Off the Beaten Path in Spain

Don Harris | February 2017

I travel to Spain in April with my wife Ruth. Planning our trip is half of the fun, and I thought I would pass along some of my ideas on how to have a memorable and enjoyable trip to this wonderful country. 

First, a few tips for the first time visitor. Driving in Spain is easy: the highways are in excellent condition (generally better than ours) and signage is good, you can use your US license. ATMs are plentiful, and credit cards are accepted virtually everywhere, but be sure to alert your bank that you are traveling. Use for making reservations. You can cancel or revise with no penalty until 24 hours before. If possible, avoid July and August, which is the traditional holiday time for locals and tourists alike. May and October are ideal.

Once you arrive, there is a whole world of culture and food to explore. Spain is a country of incredible variety, with at least four languages and 17 distinct regions. Because of its location, many cultures have streamed through Spanish history, each leaving a lasting mark. The Romans laid a foundation of language and culture throughout Iberia. Andalucía, in the south, is heavily influenced by the presence of the Moors who lived there for more than 700 years. Galicia is affected by the longtime presence of the Celtic people. In fact, some say Galicia is the source of the people of Ireland. So expect bagpipes, seashore, cow's milk cheese and green hills. 

Another reason for this wonderful variety is explained by the mountains. Next to Switzerland, Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe. Before mechanized travel the mountains were a very real and intimidating boundary. Crossing a mountain pass was not only strenuous, but also filled with the danger of brigands and outlaws who might attack a traveling band. Because of this physical separation, people living less than 20 miles apart developed different customs, food traditions and dialects. 

Your first decision is how you narrow the field, otherwise, you will end up seeing a lot, and at the same time experience very little. A friend of mine from Spain planned a similar trip to America a few years ago. He wanted to show his wife the United States in ten days! He flew into Washington, DC, from Sevilla, visited us in Williamsburg for Thanksgiving Day, then flew on to Las Vegas the next day, followed by a rafting trip on the Grand Canyon, then Death Valley and San Francisco before returning to Sevilla. I am exhausted just writing about it!

In the past, I attempted similar trips in Spain. I love the Andalucians who live in the far south, just north of Morocco, and I equally enjoy the Celtic people in Galicia who live by the ocean in the far northwest corner of Spain. I couldn’t decide whether to visit the Alhambra of Granada or the pilgrim cathedral of Santiago. A couple of times I have attempted to fit in both regions, with Extremadura tucked in between. I ended up exhausted trying to stuff in so many memories.

So my first suggestion is for you to focus on which part of Spain you want to visit. Over 70 million visitors a year visit the country, and there is a lot to see. It is a good thing Spain is so large, for it easily absorbs them all, with the exceptions of Barcelona and perhaps Malaga which at certain times of the year have more tourists than locals!

This time we have a dilemma. Do we fly south to Sevilla in order to visit cherished Spanish friends in Córdoba, Cádiz and the sherry towns? But then we also want to go to a rustic fishing village on the northern coast of Galicia which has very moving processions during Semana Santa (Holy Week). Maybe we can top it off with Easter at the medieval cathedral at Santiago de Compostela and then fly home. 

When we were young and foolish we would have packed it all in, but now we realize you can't do everything you want to. Since our trip will end on Easter Day, we decided to concentrate on the pilgrimage towns of Galicia. Next time we will visit our friends down south, and revisit the magical port of Cádiz (which is the favorite town of many seasoned travelers, such as the NY Times writer Penelope Casas).

Since we are less familiar with the interior of Galicia we decided to rely upon the amazing Parador system of hotels and inns which dot the country, sometimes located in beautifully restored palaces and castles ( Some of our favorites are the Montfort de Lemos palace, built next to the site of a 9th century monastery, Verín, a fortress and monastery site for pilgrims, and finally on Easter we will stay at an extravagantly beautiful hotel first built in 1496 by Queen Isabella as a hostel for pilgrims. It is adjacent to the 12th century Romanesque cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Many tell me that they are going spend their first trip to Spain in Barcelona. To some extent, it is like saying you are going to get to know the United States by spending your vacation in Manhattan. Don't get me wrong, Barcelona is an exciting, fascinating city which you should explore by walking down the Ramblas, seeing Gaudi's amazing constructions and visiting the amazingly vast food market. But I urge you to do more. In the city you can visit the Museum of Catalan art on Montjuic. There are sublime thousand-year-old murals taken from the walls of mountain monasteries. If this moves you, you can rent a car and drive for only one hour to the ancient city of Vic in the Pyrenees, which has an exquisite new Diocesan museum filled with amazing polychrome wood carvings you will see nowhere else in the world. I can give you the name of an excellent and knowledgeable guide should you want to drive into the mountains for three or four hours.

From Barcelona, you can take a train or drive one hour to Girona. It has a medieval Cathedral, whose seemingly hundreds of stairs lead to a precious needlepoint tapestry of the creation made in the 12th century. Down the street, in the former Jewish Quarter, is the fascinating museum and library at the Sephardic Center which can connect you to volumes of information concerning Jews (Sephardi) in Spain. Girona also hosts El Cellar de Can Roca, a Michelin 5-star restaurant (you will have to make reservations months in advance). 

This legendary restaurant serves Can Solivera Wild Olive Oil made by our friends Hans and Daida de Roos in a neighboring town. They are gracious and will welcome you with open arms and show you all there is to know about the production of gourmet olive oil. It will be an unforgettable experience. Send me an email to if you would like to visit them. 

I think by now you can see that with a little imagination you can stray from group travel and discover parts of Spain which are even more memorable. What I have described in these two provinces of Galicia and Cataluña is available to you, whatever your age. Good roads, warm and friendly people, amazing history which stretches back to pre-history - all of it is yours if you have an adventurous spirit.

¡Buen Viaje!
Don Harris