Four ways to see Spain by road


Eloise Barker

Title photography by Marques Photography

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November 2017

If you’re seeking charisma, Spain has it in spades. It’s hot, mountainous, Moorish and delicious. It’s home of adventurers, inventors and fascinating modern artists. The country’s a joy to explore, so hop in a car and discover it for yourself with our guide to the best road trips.

Seville – Córdoba – Granada – Malaga

Best for… Palaces, white towns, bright sunshine

The journey: 294 miles

Seville

For an Andalusian adventure, fly direct to Seville with British Airways. They savour life here in the home of Flamenco, orange blossom, deep-chested stallions and hot, dusty summers. Eat well at the tapas bars and seek shade in the world’s largest cathedral.

Where to stay: Magnificent period furniture, a courtyard retreat and a rooftop pool: Casas de la Juderia is a four-star hotel in Seville that’s very popular – and you can see why. Historic houses in the Jewish quarter were converted into the rooms and decked out in the finest style.

Córdoba

From Seville it’s a three-hour drive to Granada. Stop in Córdoba on the way for the day. Get there early for the famous Mezquita – a massive mosque left behind after 800 years of Moorish rule in Spain. The site is always busy, but you can seek solace in its hidden corners, before walking among its candy-coloured forest of pillars. Outside of the mosque – now a Catholic cathedral – look out for secrets in the Jewish Quarter. Not had enough of massive archaeological sites? Drive out to the Madinat al-Zahra, a ruined palace-city of epic proportions. Photograph vistas through the lovely horseshoe arches.

Granada

In Granada, make sure you book in advance to see a palace that’s still standing – the Alhambra. Parts of this carved masterpiece are well over a thousand years old. Spook yourself with accounts of the bloody murders in the glorious Palacio de los Leones, seeking recovery afterwards in the cool courtyards. The most fitting reward you can give yourself after a magnificent three-hour tour is chocolate churros in the street below.

Malaga

Before you can even think about flying back from Malaga, take time on the seafront in this lively, summer-loving city. Wander around the nearby white towns of Mijas, Ronda and Nerja, then enjoy fresh sardines, a Picasso museum and a near-complete Roman amphitheatre smack in the city centre.

Book flights to Seville

Ferrari Land is unique to Europe and delivers all the thrills and spills of supercars – without the petrol bill.

  • Eslava Tapas bar, Seville. ©Cultura/Tim E White.

    Eslava Tapas

    Award-winning tapas in the heart of Seville isn’t hard to find. Eslava is famous for its cheese ice cream and gently-cooked egg yolk tapas.

    Discover Seville
  • The Comares Tower at the Alhambra palace, Granada. ©jeangill.

    Legend has it…

    That it was in this very tower at the Alhambra palace that Christopher Columbus convinced the Spanish monarchy to approve his journey west. Go on your own adventure: book flights to Seville from£40 one-way

    Book flights
  • Woman walking inside the Mezquita of Cordoba. ©Matteo Colombo.

    Mezquita tips

    The Mezquita gets busy from 9:30am, but if you aim to get there at 8:30am you’ll find far fewer people about. What’s more, it’s free to wander around until mass begins.

    Plan your trip to Seville

Barcelona – Costa Brava - PortAventura

Best for… Ferrari Land and fine art

 

The journey: 282 miles

  

Barcelona

For culture, costas and adventure, start in beautiful Barcelona. This city has it all – buzzing streets, golden sands, long evenings sitting out by the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc and days spent discovering the city’s artistic soul. Gaudi painted the town red, blue and green with his remarkable architecture. It’s worth queuing to go into his unfinished masterpiece Sagra Familigia, one of the most remarkable modern cathedrals in the world.

Skirt Los Ramblas, a notorious tourist trap, and visit the Picasso museum, taking your time over rooms dedicated to his early Blue Period. Later, the massive nightclubs pack out. They’re primed to deliver a good time, pumping out Puerto Rican tunes and top twenty hits. And if it all gets too hot, there’s always the fantastic cityside beach.

Where to stay: H10 Marina is a city-slicker. Right by the sea and immensely popular, it has heaps of return visitors. It’s 10 minutes to the beach and slightly out of the way of Barcelona’s busy bits.

Costa Brava

Just outside Barcelona is the fantastic Costa Brava, famous for the Michelin stars stamped on its restaurants and Salvador Dalí’s weird and wonderful house. Both are very popular and need booking in advance. Drives along this coast are rewarded with beaches and beauty – French Riviera views without the snobbery.

Portaventura

But if you’ve got a family, Dalí's melting clocks aren’t the only way to pass the time. Head an hour south from Barcelona instead, to Sitges beach and the parks and resort at PortAventura World. Visit the brand new Ferrari Land, the new speed-devil theme park. It’s unique to Europe and delivers all the thrills and spills of supercars – without the petrol bill.

Where to stay: PortAventura Gold River styles it out with décor inspired by the Wild West. This fun hotel has direct access to the park, which is included in the ticket price. Note that Ferrari Land is not included (because Ferraris didn’t exist on the frontier?) but you can access the six worlds of PortAventura theme park, including Costa Caribe Aquatic Park.

Book the PortAventura Gold River

Bilbao – San Sebastián– Rioja

Best for… Michelin stars, classy art and romantic wine regions

 

The journey: 166 miles

 

Bilbao

Where else in the world can you go for a gastronomic heartland with a side of world-class surf culture? Bilbao and San Sebastián are both famous for their perfect waves, thanks to a beach break and a vast Atlantic swell. Bilbao is an art hub, too. The Guggenheim is full of ultra-modern art, and provides bursts of colour – not least from Jeff Koons massive flower sculpture, though Frank Gehry’s exterior is all smooth silver.

Where to stay: Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao is opposite the Guggenheim and could rival it for clean lines and cool décor.

San Sebastian

Beginners arriving in San Sebastián can surf at Zurriola Beach, the arc of sand directly in front of the city – but be prepared for plenty of spectators. Then, wring out your rashie in the evening and head for pintxos at award-winning tapas bars. For a breath of fresh air and incredible, peerless dining, Akelare, on the clifftop, and Borde Berri do authentic dishes very well. If you’re looking for Michelin stars, visit Arzak, which has a spice rack that could supply a souk and Mugaritz, which is a short drive from the city.

Where to stay: Hotel Maria Cristina is a five-star Luxury Collection Hotel with stunning credentials. It’s right in the historic centre of San Sebastián, with a great tapas bar.

Rioja

You can’t turn down an opportunity to explore La Rioja. The wine region of Spain produces its famous, hearty reds in the misty hills. The region is shielded on one side by the Cantabrian mountains and threaded by a pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago. Make your own tracks – hop between Medieval villages, rustic bodegas, and modern vineyards. Laguardia and Logroño are larger towns with great tapas bars in the old town, and wine made from local Tempranillo grapes.

Where to stay: Stay in your own personal Guggenheim. Hotel Marques de Riscal is the only hotel in the world to be designed by Frank Gehry. Its £57 million design, featuring pink titanium and stainless steel, is utterly remarkable inside and out. The vineyard next door produces the world-famous Marques de Riscal wine and the restaurant has two Michelin stars.

Book Hotel Marques de Riscal

  • Fishing boats on Calahonda Beach; Nerja, Andalusia. ©Rick Senley.

    Bright beaches

    The Costa del Sol has wonderful Mediterranean beaches. Calahonda Beach is on all the postcards at Nerja – with views like this, who’d want to look at anything else?

    Book flights to Malaga
  • The Salvador Dalí Museum in Figueres, Catalunya. ©Ayhan Altun / Alamy Stock Photo.

    A surreally good time

    "The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.” Not many artists have the chance to build their own museum. Dalí worked on this amazing, surrealist building in his home town. Visitors are in for a treat. Book return flights to Barcelona from£66 return

    Book flights to Barcelona
  • Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, designed by architect Frank Gehry. ©Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo.

    I spy a spider

    Louise Bourgeois’s signature spider sculpture threatens anyone attempting to visit the Guggenheim. Improbably titled ‘Maman’ or ‘Mummy’, it’s a strange tribute to her mother. This striking Bilbao museum looks amazing inside and out.

    Book flights to Bilbao

Madrid – Toledo – Cáceres – Seville

Best for… Romans, Moors and matadors

  

The journey: 382 miles

  

Madrid

Spain’s vibrant cultural capital is full of Belle Epoque beauty and fantastic art. For nightlife, it has the most bars of any city in the world, and sprawling nightclubs for afters. Relax in the morning in a rowing boat in Jardines del Buen Retiro de Madrid – the park name literally means ‘pleasant retreat’, though it also contains a controversial statue of the devil. Walk from here down Paseo Del Prado to the Museo del Prado. See massive canvases by massive artists: Las Meninas by Velazquez and Saturn devouring his own children, courtesy of Goya. For Picasso’s traumatic depiction of Guernica, pop to the nearby modern art museum, Reina Sofia. Start shopping around Puerta del Sol and wander as you shop towards Plaza Major. Celebrate local food in brilliant restaurants, washed down with an inexpensive Spanish red. Casa Alberto serves amazing slow-cooked bull tail. Later, stay up late with the locals on steamy summer nights, drinking balloon-shaped glasses of gin and tonic crammed with ice.

Where to stay: Hotel Ópera is opposite the Royal Opera House in Madrid’s old quarter, close to all the major sights. The hotel’s restaurant is famed for its operatic waiters, who sing at the musical dinner every Friday and Saturday. It’s gloriously cheesy. The Only You Boutique Hotel is a little hipper. Waft between airy dining rooms and grand old furnishings – this palace retains many of its original features. Enjoy breakfasts and brunches, and fancy dinners in the restaurant.

Toledo

Driving out of Madrid, stop in Toledo. This World Heritage city rises from a crook in the river Tajo. It was depicted in a moody masterpiece by its famous resident painter, El Greco. Wander through the streets and bump into a statue of the legendary writer Cervantes just outside Zocodover Plaza. Visit the oldest synagogue building in Europe and a stunning gothic cathedral containing two El Greco paintings and a fantastic altar. Don’t forget to look beyond the city, too – the views over the ancient walls are wonderful. Reward yourself with the regional speciality: Cochinillo (suckling pig) or snack on Turrón, nougat filled with almonds.

  • Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid. ©kasto80.

    Come evening

    When the sun sets, Madrid stays awake. This student city has the most bars of any in Europe. Book flights to Madrid from£49 one-way

    Book flights

Extramadura

Time to go off the beaten track a little, to Extremadura. Before you dip down to Seville, this wild, oft-unvisited province near Portugal preserves Spain as it once was, with Roman ruins standing proud. Disturb the ancients as you step over timeworn flagstones – and re-enact your favourite scenes from Game of Thrones Season 7. Visit the heritage town of Cáceres to try authentic hams and cheese. Stay overnight and, as the tourists leave come dusk, you’ll have the city to yourself.

Where to stay: Palacio De Oquendo has 86 airy rooms with crisp cotton sheets, arranged around its old stone lobby. It’s housed in a former 16th century palace but the modern amenities are up to scratch, including Restaurant Tapería's beautiful terrace and an onsite gym.

Seville

Finish in Seville for a taste of Andalusia. Seville’s flamenco bars compete with Madrid’s tapas scene for the best night of entertainment in Spain. Before the heat of the day, wander around the splendid Alcazar, seventeen thousand square metres of some of the finest mudéjar-style buildings in Spain.

Where to stay: Alfonso XIII in Seville has been hosting the finest guests for centuries. And you’re no exception. Stay where princes and superstars have stayed before you, in a fabulous, Moorish-styled hotel with palatial rooms and lovely interior touches, like exotic tiling.

Book the Alfonso XIII