A minute later, we were back in the hire car, our beanies piled with tart but delicious apples and our pockets bulging with a few more for good measure.

As the road wound its way further into the green Asturias valley, on the coast of northern Spain, several lemon trees appeared around the next bend.

We stopped again and grabbed a few handfuls of these too (and put them to good use in a couple of tasty gin and tonic mixes later that afternoon).

“Geez, at this rate we’ll have all our shopping done by the end of the day,” Matt reckoned.

Indeed, the province of Asturias, three hours’ drive west of Bilbao and two hours from Santander on Spain’s rugged Atlantic coast, is lush, green and verdant — a world away from hot and dry Madrid and the sweltering Mediterranean cities of Barcelona and Valencia that most visitors to Spain make a beeline for.

“You don’t get too many people passing through here. It’s almost like you’re in New Zealand or Scotland,” says Clive, a British surfer who comes over for a chat while we’re checking the waves next morning in the rural hamlet of Rodiles.

Clive reckons he’s been coming to this place for a dozen years, living for months at a time in a big green bus and making a living as a puppet show busker.

“Whether you stay for a weekend or week or a month, you can feel the magic of this place. It’s always green and fresh.”

It’s particularly so during the winter months, when draping mists and a lack of tourists lend Asturias an especially magical flavour.

Hire a car and escape to the valley’s isolated beaches, rolling hills and charming towns.

Here are a few suggestions for your itinerary:

For fresh seafood

The seafood paella at El Pescador, a tiny ocean-front restaurant in the picturesque fishing hamlet of Tazones, is as good as you’ll taste anywhere in Spain.

In fact, there’s a string of seafood eateries, including Mariscos La Nansa and Restaurant La Sirena, that overlook the tiny beach, which sits in a cove hemmed in by a green misty headland at one end and a sheltered harbour at the other, where red and blue wooden dinghies sit above the high-tide mark.

For the Spain of yesteryear

The rolling green hills and cider-apple orchards give way to the cobbled streets of Villaviciosia, with its splendid colonial town hall where elderly gents gather to watch the passing traffic and 
soak up the serenity.

Ponies graze on the grass verge and even free-range chickens wander loose on the main street.

At the edge of town, big old abandoned stone villas slowly succumb to creeper vines. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who speaks English here, where tourists are a rarity.

For active types

Set in a peaceful pine forest at the verge of a wide sweeping bay, Rodiles is home to a rivermouth surfing spot that provides one of Spain’s most famed waves.

Surfers flock from as far afield as England and France to catch this place when it’s firing.

If you prefer keeping dry, there are some excellent hikes into the surrounding hills.

The locals promise the fishing is good too, with the outgoing tide guaranteed to yield dinner — or at least a few bites to keep you entertained.

For urban style

If you’re exploring Asturias, chances are you’ll be flying into and out of nearby Santander, and the city is well worth checking out before or after you’ve spent a few days chilling in the surrounding countryside.

Wander through the streets of the pretty old town before heading to swanky El Sardinero beach. Don’t miss the Cueva de Altamira — it’s a cave with paintings dubbed the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world.

The line to get in can be long — so take along a couple of your roadside apples to munch on while you’re waiting.