In the words of A-ha, summer moved on and the way it goes, you can’t tag along — and what a summer it has been!
We decided in June to have a two weeks road trip vacation in Spain after realizing that both Spain AND Portugal in one road trip would be a bit too over the top and booked the plane tickets immediately; we knew where we’d land (Malaga) and from which city we’d depart (Barcelona), but hardly made any plans in between.
As time went by, I kept researching routes, but there wasn’t anything on TripAdvisor & Co. that matched what we wanted out of this vacation. The only thing we knew for sure is that we were going to drive a lot, but we didn’t have a route. We wanted some beach fun mixed with some cultural experiences (gastronomy and landmarks), a bit of mountain adventure and careless walks through narrow city streets.
Granted, everyone wants different things (you are the sum of your experiences and all that jazz) — and here we wanted about four vacations wrapped with a bow and tied as one, like those 4 in 1 instant coffee powders that I’m sure no one actually likes (cocoa should not go in coffee. Ever), but if you’re like a-few-months-ago me, this will be helpful, so do tag along.
First, the TL; DR in pics.
So, here’s a very detailed, day-by-day plan if you’re thinking about driving through Spain for about two weeks and want to taste a little bit of everything. Or, you can realize this is way too much to do in waaay too little time and just go lay at the beach somewhere trying not to eavesdrop on beach goers next to you (and judge their choice of swimwear and/or entertainment). Because, somewhere at the end of this holiday, this conversation happened:
Him: All inclusive seems like a great choice right now.
Me: But…fun! Adventures! Experiences!
A couple of weeks before leaving we started to pen down the cities we’re going to see. We first booked two nights at a hotel in Estepona (near Malaga), and chose to see Malaga, Tangier (Morocco) and Gibraltar in the first three days, then booked another four nights in Barcelona, at the end of the trip. We wanted to add San Sebastian and Bilbao in the mix, and include a few nights in the mountains, but didn’t know when and for how long. We also planned on sleeping on the beach one night, preferably in a warmer city, like Valencia.
Adding up the distances, I get a total of 2.500 kilometers (although we didn’t drive to Biarritz, we took a bus from San Sebastian), but I’m sure in the end the number was a lot higher as it doesn’t include the almost two hours spent in Seville looking for a parking spot. I wish I was exaggerating.
Notice Tangier is right there, next to Gibraltar, so close, but yet so far, sitting lonely and untouched by mapping, silently weeping in its corner. Because to cross the border to Africa one needs a passport one forgot at home. I’m not going to say which ‘one’, but it’s definitely not me, seeing as I had been day dreaming about another stamp on my passport since we booked the plane tickets. This small change in plans, however, made me quite happy because even if I was dying to see Morocco, I was finally off the hook.
Flashback to exactly a year ago when we wanted a quick fix somewhere in Bulgaria. A three days weekend of sun, sea and (we later discovered) cats. We were stuck in traffic at the border and, as I was lost in a day dream probably about re-fixing my tan, I hear his voice from the driver’s seat, slowly bringing me back from my reverie. He was asking for my ID; he wanted to have all the papers ready for the border control officer.
I didn’t respond at first, as the words seemed foreign to me. He asked again and my heart sunk. He put aside his own papers and we just started at each other for a moment as I couldn’t hide what had finally dawned on me. He asked again, this time mentioning both the different documents I could show. My body, all shrivelled up, was there, in that car, at that border, but my mind, my spirit, my essence, was in my living room, staring dumbfounded at the ID and passport combo I had left on my coffee table. I could see them both, laying side by side, comforting each other. It felt so vivid; like I could just reach and grab them and this whole thing would be over. But, since I still haven’t found a way to bend time and space, my efforts were futile.
So, still with my mind about 150 kilometres away, I finally managed to voice the words “I only have my driver’s licence, maybe that would do…?” (Spoiler: no, just a driver’s licence is not good enough to pass a border. Trust me, I tried. We had to go back for my ID and I was extremely surprised by how well the situation was handled — I only got a ‘let’s not ever talk about this again’).
Anyway, back to this roadtrip. Here are the stats:
Time: 15 days (2nd — 17th September)
Places visited: Málaga, Estepona, Gibraltar, Sevilla, Córdoba, Valencia, Zaragoza, Urkiola Natural Park, San Sebastián, Bilbao, Biarritz, Zaragoza, Barcelona
Weather: Got about 35C mainly in the South. Hottest was in Gibraltar, Cordoba and Valencia. It rained every day while at the mountains and it was about 10C, Bilbao and San Sebastian were in the middle of this, temp wise, although we did get some rain. We got a bit of bad luck in Barcelona as it rained all day long during our 2nd day, but the temp was OK (about 18C).
Hardly anyone was swimming, so pretty low water temp.
Transportation: arranged to pick up the car at Malaga airport and drop it off in Barcelona. We dropped it off as soon as we got to Barcelona, as we knew all the things we planned to see were accessible via subway.
Also, parking is mad! Most parking places have a daily cap, so if you exceed a certain number of hours, you’ll just pay the daily fee. At most, we paid about €24. The average hourly rate is around €2,5. The problem is that most public parking places are full, so there’s a lot of driving around in circles, trying to find spots.
Part One: Costa del Sol
Malaga. One day is pretty enough to visit the Alcazaba, a Moorish style fortress from the 11th century located right in the heart of the city, spend a few hours at the beach and take a walk in the city center. Make sure you plan your meals according to Spanish rules — most places are closed between 2PM and 6PM (or they only serve drinks). Also, I have no clue what they’re doing with the coffee, but it’s boiling hot.
Estepona was actually a very nice surprise. Initially, we chose it because it was halfway between Malaga and Gibraltar, but it’s an extremely enjoyable vacation spot, not crowded at all. There were very few people at the beach, so it kinda was the perfect relaxation spot.
Gibraltar. We wanted to take the cable car to reach the top of the rock, but didn’t make any reservations beforehand. There was a very long queue in front of the ticket office and the heat made the wait unbearable. We decided on the spot to take the alternative route with a van, as they’re parked in front of the ticket office, trying to convince tourists to ride with them, and it was the best choice. We got a seemingly private tour for the same price as the cable car (about £30 for two people).
The road from Gibraltar to Cordoba takes about 3 hours; we decided to take the route half an hour longer to have dinner in Seville. The city itself is vibrant, the food amazing, but it took ages to find a parking spot. Also, watch out for parking hustlers, they seem shady.
Cordoba. We got to the Ayre Hotel in Cordoba at around 1AM. We spent €100 for the two nights here and I think this was one of the most amazing hotels I’ve stayed at (coming in 2nd after this little piece of heaven in Railay Beach, Thailand). The fact that they had a cat in the yard helped. Breakfast was absolutely phenomenal (that first sip of a great coffee in the morning…) and the whole place was oozing a hacienda vibe.
We started visiting pinned places, but the heat was too much and seeing as I refused to even step out of the shadows of trees and buildings, we decided to just enjoy life without doing things just because they were on the to do list.
Tip: go see the Roman Bridge of Cordoba in the evening, it’s more spectacular.
Mountain miscalculation, Albacete and Valencia
Decided to leave Cordoba (and the cat) early and go to Valencia through Natural Park Sierras de Cazorla which ended up being a fail as we put the pin on the map wrongly. Google images showed some great trails in that natural park but I just assume they were far from our path. We did enjoy the scenery, though.
After a lot of potato chips, pistachio and peanuts, we decided to stop in Albacete for a late lunch but arrived right in the middle of siesta. A coffee, a sigh and another bag of chips later, we went back to the car.
Valencia. Remember how we initially planned the trip around sleeping one night on the beach? As the fated night was approaching, I started dreading it. We then decided to sleep in the car and then get up to watch the sunrise. Neither of us wanted to be the one to bail, but I decided it’s better to say you want to quit than hold on to a teen fantasy of sleeping on the beach when clearly your back can’t even handle all types of mattresses. After I took the proverbial bull by the horns and voiced my concerns, I have never seen anyone making a hotel booking faster.
We spent two nights in Valencia, at a very cute, modern-rural style hotel 10 minutes outside of Valencia, Macia de Lacy, and because we liked the beach and decided to stay longer, we booked another night at an Ibis hotel afterwards.
Having breakfast on the beach while watching the sunrise is feasible and there aren’t so many people doing the same. It might be a cliche, but it’s still cute. We did sleep on the beach in Valencia, but at noon after we walked for about 4 hours.
Part Two: Basque Country
I was still wearing the bathing suit underneath from the last moments in Valencia when I changed from a skirt and T-shirt to long jeans and two sweaters in the parking lot of a gas station near Zaragoza. The truckers there didn’t seem to mind the view. The temp difference of almost 20 C made me feel like we were in a completely different realm. And I say realm because this is how Northern Spain seemed to me: almost magical.
We had a quick coffee in Zaragoza then made our way to Urkiola Natural Park. When we reached our B&B, it was pitch black, raining, a dense fog and no other car on the road. It felt surreal. We spent four nights at a lovely place, Burdi-kurutze. The hosts couldn’t be more helpful and accommodating, the place very clean and with great wi-fi connection. No reception ‘round those parts, though.
Near the B&B there were a lot of hike trails, but as it rained every morning, we only took a walk through the park to get to a viewpoint.
We chose this place as it was near Bilbao and San Sebastian and we had plans to see those two (and fit in Biarritz, which we made happen).
San Sebastian definitely deserves a place of its own in this trip’s hall of fame. The entire city can be done by foot and it’s got a lot of different sceneries. Being so far up North, it rained, then 30 minutes later the sun was shining brightly.
Restaurants in the Biscay area serve pintxos which are about €3–4 each, depending on the place and complexity.
Bilbao is now famous for the Guggenheim Museum, but if you’re in the neighbourhood, check out Vizcaya Bridge, which is now part of the Unesco World Heritage.
Biarritz, France, is one hour away by bus from San Sebastian. The fee is about €5 one way and it’s a great change of pace from driving so much. We didn’t get the tickets in advance, we just paid the driver directly. What caught my attention here were all the people in their 60s bodyboarding. Men and women, on a weather that couldn’t convince me to even take the jacket off. But hey, they had a wetsuit.
The trip from Urkiola to Barcelona was almost 600 kilometres. We stopped half way in Zaragoza, again, for lunch, but spending so much time in the car was excruciating. We ended up playing history trivia, jeopardy (yup, there’s an app for that) and listening to too much Weird Al Yankovic.
Part Three: Barcelona
Did you ever get the feeling that something just drags on and on even if it jumped the shark a while ago? Just like this blog post, Barcelona ended up being two days too long. We spent four nights here, it rained for two days and a couple of days in the evening we just went out for coffee near the hotel.
The prices are rather high, but didn’t feel higher than Valencia. We had breakfast at a very cute cafe near Badal metro station for about €5 (two coffees at around €2,50 and a small brioxe with jamon and a small pack of Oreos for another €5).
The highlight? We found a place at the top of Montjuic to do some plane watching.
All in all, it was great, especially the Northern parts. I feel like Barcelona was too much, but maybe rainy weather had a saying. 10/10 I would do again. Maybe with less driving, though. Or maybe next time I should drive, too. I did mention I don’t drive, right?
At the end, I leave you with a culinary trip in pics: