A Compact 10 Day Trip from Barcelona to Toledo

Don Harris | January 2004

An old friend of mine told me that a cruise he was taking with some family and friends ended in Barcelona. “If I had ten days more and wanted to show them the Spain I love, where do you suggest we go?” This is what I suggested, and I have included quotes from him after he returned home to Texas.

Day 1 - Barcelona

To start, rent a car at the Barcelona Airport, the roads are excellent and a diesel car helps defray the cost of fuel. You will turn the vehicle in at the Barajas Airport in Madrid. Drive one hour north to the medieval city of Vic pausing at the exquisite Episcopal museum of medieval polychrome.
Episcopal Museum of Vic

From there, head north into the Pyrenees stopping at Solsona, a charming old village “Our meal there was quite memorable in one of the quieter plazas we visited where the town’s water well was located under an impressive chapel.”

Next drive to the 9th Century monastery Santa María de Ripoll with a World Heritage designated 12th Century cloister. Next visit the exquisite monastery of San Joan de Abadeses, consecrated in 887 AD with its dramatic sculpture Descent from the Cross – the ensemble is considered by some as the ultimate expression of Romanesque art in Spain.

Then wend your way to the south west toward Cardona where you will stay at the dramatic Parador Duque de Cardona, a 9th Century fortress, built to protect the largest deposit of salt in Europe. It is located on the top of a hill overlooking Cardona. Within the fortress is pure Cistercian architecture embodied in the 11th Century Iglesia de San Vicente de Cardona, as well as the two thousand year old Minyona Tower.

Day 2 - Olite
Take a long drive across Catalonia to Aragón, your destination being the well preserved medieval town of Olite. Stay at the parador Palacio Real de Olite built during the 13th and 14th Century; at one time it was one of the headquarters of the Court of the Kingdom of Navarre. “The parador is right in the middle of the town so that in the summer and fall you will be with kids and adults out strolling and talking until after midnight. The food is good there.”

Don’t miss the oldest church in town: Iglesia de San Pedro, which combines two architectural styles: Romanesque and Baroque. Within the town is also the original 14th Century Gothic tower (Alta Torre) and the 15th Century Gothic Iglesia de Santa María de la Real.

Then, visit the ruins of the Capilla de San Jorge (chapel of St. George) and climb around the battlements.

Day 4 - Hondarribia

The next morning, head north to the coast of the Cantabrian Sea, traveling along the rugged coast through glamorous San Sebastian to Hondarribia, the classic Basque village adjoining the border of France. The old part of the town has intact medieval walls. Take time to visit the Palacio de Zuloaga (where the historic archives and the town library are housed) and the Iglesia Parroquial de Nuestra Señora de Asunción y del Manzano. I found the walk around the small craft harbor very appealing.

“We were in Hondarribia for Dia de San Pedro (June 29th). The parador there is also on a main plaza and we were awoken in the morning by the pealing of church bells and the firing of canons. A large group of fisherman in uniform carrying 10 foot oars then processed from the sea into the church next to the parador. There were snare drums and oboe like instruments accompanying their songs. The church was packed with well-dressed people of all ages and the organ and choir were wonderful accompaniments to the Basque language mass of St Peter, patron of fisherman.

“Later that day, we went to San Sebastian which was celebrating a festival involving folk musicians and large (10-12 foot) paper maché puppets marching and dancing through the old streets of the town. I asked several people about the occasion, and no one really knew what exactly was going on, though it appeared pretty well organized. People said the puppets represented traditional villagers from the small towns in the Basque country. Younger kids were wearing large paper maché masked and hitting people with balloons. It was wonderful fun and my boys just loved it – it like we were in a movie.“

Stay at the Parador Castillo de Carlos V, a 10th Century castle where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain) issued many of his major reforms.

Day 5 - Santillana del Mar

Drive west along the Catabrian coast with your destination being the historical village of Santillana del Mar, a beautiful village that developed around the medieval Church La Collegiata de Santa Juliana. It was built by a community of monks as an expansion of an old monastery, whose remains still can be seen. After visiting the Collegiata, take time to see the Palacio de Velarde (Las Arenas), a great example of Renaissance architecture.

“Later that day, we were in Santillana Del Mar… where they were celebrating Santa Juliana Day with a big carnival that we attended in the park close to the parador. We were out way past midnight enjoying the scene.”

Proceed to Cangas de Onís (2 hours from Santillana del Mar) and stay at Parador Monasterio de San Pedro de Villanueva: an amazing 12th century stone structure located by a running brook where the sportsmen come to try their luck. There is a new section of rooms which are fine in every way; but if you want to treat yourself, ask for one of the suites located inside the old monastery. They are beautifully appointed and it is quite a treat to fall asleep hearing a bubbling brook outside your window.

Day 6 - Cangas de Onís and Environs

On the next day, visit the nearby shrine of Covadonga, one of the most sacred places in Spain. Tradition says that it was here that the Christians decisively defeated the Arabs for the first time, signalling the beginning of the Reconquista – a 700 year campaign to rid the peninsula of the Moors. The Asturian mountain warriors were under the leadership of the fabled Don Pelayo.

Then drive near the shore to Villaviciosa and visit Salvador de Valdediós popularly called “El Conventín”, consecrated in 893 AD. It is the last great work of the Asturian architecture and marked the evolution to Mozarabic and then Romanesque architecture. Well worth the visit.

After finishing our visit to the church and the adjoining monastery we walked over to a tiny roadside restaurant where we were encountered the world’s most gigantic tortilla española. It could have easily served 10 people. When I asked for a smaller version, the cook shook his head and told me this was the only size he knew how to make! But the price was right, so we shared the tortilla with a Spanish family at the next table! You might like to try it. Also in the town of Villaviciosa you will find the Iglesia de Santa María de Oliva, built after 1270 AD. On the south portal you can see unusual hunting scenes carved on some of the capitals.

Return to Parador Monasterio de San Pedro de Villanueva.

Day 7 - The Amazing Sierra de Riaña Gorge Route to León

Drive from Cangas de Onís to León for about 21/2 hours via the breathtaking route N-625 – Sierra de Riaña gorge. On the way, in Gradefes, take time to see the sublime (and often overlooked) Convent/Church Santa María la Real. It is on a side road leading to León via San Miguel de Escalada, a remarkable structure built by Mozarabic craftsmen who fled the Moorish kingdoms to the south. It is another World Heritage site that is enjoyable to explore.

Stay at the Hotel Real Collegiata San Isidoro in the heart of Gothic León. But be forewarned – it is a puzzle to locate, since some of the streets are reserved for pedestrians only. We ended up calling the front desk and he guided us to the free parking by the hotel. The structure used to be a retreat house so the accommodations are suitable, although not sumptuous.

Day 8 - León

In León, the Cathedral of Santa María de León, is a classic of simplicity. The Gothic structure is almost entirely enclosed in stained glass. On a sunny day it is dazzling to stand inside the church surrounded by such beauty! Adjacent to your hotel is the Basilica of San Isidoro located on the site of an ancient Roman temple. Within it is the Royal Pantheon of the kings of León. It is one of the finest examples of surviving Romanesque murals in Castilla-León. The 12th Century painted murals are in an exceptional state of preservation and consist of an ensemble of New Testament subjects along with scenes of contemporary rural life. The accompanying columns are crowned with rare Visigoth capitals. Return to Hotel Real Collegiata San Isidoro.

Day 8 - Madrid

Drive to Madrid via Avila: an amazing medieval city surrounded by walls. Tour the classic Basílica de San Vicente (a Romanesque church outside of the city walls) and the church the of San Pedro on Plaza de Santa Teresa de Avila. If you have time in Madrid visit the Museo del Prado, with its unparalleled collection of Velázquez, El Greco, Goya, Flemish art of the Dutch masters – including Rembrandt and Rogier van der Weiden. One of the great art museums in the world. A short walk from it is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía: a 18th century hospital converted into a museum on the 90’s. It is devoted to contemporary and modern art, including Picasso’s Guernika.

Day 10 - Toledo

Proceed to Toledo. Stroll the Zocodovar plaza and visit the Church of Santo Tomé which contains El Greco’s masterwork Burial of Count Orgáz. Try to visit it early before the tourists flock in so you can have a little time to absorb this world famous painting. On the streets of today’s Toledo you will recognize the expressive faces that El Greco painted centuries ago.

Visit Hospital Santa Cruz Museum, a flight of stairs down from the Zocodovar main plaza. It has an tasteful collection of Spanish art through the centuries including the embroidered victory banner of the Battle of Lepanto. Everything is beautifully presented.

Continue your tour, visiting Santa Maria La Blanca – a 12th Century synagogue and El Transito – splendid 14th Century synagogue designed by Medéjar Muslim architects. Finally, see San Juan de los Reyes, a grand Gothic monastery where Ferdinand and Isabella were planning to be buried until the conquered Granada.

We always stay at Hostal del Cardenal, the 18th Century residence of cardinals. It is tastefully decorated, modestly priced, and conveniently located by the walls of the city. The dining room is excellent.

Day 11 - Drive from Toledo to Airport

Drive one hour and half to Barajas Airport (Madrid) and return the car.

“In all it was a wonderful trip and I can’t wait to go back. I will always try to stay in a Parador from now on. They are just perfect.”