Road-tripping across Spain

By Andrew Collins

As a road-tripping destination for LGBT travelers, there may not be a better place to go in Europe than Spain. It's relatively economical and easy to drive through this increasingly progressive country, that legalized gay marriage in 2005. It is dotted with cities and resorts popular with gay vacationers, and drives between key destinations often reveal stunning views of the Mediterranean, high desert mesas and snowcapped mountaintops.

I rented a car with a friend last summer and embarked on a two-week road-trip covering the eastern two-thirds of the country - I missed the regions near the Portuguese border and north along the Atlantic (including Bilbao, which I'm eager to visit). But with just 14 days, my friend and I knew we had to exercise. We still managed to visit about a dozen towns and cities, some for the afternoon and others for two or three nights. All told, we drove roughly the distance between San Diego and Vancouver. It was a great adventure - my first serious extended driving trip in Europe.

Here's a quick recap of our trip, which commenced in Barcelona in the northeast and ended in Malaga along the Costa del Sol, along with tips about planning a similar trip yourself to Spain or elsewhere in Europe.

We started in Barcelona, and I recommend beginning - and possibly ending - any European road trip with larger cities in which you plan to spend a few nights. Obviously, big cities have more international direct flights to choose from. They're also usually easy to get to explore without a car. In fact, as they tend to generate plenty of traffic and have expensive parking, they're better visited without a car. We spent our first three days in Barcelona without wheels (this included a day trip to the gay resort town of Sitges, which is extremely easy to reach by train), saving money and hassle.

From Barcelona our route across Spain looked a bit like a backwards "Z" - southwest to Madrid with a stop in Zaragoza (the heart of Aragonese Spain), then southeast to Valencia detouring for the afternoon to Cuenca, a stunning ancient city renowned for its 15th-century "hanging houses," one of which now contains a respected contemporary art museum.

Here you can see a big advantage to driving - it allowed us to make impromptu detours to a variety of places we'd never have considered visiting had we been traveling by plane or even by train or bus. Without having to adhere to timetables or figure out public transportation logistics, we were able to make the most of our time, and even choose some wonderfully scenic routes. It helps that I love both driving and navigating (for this I relied solely on GPS and Google Maps on my Verizon smart phone, which has global roaming - unlimited data plans cost about $2 a day).

From Valencia we turned down the Costa Blanca to Alicante (spending that night in nearby Elche), then followed the sea through the only forgettable part of our trip - the bland, condo-infested resort of Torrevieja. But we soon cut inland and up through the spectacular Sierra Nevada mountains to reach Moorish grandeur of Granada, where we spent the better part of the following day exploring the fabled Alhambra Palace.

We then continued west through Spain's Andalusian countryside to the romantic city of Sevilla, and after two nights there cut southeast over the mountains to the Costa del Sol - stopping for a few hours in the picturesque cliff-top village of Ronda - before continuing to another of Spain's top gay vacation spots, Torremolinos. We spent two final nights in Malaga, a somewhat underrated coastal city of about 570,000 with a lively Old City rife with sidewalk cafes, shops, and a smattering of gay establishments.

Leading destination

Spain has become southern Europe's leading destination for LGBT vacationers, especially travelers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Scandinavia and other northern European nations. Barcelona and Madrid are tops among the big cities for gay travel, with Seville equally popular, though less for its gay scene and more for its celebration of Andalusian culture and cuisine. Valencia and Malaga possess more modest gay scenes but are also well-worth visiting. Granada has a limited but fun gay scene for a city its size (240,000), and Alicante was probably the biggest surprise for me. This seaside resort city on the Costa Blanca supports an extremely vibrant gay following (especially with British visitors) and contains more LGBT nightlife options than much larger cities like Valencia or Seville.

Among resort communities, tiny Sitges and Torremolinos have gay bars, resorts, and vacation rentals galore, as do two other communities that you must reach by plane or boat: Gran Canaria, which is the second most populous of the Canary Islands, a 2.5-hour flight from Madrid, and the famed party haven of Ibiza, just an hour by plane from Barcelona.

As with Barcelona, a car is arguably more bother than benefit in big cities like Madrid, Seville and Valencia. If you're visiting these cities for more than two or three days, it's worth ditching your rental car at the airport, and renting a new one when you leave. In our case, we stuck the rental car in a garage when we arrived, and picked it up again upon departing.

The 25 to 30 euros per night we spent on parking was still a better deal to us than constantly returning and renting new cars, which would have required taxi rides and wasting time getting to and from rental agencies. Also, it's cheaper to rent weekly than daily, so having the car for a full 11 days worked out more economically than had we rented different cars for two or three days at a time. Finally, having the one car with us the entire trip allowed us to leave some of our belongings in the trunk.

It's worth noting that car theft is a significant issue in Spain, but you're unlikely to be affected by it if you exercise prudence - park in secure garages, store nothing in a part of the car that's visible through the window, and keep no valuables in the car. We left only non-valuable belongings in our car when unattended, and we stored them in a concealed trunk.

Over the 11 days, we paid $380 (including all taxes and a roughly $70 surcharge for returning the car in a different city) for a mid-size car, which I booked on Expedia from Dollar Rent A Car a few weeks in advance. We saved money renting a manual-transmission car, not only because rates for these are far lower in Europe than for automatics, but because they get better gas mileage. It cost about $50 to fill the tank. We did run into some steeply priced toll highways (about $30 from Barcelona to Zaragoza, for example - they all take Visa and Mastercard), but many other major highways in Spain were toll-free.

We also paid extra for international auto insurance, which is a must. Most U.S. policies don't cover international car rentals, and credit card companies typically don't either, but it's important that you first contact these companies before you decide to rent a car to find out what sort of coverage you might already have. I purchased comprehensive auto insurance through Expedia for a very reasonable $11 per day.

Including rental rates, insurance, gas, parking, and tolls, we spent a comparable amount to what we would have for a similar road-trip in the United States

Again, road-tripping in foreign countries - especially those known for aggressive drivers, poor roads, or intense traffic - isn't for everybody. Spain is a relatively easy country to drive in. There's an extensive network of high-speed, limited-access highways, gas stations are prolific, and even in smaller town roads are usually in good shape. And if you're comfortable behind the wheel driving in new places, it's a great destination for road-tripping.

If driving is less your cup of tea, but you'd still like to tour multiple cities in Spain, consider flying among a few key destinations - such as Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and Malaga - and using buses or trains for side trips. Another option is to buy a Spain Eurail Pass http://www.eurail.com, and rely on solely on trains to get around.

A final thought: we visited in July because it best suited out schedule, but summer is typically the most expensive time to fly to Spain from the U.S., and the weather can be stiflingly hot. In interior cities like Madrid and Seville, we routinely encountered daytime highs above 100 degrees, but with low humidity. Along the coast, daytime highs hovered around the 80s, but higher humidity made it feel hotter. Travel around Spain in fall or spring, and you'll likely enjoy milder weather, fewer crowds and better rates on flights, hotels and car rentals. Winter is a decent value in cities, but it's high season in coastal resort areas.

For more on visiting Spain, check out the official national tourism website http://www.spain.info along with the very helpful site on gay travel in Spain, http://www.gayiberia.com.

Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website About.com and is the author of Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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