Standing before us is a magnificent neo-gothic castle, lit up against a backdrop of an inky night sky.
We’re on a Relais & Châteaux road trip across northern Spain, following their recommended ‘Route du Bonheur’ (Road to Happiness) that begins with Castillo de Arteaga. Once the home of Napoleon III and his Spanish wife Maria Eugenia, it’s now a lovingly restored boutique hotel set in the green valleys of Urdaibai Nature Reserve, 30 minutes from Bilbao’s urban centre.
Bedroom at the Castillo de Arteaga | Clemmy Manzo
The castle’s fascinating history breathes throughout the property: rebuilt from a 13th century structure in 1856, the medieval outer wall remains. Inside, 13 high-ceilinged bedrooms are filled with beautiful French antiques. Ours is Maria Eugenia’s suite – her private chapel converted into our bathroom. Amazingly, original windows and a wooden ceiling inscribed with her initials are still intact.
The empress’s legacy lives on in the vaulted restaurant too: after a feast of locally-caught fish served oak-smoked, pickled, chargrilled and pan-fried, we end with the gooey Imperial cake covered in warm vanilla custard and cinnamon ice cream. It’s a recipe adapted from Maria Eugenia’s own cookbook, imparted to her by the French royal cook all those years ago.
Locally caught seafood at the Castillo de Arteaga | Clemmy Manzo
There’s a bodega downstairs, but we try Txacoli (a fruity Basque white) at our table instead. Before succumbing to our ornate four-poster bed, we climb the winding staircase to the turreted rooftop and survey our kingdom for the night.
A breakfast of sugar-dusted pastries, homemade yoghurt, chorizo and cheeses sets us up for today’s first stop: Bilbao’s unmissable Guggenheim, filled with the wonderfully wacky works of Jeff Koons and his avant-garde contemporaries.
Outside of the city, it’s immediately clear why the long stretch from Biskaia to Galicia is nicknamed España Verde (‘Green Spain’). We’re zipping through kilometres of lush jade fields, passing the very cows that produce some of Spain’s best cheese. As we enter Asturias, apple trees dominate the undulating landscape. There are over 250 varieties of the fruit; most of it is turned into cider. Among the oak barrels of family-owned Crespo sidreria, we learn that the drink is poured from a height to conserve its zingy freshness, then downed in one. We do the honours and spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the region’s empty, wind-swept beaches.
Our second Relais & Châteaux property is the five-star Palacio de Luces, 2km from the quaint fishing village of Lastres. Features from its past life as a 16th-century palacio remain – the small hermitage in the garden, the stone façade and crenelated wall – but inside, contemporary design prevails.
The hotel’s restaurant, Balcón del Sueve, is named after the Sierra del Sueve mountain range, seen clearly from the floor-to-ceiling windows. That night, chef Nacho García Canellada fires out dish after dish of Asturian delights, as tanked lobsters await their fate by the entrance. We try the famous fabada, a hearty stew of white beans, smoked meats and sausages. Pitu de caleya is another classic – free-range chicken with a darker meat and fuller flavour, coming easily off the bone. Luxuriously creamy, an Asturian take on cheesecake is laced with raspberries soaked in balsamic Modena vinegar. It sends us into a sleepy stupor that not even a zesty albarin blanco wine can remedy.
Today’s coastal drive is beautiful. Cabo de Peñas is Asturia’s most northern point, a dramatic cliff top overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. In Cudillero, colourful houses are piled on the side of the hilltop, and tiny fishermen boats parked up at the port.
Arriving at the holy city of Santiago de Compostela and we’re soon converted – to Galician cuisine, at least. Tapas bars line the cobblestone streets, serving steamed mussels and charred pimientos de padrón. Built like a Roman church, the food market is the city’s second cathedral, its naves filled with piles of golden tetilla cheese, Galician rye bread and hanging cured meats. One of the city’s best restaurants, Abastos 2.0, has been carved out of the market walls.
Five minutes down the road is boutique hotel Quinta da Auga, a converted 18th-century paper mill. Affable architect owner Luisa Garcia Gil playfully mixes contemporary pieces with eclectic antiques and family heirlooms in the 58 individually-styled rooms. It’s insanely romantic – the scent of fresh flowers wafts through the property; at the back, the River Sar runs directly beneath the property and through the wooded grounds. Our fifth-floor suite comes complete with an enormous Jacuzzi bathroom, Victorian antiques and luxurious English wallpaper.
We had plans to dine in town but instead surrender to the country-style lounge and its oaky perfume. A wooden antelope head hangs comfortably next to classic oil paintings and quirky lampshades. Sinking into a chocolate leather sofa by the fireplace, we order G&Ts from the hotel’s bistro and savour every last decorative detail.
Scrubbed, rubbed and thoroughly pampered, we lounge on the spa’s sun-drenched terrace, too relaxed to speak. It’s almost impossible to top a morning like this one, but somehow chef Federico López manages to do exactly that with his creative Galician cuisine at Filigrana, the onsite restaurant. We lunch outside among purple petunias as butterflies hover timidly overhead.
Out comes a refreshing watermelon gazpacho with a tangy lime sorbet, followed by plump, garlicky scallops, crispy ham croquettes and herb-crusted bacalao. The pulpo a la feira – tender octopus dusted with paprika and served with potato – lives up to its local fame. This was my first taste of the region’s velvety Mencía wine, and will not be my last. But it’s the rich, chocolate coulant with carrot sorbet that does it – all suspicions are now confirmed: if this trip is the Road to Happiness, then we’ve reached our final destination.