Day 20: Noja. Rest day.

Day 20: Noja. Rest day.

Photograph of a plastic flower in the reception area of the Hotel Pelayo, Noja, Spain.

We’re staying in the one star Hotel Pelayo where even the plastic flowers are dying (sellotape). The WiFi only works on Reception when sat in a chair which smells of dog. Other than that, it’s clean, friendly, helpful and near the fabulous beach.

Breakfast on a bench in the middle of town followed by coffee in a cafe where I managed to order three cups of coffee for the two of us. Spanish not really improving.

Photograph of Keith sitting on a bench with orange juice, yogurts and cakes next to him.

 

We mutually confessed that when cycling we have each had a particular song that comes into our heads. Mine is ‘Love is a Battlefield’ by Pat Benatar (mostly for the ‘we are strong’ affirmation as I pile up yet another hill). Keith’s is ‘On the Road Again’ by Whitesnake. These choices age us perfectly but are no reflection on our general musical taste. Keith also owned up to Queen’s ‘I Want to Ride my Bicycle’ but as long as that doesn’t get lodged in my head for our final ride tomorrow, I’ll forgive him.

We walked along the coast for a few km up to another fabulous beach. Today the weather was unusually stable and hot all day.

Photograph of Northern Spanish coastline with rocks and crystal clear blue sea.

Photograph of sea and distant rocky headlands at Cantabria, Spain.

 

This Cantabrian coast has been a revelation for its stunning scenery and crystal clear sea. It rivals anywhere in the Mediterranean, but don’t come here expecting anyone to speak English, because they don’t. This is a Spanish resort full of Spanish families.

Photograph of a crowded beach and blue sea beyond at Noja, Spain.

Photograph of rocky bay, sandy beach and blue sea at Noja, Spain.

Photograph of Keith and Sarah on the beach at Noja with the sea and coastline behind them.

The tide goes out to reveal lots of shallow pools full of fish which nibble your legs, crabs and safe water for kids.

Photograph of wide sandy beach, turquoise sea and green covered cliffs in the distance at Noja, Cantabria.

 

Following in from our Best Ice Cream in the World experience in Biarritz, we came across Michelin star frozen yogurt in Noja. Not sure entirely about the credentials of this, but it tasted alright.

Photograph of two tubs of frozen yogurt on some grass, Noja, Spain.

Mostly today we have been thinking we should spend Keith’s redundancy money on a camper, wondering how the hell we are going to cope with going home and not have double nap days on beaches. We have spent this money several times over.

We had yet another chicken picnic overlooking the beach with wine so bad it needed diluting with orange juice. The orange juice cost more than the wine.

Last day of cycling tomorrow which makes us both sad. The pace of life without a car, job or home is so slow, stress-free and frankly joyful. Not entirely sustainable perhaps, but if we accept that it’s not, then we have no hope of striving to live differently. The challenge is how to keep hold of pieces of these experiences when we return home to a world where people would rather write emails than have a double nap day. A life on the fringes of the norm is not a surprising, or unusual, concept for us autistics, who find the physical and social elements of typical existence both overwhelming and partly pointless.

Day 19: Castro-Urdiales – Noja. 49km.

Day 19: Castro-Urdiales – Noja. 49km.

After all the festivities and chaos of yesterday, we emerge from our pension to a spotlessly clean Castro. Not a single piece of debris from the revelries of several thousand people remains. Impressive.

Photograph of Sarah standing next to her bicycle, eating breakfast off the top of a pile of pallets in Castro Urdiales.

Breakfast is chocolate brownie resting on a stack of pallets. My Dad would have been proud (he bought and sold the things).

The road is not our friend today. The hills are long – several km of relentless, slow climbs. Legs are strong again and again I don’t have to walk up any. Keith never gets off and walks; he has more gears/strength of character (take your pick). Hating the hills is hard when they take you to such magnificent heights and views. It’s been spectacular again and I didn’t think I would ever be able to cycle in such surroundings. If I can do this, so can most. I’m not fit, motivated or dedicated. I have dodgy ankles and can barely walk at times and couldn’t run for even a minute, but the bike makes it possible.

Photograph of Sarah cycling along coast road with sea and mountains in the background.

Photograph of a long straight road in between Spanish countryside.

We lunch in Laredo; another picnic on another bench and carry on through kinder (flat) marshlands to our next resting place at Noja. Noja is a predominantly Spanish holiday town with a fabulous beach.

Photograph of Noja beach.

We sit on the fabulous beach and have another dinner picnic. Keith rubs his bare chest and huge flakes of skin come off and drift in the wind towards the people behind us. He is peeling. He can’t help it; he’s a ginger. One of the requirements for any friend or partner should be that being by their side makes you look more tanned/thinner/prettier etc. I have chosen well in the tanned department; Keith picked well for the prettier and thinner. He regularly asks whether he is the whitest person on the beach. Usually, if I search hard enough I can find someone paler (a child, perhaps, wearing sunblock) and point them out to him to make him feel better. Sometimes that is really hard to do and takes a lot of work on my part, but hey, that’s love.

Photograph of grass and dunes behind beach at Noja, Spain.

 

Photograph of sea and beach at Noja, Spain.

Day 18: Bilbao – Castro-Urdiales. 38km.

Day 18: Bilbao – Castro-Urdiales. 38km.

Today we met a man on a 5000km, 3 month trip from Portugal, through Spain, France and on his way back to Portugal. I wish I had taken his photo. He had an ancient mountain bike with a pull along shopping trolley tied behind it. He was wearing plimsolls and a high vis jacket. He said that the bit where he had cycled to Andorra through the Pyrenees had been a ‘bit hard’. He had slept on beaches and along the roadside probably spending hardly any money. We felt somewhat inadequate and soft. He was a good 10 years younger than us and we are not very brave: this was the only justification we could muster.

Photograph of Sarah lying on the bed in hotel room in Bilbao.

We’re following the route of the Camino de Santiago still and passing increasing numbers of pilgrims both on foot and by bike. The walking stuff looks really hard and I’m ashamed to admit that it makes me pleased that there are bikers walking up more hills than I am. Perhaps a pilgrimage wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Photograph of an empty Spanish coast road snaking through the hillsides.

We are still on the N-634 that took us out of San Sebastian. It is a cyclists dream of a road; some good climbs, some great downs (56.8km/hr is our record) and stunning scenery. Still a lot of local road cyclists about – as with pretty much everywhere, they are overwhelmingly male. It is a rare sight indeed to see a woman. I guess they couldn’t handle her beating them up the hills.

Photograph of people along harbourside drinking and eating.

We arrive in Castro-Urdiales to find more crazy shit going on, the nature of which at first is not possible to determine. After investigation (Google), it transpires that we have happened once again on festivities in Northern Spain. Today is the Marmita; a competition to see which group can cook the best stew of tuna, potatoes and peppers in a pot under a gazebo in the main square. Each group has its own t-shirts printed and their own plastic dustbin full of sangria (yup) to help the culinary process along.

In preparation for this cook-off, the town had a massive party last night, so everyone is already hungover. Once the cooking (and eating) has finished, there is some singing, team canoe racing, a climb a greasy pole and fall in the sea competition and in the evening, an outdoor gig with that famous Beatles tribute band, Los Cheatles. I wish I had the imagination to make this shit up, but I don’t.

In contrast to France, which always seems to us to be empty of people in the streets, Spain appears to always be full. And they are always talking and bumping into people they know. Obviously, making sweeping statements about entire race’s personality traits is verging on racism, but the Spanish do seem a sociable bunch. Maybe they’re all related to each other as they have historically had large families. Is that racist? Not sure.

Photograph of small rowing boats in Castro Urdiales harbour.

Photograph of professional racing canoes at Castro Urdiales harbour.

The weather, as usual, is changeable from hour to hour from teeming rain to clear blue skies. No one seems to let it bother them; they just carry a brolly and carry on with their day. The temperature is warm regardless so being wet doesn’t seem so much of a problem.

Castro itself is a delight. The town with its oversized church overlooking the harbour surrounded by golden sandy beaches and green mountains is idyllic.

Photograph across the harbour at Castro Urdiales.

 

These photographs are all taken on the same afternoon despite the variation in sky colour.

Photograph of church in Castro Urdiales.

 

 

Photograph of lots of sailing boats sitting in Castro Urdiales harbour.

We had tapas in a little bar, being able to determine whether each one was meat or fish from the barmaid was the limit of our mutual language overlap. That was good enough. The ones with the wiggly legs sticking out are fish (squid), so we avoid those for Keith’s sake; he can do tinned salmon and a bit of battered cod, but fish legs are not open to negotiation.

Photograph from behind of a couple on a bench on promenade at Castro Urdiales. He is sitting up and she is laying across her lap.

We see this couple; her with her head on his lap, and it makes us laugh as this is how we sit on benches. I fall asleep and Keith ‘protects’ (his word) me. After almost 3 weeks in each other’s company 24/7, we are as happy and utterly in love as ever, perhaps even more so. I hope these two feel the same.

Photograph of empty promenade at Castro Urdiales, except for a chocolate and churros van.

Our day ends with churros and chocolate from this churreria on the seafront. We discuss buying a caravan and converting it into a churreria and selling churros and chocolate at festivals around the UK. We then realise we would hate it for the following reasons: cleaning up oil, being very hot cooking hot oil, being in a caravan all day, working really hard. We conclude that we just like the idea of churros and chocolate. This has been a very fruitful analysis and saved us spending Keith’s redundancy money on a churreria. A lucky escape.

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 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.

Day 13: Biarritz. Rest day.

Day 13: Biarritz. Rest day.

Me: We should learn to surf.
Keith: I don’t want to.
Me: Why?
Keith: Because its completely bloody pointless.

Hard to argue with that, but I so want to be cool. Just for once.

Photograph of Biarritz beach and bay taken from top of cliff looking south.

 

It seems like everyone surfs here. Or pretends to. Unless you are an elderly lady who’s had ‘some work done’ who can’t surf because she has to look after her ridiculously small dog and her extensive collection of leopard print garments. Or one of the many gentlemen getting away with a specific shade of salmon pink trouser that would not be tolerated in Britain without homophobic comment being passed.

Photograph of surfers at dusk, Biarritz, France.

Today we had ice cream made by a ‘Champion du Monde’ in the ice cream field. As an ice cream maker myself, I was keen to see if his claims had any merit and if perhaps living in Biarritz could be achieved after all if I could open an ice cream shop to rival his (yet another use for Keith’s redundancy money). Suffice to say it’s back to the drawing board. We both had to concede that this could well be the best ice cream in the world. Rare and high praise not lightly given.

Photograph of two pots of Thierry Bamas ice cream on a Biarritz pavement.

 

The number of flavours were limited to about 14 – none of your messing about with fancy shit – and were just sublime. Keith had vanilla and blackcurrant and violet. I had raspberry sorbet and salted caramel. Divine. Biarritz is very much a French holiday resort as its not too easy to get to. Ryanair fly there from the UK. That would be worth suffering for a Thierry Bamas ice cream.

The other thing that feels nice about Biarritz is that alongside all the hoards of tourists, it’s a real town with real residents, even if they are a bit bonkers. It’s a bit like Brighton with sand. The market was packed on a Sunday morning. As not very brave travellers, we are frequently beaten by markets and other local establishments that have rules that we don’t know. We often queue for ages and appear to be overlooked only to discover that their was a ‘system’, despite the fact that it looked like the last thing that could ever possibly be in existence was a ‘system’. More often than not, we give up and scuttle off to a supermarket where we can pick up what we need without having to speak to anyone or get it wrong, but feeling like complete failures for our ineptitude at basic level intrepidness and bad about not supporting local tradespeople. If they would only form an orderly queue like civilised people, this wouldn’t have to happen. Perhaps we should move here and teach them a thing or two. Moving to warm, sunny places is a bit of theme in our lives.

Photograph of interior of Biarritz market with stalls and lots of people.

Photograph of vegetables on market stall in Biarritz Market, France.

But today wasn’t one of those days that we would be beaten by locally grown agricultural products. Today I win at markets. And it feels good. Small victories are claimed by cowards.

Today we also win at Basque cake. They come in three flavours: custard, chocolate and cherry, so we had all three. As Keith says in times of such deliberation: ‘It’s not an ‘or’ situation; it’s an ‘and’.’

Photograph of three Gateaux Basques cakes on a plate.

The cakes are ground almond based so super squidgy and moist. All were good, but custard just too sweet.

Biarritz being on the Atlantic is therefore tidal, so at certain times of the day,the beautiful golden sand beach of the main bay disappears.

Photograph of Biarritz surf beach on a sunny day with swimmers and surfers in the sea.
And all of the thousands of people have to find somewhere to tan their beautiful selves, so they pop round the corner to the town beach which doesn’t all get swallowed in sea. This was all a bit much for us (me, mainly). Too busy, too noisy, too visually overwhelming. Some of these people must have been before and know what it’s like, and come back for more year after year. This is puzzling. We do not comprehend such behaviour. We conclude that some people like to sit this close to other people and don’t get stressed about stepping on other people’s towels or losing their kids. They actually find it relaxing and fun. We are not those people. We have to live in a world populated by these people. This is harder than you may think. I am in awe of those people and wish I was that laid back.

Photograph of a packed beach in Biarritz, France.

We spent our final evening here watching CSI on telly and wishing we didn’t have to get back on the road tomorrow. Tomorrow means Spain, which means poor maps, poor planning, mountains and horror stories about how hard it is to get into San Sebastian on a bicycle.

Day 12: Hossegor – Biarritz. 49km.

Day 12: Hossegor – Biarritz. 49km.

Even I hate me right now. I’m writing this on the beach at Biarritz. Which, much to my surprise is quite reminiscent of Newquay.

We saw our first sight of the Pyrenees today. That’s where we’re heading after a week of being spoiled with virtually zero altitude.

Day 12 Hossegor – Biarritz - 01

The ride into Biarritz wasn’t all great due to big, noisy roads through Bayonne, but it was a short day for us so felt good to get there not too shattered. Learned a lot on this trip about how far is enough to cycle in a day. Busy road through Bayonne but pretty flat and warm.

Lovely apartment (budget blown, it was all we could find), so lovely we decided to stay an extra day and commit to eating sand for a week. It was the fridge that did it. So, Le Grand Large becomes home for two days. They even have a clothes airer so no need for the washing line strangling you in the night when you go for a wee.

Day 12 Hossegor – Biarritz - 02The view from our balcony. We are so happy. We would like to live here forever. Having done my customary search of estate agents (major interest and subject of expertise of mine. Just call me Jasmine), buying anything more substantial than a doormat for our nonexistent home is not going to be possible in Biarritz.
Day 12 Hossegor – Biarritz - 03

As usual I have one leg covered in bike grease. No amount of swanky French seaside resort will change that. This means that I’m not finding a particularly warm welcome from hotel receptionists. Sweat, grease and an eternal bad hair day (no French woman would ever been seen in such disarray) probably explain it. Sometimes I send Keith in as they seem kinder to him. Sweat being manly and all that maybe. Keith is delighted for any opportunity to appear manly as, by his own admission, it is not an adjective that frequently features in any description of him. I’m considering having a tattoo if bike grease on my leg as memento, but then I would just look like I had a dirty leg forever.

Day 12 Hossegor – Biarritz - 04

Spent the afternoon and evening wandering around Biarritz. Its an odd, ramshackle little town, smaller than I expected and more messy – alleys, tiny beaches and rocks sticking out the sea rather than a pristine, glamorous promenade. It is reminiscent of Newquay, as I said, or Ilfracombe, apart from the sun, house prices and leathery elderly ladies.

Day 12 Hossegor – Biarritz - 05

 

We had a luxury dinner on our balcony complete with €2 fizzy wine (its usually €1 but this is Biarritz, dahling). We mostly picnic because it’s cheaper and doesn’t involve communicating with anyone. Our mutual list of food choices is fairly limited: Keith has a whole bunch of stuff that he won’t eat through preference – fish, anything with anything which may have come into any kind of contact with vinegar – and I am affected negatively by a load of foods – namely, caffeine, sugar, sweeteners, sugar/carbs of all kinds. You will see that I often ignore my issues with sugar and stuff my face with it, which causes several subsequent hours of mental and physical discomfort. Luckily for us, not only are we both perfectly happy to eat the same foods for weeks at a time, the few mutually available foods we have are all things that we love.

Day 12 Hossegor – Biarritz - 06

 

We spent the evening wandering round town. It’s packed. So many people everywhere. Nice to be somewhere with a bit of life after roadside motels and rural houses. Getting our bearings and starting to like this place. Its has a bit of the feel of Brighton to it. Bit quirky, lots of crazy characters but small enough to feel at home in.

Day 12 Hossegor – Biarritz - 07

Day 12 Hossegor – Biarritz - 08

Our night ended watching a spectacular electrical storm over the Bay of Biscay with lightning flashes literally every few seconds. Delighted to be here. Feels like a proper holiday today.