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Northern Spain and the Basque country

After completing the 500 mile Camino Françes on May 21st my husband and I plan to spend three days in Santiago (probably soaking our feet!) leaving on the 24th. From that point we will have 11 days before we return to the States from Barcelona.

Our thought was to rent a car in Santiago and drive to Bilbao spending 4-5 days exploring the Basque country including Bilbao, the Rioja area, perhaps revisit some of the towns along the Camino that we didn’t see on our walk and spend a day in San Sebastian. What might be some things other than the Guggenheim in Bilbao not to miss?

We love ruins, art, farmers’ markets and small village experineces.

From there, we were thinking about driving to Figueres for a few days (perhaps 4 days,) taking day trips to Empuries and perhaps some of the nearby towns in France. We will probably spend the night of June 3 in Barcelona, leaving us a day to revisit some of our favorite sites before flying out on June 5th.

Does anyone have any suggested towns or things not to miss in the Basque country area or in Southern France?

Posted by
2212 posts

From Santiago de Compostela all the way to Barcelona is quite a distance, consider you will be traveling from the extreme west of the country all the way to the extreme east. There is so very much to see in between, I would not try to squeeze in Northern Catalonia (i.e. Figueras), as it's a bit out of the way of the route you would be taking if driving. If you would like to include Northern Catalonia, I would just fly directly from Santiago de Compostela to Barcelona, then rent a car and drive north, making a base at Girona (much better choice than Figueras).

Now if you want to make the drive, I would recommend something along these lines, once you leave Galicia heading east:

-Oviedo (2 nights) - The capital of Asturias. Known for its Gothic medieval old town, apparently Woody Allen's favorite city in Spain.

-Covadonga - known as the "cradle of Spain", a pilgrimage site dedicated to the Battle of Covadonga of 718 AD, which set off the Reconquista. There is also a Holy Cave, where lies Kings Pelagius and Alfonso I, the first kings of Asturias. From here, one can also do a nice hike to the Lakes of Covadonga, which takes about 3:30 hr each way, but are well worth it.

-Picos de Europa National Park - Mountain range between Cantabria and Asturias offers some of Europe's most spectacular and breath taking mountain scenery, definitely worth a visit. Take the Fuente Dé cable car that lifts you up high into the peaks.

-Potes - (2 nights) an atmospheric medieval town located high up in the Cantabrian Mountains. Makes for a great place to explore the Picos de Europa National Park in depth.

-Altamira caves - UNESCO world heritage site located near Santillana del Mar with numerous Paleolithic cave paintings. The real caves are closed to the public but there is a pretty good replica cave and museum there too.

-Santillana del Mar - Well preserved medieval town in the Cantabrian region. Known for its medieval towers, Renaissance villas and the Romanesque Santa Juliana Collegiate Church. One can spend the night here too.

-Bilbao (2-3 nights) - Bilbao is the more grounded brother to San Sebastián. With its contrasting old and new architecture and nice riverside area, I actually like Bilbao better than San Sebastián. The main draw is the Guggenheim, one of the leading contemporary art museums in the world.

-Drive along the Basque Coast - The drive from San Sebastián to Bilbao is very picturesque, with its hidden coves, seaside villages, and stunning cliffs. A highlight for me was San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, which is a 10th century Hermitage set atop a craggy islet, they filmed some scenes from Game of Thrones here.

-San Sebastián - an international culinary capital, feels very Belle Époque... maybe a bit too posh for my taste. Of course the main attraction are those famous Pintxos bars that line every street, I feel they are a tad overated.

-Olite - walled medieval town dominated by the Royal Palace of Olite was the seat of the Kings of Navarre. For me, it's one of the more impressive medieval palaces in Europe.

-Zaragoza (2-3 nights) - the capital of the neighboring region of Aragon. The city has more than 2,000 years of history including Roman ruins of the city walls, forum, and amphitheater, as well as the Aljafería; an 11th-century Moorish palace. The best part, Zaragoza is relatively undiscovered as far as major Spanish cities go.

-Poblet Royal Monastery - a UNESCO World Heritage Site and still active 12th-century Cistercian monastery. It was a fortified medieval royal residence and contains the unique hanging tombs of the old Kings of Aragon.

-Tarragona - ancient seaside town with very good Roman ruins, including an amphitheater, intact aqueduct, and Praetorium Tower, was once the capital of Roman Hispania (modern-day Spain). Tarragona's medieval old town is a delight to explore too.

-End Barcelona

Hope this all helps :)

Posted by
18906 posts

Carlos has laid out a generous menu from which to choose. I just want to second his nixing of Figueres as a base for 4 nights. The Dali Theatre-Museum is certainly worth seeing, but there's not a great deal else in Figueres, nor is it exceptionally attractive. In that area Girona is a much, much better choice.

Posted by
3219 posts

A few places we liked not already mentioned,
Muxia - west of Santiago de C on the Coast
Lugo - East of Santiago de C. Small town whose Roman wall is a UNESCO World Heritage site
As Catedrais beach, Playa de Las Catedrales - on the north coast and best visited at low tide.
Zumaia and Getaria - one has some interesting rock formations while the other is a fishing village. They are only a few kilometers from each other via the back road.
SOS Del Rey Catolico- medieval town similar to Santillana Del Mar and birthplace of King Ferdinand.
If you’re considering revisiting a couple cities along the Camino, Leon and Burgos would be my choices. In my opinion, none of the towns between Sarria and Santiago are worth revisiting; you can see everything in each of them the night you’ll be staying in them. There are some castles and monasteries between SOS Del Rey Catolico and Huesca, but you may have seen enough of them during your long walk.

While on your walk, hopefully you’ll get to Bodega Irache’s wine fountain (rather than a water fountain) while there’s still wine. It’s near Estella. It provides up to 100 liters a day to pilgrims in the true Camino fashion.

Posted by
30 posts

These are incredibly helpful...I'm always BLOWN AWAY by the generosity of this community. Thank you all!

Posted by
445 posts

Another vote for Santillana del Mar. We stayed there primarily for nearby Altamira, but really liked the lovely town on its own, too.
Great small museum (of the diocese?), likable little restaurants & bars, real life, friendly people. Stayed very happily at the atmospheric & comfy Casa de Organista.

Posted by
11263 posts

Although the Guggenheim gets all the attention, there are at least two other worthy museums in Bilbao. The Museum of Reproductions is a must for anyone interested in sculpture, and the Museum of Fine Arts has lots of great Spanish painters.

Bilbao's Old Town is larger and more interesting the San Sebastian's too, although San Sebastian has a lovely beach and lovely views from its hilltops.

In the realm of art, I loved the Museum of Fine Arts in Vitoria (not too far from either Bilbao or San Sebastian, but further inland). It was nearly deserted, and I hadn't heard of almost any of the artists, but the stuff was really great. Vitoria has several other interesting museums too, from modern art to playing cards. Just be warned they're all closed on Mondays.

I haven't been to Figueres, but can give another endorsement for Girona.