Northern Spain seems to be having a bit of a moment currently. I can’t count on both my hands how many people I know of who have been in the past few months. I wasn’t aware of this when we booked flights to Santander ealier this year to celebrate the boyfriends birthday; we just booked the flights as they were cheap and the beaches looked nice. It was only when I started doing research into where we could go that I realised what beauty and adventure lay in store.
Perhaps I’d been put off considering northern Spain as a holiday destination from my first experience of it back in 1998. I was only seven so I don’t remember much apart from getting really, really bad food poisoning.
This time around we took a road trip across northern Spain, traversing much of the Camino de Santiago; a great pilgrimage across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela where St James was buried.
We opted out of joining the hundreds of thousands of backpackers currently walking across Spain for many reasons (we did discuss cycling it but I put my foot down!).
Firstly, the weather wasn’t kind to walkers; pouring with rain, or blisteringly hot (great for the beach, not so much for trekking). Secondly, part way through the week I ended up pushing the aforementioned boyfriend around Bilbao’s Guggenheim in a wheelchair and lastly, it’s such a long way with the most popular route adding up to 500 miles!
Whether walking, cycling or driving, rest assured that the scenery and towns along the way are incredibly beautiful. Wetter than southern Spain, the north looks less dessert-y and arid for the most part, meaning flowers and green decorate the landscape.
Whilst we didn’t follow a specific Camino de Santiago route, we passed many of the blue and yellow navigation signs and scallop symbol associated with the Camino de Santiago during our week’s road trip. For anyone who doesn’t fancy the walk but wants to see the beauty and ever changing landscapes of northern Spain, this northern Spain road trip itinerary is for you!
Although we only spent one week in northern Spain, I’d recommend two weeks which gives you more time to explore the various towns and countryside than we allowed for.
How To Get There:
Fly in and out of Santander (route can be taken in either direction) or take your own car across on the ferry from Portsmouth. This might be the best option if there’s more than two of you, but for us flying and hiring a car was cheaper than the ferry.
Car Hire: We used Gold Car for our hire for no particular reason other than we’d used them before. When it comes to car hire companies, they’re all as bad as each other and I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t try and pressure you into every little extra.
UK to Isla
Surfers dominate the sea along the coastal route from Santander to Noja. The ever-present waves are small enough for beginners but large enough for those more practised to demonstrate their skills. Surfer lessons are best taken in Somo where there are surfing schools a plenty and wide beaches with no rocks to danger you.
You’re spoilt for good beaches in Cantabria and, although busy on the beaches, there’s plenty of room. Things aren’t like they are in Bournemouth here. The beach at Noja, just a short drive from Isla, is particularly worth a mention. Long stretches of sandy beaches, sand dunes to climb for even better vistas, and small rock pools to explore when the tide is out make Noja the perfect beach for a chilled out day to get you in the holiday mood.
Restaurants in this part of Spain serve some fish, as you would expect, as well as hearty fare influenced by the towns further inland. Expect lentil stews a plenty.
When the hunger pangs strike, head to Castro Urdiales just 50km east of Noja. Here you’ll come across some of the best Pintxos in northern Spain (and we ate a lot!) for the best prices. Tapas like dishes, Pintxos are served all over the Basque region and in many towns in Cantabria too. So called due to the cocktail stick which holds the tapas ingredients together, these dishes are perfect for evenings with friends (a vast improvement on pubcrawls) and are great for those of us who just want to eat everything!
Accommodation in Isla: Los Anjanas de Isla
Isla – Bilbao – San Sebastian – Pamplona (260km)
If you mention Bilbao to someone chances are they’ll think of the Guggenheim museum for which the city is best known and the giant dog curated out of fresh flowers, ‘Puppy’, by Jeff Koons, which stands guard at the museums entrance.
Jeff Koons is the current main exhibition at the Guggenheim. His work is, unlike most modern art, accessible due to the use of instantly recognisable objects in his artworks. He’s known for taking the everyday and turning it on his head.
Whatever you personally make of his work, the current exhibition at the Guggenheim is well worth a browse.
TOP TIP: Book tickets to the Guggenheim in advance and avoid having to queue in the rain!
From Bilbao your northern Spain itinerary continues along the coast to San Sebastian.
Just 20km from the French border, San Sebastian is a city which loves to indulge in food and frequently tops the lists of the world’s best places to eat. Perhaps it’s because of this that the food, whilst cheap compared to London, was some of the more expensive we had all week.
Porte Vieja, the old town, lies in the shadows of Monte Urgull, the bay’s eastern headland. It’s here where the most popular Pintxos bars with the locals are too be found. Knowing where’s best to eat in San Sebastian can be tricky; I’d recommend a quick scout of the main streets and opting for whichever bar counter topped with food cries out to you the loudest.
Accommodation in Pamplona: Pamplona Plaza
Pamplona to Burgos
Between 6th and 14th July, this capital of the Navarre region is overrun with visitors who come to watch the running of the bulls during the festival of San Fermin; an event that Hemingway wrote about in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. The running of the bulls in Pamplona usually involves a group of people running through the historic streets of the city’s old town ahead of around six bulls. This year it ended in disaster for some.
Outside of this week, the old town is a charming cobweb of narrow, cobbled streets filled with beautiful buildings. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see much of Pamplona during our flying visit as the morning was spent in Pamplona’s hospital!
The journey form Pamplona to Burgos takes you through stunning scenery Spanish scenery that remain relatively unknown. The cool blues of the the pools in the National Park of Nacedero del Urederra are a well kept secret. The park woodland is interspersed with waterfalls and pools of an extremely bright blue; a colour that seems out of this world.
Stop for dinner in Logrono, for more fantastic tapas on Calle del Laurrel. On sunny summer evenings this street is buzzing and makes for a great place to hang our with locals and fellow travellers.
Accommodation in Burgos: Albergue La Fabrica -HIGHLY recommended
Burgos to Santiago de Compostela
A main stopping point on the Camino de Santiago, Burgos is a picturesque town in the middle of the Spanish countryside. Its cathedral was declared a world heritage site in 1984 and a large number of churches remain in the town. A river skirts the centre of the town which is stilled housed in ancient walls.
Leaving Burgos and heading for Léon, the capital of the province of Castille y Léon, you’re likely to see an increasing number of backpackers making their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela as they continue their chosen route on the Camino de Santiago.
There’s still a long way to go from Léon but fortunately there are many beautiful sights to break up the journey. Ones of these is Las Médulas, a historical site near the town of Ponferrada where you can see a sort of moon-like scenery of reddish rocks jutting up from the mountains. Listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site, Las Médulas were created by a mining technique used back in 77AD which involved undermining a mountain with large quantities of water. A small information centre and museum provide more information on this fascinating site.
Every Friday evening during summer at 7:30pm a mass takes place in Santiago de Compostella’s cathedral to a huge audience of people from all over the globe. This mass is different from many of the others and people usually attend to see the unique tradition of the Botafumerio. Meaning “smoke expellor” in Galician, the Botafumerio is a famous device in which incense is lit before being hoisted towards the ceiling and swung to great heights whilst lines are sung in Spanish. The Botafumerio in Santiago de Compostella is one of the largest of its kind in the world and weighs around 80kg. At the top of it’s swing the Botafumerio reaches 21 meters. Delicious, spicy incense smells and clouds of smoke fill the cathedral as everyone crowds together to watch.
Queues are extremely long during the summer period and we heard rumours of people queuing from midday to be in with a chance of attending the 7:30pm mass.
Top Tip: We waited half an hour before deciding to give up and find some dinner. We popped into the gift shop on our way past the Cathedral and managed to sneak in through the adjoining door with a few others to watch the mass and catch sight of the Botafumerio.
Accommodation in Santiago de Compostella: Hotel Exe Arena
Santiago de Compostella to Covadonga
Northern Spain is blessed with with varying landscapes. From the beautiful coastline to the rolling hills in the countryside and even mountains just 20km from the coast! The Picos mountains, or to give them their full name Los Picos d’Europa (the peaks of Europe), are a hiker and adventurers dream. The highest peak reaches 2,650 metres with many others around the 2,500 metre mark.
Covadonga, part of the Cangas de Onis municipality is situated in the Picos National Park and is a great base to stay for adventures in the Picos mountains.
The Covadonga lakes are renowned for being one of the most beautiful parts of the Picos. However, word of this has spread and the only way to reach them, at least in summer, is to take a tour bus up there as police close the road to cars. For this reason, imaging a packed lakeside, we gave the Covadonga lakes a miss and headed over to Fuenté De to take the cable car.
Roads in the Picos are windy and extremely narrow and even the smallest sounding of journeys will take a long time. Allow for this in your plans and enjoy the scenery stopping off for breaks every now and again as you travel through this stunning area of Spain.
The Cable Car at Fuenté De costs 15.50 Euros for a return ticket. Once up the top there are a number of walking trails to take and even a hotel to stay in. The views out over the mountains are spectacular on a sunny day, but remember to pack a lightweight fleece to keep you warm should the winds pick up.
Accommodation in Covadonga: Arcea Gran Hotel
Covadonga to Santander to Home
Santander has a huge port which sees arrivals from Portsmouth on the 24 hour ferry but is also home to a stretch of sandy beach. Before heading back home, take half a day to explore Santander’s castle and buzzing bar scene.
Accommodation in Santander: Santander Studios