By Jimmy Mulvihill
In August 2015, my partner and I decided to travel around Northern Spain and Southern France over 16 days. We had the plan of trying to see as much of the Basque Country as possible with the least amount of driving, on as tight a budget as we could manage by using AirBnB and cheap hotel rooms for accommodation, whilst making sure that we didn’t allow these restrictions to limit what we got out of the holiday. That meant not staying in anywhere more than 15 minutes walk out of town, not staying anywhere that had less than a 4/5 rating online, not cooking during the whole trip (we were on holiday, after all) and not being rushed enough that we couldn’t enjoy the places that we visited.
We aimed to visit a mix of larger cities and smaller towns, and try to limit the driving to an average of 1 hour between locations. I was based in Valencia, she was based in Sevilla, so we met in Zaragoza, which has good transport links to both cities. For anyone looking to explore one of the finest and most diverse regions within Europe, here’s the route that we took that included some incredible cities and towns. At the end I have included the costs and statistics of the whole trip, as well as 10 tips and hints to allow you to get the most out of your trip, if you chose to visit the area.
Location 1 – Zaragoza
It’s best to book 2 days to fully explore the best parts of Zaragoza, which can easily be done on foot since the main historical centre is very compact, with it being possible to walk from one side of the main part of the city to the other in about 30 minutes. The city, Spain’s fifth biggest, contains one of Europe’s best Cathedrals, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, which was completed in 1754 and has free entry.
Zaragoza has a great mix of historic and traditional Spanish city culture along the banks of the River Ebro, the second longest river in Spain, balanced with a recently built modern part of the city that is linked to the city centre by a new tram network, which is able to provide substantial housing to the city’s growing population. As a result, Zaragoza has a great balance of being a fantastic place to visit, as well as a very practical city to live in.
It’s ideal to start exploring the Basque country from – even though it is actually in Aragon – for a few reasons. Firstly it has excellent connections to other Spanish cities, being only 75 minutes from Madrid and 90 minutes from Barcelona by train, which makes it a practical starting point. Accommodation in the city centre is cheap at about €40-€50 per night for a double room in a nice hotel, and there are extensive car hire depots that offer competative deals, which can really make a difference to the cost of the whole trip.
It’s a very cosmopolitan city, with over 700,000 residents in total, so if you are meeting someone to start your holiday here and they arrive late, there are plenty of things to occupy your time from such delays, including art galleries which include important works of art by Francisco Goya, one of Spain’s most important painters who was born in Fuendetodos, an hour drive away from Zaragoza, the Palacio de la Aljaferia, an Islamic Palace that is 1000 years old. There is loads of street art throughout the city centre that adds a vibrancy and youthful edge to it, and the cheap costs within the city also mean that you won’t eat into your budget too much if there are any delays.
Journey 1 – Zaragoza to Tudela: 86.3kms, journey time – 1 hour 1 minute.
Location 2: Tudela.
A small town of only 35,000 people, Tudela can easily be explored within a couple of hours at most. Apart from Tudela Cathedral, which is a national monument, and Plaza Vieja there is not too much to see in the city, but it’s well worth walking around the tight streets of the town centre which are packed with history, and are not touristy at all. There are still remnants of the damage that was done in the civil war on many walls within the town.
Even though we are barely into the Basque country, the area already has an extremely strong Basque identity, with the accent instantly and noticeably different, Basque cuisine in every restaurant, and flags supporting Basque Independence being proudly displayed throughout the town. Much of the historic city centre is car free, which makes it a pleasure to investigate on foot. It’s a tranquil and sleepy town that’s worth the visit, but it has limited options for restaurants and accommodation, and so it’s best combined with another city/town, of which there are many nearby.
Journey 2 – Tudela to Calahorra: 43.1kms, journey time – 35 minutes.
Location 3: Calahorra
A second new town of the day, (and third location in total), Calahorra is even smaller than Tudela at only 21,000 people, and it is separated into the ‘new’ and ‘old’ parts of town. All of the parking is in the new part, which is typical of any other small town in rural Spain and can be identified on a map by its grid-like formation. In this part of town the population is mainly Spanish, with the area being very practical in nature, with shops, lots of parking, schools, petrol stations, etc.
By contrast the old part of the town is on the top of a hill, with tight cobbled streets that are packed with history, tiny plazas and statues, but short on practicalities. Out of the 60 or so locations I have visited in Spain, the old part of Calahorra felt like no other. From what we heard barely any of the locals in this part spoke Spanish as a first language, with my partner and I hearing Kurdish, Iranian and even Yiddish at one point. There were multiple unofficial hand-written signs in Arabic too, and whilst there were no physical barriers between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ parts of town, there did seem to be a definite demographic and culture change between the different parts, with the old part of town having a gypsy-like feel to it. It would be easy to imagine people staying to their own parts of town.
The locals were friendly, but it did appear that they were not used to tourists visiting them, as could be deduced by the surprised expressions we met, which were followed shortly afterwards by curious waves. However, the town is easily traversed by tourists as the council has done a great job in signposting all of the important historical sites within the town accurately, with a detailed explanation about each one in English and Spanish which is both informative and interesting. In contrast to Tudela, and despite being nearer the Basque region this town had little evidence of a strong Basque culture, instead having a slight Turkish feel to it. Leave yourself 2 hours or so to explore the town, it’s worth it alone for the uniqueness and history that it offers, but it should be noted that people with limited mobility may find it difficult to get around, since there are steps everywhere.
Journey 3: Calahorra to Logroño: 48.3kms, journey time – 41 minutes.
Location 4: Logroño
Logroño is a must-visit if you like wine since it has perhaps the widest range and best quality on offer in Spain. The metropolitan area has nearly 200,000 people, and it felt like it since it is full of bustle. There is plenty of free parking right next to the city centre, and it is a stark architectural style to the previous towns, with the city almost having an American style in parts.
Head towards Calle del Laurel in the city centre and you’ll find about 50 small tapas bars within about 5 minutes walk of each other, with each being very distinct from each other. There was one, Bar Soriano, that only had one single item on the menu – mushrooms with garlic butter and a single prawn on the top – which was rammed to it’s capacity of about 60 people, with about 40 more ordering from outside. Instead of asking what you wanted, they asked “¿cuántos?” (How many?) If you love mushrooms, it genuinely offers the best that I have had in the whole of Spain, and for only €1 per serving.
Out of all of the locations we visited this one had the most intense culture for the locals having a specific “eating time.” We were located in a property backing onto Calle del Laurel, and at 7:30pm on a Saturday night the street was still empty, which gave us mixed feelings – on one hand it meant we could get a good rest, but it also meant that we may have a hard time finding things to occupy our time. Come 8pm and the street was half full, by 8:45pm the street was packed with about 1,200 people fitting into an area meant for half that. By 10:45pm we were worried that we would be kept awake all night with the partying, such was the volume, yet by 11:30pm the street was completely empty again; it’s worth remembering if you want to time your schedule to take in/avoid the crowds.
You will be able to see most of what Logroño has to offer within a day, including another fantastic cathedral. There are many smaller towns within commutable distance to the city that act as satellite towns to Logroño, so you can expect to find plenty of amenities that smaller towns usually lack, such as cinemas, theatres and a football stadium that has even played host to the Spanish national team in 2002 and 2011. It has a great balance between small town intimacy – we were only there for 24 hours but were already recognizing people that we had seen before in the street – and larger town amenities. The area has a great selection of restaurants, and should be a high priority for wine lovers.
Journey 4 – Logroño to Vitoria-Gasteiz: 65.7kms, journey time – 1 hour 8 minutes (Route 2, in grey)
Location 5 – Vitoria-Gasteiz.
Traditionally known as being the centre of the Basque Independence movement, and also the home of the Basque Parliament, Vitoria-Gasteiz was one of the highlights of the trip. In a way simular to Calahorra, but on a bigger scale, the city is divided into a ‘new’ and an old ‘part.’ On a practical note it is worth noting that in all of my time travelling around Spain I have never – ever – come across a city that is so car friendly! It has American style wide roads, more parking spaces than a city of this size would ever need, and there was no traffic at all while we were there. None. At all.
The traditional part of the city is based around not one, but two cathedrals, being one of the only cities with this distinction. Although the centre is on a hill, there are incline elevators to help people ascend and descend the changes in levels. While we were there the Centro-Museo Vasco de Arte Contemporáneo was free to enter and had loads of fantastic examples of Basque art and photography, which is highly recommended.
Try to stick to the very centre, around Plaza de la Virgen Blanca, as the suburbs are functional but uninteresting, but for a reason – they’re built with practicality and function in mind. The city is regularly voted as one of the best places to live in Spain, and it is easy to see why. On our stay of just over 24 hours we noticed how well planned it was; it was easily one of the cleanest cities I have ever visited, the new tram system is regular and quick, and it is known to be one of the regions of Spain with the best climate, with the high altitude giving cool summer nights and year round smatterings of rain. Out of all of the places we visited, the climate here felt much less typical of Spain.
At present a high-speed rail link, the Basque Y, is being built that will connect it with San Sebastian in 34 minutes, and Bilbao in 28 minutes in 2020. It will be easy to imagine the population – which is currently nearing 250,000 – rising substantially then, with there being no shortage of people who will want to live in a well planned, clean, practical place that is green, cool in the summer, full of history, with excellent transport links to other major cities. It was the most practical city by far that we saw, but it also had a lovely town centre, with plenty of historic buildings on a grand scale, and fantastic restaurants that were cheap. The area had a typical relaxed attitude to it, but head to the tightly packed Cuchillería Kalea and you’ll find an incredibly diverse range of expensive restaurants, cheap Russian bars – with one Soviet shopkeeper being disappointed that we turned down his offer of 16% beer, taking the “weak” 10% version instead – and street musicians. If you stayed here for a day you’d maybe see all you wanted to, stay for two days and you may start to repeat what you see.
Journey 5 – Vitoria-Gasteiz to Bilbao: 67.2kms: journey time – 1 hour 3 minutes.
Location 6 – Bilbao
Whilst it would be difficult to pick my favourite city of the trip, the one that offered the most was definitely Bilbao. It was easily the location that I could most easily imagine living in since it has everything that I – personally – would look for in a city.
It has a perfect blend of extensive history everywhere, with old promenades that you could walk for hours, whilst also looking to the future with the Guggenheim museum, cosmopolitan bars and modern shopping centres. It offers the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, which is free entry on Wednesday’s and €7 at other times, an extensive Metro system that is cheap and efficient that connects you to a wonderful beach in nearby Plentzia within 50 minutes, and a beautiful river the cuts through the city like a knife, which not only makes the climate cooler, but also gives an amazing sense of space within the very centre of the city. Despite being one of the bigger cities we visited, it felt much more intimate due to the well planned street layout.
Bilbao has one of the most successful football teams in Spain in Athletic Bilbao, who play in a stadium that holds over 53,000. The team is unique in that it only accepts players that have Basque heritage, which puts them at a huge disadvantage since not only is it more difficult for them to sign players (since relatively few players are Basque) , but also as clubs know that the club will be willing to pay more for Basque players since they have less to chose from. Despite this disadvantage they are the 4th most successful team in the country.
There are fantastic bars and restaurants in the historic Casco Viejo area of the city, many of which are cheap, lovely local parks and pretty fountains on street corners. Along with its own airport it is a city that provides you with all that you could possibly need to live in, and you should factor in at least 2 days to get the most out of it.
Journey 6 – Bilbao to Santander: 99.6kms, journey time – 1 hour 5 minutes.
Location 7 – Santander.
Being of Irish heritage, Santander reminds me of the Kerry and Cork coast on Ireland’s West Coast since the water is rough and choppy, it has a fierce wind, the coast is sharp and ragged, with the salt air being much more typical of the UK than you would ever expect in Spain. Much of the city was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1941, meaning it has less history than you would expect. The town also has a British feel to it in places, particularly in the architecture and the fauna which may be in part due to the historical local ferries, which have direct links to Portsmouth and Plymouth.
More examples of this were also in the funfairs that were dotted around town when we were there, and the lighthouse of Cabo Mayor which is more typical in Britain than in Spain. The nearly 180,000 residents of the town live on a very steep terrain which can be very difficult to traverse, but it is to be noted that there are tunnels that can be used that can turn a 55 minute walk into a 30 minute journey, depending on what part of town you decide to stay in, giving the opportunity of avoiding having to ascend and descend a 400 metre hill to continue your journey. Golfers who want to pit their skills against the elements will be happy to do so here since it has some of Spain’s best golf courses. It is also the birth place of Spain’s most successful ever golfer, Seve Ballesteros, who was born over the bay in Pedreña.
Our highlight of the city was definitely Museo de Prehistoria y Arqueologia de Cantabria, which was free when we arrived – the sign on the door said that it was €5 to enter, but upon pulling out our wallets on the Tuesday that we visited on we were waved through by the person on the door, free of charge – and it has loads of fantastic historical information about the area. It’s a fantastic way to kill a couple of hours, being both entertaining and educational, with information given in multiple languages.
We also visited the Palacio de la Magdalena which is where the Spanish Royal family would spend their summer vacations, although we did not go into the actual building as it was not open that day. Having spoke to others there this is apparently a regular occurrence; whereas on their website it is advertised as being open, upon turning up access is sometimes denied to the main building to many visitors. However, it’s free to visit the grounds of the building, and they are well worth checking out since they are really well kept.
This aside there is not too much to do in the city apart from walking around and taking in the views of the coast, and staying here for a day – or two at the most – will see you get the most out of the city. It is also worth noting that Santander is slightly out of the way of the rest of the trip, and that it may be more practical to visit this part of Spain while visiting Galicia, Gijon or Oviedo.
Journey 7 – Santander to Eibar: 142kms, journey time – 1 hour, 53 minutes.
Location 8 – Eibar
Having gone so far west, we now had a long journey ahead of us to head back east. Although it is a nice town, Eibar was the location that could easily be left out. With 28,000 people, the main reason we wanted to visit it was that we were curious to check out the smallest town in the whole of Spain to have ever had a football team in the Spanish top division, SD Eibar, as well a providing a place to rest on the long journey back from Santander.
Despite having a history going back to the 1300s ,the town is quite modern in style as it was extensively bombed during the Spanish Civil War – the local Basque government of the time was loyal to the Second Spanish Republic that was standing firm against General Franco, and the area was also home to factories that would provide the weapons to resist the Nationalistic uprising of the time, meaning Franco had both practical and ideological reasons to attack the town as a highest priority. The fall of local industry in the 1980s meant a dramatic loss drop in population from it’s peak of well over 40,000, and as a result the city does have a sense of fallen glory about it.
The two points that stuck out to me here were, firstly, that the town is located in a valley with many hills in it, and the local council has counteracted this by installing escalators and inclined moving walkways everywhere, which is practical but it also creates quite a disjointed feel within the town. However, we mainly wanted to see the town so that we had an idea in our head for reference when we saw the local team playing on the TV, and in this respect it did not disappoint as I would estimate, without exaggeration, that a quarter of every single property within the town had a flag supporting the local football team on show.
All of the children in the streets had SD Eibar football tops on, with no exceptions, and there was not a single Barcelona or Real Madrid reference in the whole city, even in the local sports shop, which is unheard of in a country where over 70% of people support “the big two”. We are glad that we went there; it showed us another side of Spain we had not seen in other areas, but it’s also worth noting that unless you are interested in the football team, or unless you are looking for somewhere to break up a long journey, it is debatable as to whether you will get too much out of this town. It’s a nice town, but then there are plenty of nice towns in Spain.
Journey 8 – Eibar to Azpetia: 24.8kms, journey time – 32 minutes.
Location 9 – Azpetia.
Now it’s time for a confession: we didn’t actually mean to visit this location. On the way from Eibar to Zarautz we took a wrong turn, as you can see on the map above in the sharp turn half way through the journey. However, it was the best mistake that we could have made as this little town was incredible.
It was the birthplace to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who later was the founder of The Society of Jesus, the evangelization and apostolic ministry that had over 30,000 priests at it’s peak. The current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is the first ever Jesuit Pope, so for this alone the location is worth visiting if you are religious or interested in religious history. The town is geographically spread out far for it’s 13,000 population, with it taking about 50 minutes to walk from one end to the other, and it had a strong “Swiss Alps” feel about it. Be warned though, there are barely any shops or restaurants, so apart from looking at the wonderful old buildings, churches and spectacular mountains there is not much else to do here.
However, with such great views there is not much need for anything else. It’s a great place to spend a couple of hours walking around. It’s calm and serene, there is a scent of flowers in the air, even on the main road you can hear a pin drop most of the time as it is so quiet, and it was a lovely contrast to many of the other bustling cities that we encountered along the way. Parking was easy, the locals were friendly, and it had some amazing buildings within it.
Journey 9 – Azpetia to Zarautz: 23.2kms, journey time – 32 minutes.
Location 10 – Zarautz.
We continued to Zarautz, and it is as typical a Spanish beach town as you could imagine. A population of 22,000 swells to 60,000 in the summer, and when we were there they were trying to cling onto the last of the summer tourists with beach sculptures, a Basque musical band in the town centre and a packed beach to welcome us, which is one of the longest in the Basque region. It had nice bars and restaurants and a lovely well maintained walk along the beach that can occupy just over an hour on it’s return journey, with plenty of places to sit and rest along the way that offered a great opportunity to grab a great view.
It has the typical beach-town trade off: in the summer you won’t have to put up with the increased prices or the longer queues, but then you’ll also have less of the activities that are provided for the summer trade. If you want an active holiday then visit in the summer, if you want a quiet stay on a nice beach visit out of the tourist season. Either way, it is well worth seeing if you can, and can easily be exhausted in a days-worth of investigation, or can provide a longer stay if you fancy a beach holiday.
Journey 10 – Zarautz to San Sebastian: 25.9kms, journey time – 36 minutes.
Location 11 – San Sebastian.
San Sebastian manages to best encapsulate the combination between French, Spanish and English coastal towns of all of the locations we visited, so much so that its Spanish influences are relegated to 3rd place. The cathedral, opened in 1897, is an incredible example of Neo-Gothic construction and typical of many Spanish cathedrals, but the beach is typically Northern European with water that is far too choppy and full of turmoil to be representative of what most people associate with Spain. The lack of Spanish identity is not helped by the fact that relatively few restaurants and bars have signs in Spanish, with most of them preferring Basque or English instead.
The Basque region is known for its pincho food, which is an open sandwich of a slice of bread with a topping on it, and San Sebastian excelled with it’s offerings. Write off a few extra euros and indulge yourself here, since there are few better areas to taste such great food on the north coast. That said, the area is at least 30% more expensive than any other part of our journey in Spain; whereas in all other areas we were able to sneak in a few cheap drinks and snacks, in San Sebastian it was impossible to find anywhere that was “cheap and cheerful”.
However, the area has lots of free activities on offer, including climbing up to the top of the historical fort that offers fantastic views over the whole bay, as well as being a great physical workout. There is a fascinating free San Telmo museum nearby which gives a great history of the city and surrounding area, and there are also many battle fortresses in place that allow you to easily understand the ideal strategical position that the city once held. By ascending the hill that dominates the area you not only learn about why a city would be advantageous in such a location, moreso you see how it was impossible for one to not spring up here.
We stayed a short journey out of the city – about 8 minutes by metro in Añorga – and whilst it was cheap and easy to get into and out of town while the Metro is running, (with the last trains running at just past 22:00) it is also quite deserted. We decided to walk back to our accommodation one night and had a period of over 40 minutes where we did not cross one business at all – all of the shops are centred in San Sebastian itself, with the entire outskirts of town being completely residential. Completely. Whilst it is safe and practical, it does have a bit of a middle-class American suburbs feel about it, with nothing to break up the monotony of house, after house, after house, after house……..
The city centre easily makes up for this, with a great night life for its 190,000 residents (with 435,000 in the Metropolitan area), albeit at a higher cost. All sectors of society were catered for, with rock bars, vegan restaurants, tattoo parlours, middle and upper class restaurants with meals that would cost us more than what we paid for 2 weeks of car hire, and cheaper pubs filled with locals. It had something for everyone, within a tight stretch of city that can be crossed in 30 minutes of walking.
However it is well worth the cost as the narrow streets that occupy the main part of town are packed with history and culture, especially around the docks. If you want an education into the struggle for Basque independence you are going to get it here, whether you want to or not, since there are signs everywhere that go into great detail of the historical differences the Basque people have had with the Spanish government, which really helped up to get a good feel for the area and the people within it.
Journey 11 – San Sebastian to Hondarribia: 21.3kms, journey time – 27 minutes.
Location 12 – Hondarribia.
Hondarribia is located on the border of France and Spain, yet it feels like neither. Many of the buildings are in a mock-tudor style that would feel more at home in commuter-belt Essex, and the accent from the locals here is at times ‘mangled, between French and Spanish’ but it’s a lovely example of a typically Basque town, with less than 17,000 people living here.
The beach is nice and but small, and if you head to the main centre of the town that holds less than 17,000 you will find some fantastic bakeries that sell Basque Cakes for less than €1.50, which are typical British in style with a pastry crust, and a cherry or apple filling. One pie is enough for 4 small servings, or 2 large ones. (Or in my case, one huge one while listening to the cricket on my phone…..)
It is a typical retirement village, perfect if you want local shops to laze about it, less so if you are looking for busy nightlife. The bay that you look at opposite is in France, with boat trips between the two. It is perfectly located very close to San Sebastian Airport, so if you have a flight from here it is a must to visit this town since it is so near. In fact many people seemed to have parked in the town and walked to the airport, it is that near.
Journey 12 – Hondarribia to Saint-Jean-De-Luz: 19.6kms, journey time – 28 minutes.
Location 13 – Saint-Jean-De-Luz.
I would have thought that there would be a gentle easing into the ‘French way of life’ upon crossing the border, with the fade between Spain and France being gradual; where you would be given time to get used to the change in culture. But no, it is as stark and sharp a culture change as you can imagine. One minute the streets are typically Basque in culture and style and suddenly **bang**, it’s as French as you can imagine.
It’s worth noting that there are long traffic jams while travelling from Spain to France due to the fact that in Spain the tax on petrol/gas is so much less than in France, which leads to many French citizens popping over the border to fill up their tanks. If you are running low yourself, best to stock up well inland since the wait at these petrol stations can be long, with there even being food stalls set up to capitalise on the wait. The prices were also a bit more expensive than other Spanish petrol stations.
Even though it is only 16kms away from Hondarribia it feels a world away: many of shop windows seem to be running a competition for “World’s Most French Window Display,” but this is great as it means that you really get to experience the diversity that Europe has to offer. The town is based around the docks, so as you can imagine the seafood is great – we had the best seafood of the entire trip here – although it was much more expensive than Spain, at about 50% more in price. However, seeing as we can still remember the meal that we had months later, it was well worth it.
The 14,000 locals are happy enough with the tourists, seemingly content to trade the extra traffic and language barriers with the extra income that they bring in, and there is plenty to see for free by walking around the docks. It’s best to spend a day here to get the most out of the area. If you arrive on a weekend, as we did, Chez Renauld in the centre of the town is a huge warehouse that houses many different bars and food stalls within it, as well as many more attractions, and there were even skate boarders who had commandeered a corner for themselves. It’s a magnet for many of the locals, both young and old, and the town also seems to attract many from neighboring towns too. It is the main source of excitement within a lazy town that has painters selling their paintings, acoustic buskers and bookshops, alongside other sedentary businesses such as cafes and tearooms.
Links to more information about Saint-Jean-De-Luz.
Lonely Planet link.
Trip Advisor link.
Journey 13 – Saint-Jean-De-Luz to Biarritz: 17.8kms, journey time – 25 minutes.
Location 14 – Biarritz.
It’s only a short drive up the coast to see Biarritz, but it’s another stark contrast. if you are familiar with Brighton in the United Kingdom it is the easiest comparison to make, since it is largely a pavilion town that is based around the sea front, and it has fantastic historical architecture that showcases the best of the fortunate natural position that it occupies.
The area is very middle-class French/British in feel, with surf shacks, shops selling loose tea-leaf, bespoke sandle outlets and tea rooms where many other towns would have cheap bars. As with all of our experiences in Southern France it is more expensive than Spain, but there is still plenty to do without spending money, such as exploring the many beaches and small back streets of the area, indoor markets and churches. The town is home to 25,000 residents, and it is easy to imagine it swelling on the weekends.
It’s a magnet for surf-boarders, having some incredibly big waves at times, and this is represented in the shops and accommodation within the area, where surf boards, surf wax and surf t-shirts were being heavily promoted, while there are more hostels in the area than in the other areas of France that we visited, that were mainly aimed at the surfing market.
We decided to park about 30 minutes outside of the main city (parking next to the local rugby teams stadium) as we had read that parking space is at a premium in the centre, and we were glad we did as many drivers seemed to be frantically looking for spaces. The walk into town was pleasant though and gave us a chance to see some great architecture.
Journey 14 – Biarritz to Bayonne: 8.2kms, Journey time – 14 minutes.
Location 15 – Bayonne.
Another short journey up the coast and we hit Bayonne, which is really a small city that Biarritz is an extension of. With 45,000 residents it actually feels like a large town, and it is also a hub for many of the other nearby towns as well. Architecture wise it is quite similar to Amsterdam, mainly due to the canal-like river that runs through the centre, but the shops are unmistakably French. Bayonne has the strongest tradition of bull-fighting within the region, with an arena that can hold more than 10,000 people. Although we only stayed one night it was enough to get a nice feel for the city, and if you only had a few hours you could still easily get a good impression of what the town offers.
The Cathedral is one of the nicest ones that we saw, but there wasn’t too much in the way of night time entertainment in the area that we could see, with most of the streets being filled with day-cafes and upmarket restaurants. We managed to find an Irish bar that a healthy population of people between the ages of 18-30 had gravitated to, with there being a healthy mix of locals and foreign students, many of which were from English speaking countries. The area does have more chain-stores than in most other locations that we visited, but it was still possible to find many great independent businesses. It is to be noted that if you stick to the main city centre much of it is functional and aimed at the tourist market, instead of having shops aimed at locals, but there are still nice cobbled streets to walk, and some lovely bridges and architecture.
Journey 15 – Bayonne to Pamplona: 102 kms, journey time – 1 hour 47 minutes.
Location 16 – Pamplona.
Most people only come to Pamplona to see The Running of the Bulls, where bulls of about 600kgs are released into the city streets while hardy – and in many cases idiotic – people run alongside them for fun, but Pamplona is also a fantastic place to visit at other times of of the year too. For a start the town is very practical: the main centre of the town can be walked in about 20 minutes from one side to the other, yet it’s also intricate enough to keep you occupied for many hours if you are a fan of walking aimlessly around cobbled streets, which my partner and I are.
The city is built upon a hill, which means that you get to trade sore legs for fantastic views, and it is again unofficially segregated into the new and old parts of town, with the River Arga acting as chief-divider. It has a fantastic old fort at the top of the hill, and loads of historic and culturally rewarding buildings within the packed city centre. It also has a great mix of cosmopolitan and trendy city life, with classic tapas and trendy wine bars happily living side by side. We stayed here for 2 days and felt that this was a perfect duration to visit.
The Citidel is not only an important historical monument but also a nice way to spend 60 minutes of walking , with many of Pamplona’s residents using the adjoining park as an ideal venue to walk their dogs. It is a University town, with 12,000 students at the University of Navarre which is widely acknowledged as being the best private university within Spain, with another 4,000 attending UNED.
Most of the Spanish cities that we visited in the Basque region have a very strong independence movement, but Pamplona also has a very strong rebellious side to it also, with lots of political posters and demonstrations, much of which was openly hostile, aggressive and dangerously close to being threatening to the main political parties, with political prisoners being hailed as heroes. However, it’s also worth noting that the town felt safe, and the locals were most welcoming.
Pamplona is copying the approach of many other Spanish cities of trying to juggle preserving their culture and identity within the centre of the city, with also building huge developments of new homes on the outskirts of the city that the developers are keen to sell, yet at present they do seem to be lacking in demand for these new homes. If these new developments take hold – and lets hope that they do – the residents that join the 190,000 that already live in Pamplona will be lucky to inherit a fantastic city to call home.
Journey 16 – Pamplona to Huesca: 165kms, journey time – 2 hours 8 minutes.
Location 17 – Huesca.
The last stop before going back to Zaragoza, and Huesca is as typical of any of the inland towns that we visited as you could imagine. Built on a hill? Check. Historic buildings on the top of the hill, practical and functional part of town at the bottom of the hill? Check. Cathedral? Check. Cafes closing 5 minutes outside of usual Spanish eating habits? Check-check.
Huesca is the smallest provincial capital in Spain, and if you didn’t know that it would be a surprise that it houses a governmental building at all. Despite it being a central hub for the region it has a feel of being a rural town, but a welcoming and interesting one all the same. The train station is almost apologetically pushed to the side of the city, with it not even having a through service, instead it has a single entry and exit along the same path.
The city is famously mentioned in George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia“, where he wrote:
“In mid February we left Monte Oscuro and were sent, together with all the P.O.U.M. troops in this sector, to make a part of the army besieging Huesca. It was a fifty-mile lorry journey across the wintry plain, where the clipped vines were not yet budding and the blades of the winter barley were just poking through the lumpy soil. Four kilometres from our new trenches Huesca glittered small and clear like a city of dolls’ houses. Months earlier, when Sietamo was taken, the general commanding the Government troops had said gaily: ‘Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca.’ It turned out that he was mistaken. There had been bloody attacks, but the town did not fall, and ‘Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca’ had become a standing joke throughout the army. If I ever go back to Spain I shall make a point of having a cup of coffee in Huesca.”
In keeping with this, we took the same approach – a walk around town, a nice meal, and a coffee to prepare us for the final journey of the trip back to Zaragoza, where our trip would end. The feast of San Lorenzo was being celebrated while we were there, with the locals all gathering in many of the small plazas available to them, and there was a procession which started from Huesca Cathedral, located on the top of a hill, which then snaked its way through the narrow streets of town.
Depending on where you stay in the city, which has 52,000 residents, there are amazing views of snow topped Sierra de Guara mountains that surround the area, and there is also a passionate following of the local football team SD Huesca, with many football tops and flags being spotted in the area. Huesca is not a satellite town to a city, as many smaller Spanish towns are, but a hub in it’s own right. It definitely feels like an actual town rather than a resort; although there is enough to attract day trippers to the area, at most you should need no more than 3 hours to explore it, but if you do get a chance to stay overnight it has charming bars and restaurants that offer good food at cheap rates.
Journey 17 – Huesca to Zaragoza: 74kms, journey time – 49 minutes.
Total locations visited: 17
Total distance travelled: 1036.2kms
Average distance per journey: 60.94 kms.
Total time travelling: 15 hours, 28 minutes.
Average time between locations: 55 minutes.
Cost of fuel: €74.
Cost of car hire for 16 days:€342
Total cost of transport = €416.
10 tips and hints to help you when exploring the region.
1 – If you are travelling by car and need somewhere to park overnight, try to look for a sports stadium if there is no sporting event on that day. They usually offer parking that can accommodate hundreds, and sometimes thousands of people, they are empty 99% of the time, and the parking is usually free. We did this throughout the whole trip, and as a result we spent only €1.50 in total on parking, over 16 days.
2 – If you set your GPS to avoid toll roads it can increase the distance you travel slightly, but the time taken to complete the journey usually stays the same since you don’t need to slow down and queue to pay the road charges. The non-toll roads are still quite busy though, although less busy than the main highways. If you intend to stick to the highway, check the prices before you go as some of the fees are quite high, with some as much as €12 for a single stretch of road, with the price rising every year in some areas.
3 – We found the weather to be extremely unpredictable from city to city, despite it being the first 2 weeks of August. It was raining in Pamplona, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Santander, and for the entire time that we were in France, yet there was gorgeous sunny weather in Bilbao and Huesca. From the people that we spoke to the weather in the region is less predictable than in other areas, so bring both a raincoat and umbrella, and sunglasses and sun-tan lotion to make sure that you are prepared for either eventuality.
4 – If a certain area is heavily promoting a certain type of food , try it! In many cases it’s because it is a specialty of the area, and it’s usually a specialty for a reason. Whether it was Migas De Pastor in Tudela, Egg Pinchos in San Sebastian, Basque Cakes in Hondarribia or Steamed Clams in St Jean De Luz, the best food was always the food that they were proudest to promote the most.
5 – Even if you are fluent in Spanish, there were times that we met people working in bars or restaurants that either couldn’t speak Spanish, or that were adamant that they were not going to! There were occasions when a question would be asked in Spanish, but the reply would come back in English. If it happens it may be more for their benefit rather than yours, as a proud sign of their separatist leanings, so feel free to converse in English if this happens, unless you understand and can speak Basque.
6 – As a general rule, if you are looking for the oldest and most authentic bars and restaurants, try to look on the map for where the roads are packed the tightest and the most chaotic in layout, as this is usually where the oldest and most traditional parts of town are. The more organised the map looks, the newer that part of town usually is. Pedestrianized roads are particularly fertile for nice bars, since they will usually have the most outdoor space which are popular with the Spanish in hot weather. If you ever see a map with lots of roads nearby each other that have a similar curve to them, more often than not this part of town will be on a hill, with the curved roads matching the curves of the hill. Head to the part of the map that the curves are most tightly packed, especially if there is an open square at the top, as many of the cities have the oldest churches built on the top of the hill, which afford the best views.
7 – If you are on a budget or rushed on time and want some good food quickly at lunch time, see if there is a University nearby. In most cases the cafes nearby will have cheaper offers for the students, with the service being quicker than usual so that they can fit in more customers. The opening times are also a lot more flexible during lunch, since these cafes and restaurants close at 5pm, and so will open all day until then. Going to tourist bars may mean you pay more for food that is not as good, and going to local bars can be fantastic and well priced. but the opening times may be unpredictable.
8 – A great way to save money while travelling is to visit churches and historical city centres. The vast majority of churches are free to enter, and many of them are hundreds of years old and incredible architectural gems. The historical town centres will usually also have information in different languages as provided by the council, which can be a great way to learn the local history.
9 – Unless you have extremely passionate views on bull-fighting and are happy to debate them, it maybe best to not talk about it as many locals have strong views on it, both for and against it. You might think that it is polite small talk to compliment them on the bull fighting arena, but if you chose to mention it to someone who is passionately in favour of it they may misinterpret it as you having a passion for it as well, or if you pick an anti bull-fighting protester then you could find yourself being lectured as to the evils of the activity. If you fancy small talk stick to places to see, food and other topics. Asking them about bull-fighting is akin to asking an English person who they voted for at the last election: best left to when you know someone better.
10 – Try to leave at least an hour of extra driving time between journeys, to allow yourself the opportunity to visit a town you come across on the way, to stop in the countryside to marvel at the vistas (of which there are many) and to have short stops at picturesque family cafes. It is impossible to underestimate how many great small villages there are in Spain, and whilst they may not be worth a journey in themselves, there are many that are well worth a 30 minute stop within.