North Spain: Bilboa to Santiago

We had been thinking of making a trip to other parts of Spain when the perfect opportunity came about. Katherine’s friend from Georgia, Cathy, had let us know that she would be in Barcelona in early September to start a Mediterranean cruise. So, we planned a trip to visit her there and then continue on to Bilbao for a week tour though the north of Spain to include the Basque Region, the Rioja wine country and end up at the famous end of the Camino Santiago pilgrimage trail in Santiago de Compostela on the west coast. Our nine-day itinerary brought us from Malaga to Barcelona, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Pamplona, Briones, Burgos and Santiago de Compostela where we would experience three other regional languages (Catalan, Basque and Galician). We flew to Barcelona and Bilboa and rented a car for the route to Santiago, ending with a flight from there back to Malaga. We had great weather and the drives between overnight stops were short and very scenic. Our hotel choices turned out to be very good as well, so our entire trip went pretty much as planned. Of course we took hundreds of pictures which we hope the photo albums attached to this narrative show the best selection.


This was our second trip to Barcelona, so we focused on two of the most famous sights we missed the first time, The Sagrada Familia Cathedral and Mount Montserrat outside the city. Our flight from Malaga was only 90 minutes and our hotel (Sant Agusti) was in the Gothic section right off La Rambla giving us the best location to walk the older part of the city and get to our tour of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) Cathedral. This Cathedral is “new” and been under construction for about a hundred years with a planned finish date in ten more years. It is the masterpiece of Spain’s eminent architect, Antoni Gaudi, striking in its interior light and colors through the unique glass windows. The entire inside of the structure seems to soar upwards. For all the famous and beautiful cathedrals in Europe we have seen this one is truly different.

Barcelona is known for its tapas and seafood dishes but after walking around the area that evening, we decided on Five Guys for dinner. Where we live in Nerja there isn’t any where to get a real American hamburger and it’s one of the foods we do miss, so this was a chance to feast on a real burger with their famous greasy fries. No regrets!

The next day we took a tour to the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat about an hour bus ride southwest of the city. This site was known as far back as 880 with the discovery of the image of the Virgin of Montserrat with the beginning of a monastery around 1011. A Romanesque church was built in the thirteenth century. Today the monastery, with about 80 monks and a famous boys choir, is a very active tourist sight, offering spectacular views of the surrounding mountains which we added to by taking the funicular car up to a higher peak above the monastery site.

That evening we met Cathy and her cruising companion Donna for dinner at the Barcelona waterfront. My pick for dinner, the Port Vell restaurant, turned out perfect for our visit. We had three hours of wonderful conversation, encouraged by several sangrias and excellent paella. Cathy and Donna were off to their cruise the next morning while we caught an early flight to Bilboa.


Bilbao is a one-hour flight from Barcelona and gave us our starting point for our drive through northern Spain. It is a port city with some industry along the river passing through the city. Our hotel, The Gran Bilboa, was a very modern and upscale one, close to the old town section. Our afternoon after check-in was spent at the Guggenheim Museum, which was at the end of a long walk through old town and across the river into modern Bilboa. The duplicate of the famous museum in New York City was worth the visit, but the building itself with its unique architecture was as much a highlight as the modern art exhibits it contained.

The next morning was relaxed, with Katherine going for a run and getting out so far, she took a bus back to the hotel. We did one more walk through several parks before leaving for San Sebastian.

San Sebastian

A two-hour drive over some beautiful forested hills got us east to the beach city of San Sebastian, famous for its surfing beaches and old town night life. Our hotel, The Parma, was a small one on the edge of old town and looking at the Atlantic. This made it easy for our walks in old town and around a large promontory that separated the two major beaches, one with a harbor with a very small island in the middle. San Sebastian has a different feel to its old town then some of the other ones we have seen in Spain. Our evening was fun walking around the very crowded streets in old town, with its many tapa bars. We were told that there are more bars per person than any other in Spain, and its sure looked like it. We finally settled on an excellent tapa dinner, and Katherine ventured out of her food comfort zone to try several of them. And, to clarify, the traditional Spanish tapas have been expanded in this part of the country to be bigger, called pintxos. In either case this is a great way to eat a small or big dinner.

As it turned out we were in town for their annual anniversary fiesta which was culminated the next morning by the championship round of boat races in the harbor. The boats are 12 person rowers and helmsman and originated with the long boats used by the nineteenth century whaling ships. Many towns on the northern Spain have boat teams and they run a league that eventually culminates with the finals in San Sebastian. We got a good spot to watch them and a local lady explained the history as we watched. After the races the streets were even more crowded, if that was possible, with celebrating fans packed into the bars.


Our drive then turned south and inland to get to Pamplona. The scenery changed again with some mountain passes to cross through before arriving in a valley containing this historic city. The hotel, Tres Reyes was next to one of the old gates into the very old and walled old town section. The name was very appropriate as Pamplona was once three small kingdoms who unified centuries ago. Once again, we were in a town celebrating their unification, as we got to the small square at city call about the time, they started the procession of town officials, musicians and large king and queen figures though the streets. Except for almost being crushed by the crowds we had a nice time seeing all of this and getting some colorful photos.

The next morning Katherine went for a run along a very large park and I went exploring ending up at the Plaza de Toros, probably the most famous of all bull rings do to the annual running of the bulls. I did the walk while taking pictures, from the beginning of this unique annual event to its end at the bull ring and tried to imagine what those men are thinking about as they run through the narrow streets ahead of or beside a bunch of angry bulls.

After a long lunch and buying our post cards and souvenir trinkets we left to continue our trip west to follow the Camino Santiago trail though the wine country. There are many pilgrim trails through Spain ending up in Santiago de Compostela, which began in the ninth and tenth centuries, but the Camino Santiago is the most famous and used, starting in France and going through Pamplona.


A few hours drive though more flat terrain got us into the Rioja wine country, stopping in the small village of Briones. On the way we stopped for lunch in the village of Estella, a popular stop for the Camino Santiago hikers. We ate at a small café while watching small groups of hikers continually walking through looking for their accommodations for the night. Before leaving we did a hilly walk to a twelfth century church and then over to an equally old monastery.

Our hotel in Briones was a small B and B, Casa Rural de Meson. It was a perfect place to stay a night or two, small old rooms but nicely appointed with a well-done breakfast served by the owner. It was literally in a vineyard and very close to the Vivanco vineyard and wine museum. Our evening was spent walking up (literally) to the town square to see their old church. Most every café in this small town was closed on Mondays so we found a small restaurant (El Bodega) outside of town after Katherine successfully got directions (todos en Espanol) at a gas station. Among several translations for Bodega is wine cellar, which of course made sense given where we were.

After that nice breakfast I mentioned we spent the next three hours at the Vivanco wine museum. This was well worth the admission price and picking Briones as a stop on our trip. The museum was full of artifacts going back to the early history of winemaking and interactive exhibits to show in detail all the vital parts of the industry, from growing the grapes and the steps to make wine to the making of barrels and the infrastructure to get wine to market. We picked up a few representative bottles in the gift shop after a wine tasting and were off in the rain to Burgos, the historic capital of the Castile region.


A short trip through more of the wine country brought us into the hilly region and this good-sized city. Burgos goes back to the ninth century and the very early days of old Spain, Castile. It was vital as an outpost in the long reconquest campaign to push the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula. Our hotel choice, Hotel Norte y Londres, was again ideally located in the old town section. The hotel dated back to 1908 and although showed some age with creaky wooden stairs we had a comfortable room with a view. This old town is old even for Spain, as the city grew through the middle ages after starting from a strategic castle on a hill guarding a river. That evening was very cold and windy, so we elected to forgo the long walks and duck into a nearby pizzeria for a simple dinner and plan for the next day.

The next morning the weather had improved, and we had the pleasure at breakfast to meet a couple from Massachusetts who were doing the Camino Santiago. They had started in France and were on a 35-day plan to complete the journey. They shared some good stories relating their experiences, including one night in a bunkroom with twenty other hikers. I would say although I like a nice hike in the country, I would probably be a little particular about the overnight accommodations. We saw the number one sight in Burgos, the Cathedral, in the morning and then Burgos Castle in the afternoon.

The French Gothic Cathedral of St. Mary is impressive inside and out. Its 3 main doorways are flanked by ornamented bell towers. Its construction began in 1221, in the style of French Gothic architecture and is based on a Latin Cross. After a hiatus of almost 200 years, it went through major embellishments in the 15th and 16th centuries and the last works of importance were performed in the 18th century. This cathedral is one of the most beautiful we have seen on our travels and I would say rivals Notre Dame. One reason is its combination of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. Another may be the majestic space of the interior, full of light.

Our long climb up the hill overlooking the city to the Burgos Castle was rewarded with nice views and an immediate sense of the historic aspect of this location. The main castle walls are intact, and we could walk around its circumference to see the city that grew from that spot starting in 884. The castle is on a site of Roman ruins and has a one-thousand-year history, including occupation by Napoleon’s army in the early 1800’s.

Burgos also has a special claim to Spanish fame as it is the birthplace of El Cid, the most famous Castilian warlord in medieval Spain. The Moors called him El Cid (The Lord) and the Christians, El Campeador (Outstanding Warrior).

After a late lunch we were off to continue our trip with one slight problem. GPS or Google Maps will direct you to streets or alleys that are blocked in the daytime, so when we checked out, we had to park close after several attempts and then walk over to collect our bags.


 A few hours drive brought us though more hilly country with the temperature getting back to normal and into Leon. Leon is a major stop on the Camino Santiago and a provincial capital, an original Roman outpost with its “modern” history dating from 910. Our hotel this time was right in the old town, the small La Posada Regia where we had an attic room with a skylight window. As it was in Burgos, Google Maps can’t get you there, so we found public garage a few blocks away (than goodness for suitcases with roller wheels!). The weather was pleasant for our initial recon of the old town and the night life was going full blast. Dinner that night was a little different, as the restaurant had a “Americano” meal on the menu. This turned out to be a hamburger patty, chicken wings, fried eggs, ham croquettes, and fried potatoes. Very good and quite a change from tapas or any other Spanish dish.

The next morning we went to the main attraction, the Santa María de León Cathedral. Yes, it does seem that we were on a cathedral tour as well, but they are all a little different and all worth taking some time to visit. Leon’s cathedral has a lot of space surrounding it an dominates the area. It’s architecture is inspiring and what is most impressive to me is that it was completed in less than 100 years in thirteenth century in a town of only 5,000 people. It doesn’t quite match the beauty of the Burgos Cathedral, but it has the splendid feature of its stained-glass windows. With at least 1,764 square meters of surface, most of it containing the original windows, it is one of the most extensive and best-preserved collections of medieval stained glass in Europe.

After our cathedral visit, we mostly did some more walking, visiting a former palace along the way. After lunch we left a little early than normal as we had a four-hour drive to our next and final stop.

Santiago de Compostela

Our trip to north Spain and following the Camino Santiago ended at in the Galicia region at the historic and religious symbolic town of Santiago de Compostela. To break up the drive we turned off the main highway to a small farming village and found the only gas station for a lunch of fresh baguettes and cokes standing by the car, priceless!

Santiago’s name represents its history. Santiago is for the Apostle Saint James and Compostela refers to a burial ground and the paper presented to the early pilgrims documenting the completion of their pilgrimage. When the catholic church declared that the remains of St. James had been discovered in a tomb in the area around 813, the King ordered a chapel built at the site. A church followed and soon pilgrimages began to the site from France and Spain. A cathedral was begun at the site in 1075 and eventually the town of Santiago grew around the site to function as a major Christian religious site up to the present day.

Our last hotel on our trip was a small B and B, Hotel Atalaia, at the beginning of old town. Our large and modern upgraded room was the only one on the third floor with the elevator opening directly into the room. Quite unusual for a European hotel. Katherine went for a run before dinner and discovered a large green park outside of old town. Santiago’s old town is clearly medieval in appearance with very winding and narrow streets. We found dinner in a small café facing the large square on the back side of the cathedral.

We were up early the next morning to be tourists as we had to catch an afternoon flight back to Malaga. We walked through all old town and visited the Cathedral for only a short while as there is a major restoration ongoing and most of the interior is hidden by protective coverings and scaffolding. What we could see was impressive and showed its almost one- thousand- year age. It is a much darker cathedral than bright ones like Leon or Burgos and this is a simple fact based on the design. Santiago is a Romanesque construction which requires thick walls and much fewer windows, the opposite of the brighter Gothic cathedrals.

Our last stop was at the Museum of Pilgrimage and Santiago, a modern museum created in 1951. We spent a few hours there reading through all the exhibits which account for the entire history of Santiago and the origin and growth of the different pilgrimages to the city. A quick lunch and some last-minute shopping and we were off to the very nice airport, getting back to Malaga without any problems by 5 pm.

We had a very interesting and beautifully scenic trip through north Spain. The nice weather, good hotels and great food and wine just made it all the better.