Sunday, January 3, 2010


Recommendations for a trip across the north from San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela. Anything that does not have an address or phone can be found on google. We found tourist offices in each place that were very helpful and had really good maps for free.
Start in SAN SEBASTIAN, a lovely seaside town that made me think of Nice, but less touristy. We stayed at the cheap, clean and simple Pension La Perla, well located next to the Cathedral (phone 34-943-428-123). We had a nice chat about food with the friendly owner Maria Jesus.
San Sebastian is a major food destination, famous for their tapas or pinxos (x is pronounced like ch here—you’re in Basque country where many people speak Euskara). There are hundreds of bars here, with tempting displays of canapes and small snacks to go with your red wine. The narrow streets in the Parte Vieja has the biggest conglomeration of bars. Most of the food is out on display and you can just pick up what you want and eat it. Keep a mental track of what you consume, although the bartenders in Spain can keep track of dozens of customers if you forget. In most places the tapas that are on display all cost the same, so you just have to say how many you ate. Many places also have a menu on the wall with tapas you can order (usually the ones served hot). This way of eating if popular day and night.
The other big area for tapas bar-hopping is the residential area of Gros, just across the river from the main part of town. This is where the truly amazing stuff is found. There is an annual competition for the best pinxos and several of them came from here. Don’t miss Aloña Berri (c/Berminghan,24) and Bergara (c/ Gral. Artetxe 8), two of the prize-winners.
Other than eating (don’t forget the pastry shops), there’s not a whole lot to do in San Sebastian, but it’s lovely to walk around. The architecure is impressive, and the curved walk along the bay is delightful place to stroll in good weather. There’s an aquarium, too, if you’re into that sort of thing. Definitely worth 2 or 3 nights stay.
Take the bus (under 2 hours, the train is much longer) to BILBAO, a charming place, made rich and famous by the Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry. The museum is one site where the reality lives up to the hype—it looks like a UFO that landed in a 19th-century Spanish city. A visit to this museum is an exciting experience.
We stayed at the cheap, clean, small and well-located Pension Bilbao ( and ate mostly in small places in the Casco Viejo, the old part of town where the tapas bars are clustered. Our pension was just over the river in the newer (19th c.) part of town, which I preferred—the old part seems like it could be noisy. We enjoyed the Museo de Bellas Artes and a visit to the flashy new Sheraton Bilbao designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. If your budget allows, the restaurant at the Guggenheim is reputedly the best in town.
We rented a car on line from Europcar in Bilbao and headed west along the coast. (The ride from San Sebastian to Bilbao is not that interesting, plus parking in Bilbao is a problem, which is why it’s best to start the car rental as you leave Bilbao). Good maps are provided.
CASTRO URDIALES is a fishing village with lots of bars and restaurants and a sea-wall that makes a nice stroll. We spent the night here, but the hotel options are limited—we stayed in a funky, old place overlooking the bay.
SANTILLANA DEL MAR is a lovely town that we spent about 2 hours in (enough)—one of those beautiful places that is really too preserved, but worth a look. We went early (around 11) and could tell that later in the day it would be swamped with toursits.
We headed toward San Vicente de la Barquera, then headed south through the snow-capped mountains of Cantabria, via Riano—amazing mountain scenery, small villages and goats--and we only passed one other car in 3 hours.We skirted around Leon (we’d been there already, but I do recommend it) and spent the night in Astorgas, a charming, but not exciting, small town, famed for an early building by Antoni Gaudi (not typical of his work). The hotel was great. Unfortunately I lost the card, but it was right across from the Roman Museum, and was all but invisible—marked by an H only.
The next day we stopped for lunch in Ourense, which we liked very much—a delightful old part of town–don’t miss the market if you arrive in the morning. We got a good map at the tourist office, parked the car in an underground spot and walked around for a few hours. Worth a stop.
Take the main road from Ourense toward Pontevedra. We turned off on PO 255 near
A Cañiza onto a 2-lane road that went through ravishing landscape—worth the many curves.
We enjoyed Pontevedra very much. Arriving by car, follow the signs to Centro. We stopped at the first hotel we saw which had parking, and it turned out to be a great choice—close to the old part of town, large room, good price. (Hotel Rías Bajas, Rúa de Daniel de la Soto 7, tel 986-855-100)
The old part of town is fascinating for a stroll. There were not a lot of bars and restaurants, surprising for its size, but we had great tapas at a hip place called Borona, (Travesia del Comercio , 3 bajo)—the ensalada de cecina was memorable.
We got up early to make the hour drive to Santiago de Compostela and returned the car at the train station. This is a great destination, as millions of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago have known for centuries. The old part of town is like a Spanish version of Venice, without the canals—lots of twisting streets, charming plazas, arcarded walkways, and of course, the Cathedral. We spent just two nights there, but could have stayed longer. Be sure to walk out of the old town, along the Rua de San Roque, Rua de San Pedro, and Rua de Hortas (where on the left is a small alley leading to a green field, a lovely surprise)—until you reach the really new part, where it gets generic. Most of the restaurants are along Rua de Franco, which has a lively tapas bar scene at night (we had an esp. nice lunch at Carrleña at no. 48). Our little pension (from Lonely Planet) was nothing special—and noisy (lots of carousing college students at 4am). I saw two places that looked promising for the next trip—

From Santiago we flew to Madrid on a cheap flight, found on www.spanair

Other good driving route in Asturias: This route can be done as a day trip from Oviedo.
Head south to Cangas del Narcea (not a lovely town) and continue south on AS-213 (best part of drive). If you want to stay overnight in this area, check out the , in the middle of nowhere--beautuful!
Head toward Villabino, through the tiny, charming village of Vega de Viejos, then head north on C-633 (numbers are not the same on all maps) toward Pola de Somiedo, then on to Oviedo.

Driving to/from Madrid, here are the best places to stop.

LEON--The Hostal Gusman el Bueno was in the middle of the nightlife area.
SEGOVIA-One of the prettiest places in Spain. good hotel choice near centro
The Restaurant El Fogón Sefardí looked interesting (C/Juderia Vieja 17, just off Plaza Mayor)
BURGOS--a charming small city with a famous cathedral.

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