A road trip from Biarritz to Barcelona offers something for all tastes: culture, tapas, wine, architecture, nightlife, sand and sea. Here's how we did it...
With only five days in which to squeeze our annual holiday, we were briefly tempted by hassle-free, all-inclusive package holidays. Briefly. For some reason, we appear to be addicted to road trips, and the greater the distance the better.
To say that our trip started in Biarritz is stretching the truth somewhat. We had spent a fabulous break in this upmarket coastal resort the year before, staying in the stunning and historic Villa le Goeland, so we used it this time as a convenient entry point, thanks to Mr O'Leary's low-cost Ryanair flights from Ireland. I am a committed Francophile, so every opportunity to visit France is valued. My husband, however, is a committed Spaniel (well, you know what I mean) so on this occasion he conned me into visiting Spain by pretending that we were going to France. We did enjoy a pleasant coffee in the cafe before boarding the train to San Sebastian.
To get to San Sebastian, you must first take the SNCF train to Hendaye, then leave the station and enter another smaller station with Eusko Trenbideak trains running to San Sebastian/Donostia. Travel in this region is relatively simple despite the confusion that could arise from the bilingualism. San Sebastian is a beautiful resort, with a wide sweeping beach, old port area and pleasant city streets. We stayed in a pension, an inexpensive guesthouse option in Spain. The Pension Bellas Artes is central and, while basic, clean and comfortable. Most importantly, when you are staying in a different location each night, accommodation costs can be high but this pension was only €70 for a private double ensuite room. We headed straight to the old port area and pub-crawled our way through plate after plate of authentic tapas. The next day we took the bus to Bilbao.
The main reason for visiting Bilbao is the Guggenheim museum. It's striking, if not stunning, from the outside, and the interior and the exhibitions are mesmerising; you could easily lose yourself here for days on end. The building was designed to flow from inside to out and vice versa and is equipped with clever installations throughout. When we visited there was a river fog effect eerily clouding the moat surrounding the museum. We managed to drag ourselves away from the Guggenheim in time to collect our rental car. Well, almost! The Spanish take legendary lunch breaks so instead of collecting our car at the city-centre location, we had to jump in a taxi and travel to another depot slightly outside the city centre. We then began in earnest the road trip portion of our journey. We drove directly from Bilbao to Laguardia.
The main reason for going to this region of Spain was to visit La Rioja, home of my favourite wine. Some early research revealed the magic of Laguardia, a walled medieval town, which permits pedestrians only. We were not disappointed. As you approach the town, it rises out a flat landscape, proudly perched atop a majestic hill. We had booked a night in the Sercotel Villa de Laguardia, which was so impressive that we drove in and out of it twice, thinking we were in the wrong place. Rooms were sumptuous and facilities excellent. The room rate was reasonable (€80) but breakfast was expensive. This was not a hardship, however, as there were many shops and cafes in Laguardia - and bodegas!
While the cobbled streets and medieval buildings are spellbinding, what lies beneath them is mouthwatering. The town is famous for its ancient bodegas, or wine cellars, which have been in families for generations. Here, you can taste the Rioja varieties and witness time-honoured wine-making traditions. Some bodegas are more commercialised than others. We visited the Marqués de Riscal vineyard, which includes a hotel designed by Frank Gehry. I was starting to feel that he was tracking us across Spain, as he designed the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the hotel in Laguardia looked remarkably similar. The small, musty, family-run bodegas are a much better option.
You can get a map from the tourist office and wind your leisurely way around this delightful village. We enjoyed our time here so much that we decided to stay a second night and sacrifice another town en route.
The joy of road trips is the variety of experiences that you can have, and this was very evident when we left historic, medieval Laguardia in torrential rain and arrived some hours later in historic, Roman Tarragona, with the sun melting the pavements. Tarragona has many authentic Roman ruins, some fantastic beaches and beautiful plazas in which to enjoy a beer or a meal alfresco. It is located on the coast south of Barcelona in close proximity to resorts such as PortAventura. Why anyone would choose to stay there rather than Tarragona is beyond me. We checked into the practical and comfortable Hotel Euro, which was a bit out of town. Taxis into the town varied wildly in cost and we were certainly treated to more than one scenic tour. So be warned: set your price before you get in! We could easily have spent an entire week in Tarragona flitting between the beaches in the hot sun, the historic Roman ruins in the balmy evening and the buzzing plazas in the night time. Unfortunately, we had to tear ourselves away yet again and force ourselves up the coast to Barcelona.
We returned our rental car in the airport, which is conveniently located off the main road as you approach Barcelona from Tarragona. The train to the city centre is fast and efficient and we arrived a couple of blocks from the Hotel Europark, which is a 15-minute walk to Las Ramblas and five minutes from the Sagrada Familia. We took advantage of this to visit the Sagrada Familia at night, to capture its beauty under the stars. Barcelona has so much to offer and we needed another holiday once we had finished with Las Ramblas, the Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell and more tapas. The hotel was very impressive for the cost - approximately €90 per night (breakfast not included).
All of our accommodation throughout this trip was very reasonable and a very high standard. The only expense that we noticed was the wild variation between toll costs that you can pay on the national routes. Of course, you could hit the back roads and avoid this - but then you would need more than five days!
This brief, yet exhilarating, sweep from Basque country to Catalunya has merely whetted my appetite for the sequel and maybe now I must admit that I, too, am a committed Spaniel!