Spain is so beautiful, no single nook and cranny should be missed. The best way to see it all is on the road! Well, maybe the very best way is to take one of the amazing high-speed trains. But in the North, trains aren’t as common because of the mountainous terrain. Hitting the road through the winding hills, green country side and rocky coast is the only way to really take it all in. Revel in your Don Quixote mode as you twist and turn through valleys admiring the enormous wind mills atop the rolling hills. Zip through tunnels and ride the cliffs that hug the ocean.
You may think that the language barrier might be an issue. Or that you’ve never really learned how to drive stick. You might be deterred by the foreign road signs and expensive car rentals. But have no fear- you just need a quick crash course in driving in Spain. Car rentals tend to be much cheaper than in the US, and they always have automatic options and English-speaking GPS’s for rent. As long as you study up some signs, and familiarize yourself with some road rules, you’ll be absolutely fine. The only unexpected costs will be the higher price in gas (hello, diesel), and a few road tolls (so keep the coin euros on hand).
But first, some pictures to convince you to go for the plunge:
Note: This blog is based on experience driving in Northern Spain. Southern Spain could very well be completely different, I have yet to experience it.
With most of the road signs in Spain, you can make a good inference about their significance. However, some are worth noting here.
Notice of a merge:
Entering a new Autonomous Community (State):
Also noteworthy before the “Welcome to Galicia” sign, is the “Autovia” sign with a red strike, which indicates that the highway is ending and a regular road will begin soon.
Expect more tolls. Unlike the US where some roads are designated toll roads and most highways are free, roads in Spain just kind of suddenly turn into toll roads without much warning. It’s best to assume they are all toll roads.
You’ll know when you’re approaching a toll when you see a sign like this:
Tolls sometimes have humans, but most often are machine-operated. Most often, they accept credit cards in addition to cash and coins.
Rest stops are not unheard of, but less common. And especially in the North when you are amidst hills and countryside, gas stations can be few and far between. Take advantage of one when you see it and you’re at a 1/4 tank. Don’t end up coasting down a dirt road in the middle of a thunderstorm on the Portugal border like we did. And also, don’t trust your GPS to take you to a gas station that is necessarily open for business. If you see a sign like this (excuse the smooshed bug on the windshield) and you’re low on gas; go for it!
“Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it,” or so said the road builders of Northern Spain when they reached a mountain. You will go through tons of tunnels of varying depths and curviness. Two important things to know before entering. (1) Headlights on (and sunglasses off) and (2) obey the speed limits of the tunnels. The speed limits are set to prevent any excess earth movement from traffic flow through the tunnels. In other words, too many speeders and the tunnel might not hold! Also, since this is so important, there are often a lot of radar traps set up around the tunnel exits. Either cameras with timers timing how long you were in the tunnel (out too quickly-ticket for you), or just an increased police presence at the exits.
In addition to tunnel radar traps, be aware that radar is often done by secret cameras, helicopters, etc. That being said, Europeans in general are not out to drive Miss Daisy. They drive with purpose, and they may push your comfort level of speed. When in doubt, go with the flow of traffic. Don’t forget, it’s in kilometers/hour.
Also be aware that sometimes there are Minimum Speeds on highways.
Be conscious of the region of Spain you’re driving through, as road signs may suddenly change languages. Especially when driving across the North, the signs will change (from East to West) from Catalan, to Basque, to Spanish, to Galician, and eventually to Portuguese if you reach the border. If you have some basic knowledge of Spanish, you’ll be able to get the gist. If you’re lucky, the signs will be bilingual and show the word in Spanish + other language…but not always. Usually the sign shape and color stays the same. So the red and white sign that indicates a toll is approaching “peaje” in Spanish, will sometimes say “peaxe” (Galician), “peatge” (Catalan), or if you brave the Basque Country….. “ordainleku“. Okay that last one isn’t close at all, but that’s exactly how the Basque’s want it. Don’t let that scare you, Pais Vasco is worth the linguistic struggle!
Rotaries, traffic circles, whatever you want to call them. Not often on the highways, but about as common as roadkill on the side and back roads, traffic rounds are unavoidable. Instead of traffic lights, Spain is a bit more green in their traffic approach. Also, it cuts down on left turns. But they can be intimidating if you aren’t prepared. Often times these circles can be 3-4 lanes deep with a range of 4-6+ exits. Remember the golden rule: if you’re in the outermost circle, you have the right of way. Anyone else does not. You’ll know you’re coming to a round when you see one of these:
This round shows you five possible exits before coming back the way you came.
Note on other drivers
To indicate a sudden slow down, breaking or a sudden stop- Spaniards will put their flashers on instead of just riding their breaks. If you see this suddenly, you too should slow down immediately breaking and throw on your own flashers.
Unlike in the US, Spaniards actually follow the rule of drive on the right-pass on the left. If you’re in the left lane, you should be going faster than the right lane. Same law as us, but it’s followed much more tightly.
Not convinced? Check out the best Road Trip Stops of Northern Spain (coming soon).