Aside from getting yourself a good paper map of the region, my most important piece of advice for road tripping through Northern Spain is;
Stay off the toll roads!
Each time we took the smaller road on the map we encountered the most intriguing sites and made the most triumphant discoveries. Having a car at your disposal really allows you to get further out into the countryside - experiencing magical natural sites like haunted caves and some fascinating historical features including an abandoned hill top village.
This 1,200 kilometer route covers just a small section of Spain and is just be enough to just give you a taste of the diverse regions of Basque Country, Navarra, Aragón, and Catalonia.
- Bring a map, sense of adventure, and avoid the toll roads.
- If you get claustrophobic in tunnels, do whatever you need to (provided you're not the driver) to prepare for some very long underground tunnels complete with emergency rooms to flee to in case of disaster.
- Be aware that although both subtle and drastic language changes will await you as you travel, different kinds of verbal communication like the "baaa" of a sheep will remain a good constant.
- Friendly folks throughout the region will happily do all they can to meet your needs, going so far as to drive into the "big city" to prepare for your arrival with gluten free bread products. All of the hotels which didn't have in-room refrigerators also kindly refrigerated our foods.
- All the lodging recommendations I've provided below provided relatively reliable wireless internet access without any extra charge.
- Many of the hotels below offer top floor rooms with balconies for just a few euros more than a standard room. If it's an option, pay the extra - it's worth it.
- If you're looking to add a few more days into your trip, spend them in Cadaqués.
Day 1: Hondarribia to San Sebastián
A journalist cousin of mine sold me on a stop in Hondarriba with the following e-mail;
"Hondarribia, a small beach town near the French/Spanish border north of San Sebastian where, if money were no object and I could get the family to move, I would move in a heartbeat."
With a golden sandy beach, walkable waterfront, and plethora of edible gardens around town - I absolutely understand the appeal of Hondarribia.
Upon arriving in San Sebastián, stay at Hotel Codina and ask for a top level balcony room. The views over the bay and the extra large patio make paying the slightly higher rate worth it.
Days 2-4: San Sebastián
If you ask me to recommend just one place to go in Northern Spain, a place that will please all types of travelers, San Sebastián would be it.
Day 5: San Sebastián to Bilbao
Instead of driving the short distance between these two great Basque cities via the main motorway - we took the very long scenic route along the coast. Passing by the surf towns of Getaria, Zarautz, and even finding our way to a vista overlooking San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
Day 6: Parque Natural de Gorbeia
An easy day trip from Bilbao, a hike into the Itxina Massif is full of fairytale magic with over 500 caves, jagged limestone cliffs and labyrinths, beech forests, and stone huts.
Day 7: Bilbao to Ordoki
Meander through small Basque cities like Balmaseda, appreciating their lengthy history, on your way towards Navarra. Just south of the French boarder, surrounded by horses the Hotel Señorío De Ursua makes a great base for the next day's hiking adventure.
Day 8: Frontier Views Hike
Take a hike through pastures of wild Basque ponies up to ridge tops overlooking both France and Spain.
Day 9: Ordoki to Salardu
One of the longest drives of the trip, drive south to Pamplona for lunch and follow the roads east through the Aragón region. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for crumbling hilltop towns, like Esco, and stone castles on seemingly impossible mountain tops.
A great place to put your head down for the night is Hotel Deth Pais. Snag a room with a balcony and keep your eye out for lightening storms which light up the whole valley.
Day 10: Salardu to Cadaqués
Wind your way out of the Pyrennes, through the town of Figueres (where you'll find the Dalí Theatre and Museum), and over the mountains of Parc Natural Cap de Creus for a few days of relaxation.
Park your car at Hotel Llane Petit and reserve a top floor balcony room to spend the next few days enjoying the area by foot.
Day 11-12: Cadaqués
Spend at least one day just wandering around the old streets of Cadaqués, perhaps another walking all the way over to Port Lligat - where you'll find the Casa-Museo Salvador Dalí. With the views, beaches, and overall relaxing vibe - Cadaqués is an easy place to extend your trip.
Day 13: Cadaqués to Barcelona
It's a relatively short drive along motorway from Cadaqués to Barcelona and when you get there, you may as well drop your car and use public transit to avoid city driving. If you'd like to avoid La Rambla but still stay within walking distance, try the Cram L'Hotel. The rooms are upscale but funky with their circular shape but the roof deck is the real prize. With sweeping views around the city, the deck and roof top pool make for the perfect escape for us non-city folks.
Day 14: Barcelona
While it may not have been my favorite city, it still merits at least a day of wandering through Park Guell and marveling at the ancient Roman walls. It's easy to get overwhelmed in this packed city - so don't feel bad about retreating back up to your roof deck with a prize of american style tortilla chips and salsa from one of the supermarkets to relax. It's one of my favorite memories from my time in Spain.