Spain: It's lovely up north

Until the budget airlines came along, most of the Britons who head for the delightfully unspoilt cities and rugged countryside of northern Spain had to endure a 36-hour ferry journey each way.

Today, it's a whole new ball game. We flew Ryanair into Biarritz, collected a car and took the motorway route to Pamplona, famous worldwide for the annual San Fermin celebrations in July when headstrong tourists join hardy locals to outrun some fearsome bruisers with rather sharp horns.

It is serious party time, with huge amounts of drink consumed and hardly anyone getting any sleep.

The jollifications go on for nine days after which the city, founded by the Romans in 75BC, returns to something like normality.

Fortunately, everyone seemed to have recovered from this annual bout of madness when we got to our hotel, AC Cuidad de Pamplona, a 20-minute walk from the town centre.

Strolling downtown on a Saturday night, we passed an imposing citadel surrounded by parkland. The oldest part of the structure, first built in 1571, dates from 1694.

We arrived in the main part of town slap bang in the middle of the tapas rush hour.

Because they eat late, Spaniards need something to be going on with mid-evening. This turns out to be tasty tapas – heated on request – spread out on bar counters.

The idea is that you buy a beer or a glass of wine and have a couple of items before starting on a tapas crawl.

Favourites include albondigas (meatballs), chorizo sausages, salpicon de marisco (a cold seafood salad) and tortilla espanola (Spanish omelette).

It was busy in the area and we wonder-ed what the city must be like when everyone crams in for San Fermin.

At least prices were reasonable so we did not feel we were getting fleeced, which is more than can be said for the sheep getting an all-over crew-cut in a shearing demonstration in one of the pretty squares in the town.

Pamplona's cathedral of Santa Maria la Real was built during the 13th and 16th centuries. There's a 12-tonne bell in one of the two towers and the cloister has beautifully carved gateways dating from the 14th century.

Another fine church is the 13th century Inglesia de San Cernin with a clock tower topped by a cockerel – a symbol of the city.

The city boasts an interesting museum, featuring Roman mosaics and Gothic and Baroque murals. There is also a painting by Goya, whose portrait of King Ferdinand VII can be seen in the Palacio de Navarra nearby.

Designed in 1840, the palace is the seat of the provincial government and has on display other paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Next day we drove through spectacular countryside to the foothills of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles – a place steeped in legend. It was here that French hero Roland breathed his last in the late 8th century.

To the French, Roland, a right-hand man of King Charlemagne, is a cross between William Tell and Robin Hood.

The story was that he had died fighting the Muslims of Spain, but in fact he had fallen in a skirmish with the local Basques.

At Roncesvalles we visited the old monastery set amid imposing mountains. Taking a different route back to Pamplona, we drove through peaceful villages. There was another great drive the next day, following the old pilgrim route to Estella, known as Estella la Bella. It is dotted with churches and can trace its history back to 1090 when shooting stars fell on the area – thus giving the city its name.

After our stay in Pamplona we headed north to the coastal resort of San Sebastian. The city has a location to die for, hugging a horseshoe bay, with wide beaches, historic buildings and a steep hill offering great views.

Our base, the Silken Amara Plaza Hotel, was a little way out from the main part of town but handily placed for buses into the city centre.

The city was all the rage in the late 19th century and it has that slightly decadent, Cote D'Azur feel to it. This is even more of a serious eating out place than Pamplona, containing some of the top restaurants in Spain.

San Sebastian even has culinary societies – all-male organisations where guys prepare and eat massive meals. To burn off a few calories, we clambered up Mount Urgull and took in the great views over the city.

One of the first "tourists" to come here was French king Francis I, who was locked up in San Sebastian by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the 16th century.

Nowadays, Britons are well received in the city, even though the Duke of Wellington's troops ransacked it during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

Most rewarding is the Parte Vieja (old town) but there are also great walks along the promenade and terrific beaches.

TRAVEL FACTS

Peter Woodman flew with Ryanair into Biarritz, and the airline offers regular services on this route from Stansted, Birmingham and Dublin, with single fares starting at just under 10 on the airline's website, before taxes and charges.

Reservations: www.ryanair.com

The AC Cuidad de Pamplona Hotel in Pamplona has doubles from around 95, and the Silken Amara Plaza in San Sebastian offers rooms from around 89 (both room only). Both reservations arranged by Hotels.com (0871 200 0171 and www.hotels.co.uk).

Packages including flights and accommodation also available at www.expedite.co.uk

Car hire was arranged by gosimply.com (www.gosimply.com).

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