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Sun, sea and sensational scenery: a grown up road trip in northern Spain | The joy of slow travel

Day one: sail to Santander
Set sail from Portsmouth or Plymouth and, after a leisurely crossing, arrive the next day in Santander. Capital of the Cantabria region, it’s a fabulous mix of historic buildings, golden stretches of sand and atmospheric plazas. Begin your trip with a coffee and churros at Chocolateria Aliva, before taking a stroll through the ornate Banco Santander arch. Make your way to the gothic Catedral de la Asunción, some of which dates back to the 12th century, and explore the vaults and beautiful cloister. When your stomach starts to rumble, head to Barrio Pesquero (the fishing quarter) – it’s about a 20-minute walk from the city centre, but more than worth it for a table at Los Penucas, which serves delicious paella and squid. Enjoy an afternoon stroll along the promenade and dip your toes in the sea on El Sardinero, Santander’s most scenic stretch of sand. Finally, collect the car and head to the Castilla Termal Balneario de Solares hotel, which lies just outside the city and boasts a wonderful spa, complete with thermal spring pool – the ideal place to relax after a day’s sightseeing.

Day two: journey west through the Asturias
Set the satnav for Oviedo and head west through the Asturias region, home to exhilarating scenery including the Picos de Europa mountains. A compact, characterful city, Oviedo’s impressive Catedral de San Salvador and Museum Arqueologico de Asturias, which lies in a restored 16th-century monastery, are both must-visits. Treat yourself to tapas bites at the bar of Tierra Astur, or, if you can get a table, order a huge grilled veg platter and a sharing plate of local cheeses. Swap the city for sand in the afternoon, with a leisurely drive to the coastal city of Gijón, where green-fingered tourists flock to the Atlantic Botanical Garden which boasts thousands of varieties of plants and 400-year-old trees. Stay at Parador de Gijón, a former mill set in Isabel la Católica park. From there, head off on foot to San Lorenzo beach for sunset, before returning to try hearty regional dishes such as fava bean and pork stew in the rustic restaurant.

San Pedro church in Gijon, Asturias, Spain.

Day three: make for the mountains
Rise early and drive to Fuente Dé in the heart of the Picos de Europa mountain range, just 12 miles from the coast. Have your camera at the ready as the scenery is some of the best in Spain, with mountain meadows, forest-clad slopes and soaring rocky peaks. Ride the glass-floored cable car (753 metres in four minutes) to the jaw-dropping Aliva viewpoint, where there are 360-degree views, leisurely walking routes and a cafe for coffee and cake. On your return, make your way to León – an under-the-radar city with a vibrant old town that’s home to Casa Botines, a honey-hued building designed by legendary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. Make sure you also check out the impressive Museum of Contemporary Art, a rainbow-coloured glass building housing more than 1,600 works by Spanish and Leónese artists. In the late afternoon, hit the road for a stay at Hotel Juan II in nearby Toro – a peaceful spot with a garden restaurant and private balconies overlooking the Duero River.

Hotel Abba Burgos

Fuente Dé cable railway. Picos de Europa, SpainTop view of the clable car reaching the top of the mountain with the valley as background. In the heart of the Picos de Europa, the Fuente Dé Cable Railway overcomes a drop of 750 metres taking travellers to an altitude of 1,450 metres. Cantabria, Spain. EOS 5D MarkII

Beach at San Sebastian.

Day four: explore prehistory
Start the day with a visit to one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world – Atapuerca, a cave network where some of the earliest humans in Europe resided a million years ago. It’s a Unesco world heritage site and guided tours in Spanish include the Atapuerca Archaeology park, where you can discover more about the human remains, cave paintings and fossils found at the site. Next, visit the excellent Museum of Human Evolution 15 miles away in Burgos, to see more than 200 original items found at the site. Check in to Hotel Abba Burgos, which is in the historic city centre and boasts a pool and, more importantly, parking. Museumed out? Vibrant Burgos has a castle, the ornate Arco de Santa Maria city gate and buzzing tapas joints such as Cervecería Morito, where you should try specialty revueltos capricho de Burgos – scrambled eggs, potatoes, black pudding, peppers and baby eels.

Day five: follow the pilgrims
Kick things off with a scenic two-hour drive to Pamplona, in Navarre province. Like León and Burgos, Pamplona’s also on the famous pilgrimage route Camino de Santiago de Compostela and boasts a star-shaped citadel that is well worth a visit. Tour the historic Museo de Navarra and, when hunger strikes, hit Bar Gaucho for award-winning pintxos (snack-size dishes) such as steak bocadillo. From Pamplona, it’s a short drive to Tolosa on the banks of the River Oria where those wanting to stretch their legs can hike the gentle slopes of Monte Uzturre, a mountain that dominates the town below.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain. Image shot 06/2008. Exact date unknown.AK2325 Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain. Image shot 06/2008. Exact date unknown.

Day six: a gastronomic delight
Make sure you wear something with an expandable waist today because you’re driving to San Sebastian. The Basque country’s dazzling coastal hub is one of the gastronomic capitals of the world, home to world-class restaurants such as Arzak, which holds three Michelin stars for its innovative takes on regional cuisine. Make your first stop the Sercotel Hotel Europa – the early 20th-century building has wrought-iron filigree decoration and is handily placed for La Concha beach and the old town. Marvel at San Sebastian’s grand art nouveau architecture and prepare to spend, as this is a great place to shop for gifts, with one-off stores such as Bois et Fer selling covetable candles, prints and ceramics by locals artisans. Build up an appetite with a picturesque 30-minute walk up Monte Urgull – a hill at one end of La Concha that’s topped by a fortress and a giant statue of Christ. After the hike, reward yourself with a spot of pintxos bar-hopping in the old town – a favourite local pastime. Ganbara restaurant is particularly wonderful, so head there if you can – but wherever you end up, be sure to order the patatas bravas and baby squid cooked in their ink.

Day seven: art and architecture
If San Sebastian is all about food, then Bilbao, just over an hour’s drive away, is all about art. Your final destination is the home of the landmark Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry – no trip to northern Spain would be complete without a day spent wandering around this futuristic, sculptural masterpiece. Make sure you’re wearing flat shoes, because there are 20 galleries to discover, spread across three light-filled floors. Peckish? There’s a great bistro with alfresco tables onsite. Before you leave, take an obligatory selfie by Jeff Koons’ giant puppy sculpture and ride the funicular railway to the top of Mount Artxanda for breathtaking city and mountain views. Spend your final night at Palacio Urgoiti, a former 17th-century palace with pool and golf course on the outskirts of the city, before setting sail back to the UK from the port of Bilbao.

With Brittany Ferries Holidays, you can pre-book all your travel and accommodation in one go – meaning that dream Spanish road trip is just a few clicks away. Book yours now and save up to 20%. Visit brittanyferries.com/guardian

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