Here’s a strange thing. One minute, you’re bowling along the motorway west of Bilbao, the ports and beaches of the Bay of Biscay away down to your right. The next, you’ve taken a left turn and found yourself, for some unaccountable reason, in Switzerland. D’oh! The road twists and turns through wooded valleys, mountains rise above you, wooden and stone chalets with verandas and log piles decorate the hillsides. Cowbells clank, old tractors pull carts, dusty dogs, stray cats and chickens scavenge in farmyards.
Do not adjust your SatNav. This is Cantabria. Brochures might describe it as undiscovered Spain; this would be news to Paleolithic man, who discovered it over 20,000 years ago and left paintings in the caves to prove it. But, for all intents and purposes, it’s Switzerland in the springtime. Who knew? Even after a hot summer, everything is green: forests, meadows, hills. They even call it Green Spain. From this you’ll gather that the rain in Spain falls not on the plain, but mainly in Cantabria. 47 inches a year, on average.
We’d come to see the art galleries in Bilbao (the spectacular Guggenheim and the Museo de Bellas Artes) and thought we’d spend a couple of nights up in the hills. Which brings us back to… D’oh! After the twists and turns, down a long valley, we found Casona de Quintana, and its delightful owners, Josep and Nuria. Antique dealers from Barcelona, they moved to this 17th-century farmhouse just over 10 years ago to realise their dream of running a small guesthouse, where Nuria would cook and Josep would manage the hotel.
Their dedication is everywhere: each room (there are eight) is tastefully and beautifully arranged with antiques and linen. Two junior suites have glazed terraces where you can read in the sun (or the rain) and the spacious master suite, with its own outside terrace, is in the old tower. Everything is neat and clean in wood and stone, the ambience simple and charming. Forget cool, hip, contemporary: think rustic, charming, quiet, peaceful. A grass terraced garden winds up the hill behind the house, but there is no pool. The weather’s not hot enough, says Josep. You’d only use it for a few weeks a year. He plans to put in an outside Jacuzzi soon.
The bright gallery dining room looks out over the valley at the hilltops (and wind farm) opposite. Here, dinner is served at 9pm (this is Spain; it can, of course, be requested earlier) – delicious, simple three-course country fare (tuna carpaccio, onion tart, risotto, stew, figs with honey) – all cooked by Nuria. At nine the next morning, the croissants arrive and continental breakfast is served. For lunch, you need to venture 20 minutes down the valley to one of the larger towns.
Josep is always around to ask if you need anything, if you’re getting the sense that the Casona’s not geared up to provide full-on five-star service round the clock. So kind and gentle were our hosts that we felt almost embarrassed to bother them; but it’s a long time to wait for dinner at nine if you haven’t requested an earlier sitting. Nuria will happily do you a small picnic, or rustle up a sandwich if you ask in advance. Since guests are expected to be off exploring during the day, particular as it is only an hour’s drive to Bilbao, Santander and San Sebastián, most folks usually opt for the local dinnertime.
Quintana is one of two dozen hamlets dotted around the valley of Soba, and to call it the largest isn’t to say it’s big: when Josep and Nuria arrived here, they represented a population explosion, swelling the numbers by ten per cent. The houses fall into three categories – or, in the case of the third category, just fall; those that aren’t derelict are either in the process of rebuilding – incoming Sarah Beenys realising their dream of restoring a house in this peaceful, unspoilt valley – or are traditional farmsteads, their yards home to chickens, rusting equipment, and the odd pig. As we strolled around the village – there is only just over a score of houses in the entire place – and we met a small herd of cows ambling the other way, looking like they could barely be bothered to be milked. This is definitely off-the-beaten-track, proper rustic, ideal for walkers, bikers, birdwatchers, visitors to the amazing caves (did I mention the caves?) or those seeking peace and quiet.
The Casona is definitely more rustic-but-refined guesthouse than full-service hotel. Although funnily enough it does actually have a boutique – a sweet and lovingly created little shop selling candles, fragrances, linen and teapots. Nuria’s cooking is delicious; the entries in the five-year-old guestbook (which start off in Spanish, and then are increasingly in English) all, without exception, sing praise for the food and hospitality.
With my mystery-reviewer hat on I observed that there could be an honesty bar with a fridge full of cold drinks – and in fact there is a well-stocked bar in the living room. There was a day when we craved lunch of a simple salad off the menu, even though you can request cold cuts in the dining room, the garden or your room – but the owners’ gentleness makes this sound like carping, and I don’t mean to. What they’re offering is a home from home. And that’s what makes it so special.