A long weekend break in one of the Spain’s iconic cities might be fun but it won’t tell you anything you need to know about Spain! I grew up in Spain, living here for 17 years, and yet knew nothing about the country as a whole other than what I had learnt in history lessons at school. That is why I decided to head out on a 4,000 km Spanish road trip on my last visit.
Spain is a large country, more than double the size of the UK, and therefore the scenery and climate changes drastically. But in addition to this, Spain is very regional with each region taking great pride in their culture, cuisine and even language. I talk more about my trip around Spain on my Spanish Travel Diaries, however, for this blog I wanted to share with you the 10 things I wish I’d known before heading out on a Spanish road trip!
Hire car or public transport?
I had originally considered doing all my travel by public transport so as to reduce my carbon footprint, however, it soon became clear that if I did this I wouldn’t be able to get off the beaten track. I wanted my trip to take me to tiny villages, over mountain passes and into national parks. I wanted to see the famous cities too, but really, all of my trip highlights happened when I was off the tourist trail, lost, and in nature! Over the 10 days I covered 4,000 kilometres, visited 5 national parks, explored 10 historical cities, ate delicious locally sourced food, met countless lovely individuals and saw more birds of prey than I thought was even possible!
So, if you are ready to pick up a hire car, then here are a 10 things you should know before setting off on your Spanish road trip!
10 Things you need to know before you head out on a Spanish road trip
1. They drive on the right-hand side of the road
Unless you are from a former British colony, chances are you will read this with a sigh of relief, but, if like me, you are used to driving on the left-hand side of the road, make sure you remember this when you pull out of the hire-car car park!
I hear a lot of people worry about driving on the other side of the road, but I have to say, it has never really bothered me, particularly if the car has the steering wheel on the correct side. You will need to be extra vigilant to begin with, particularly on junctions, however, the pedals are in the same order, and you soon get used to changing gear with the opposite hand. If you want to make life easier though, rent an automatic instead.
The biggest challenge I find when driving on the righthand side is gauging the width of the car from the “wrong” side. I find I hog the centre line a lot more, but after a day or two it all drops back into place. What I tend to do is use the white line (which normally rumbles) at the side of the road to quickly learn how far over I am. Getting to grips with it early will certainly help you, especially if you plan to drive on their narrow hairpin roads or through any of their historical centres.
2. Signage can be tricky at times
There are two things I noticed on my travels. Firstly, they are not consistent! You might be following the signs thinking “this is great, they are making it very clear”, and then get to a junction where they forget to tell you to turn! Secondly, they sometimes put the sign right on the junction, as opposed to in advance, giving you little chance to “mirror, signal, manoeuvre”! You will need eagle eyes! Sometimes the signposts are after the junction! If you spot those, it means you’ve gone too far 😉!
3. They have funny junctions
I do wonder at times whether the people who design the roads in Spain actually drive. I came across so many junctions that were on blind bends, or where they positioned you at such an angle that you simply couldn’t see what was coming. Surely a driver would avoid something like that? However, the two that I found most confusing were the multiple motorway exits and turning left off of a main road.
It is not uncommon for exits off dual carriageways and motorways to share the slip road with the previous entry, meaning you have cars trying to come on whilst you are trying to come off, often in a very short period of time. Luckily, overall, the roads are pretty quiet, but when you are near the bigger cities these areas can cause quite a lot of accidents and a lot of congestion too.
The other one that caught me out quite a lot is that when you come off the motorway you can have up to 4 further exists from that single slip road and they aren’t always well signposted! Whereas in the UK they would normally handle this by taking you to a roundabout, in Spain you will have to try and quickly work out where your sat nav wants you to go.
In the UK, if you want to turn right (the same as turning left in Spain), you signal, stop and cross when there is a gap, meaning you only have to focus on crossing those cars coming towards you. In Spain, you tend to have to turn right, off the main road that will then loop you around so you then have to cross both carriages, which I would argue makes it more difficult and more dangerous. Their argument is that otherwise you stop the flow of traffic, but since they have already made all that extra room to the side, they could have easily put in a filtration lane in the middle.
On the other hand, when turning left from a minor road on to a major road you will often have a filtration lane in the middle, so you only need to cross one carriageway, then stop in the middle before joining the flow. This I do think is quite a good idea!
4. They don’t know how to navigate a roundabout!
OK, so I learnt to drive in Swindon, which is the roundabout capital city of the world. In fact, it has a magic roundabout, 5 roundabouts in one! Google it, it is something to behold! I actually love it as it keeps the traffic moving, but many fear it and avoid it at all costs!
All I can say is that I’m glad they didn’t have one in Spain as it would have been chaotic! There are a few things missing when it comes to roundabout etiquette in Spain. Firstly, nobody seems to have worked out where the indicators are, so you can never know what their intentions are. Secondly, you can’t assume to judge what they are going to do by their roundabout positioning as many go the whole way round the roundabout on the outside lane! If you are using a roundabout properly this can be problematic as you can find your exit blocked by a car that shouldn’t have been there.
5. The speed limits will drive you mad
The national speed limit on N roads is 90 kph, on the motorway and dual carriage ways 120 kph, unless it states otherwise. This seems pretty simple, however, the reality is that they change speed limits faster than you can say Schwarzenegger. This is particularly true on the national roads.
You might approach a village and see a sign of 70 kph, then within 100 yards it will have gone down to 50, then another 100 yards 30. As you exist the village though it will then say you no longer need to do 50 and you are left wondering at what point you could have sped up again?! I raised this with a local and he explained that generally this happens because over the years they reduce the speed limits but don’t bother taking away the old signs.
There may be other times where they reduce the speed limit for a reason but then forget to tell you that you can speed back up again. You only realise you have been travelling too slowly when you see a suggested speed sign that is higher than the speed you are doing! Just so you are aware the speed signs on a white background with a red circle a mandatory speed limits, whereas those on a blue background are suggested speed limits.
The yoyo effect!
For me the most frustrating of speed limits though was their inability to plan or make their mind up. You might have just come out of a town where you were doing 50 kph when it says you can now do 90 kph. But before you can even speed up they put a sign post for 70 kph. On many of the rural roads you will be speeding up and slowing down like a yoyo trying to remain within the speed limits!
6. Fueling the old-fashioned way
At many fuel stations, particularly in rural communities, they will put the fuel in the car for you, in fact, you may get some very odd looks if you do it yourself! I did worry at first as to whether I should or shouldn’t be putting it in myself, but unless someone was there at the ready, I always did in the interest of speeding things up! Although I have to say, it is a rather nice way of avoiding fuel smelling hands!
I did find that in some self-serve services you had to pay for fuel up front. This is quite generally quite straightforward as they run the card to hold an amount and then only charge you what you dispense. However, there was one that wanted to know the exact amount I needed which I couldn’t answer as I wanted to brim it. She ended up letting me fill up before paying.
7. Beware of the cost of toll roads
Just like France, many Spanish motorways are toll roads and the cost of these add up very quickly! As an example, the toll road from Victoria-Gazteiz to San Sebastian is €12 each way, yet it is a relatively short distance of around 100km.
The good news is that I managed to do all 4,000 km without going on any toll roads! It also meant that I discovered some truly off the beaten path gems. The roads in Spain are generally very good (speed limit and dodgy junctions aside!), and by leaving the motorways behind you will discover no end of beautiful villages, outstanding scenery and most importantly, you will have a chance to have those experiences that us “travellers” love to talk about. For example, when I left Asturias to head to the city of Leon along the mountain road, I stopped off at a tiny village so I could have a drink and use the loo.
The bar appeared to be closed when I walked up to it, but as I turned around to walk back to my car the door opened and an old man shouted out “Did you want something?”. I expressed that I was after a drink and he invited me in, making me a hot chocolate and serving me some local venison chorizo, which is apparently what the town is best known for.
We chatted away by the fire, the lights still off, as I explained my plans and whilst he told me about his own story. When the time came to leave, he refused to let me pay and even gave me some food to take on my way with me! Stories like this became the norm on my travels, and never truer than when I was off the beaten path!
8. High mountain passes
I love winding roads. The more hairpins the better, it means I’m invariably going to end up somewhere with amazing views! Much of Spain sits significantly above sea level, and it won’t be unusual for the main road to take you up over 1,600 metres or more of elevation. In fact, as I drove from Toledo to Segovia the main road took us to the giddy heights of 1,900 metres!
This isn’t just reserved for the smaller roads though. Some of the motorways feel like rally stages! As they wind their way through canyons you will find yourself taking sharp turns or facing steep ascents. I can assure you though that the twisty roads beat the straight roads every time.
Many of the roads I drove along, particularly in Castilla y Leon were dead straight, no doubt built by the Romans when they were on the Iberian peninsula. These roads are dangerously boring and 90 km per hour suddenly feels very slow!
9. Speed cameras
I decided not to speed whilst in Spain, or at least not on purpose, as they have sneaky speed cameras that they don’t warn you of. These look the exact same as the electricity boxes. They are white boxes found on the side of the road that you won’t know are a camera until you have passed and see the tell tell black circle of the lense on the other side. However, these electricity boxes are common and are everywhere, so you stand no chance of telling them apart from the standard ones!
It is also worth noting that if you get done for speeding in a hire car you will normally have to pay an additional admin fee on top of the fine!
10. Parking nightmares
Firstly, the Spanish’s approach to parking is much more liberal to ours. They put real creativity into deciding where to park and you will often find them parked on zebra crossings, corners, in front of garages, or, their favourite, double parked!
However, chances are you want to park legally so it is worth noting that anything between white lines is free, and anything between blue lines will need to be paid for. There are also red and orange lines which I believe mean they are residents only, although some do allow parking between certain hours. It is worth checking the timetables carefully and if unsure stick to the rule of blue (paid) or white (free). You don’t have to always pay when parked between blue lines. I found many where you only needed to pay between 9am and 2pm, and between 5pm and 9pm. Many to be free on a Sunday.
My focus however was on finding white zones. It did mean I’d sometimes have a few minutes walk to my hotel with my backpack but I avoided paying for parking pretty much for the entirety of my trip! I tended to put my final destination in the Sat Nav, and once there go to the residential streets nearby where without fail I was able to find a free legal parking space.
Now it’s time to plan your route
Now that you know the above you are ready to hit the road and enjoy everything that Spain has to offer! It really is a country that is worth exploring beyond the tourist destinations. Explore the North with it’s green landscapes, big mountains and wild coastline.
Head down the West through Castilla y Leon and Extremadura to the forgotten about regions with their harsh landscapes and warm welcomes. Explore Roman history, visit Game of Throne filming locations and enjoy the delectable Jamon Iberico.
Visit the white towns of Andalucia and learn about the Moorish history of the region before sitting down and enjoying some tapas and a flamenco show in the hottest region of the country.
Visit artistic Valencia and try a real Spanish Paella. Explore the land of Don Quixote in Castilla La Mancha and marvel at the windmills he confused with giants, or the hanging houses of Caceres. Explore Gaudi’s work in Barcelona before heading north to the foothills of the Pyrinees, the true off the beaten path region.
There is so much to do and I know that wherever your journey takes you there is one thing I can be sure of. You will love it! If you have already toured Spain then I’d love to hear what your top tips would be for a Spanish road trip!