Scenic Routes: Spain by road

The peak holiday rush is over, so why not make the journey to your destination part of the experience. Bill Hagerty did just that, travelling by car due south from Santander to the Costa del Sol
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The Independent Travel

Standing at the side of a motorway in baking sunshine while waiting for a tow-truck to arrive isn't exactly what we had in mind when, over the muesli and toast one Sunday morning, I had brightly suggested, "Why don't we drive down to the Costa del Sol?" It must have been powerful stuff, that muesli, for wife and son readily agreed, a decision they may have regretted by the afternoon when our car belched black smoke and shuddered to a halt just north of Madrid.

The disappointment was, thank heavens, only temporary. Indeed, a breakdown added to the adventure, we smugly claimed, after the necessity for a hire car. Tip: don't leave home without full roadside assistance cover.

To make the going easier, we had driven to Plymouth and caught the Brittany Ferries flagship, the £100m Pont-Aven, which really is far too grand to be called a ferry and clips across the Bay of Biscay to Santander in around 20 hours. There's a pool, a wrap-around promenade, a five-deck high atrium and a twin-screen cinema. On the outward trip we treated ourselves to dinner in the swish French restaurant.

The following evening found us, somewhat surprisingly, in Puerto de Somosierra, dining in what we initially took to be a re-creation of the Norman Bates motel in Psycho. This nondescript village, close to where our car misbehaved, has a tiny but beautiful church and not much else, but dinner was good and cheap, the hotel rooms bright and clean and as a pit-stop for reluctant pedestrians, it was fine.

Segovia, where we collected the hire car the following morning - 54 miles from Madrid and a considerable detour from our planned route - was even finer. A 16th-century cathedral dominates the skyline of this magnificent Castilian city, where Romanesque churches jostle for position. We'll be back, we promised, as we hit the road south, by-passing Madrid and diverting from the main A5 motorway, catching up with ourselves in Toledo.

If Segovia is stunning, Toledo is a showstopper. It has its own Alcazar (castle) - where in 1936 forces of General Franco famously withstood a Republican siege - and a spectacular Gothic cathedral with more El Greco paintings than you could shake a Toledo sword at. Here we stayed at the Hotel Domenico, set on a hill across the River Tagus. We liked it so much we remained for three nights.

We hurried on through Castilla La Mancha, ever vigilant for windmills, throughlush countryside, then, as the road winds into Andalucia before descending to the sea, the parched earth and craggy mountain gorges of the Parque Natural de Despenaperros. So much had we enjoyed the trip that after 10 days in a villa in Estepona we looked forward to heading back across country, this time with only a minor detour to collect our now repaired car. Waving goodbye to the Sierra Nevada, we skirted Granada - we'd taken in the wonderful Alhambra during a two-day break from our Costa Del Sol base - and headed through the rolling olive groves for charming Aranjuez, home of the splendid 18th-century summer palace and hunting estate of former Bourbon kings of Spain.

Aranjuez is not as touristy as Toledo and certainly more tranquil - perhaps because it has little to offer other than superior architecture and horticulture and some attractive restaurants on the banks of the Tajo river. That night we slept in the most comfortable beds of the whole trip at a delightful boutique hotel, El Cocheron 1919.

Beyond Madrid we sped towards Santander, choosing to ignore our computer-generated routefinder and take the old road to Burgos, which snakes alongside picturesque lakes and tree-covered cliffs. A relaxing night in sleepy San Mames de Meruelo, a short drive from Santander, brought our Spanish adventure to a close. By the time we arrived back home in London, we had travelled around 2,200 miles.

Next time we want to spend more time in Segovia, or maybe take in Zaragoza, if we can find them - Spanish road-signing verges on the incomprehensible. The compensations are, of course, substantial, right down to cost - it really is euro for pound in terms of value in Spain's hinterland and even some of the grand cities. There are few toll roads until one nears the coast. And roadside stops to refuel the car and its passengers (near Burgos a three-course lunch for three, with beer and water, cost a little under £20) are a fiscal delight. Oh yes, we promised ourselves, we'll definitely be back. But we haven't told the car.

The Hagerty family travelled with Brittany Ferries (08703 665 333; brittany-ferries.co.uk). The cost for a family of four, including two children under 15, occupying a four-berth inside cabin starts from is £373 one-way with a regular-size car

1. Santander

Santander's pretty beaches and atmospheric old town make it well worth a stop. Visit the 13th-century Gothic cathedral, the San Celedonio Monastery, the Castillo de San Felipe and the bustling Esperanza market. The surrounding coast is popular with surfers.

DON'T MISS: The annual Festival Internacional de Santander, a month-long music festival (festivalsantander.com).

2. Burgos

Take a stroll through the superbly preserved old centre and admire the 12th-century monastery, 14th-century Arabian-style tower, Gothic cathedral and extensive city walls.

DON'T MISS: A visit to a local winery such as the Bodega Peñalba López (00 34 947 510 377) and the Bodegas Riberalta (00 34 947 54 41 01).

3. Segovia

The Guadarrama mountains form the dramatic backdrop to this fortified city. Historic landmarks include one of the world's best preserved Roman aqueducts and the fairytale-like Alcazar castle where Queen Isabel promised Christopher Columbus the funds to discover the New World.

DON'T MISS: Staying at the Hosteria Ayala Berganza (00 34 921 46 04 48) - a 15th-century palace oozing old-world charm. Doubles start at €100 (£70).

4. Madrid

The elegant capital needs more than a pit stop. Explore the Palacio Real, the gardens of Campo del Moro, the Cathedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena and the Prado museum.

DON'T MISS: A Sunday rummage through the flea market, El Rastro.

5. Aranjuez

Known as the green heart of central Spain, Aranjuez was firmly placed on the map in the 16th century when King Felipe II built his summer palace here.

DON'T MISS: The Casa del Labrador gardens (00 34 918 91 0305) - a tranquil mixture of local and exotic plant species criss-crossed with walking routes and bike trails.

6. Toledo

Perched on a hill overlooking the river Tagus, the city of Toledo is steeped in history. Its Roman Alcazar, the medieval Mezquita de Cristo de la Luz, the 14th-century Sinagoga del Transito are some of the legacies left by the city's numerous invaders and colonists.

DON'T MISS: Ludena (00 34 925 22 3384) - a long established, family-run restaurant serving traditional dishes.

7. Parque Natural de Despenaperros

North of Granada, this large expanse of wilderness surrounded by the mountains of the Sierra Morena and dotted with dense forest and waterfalls is roamed by wild boar, mongoose, wild cats and deer.

DON'T MISS: The nearby primitive cave paintings of Cuevas de las Vacas de Rematoso within the park's perimeters.

8. Granada

Most visitors come to Granada to visit its magnificent Alhambra, one of the most stunning examples of the city's Moorish heritage. Other reminders of Granada's rich history include the atmospheric Albayzin quarter, La Madraza university and the Arab baths and silk exchange.

DON'T MISS: A night at the Parador de Granada (00 34 952 86 8771; paradors.es), a restored 15th-century convent next door to the Alhambra. Doubles start from €257 (£183) without breakfast.

9. Malaga

The gateway to the Costa del Sol is also a surprisingly pleasant place to explore, with plenty of monuments, museums and relaxing leafy boulevards, all set against the sparkling blue Mediterranean.

DON'T MISS: Malaga is a city of festivals, from the Easter Semana Santa processions to the numerous celebrations held over the summer.

10. Estepona

Despite the encroaching development up and down the coast, the Andalucian seaside town of Estepona still retains some of its former charm. The leafy Plaza Les Flores is scattered with restaurants and tapas bars and there is a yacht-filled marina on the seafront.

DON'T MISS: Topping up your tan - with more than 20km of white sandy beaches you can always find somewhere to roll out your towel.

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