is the wine jam, which pairs perfectly with cheese. We shove a whole crate within the boot.

We’ve had a beautiful time on this truly diverse area. And Gabriel remains to be determining how you can buy that hamlet.

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