Spain: Beauty of the Basque

Head for the north of the country, and you'll discover an altogether more peaceful place. Graham Norwood reports
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The Independent Online

If anyone tries to kid you that there's such a thing as an "undiscovered" Spain - well, that's what it is, someone kidding you. These days, no part of the country remains unexplored, but if you want somewhere less hectic than the Costas and less buzzy than Barcelona, then northern Spain may be for you.

The winters are wet, but this is a more authentic Spanish experience than the Only Fools and Horses theme bars in the south. "Britons considering this less fashionable part of Spain should be aware that it is cheaper, but not necessarily bargain basement. It's the holiday region for the Basque Country, so it gets substantial Spanish second-home business," says Mark Stucklin of Spanish Property Insight, an online consultancy.

With average house- price inflation in Spain running at 12 per cent in the year to March, northern regions' performances were mixed. Galicia in the north-west had a 15 per cent rise, while neighbouring Asturias had just a 9.8 per cent increase. Cantabria had 12.9 per cent, the Basque Country 11.9 per cent, and nearby Navarre just 6.8 per cent.

Each area has its share of grand estates, but equally, there are many low-cost renovation projects of the kind you won't find any more further south or on the Balearics. These are the three key second-home areas in northern Spain:

BILBAO

Since 1992, extensive infrastructure work, including underground and overground trains, a larger airport and the Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum have yielded results for northern Spain's tourist levels. Ryanair and easyJet flights, plus a faster road linking Bilbao with nearby Santander - principal port of Cantabria and destination of ferry services from Plymouth - have all helped.

Areas with potential include the historic Casco Viejo on the east bank of the Nervion, which flows through Bilbao, as well as the matrix of 19th-century boulevards known as the Ensanche, and the new Abandoibarra development near the Guggenheim. This is the most expensive area of northern Spain, with values rising because of the city's reputation as a financial centre, and the Guggenheim attracting more than 6 million visitors in eight years. Prices vary, but expect to pay €360,000 for a mid-sized home in Bilbao - perhaps 70 per cent of a similar home in the south - or €200,000 for an apartment.

PICOS DE EUROPA NATIONAL PARK

This is the place for a holiday home that can also make you a good income. The 40km-wide national park in Asturias is breathtaking, with fast-flowing rivers and towering cliffs. It is increasingly popular for mountaineering and extreme sports, but a major problem is its relative inaccessibility, although easyJet now flies to Aviles. Properties are relatively cheap - €260,000 will get you a three-bedroom house in Trasona, a relatively easy drive to the park and the main Asturias cities of Aviles, Oviedo and Gijon.

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

This historic place of pilgrimage is a Unesco World Heritage site and the capital of Galicia, the most north-western region - again characterised by hills, wild countryside, mountains and parks, as well as a warm microclimate.

Investors are attracted to Santiago because of its year-round religious "tourism", and renovated stone houses go for just €200,000. But cities such as La Coruña, Pontevedra, Ourense, Betanzos and Mondoñedo are also attractive and cheap, while Vigo, formerly a fishing port, is now a clubbing capital, with an unusually youthful population.

Although there is plenty of scope for buying at a reasonable price in northern Spain, don't expect the process to be as straightforward as in the south. Few estate agents speak English, and indeed, in some areas, Basque or one of three dialects may be the main language; indeed, transactions with British buyers are often done in French. "It's vital that an experienced English-speaking lawyer who is familiar with the northern- Spanish property market is used to check contracts and paperwork before signing," says a spokesman for John Howell & Co, a London-based international conveyancing firm.

And if it's the seaside you're after, the Costa Vasca, extending from the border with France, has fantastic beaches, taking in the resorts around San Sebastian; and further along is the Costa Verde, where beaches give way to lush, rolling landscapes. Then, in Galicia, rockier shores and beaches prevail.

Of course, these beaches won't be entirely empty, but they will certainly be less packed than in the south. As I said at the beginning, northern Spain isn't undiscovered - just ignored, so far, by most Britons.

Inmobiliaria Res ( www.inmobiliariares.com; 0034 94 331 6062); Fincas Corral ( www.fincascorral.com; 0034 94 236 5919); Inmobiliaria Campillo (www.resinmobiliaria@ terra.es; 0034 98 540 1582); Inmobiliaria Dursa (http://www.dursa.es; 0034 98 521 5511); BK Property (w ww.bkproperty.com; 0034 98 673 1121)

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