Road Trip Europe – Madrid And Northern Spain

28 Jun,2018 By jagabond

I admire Spain for its regional diversity. I loved both Barcelona and Sevilla, but the two cities were clearly very different. While researching for my Northern Spain road trip I was seeing the same thing. Choose from big cities or small towns, beaches or wine country, Spanish speaking or Basque. I can see Spain as the topic of many debates. Your favorite region depends mostly on your own likes and dislikes.

I review my road trip below, in hopes that other travelers find the information useful in their planning.

 

Road Trip Details

When?February
How long?Ten days
Driving time?Fourteen hours
Start and end spot?Madrid
Travel team?One American and two Belgians

 

Road Trip Itinerary

Madrid

I’m not the biggest fan of Madrid, even including it on my list of European cities to skip. Focusing on the positive, however, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed spending a day admiring all the statues scattered about town. If there was an award for city with the most statues, Madrid might be near the top. Many were in Retiro Park, a lovely place to spend a sunny afternoon.

madrid on spain road trip

madrid on spain road trip

If you like New York and London, you will also probably like Madrid. I prefer my cities with populations under a million. That said, larger cities offer a wider selection of restaurant options. How else do you explain us finding a Belgian restaurant here? Spain is all about the tapas, like the ones at Mercado San Miguel. This crazy and crowded market captures well the chaos of Madrid.

madrid on spain road trip

In cities like this I go hunting for street art. I ducked down a sketchy alley and found this emotional piece.

madrid on spain road trip

From great street art to annoying street performers. Madrid was full of them. Ever see the headless trick? Yeah, only a hundred times.

madrid on spain road trip

LaGuardia

This was the biggest surprise for me on the road trip. Set in the heart of the Rioja wine region, this is a walled, medieval town that takes you back in time. I loved the golden glow of lamps as I walked the lonely streets at night.

laguardia on spain road trip

For a magical wine experience visit Casa Primicia, one of the oldest wineries in Spain provable by records of wine sales. The Catholic Church used to own the winery and its profits, thus it kept accurate records.

laguardia on spain road trip

LaGuardia has an authentic feel as you walk down narrow passageways and through arches. This theme continued with views of lush vineyards below us. I cannot recommend this town enough when exploring Spanish wine country.

laguardia on spain road trip

Olite

Here you have a town defined by its majestic castle in the center. Built in the fourteenth century, it sustained years of damage from wars and was essentially in ruin before renovation efforts began in 1925. Olite is prettiest when looking down from one of the many castle terraces. The bluish gray tops on the towers give it a Disney feel.

olite on spain road trip

For wine lovers try Ochoa Winery, a hidden gem located just outside town. A very unique and tasty white here called Uvadoble blends Viognier and Macabeo grapes. It’s an easily drinkable wine that could go with anything, and the label is quite attractive.

olite on spain road trip

Ujue

The hilltop town of Ujue is named for a dove that supposedly led a shepherd to an image of the Virgin Mary. On a misty day the town can resemble something you’d imagine from a Tolkien novel. Visit the restaurant Meson las Torres for a good lunch and wonderful views. The aforementioned Ochoa wine is on the menu here, and my friend happily bought a bottle.

ujue on spain road trip

San Sebastian

I was expecting more. Of all the places we visited, San Sebastian might be the best example of why coming to Northern Spain in the off-season isn’t the best idea. Our day here was cold, wet and windy, but we walked the streets anyway. The difference in the Basque architecture was striking, in fact I can’t recall seeing another town in Spain that looked like this.

san sebastian on spain road trip

san sebastian on spain road trip

For everything we heard about the food culture here, the tapas were just average. Restaurants shuttering their doors during the colder months didn’t help. I think there is a major seasonal variation here. The city seemed to be waiting to wake up when tourists arrive in summer. This was most evident on the beach. If not for the one person writing in the sand, it would’ve been lifeless. I found out later he was protesting a recent housing tax.

san sebastian on spain road trip

Santillana del Mar

During tourist season I’ve heard that Santillana del Mar becomes unbearably busy. Without the crowds you can see it for what it is…a beautifully preserved medieval town. Few would argue that the Collegiate Church is one of the highlights. This started as a Bendictine monastery in the ninth century. The lion statues in front give it the look of a mini castle.

santillana del mar on spain road trip

The main square is Plaza Mayor. This is where we had two outstanding lunches at a restaurant called Castillo. The square lit up at night and looked gorgeous.

santillana del mar on spain road trip

It was perfectly medieval…until I found the hot dog stand. Every town progresses, I guess.

santillana del mar on spain road trip

Segovia

Yet another example of how far flung the Roman Empire was. A relic of ancient Rome sits elegantly in the center of Segovia. Not surprisingly this aqueduct has become a symbol of the city.

segovia on spain road trip

The inside of Spanish cathedrals can often be plain and slightly unimpressive, and the one in Segovia was no different. It makes up for that with the outside, particularly how it looks against the moonlight.

segovia on spain road trip

The castle in Segovia has a diverse history. Over the years it served as a Royal Palace, fortress, prison and military academy. The stained glass windows here were simply awesome, as were the views.

segovia on spain road trip

segovia on spain road trip

 

Road Trip Lessons Learned


  • Bring a strong umbrella to Northern Spain this time of year. It was windy and rainy for all but one day.
  • Beware speeding cameras on the freeways. We got a ticket but couldn’t find out how to pay it, as online it kept asking for a Spanish identification number.
  • I feel I missed the boat with San Sebastian. After hearing so much good about it, I think the bad weather and closed shops led to disappointment. I would like to visit again in the summer.
  • Conversely I think traveling to Santillana del Mar in the off-season made me like it more. It seemed we had the pretty town all to ourselves.
  • Be careful in Madrid, as crime is higher than average. One of my travel mates had his wallet snatched.
  • Fans of white over red wine might be let down with the Rioja region. Whites do exist, but red varieties like Grenache and Tempranillo are far more popular.

 

 

 

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