Northern Spain: Do’s and Don’ts

When planning a trip to Spain, most people opt to go to Madrid (been there), Barcelona (done that), then head to the south to check out towns like Sevilla and Grenada. However, we wanted to take a vacation in July and my Spanish friends told me that during summer, they call this area ‘the pan of Spain’ – as in the frying pan. Since dying of heat exhaustion is not on my bucket list, we chose to head north instead.

We flew into Bilbao and drove west to the Picos de Europa, then came back to Bilbao for a couple of days, then headed to San Sebastian, and wrapped up the trip in Logrono in the La Rioja wine country.

Looks like the Big Dipper. Totally planned that on purpose.

As we were able to experience a lot during this trip, I thought I would share my personal do’s and don’ts should you ever want to explore this area yourself.

DO brush up on your Spanish.
This is generally a good rule of thumb for any time you visit a country outside of your native language (really – the whole ‘everyone speaks English’ thing is bs). In an effort to brush up on my high school Spanish, I tried Duolingo but really should have started earlier. I only got as far as ‘nosotros bebemos leche’ (‘we are drinking milk’) and that does not do one a whole lot of good as a tourist. Luckily we were able to get pretty far with just knowing the words for Hello, Please, Thank you, One, Two, Wine, Beer, and All the Food.

DO eat all the pintxos.
You may be asking, what in the world is a pintxo (pronounced “pincho”)? They are small snacks served on a small slice of baguette and can be found in most bars in the Basque Country. Like other areas of Spain, pintxo bar hopping is just part of the local culture where you roll up to a spot, order a drink and a pintxo, finish said drink and pintxo, then carry on to the next place.

Spain has the bar hopping game on lock. (What am I even saying?)

DO NOT beat yourself up when you just cannot eat any more pintxos.
As wonderful as the pintxos are, you will inevitably get to a point where you just want a burger. If you find yourself in this position, get the burger. Do not feel bad about it. You do you.

DO try and contain your shock when your order only costs a few bucks.
When we first ordered two vino tintos (red wines) and a pintxo and they said it was 3 euros, I bout fell to the floor. When have you ever gotten a decent glass of wine for 1 euro? Point for Spain.

Spain’s version of the dollar menu.

DO explore the different hikes Spain has to offer.
After we landed in Bilbao, I was annoyed at first that we still had to drive another 2-3 hours west to go to the Picos de Europa. We were only doing this trip because we had to cancel our original trip to Peru, where we were going to do the trek to Machu Picchu with our friends. So when we booked this vacation, I was insistent that there be hiking and we were going to drive however far we had to so that I could see some mountains.

And it was totally worth it. The area is absolutely stunning and even if you never got out of the car, you wouldn’t be disappointed. We explored the Lagos de Covadonga and the Garganta del Cares in the Picos de Europa area. I also did a mini-trek out to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe north of Bilbao and we did a portion of the Camino del Santiago while we were in San Sebastian. I would do all of them again in a second.

DO NOT skip San Sebastian.
San Sebastian has everything your little heart could desire so be sure to add it to your itinerary. In a span of 1.5 days, we were able to go to the beach, do the aforementioned hike, and eat and drink our faces off. Okay, the eating and drinking was not just limited to here but it was the best quality of all the stops we made and it was by far the highlight of the trip. (Bonus tip: if you go to the beach, do properly anchor the crappy umbrella you just bought for 11 euros so you don’t have to keep chasing it down the beach every time it flies away…ahem, Jerry.)

DO rent a car that both parties can drive.
This comes in handy when certain husbands sprain their ankles and are the only one in the car that can drive a manual. Which leads me to…

DO know how to drive a manual if you are renting a car in Europe.
Manuals outnumber automatic cars like 700:1 and while you can rent an automatic here, it will cost you your first born. I unfortunately cannot drive manual and trust me, I’m not proud of this fact. My dad tried to teach me once upon a time and let’s just say, it didn’t work out. Luckily when Jerry hobbled into the rental place saying he could no longer drive the original car we rented, they exchanged cars for us for free.

He tired to teach me how to drive manual on this tiny pullover on the side of a mountain road. It was unsuccessful. Can’t imagine why.

DO NOT be ashamed if you only go to the Guggenheim for the sweet a/c
When we were in Bilbao, it was abnormally hot (~40°C/9863°F) and it became unbearable to walk around. So I decided it was time for some culture and by culture I mean air conditioning. Modern art is not usually my jam (I’m a Renaissance kind of girl) but I enjoyed the Guggenheim quite a bit. My only quibble was with this one piece that consisted of a canvas painted entirely in black with the exception of a small square of white at the bottom that was supposed to represent ‘Spain’s struggle in the early 1900’s’ – umm getdafuq outta here.

Well worth the 16 euros to stop sweating for an hour.

DO reserve wine tastings in advance when in La Rioja 
Back in the states, it’s quite common to be able to walk right into a tasting room at a vineyard and try their varietals. But in Europe, we are finding that a little more preplanning is required and you need to call or email at least a few days in advance to book appointments. I had overlooked this fact and so were only able to check out one place. After getting denied by a few other locations, we headed back to Logrono to drown our sorrows in more pintxos.

We couldn’t get into this vineyard for a tasting but the view sure was nice.

DO carry your bathtubs in shopping carts. 
Okay this is incredibly specific and beyond random but we saw these guys in Logrono and I literally ran down the street with the sole purpose of capturing this picture for this blog post. The things I do for you.


So there you have it my friends. I hope that you will one day make it to this beautiful area of Spain and that you enjoy it as much as we did.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Terry Cox says:

    Maybe the painting was really the struggle you have in driving manuals or the disappointment of missed wine drinking(oops, tastings)


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