Valencia to Bilbao via Zaragoza – Cathedrals, Castles and Modern Architecture

Cathedrals and churches in Zaragoza
Cathedrals and churches in Pilar Plaza, Zaragoza

North-East Spain was largely unknown to me. I’d visited Barcelona on a couple of occasions, but never strayed far inland.

Reading by chance that the name of the city of Zaragoza, was derived from Caesaraugusta, via the Arabic name of Saraqusta, persuaded me that I should find out more about this area of Spain and its complex history. I was also keen to see some of the iconic modern architecture of Valencia and Bilbao.

Hence my November touring holiday in North-East Spain. I picked up a hire car in Madrid and travelled via Valencia, Tarragona and Lleida to Zaragoza. I then headed north to Pamplona and Bilbao before returning via Burgos to my starting point. The round trip over a 10-day period covered about 1100 miles.

Why visit Spain in November? Well I’d learnt from previous touring holidays in Andalusia and Central Spain that November is perfect for this Senior Traveller. The weather is mild (hopefully), the roads are quiet, there are no crowds and travel and accommodation are at off-season prices.

City of Arts and Sciences
City of Arts & Sciences in Valencia

And so it proved on this touring holiday. Although there was the occasional shower of rain, for the most part it was a sunny 10-15 degrees. Driving was easy on almost empty roads and there were few tourist around.

Return flights by Ryanair from London to Madrid cost less than £50 and car hire booked via Auto Europe cost about £10 per day (kept to a minimum by taking out car hire excess insurance). Accommodation in Holiday Inn Express hotels and the Pilar Plaza in Zaragoza cost only about £50 per night including breakfast.

Amphitheatre in Tarragona
Roman Amphitheatre in Tarragona

Ten days was of course far too short a time to really appreciate what this area of Spain has to offer, but here are a few of my highlights from the trip.


The centre of Valencia  altered considerably after a massive flood in 1957. The River Turia was diverted out of the city and the old river bed became a long green belt of gardens.  I found this to be a very pleasant way to stroll the two miles or so between the old town and the modern new City of Arts & Sciences.

Cathedral and Castle of Lleida
Cathedral and Castle of Lleida

At the heart of the old town is the central plaza, the Plaza de la Reina, overlooked by St Mary’s Cathedral and surrounded by lively bars and restaurants.

The stunning modern architecture of the City of Arts & Sciences is a complete contrast to the old town. Spare some time after wandering around its unusual structures to visit the L’Oceanogràfic, the biggest aquarium in Europe (seniors 65+ get a 25% discount).


Aljafería Palace in Zaragoza
Aljafería Palace in Zaragoza

I stopped off briefly in Tarragona to visit the Roman Amphitheatre, a well-preserved 2nd Century arena facing the Mediterranean. It can best be viewed from the landscaped gardens above, but the overall effect is rather spoiled by the noisy railway line running close by the site.


An interesting place for a refreshment break along the way is the ancient city of Lleida, also known as Lérida. Our visit to the Gothic-Romanesque Cathedral in the ruined hilltop fortress was delayed by ‘siesta’ – the site closes from 1-30 till 3 pm during the winter period. Fortunately the 1203 Restaurant on the site remains open and providing panoramic views across the city as you sip your drinks (1203 was when the cathedral was founded). Seniors 65+ get a 20% discount when visiting the cathedral and the castle.


The walls of Pamplona
The walls of Pamplona

The drive from Lleida to Zaragoza was through the fairly barren Monegros Desert, although it was actually raining as we drove through! We stayed at the Pilar Plaza hotel in the very centre of Zaragoza, booked directly with the hotel with a special offer which included free parking and breakfast.

The central plaza of Zaragoza is overlooked by the magnificent Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, with the Cathedral of the Saviour close by. A short walk along the River Ebro takes you to the 11th Century Aljafería Palace. This fortified medieval Islamic structure was modified by Christian rulers, with the decoration being a fascinating mixture of styles. It is now the headquarters of the Aragonese Parliament, but can be visited most days, with seniors 65+ being charged an entrance fee of just €1.

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Not surprisingly for a city founded by the Emperor Caesar Augustus, there are many Roman remains scattered around, with the Roman Theatre and the old Roman port area being particularly interesting.


In Pamplona I parked by the River Arga where the bulls are corralled before the famous July Bull Runs. A good way to see the city is to follow the route of the Bull Run up past the main Plaza de Castillo to the Bullring. However, being a Senior Traveller, I must admit I took the free urban lift from the river up to the Calle Descalzos, rather than the steep roadway. From the Bullring, an interesting walk follows the city walls past mighty bastions, through the Park of La Taconera, to finish in the Citadel.

River Nervión near the Old Quarter of Bilbao
River Nervión near the Old Quarter of Bilbao


The striking architecture of the Guggenheim Museum is now almost synonymous with Bilbao, but of course there is much more to the city. After the requisite photos at the Guggenheim, I followed the banks of the River Nervión along to the Casco Viejo, the Old Quarter. Here ancient narrow streets give glancing views of the 14th Century Gothic Santiago Cathedral before suddenly opening into the arcaded Plaza Nueva with its myriad of tapas bars.


Cathedral of St Mary from the Castle of Burgos
Cathedral of St Mary from the Castle of Burgos

Burgos looked like a good place to stop to break the journey from Bilbao to Madrid, but proved to be much more than just a via point. I parked beside the River Arlanzón and walked through the pleasant riverside gardens into the central area.

This is dominated by the 13th Century Cathedral of Saint Mary of Burgos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Overlooking the city is the Castle of Burgos, which featured in the Napoleonic wars being captured by the Duke of Wellington in 1812. The nearby La Ciudadela restaurant gives great views back down towards the cathedral and the city.

POSTED 8th December 2016 by STEVE HANSON.