Why Spain is the perfect flight-free destination
“Why would you do that?”
It’s at the start of my trip, when I’m amazed to see the dolphins jumping above the sparkling waves in front of Brittany Ferries’ new ship Salamanca, that I think back to the words of my taxi driver and smile.
He was talking about my mode of travel, wondering aloud why, as a seemingly sane woman, I would voluntarily opt for northern Spain, a crossing of about 35 hours, rather than taking a two hour flight. I had answered his questions as best I could about the quick trip from Portsmouth station to the ferry port, explaining that the climate crisis had forced me to re-evaluate my travel choices and swap planes for trains, boats, buses, etc. But, by the time he dropped me off, he didn’t seem any less perplexed.
“Have a good trip?” he said, his voice finally dropping into an invisible question mark as if he couldn’t quite believe such a thing was possible. I remained unfazed by his disbelief – it wasn’t the first time I had seen such a reaction to the airborne ditching – but I wish he could see it, now: my traveling companions and myself were all silently waving at the spectacle of cetaceans in front of us, seen from the glass windows of the Salamanca ferry.
I’m a fully converted ferry these days. I sleep like a log in my cabin, or “travelling hotel room” as I call it; I spend hours staring at the seascape, dipping in and out of my book without the usual litany of distracting “pings” of messages and emails (my phone is, somewhat ironically, firmly in flight mode); I eat a nice meal on proper crockery in the onboard restaurant, next to my glass of chilled Spanish white. For me, holidays don’t start when I arrive in the city of Bilbao – they start the moment I set foot on the boat.
Of course, as enjoyable as the journey is, the destination is also quite spectacular. Or destination, plural, should I say. Because another joyful element of slow travel is this: it forces you to get creative with the route. After all, if you’re going to spend 35 hours crossing the ocean, you might as well see more of the place than just your base. This is how I find myself planning a multi-stop adventure, traversing five different cities across two countries in 10 days.
In fact, Bilbao doesn’t even make the cut on this particular trip – which I visited in September – as I hopped straight on a bus to Zarautz, a laid-back surf town along the east coast. is. Here, I spend my days buried in a book on the beach while my partner catches the waves in the scorching sun, before we dive into bars and restaurants for the duration of fleeting but intense summer storms. We watch in awe as golf ball-sized hailstones rain down, but even that can’t distract us from the plates in front of us, piled high with tender grilled meats. polpo (octopus) and marinated artichoke hearts.
As much as Spain is about food, so much northern Spain is really, really all about food. The different climate of the Basque region, with much higher rainfall than the rest of Spain, producing landscapes blanketed in lush vegetation, has its own distinct delicacies, as well as abundant seafood straight from the waves , thanks to the Cantabrian Sea. We decide to sample more extensively with the next leg of the tour: a night in the culinary hit of San Sebastián.
A quick train ride east brings us to this coastal gem, where the only thing that rivals the culinary scene is the honey-colored curve of sandy Playa de la Concha. Saving the latter for later, we immediately launch into a pintxos crawl through the sensationally pretty pedestrianized Old Town. We sit on stools in the sun, drink gallons of fresh sangria, and hop from restaurant to restaurant ordering more of this Basque version of tapas: tuna-stuffed peppers; salt cod marinated in garlic and chilli, skewered on crusty bread; manzanilla olives with juicy anchovies and marinated peppers; calamari fried in the lightest of batters.
We retreat to the bar at the newly opened Hotel Villa Favorita, a beachfront boutique that has perfected understated fashionable chic, to linger over pisco sours amid suede booths, stools sea bass in mustard and emerald leaves from overflowing indoor planters. Then to bed, where a white marble bathroom, high ceilings, Art Deco-style mirrored cabinets, and faded denim-colored suede furnishings await.
The next day brings a little less glamor in the form of an eight-hour coach journey – but, comparatively speaking, it’s a walk in the park for the slow traveler. I have always dreamed of visiting Valencia, and a direct air-conditioned Bilman bus service takes me there in the middle of the afternoon. Bags dropped off at the hotel, I head straight for a tour of the old town, where sunny 17th-century architecture sits in splendor alongside the Mercado Central, one of the largest fresh produce markets covered in Europe. It’s another town marked by its proximity to the sea and love of the table, although here it’s all about the hearty rice dishes found on menus across the city, the most famous being of course the paella.
I quickly fall for Valencia’s laid-back, laid-back energy, affordable prices, impressive 9km-long central park, and relative dearth of tourists. I could move there tomorrow – but instead, tomorrow I will be leaving. My final stop on the Spanish Odyssey (thanks to a 2.5 hour train ride north along the coast) is Barcelona. It’s also my first time here – nothing short of miraculous, given that I’m a travel writer – and I have to mentally adjust to the sheer volume of tourists wandering down La Rambla (and the exorbitant prices of cheap cocktails to match). But I’m a tourist myself and it doesn’t take long for me to see what the fuss is about. I explore the winding streets of the Gothic Quarter, climb a tower of the still-unfinished masterpiece of the Sagrada Familia, sit and gaze out over the city from the heights of Park Güell, and take an immersive tour of Gaudí’s Batlló d ‘another world. When in Rome/Barcelona…
And then it’s time for the final pre-home stop, this time an old favorite. Thanks to the high-speed rail link, I go in just six hours from the Catalan capital to the French capital: Paris. After my previous travels, this doesn’t seem like the time at all, and I’m soon settling in for a night at new affordable Mama Shelter La Defense digs. Inspired by the hotel’s explosive brand of colorful kitsch design — with plenty of power outlets and fast wifi — I work from the lobby the next day, only stopping to grab a burger and fries from the American diner on the space theme downstairs at lunch. The last leg of my journey is an evening Eurostar train to London, weighing in a heartbeat and you’ll miss it two hours and 17 minutes.
As I savor the legroom and fill my glass with a mini bottle of red wine from the onboard drinks cart, I think back to my taxi driver’s words, “Why would you do that?” – and I’m like, “Well, why the hell would not you?”
Brittany Ferries operate crossings from Portsmouth and Plymouth to Bilbao and Santander in northern Spain. Travel with a car or bicycle, or as a foot passenger.
Double room at Hotel Villa Favorita in San Sebastian from £144.
Double room at the Dimar Hotel in Valencia from £70.
Doubles at the InterContinental Barcelona from £198.
Double at Mama Shelter La Défense in Paris from £95.
Helen Coffey used an Interrail pass for trains in Spain and France; from €170 for an adult week pass for Spain.