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Northern Driving Trip

Hi Everyone,
I'm heading to Spain in early October for 8 full days excluding travel. I'm flying into Barcelona and leaving from Madrid. At first the goal was to explore both cities, but my buddy and I have been thinking about renting a car and just exploring. Thoughts are to spend a couple days in Barcelona then drive to Bilbao and the Basque Country via The Pyrenees, then head south through La Rioja before flying out of Madrid. While the idea of skipping Madrid entirely upsets me, I figured I would concentrate on the North this time. Just wondering if anyone has suggestions of places to stop in The Pyrenees for a night or two that would eventually get us to the Basque Country. Also any thoughts on whether going to La Rioja is worth the stop. I guess my thought is this trip, albeit short, could show me a major metropolis, mountains, coast and vineyards. Might be too much and nothing is firm yet so would love some thoughts/input.

Thanks so much and greatly appreciate it!

Posted by
9110 posts

You can't drive through the Pyrenees. You have to drive parallel to them some distance even from the bases -- to the point that you can only frequently see the mountains. You can get a bit closer on the French side. Making spur incursions in or out, or crossing and recrossing, is tedious.

Other than that, it's a good trip. Look at Zaragoza, Guernica, and Burgos as spots along the way. Don't blow off Bilbao as just a place with a museum.

Posted by
4 posts

Thanks Ed. Would you recommend maybe just shooting straight to Basque Country and exploring there more? Just wondering.

Posted by
9110 posts

If Zaragoza doesn't ring your bell, I'd go up through Huesca to Pamplona for the scenery - - and then start goofing around from there.

Posted by
4535 posts

You most certainly can drive in the Pyrenees. A suggested route would be north to Girona or Figueres (both worth a stop), then west to Besalu (worth a stop) and then follow N-260 or C-26 west. The roads will be twisty and slow, but the parts I've driven on were fine. It's beautiful country with lots of scenic hill towns, old stone churches and natural parks.

Zaragoza, while a fine destination, is way out of the way from a Pyrenees trip and more of a stop if you were just taking the highway direct. Pamplona though would make an excellent stop.

I can't offer advice on where to stay or the Rioja region.

Posted by
11832 posts

Ed isn't wrong, driving "in" the Pyrenees is slow - and you don't have time for really slow. The logical driving routes are either south or north of the Pyrenees. South is the shorter route, north picks up a some of France.

You could go to Zaragosa, turn north through Pamplona to San Sebastian, west toward Bilbao, then south maybe picking up Burgos or Valladolid before turning toward Madrid.

Alternatively, you could start off heading north from Barcelona, along the coast, then cut across to the Atlantic coast in French Basque country. From there back to San Sebastian. If you can make it to Bilbao great, I'm thinking you don't have a lot of days (but I'm not into Madrid so spending no time there would fit my schedule) and may have to cut south from San Sebastian through Pamplona and Zaragosa.

If you're route takes you through Pamplona, make time for a great castle in Olite (about 30 minutes by car south of Pamplona), one of my favorite. It's not huge but a great one to climb around and explore.

Posted by
925 posts

Hi from Wisconsin,
Spain is a pretty big country. Driving from Barcelona to Bilbao or Basque region...that is a full day's drive on the main roads which are not near enough to the Pyrenees for good viewing. The next best option gives you distant looks but are slower, and then there are the really great roads that will take you into the lower portions of the mountains. These are really slow and you would only make it half way to the Basque region in a full day's driving.

I found that anytime we hoped off the big four lane highways, we were down to 30-35 miles per hour. But the scenery was usually spectacular. (We drove from Barcelona to San Sebastian this spring, but we took two weeks to do it.)

Better than San Sebastian, Bilbao, or Pamplona were the small towns. Charming.

Do you want to spend your trip driving or sipping some red wine? Madrid has three of the best museums in the world. ANd that is what we economists call, the opportunity cost.

wayne iNWI

Posted by
225 posts

A couple of years ago we made a drive from Barcelona to San Sebastian and back. I used a GPS and, by mistake, hit the button to avoid toll roads. The drive was spectacular! We passed near Zaragoza and Pamplona, but I don't remember the route number. At times we drove slowly because we felt like we were close to the edges of high mountains; but, in retrospect it was a memorable and fun drive. I think it took about 6 hours. On the return trip we took the fast route. It was much less memorable and probably only took one hour off of the time.