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lizal34 Nov 27th, 2012 06:27 PM

Ideas, Suggestions for a trip to Northern Spain
My wife and I (in our late 60's and retired ) are planning our first trip to Northern Spain towards the end of May next year, 2013. We plan to fly from Miami to Barcelona and then go on to visit cities as Zaragosa, Pamplona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santillana, Santander, Gijon, Oviedo, La Coruna y Santiago de Compostela. I am inviting all good friends of Fodor to give us your suggestions. Are all these places worth visiting? What are your suggestions about places to stay... I hear the Paradors are one of the best choices, but are they too pricey? what are the best places to visit along this trip, what would be the total days most advisable. ALSO, we are debating whether to rent a car in Barcelona and drive. My children are not in favor of my driving, (they say it is dangerous!) but are the trains/buses available as an alternative? Not being familiar at all with this part of the Country, we would be really appreciative to hear from Fodor's readers your comments and suggestions...Gracias...thank you..obrigado...

CathyM Nov 27th, 2012 07:07 PM

" Are all these places worth visiting?"

Well my opinion is that nearly everywhere in the world is worth visiting. But the question is how much time do you have for this visit across all of Northern Spain from Barcelona to Samtiago de Compostela? You could easily spend 2 months visiting this area but if you only have 2 weeks then this is a very different answer to your question.

adrienne Nov 27th, 2012 07:38 PM

I'm not at all an expert on Spain but I think you'd be hard pressed to easily access all these places by public transportation (I stress easily). If I had this itinerary I would rent a car other than in Barcelona.

You state that your children say that driving is dangerous but why are they saying this (possibly your driving record???)? Do they mean that driving in Spain is dangerous or it is dangerous for you to drive anywhere? If it's Spain that's the problem, how is it dangerous and on what do they base their evidence.

Paradors are pricey for my budget but I've seen postings on this board about senior discounts that make the per night rate affordable. Do an advanced search on Parador or perhaps someone will post here with some information. You can also check the Parador web site for discounts.

How much time? You have 11 locations that cover the country (east to west). I'd say at least 5 days in Barcelona and a couple of nights in each other location (you don't want to be packing and unpacking every day - gets tiresome) plus travel time so that totals about a month or maybe a bit more. Use viamichelin or mappy to compute travel time between locations and I always add 25% to their time plus stopping time.

Golemtoo Nov 27th, 2012 08:29 PM

There is no reason to have a car in Barcelona, but then you can fly north. Besides Iberia there is a relaible carrier called Vueling. It all depends from where to where if you need a car, bus, or train.

The paradores are usually wonderful but the modern structures are not worth the money. In Santiago there is extremely nice hotel called A Tafona do Peregrino which is cheaper and better than the well known Reyes Catholicos.

As noted above, it all depends how much time you have.

It is not dangerous to drive in Spain.

Robert2533 Nov 27th, 2012 08:45 PM

There are a number of good itineraries you could follow, but I think that first of all you should do a bit more research on the areas you're interested in seeing and doing. The north is a big, beautiful and interesting land, as rich in history as it is diverse in culture. We've been exploring the region from Barcelona to Bilbao and beyond for a number of years and have yet to see it all or experience enough not to want to go back time and again. I recommend you do a little more reading and a lot more research. You can start with

ribeirasacra Nov 28th, 2012 12:12 AM

Greetings from Galicia:
If you want to take trains there is a narrow gauge railway running along the North coast of Spain.
Have you driven in Spain before? Have you driven in Europe before?
Some Americans I have the pleasure of meeting say that driving here is a lot faster than in the US. The roads, by that I mean country roads, are a lot narrower. If you have to drive an automatic then do not go for the cheap option and try a shift. It will not work out to be a relaxing vacation.
Do not drive in Barcelona.
Total days? I could suggest a month, if you are taking only 2 weeks then maybe cut down on the distances then see a bit more!

lizal34 Nov 28th, 2012 07:00 PM

Thanks to you all for the valuable comments. To Adrienne and Ribeirasacra: Although I am a good and safe driver, my children's concern is that a) road driving in Spain is much faster than in the States, b) not being familiar with the routes I might get lost, c) with the price of gas, it might end up being much more expensive than using the rails. As to lenght of the trip we are planning to spend about 3 weeks all total, Hence, I could eliminate some of the less interesting places along the way. Again, many thanks in taking time to help our planning. Some of your suggestions I am certainly going to follow them up. I welcome any other thoughts.

amer_can Nov 28th, 2012 07:10 PM

Web site look into them Right now (Xmas) rates are around 140E with breakfast but we have stayed for much less in the Spring "Golden years" is what you want to look for..Highways are well marked and you don't have to go 120K/hr!! Or for that matter on the biggies..Driving is no problem if you have a navigator to watch the signs.(says the navigator) The end of May may not be off season but shoulder so prices will vary.

CathyM Nov 28th, 2012 07:18 PM

Ok - so you have 3 weeks for Northern Spain which is a very large geography. Without knowing your particular interests it's difficult to determine what areas wild be best for your itinerary. I wouldn't try to cover Barcelona to Santiago in 3 weeks unless you are a very fast paced traveler so it would help to understand your interests and travel style.

ribeirasacra Nov 29th, 2012 12:02 AM

Have your children got experience of driving in Spain?
I have driven in a lot of countries and find Spain ok but we are faster than the US, Other European counties can be even faster.
Getting lost. Purchase a good map and use a GPS. ensure your co-pilot can read the map. GPS will not show all off the small roads but will help in towns villages and cities. Sometimes getting lost is a pleasure. Do not timetable your trip so you do large chunks of driving and do not travel after dark. This will ease the pressure.
Spain is cheap for prices of fuel when compared with other European counties, only Luxembourg is very cheap at the momnet. Here you will find most hire cars are diesel, this will give you around 50mpg and is cheaper than petrol. So it can work out quite cheap.
If you use the narrow gauge railway along the north coast you cannot purchase advance tickets, when you travel on the main lines you can purchase advance tickets with some good discounts, but the process can be a bit hit and miss.
May we have some public holidays in Spain so it some days could be classed as high season.
There are some news that the government, who run the Paradors are going to closes some. At the moment it is not known which ones. So hang off booking them if you are thinking about it.

amer_can Nov 29th, 2012 07:16 AM

What a shame if paradors (some) close but in this economy it seems unavoidable..A shame never the less. Any that we have stayed in have been great value, great loctions and great experiencces..So sad!!

hkto Nov 29th, 2012 08:00 AM

If you don't want to drive then use the bus system; it's fast & inexpensive. If you go in one direction distances are manageable (e.g. 1 hr 15 min from SS to Bilbao, Bilbao to Santander, etc). Start from eastern part of Northern Spain, continue west & end in Santiago or La Coruna and then fly back to Barcelona on Vueling. Buses are quite frequent during the daytime. We primarily traveled on Alsa buses & bought our tickets from vending machine. It has multilingual menu & takes CC.

yorkshire Nov 29th, 2012 08:48 AM

I used buses and trains in the San Sebastian-Bilbao area. Once you narrow down your itinerary (I'd do either Barcelona-Basque region OR Basque region and some of Galicia/Asturias, etc.), I can advise you on which parts were easy with public transport.

adrienne Nov 29th, 2012 08:58 AM

<< b) not being familiar with the routes I might get lost >>

It doesn't matter to me how you plan your vacation but getting lost is not a reason for not driving IMHO. I can get lost at home. I've been lost on trains and buses. Sometimes you have the best experiences when you're "lost." I will never understand why people are afraid to do things because they may become lost. Spain is not a dangerous country.

<< a) road driving in Spain is much faster than in the States >>

People drive very fast in the US. In fact it's much scarier driving at home than it is in Europe with all the road rage and horn blasting. I drive at my own pace and people pass me. There is no law that says you have to drive fast. Europeans may drive fast but at least they are polite about their driving.

One good thing about driving in Europe (outside of cities) is that you don't have the enormous amount of traffic. I love the feeling of having the road almost to myself and looking at the scenery and stopping when I want.

Golemtoo Nov 29th, 2012 09:02 AM

I find that it often takes longer to drive somewhere in Spain because there are fewer multi-lane highways.

pizzocchieri Nov 29th, 2012 09:28 AM

I had no problems driving in Spain, and I really disliked taking the bus from San Sebastian to Bilbao. I am very tall and it was uncomfortable for me. It was after that that I always rented a car in Spain except to go to the cities.

I enjoyed my visit to A Coruna (I would have loved to have grown up there!), but I can't seriously recommend it to anybody else as a sightseeing detour when there is so much else to see in that area. I felt Pontevedra was a terrific place, and the parador there was comparable to all other hotel prices in the town. Tuy is a marvelous town, if you get down that far. I liked Lugo too.

In May, you will see plenty of rain in northern Spain. One nice thing about staying only in paradors (get a pass) is that it becomes easy to set an itinerary and easy to park (usually), and every time you go to a new parador, it is like opening up a new surprise gift. You always know you can get food there and usually they are interesting places in themselves.

But I think it is better to eat tapas in the towns that the dinners at the paradors in northern Spain (especially since dinner is so late).

Egbert Nov 29th, 2012 11:49 AM

You would need 4 weeks for that trip. There is no reason to drive. Public transport is too good. Barcelona and San Sebastian deserve 5 nights each. All the rest can be done as one or two nighters. Santillana as maybe a daytrip. I would focus on Barcelona and thre Basque country on this trip unless you have a lot of time.

lizal34 Nov 30th, 2012 04:52 PM

Thank you...thank you....thank you... all your sugestions and advices are vey helpful indeed for my planning. Egbert and Roberts: I will check the buses, may be a good alternative. We know Barcelona quite well so we plan to stay very shortly there. Adrianne: I would certainly do the maping to know the various distances from place to place, and I will weight the alternatives of driving versus Buses and trains. You ask what are we interested on: Well,nothing in particular, just to see and admire each of the places we visit. So, thanks again to all of you for taking your time and if there are more suggestions or ideas we more than welcome posting your comments. Fodor is the most helpful vehicle to all neo tourists!!

kimhe Dec 1st, 2012 04:10 AM

Fabulous San Sebastián is the gastronomical capital of Spain if not all of Europe and European Capital of Culture 2016:

I posted this recently about San Sebastián:

You have of course the food, the beaches, the parks, the museums, the aquarium etc, but Donostia/San Sebastián is perhaps first and foremost a city celebrating the fascinating Basque culture (not least the food!), with much intensity. All kinds of festivals and events in and around the city all the time.

The city is also very much influenced by hosting one of the best jazz festivals in Europe (since 1966) and one of the oldest and most prestigious film festivals in the world (since 1953). San Sebastián thus is a jazz and cinema city, many of the traditional bars originated as "cinema-bars" early in the 20th century, and there are several excellent jazz clubs here attracting top artists. Three great thetaers/concert venues in town, Old world Victoria Eugenia, charming Teatro Principal in the Parte vieja and the huge and modern Kursaal by the Zurriola beach across the city river Urumea.

I love the churches in San Sebastián, especially the Basílica de Santa María del Coro at the end of Calle 31 de Agosto in the upper part of the Parte vieja (the only street of the Old town that was intact after the storming and burning of the city by British troops on August 31, 1813). In here there are often musical events, and if you're really lucky you can hear the plain fantastic city choir Orfeón Donostiarra here.

San Sebastián is a city built on all kinds of societies and clubs. The traditionally men only gastronomical clubs are the most famous. Here men from all levels of society have met on equal footing in the kitchen and around the table for a couple of centuries.

The city pride Real Sociedad play in the same league as FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. That means that every second week most of the year, some of the best football teams on the planet visit the city.

San Sebastián is in general a very "sporty" city: Football, tennis, cycling (Clásica de San Sebastián is one of the major one day rides of the year for the professionals), horseraces and lots of traditional Basque sports such as pelota/jai-alai and fierce rowing comeptitions.

San Sebastián is also a "walking city", everybody seems to be walking all the time, either along the beautiful La Concha beach promenade or on the beach itself, along Paseo Nuevo (stunning if the weather is a bit rough) or up at Monte Urgull towering over the Parte vieja (Old town). Several beautiful parks such as Miramar (used to be the kings summer residennce, know the seat for The Society for Basque Studies and the Basque Academy of Science), Aiete, Cristina Enea, Urgull etc. etc.

Every year the Universidad del Pais Vasco and The Society for Basque Studies arrange high quality summer courses, seminars and conferences in a very wide range of topics. Goes on from mid June to mid September. Have atttended several times, and I can reccomend it very much. The courses attract top quality academic and business expertise.

Last, a vivid expression of the San Sebastián spirit is the annual Tamborrada (drum festival) celebration in mid winter. Here is the city choir Orfeón Donostiarra leading the crowds on the main square in San Sebastián's Old town singing on the occation of the 75th anniversary of one of the city's most famous gastronomic societies (Gaztelubide) during the Tamborrada in 2008:

More direct tips:

Start with a walk throgh the Parte vieja/Old town and up on Monte Urgull for a great view of the city and the bay. Up here you can also visit the San Sebastián history museum in 12th century La Mota castle.
Monte Urgull:

When down again, take the walk along the wonderful Paseo Nuevo on the outside of Monte Urgull (let's hope for rough weather!) and end up in the Aquarium in the small port.

Then perhaps a sit down lunch at excellent value in traditional, family owned and very friendly La Cueva in Plaza de la Trinidad in the Parte vieja/Old town. Three minutes from the port.

The wonderful Basílica de Santa María del Coro is almost next door to La Cueva.

A glass or cup of something in one of the terraces in central Plaza de la Constitución can be highly recommended. Two minutes from the Basilica.

If the weather is nice, take a stroll along the famous La Concha each promenade. In aboout 30 minutes you reach the funicular who take you up to Monte Igueldo for stunning views of the city and the coast and an old fashioned fun fair.

On the way back to town, make a stop at Palacio Miramar, used to be the Royal summer residence. A fine little cafeteria in the basement.

On your way into the center and Old Town, make a stop at Café de la Concha for a glass and great views of the beach and bay. This is also a perfect place for watching thunder storms and lightning at night.

The San Telmo museum at the outskirts of the Old town museum is a must:

Close by the museum you find the fabulous Bretxa (from the breach made here by the Anglo-Portuguese troops during the 1813 siege) food market. Will get you ready for the evenings culinary feast.

Either you decide to do the pintxos hopping as a lunch or in the evvening, you can't do much wrong on your own. Half the fun is just going where the night takes you. I nevertheless have to make some recommendations:

In the Parte vieja:
Cutting edge Zeruko:
Next door Txepetxa, anchovy heaven and an institution in town:
Gourmet pintxos at La Cuchara de San Telmo:
The best Jamón Ibérico in the world (from Jabugo) and wonderful Pimientos de Padrón at traditional La Cepa:

Many of the best places are in the Gros district across the city river Urumea. Try the shark pintxo at Garbola:
Patxi Bergara was among those who together with Juan Mari Arzak started the Basque food revolution back in the 80's. His bar (here you can easily stay all night):

Traditional Casa Vallés just behind the cathedral is one of my absolute favourites when you get a bit tired of the gourmet hype:

All about going for pintxos in San Sebastián, suggested routes etc:

If you want to be guided by professionals, "San Sebastián food" is an ecxcellent option, and you might also have great company who knows much of the city history etc:

Check the program at the Kursaal concert hall.

A couple of recent articles about my favourite city on the planet:

"John Inverdale's San Sebastián":

"San Sebastian, Spain: a cultural city guide"

"San Sebastián: A right royal playground"

ribeirasacra Dec 5th, 2012 08:43 AM

Take your pick from this video:
Sorry but it is all in Spanish, having been shown on Spanish TV. But it will give anyone a good idea of eh jewels that can be found between Santander and Santiago de Compostela.

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