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Starting to plan for 3.5 weeks in northern Spain, May 2015

Starting to plan for 3.5 weeks in northern Spain, May 2015

Nov 16th, 2014, 04:20 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Dec 2006
Posts: 22,164
Starting to plan for 3.5 weeks in northern Spain, May 2015

I am in the nascent stages of planning a trip to northern Spain in May 2015. Barcelona, Bilbao, and San Sebastian are non-negotiable; everything else is TBD, except that I don’t plan to hike the Camino de Santiago (well, maybe just one half-day segment…).

I already know that I’m going to have a VERY difficult time fitting my list of desired destinations to a mere 3.5 weeks. Even without doing any research at all, I’m sure I’ll want to see the cathedrals of Burgos and Leon, historic buildings in Figueres and Oviedo, prehistoric cave art if any is currently available to tourists, Roman ruins in Tarragona and elsewhere, wineries in Rioja, so much else...! I will do my homework, but decided to ask NOW because in the past, I have waited too long to seek the input that my fellow Fodorites are so generously willing to share. I know I’ll post again with more specific questions, but for now, I would love recommendations on particularly useful resources, tips about unusual events or circumstances, etc. – anything that will help my as I study, plan, and prioritize.

For context, I’m a woman with reasonably extensive experience as a solo, independent traveler. Wherever I go, I seek to maximize the diversity of my experiences -- cities and towns, different styles of art and architecture, varied natural scenery, etc…. I typically enjoy art, architecture, museums, religious sanctuaries, parks and gardens, natural scenery, castles and fortresses, markets (for their atmosphere, not for shopping), picturesque villages, good food and wine, folk traditions, performing arts, and the chance to see and experience other parts of the world. I generally don’t seek opportunities to relax or shop. I’m willing to rent a car when doing so adds substantial value, but prefer to use trains or buses whenever possible.

Thanks in advance!
kja is offline  
Nov 16th, 2014, 07:18 AM
Join Date: Mar 2003
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You can do Barcelona, Figueres and Tarragona by public transportation, and take the train from Barcleona to Pamplona, where I recommend picking up a car to continue your adventure. The best places to rent the car would be at the AVIS office downtown at Monasterio De La Oliva 29, or the Europcar office at the Hotel Blanca de Navarra. They offer the best selectio and Auto Europe will have the best prices.

You can tour the Rioja before heading for Burgos. From there it is an easy drive to León and then to Oviedo and Gijón. From Gijón you can drive back along the coast Bilbao and San Sebastian-Donostia. You can then head back to Pamplona and drop the car off before taking the train back to Barcelona or down to Madrid.

The Parador in León is worth a stop for the night, if not two (www.parador.es). And don't forget to visit the El Bierzo wine region while in the area. You'll find the Castillo de los Templarios in Ponferrada, the Monastery of Santa Maria de Carracedo, dating from the 10th century, the village of Peñalba de Santiago, Oza Valley, the remains of the castro near Valtuille de Abajo and the World Heritage Site, Las Medulas. Read "Travels in El Bierzo" for more information.
Robert2533 is offline  
Nov 16th, 2014, 07:28 AM
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The Basque Country is, as you know, food heaven.

Fabulous restaurants down in the harbour area in tiny Getaria just west of San Sebastian (bus from San Sebastian takes some 30 minutes). Had the meal of my life here some years ago, something like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_M...Mar,_Barcelona

Getaria: http://www.euskoguide.com/places-bas...taria-tourism/

When in San Sebastian, be sure to also go to some of the pintxos bars in Gros just across the city river Urumea. Many of the best in town are in this area: http://www.todopintxos.com/ruta/ruta...cha_rutas&id=6

I also very much recommend San Marcial, just by the Hotel Londres. An institution in town: http://www.todopintxos.com/bares/bar..._bar&id_bar=99

Also lots of excellent traditional Basque restaurants in San Sebastian, far from the cutting edge gourmet thing. Casa Vallés is one of my favourite traditional places in town. Also many late night, adult and laid-back music bars in this area in and around Calle Reyes Catolicos behind the Buen Pastor Cathedral. Casa Vallés : http://www.barvalles.com/

In Bilbao, I always have to have the fabulous pincho moruno/lamb skewer at Cafe Iruña: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restauran...e_Country.html

Be sure to visit the excellent Fine Arts museum in Bilbao. Not far from Guggenheim: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractio...que_Count.html

A very rich Basque folklore and mythology, and the Basques are very proud of their culture and never miss an opportunity to celebrate it. http://www.buber.net/Basque/Folklore/

I highly recommend to experience the local music, the songs, the dance or sports events: http://www.euskoguide.com/basque-cul...ls-events.html

To give you an idea:

And there is a plain fantastic city choir in Donostia/San Sebastian, the Orfeon Donostiarra. You can often hear them during mass in the Santa Maria church in the Parte vieja/Old town. Here they sing together with late Mikel Laboa. From Julio Medem's brave and extremely interesting documentary La Pelota Vasca: la piel contra la piedra/The Basque Ball: skin against stone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HURqk8w-5w8
kimhe is offline  
Nov 16th, 2014, 07:33 AM
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HI kja - lucky you! We had about 2 weeks in this region about 30 years ago [yes, thirty, not a typo!] and i still have fond memories. We didn't go to Barcelona or as far west as Santiago di Compostella, but we did go down to Salamanca which i strongly recommend.

our big splurge was a night at the parador in Leon, and still remember the coolness of the pure linen sheets. Another highlight was the museum of Polychromal Sculpture in Valladolid - gruesome but enlightening. Burgos, Oviedo, and the Picos di Europa were all good as was S. Sebastien, though my overwhelming memory is of the amazing thunderstorm we experienced there.

Good luck with your trip!

PS - amazon stock the Cadogan guides which do very good suggested routes - I don't know the one of Northern Spain but others I have used have been excellent:

annhig is offline  
Nov 16th, 2014, 07:35 AM
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as ever, kimhe, you are a mine of information. I want to go NOW!
annhig is offline  
Nov 16th, 2014, 08:01 AM
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Hi kja - We spent a month in 'the Dali triangle' area of Catalonia - a week in Barcelona; a week in a farmhouse near Banyoles with side trips to Girona, Besalu and Pubul; a week in another farmhouse in the Pyrenees on French border with trips to Figueras and various places in France; and a week in Cadaquez for beaches and relaxation (that might not be your thing).

We had a car for the whole time, which we deemed essential to attend amazing festivals in tiny towns. But if any of these places interest you, you could base yourself in Girona for several days - a wonderful, walkable city w/ endless great tapas, and use public transport.
crosscheck is offline  
Nov 16th, 2014, 10:23 AM
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You are going to have a really hard time choosing! There is so much to see and do in northern Spain.

I'd add these to your list of considerations:

An overnight at Montserrat - during the day it is packed with bus tours and not very pleasant, but at night it is quiet and you can visit the art museum, see the boy's choir at Vespers, and have the place somewhat to yourself. I have watched the sunrise up there twice and it is magnificent.

Zaragoza - a lively town with an excellent tapas scene.

A few days in the Picos d Europa mountains...

There is a flower festival in Girona in May...

As crosscheck wrote, Girona is a good base and it is easy peasy to drive there so consider a car so you can see more.

Driving in Oviedo is NOT easy and I would not recommend having a car there.

You really need 7 weeks

Happy planning, I am really looking forward to reading more about your plans and then your trip!
rialtogrl is offline  
Nov 16th, 2014, 10:52 AM
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A few tips from a local:

- Northern Spain is typically the northern coast, from Galicia to San Sebastián...Barcelona (Catalonia) is considered the East and so very mediterranean and dry, as opposed to the colder, much rainier Northern coast. Bring an overcoat and an umbrella...

- All the above posters´ ideas sound really excellent. You are missing a few off the beaten path towns, such as Vitoria and Santander (and the close by villages, so quaint and unspoilt)

- Public transport in Spain is just excellent and it takes you almost anywhere...but I do recommend a few days with a rental car to allow you more flexibility to see the small villages on the way. Avoid using it in cities like Bilbao or San Sebastian...parking is expensive and you won´t really need it.

- You may want to check my blog on the Basque Country for some info on places to see, a bit off the beaten routes, mugalari.wordpress.com.
mikelg is offline  
Nov 16th, 2014, 11:27 AM
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This is my dream trip. Excited to follow along with your journey, kja!
Nepenthe is offline  
Nov 16th, 2014, 04:57 PM
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How I love Fodor’s! What a wealth of information already – thank you all so much!

@ Robert – What wonderful suggestions! I’m looking forward to learning more, and as a sucker for World Heritage Sites, I’ll definitely be checking into those options. Since you and annhig both singled out the parador in Leon, I will definitely give it serious consideration – I couldn’t afford any of the paradors near the places I visited during my first trip to Spain, but hope to splurge on at least one during this trip.

@ kimhe – I knew I could count on you for wonderful suggestions for food and culture – how exciting! I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about Basque folklore and mythology and will definitely check into your suggestions for restaurants, et al.

@ annhig – I’m glad your memories of the region have withstood the test of time. I was fortunate to spend a couple of days in glorious Salamanca in 2006 – loved it! I suspect that I will find the museum of Polychromal Sculpture in Valladolid fascinating, and was glad that you also mentioned the parador in Leon.

@ crosscheck – I envy you a month in the Dali triangle! It’s good to know that Girona would likely be a good base for my much shorter foray into the area.

@ rialtogrl – I’m glad you mentioned the overnight at Monserrat – it is something I had been considering. And I’m delighted to know about the flower festival in Girona – I will definitely see if I can fit that into my plans! Yes, paring this trip into a manageable chunk is not going to be easy….

@ mikelg – Sorry for my misuse of the term “northern Spain,” but I’m not sure how else to refer to the area I hope to visit, so I’ll probably continue to err. Would it be better to say “Northern Spain and Catalonia”? Thanks so much for your suggestions of off-the-beaten-path towns, as I love to include a few in any trip I make. I’ll definitely look into Vitoria and Santander and will be sure to check your blog.

@ Nepenthe – Aside from the nightmare of deciding what to skip, I’m sure this venture will be a dream trip for me, too!

I’ve got a lot of research ahead of me – thanks again, all of you, for these great ideas.
kja is offline  
Nov 16th, 2014, 08:15 PM
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I spent 3 1/2 weeks in northwestern Spain in August 2013. Absolutely loved it.

I posted a "trip report" in pictures of it. If you play it in slideshpw mode, you can see the captions that I added to many of the photos. The first pic is the route that I took.

joannyc is online now  
Nov 16th, 2014, 08:17 PM
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@ joannyc -- thanks -- I look forward to looking at your TR!
kja is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 12:33 AM
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With all of those answers all you have to do now is whittle down the suggestions and make a plan. Do not forget the less travelling more you will see. Plus one night stands do not work.
ribeirasacra is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 01:58 AM
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Excellent advice from kimhe about Bilbao, especially concerning the Beaux Arts museum which is often overshadowed by the Guggenheim. Bilbao tourism authority runs several worthwhile walking tours.
Southam is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 06:49 PM
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Thanks, all – please keep these great ideas coming!

@ ribeirasacra – LOL, yes, indeed, the challenge will be whittling down all these suggestions – and the other ideas I develop as I proceed with my research – to make a plan! I am well aware that it’s going to be very, very difficult.

I must admit that I don’t agree that one-night stays don’t work: My experiences, as a solo traveler, are that there are circumstances under which a one-night stay suits my needs far better than any other option. That said, I fully understand that most travelers have good reason to use “bases” rather than relocating, and so appreciate your attention to the issue.

@ Southam – as a lover of art museums, there is NO WAY that I will skip the Beaux Arts museum in Bilbao – but I thank you confirming that I should see it! And thanks, too, for directing me to the walking tours of Bilbao – well worth pursuing!
kja is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 11:51 PM
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RE-one nighters: I can speak for hundreds of vacationers when I state they do not work. Having been in the hotel business for far too many years
Arrive, unpack, eat, sleep, wash, eat, pay your bill, leave and next day do the same, and the same and the same....... ;-)
ribeirasacra is offline  
Nov 18th, 2014, 02:06 AM
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ribeirasacra - i so agree with you about one night stays. Apart from anything else, you get so much better value from 2 or more nights as you get to occupy your hotel for the full day, which you can rarely do if you're just there for a night. However, i can see that they can work occasionally to break up what would be an over-long journey, between two longer stays. But having done a number of trips recently involving 2&3 night stays, even they get to be tedious in the end, so moving every day is definitely NOT for me.
annhig is offline  
Nov 18th, 2014, 05:19 PM
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@ ribeirasacra & annhig – I do understand that one-nighters don’t suit most people, but I have a LOT of experience with them and don’t mind them NEARLY so much as I loathe backtracking -- and I do, seriously, loathe backtracking. Years of solo international travel have taught me that I, personally, will rarely (if ever) spend more time moving on than staying put if the travel time to my next destination is more than an hour and is in the general direction of my subsequent journey. Moving on is, quite literally, a time-saver for me. Particularly in Spain, since I don’t each lunch: That means I can see sites until they close for siesta, use the siesta to move on, and be ready to start exploring again when things open post-siesta in my new location. Too, I think I remember places better if I spend the night than if I visit as a day trip, in part because I get to see the new place in differing lights, and with and without day-trippers, so I have a fuller array of memories that are separate from my memories of the place from which I might have visited it. Again, I’m not saying that one-night stays work for everyone, but they have definitely served me well over the years!
kja is offline  
Nov 18th, 2014, 05:58 PM
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kja, if you decide to do the overnight at Montserrat, I got a good deal on a single room last month at the hotel up there (Abat Cisneros, and it was 46 euros for a non refundable single, on booking.com.) I don't think they load this rate until it gets closer to the date, so you could always book a regular refundable rate then cancel if the cheaper rate comes up. The only bad thing is the single rooms are at the back so you don't have the view, but you just have to go outside for that
rialtogrl is offline  
Nov 18th, 2014, 06:06 PM
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@ realtogrl -- good to know, thanks!
kja is offline  

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