My brother and I want to do a backpacking trip in Spain. We fly into Barcelona and out of Madrid. We'd like to see Portugal as well. We're not sure whether to go to Basque country or do the south-eastern coast, valencia, malaga, seville, etc. I'm leaning towards something like this Barcelona > Pamplona > San Sebastian > Bilbao > Santander > Santiago > Porta (or somewhere in Portugal) > Madrid. But we want to do a more off the beaten path type itinerary and I'm not sure what the best, little, quaint towns are to visit. Also, what's the best way to travel? Rent a car, train, bus? Thanks!
Chelsea if you want to backpack I recommend walking part of the Camino de Santiago, if you're not familar it is an ancient pilgrimage that has several routes through Spain and one out of Portugal, the primary or most popular route is the Camino Frances, that starts in France and goes across the northern part of Spain through Basque country, Pamplona, the Rioja region, Castilla into Galicia and ends in the city of Santiago. If you desire to do the entire route it takes about 30-35 days from the traditional starting point of St Jean Pied du Port in the French Pyreness, I walked it last year in 33 days, that route is 790 kilometers or about 500 miles, you don't have to do the entire route if you don't desire. You will need to get a Pilgrims Passport to stay in the alburgues along the way, the alburgues are hostel like facilities that charge anything from a simple donation of a euro or two to up to 10 euros. You can get one in any of the cities along the way or from the American Pilgrims on the Camino, an American organization the supports the Camino. I'll attach a couple of links if your interested, and feel free to PM me if you have any specific questions. I will also attach a link to a blog I kept last year during my walk.
Altreya, Barry http://www.bhcamino2010.blogspot.com http://www.americanpilgrims.com/ http://santiago-compostela.net/index.html http://www.caminodesantiago.me/
The southeast coast is condo after condo, my least favorite spot. Everyboy goes to Andalucia, it's crowded, maybe over-tauted. A trip through the northern area would get my vote in a heartbeat with a few caveats: Don't try to run the foothills of the Pyrenees, the roads don't work. Include Zaragoza, it's close to world-class by everybody seems to skip it. Pamplona is fine. San Sebastian has been a resort destination since 1800, take it or leave it. Don't skip a stop in Guernica. Bilbao is hard for a casual visitor unless you know where the Butrons and windmills are. The museum is excellent, and I don't like art museums. Santander offers nothing, skip it. After that it gets really good as you head west: Santillana, Picos de Europa, Gijon, etc, all the way to Coruna. This is where I'd spend most of my time (and include Santiago for a half day as well). Northern Portugal isn't really that great for off-of-the-path. However if you go southeast about six hours, you're into the hill towns and Elvas (not Evora) of Evora and Portalegre provinces and Extremadura province of Spain - - delightful and neglected by almost everybody in the world. A car's going to work best (ex: you can drive from San Sebastian to Bilbao in an hour, by train it's maybe six since you have to go down to Vitoria or Burgos or something then come back up). If far western Spain and down around the central Portugal/Spain border, it's mostly infrequent buses and they leave you no way to get to the prehistoric areas.
We were in San Sebastian for two days just a couple of weeks ago. It was full of tourists. It was a pretty spot with a great beach, but too much partying to suit me. I would not go there again. We were there on a weekend, so maybe it was extra lively. I would recommend Gironanorth of Barcelonafor a lovely Spanish town. You can take the train into Barcelona from there, visit Figueres, Cadaques, and Montserrat all from this base town. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is a wonderful building. The art inside didn't thrill me, but the building and the outdoor sculpture are fabulous. We went hiking in Ordessa National Park. We stayed in Biescas and drove over to the park in the morning. You could stay in Torla for quicker park access. In the Rioja, we stopped at Dinastia Vivanca, a winery near Briones. It had a great museum with English audioguide, and the setting was beautiful. I liked the wine as well. Have fun.
We are returning to San Sebastian this year ( second year in a row) We love this town and while there may be a lot of tourists...we never were without a great experience with the locals...and the Tapas Bars are fantastic! I think it is a must !
I also love San Sebastian! We spent 5 nights there last year with our two kids and our entire family loved it. In fact, my 8 year old told me that she wants to go there for her honeymoon! (Let's hope that's a looooong way off!!) We were there in August and the weather was beautiful - we enjoyed the beach and how the tides changed so drastically, we took the funicular up to the top and had an (admittedly) expensive drink but the view and solitude were worth it - plus we went on a very cheesy but slightly hilarious bumper duck ride. The rest of the time we spent eating... their food is fabulous and they have a ton of amazing restaurants. If we didn't have the kids with us the bar-hopping tapas eating situation looked really fun and tasty, but even with the kids we managed to get a really good feel for the place. It's such a different region compared to Madrid and Barcelona, we loved it. The only negative I can think of is that a large number of people we encountered there were a little 'brusque' compared to in the Barcelona/Catalonya area. Still.... yum!