Living in Girona and exploring the Costa Brava has been a delight, but there’s lots more to see elsewhere in Spain, a hell of a lot more. We’d been lucky enough over the years to have visited many places, but this time it was the northern regions we had a yearning for.
Yes, people say the weather can be a bit wetter and the Atlantic coast might feel a bit colder to swim in, but it’s high summer so let’s go. I’m not a great fan of long distance driving so we plan the trip in short stages, for me that’s driving about 300 kms or less each day.
With hindsight it was a trip we´ll remember for a while as it was done in the summer of 2019 pre-covid, so because of travel restrictions we did very little in the way of holidays for the following two years.
The timeline was two weeks and I’ll break it down below. The accommodation was a 50/50 mix of AirBnb´s and regular hotels. First stop was Zaragoza, about a 4 hour drive from Girona, for a one night hotel stay in the old town area. It’s a big city and a bit tricky to navigate but we arrived early in the evening.
For supper we head to a popular thoroughfare of bars and restaurants called El Tubo (the tube/pipe). It was super busy, it is August by the way, but we found a reasonable looking spot inside a place serving upmarket tapas.
The city has a grand cathedral and we enjoyed a stroll around the city’s more touristic old parts. The one night stay feels like enough, not a place to linger and we drive on towards San Sebastian, about 3 hours away.
Our route took us past Pamplona so we decided to stop for a brief look and lunch. This place is famous for its San Fermin bull run in mid July, which attracts over a million visitors and lasts several days. We wander into Cafe Iruna, a cavernous old mahogany clad place which we discover was a popular haunt of Ernest Hemingway.
Lunch over we take a stroll through nearby streets, we seem to be in the middle of what appears to be some kind of South American themed carnival. Numerous colourfully clad groups stream past a central avenue, some waving country flags that I don’t recognise, accompanied with music. It’s a nice surprise but we need to get going.
We reach San Sabastian by evening and enter via the wide sweep of its beach that’s La Concha (the shell). It’s a stunning looking view down below. The more mundane issue of parking is a different challenge that means the eventual parking spot is a 15 minute walk from our apartment.
We appear to be in close proximity to a few bars and proper sleep becomes nigh on impossible, as constant noise continues until the early hours. Our fault for arriving at the weekend. We’re in the Basque region of Spain and the architecture is different. There’s money here and it shows.
La Concha beach is bereft of any beachside bars, not something we are used to seeing. Our walk takes us to a promontory which is home to a famous sculpture ElPeine del Viento (the comb of the wind) by Eduardo Chillida. It’s actually a collection of three steel sculptures, each weighing over 9 tonnes, and an emblem of the city. If time allows there’s a funicular that takes you to a hilltop offering far reaching views of the coast.
Evening looms and we wander into San Sebastian’s busy centre. This is tapas or more to the point pintxos-central and we enjoy the local fare.
It’s a relatively short hop to our next port of call Bilbao, another centrally located bnb apartment. We´re met by the charming owner who also helps me find a parking spot nearby. Big cities, height of summer, tourist season equals parking hell. We hit the jackpot here, the apartment has the look of a New York loft with a wall mounted front-end of a motorbike, and all the mod cons.
The city is host to the world famous Gugenheim museum, which we visited the next day. Visually stunning inside and especially from the outside with its looming spider statue and a floral puppy by American artist Jeff Koons. It easily consumes a whole day.
Next stop is Santander, about 300 kms from Bilbao, the road follows the coastline and we decide to stop for lunch in Castro Urdiales. The streets here are busy and the place reminds me of a Cornish fishing village in the UK, not what I’m used to seeing on the Costa Brava.
On reaching the outskirts of Santander, first impressions are that it’s a bit industrial. Our Airbnb flat looked inviting from the indoor photos. Its outdoor location looks somewhat different-decidedly dodgy. Certain dodgy-looking characters loitering on street corners, it has the appearance of an area of social housing that begins to ring alarm bells. This over reaction however is proved unfounded.
Walking downhill towards the seafront we wander into a bustling bar area. The next day we devote the entire day to discovering the city. Santander extends up from the coast, so steep in places that there are outdoor escalators that help reach its upper regions.. It even has a funicular that we took downhill. The areas facing the coast have a more upmarket feel from where we were staying. We walked along the coast, stopping off for lunch at a former fire station.
Although the sandy outcrops look enticing, I’m not keen to jump into the sea.
Next stop westwards is the region of Asturias, much smaller, our destination is Oviedo, its regional capital. We passed through a constant green undulating landscape, very uplifting. Our hotel choice is a sprawling white behemoth of a place. Architecturally white and futuristic looking, a bit of a step up from the last place.
Oviedo’s quite big and appears busy, its downtown is a mix of old and new, the region is noted for its cider and Avenida de Sidra is where the action is. We watch as waiters pour it into a glass with left arms outstretched high, so cider pours feet away from the glass. We’re in the mood to try some.
On day two we take a 30 minute drive north to the coastal town of Gijon for a walkabout, a boat trip and of course the inevitable lunch stop, sardines this time and yes, more cider. The town is buzzing and just by the port there’s even a large sculpture made entirely from empty green cider bottles.
The final leg of our two week foray means we are taking a different route back to Girona, and stop at Burgos. Our hotel is a stone’s throw from its emblematic Saint Mary Cathedral. It’s quite a sight and seems to change different shades of colours as the sun pans across its mighty spires.
Full of old town charm, by evening the whole populace looks to be enjoying a ramble through tree lined avenues with plenty of culinary options. We pull up at a place with tall bar chairs and barrels for tables to enjoy a selection of local cheeses and dried cured hams. There’s no hairs and graces involved as fingers came first.
Next day we took the cathedral tour. It’s a real tourist draw but I’m finding the audio tour a bit heavy so skip a few bits. The famous El Cid who defeated the moors way back, is buried here. For us though the trump card is the Museum of Human Evolution, a high tech looking edifice that traces our Homo Sapien ancestors and more. I’m reminded that we are not a million miles away from the limestone caves of Atapuerca where important discoveries of early humans were made in the mid-1970’s.
The following day I’m faced with a 700 km hike back to Girona where we arrived back late. Nowadays we look back fondly at our road trip and vow to repeat the journey back to this Spanish region, to venture further west to include Galicia and maybe even southward into Portugal.