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Help with itinerary for Northern Spain, 12 days in Sept 2020

We will be in Northern Spain (flying in and out from Bilbao) for 12 days, during the second half of September 2020. We are a couple in our lower 70s and like a combination of sightseeing in old towns, museums and architecture, festivals and local markets; we love nature and nice vistas.
While we are no longer hikers, we love easy walks. We don’t like to sit for hours on a beach, just have a walk and admire the scenery and surroundings. We are not into wine tasting; we would like a “taste” of everything else I mentioned above, but without trying to run around to be able to say that "we have seen it all”. We like to taste local food but eating doesn’t drive our destination.

We will rent a car, to allow us to move easily from place to place, but without spending the day driving.

We would like to include one mountainous area if it makes sense, maybe the Navarrean Pyrenees (Auritz, Roncal, etc.) OR parts of Picos de Europa. The later seems to be easier to integrate. We would like to avoid one lane, difficult roads (lots of hairpin turns).
Ideally we would love to stay in a max of 3-4 places during our trip, do a roundtrip if possible, with day trips from the places where we will stay. We would like to avoid backtracking as much as possible and include as many local specific attractions as possible.
I looked at regions in the North and there is a LOT to see. We will not be able to see everything that appears to be interesting for us. Obviously we have to also take into account the weather in September.

Based on high level info I gathered, I came up with some potential itineraries, listed below. Locations in parentheses might be optional. Based on Google’s estimates it appears that both tentative itineraries STARTING on DAY 4 would require an average of 2-3 h driving/day if everything was included as listed OR about 1h 45 min - 2 h without the “optional” locations.

I’d appreciate your feedback and suggestions regarding the itineraries, what to take out/replace, locations for the night stop-overs, what to include in each day starting with Day 4. Thanks in advance.

Itinerary 1

Day 1 - Bilbao
Day 2 - Bilbao, maybe a drive to Lekeitio or Mundaka
Day 3 - day trip to San Sebastian; probably could not include Hondarribia
Day 4 - start the roundtrip (9 days)
Bilbao- Vitoria- Pamplona-Olite- (Bardenas Reales)- Logrono-Laguardia - Santo Domingo de la Calzada- (San Milan de la Cogolia) - Burgos- Leon- (Astorga) - Riano - Oviedo- Cangas de Onis- Cabrales- (Poncebos) - Comillas- Santilana del mar- Santander - Laredo - Castro Urdiales - Bilbao.

Itinerary 2

Day 1 - Bilbao
Day 2 - Bilbao, maybe a drive to Lekeitio or Mundaka
Day 3 - day trip to San Sebastian; probably could not include Hondarribia
Day 4 - start the roundtrip (9 days)

Bilbao- Vitoria- Pamplona-Olite- (Bardenas Reales)- Logrodo-Laguardia - Santo Domingo de la Calzada- (San Milan de la Cogolia) - Burgos- Leon- (Astorga) - Riano - Cangas de Onis- Bulnes- Fuente De- Potes- Lebena- La Hermida- Santander- Laredo - Castro Urdiales - Bilbao.

I am sure that many more variations could exist, but one has to start someplace. Many places on these itineraries probably deserve days - which we don’t have. So we probably will need to cut out some of the listed locations. I don’t know which ones.

The above might be overly ambitious. Also I do not know which places on these itineraries would be the best ones for night stops. We would like to stay in locations that are not very expensive, places that have parking and would allow us to have a good night sleep, but we are not looking for hostels.

Thanks again.

Posted by
2534 posts

I just feel like you’re running from town to town without really visiting them. I notice that you’re considering visiting Fuente De. The drive there through the gorge cut by the river is marvelous. I stayed at the parador de Fuente De which I would advise doing. Take the cable car to the top of the mountain for awe inspiring views. If you drive from the coast on the N-621, stop at the Centro de Interpretación de Los Picos de Europa - a free museum explaining the area.

Posted by
15 posts

Thanks for the quick reply and the suggestion. How is the driving to the gorge? I am trying to avoid "scary" drives (lots of switch backs, narrow roads with many impatient drivers)....

I will have to "streamline" the plan, it is just very hard for a lot more detailed info... All of these places look very interesting. based on what I listed as interests, if you were in my shows, what would you take out (if you are familiar with the locations I listed)?

Posted by
86 posts

We stayed in the small town of Geteria which is between Bilbao and San Sebastian. We loved it! Great food, nice walks and we made easy day trips to other locations. The fashion designer Balenciaga was born in Geteria and there's a wonderful museum of his designs and fashions. Unlike Lekeitio (about 45 minutes away) the only tourists seemed to be other Spaniards.

Posted by
2869 posts

Looks like a nice trip. I haven’t been to all the towns you listed, but you are correct, places like Burgos and Leon deserve more time. A couple miles outside of Burgos is Cartuja de Miraflores that’s worth a couple hours visit. Near Congas de Onis is the Santuary of Covadonga. It’s in the mountains. There is free parking at the top, by the church. Astorga is worth visiting and has a couple sights, cathedral and Episcopal palace, many people visit. The man plaza is small. There is a large, free, parking lot below the cathedral, so you won’t need to drive in town. There isn’t much in San Domingo de la Calzada. It’s a small sleepy town and we enjoyed our stay there. As someone else mentioned, Getaria is a nice fishing village, and a few kilometers from it is Zumaia with the flysch rock formations and a small hermitage. If you’ve never been to Santillana Del Mar it’s very much worth visiting. As somebody else mentioned, Paradors are nice places to stay, there are paradors in some of the places you intend on visiting. www.parador.es/en. It has a friends of the Paradors program that is free to join. You can earn points for future stays, you’ll get a free breakfast the first time you reserve through its website, and you’ll enjoy a free beverage (beer, wine, or soda) every time you check in at a parador. It also has Golden Days prices for those over 55. Generally speaking, you’ll get the room and breakfast for what the room alone would cost. Anyway, it’s worth looking into. As far as driving, for most of the places you intend on visiting, the roads will mostly be 2-lanes. Along the coast and in the mountains there are some twists and turns but none that are nerve rattling. Further inland they will still be 2-lanes, but straighter. In many places there will be very little traffic. Stay close to the speed limit as there are a lot of speed cameras on the rural roads. If you have any questions you can send me a private message. We drove that area in 2017 and on most days we kept driving to about 2 hours a day.

Posted by
973 posts

Hi Steu,
First, Northern Spain is so wonderful. We were there at the end of the summer 2019 for a month and visited many of the places you mention, and yes, it is going to be hard to choose. 12 days is simply not that much time for what you hope to do.
I think driving distances are deceptive, and if you are committed to staying in 3-4 places and day-tripping, you will be in the car a lot. For example, day-tripping to San Seb from Bilbao will take almost 3 hours round trip. I agree that adding Hondarribia is too much for one day
There are many places on your list that overlap in 'kind'. Many of the coastal towns are similar, and so unless there is a specific site you are interested in near one place, you will find joy in any of them (Castro Urdiales, Comillas, Lekeitio, Mundaka, etc). They vary in flavor. One thing I did to choose which we visited was google map each place and then zoom-in using the satellite feature and get a sense of the place. Did I want to stay there or would it be 'just' a drive through lunch-stop?
We drove from Bilbao west to Santillana del Mar, and from there along the coast road through Comillas and San Vincente Barquera. The coast road was lovely (though slower than the freeway obviously) and we were able to 'see' these places and get a sense of them, although we had chosen not to visit.
We did go to Potes and Fuente De (the cable car ride - which we very much enjoyed - and we did some hiking once we were at the top), for a day, and the road there from the coast is indeed two lanes and winding. People do drive slower here - I think it took us 90 minutes from the coast to Potes and another 30 to Fuente De - although we are familiar with mountain driving so may have gone a bit faster than average. At the end of that day we drove to Cangas de Onis - which, if I remember, was another 90 minutes - stopping for dinner in Las Arenas. We stayed just outside Cangas for 2 nights and did visit the basilica and the lakes, and I highly recommend these! We also visited Oviedo for a day and would have liked more time (we left Congas early in the morning, spent the day in Oviedo, and then drove in the late afternoon to our next destination along the coast west of Gijon (we were headed all the way west to Santiago de Compostela).
We also visited Léon for one day and one night and in our whole trip, the cathedral there was the most gob-smackingly wonderful. We then went to Burgos and spent two nights there and loved it; just the walking around but also a monastery on the edge of town (the cathedral was appreciated but not our favorite).
I would eliminate Pamplona, Santander and Olite. I dont think they add much given the other options. One thing we learned is that Northern Spain deserves a lot more time, and we will definitely go back. The Aragon and Navarre regions alone could be happily spent in twelve days.
I will add a plug for the Oma Forest (on the peninsula between SS and Bilbao). It does require a hike, but is such a unique art feature in the middle of a lovely forest. Ive never seen anything like it (as opposed to a place like Mundaka).
Good luck killing some of these darlings ;p

Posted by
15 posts

Thanks a lot for the many great suggestions and comments. Coming up with a reasonable itinerary is the most difficult task for me. But I need that for making hotel reservations, so I have to go back and cut.... Learning about the "overlaps" is very helpful. Unfortunately there is never enough time for every nice place.

This will be our first trip in this part of Spain. I never stayed at a Parador. What kind of accommodations do they have (as compared to a hotel)? Do they offer a private bathroom, breakfast, etc.?

Is it usually still hot (over 75 F is hot for me) during the second part of September? Thanks again.

Posted by
2869 posts

Paradors is a government run hotel chain. Many are in old castles, monasteries, or historic buildings, but not all of them. Their prices are comparable with other hotels in the area they are in. The rooms all have private bathrooms and they offer excellent buffet breakfasts. The buffets feature meats, cheeses and breads from the province they are in, but also have fresh fruits, yogurts, eggs, juices, etc..

Prices vary depending on location and time of year, but most cost less than a Hampton Inn, or Courtyard by Marriott would cost. For example, the Paradors in Santiago de Compostela, Granada, and Hondarrbia are the most expensive, while many more rural areas are inexpensive. Prices are most expensive during the main tourist season. On our May 2017 trip, we paid €130 for the Gil Blas parador in Santillana Del Mar and €142 in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Those were for standard double room with breakfast and Golden Days prices. The Paradors in Zamora and Ribadeo were only €100 and €104 respectively. Paradors also have specials a couple times a year where prices are as low as €66 per night at many of the Paradors. Sign up for the Friends program and you’ll receive the emails announcing them. One special just ended. In that special, the parador at Santiago de Compostela that we paid €225 per night, was only €90. An earlier special had rooms for as little €65 and it covered the entire month of September. On the Paradors website is a description of each parador. I’m sure TripAdvisor has photos too since I’ve posted some.

Since you’ll be in the north, temperatures will be cooler, especially in the mountains, than they would be in southern Spain. I looked at some historic temperatures for September 2017 and average for Santillana Del Mar was in the 60. Burgos was a little cooler with many days in the 50s.

Posted by
15 posts

Thanks for the details about the Paradors. They look very enticing. I will make sure to consider them if they are in a location which I decide to use as a base. The temperatures look great (for me). I know it might rain, but we will be equipped for that and hope for the best.

Posted by
17636 posts

Santander suffered a catastrophic fire in the 1940s and lost a great deal of its historic architecture. It has a magnificent beach, but you will have seen San Sebastian, so I think Santander is one of the first places to scratch.

I thought Potes was especially picturesque with its old stone buildings. To me, the atmosphere was quite different from other towns I visited, which included a lot of the places you have mentioned.

Oviedo is a quiet city known for some very early churches. Leon's picturesque historic district is packed with restaurants and bars. So those two present an interesting contrast.

Posted by
15 posts

I appreciate it. From prior trips (the last one to Japan), I know that after a while, one can remember and absorb the beauty of only so many churches/shrines/cathedrals, gardens, paintings, etc, even if they are quite different. I know that in the ideal world, with unlimited time, it would be wonderful to explore all places, as each of them offers something of value. But we don't have that luxury.

Knowing which places really stand out with something different (part of the area of interests), usually helps. If you have been in these places, whatever you can share based on your experiences about what you think that could be skipped and why, that will be of great help for me.

Posted by
15 posts

As suggested by Philip and based on some reading, I am considering going to Potes and Fuente-De and probably staying at the Parador. As suggested by jaimeelsabio, I signed up for the Amigos program. Considering suggestions from Jessica, I am cutting out some of the similar localities but could not yet arrive to a next itinerary. I have a follow-up question.

If you are familiar with the road (N611) from Fuente De to Burgos, is that an easy drive? On the way back to Bilbao it would help us to avoid backtracking, but I do not know what kind of road is N611. As I mentioned, I am not looking for roads with many switchbacks and I do not want to go anywhere where chains might be required. Is it a good idea to plan to go from Potes to Burgos this way?

Thanks.

Posted by
2869 posts

The N (Nacional) roads are all good roads and were the best roads in the country before Spain had interstates. On a map, they are marked with red signs. They are mostly 2-lanes, and unless you’re in the mountains, they are pretty straight. They do go through the towns so you get caught behind slower cars, trucks, tractors, etc. in many cases, they parallel autovias/interstates. More rural roads will have green (not to be confused with the E [Europe] roads) yellow, or brownish signs and begin with 2 letters denoting the province, followed by numbers, e.g., CA185 where CA equates to Cantabria. The more numbers there are, the more rural the road. When crossing into another province, the letters will change. Much of the N611 parallels the A67. However, the roads getting from Fuente De to any N road will have curves since you’ll be in the mountains. Almost all the roads in Spain are in good repair. To get a feel for any road you’ll be driving, look at Google maps street view. You won’t have any problems and you won’t need chains.

In looking at Google maps, to avoid the mountains, it seems the quickest way to get from Potes to Burgos would be to take the N621 north to the A8, by Unquera (16 miles) then east to the N611 or A67 at Torrelavega (24 miles), then south to Alquilar de Campoo where you’d pick up the N627 to Burgos (46 miles).

In Burgos, we stayed at the Abba Burgos hotel. It’s about a 5 minutes walk to the cathedral and it has its own pay parking garage. Getting to it was easy using GPS.

Posted by
15 posts

Thanks, jaimeelsabio for the description of the roads. I will take a closer look to Google to see the mountainous segment, how bad is bad. The "detour" you pointed me is a great suggestion and it is not at all long.

Our grandkids are coming, so I will have to put Spain for a week on the back burner. Hopefully it will wait for me :):)

Happy New Year!

Posted by
15 posts

After taking a break from planning, I am trying to do suggested (painful) cuts from my overly ambitious initial plan. We will have (almost) 14 days. As a reminder, I am trying to avoid as much as possible one night sleeps, being on the road a large part of the day, difficult drives and backtracking. I could not decide which option listed for Day 11 would be better. As soon as I have the itinerary finalized, I will make reservations at the Parador in Fuente De. Your comments and suggestions for the revised itinerary would be much appreciated.

Day 1, Sept 14, Mon- late afternoon arrival in Bilbao;

Day 2, Sept 15, Tue- day trip to San Sebastian (before the film festival starts on the 18th);

Day 3, Sept 16, Wed - Bilbao;

Day 4, Sept 17, Thu- day trip to Hondarribia;

Day 5, Sept 18, Fri - Bilbao;

Day 6, Sept 19, Sat - to Santillana del Mar, with stops along the way;

Day 7, Sept 20, Sun - Santillana del Mar in the morning, Ribadisella in the afternoon;

Day 8, Sept 21, Mon - Santillana del Mar to Potes and then to Fuente De;

Day 9, Sept 22, Tue - Fuente De and surroundings;

Day 10, Sept 23, Wed - Fuente De and surroundings;

Day 11, Sept 24, Thu - Fuente De-Potes-Reinosa;

option a- Reinosa-Aquilar de Campo- Burgos;
option b- Reinosa-Orbaneja del Castillo- Burgos;

Day 12, Sept 25, Fri - Burgos- LaGuardia- Vitoria-Gasteiz;

Day 14, Sept 27, Sun drive from Vitoria to Bilbao; flight out of Bilbao at 12 noon.

The above would mean 5 nights in Bilbao, 2 in Santillana del Mar, 3 in Fuente De, 1 in Burgos and 1 in Vitoria.
I do not know if 3 nights in Fuente would be too much or not, taking into consideration the time of the year (weather?) and the fact that we are just easy walkers, not hikers.

Posted by
17636 posts

I'm raising an eyebrow at the 3 nights for Fuente De but I can't do rural walks so am not the best to judge. I will just note that a lot of the public transportation into that area (not that there's much of it to begin with) runs for a very limited period during the summer and ends before you arrive in Spain. I sort of assumed the reason for that was weather-related, but it's also possible that there just aren't enough folks taking vacations in that area after early September. There are one or two alpine lakes I wanted to see, but the bus wasn't running in June; I think it didn't start until well into July.

You're going to have precious little time for Vitoria-Gasteiz and Burgos, so that's probably where I'd toss the extra night if I reduced the time at Fuente De.

Posted by
1962 posts

I spent 3 nights at the Parador de Fuente Dé, back in mid-September of 2015 and felt it was just the right amount of time, I enjoyed the hiking in the area, but there is no need to use your car initially, just take the adjacent funicular up to the top, and there are a number of alpine trails. It was light jacket weather when I was there.

We arrived late the first night driving direct from Santillana del Mar. The first day we went up top of the mountain and hiked all day to our heart's delight! There is a restaurant at the top that you can have a quick lunch at. The next day we drove to nearby Potes to explore the town and the immediate environs, we gave plenty of time for us to stop and explore an alpine stream or take photos of a beautiful meadow or two. We later ate at one of the best restaurants in Spain (IMO), called Meson de Oso, which serves the traditional mountain cuisine of that region. The next day we drove early to Oviedo, stopping at the stunning pilgrimage site of Covedonga aka the "Cradle of Spain".

Posted by
15 posts

Thanks, Carlos. We are really (no longer) hikers but we like easy walks. So most likely we could not do what you did. Also we will be in Potes both ways, stopping to enjoy the town. I made a note of the restaurant that you recommended. Probably (for us) 2 nights in Fuente De might be enough and I could add a night in Vitoria. I just noticed that I somehow didn't copy Day 13 on my revised schedule (which would add a day and a night in Burgos).

Acraven, thanks for your comments. We will have a car, so lack of public transportation will not impact us.

Posted by
1962 posts

No worries, yeah I'd say 2 nights would be good too, with some light hiking at the top of the funicular, the trails are fairly easy early on, it's about an hr in when they start to incline ;-)

PS: When in Potes, and the Picos de Europa in general, make sure to try the local apple cider (Sidra) made in that region since the Ancient Roman times!

Posted by
15 posts

Great. We will try the cider and think of you. I start to feel so much better about the itinerary. Too bad we cannot spend more time, but such is life. I will make the reservation at the Parador in Fuente De, to make sure that they will have a room for us. Thanks.

Posted by
2869 posts

I like it, but am not certain what all you’ll do in Fuente De for three nights. Since Santillana Del Mar is only 30 miles from Potes, you’ll be arriving in Fuente De fairly early in the day. Other than some outdoors things, there isn’t much to do there, and there’s little else around. I’d take a night from Fuente De and add it to Burgos. Either option from Reinosa to Burgos works. The route to Alquilar de Campoo would be quicker, possibly. However, other than some monasteries and hermitages, there doesn’t seem to be much there and you may have seen enough of those by the time you get there. Using the other option, via Orbaneja, there is a nice waterfall/cascade and water cave that might better suit your interests by that point in the trip. To get over to Orbaneja take either the CA-171 or CA-730 to the N-623.

Burgos to Laguardia is only 59mi and another 21mi to Vitoria. Even spending a couple hours in Laguardia, you’ll arrive in Vitoria-gasteiz fairly early in the day. About 3 miles East of Burgos is Cartuja de Miraflores with the tomb of King John II and Isabel of Portugal. It’s worth visiting. Admission was nominal; I think €1 per person. 10mi west of Laguardia is Briones that is supposedly very pretty, and near it is San Vincente de la Sonsierra. There is a castle there. From Laguardia, consider taking the N232a to the BU-750 straight into Vitoria-Gasteiz to save some time and miles.

Posted by
15 posts

Thanks, jaimeelsabio. Made the change, as it makes sense (2 nights in Fuente De and 2 in Burgos). I am taking note of the other suggestions around Laguardia and for the roads. I start to feel a little bit of relief as far as the itinerary goes. I appreciate all the suggestions, comments.

Posted by
10 posts

We’ve stayed at Casa la Pisa, a lovely guest house in Aniezo, very close to Potes. It’s tucked away in a beautiful valley, and the owner (English) is a chef who prepares delicious evening meals. We loved it there.

Posted by
15 posts

Thanks, fiona.mcalinden . I will look it up.

How is easy/difficult is the drive from this guesthouse to Potes? About how much time it takes, if you remember? Is dinner at a specific time and if so, at what time? They are not listed by any of the booking sites and they don't have any website with info (that I could find). Which month and how recently were you there? The place looks attractive. If you remember, about how much was a room for 2/night? I appreciate it.

Posted by
10 posts

I think they close for the winter months. You can contact them directly by phone - their number is on their website lapisa.co.uk We stayed in August about 3 years ago. As far as I can remember it is an easy drive from Potes. I think we were asked what time we’d like dinner in the evening. There is plenty of parking and it is so peaceful and quiet. Enjoy your trip:-)

Posted by
15 posts

I am looking for accommodations for 5 nights in Bilbao (September) for 3 adults. My preference would be an apartment hotel or apartment with 2 bedrooms. Found two apartments at the following addressees:

8 Santa Clara Kalea 1-C, 48006 Bilbao

Miribilla Kalea Primero derecha, 48003, Bilbao

If you are familiar with Bilbao neighborhoods, are these safe areas? If so, which one would be a better location for us (knowing that we will have a car and out the 4 days we will be there, 2 will be spent in Bilbao and 2 away). Thanks