This three-day circuit from Bilbao to Biarritz provides stunning mountain views, ancient villages and lipsmacking seafood
Bilbao is a handy starting point for a driving holiday in Spain, Southern France and northern Portugal. This ferry route saves you the long haul down through France, freeing up time to do a three-day, two-night tour and return on the next sailing. Try this fascinating 300-mile circuit to Biarritz and back… all within the Basque region.
You don’t even have to leave the village of Santurtzi, where the ferry arrives first thing in the morning, to find your first taste of real Spain. This waterside village near the mouth of the River may have been somewhat surrounded by industrial suburbs but if you fancy a slow start you can drive down to the lovely old fishing harbour lined by traditional houses and fish restaurants. And just eight miles down the road is the sizzling seaside city of Bilbao. The morning will disappear quickly while gasping at the spectacular titanium outside of the Guggenheim Museum… and the art collection inside. Save some time for browsing the old town’s shops, cafes and typical Cantabrian Gothic architecture.
After lunch it’s time to head south for an hour on the B1623 through a spectacular steep mountain pass to Vitoria-Gastez. Explore this old town’s imposing plaza and cathedral, before heading east for an evening in Pamplona’s old town. If you’re in a hurry the N1 will whisk you there in an hour. If not, the smaller scenic mountains roads through the Sierra de Urbasa to the south are highly recommended.
Pamplona is famous for July’s annual bull run when riotous crowds fill the centre. The capital of the Navarre region is quieter for the rest of the year, making it easier to walk round the wonderful but compact historic centre between the gothic cathedral and imposing citadel. It’s a fantastic place to eat dinner and have a stroll through the narrow streets back to your hotel.
Leave Pamplona on the N135 heading up into the Pyrenees and enter France via the historic Roncesvalles pass. This was once the scene of a huge battle between France and Spain. Roncesvalles used to be a vital border crossing and a resting place for pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela. Now many drivers whiz through the tiny hamlet without noticing - but it’s still a dramatic route passing between the peaks at 1000 metres above sea level. Concentrate on the road here! Just over the border the views become even more distracting… but the corners even more demanding.
Just five miles into France, the historic village of St Jean Pied-de-Port is a perfect place to relax from all those hairpin bends. Take a stroll around its picturesque ancient buildings, cobbled streets and crumbling archways or find a small pavement café for a coffee.
The D198 down through the foothills provides another sequence of breathtaking panoramas. If you fancy a stop, try the thermal spa town of Cambo-les-Bains, with its stately homes and grand gardens. After that simply follow the scent of the sea all the way to the luxury coastal resort of Biarritz. There’s a grand Riviera feel about this area, with elegant hotels facing classic sandy beaches, rolling waves crashing in from the Bay of Biscay, and pretty walks around rocky headlands and period promenades. The shops, cafes and bars could keep you occupied for days and it would be no hardship to stay here the night. You could choose, however, to head a few miles west to stay amid the glamorous shopping and eating in St Jean-de-Luz, the beaches and gourmet food of San Sebastian or opt for something much quieter by staying the night in a smaller fishing village like Getaria.
We’ve saved the best bit of Spanish driving till last. Your final morning will be spent heading west along the amazing Cantabrian Corniche, with the mountains above on your left, the sea below on your right. Take the motorway for speed, the little coastal roads for fun - but don’t worry, both have great views. If you’ve enough time, stop off in pretty little fishing towns like Zumaya or Bermeo for a coffee break before heading back to the 13.15 ferry from Bilbao. It was only two nights, but we guarantee you’ll board that ferry with a head full of memories.
For more driving holiday ideas read our driving holiday in France and driving holiday in Belgium features.
P&Os drivng holiday expert
When former taxi-driver and garage-manager Simon switched to journalism he was soon described by Private Eye as "a miserable little squirt". Luckily he's grown a bit since then and cheered up slightly (so only the "squirt" part applies). Since then he's helped launch BBC Top Gear magaine, worked for Autocar and AutoExpress to name but a few. Simon has also been an editorial consultant for Toyota, Peugeot, Lexus and BMW. And he once broke the world record for motoring madness by driving to 12 countries...in one day.