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Northern Spain (and Madrid) September 2018

So, a little trip report that will hopefully be helpful. I like to open with a bit about who we are and how we travel because I think that helps people evaluate what is worthwhile to them.

We're in our late 30s/early 40s, active, living in Europe for 7 years and my husband has decent Spanish and I understand some but have lost the ability to speak with any decency (but do OK in restaurants). I'd been to Barcelona and Madrid before, and Mallorca a handful of times, my husband had only been to Mallorca in May.

Our time in Europe is limited, so my husband requested an active trip focused on seeing as much as possible, and wanted to rent a car to see things not possible by train. I was skeptical but this was "his trip" in many ways and so I checked in with him while planning and he OKed the pace. We survived, but we both agree we would have cut out at least one of the one-night stays. We are active, accustomed to walking, and we found the pace of this trip a bit punishing at times - keep that in mind when planning your own trips. In my experience you will almost never say, "We spent too long in Place X" but rather "I wish we'd slowed down for another night in Place X."

We traveled open jaw, flying into Bilbao from Stuttgart via EuroWings on Sept 2nd with only carry-on luggage (I'll talk more about that later). We picked up our rental car from the airport, drove to San Sebastian, parked in a free lot outside of the center of town for 3 nights (also more about that later), then got the car, drove to Bilbao (1 night), Polientes (1 night), Llanes (2 nights), then to Leon where we dropped off the car to take the train to Madrid for 3 nights before flying back to Stuttgart.

When planning the trip I'd really hoped to do it in reverse - fly into Madrid for a few nights, take the train up to the north, pick up a car, and make our way towards Bilbao, relaxing for a few days in San Sebastian before flying home. Unfortunately this just didn't work out with our timing/budget. We're not strict budget travelers but we're definitely in need of good prices and I couldn't find them with the alternative, unfortunately.

We stayed in a wide variety of lodgings, ranging from a 36 euro/night pilgrims' hostel (with en-suite bathroom) in Leon to a quite posh cinema-themed pension in old-town Bilbao for 95/night. Unless I'm doing a beach trip I'm loathe to spend more than 80/night for a room but I do like comfort and class when I can find it. Despite the range in prices I was pleased all the places we stayed at on this trip and would recommend them all.

I would probably not recommend renting a Fiat 500 as a rental car. My husband thought it would be "fun." I told him we were going into the mountains. Mountain roads. Inclines, curves, etc. He still wanted the Fiat. I said fine. He regrets the Fiat. The size wasn't a problem (we flew budget, after all!) but rather the power of the car.

OK, on to the trip itself!

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So we arrived in Bilbao excessively early (like, before 9am), had zero issue picking up our little Fiat 500 from Europacar, and driving the 50 minutes to San Sebastian on the A-8 expressway we got to know quite well over the course of the trip. Despite our lack of sleep it was a fairly easy drive with a toll of around $10. Our room was in the center of town and we didn't want to pay the $20/day or so to park the car nearby so I'd researched a park and ride that seemed convenient-ish. It was a bit of a hike up to the bus stop, but the bus took us within a block of our place (Pension Joakina) so it was fine.

The bus was crowded because the annual regatta was starting right as we arrived, apparently. I'd told the owner of Joakina that we'd be arriving later but the cleaning staff answered the buzzer and let us put our luggage away so we could go watch part of the regatta and just walk around the city and grab some food. We'd had a very early flight so we were really out of it, we grabbed some coffee and bread with jamon from a place near the market before going back to our pension to check in properly.

The Pension had elements that I really liked - namely the price, in expensive, upscale San Sebastian, and it's prime location. The room was simple to basic but the beds were comfy enough, and had plates and coffee fixings in the closet, and a shared fridge. This was excellent for mid-afternoon late-night snacks of various pork and cheese products and wine. It wasn't luxurious but how can you argue with free beach towels and 4 euro laundry in the shared bathroom? It helps that you're a 10 minute walk from (either) beach.

As for San Sebastian itself: what a gem. I was afraid that 3 nights in this small resort town would be too many, but I could be happy with a week here. Not that there's that much to do, but that's the point. Sure, it's touristy, but I've never been to a better urban beach (the surfer beach on the right side of the old town - we never went to the other bay side. I like waves.) Stumbling tired that first day we found ourselves at one of the city's most renowned pintoxs bars in Gros, the supposedly "gritty" of San Sebastian where we spent a lot of our time.

The next two days we hiked up green mountains to take in amazing sea vistas, played with goats, ate more pintxos than you can shake a stick at, but I think I'll address the whole pintxos/tapas thing towards the end instead of doing a play-by-play. Instead now I'd just like to give an impression. San Sebastian is touristy, especially in the old city, but it's a relatively chill, elegant kind of touristy. It reminded me very much of Sausolito, if it had an excellent swimming/surfing beach and reasonably priced food. If I manage to make it back to Basque country in good weather, I'm demanding a couple days there to be sure.

But our itinerary leads is onto the road trip part of our journey...

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Hi Sarah
Can't wait to hear more. I haven't been to Spain yet but plan to in the next year or two. How was the driving except for your play car? Looking forward to more installments.

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Yeah I started this late at night and have yet to pick it back up! We did a lot and life has been very busy since returning. Hopefully will complete a segment tonight, if not, very soon.

The driving was a mixed bag. The major autoroutes were fine, although a lot was over mountainous country, so even the main expressway from Asturias to Leon was very curvy but well done. I preferred the secondary routes which were "real roads" but very scenic. Google Maps directions are not wonderful in Spain and often led us on routes that were essentially one-way width but technically two lane mountain country roads. THAT wasn't super fun, especially in the Fiat 500. But necessary for some of the sights we wanted to see!

Overall I'd class the driving as "Better than Greece, not as good as France" if that makes sense!

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So the morning of our 4th day (Sept 5th) the sunny weather in the high 70s/low 80s we'd been enjoying shifted and it rained. A lot. We were going to take the bus to pick up our car, but due to the rain, we opted for a taxi instead. The owner of the pension was in the building so we asked him to call us a cab, but he couldn't get through. He asked where our car was, and it happened to be on the way for him to visit his mother, so he offered to drive us. Can't beat that! I might have inflated my review on slightly because I think that level of kindness should be rewarded (but I would absolutely stay at Pension Joakina again).

Once back in our car, we wanted to visit a Sideria (cider house) and I'd located one in the hills above San Sebastian. Unfortunately after a short but harrowing (yet scenic) drive we arrived an hour before they opened. The nearby pub wasn't going to serve lunch for an hour as well, or the other nearby restaurant. (Note: Google's hours for all these locations were incorrect. Relying on Google in this part of Spain is not a good idea. Call ahead! But only if you speak Spanish!)

We just decided to get on the expressway to head towards Guernica for lunch. Guernica is a much nicer town than you'd expect although we were obviously there for the historical significance. The drive there was quite easy, and we made it by 13:30 to town, parking near the train station and walking into the city center. We had a nice "plata del dia" lunch at Hiru Saku. The plata menu was pretty rustic but their a la carte options were a little more bistro upscale. Good value, huge lunch for under $25 including beverages, I had peas with jamon as my 1st course and I think steak as my second but I'd have to review my food pics to be sure.

I should probably note that once leaving San Sebastian we literally did not encounter any significant English-speaking until we reached Madrid a week later, outside of tourist offices, with the exception of a Belgian hotel owner. Luckily my menu Spanish is decent and my husband made up for the rest.

We hit the TI, hiked up the hill to see the Basque Parliament, which was actually pretty cool, then got in our car and headed to the coast. Beautiful drive, we stopped in the famous surfing town of Mundaka. Unfortunately surf conditions were not agreeable that day so while we saw some surfers the famous wave - one of the best in the world in the right conditions - wasn't really going. It was a charming little town, though, with a lonely and gorgeous cliffside church and great views.

We continued on to San Juan de Gaztelugatze, better known to nerds as "Dragonstone" from Game of Thrones. We're not the biggest fans but I'd admired the setting on the show and when I found out it was between San Sebastian and Bilbao I figured we should check it out. It has the feel of a place that's become a tourist destination quite rapidly. The castle in the show doesn't exist, that's CGI, however the famous stone bridge and stone staircase are very real. Unfortunately my legs were dead from a hike up the mountain above San Sebastian 2 days prior, so descending from the high above parking area to sea level only to hike up to the small hermitage at the top of 300 stairs didn't appeal - I made it to a viewpoint (which was still a pretty serious incline down then back up). We only had an hour to spare to make it to Bilbao in time for our check in at the next Pension. If I were to return I'd give us a half day to hike (there are several other hiking trails from the parking lot with other things to see) and bring a picnic lunch and plenty of water. The scenery is AMAZING. Very reminiscent of Ireland or the Northern California coast.

Back in the car, we drove on and started our descent into Bilbao, which is in a very steep valley so driving in was a little hairy. But we had good directions to the parking garage nearest our hotel and made it without incident.

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So originally we were going to skip Bilbao entirely (aside from the flight in) and some dear reader here told me not to. They were right. Not only that, we both agree our deepest regret is only spending one night in Bilbao - it's easily worth 3. What a cool city! The medieval center was huge and so lovely, the pintxos bars were the best we encountered on our trip, and cheaper and less touristy than San Sebastian, and the architecture in the city is just so amazing.

We arrived around 19:00, checked in to Pension Caravan Cinema, our "splurge" for the trip at 95 euros a night. (Bilbao hotels are not cheap). It was a really lovely place with a wonderful hostess and thoughtful details and an amazing bed. Very much a boutique hotel right in the old center.

We set about our pintxos journey after checking in, although unfortunately due to the time of year we were traveling, some of the spots we really wanted to try were closed for annual holiday. That said, we got a mixture of affordable gourmet pinxtos and a few freebies. I'll try to cover the food scene overall towards the end of the report. We finished the night at a bar that was open late-ish at Miguel Unamuno Plaza, heads reeling from trying to speak Spanish surrounded by so much Basque.

The next morning we toured a couple of local churches (interesting, not spectacular), and the market (lots of poorly used space!), before heading across the river for early lunch Pintxos in the business district on our way to the Guggenheim. We hadn't planned for time to go in (we like modern art OK, but we were on a tight schedule) but we enjoyed the architecture and famous sculptures.

Then it was back in the car because we were headed inland to the countryside, specifically, the town of Polientes. We decided on this because we wanted to see the hillside town of Orbaneja del Castillo, which was amazing. It's like this little town carved into a cliffside with waterfalls that tumble into pools of the most outrageous turquoise. I'd never seen color in the wild like that outside of Yellowstone. Slightly touristy, but as we were in shoulder season there weren't any buses in town so it felt quite relaxed. We'd considered staying there and in retrospect, I kind of wish we had, but I wouldn't have relished the thought of trying to drive up some of the roads/lugging our suitcase up from the valley floor.

Instead we continued on to Polientes, essentially the "county seat" of the Ebro river valley. It's still a quite sleepy town, with 3 hotels. We stayed in the very lovely (and cheap) El Cuartelillo Viejo which was the best choice for the area. A large room with a winter garden for 50 euro and a quite decent breakfast and friendly hostess.

Unfortunately we had our worst meal of the trip this evening at the main restaurant in town, la Olma. I cannot convey how terrible our young waitress was! We were speaking Spanish but she rolled her eyes at us repeatedly (sorry our pronunciation isn't perfect, kid!), didn't bring us a menu, messed up my husband's order, etc. The food was OK-ish, but I wish we'd just had tapas in the bar instead of doing the whole sit-down thing. We did have fun talking to drunk locals at the bar next to our hotel.

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Hi Sarah,

about 7 years ago we spent a week in the Valderredible area. We were in a Posada, but we did have a dinner in la Olma. We didn´t have any problems with Spanish, but the service wrecked the average meal. Must be an anti-tourist thing.

We also visited Orbaneja del Castillo, and I would also have to agree with you description of the falls and pools. The cave is also worth a visit.

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dlindstrom, it's amazing that 7 years prior you had such a similar experience! It was so awful that it was kind of funny in a "Is this really happening?" kind of way. We live in Germany and are very used to the less attentive style of customer service but this was something else.

Unfortunately the cave was closed by the time we visited, which is a real shame!

Next up I'll write about Llanes and the festival of the Virgin de la Guia

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So I referred someone to this thread realizing I'd completely forgotten to finish it. Whoops. I'm 6 months out but I'll do the "short" version before my memory gets worse.

Our nice pension had a good breakfast. Regardless we tried to walk to find a bakery or a store with some water and snacks for our road trip ahead and came up empty-handed. Not a lot going on in Polientes except for donkeys, chickens, and whatnot. We got in the car to explore some of the carved churches made out out of rock in cliff faces, something the Ebro Valley is famous for, as well as very early Romanesque churches that are practically pagan. We stopped at San Martín de Elines, which is one of the most remarkable churches I'd ever seen. It was locked but we got lucky and a groundskeeper let us in after telling us not to take photos in Spanish. (I took photos, no flash). I'm sorry, you can't just let me into one of Europe's oldest standing churches and not let me leave with some photos, my dude. There are still frescoes dating back over 900 years. Really phenomenal, but you have to know what you're looking at (thanks, Internet!) because there's no tour guide or signs here.

The town had a nice main square and some ruins nearby that we walked to. Didn't see a single soul.

We then went to one of the most famous "rock churches" - this one actually had a museum - but because there was no data, I don't remember the name of it and I'd have to consult my guide book. It was actually very cool. It was a church carved into a cave and very old. Hard to beat that!

Next stop was the Church of San Pedro. Sensing a theme here? I am a very confused Jew with a thing for crazy old churches. This one was quite amazing, again in a sleepy little town. We didn't get to go inside, but the main attraction was the charming, semi-satanic carvings on the outside, plus the total goat traffic jam we got to witness. Then finally back on the highway, after a super awkward pit stop for lunch, back into the land of the tourist!

Honestly it was a little bit of a relief. We'd only spent a day and a half outside civilization but it was very clear that the Ebro Valley does not particularly cater to tourists and that the locals just don't speak Spanish, but that they will take your attempts to speak Spanish to them as a personal insult. I've traveled all over Europe and Spanish is the language we both are more comfortable with than any other (well now my German has exceeded my Spanish but it's not like I don't retain the vocab) and not even kidding, this was the hardest time we've had. I don't know how to explain it. In a strange way, I felt more "on my own" here than I did in Brasov, Romania, and far more so than in Sarajevo or Belgrade. But those are cities. That may be the difference. We were deep in the country.

The scenery was amazing, though. Reminded me of parts of Central California, when you're going inland from the coast. Stark and beautiful. And those churches.

Anyway on to Santilla Del Mar! It's not by the sea! But it's the Rothenberg Ob Der Tauber of Northern Spain so we're doing it!

It was lovely. I'd considered staying overnight there early in my planning process and I'm glad we didn't. We spent a couple hours there and that was sufficient. If we were going to deal with one difficult-to-park-in-town for an overnight, I'd have chosen Orbaneja del Castillo as opposed to Polientes, as they're not far from each other but one was a little more tourist-friendly but not tourist-overrun like Santilla Del Mar.

After our awkward gas station lunch, it's on to Llanes! Just in time for their annual festival of the Virgin de la Guia! I'll never get that chant out of my head.

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So, skipping around the Picos des Europas we are in Llanes, a lovely small medieval city but now overrun by the reason we're here: THE FESTIVAL OF THE VIRGIN OF GUIA. I...kind of planned my trip around this? I'd never seen a proper Catholic festival and it coincided with the cheap flights so we spent two nights in Lllanes but not IN Llanes. Rather at a lovely rural yet modern hotel Hotel La Quinta Escenia. It kind of reminded me of the Sea Ranch Lodge on the Northern California coast, if the Sea Ranch Lodge cost $80/night instead of $240. That's my way of recommending it, but if you're a city girl like me who likes to get around by foot, this may not be the best option.

See, we wanted to go to a proper sideria, but my husband is also cheap and doesn't like to pay for taxis, so for dinner I figured out that we would walk about 2 miles through gorgeous countryside with the mountains at our back, and we did, and it was lovely, although a little muddy. We had a fantastic dinner at a modern yet traditional Sideria, La Caseria De Santa Marina, ordered too many ribs after ordering too many croquettes made from local blue cheese and of course, lots of cider poured from on high. The inside of the place was very cool, with giant barrels creating tables, but it was warm enough to sit outside, so we did. Our poor young waiter didn't know how to deal with us Americans so he largely left us alone to pour our own cider which was quite a relief. I like having a beverage with my meal so the whole "pour behind the back, ignore the splash, now gulp as fast as possible," thing was not my favorite. I poured a normal amount from a height of a whole 2 feet and felt satisfied to enjoy some cider with my ribs.

The problem was getting back. It was dark now, we were a little inebriated, and I should have insisted on calling a taxi but my husband thought we should just walk back the way we came. That meant partially walking along a busy road in dark with no sidewalk, then walking on muddy paths through fields. Of course I slipped, tore and ruined a pair of pants and landed on the bad knee, and after that we had dogs barking bloody murder at us from villas with cars zooming past narrow one-way roads.

Note: don't do this. Take the taxi.

Luckily the lovely Belgian innkeeper at our hotel was happy to share a nice glass of red after I'd showered the mud off and cursed my husband a lot.

(We figured out he wasn't local because he smiled, btw. Not the friendliest people in this area.)

He also gave us invaluable advice about getting to the festival the next day: when to go, the card of the taxi driver, etc.

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So we get up the next day and have our friendly Belgian call us a taxi to take us into Llanes after the nice hotel breakfast. We arrive before the festivities start.

The basic idea is that there is a statue of Mary - "The Virigin of the Guide" - who did a great miracle here in the 15th century involving a shipwreck or something. Look, every Spanish town with a major church has a festival and a miracle and this one worked with our itinerary. And it was quite a spectacle. We'd observed distant fireworks from our sideria in the country the evening before, but this was the main thing. The Virgin made her way down from her chapel on the hill to a mass at the big church in town, so we waited near the church for the procession to begin. It was pretty intense . A lot of women and some in traditional dress, including men carrying platforms of bread pyramids decorated with lots of flowers, all chanting the same song, some with tambourines. We'd checked in with the local TI to try to get some schedule of the various events, but they weren't that helpful, and the webpages weren't either, so after this procession was over we got a nice sideria lunch in the old city with some guys who were all about pouring that cider from on high.

After lunch we went for a walk along the coastal areas of the city before we noticed all the people in traditional dress heading up towards the chapel. So we followed. This is where we the crux of the festival. In front of the chapel that the virgin statue had been returned to was a field with benches where traditional dances were being performed to singing and, yes, bagpipes. Remember that the Celtic cultures of Ireland and Wales have their origins from coastal Spain and France, after all. It was really magical, beautiful weather with an amazing view of the sea and these cheeky and saucy dances. As far as I could tell, we were the only outsiders. No one welcomed us or talked to us, which was fine, we were respectful observers of an ancient tradition.

But then it was over and we were overlooking a really great beach and we had a backpack with my swimsuit so of course we hiked down to a beautiful beach and I swam (yeah, it was a little chilly) while my husband read. Clouds came in so we adjourned to the beach bar, then inside the beach bar as a pretty massive thunderstorm hit but it rolled through pretty quickly. We wanted to explore more of Llanes old town, so we walked back, had dinner at Casa Del Mar of various fried seafoods, all quite good, and got to witness the fun of the after-party, which was a lot of people in traditional dress getting very drunk.

We joined in a bit, but were concerned about getting a taxi back to our hotel (a plus 2 mile walk including under a freeway, didn't sound like a great time after the previous night) and had a hard time reaching him due to too much cell phone traffic but we finally did and he showed up the spot he'd told us (again - all in Spanish - have I stressed enough how much harder this trip would have been if we didn't speak any Spanish?) and took us to our hotel.

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So after our semi-restful respite for two whole nights in one hotel, we're on the move again. Destination: Leon. But we want to see a little along the way, so we get back into the backcountry to see - and I know this will shock everybody - a church.

Yep, we're in Villaviciosa to see the Church of San Salvador de Valdedios which is over 1,100 years old. And this time, we're there for a tour!

But it's in Spanish. But we understand the basics. Mostly. The tour guide does stop a few times to tell us in English what he's said, it's actually quite dry stuff about architecture. I've taken lots of tours in languages that I understand a little bit. It's generally not worth it, but in this case, it's the only way to not only get close to the church but to get inside it. And it is amazing. Not big - we are in a random valley in northern Spain after all - but rich in detail.

On the way, on these backroads, we encounter a lot of road closures and gaudy cars with logos - whoops, we're in the middle of the Tour De Espana. My husband was a cyclist, he should have known to check that. We have to reroute a bit but it's fine.

After touring the church and monestary, we have a hearty, country-style lunch across the street. Service is slow, but friendly. I'm allowed cider so I'm less of a backseat driver. We have one of the local dishes that is basically a stew of white beans and pork sausage, which is delicious, with bread and salad. It costs next to nothing. Aside from the Pintoxos bars of San Sebastian and Bilbao it's my favorite meal of the trip.

We drive down the mountains, on a good but still harrowing-for-me road (I'm a very anxious backseat driver on the big fast roads) and drop our rental off in Leon at the train station. We then walk 25 minutes to our hotel. I don't know why we did this, it's a long walk despite our carry-on only luggage. We're staying at a pilgrim's hostel, although it has a private bathroom and is clean and comfortable. A far cry from our last hotel, though.

Leon is...fine. Decent pintxos scene, not nearly as good as Bilbao or San Sebastian, but cheap. Nice Cathedral. It worked out as a stopover on our way to Madrid but there wasn't exactly a ton to see or do there, so I was pretty satisfied with our 24 hours. Also don't bother like, going to dinner or ordering food, anywhere, just go to a bar and they will give you free food even if you don't want it and if you protest they will say, "That is just what we do here." Also now people are speaking English again but our minds are so bruised and battered we're still defaulting to terrible Spanish.

We depart late afternoon for Madrid, which is probably not worth a detailed report on because it's visiting a friend, who lives in a suburb way, way outside the city center so we hung out in her fairly bland and kinda sketchy neighborhood that evening. We spent the next two days doing basic Madrid stuff like visiting the Prado, the Plaza del Sol, that creepy bullfighter's bar, watching a man walk a giant pig down the street, eating 5 Guys, eating Chinese, seeing Guernica, not getting pickpocketed, and having dinner with odd Brazilian expats. Oh, and tacos. We found a really legit taco bar very close to the center but I can't tell you where because my phone ran out of battery by that point. It's run by Mexicans and that's why you can get decent Mexican food in Madrid. The Chinese food was only so-so.

If I remember I'll do a follow up post about the Pinchtos or Pinxtos or whatever we're calling them because that was the steepest learning curve of all.