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Trip Report Three Weeks Driving through Northern Spain

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May 8-31, 2012

In 1985, My husband Sol and I spent three weeks driving through Spain, however we hesitated to see the Basque country because of terrorism. We had visited Barcelona at that time but we're excited to see the changes that have taken place in the past 27 years, especially in the construction of the Sagrada Familia. We were also unable to see the Palau de Musica because it was being renovated. We decided to rent a car and travel through northern Spain from east to west, finishing our tour in Santiago de Compostela. There was now the additional lure of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and of traveling with our wonderful cousins, Lois and Joe. With the aid of the Internet, various guidebooks, The Sun also Rises by Hemingway and Iberia by Michener we were ready for our adventure. We booked most of our hotels by studying the excellent site, which lists them by price, quality and popularity.

We chose to travel during the month of May because we are we are on a university schedule,
but northern Spain has a very changeable climate from September to June which resembles that of Great Britain. We packed layers of clothing and were grateful for the invention of the digital camera, since we took the same pictures, first with gray skies, then with sunny ones. It had previously rained for 28 days in San Sebastian, yet we were lucky to enjoy four days of sun. The temperature ranged from the low 50’s to the low 80’s. We learned, as we traveled further west, to always carry rain gear with us.

Northern Spain is like four different countries. Since Franco’s time the different cultures like to keep their identities. There are Basques. Catalonians. Castilians and Galicians, each with their own language which is taught in school and used everywhere, especially on street signs.

We arrived in Barcelona. We had booked, a shuttle service which picked us up at the airport at a cost of 18 euros. It took us to Hotel Inglaterra, a short walk from Las Ramblas and around the corner from the Universitat metro station.

Barcelona has to be one of the most exciting, vibrant and fun cities in the world. The city is dominated by the architecture of Gaudi, who died in 1926, but not before he changed the face of the city with his whimsical architecture, the Guell Park and the still unfinished church, Sagrada Familia (14 euros, 11 euros for seniors). We walked along Las Ramblas with its street cafes, La Boqueria market, street entertainers and beautiful buildings. Las Ramblas ends in the harbor which is well used by the residents. From Las Ramblas you can explore the other neighborhoods of the city, including the Gothic Quarter where we found an 11th century one room synagogue on Carrer de Malet. We also visited the Palau de Musica (15 euros senior – be sure to book at least a day in advance), and took a lovely 9 hour day trip to Figueres and Girona through at a cost of 89 euros per person.

We were displeased with the Hotel Inglaterra which confirmed our reservation for 146 euros not including breakfast (15 euros extra) and then charged us an extra 30 euro surcharge for one day because the sports event, Formula 1 was taking place that week.

We ate in several lovely restaurants –Celler de Tapas in the Placa Universitat had an excellent selection. We had 7 tapas, bread and wine for 70 euros. We also enjoyed L’Academia on Carrer Lledo, where we ate in a romantic courtyard and were entertained by strolling musicians for 72 euros. At Gabriel Restaurant (Placeta del P. 5), we had paella, seafood and wine for 40.50 euros. (All restaurant prices quoted are for the two of us).

We picked up our rental car from Avis (a large diesel Peugeot which cost $1600 for 17 days). Since we had two drivers, we paid a supplement of $78. We headed out of Barcelona towards our next destination, Zaragoza, half way to San Sebastian.

With the help of our Iphone GPS, we checked into the Hotel Las Torres which is located across from the Basilica de la Senora in Zaragoza. The hotel is adorable. It has been decorated in black and white with cartoons on the walls, however it is missing some basic amenities – no tissues, no counter space, a shower that requires a Ph. D to work, no drawers for storage and a buffet breakfast with lukewarm food at a cost of 8 euros per person. The hotel bill was 78 euros. We also paid extra to garage the car at all the hotels, and the cost will be shown at the end of the journal.

Zaragoza has a beautiful cathedral with Goya paintings, a flower lined promenade, Roman ruins and the Aljameria, an Alhambra-like fortress/palace which is a combination of Christian and Moorish architecture called Mudejar. We found the Café Cibeles in the Plaza de Santiago where the goat cheese salad was amazing, as was the cuttlefish and Rioja wine, all at a cost of 57 euros. Many restaurants in Spain offer an ensalada normal -- lettuce, tomato and onion, but with the delicious Spanish olive oil, it is a healthy treat! We walked across the bridge to see the magnificent spires of the cathedral lit up at night . It seemed as if all the residents of Zaragoza were taking a paseo and enjoying their beautiful city.

We arrived in Pamplona and ran into a triathlon. The city was alive with bicyclists, and the square was buzzing with activity. We visited the bullring and fantasized that we were famous toreadors (and of course, the unfortunate bulls), then stopped off for a drink and a private consultation with Hemingway at his favorite corner in Café Iruna.

En route to San Sebastian, you pass lush green hills and pastoral scenery. Town names are written in Basque and Spanish. The Basque language is a great mystery. It has no resemblance to Spanish. It was fun reading the road signs. For example, Area de servicio translated into Pagozelai zerbitzugunea. San Sebastian is also called Donostia, and it took us a while to realize that the two cities were one and the same.

We arrived at the Silken Amara Hotel (one of the best hotels of our trip at a cost of 130 euros per night which included free breakfast) and walked down to Gandarias Restaurant where we feasted on calamari, shrimp, escargot, monkfish, cod three ways and Marques de Riscal wine (87.48 euros). On the way to the restaurant, we happened upon hundreds of people dancing in the street. They were dancing a sort of circle dance (rompeoza) in celebration of their city’s having been chosen the best European city last year. The celebration will last for 5 years. The next day we walked down to the promenade of La Concha beach and walked and walked. We sat down in the lovelyl La Concha Park, then we climbed Urgull Hill where the Christ statue watches over the city. On the other end of La Concha beach there is a funicular which takes you up another hill for more spectacular views of the city. San Sebastian is called Donostia in Basque and there is a big Hollywood type sign on a hill --DSS2016EUR --celebrating the honor of San Sebastian having been chosen the best city in Europe. We certainly agree. It was a beautiful day, the temperature was around 60° and the sun was shining. It was perfect touring Weather. That night, we ate in Asador Trapos – not particularly memorable (58.16 euros).

We spent the next day exploring the Rioja region. We visited Vina Tondonia where they produce some of the finest wines in Spain and watched the men making barrels. Then on to the very interesting Museu de la Cultura del Vino in Briones (6.50 euros for seniors). The hills in this region are a hundred shades of green. We ate in Jatetxea (House of Food) El Caserio, which is a grocery store during the day and a restaurant at night. Wonderful! (Cost: 79 euros)

It was time to cross the border into France and visit Bayonne with its half-timbered houses and the beautiful beach at Biarritz. A gorgeous coastal drive led us past quaint fishing villages. The traffic here was terrible and we were reminded of the French Riviera. When we arrived back in San Sebastian, we chose to eat again at Gandarias (78.68 euros).

More magnificent coastal scenery – horses, cows, sheep, goats and red-tiled white houses nestled in the hills. We passed through the towns of Zumara, Gitaria, Ondarria and Lekeito.

We arrived at the Miro Hotel in Bilbao (136 euros per night) within yelling distance of the Guggenheim Museum! The hotel was built by the designer , H. Miro and is tasteful and lovely. All of its decorations are black, white and red. There is a free coffee bar with beer, soda and munchies off the lobby. The concierge gave us free passes to the museum and a 10% discount for the parking lot. (However, we were planning to visit the museum on a Friday, and there is free admission on that day anyway.) We ate in Casa Rufo on Hurtado de Amazuza and dined for 89.64 euros.

Bilbao was such a nice surprise. Thinking that we were basically going to savor Frank Gehry's magnificent Guggenheim museum and a wonderful temporary David Hockney exhibit, we were also treated to beautiful belle epoch and modern architecture everywhere married into a very compatible combination. Many window displays were sleek and minimalist, and the metro entrances were Lucite “worms”. We also discovered the Bella Artes Museum where we saw an exhibit of an interesting artist, Anselmo Guinea, who experimented with every conceivable style of his time. We walked to the old town, bought some CDs and gifts, and went to Abaroa for dinner. We tasted squid in its own ink, which is delicious. The bill totaled 58.70 euros, BUT we had the added attraction of experiencing a bachelor party. The groom, barely clad was wearing fish net stockings, and we were invited to join in the merriment. This is just one of those fun moments that make travel so memorable!

On the way to Burgos, we stopped at Monasterio de los Rodillos and Senora del Valle, a 15th century church which is a popular stopping point for the Pilgrims (peregrines) who are trekking to Santiago de Compostela. We saw many pilgrims there, some of whom walk for 33 days to complete the journey.

Burgos is the home of El Cid, the warrior who reclaimed Spain from the Moors. We checked into Hotel Meson del Cid, located on the square of the Cathedral (85 euros per night). If you stay there, be advised that the garage door is set on a 2 minute timer, and with a large car, you are in danger of being crushed to death! Make sure that you have your concierge go with you when you need to experience this memorable occasion!

Having survived parking the car, we celebrated by eating paella, among other things, in Larruzz (74 euros). The next morning, we visited the Cathedral (possibly one of the most beautiful in the world) and then the Evolucion Museum and the Caves of Atapuerca (16 euros senior). We picked up an 11:30 tour and learned of the recent discovery of hominid remains 400,000-600,000 years old. Upon our return, we had dinner at Rincon de Espana in the shadow of the Cathedral. I think this meal of morcilla (blood sausage), salad, langostinos, pescado, and wine was the best meal of our trip. (73.10 euros).

The road to Santander wound through dramatic multi-colored cliffs, snow covered mountains, and misty green hills dotted with farms. We checked into Las Brisas Hotel (80 euros). On first inspection, we thought it to be quaint and beautifully decorated, but when we were brought to our room, we discovered that it was designed for hobbits! We walked around bent over (not a good thing at our age). If you choose to stay there, specify that you don’t want to stay on the top floor which is an attic!

We walked to the casino and around town. It was rainy and gray. We ate in Yesterday’s and the food was admittedly from a can. My pulpo was not tender. The town has a nice promenade and some pretty houses, but I wouldn’t recommend spending time there.

On to Gijon where the sun was shining! On the way, we visited Santillana del Mar, a beautiful medieval village and bought some gifts for the grandkids and some bottles of hierba for the kids. We then stopped at Comillas where Gaudi designed a home for Guell, but it was closed. However, we visited the interesting cemetery, took some great pics and drank some sidra (cider). On to San Vincente de la Barquera, famous for its bridge with 28 arches and its long, picturesque harbor. Llanes was interesting to visit with its medieval quarter.

We arrived at the excellent and well-run Hernan Cortes hotel in Gijon (a bargain at 50 euros) and had a good dinner at Arenal Restaurant (72.75 euros). The next morning, we walked around the city, visited the market, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with his statue on top and beautifully painted ceilings. We walked down to the harbor and climbed to see Eduardo Chillida’s l989 statue called Elogia del Horizonte. The walk along the promenade is lovely, and we walked to the other end . We ate dinner at the cozy, pretty La Marmita, owned by a very lovely man. He treated us as if we were family. The portions, however, were a bit small. The bill was 78.80 euros.

Our next stop was Oviedo, a big bustling city filled with Belle Epoque architecture. It reminded me of Buenos Aires. We walked to the market with its many flower filled squares and watched waiters pouring sidra from high up into the glasses. That night , back in Gijon, we ate in La Iglesiana, directly across the street from the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and had monkfish, salad etc. for 78 euros.

We were nearing our final destination, Santiago de Compostela. En route we stopped in Cudillero, known for its colorful houses perched on a cliff, but it was so misty, we could hardly see them. Then on to Luarca, another fishing village with white washed houses.

We arrived at our Parador, the Hostel de los Tres Reyes. We had purchased a parador card for 486 euros which entitled us to 5 nights in any parador in Spain except for luxury ones such as this one. The Hostel cost us (109.26 euros per night plus 38.88 for breakfast , which resulted in an additional supplemental cost of 275 euros for the five nights. Therefore, the final cost was 761 euros, including breakfast. The parador is spectacular – a 500 year old hostel built to house recovering pilgrims at the end of their journey. Our antique-filled room looked out on one of the four cloisters. Our card also entitled us to a 20% discount off one dinner . Breakfast was 19 euros per day. A platter with fresh fruit, candy and a specialty of the region, a delicious almond torte, was waiting for us. We had dinner in the lovely dining room and had beautifully presented food (l08 euros) (In fact, almost everything we ate on this trip was beautifully presented!)

The weather in Santiago was so changeable that the sky was blue to the left and dark grey to the right. In a way, it made the imposing cathedral even more dramatic. There is always the sound of bagpipes since this is a celtic region. We visited the church and then walked down to the Mercado de Abastos. Our raincoats never left our persons!

Armed with our iphone GPS, we took a walk through narrow alleys and ate at Ana on Rua Olivido (71.79 euros). This restaurant had the best bread, and a delicious entrée of rape (monkfish) with clams and scallops. Everyone eats very late in Spain, and we had most of the restaurant to ourselves at 8:00.

We decided to drive south to visit Pontevedra and Vigo. Pontevedra is clean, picturesque, has beautiful fountains, houses with gracefully decorated gallery windows, the Basilica de Santa Maria with its Plateresque façade, and a lovely Centro Vello. A huge cross dedicated to soldiers sits at the entrance to Alameda Boulevard, a promenade which is lined with Bellle Epoque government buildings. The 14th century Ruinas de San Domingo Church are found at the other end.

Vigo is run down. We had read about its many staircases and houses on hills, but it is economically depressed and not worth the visit. We returned to our parador and ate at Restaurant Don Quixote, pricey at 93 euros. The Hake in Basque Sauce was thickened with corn starch.

The next day we headed north to A Caruna (La Coruna) and Muxia. A Caruna is large, clean and pretty. It has a harbor promenade with a rose decorated garden and is lined with tall buildings famous for their gallery windows in many designs. We then took a long ride to Muxia, a solitary area known for the harvesting of percebes (goose barnacles) that sell for 199 euros per portion. We chose not to taste them!

On our last day in Santiago, we visited the multi-million dollar project, the City of Culture designed by Peter Eisenman. A great idea, it is still in construction due to the economy, and only two of its buildings have been completed. The buildings themselves are living art, and are gorgeous from every angle. Someday, hopefully, this will be a world-class destination.

We had our last dinner at El Rapido. It has a garden room with a moveable ceiling in case of rain. The waiter recommended an excellent, inexpensive wine, the food was wonderful and our waiter placed three bottles of liqueur on the table (all for 54.20 euros) We toasted our time together and headed back to the final night in our beautiful parador.

Hasta luego!!

Pictures are posted on:.

Other costs were:
Airfare (free -- we used our own airline miles)
Garages and parking 241.43 euros
Tolls 87.13 euros

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