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San Sebastian, Costa Brava, Pyrenees, or southern France?

San Sebastian, Costa Brava, Pyrenees, or southern France?

Jun 29th, 2014, 05:44 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: May 2013
Posts: 103
San Sebastian, Costa Brava, Pyrenees, or southern France?

For 2 weeks in mid to late July. I know, super high season. My husband has a conference in Montpelier, France in early August, so this is when we can go. I'm one of those people who would rather travel when the weather is cold or grey than during high season, so I'm trying to determine where we can travel during July that won't be very crowded.

We speak Spanish, not French, and thought it could be fun to fly into Barcelona and travel either up the coast (thus spending time on the Costa Brava, in little towns like Tamariu to avoid the big beach hotels), or into the Pyrenees (of Catalunya, to avoid extra driving time), or add another flight and go to San Sebastian/Bilbao because I'm always hearing how wonderful San Sebastian is. Or, maybe we should just focus on France since that is where the conference is, and I'm sure it is lovely, too; I just don't know as much about France.

We like nature, hiking, beaches, little towns, and maybe a museum or two, but as we will be traveling with our 2 and 6 year olds, museums will not be a big focus of our trip. Also because of the little ones, we want to stop in 2 or 3 places and stay put, rather than moving from town to town frequently. If we can skip the car rental and go by train, even better! But I don't want to travel on buses, since we wouldn't be able to use car seats to keep them safe, so it's either train or car rental.

I would greatly appreciate advice from those who know these areas of lovely places to spend a week or two with great nature, either mountains or coast, and no crowds of tourists. Is that even possible in late July?
pantanal is offline  
Jun 29th, 2014, 07:09 PM
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I will let others speak to the Costa Brava as I have not been there but sounds like it might fit the bill well for your interests.

I absolutely loved Barcelona and I think of it as kid friendly. My daughter was a bit older when I took her but we thoroughly enjoyed the Parc Guell and Chocolate Museum among other experiences. On that trip we went from Barcelona to town of Baqueira in the Pyrenees for skiing. It was a difficult decision because Baqueira is about 4 hours from Barcelona (with no train service from Barcelona) but we felt it was worth the transportation hassles as the town and valley were really wonderful.

I have been to San Sebastian and join the many fans of this great city. We were there in late July and while it was certainly bustling it did not feel terribly crowded (I think that is bc we were primarily getting around on foot or bicycle). IMO 2 weeks there would be a bit much - I would combine with something else. We also visited the French Basque area on that trip (Guethary) which we found extremely crowded and the traffic was a challenge (along the coast - however inland countryside was beautiful).

Good luck planning, you have some really wonderful options!
lynnalan is offline  
Jun 29th, 2014, 07:35 PM
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Thank you for your advice! Nice to hear that San Sebastian wasn't terribly crowded in late July.

I should add that since my husband and I have been to Barcelona before, we don't plan on spending much time there, though we may spend 2 days there upon arrival to adjust to the time difference before traveling on. I can't imagine any kid wouldn't enjoy Parc Guell!
pantanal is offline  
Jun 29th, 2014, 08:01 PM
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I should think from experience that every place you mention will be jam-packed in July, though I haven't been (unfortunately) to San Sebastian. The language of Barceloa is Catalan, so speaking Spanish will be a help, of course, but it's not their language.

Anywhere along the Med coast in France from Montpellier to the border of Spain and into the Costa Brava will be jammed.

I would certainly rent a car for flexibility, but do keep in mind that a car rented in France and dropped off in Spain or a car rented in Spain and dropped off in France will cost you a small fortune - likely the equivalent of the entire car rental itself.
StCirq is offline  
Jun 30th, 2014, 04:23 AM
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>>> Anywhere along the Med coast in France from Montpellier to the border of Spain and into the Costa Brava will be jammed.<<<

Yes. It will even be hard to find hotel rooms then. However, in the hinterland, the situation will be better.

I personally love Cadaques on the Costa Brava, and if you are lucky to get a hotel room there, book ASAP. Or maybe a place in the hinterland.

If you go further nortwards, on the French side, Collioure would be a charming town on the coast. An alternative would be Ceret - a charming town in the Pyrenees.

Carcassone is an impressively walled medieval city, however VERY touristy in July. But you have chances to find accomodation there. Or go anywhere else in the hinterland.

Northwest Spain is a completely different story. First, driving time from Donostia (formerly San Sebastian) to Montpellier is six hours. Second, climate is different. While it will be dry and hot at the Mediterranean, the weather in Northwest Spain might be cool and rainy - it is Atlantic climate.

I personally do not care too much about Donostia - the beach is boring, practically no surf. However, there are many attractions nearby, including the spectacular architecture of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the city of Santander, the mountains, picturesque villages and a row of spectacular beaches (similar to those along highway no. 1 in California). Also, Rioja is in easy reach - make sure to visit Marques de Riscal winery with its Frank O. Gehry building.

On the French side, there are also scenic drives (Corniche Basque) and beautiful towns (e.g. Biarritz).
traveller1959 is offline  
Jun 30th, 2014, 07:34 AM
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We liked staying in Begur on the Costa Brava. It was in July and it was not overcrowded.
HappyTrvlr is offline  
Jun 30th, 2014, 09:27 AM
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With 2 small kids you would not want to do as much driving as I did, but I traveled from San Sebastian to Barcelona by going through the Pyrenees, sometimes staying on the Spanish side, sometimes staying on the French side. While in San Sebastian I toured both the Spanish and French Basque coast, and on my way to Barcelona, I saw some of Catalan French coast, and most of the Costa Brava.

Based on everything I saw, were I ever to return to the region with toddlers, I would pick San Sebastian for its kid-friendly beach and bite-sized cuisine (just made for kids plus you don't need to wait for the Spanish dinner hour to eat) and I would also choose a lovely "white" town on the Costa Brava called Calella de Palafrugell. I think with toddlers in summer you want a car in that part of the world. The tourist crowds will steadily pick up as July progresses, but you will not be among the swarms of August.

Between San Sebastian and the Costa Brava, it would be very enjoyable, I think, to spend time in lower elevations of the French Pyrenees, which are very pastoral. This is mainly cheese producing country. In fact, with small kids in summer, I would want to limit their time on the beach just because of sun-exposure, and might opt for the longest part of the stay being in sheep-and-cheese country. I think if you focus on areas northwest of Pau and southwest of Pau you could come up with a very bucolic place to stay, and scarcely see another tourist. Something like this (I'm not specifically recommending it because I haven't stayed there)


But probably equally nice places exist in the Spanish foothills of the Pyrenees, and since you speak Spanish, it might make sense to perch there. (By the way, most Catalans pride themselves on being multilingual, so your Spanish will go far there. The bigger problem is in the Basque areas of Spain, where the local tongue is so much harder to decipher, but even there, people will freely converse with you in Spanish.)

So I would make 3 stops: A few days in San Sebastian, 5-7 nights in the foothills with the sheep, and 3 nights or so in Calella de Palafrugell and fly out of Barcelona.
sandralist is offline  
Jun 30th, 2014, 11:27 AM
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We just left Aiguablava this morning, relaxing now in Céret, in the Pyrénées-Orientales. The hordes are betting ready to descend on the Coast Brava and the Empordà. Already the roads leading down to the beaches along the Costa Brava are jammed with cars parking wherever they can (Spaniards prefer not to pay for the limited parking at the beach), and the schools in France don't get out of school until the end of the week.

If you've waited this long to decide where to go, it will be difficult finding anything inland, as well as along the Costa Brava and in or around San Sebastian, where the Donsiti Cup takes place the first week of July, and hotel rooms are scarce. The lone exception may be the Maria Cristina, starting at €800/night.
Robert2533 is offline  
Jun 30th, 2014, 12:47 PM
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I just did a looksee on Booking.com for San Sebastian, and while not knowing your dates, I did a general search for days beyond July 15. There were at least 15 properties with availability for 2 adults and 2 children that had good ratings at ratings and were priced at less than 200 euros per night, and several for less.

For Calella da Palafrugell, I picked days later in July, and similarly there were 3 favorably reviewed properties directly in town and 13 within a range of 10kms.

Not all of these places are ones that would work for you, I would guess, but if you want to book a place in San Sebastian in the next few days, you'll have worthy choices coming in at far far less than $1000 per night. Such posts are just meant to punish you psychologically, not help you.

(Yes, you will face traffic jams going to the beaches on weekends in July if you aren't already staying at the beach.)
sandralist is offline  
Jun 30th, 2014, 01:46 PM
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I'm glad that there are al least 15 properties with availability, but not everyone would stay at them is they actually wanted to be in San Sebastian. If you can score a room at the Inglaterra, then fine, but they do not have a family room.

As far as Calella da Palafrugell goes, the only property I would recommend is the Hotel Alga. The Hostal de la Gavina in S’Agar does have one suite remaining, $1139/night. Outside of the Gavina, this is not an area know for higher end properties.

If staying outside of one of the beachside villages, fining a place to park will be difficult at best unless you arrive very early in the day, while most Spaniards are having breakfast before heading to the breach for the day.
Robert2533 is offline  
Jun 30th, 2014, 01:57 PM
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I second Begur, fabulous little village. We have bee before the last 3 years and plan Togo again next year. Wonderful restaurants in a medieval town, which is a great base for the whole Costa Brava region.
Smeagol is offline  
Jul 1st, 2014, 05:39 AM
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Thank you all! What great advice you all have given. First, I should have mentioned we are going in July 2015, not this year, though your information on how crowded lodging is makes me realize that we should book early.

Based on what you all have said, I think we should either skip the Costa Brava, seeing it someday when we're there outside the summer season, or just spend a few days in a small town (Begur or Calella de Palafrugell) before moving on to the Pyrenees and/or San Sebastian.

What I hear about San Sebastian, like what traveller1959 said ("there are many attractions nearby, including the spectacular architecture of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the city of Santander, the mountains, picturesque villages and a row of spectacular beaches (similar to those along highway no. 1 in California). Also, Rioja is in easy reach - make sure to visit Marques de Riscal winery with its Frank O. Gehry building.") sounds very good to me: lots of diverse things to do, both nature and small towns, along with mountains and beaches, winerys, and of course I'd make a museum exception to see the Bilbao museum!

So my next step is to determine if we should still fly into Barcelona or somewhere else if we went to San Sebastian first. We are fine skipping Barcelona since we've been there before. Also, I want to figure out if we can take a train from San Sebastian to Montpelier, since StCirq mentioned how pricey international car rentals are. Maybe then we could just see San Sebastian and the Pyrenees, and then have our time in France.

Thank you all again, and any other thoughts on my new suggested plan would be greatly appreciated!
pantanal is offline  
Jul 1st, 2014, 12:25 PM
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If you are in San Sebastián, you could cross the border to France (Hendaye or St. Jean de Luz) and rent a car over there. It's a 30 min. train ride.

You can train San Sebastián - Montpellier but it involves 2 changes and the journey takes 9 hours at least!

The Pyrenées are fantastic. So is the drive from the Atlantic coast of France to the Mediterranean coast. You can of course take the Autoroute des Deux-Mers (between Hendaye and Narbonne) if you want to go fast, but you could also drive the smaller roads and spend a night here and there. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the Col du Tourmalet, the Col d'Aubisque, the natural wonder 'Les Orgues' in Ille-sur-Têt, the Gorges de Galamus, the Cathar Castles, ... and then on the Med the pretty village of Collioure.
MyriamC is offline  
Jul 1st, 2014, 03:10 PM
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Sandralist and Myriam, great advice and information. Thank you.

If we were to drive from the Atlantic coast of France or Spain to the Mediterranean coast, we would only stop for a night once or twice, since going to new hotels/inns with little kids is a chore. Which of the little towns and places you mention would be best for a 3 or 4 day stay in July, without large crowds? We'd mainly be hiking, seeing the town, and the castles in the case of the Cathar castles. I'm trying to determine if it would be better to do this trip in Spain or France, or in both if that's allowed by car rental companies.

Thank you!
pantanal is offline  
Jul 2nd, 2014, 12:44 AM
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You may find car rental companies that allow you to take the car across the border. Check with www.autoeurope.com (this is a broker, so check the conditions of the various car rental companies).

If you'd like to stay half-way I would say around Saint Gaudens or Foix, could be nice for a few days. Both are well known by hikers.

The Cathar castles are almost at the end of the (long) route between the Atlantic and the Med. If you prefer to stay near there, Quillan might be an option. You could do (half) day trips to the ruins of Peyrepertuse or Quéribus castles, to Les Orgues and the Gorges de Galamus. Interesting for your 6 yr old!

Do avoid Carcassonne! It's hot and over-crowded in the tourist season.

I have no experience with the Spanish side of the Pyrenées.
MyriamC is offline  
Jul 2nd, 2014, 01:45 AM
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San Sebastían (Donostia in Basque) in late July is a very good idea. I've been here in July most years since 1987. The milder summer climate and beauty of the city and its surroundings has made this a favourite for Spanish and French summer visitors for some 150 years. European Capital of Culture 2016. Recently voted #5 city in the world by Condé Nast Traveler: http://www.sansebastianturismo.com/

CNN: "The world's best cities are...": http://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/16/tr...er-top-cities/

Three fantastic city beaches, also for the kids. http://www.sansebastian.co.uk/beaches/

San Sebastián is the culinary capital of Spain, if not all of Europe. Ferran Adrià (El Bulli), the world's most renown chef since the turn of the century, has suggested that San Sebastián is the best in the world "in terms of the average quality of the food, in terms of what you can get at any place you happen to walk into". http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandst...rink.shopping2

The 50th edition of the annual and fabulous San Sebastián jazz festival will be going on some five days in late July 2015. Also on outdoor scenes in the Parte vieja/Old town. http://www.heinekenjazzaldia.com/en/
kimhe is offline  
Jul 2nd, 2014, 01:59 AM
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We've been in San Sebastián a few years ago the second half of June. It was always overcast, very humid, rainy in the late afternoons and evenings. The sea was rough (nice to watch the bodyboarders and kite surfers), and the water was cold. We may just have had bad luck, but my memory of the Basque Coast is not so good, I'm afraid.
For sea & sun, I prefer the Med.
MyriamC is offline  
Jul 2nd, 2014, 03:09 AM
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Regarding weather in San Sebastián. As said, I've been in San Sebastián in July almost every year since 1987. On the whole it's normally lovely summer weather and excellent swimming temperatures, and of course the occasional and refreshing heavy shower. I can't recall ever having experienced bad weather as an issue at this time of year up here (although I've twice experienced a heavy hail-storm in July. If you are lucky, you might experience a genuine San Sebastián thunder storm after dark. Then get a table at Café de la Concha with views over the Concha bay, as beautiful as it gets).

Past 17 years weather statistics for two last weeks of July in San Sebastián says average highs at 72-80F, rainfall (usually heavy showers) 4 out of 16 days and average 7 hours sun/day. (wetteronline.de)
kimhe is offline  
Jul 2nd, 2014, 07:55 AM
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It typically rains one out of every three days along the Donostia coast, which is why the Basque Coast is part of "Green Spain". In the winter the seas can be very rough (like this past winter) and even affect La Concha Bay, which is normally very calm and quiet, but you can surf at the western end of the bay, at Ondarreta Beach, and to the east, at Zurriola Beach.
Robert2533 is offline  
Jul 2nd, 2014, 09:48 AM
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Great ideas, thanks! I don't really care if it's beach weather every day. We can go to the beach here at home. What I'm more interested in is a lovely coast to walk along, & small towns to explore. The beach would be nice for an hour or two in late afternoon as a relaxing way to end the day when the kids are often cranky.

I often hear how great San Sebastian is for food. Is this also true if you are vegetarian, as my family is? We don't eat seafood either; will there still be lots of yummy food for us?
pantanal is offline  

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