A family of five from Richmond, Va., is traveling to Spain in shifts, and wants our help planning various parts of their vacation.
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Dear Trip Coach...
We're going to Spain! Our schedule is complicated: squash camp for my son, language classes for my oldest daughter and me, and traveling around for all five of us. We'll begin in Santiago de Compostela, explore Barcelona and the Costa Brava, and end in Madrid, but we need help with the details. How should we get around? Which towns should we see along the Costa Brava? What should we do in Barcelona and Madrid? We'd appreciate your help! Eva Clarke, Richmond, Va.
HERE'S OUR ADVICE
Traveling long distances in northern Spain tends to be complicated. The buses (alsa.es) can be painfully slow, and train fares (renfe.com) are expensive; both are better for short, straightforward trips. When you're traveling more than 200 miles, hop a flight on Iberia's regional carrier, Air Nostrum (iberia.com). One-way flights from Madrid to Barcelona take just over an hour and start at $50. (The same trip on a bus is $36, but it's an eight-hour journey; the five-hour train ride is $90.)
While traveling around the Costa Brava, the rugged coastline in the northeast corner of Spain, you should rent a car. You'll be moving between towns quite a bit, and you'd waste huge chunks of time relying on trains or buses. Pick up a Michelin map or use the company's mapping tool at viamichelin.es. The peaje, or toll road, is a better option than the carreteras, or free national highways, which are slower and have more truck traffic. Navigating in Spain is tough; a GPS tracking device can be a godsend. Both Hertz (hertz.com) and Auto Europe (autoeurope.com) offer such devices in Spain for $15 to $20 per day.
Costa Brava means "wild coast," and the landscape lives up to the name. Drive the coastal road for spectacular views of the cliffs and beaches, but to really get a feel for the land, rent mountain bikes and ride off-road. Jimbo Bikes, in Tossa de Mar, rents bikes (011-34/97-234-3044, $29 per day). Vías Verdes, a program that has converted more than 930 miles of Spain's abandoned railroads into recreational greenways, has trail information at viasverdes.com.
Santiago and Beyond
Squash camp and language classes at the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela in Santiago will take up the weekdays (usc.es, from $371 for two weeks). If possible, spend weekends getting to know the rest of the area. Regional buses are fine for these trips (monbus.es). Pontevedra, on Spain's northwestern coast, is about 90 minutes away. Soak up some sun at Playa de Canelas, on the north side of the Ría de Pontevedra, one of the narrow estuaries that punctuate the coastline. Thanks to the Caribbean-white sands and sparkling clean waters, the beach has earned a Blue Flag, a distinction awarded by the Foundation for Environmental Education to some of the world's cleanest and safest beaches.
Baiona, a fishing village-turned-beach resort on the Galician coast, is another good weekend option. From Santiago, take a bus to Vigo, then transfer to a bus to Baiona. Devote a day to exploring the beaches and the medieval town center, and another to the Cíes Islands, a nature reserve with turquoise waters that rival the Mediterranean (011-34/98-622-5272, ferry from Baiona $24, children $8, late June to early September).
While you're in Santiago, be sure to try pulpo a la gallega, octopus and potatoes drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled liberally with Spanish paprika.
After Santiago, move on to León or Santander to continue your language studies. León has just under 140,000 people, and the Universidad de León offers summer-school classes (unileon.es, from $640 for two weeks). The city is known for its tapas, and unlike in most Spanish cities, they're often included if you buy a drink. The stained-glass windows of the Catedral de León are some of Europe's finest (catedraldeleon.org).
Santander is a bit bigger--with about 183,000 people--and it's considered more cosmopolitan. It's on the Bay of Biscay, in Cantabria, so you can spend your downtime on the beach. Unilang, a language center based there, has intensive classes and can arrange a homestay with a Spanish family (unilang.net, 10 hours of classes per week from $106, homestays from $36, including all meals).
Barcelona and the Costa Brava
La Sagrada Família, architect Antoni Gaudí's famous basilica, is as stunning as people say, but it's one of Barcelona's most popular attractions, so you'll want to arrive when it opens, at 9 A.M. (sagradafamilia.org, $11). Then wander the alleys and hidden squares in the Barri Gòtic, or Gothic quarter. Xocolateria La Xicra, on the Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol, makes a decadent chocolate con churros (hot chocolate with doughnut-like sticks for dipping).
Next, head to Museu Picasso, in the La Ribera neighborhood, to learn how the master's famous Blue Period came about during his stay in Barcelona in the early 1900s (museupicasso.bcn.es, $8).
When you're ready to get out of town, drive about 60 miles northwest toward the Pyrenees to the hamlet of Cardona. Splurge for a night at the 9th-century castle Parador de Cardona, one of Spain's many paradores--historic palaces, fortresses, and monasteries that have been refurbished and made into hotels (parador.es, from $185).
Tossa de Mar, a hundred miles to the southeast, is a fishing village where the villa vella (old quarter) is protected by 12th-century walls. The town also has miles of beaches and coves. Walk through pine forests on the GR-92 hiking trail to the beach at Cala Morisca.
Stop in Girona, 25 miles north, for a stroll down the cobblestoned pedestrian streets lined with Gothic and Romanesque buildings. You can get a glimpse into Girona's once-thriving Jewish community at the Centre Bonastruc ça Porta, an institute for Jewish studies that houses a museum and research center (ajuntament.gi). The institute is on the site of the city's last synagogue, in the heart of the remarkably well preserved Jewish quarter.
Go to Madrid's Plaza de Santa Ana to watch the sunset from the rooftop bar at the ME Madrid hotel (formerly the Reina Victoria, memadrid.travel, Metro lines 1, 2, or 3, Sol stop). The Museo de América may seem an unlikely stop for Americans in Spain, but the collection of art and artifacts from the Americas and the special exhibits--such as one about Spain's conquest of the Aztecs and the Inca--are worth a visit (011-34/91-549-2641, Metro lines 3 and 6, Moncloa stop, $4). For last-minute souvenirs, check out El Rastro, a Sunday morning market (open 9 A.M. to 2 P.M., Metro line 5, La Latina stop). Don't forget to haggle!