Basking in the delights of the Basque region of Spain, plus a ‘port stop’ in Portugal

By Edward Sylvester
This article appears on page 18 of the November 2018 issue.

View of a typical street in Porto, Portugal.
In May 2018, my wife, Bernadette, and I began a unique self-drive tour of the Basque region in northern Spain. Our trip was arranged by Spain Trails (Cascais, Portugal; spaintrails.com), which offers custom travel packages that include hotel accommodations, a choice of transportation style (we chose a car with a preprogrammed GPS) and a comprehensive tour book of sights between and in the cities being visited.

Spain Trails offers different levels of service, depending on your chosen hotel category (from 3- to 5-star) and whether you select to drive yourself or book a private driver. Agent Cristina Chagas was absolutely amazing, quickly responding as we chose destinations and tours to include — all by email.

Beginning in Bilbao

The trip started when we were picked up at the airport in Bilbao and transferred to the Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao (www.hoteldominebilbao.com), located directly across from the famous Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum. This hotel was excellent, and breakfast was served on the roof terrace, which offered spectacular views of the museum. (Breakfast was included at all the hotels.)

The next day, Bernadette and I toured the museum and the beautiful waterfront promenade. In the evening, we were met by Saioa Ucar for a locally operated tour of the Old Town (included).

It was an educational and fun tour on which we learned the history of the area and discovered why tapas are called pintxos in the Basque region of Spain. We sampled several of Saioa's favorite pintxos with wine in some of Bilbao's cozy bars. She was a delightful source of information.

The next day we picked up our new Mercedes 220 diesel car with automatic transmission, plugged in the GPS and took off to the next town on our itinerary, San Sebastián. The roads were smooth and well maintained and the toll booths a breeze.

We checked into the San Sebastián Aránzazu, a modern and stylish hotel located about a mile along the beach from the Old Town, which was full of great pintxo bars, restaurants and shops.

A pintxo bar tucked into an alley in Santiago de Compostela.

We found San Sebastián to be a very popular and lively town with great views and wonderful food.

One of the special attributes of this type of trip is the ability to explore places to eat whenever you choose. It gives you the opportunity to try nontourist foods and to really interact with the locals.

Having TripAdvisor on our phones, along with Google Maps and Translate, has transformed how we travel. Gone are the heavy guidebooks and the map-in-the-lap days (and the yelling)!

A focus on wine

We headed south to our next town, Laguardia, in the Rioja wine region, stopping for lunch in Pamplona on the way. (Luckily, there were no bulls running that day!)

Laguardia, a walled, medieval town perched high on a hill, turned out to be our favorite location on this trip.

Parking was a challenge, however, so we parked below the town's entrance gate and hiked up to Hotel Hospedería de los Parajes (www.hospederiadelosparajes.com), located right on the main square. Delightful! The woman at the reception desk asked where we were parked, and then she came with us to help haul our baggage up from the car!

The square is the meeting place for families and kids all throughout the day, and we enjoyed watching the interactions from our room.

Roaming through the warren of narrow streets, we found wonderful little bars and restaurants, and we spent several evenings having wine and pintxos with the local folks. Our favorite spot was El Bodegón (www.restauranteelbodegon.es [Spanish only]), where we had our first 3-hour Spanish lunch, with a bottle of wine (plan on a siesta to follow), fun servers and a great atmosphere.

The tourist information office was able to book a last-minute wine tour (16, or $18.50, per person) for us in English at the Marqués de Riscal Winery, designed by Gehry of Bilbao fame. It was wonderful!

We left Laguardia and headed toward Santander, stopping along the way for a well-done tour of the replica Cave of Altamira; the original features prehistoric cave art. In Santander, we stayed at the Vincci Puertochico (www.vinccipuertochico.com) in a sea-view room. The town had a beautiful waterfront promenade and modern shopping areas.

Gijón and beyond

The Marqués de Riscal Winery, designed by Frank Gehry.

Gijón was our next destination, and the chosen hotel, Parador de Gijón (www.parador.es), was adjacent to a beautiful park. The busy town had an interesting Old Town, so we decided the next day not to do any exploratory driving. Since it was time for us to do some laundry, we got on our phone and found the number-one laundromat, following Google Maps as we walked into town. We entered the immaculate place and showed the owner our laundry. She quoted 10 and suggested a place for coffee while we waited.

After coffee and a pastry, we went back to find our clothes washed, dried and folded in our bags. This is the kind of fun, local immersion experience we love — a lot more fun than hotel laundry!

As we drove on to Santiago de Compostela, we saw pilgrims making the famous pilgrimage to the cathedral. When we got to our hotel, Parador Santiago de Compostela, which is on the square facing the cathedral, we saw many groups finishing their treks and celebrating. I have run many foreign marathons in the past and could easily relate to their outpouring of emotion upon finishing.

Our hotel was elegant and beautifully modernized inside, with an excellent staff. With all the pilgrims and day tours, not to mention the great little pintxo bars, Santiago was a very lively place.

We returned the car in Santiago, unplugging the faithful GPS. Our package included a private walking tour of the Old Town and the cathedral, where we were very lucky to see the giant incense burner being swung over the congregation.

Plus Portugal

We also wanted to visit the Douro Valley and Porto in Portugal on this trip, so Spain Trails arranged for a car and driver to pick us up at the hotel and drive us through the Douro Valley. The countryside was absolutely spectacular, with terraces for grapes cut into the steep hillsides above the river. We stopped for an elegant lunch at the Quinta da Pacheca winery before continuing on to Porto.

The Pestana Vintage Porto Hotel (www.pestanacollection.com) is a 5-star hotel situated right on the waterfront, with views of the city's famous signature bridge. The lively waterfront promenade is lined with many restaurants, bars and music venues.

Behind the hotel, on Rua da Fonte Tavrina, we found a great little pintxo spot, Taberna Está-se Bem, with superb service and interesting items — very unique. Our dinner there, which included five items and wine for the two of us, came to about 20 ($23.50).

Our package included a private walking tour of the town and a private port-wine tasting at Churchill's wine cellar, which was very informative and fun. A water taxi met us in front of the hotel and took us across the river to the winery location.

The details

Inside the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

Our adventure complete, a driver picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the airport for our journey home.

The 16-day, 5-star, deluxe-level travel package that we had chosen included the car, hotels, daily breakfast and private tours and drivers and cost a total of $8,610 for the two of us.

Bernadette and I really enjoyed having the freedom to travel and explore at leisure while not having to be concerned with the logistics of arranging lodging, etc.

On past trips, we spent too much time booking hotels and finding guides to better understand the history of the places we visited. The comprehensive road book (an inch thick) we were given provided not only a critique of each chosen destination but also suggested interesting sights and towns to see along the way.

The Spanish people we met were delightful and helpful, and language was not a problem thanks, sometimes, to Google Translate. (We were scanning a menu at lunch one day with our phone, and two waiters came over and were amazed at the instant translation. We gave them the phone to try and a lot of laughs ensued.) It's the moments you remember rather than the monuments.

We would highly recommend Spain Trails if you want to venture out and really immerse yourself in Spain or Portugal.