My son was visiting from California for a few weeks so we decided to take a trip together somewhere in Europe. Over the years when we lived in Texas I was lucky enough to be self employed. So when it came to the school holidays my son Espen and I always traveled somewhere.

Of course Ryanair was the obvious budget choice to take anywhere in Europe. On opening their website the destination was staring us in the face. Santander £5 per person each way. Spain here we come! Ole!

The old port of Santander

Over the years we had visited together Mexico, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Germany and Scotland. As well as several road trips in the USA such as Yellowstone park. This time the budget was tighter, but Europe is such an easy place to go to, and it was November, off season.

As I usually do when traveling anywhere, I contacted the Tourist board of the country I was visiting. The Spanish Tourist Board generously provided one night’s accommodation in a hotel in the Rioja valley.

The trip was therefore going to be Santander for two nights, Bilbao for one, Rioja for one, and one more in Santander before flying back.

I always thought the Rioja valley was more in central Spain, but this hotel was in the north. We had two destinations in six days, but there was time for a third stop. I love Museums and one of the newest and biggest was in Bilbao. Third stop decided. The Guggenheim.

If there’s three things that the British enjoy that’s sunshine, food and wine. Spain has it all and more. For a few Euros you can feast on tapas and drink Rioja, and still have change from 20 Euros for the night. This trip was no exception. Santander was a fantastic host.

I knew very little about Santander apart from the fact that it was a ferry destination from Portsmouth. It was the HQ of the Santander bank, and it was on the north coast of Spain. Not as famous as Bilbao or San Sebastian nearby, but plenty of history and character, nonetheless.

I noticed when flying into the city that were the beaches everywhere. The Ryanair flight had left less than two hours ago from Stansted but we were here already. Golden sands and green hills, waves pounding on the coastline and rocky shores.

The airport was small and the Ryanair flight landed next to the terminal. From the airport it was a short bus ride for 2 Euros into the centre. I had booked our hotel, The Gran Victoria, on El Sardinero beach on the east side of the city.

Nestled in a bay, the city of Santander was clean and refreshing compared to London or Southampton. Clean air, historical, clean streets, a casino, bike rides available, a boardwalk, it seemed too good to be true. It was like Brighton without the crowds but with sunshine.

After checking into the hotel it was time to explore. We took a short stroll and found an avenue of tapas bars close to the casino and the beach so decided to hang out there for the first evening.

We decided on a bar called Bar Costa on Calle Joaquin Costa. We spent less than twenty euros on three glasses of wine and four tapas each. It was full of locals so a good recommendation.

Penguins at the Magdalena Palace

Day two was another first. A castle with penguins. The Magdalena palace was across the street from our hotel so we made it our first stop for the day. On the way to the palace was a small zoo with Penguins and Seals. They had a noon feeding so we decided to return after viewing the Palace.

Sat astride a rocky outcrop on the edge of the Bay of Biscay is the amazing Palacio De La Magdelena. Now a convention and conference centre, the Palace was built between 1908 and 1912 for the Spanish royal family. The views from the shore out to sea are breathtaking.

Onwards along the Sardinero beach we walked, checking out Gaudi-like tiled walkways and avenues, watching surfers in the cold November sea. Past parks and on to the end of the beach until we couldn’t walk anymore. We found a small supermarket with a deli. Lunch was sat on the wall with bread, cheese and Iberico ham fresh in that day.

More amazingly close to the beach was the local football Stadium, hosts to Real Santander of the Primera league. Modern pieces of architecture were everywhere with gardens flowing through the centre of the city.

A bus ride back to town meant we could walk along the port area before heading back to the hotel. We had coffee and cake at a small cafe along the boulevard, then popped into the maritime museum briefly.

It was November but the beaches were clean and open. People walked their dogs and we enjoyed the yachts and views across the harbour. It must be a wonderful place to live.  

Another evening and more wine. We went back to Costa bar and stayed local near there, enjoying the same ambience as the night before. A stroll around the area showed we could have done more, but it was just a casual evening enjoying the atmosphere.

Bar Costa in Sardinero beach Santander

Day three we were up early, very early 5am. Our 730am bus ride on ALSA to Bilbao would take us 3 hours. At least we could sleep or doze on the bus. I don’t think my son saw any of the views out the window.

Through hilly country and over bridges the three hour ride passed quickly. That was the good news. The bad news was that on arival at Bilbao bus station we had a two kilometre walk to the Hotel I had booked for the night.

The Hotel Ripa, right on the river, was another disappointment.I had booked it because it was right on the river and just down the river from the Guggenheim museum, our next visit in the morning.

Talk about a dump. The Hotel Ripa had to be one of the worst hotels in the city. Cold, unwelcoming and smelly. I had booked it through booking.com and was the last time I ever used them.

I couldn’t complain to the manager as she wasn’t there, and the poor girl who had to put up with the complaints from the customers couldn’t do anything. I left the worst review I could on trip advisor advising people to stay away from it. Dog kennels would have been better.       

Walking along the Bilbao Estuary

I called booking.com and they said talk to the manager. It was the last time I used Booking.com and never will again. They take 15% from a hotel on their website so why would they take a customer’s side?

That night we found another Tapas area close to the river within walking distance and filled up on Pintxos and wine before heading for dinner at Kubrick bar on the river. Local ambience was only spoiled by the fact we had to go back to the disgusting Hotel Ripa.

DAY FOUR

The next morning we were up early to go to the Guggenheim. It was situated just along the river from our hotel about a 20 minute walk away.Along the river bank we noticed designer bridges and arty murals on the bridges, it was definitely the art district.

The Guggenheim is impressive. A gigantic metal spider looms at you on arrival followed by a statue of metal balls stacked high. This is all surrounded by mist due to the dry ice fog machine. It goes off every fifteen minutes to give the impression the museum is in the clouds.

A colorful sculpture of tulips is on level one that is evident from the outside before you go in. Entry is not cheap at 17 Euros but there are discounts for seniors and young children. Plus I think you can book and pay online for less. Inside there are four levels with different displays from paintings to crafts to sculptures.  

As is usual with museums they rotate their artists and collections so you should check online before you go to see who is “appearing”.Two hours was enough to see everything, but you could spend longer if you dallied in the bookshop after. They have all the usual books and souvenirs to take home.

Back on the bus that afternoon we headed to Logrono and our resort hotel for the night. This luxury establishment in the middle of La Rioja made up for everything we had foregone the night before in Bilbao. In Logrono we took a taxi for 25 Euros to get to the hotel.  

The Hotel Finca de los Arandinos was out of this world luxurious. With wall to wall windows and a modern style, it looked like a place that 007 James Bond would stay at. Set in the middle of its own vineyards, their classic wines were made in the basement of the hotel. All organic.

The Hotel Finca’s ecological strong point is that it serves organic wine with all local ingredients. All the food served in the restaurant is sourced less than 500 metres away in its own gardens. Its mantra is to enjoy a “terroir” experience. The restaurant is called Terroir in honor of the experience they uphold.

Built in 1985 the Hotel Finca de Los Arandinos is family owned and operated by the …..family of …. As well as the in house winery, the organic food and wine and the magnificent views, Hotel Finca sports a spa, small pool and local tours. It’s an experience never to forget.

Our room was above the winery with a balcony and views across the vineyards. A comfortable modern double room, it had a white down duvet and huge shower with outback shower head. An in-house complimentary bottle of their classic organic red rioja was a classy touch to an already classy room.

As tourist board guests we were invited to a free dinner and drinks which consisted of a (seafood starter) and beef main deliciously prepared by their top chef Senor…..

After dinner came dessert, another classic from the chef.

With a full stomach, and heads spinning from the organic wine, we called it a night and retired. Being in the middle of the vineyards there was no sound bar the chirping of the birds the next morning at sunrise.

DAY 5

The next morning was more of the same. A full breakfast with eggs, bacon, Spanish ham, local cheeses, home made rolls, coffee or tea. On a warm sunny morning we asked for a tour of the facility and were duly obliged.

Senor Miguel Gil, the hotel manager took us on a tour of the basement winery explaining how the vines are harvested, and grapes crushed, to prepare their finest wines. The wines are not expensive, and sold by the case to guests and the local outlets.

Hotel Finca de Los Arandinos

Their organic wines are award winning and sold internationally as well as in Spain. You can reach the hotel for reservations at www.fincadelosarandinos,com. Please also take a look at my website for more information.  

Unfortunately it was time to leave but we had one more surprise. The local tourist board representative had booked us into another local vineyard museum which included another full lunch with various courses and a tour of the facilities.

The Vivanco wine museum was just next to the town of Brianes. Set in beautiful vineyards, the surroundings were classic Rioja. A church spire in the village, a cathedral in the valley and an underground wine cellar that housed thousands of bottles.

The Vivanco Wine museum vineyards

Three courses later we rolled out of the restaurant and took a tour of the museum. Some of the wine artifacts were two hundred years old and hand built. Presses, bottles, carts and machines to press and extract. Their prize selection was the bottle opener selection with ancient and modern units.

On the way back to Logrono we took more photos of the vineyards while we headed to one of the historic centres of the region. Logrono is known for….. The catholic church was predominant in this area for centuries and the wealth of the city was shown from the magnificent Santa Maria De la Redondo cathedral in the town square.

We had a small paella in the same square at restaurant Taberna de Portales….. wolfing down a 15 euro lunch with a carafe of local red. Time for a walk before the bus heading back to Santander.

We walked through the old town and over the river enjoying the calm water and pleasant views. Strolling into town we went through the delightful Paseo del Espelon park and along the Calle Vara del Rey, back to the local bus station.

It was a four hour ride to Santander. I had booked us two seats on ALSA bus for 18 Euros each and it was clean and comfortable, leaving and arriving on time. We arrived in enough time to check our bags at the downtown Hotel Picos de Europa before heading out again to see the port and city centre.Our last night in Spain.

The ferry docks right in the middle of town. I’m sure all the tourists in cars drive off the ferry and head to their destination. What they should be doing is staying at least one night in this amazing city. The port area is clean and welcoming.

El Botin Museum

It has a multitude of restaurants, cafes and places to go just in the docks area. A short walk would bring you to the impressive Santander cathedral. One of the highlights for me though was the art museum El Botin overlooking the water. It was early evening so we didn’t pay to go inside because it was closing soon.

However, you can walk up the metal stairs or take a lift on the outside of the building straight to the top. The views across the bay are stunning and well worth the climb. As the sun was setting it made the whole experience warm and welcoming.

Back to the Hotel and a local meal of pizza nearby was all we wanted that evening. We should have had more paella but we were just too exhausted. We didn’t even finish half the pizza. The hotel had a bar underneath so it was one more glass of wine and a plate full of chorros and hot chocolate before we called it a night.

If you’ve never had chorros then you must. Like a doughnut but long and thin instead of round, you just dunk it in your hot chocolate and enjoy the silky smooth flavors.

Another early morning for our flight back to the UK meant getting up at 6am.

The Hotel was down the road from the airport bus. So after a pastry and coffee we rode the bus fifteen minutes to the small airport. The flight was on time and the hotel had printed ou boarding passes. There was nothing to do but wait for the call.

DAY 6

The flight back left on time and arrived early. I don’t know why people complain about Ryanair. Follow their rules and there’s no problem. I think people try to take bigger bags, don’t bother to print their boarding passes, or do pre check-in on line. Then they complain because Ryanair charge them to do what they should have done themselves.

It’s not a great ride and two hours is nothing. For £5 one way I certainly was not complaining. Back to Stansted, two bus rides later and we were home. It was only six days and five nights but seemed like we had been gone a month. I wish we had, there was so much to see and do.

Conclusion. Yes, take a trip on Ryanair or Easyjet or Wizz off season for £5 or £10 each way and go somewhere. You won’t regret it. If you’re heading to North Spain then go stay at the Hotel Finca de los Arandinos and say hi to Senor Gil for me. You’ll be glad you did.

The Details.

Ryanair – www.ryanair.com

National Express bus – www.nationalexpress.com

Hotel Gran Victoria Santander – www.granhotelvictoria.com

Royal Magdalena Palace – www.palaciomagdalena.com

Bar Costa – Sardinero beach Santander- Gastro Bar Costa 43 – No website but on Trip Advisor. Calle de Joaquin Costa 43, 39005 Santander, Spain Tel+34 942 28 20 09

ALSA bus Santander to Bilbao – www.alsa.com 22 Euros

Plaza Barria Bilbao – food and tapas Bilbao

Cuadra bus – Bilbao to Logrono – www.cuadra.ingeniacom.com 10 Euros

Hotel Finca de los Arandinos – www.fincadelosarandinos.com

Vivanco wine museum – https://vivancoculturadevino.es/en/foundation/vivanco-museum-of-wine-culture/ 

ALSA Bus Logrono to Santander – www.alsa.com 20 Euros

Hotel Picos de Europa Santander – https://www.grupopicosdeeuropa.com/en-gb