Day 17: Bilbao. Rest day.

Day 17: Bilbao. Rest day.

We’re having a lot of rest days. The trip was planned to leave leeway for breakdowns, disasters and general cock-ups so that we could still make it in time for our ferry home. So far, we haven’t had any and Spain hasn’t been so badly mountainous as we feared, so we have basically arrived early and are pootling along to Santander having meta-holidays along the way.

Photograph of satirical poster from Bilbao Festival written in Basque.

We have arrived in Bilbao on the eve of their week long festival, Aste Nagusia, which celebrates all things Basque. Presided over by Marijaia, the festival involves groups from areas around the city building bars along the riverfront which are decorated in mostly political artwork. These are all organised independently by communities and neighbourhoods and involve a huge amount of work.

Photograph of poster for Bilbao Festival showing papier mache model of a woman.


Even Scotland gets a look in as their Basque comrades identify with the fight for independence. The effort that is put into these pop up tavernas by local people is quite amazing. I can’t think of anything on this scale that happens in the UK.

Photograph of Basque bar sign depicting satirical political figures.

There must be 20 or more of these bars which sell the must-have drink at Basque festivals called Kalimotxo: red wine and coke. Have to say I’m glad not to be sticking round for that hangover. Jeez.

They also have a character called, Gargantua, who is an enormous figure of a villager with a slide hidden inside, so children are ‘swallowed’ into his mouth and emerge down the slide out of his bum. Who pays for the therapy?

Photograph of river in Bilbao with lit up festival stalls along each side.


We went off on the Metro during the day to the Eastbourne of Bilbao; a suburb called Getxo. It’s all gentile, full of big houses and elderly people on benches who don’t like to get too close.

Photograph of a large house in Bilbao.

Photograph of Sarah sitting alone on a line of benches only big enough for one person.

We found the Viscaya Bridge which you can walk across, 60m in the air. I may have considered this with extreme terror until seeing that the walkway is slatted – you can see through the gaps. Step too far for even my bravest self.

Photograph of bridge in Bilbao.

See the sky through those gaps. And you have to pay. Madness. Does not compute.
Photograph of the underside of bridge in Bilbao.

We’ve really enjoyed Bilbao. It’s been calm and easy going compared to the craziness of San Sebastian. Apart from the insanely fast pace of the joggers and cyclists along the riverside (hard-core, these Basques), it’s been a really laid back kind of place, although when the red wine/coke combo kicks in, that could be a very different story. Time to get the hell out of here before the party starts. Story of our lives.

Day 16: Eibar – Bilbao. 49km.

Day 16: Eibar – Bilbao. 49km.

Photograph of the very steep town of Eibar, Basque, Spain taken from a high window showing buildings going up sides of a valley.
Good morning from the Unzaga Plaza Hotel in Eibar. Breakfast was full of a cacophonous coach party from Alicante and few bemused couples wondering how the hell they ended up here. Breakfast itself consisted of orange juice which had never seen an orange and ham which had never seen any organically occurring substance whatsoever. I am desperate to know who these other guests are and why, oh why, are they here?

I just can’t make sense of the existence of this entire town. Wikipedia tells me that its main industry since the 16th century has been small arms. That’s guns I think, rather than tiny prosthetics. I may have to move here to make peace with my mind. Without it nothing else in the world can make sense. Property, you’ll be interested to know, is relatively cheap.

Today it rained and I struggled and I cried and I walked up hills. Yesterday, Robin Williams chose to not stick around anymore. This upset me for reasons I don’t feel this is the place for. Suffice to say if he can’t make it add it, then what hope do I have. Enough of that.

After the hills, it was dual carriageway, fast and scary with a surprising number of cyclists, far more so than you would ever see on an A road in the UK.

Photograph of Sarah cycling up a hill with a sign which says 'Aretitio 313m'.

Despite the hills, the crying and the rain, the scenery is magnificent. This whole Basque coast is a fantastically impressive combination of mountains, beaches and cities.

Photograph of countryside with hills, trees and mountains in the distance.

At exactly about this point (below), about 2 miles outside Bilbao, my trusty velometer told me we had cycled 1000km. We had water and peanuts to celebrate.

Photograph of Sarah layng on a roadside wall with two bicycles next to her.


We found our way to our Pension La Salve – 5 mins from Guggenheim including breakfast for €60 but one of the worst views from the window I’ve ever experienced.

Photograph from hotel window of flyover and wasteland, Bilbao.

This is my second visit to Bilbao. The first was in 2001 and was at the end of a 6 week camping trip with 2 kids in a Peugeot 205 that heralded the end of my marriage and the start of many years of agoraphobia. I wrote a comedy show about all of that and performed a full run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 after cycling solo to Barcelona (I caught a train for 200 miles) in order to try and cure myself. I have high hopes for this visit being untraumatic and dull and leaving no residual baggage.

Photograph of Guggenheim, Bilbao.

Photograph of the Guggenheim, Bilbao from the other side of the river which runs next to it.

Photograph of the silver, curved walls of the Guggenheim, Bilbao.

How many photos of the Guggenheim would you like? It’s such a wonderful building with a million different angles and obvious shots, its hard to know when to stop.

Bilbao is a little bit of a one trick pony, with the Gugg being the main draw and the rest of the city having nothing astounding about it. A huge amount of money has been spent on the city since the Guggenheim was built as it had such a massive impact on a previously pretty uneventful city in terms if tourism. It’s a perfectly fine place to wander with an old town and nice riverside paths and bridges and a very decent Mr Wok Chinese buffet for those times when you just cant be arsed to try and communicate exactly what it is that you want to eat, because your Spanish is so shamefully rubbish, when what you want to eat is 17 padron peppers and some chicken.

Photograph of a rainy street and people in Bilbao Old Town.

Photograph of a church in Bilbao Old Town

Full of food and regret for the final visit to the buffet we retire to the pension with just one final snap of the pretty thing.

Photograph of the Guggenheim Art Gallery, Bilbao lit up at night.

Day 15: San Sebastian – Eibar. 70km.

Day 15: San Sebastian – Eibar. 70km.

Off into the mountains today in the morning sunshine. A hard day of hot and frequent climbs. Back to the love and and hate. Every revolution of the pedals hurts but it feels good to work that hard all the same. It’s a weird mental state to be in with such momentarily shifting inconsistency. Today I felt very strong and able to climb hills that I would not have managed a couple of weeks ago. The progress is quick. We are fitter than we were. My interest is not only in maintaining my own health, but also Keith’s as I may need him to donate me a kidney and need to keep him in good nick too. It’s OK, he has offered.

Photograph of Basque Country marshland with hills in background.
We cycled through stunning countryside and out along the Atlantic coast on the N-634, a fabulous cycling road frequented by large numbers of local Spanish road bikers doing what must be a circuit out of San Sebastian of around 100km or so. They didn’t have a full load, so we let some of them overtake us. Only some of them.

Photograph of Sarah with two bicycles leaning up against a dry stone wall on a roadside in Basque Country, Spain.


Photograph of Basque Country coast road with road right next to the sea.

Photograph of San Sebastian beach.

Today is our 4th last day of cycling. We feel sad about that. From feeling like we have forever ahead of us, it now feels near to the end.

Photograph of Sarah cycling up a deserted country road in Basque Country, Spain.

A photograph of hills, trees and distant mountains in Basque Country, Spain.

Photograph of Sarah on her bicycle from behind stopped at a junction in Basque Country, Spain.

Photograph of Basque Country coastline with hills and cliffs.

We climbed as high as 225m and biked through valleys with peaks around 500m on either side. Spectacular stuff. Home tonight is the extremely weird town of Eibar, positioned in the midst of the mountains in a narrow valley where everything is up. All the buildings are high rise and it is a bizarre mix of shiny new apartments and rundown tenements. There is a huge, shiny and almost entirely empty, El Corte Ingles department store selling washing machines and 4K TVs to nobody with a background musak of Dandy Warhols and The Housemartins. Weird, I tell ya. We stood in the empty store and stared at a 4K TV for a bit in trance-like awe, thinking that if we bought one of these (with Keith’s redundancy money), we would never leave the house again.

It is impossible to fathom why anyone would live in Eibar, but they do. Well, not at the moment they don’t as they mostly appear to have shut up their shops and gone on holiday for August, so it’s pretty deserted. Oh, and on one side of the valley is a massive, high rise nursing home full of balconies populated by elderly Spanish people overlooking the empty El Corte Ingles which they can’t go to, in amongst the high mountains, probably wondering how on earth they ended up here, or whether they have, in fact, died already.

Photograph of main town square and buildings in Eibar, Basque Country, Spain.
Photograph of a multi-storey run down building in Eiber, Basque Country, Spain.

We’re staying in the Unzaga Plaza Hotel which has been voted #1 out of #1 hotels in Eibar, which tells you all you need to know about everything.