Car Hire in Spain: 10 Scenic Drives
Spain is a country made for the epic drive. Big skies, open roads, and spectacular scenery stretching to the horizon mean that renting a car in Spain should be the experience of a lifetime. Stop and stare wherever you get the urge – that is the joy of car hire. Here are our favourite Spanish road trips to get you inspired:
Canon de Rio Sil
Galicia is place of spectacular scenery, particularly just northeast of Orense. Pick up your rental car in Orense and follow the N120 along the Rio Mino for about 20km out of the city, at which point you’ll reach that river’s confluence with the Rio Sil.
You have the delightful prospect of about 50km of picturesque riverside scenery, with the final stretch of the river flowing through the dramatic Gargantas del Sil canyon. This stunning gorge lies at the heart of the Ribeira Sacra wine region, where a mountain road rises to the east from the N120 just before the confluence and passes through a series of pretty villages as it clings to the highest ridge of the canyon’s southern edge.
We’re still in the far north of Spain for our next hire car outing, which starts in Vielha, about 300km north-west of Barcelona. Capital of the Arán Valley, Vielha is encircled by staggering mountains towering some 2,000 metres high. The town itself dates back to Roman times. The tiny centre has a charming church called the Església de Sant Miquéu, where you will find some remarkable medieval artwork, namely the 12th-century Crist de Mijaran.
Another highlight is the Muséu dera Val D’Aran, based in a turreted mansion of fading grandeur, where Aranese history is outlined via a series of black-and-white photos and period furnishings. Vielha is also home the spectacular Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park
From here, you can embrace all that is wonderful about the Pyrenees on a 42km drive over the Bonaigua Pass (Port de la Bonaigua) to Esterri d’Aneau. Expect blankets of snow clinging to peaks, swathes of dense forest, and the blissful stillness of mountains. Beware to all you vertigo sufferers: Port de la Bonaigua is pretty high – 2,072 metres above sea level
Follow the coastline of northern Costa Brava as you drive your rental car through the comarca (county) of Alt Emporda in Gerona. The Golf de Roses has been left virtually unscathed by development, particularly in such picturesque spots as the old fishing port of L’Escala, with the ruined Greek and Roman settlement at Empuries.
Beyond Roses, there’s the wild Cap de Creus headland with its jewel, Cadaques, a pretty town inextricably linked with Salvador Dali. As you make the final approach to the French border, the road hugs the coast as it winds through sleepy villages like the whitewashed El Port de la Selva.
If your destination is the Pyrenees, you really must take in the Cinco Villas, so named as a reward from Felipe V for the towns’ services during the 18th-century War of the Spanish Succession. North of Zaragoza, the Cinco Villas extend 90km along the border between Aragon and Navarra.
They comprise Tauste, Ejea de los Caballeros, Sadaba, Uncastillo and Sos del Rey Católico – with Sos being the most interesting. The countryside is beautifully unspoiled, and the Cinco Villas themselves lie on the routes to both Pamplona and the Pyrenees.
El Escorial to Avila
The province surrounding the Spanish capital is sadly neglected by visitors, but don’t make the same mistake when you rent a car in Madrid! A 50-minute drive from the city centre brings you to Felipe II’s massive 16th-century monastery, the most significant architectural legacy of the Spanish Renaissance.
From El Escorial, it is about a 70km drive to the historic walled city of Avila. Walk alongthe city walls from Puerta del Carmen to Puerta de los Leales, admire the wealth of turrets and archways, and visit the Convento de Santa Teresa (home to the saint’s ring finger, with ring intact).
Hiring a car in San Sebastian? Then travel inland and travel the surrounding province, discovering the unique Basque culture celebrated at Tolosa’s lively carnival and explore historic Onati, with its amazing casas torres. Visit the Arditurri mines or take a guided tour of Hondarribia’s medieval quarter.
Gipuzkoa may be Spain’s smallest province, but it has a glorious 66km of coastline, nestled at the easternmost edge of the Cantabric Sea on the Bay of Biscay. Enjoy a day at the beach at La Concha, visit a 17th-century ironworks in the heart of the province, and work up an appetite for tasty morsels with a pintxo route around San Sebastian.
Calpe to Alcoy
The distance from Calpe to Alcoy, in the province of Valencia, may be just 55km, but the contrast between the start and finish of the drive is stunning. Once a fishing village, Calpe is now firmly part of the sun-sea-and-sand culture of the Costa Blanca. It lies about an hour’s drive from Alicante Airport and offers a lively mix of traditional Valencian culture, modern tourist facilities, and three beautiful sandy beaches.
Once you leave Calpe and head inland to Alcoy, the landscape becomes more pastoral and delightfully undeveloped. Valencia has a tradition of staging mock battles between Muslims and Christians (Moros y Cristianos) in memory of the Christian Reconquest of Spain, and the festivities in Alcoy are among the most elaborate and colourful to be seen anywhere.
If you’re a car hire user with an adrenaline habit, you’ll love the dizzying descent from Puerto de las Palomas (“Pass of the Doves”) in Andalucia to the historic Moorish village of Zahara. Take the CA531 from Grazalema to Zahara and drive with care!
The road is winding, narrow, and very steep – Puerto de las Palomas is situated at an elevation of 1,350 metres. This is not a route to be attempted if you have a problem with heights, but if you don’t the views of the sierras ( and, possibly, eagles) will remain with you forever.
The whitewashed village of Zahara de la Sierra gleams from the side of a craggy mountain peak at the end of your drive, creating one of the most striking images in the entire province of Cadiz. An artificial lake at the foot of the mountain opens up the prospect of swimming and watersports, and there are several historic attractions in Zahara itself, including the 16th-century Watch Tower and the baroque Church of Santa María.
Sierra de la Demanda
A landscape of lush valleys and stark uplands scattered with monasteries awaits you on the two-hour drive via the LR113 from La Rioja to the heart of the Castilla y León region around La Sierra de la Demanda. The roof of La Rioja encompasses the highest peak in the region, the imposing San Lorenzo (2,260 metres), home to the Valdezcaray ski resort.
Park your rental car and stretch your legs on the Via Verde Nature Trail, which extends along a disused rail line 54 km between the towns of Arlanzón and Monterrubio de la Demanda. Visit Monasterio de Santa María la Real in Najera, Rioja’s most exquisite cloister, which functions as a pilgrim stop and stepping stone on the route west.
Another 5km farther is the turn west for the San Millán de la Cogolla monastery, where you can stay and eat at the Hostería del Monasterio de San Millán. Fans of Rioja’s famous chorizo should visit Baños de Río Tobía, one of the most important manufacturing and drying points for the cured sausage. Just above it is Anguiano, celebrated for its caparrones, little kidney beans that form the principal ingredient in one of Rioja’s favorite stews.
Hire a car in Spain in spring for one of the prettiest drives at this time of year. So-called leaf peepers flock to New England in the United States to revel in the magnificent display of autumn foliage, so why not celebrate the advent of spring with a visit to the Jerte Valley in March? This part of the Extremadura region is home to a staggering 2-million-plus cherry trees, which all flower over a ten-day period in early to mid March.
Follow the Rio Jerte for about 70km along the N110 from Plasencia toward Barco de Ávila to see cherry trees drifting white blossom, with mountains appearing as if blanketed in snow. Stroll the wild trails around the villages, or go biking, horse riding, or fishing. The Cherry Blossom Fiesta celebrates this natural phenomenon with exhibitions, tastings, musical performances and guided tours of Los Infiernos Nature Reserve and the Cherry Museum in Cabezuela.