Day 22: Santander. Waiting for a boat.

Day 22: Santander. Waiting for a boat.

Reader, you may recall that I said I had been to Northern Spain twice before, once to Bilbao on the occasion of the end of my marriage. Well, for balance, I think it only reasonable to confess that my first visit to this region was actually the honeymoon of said marriage. Weird, eh?

My Santander honeymoon was not your average romantic experience, partly due to the fact that we were camping and were accompanied by two children. The weather was awful, our campsite was a 45 minute walk from the city centre and we had no car (too expensive to bring it on the ferry). My son, was 2 years old and travelled in a 3 wheeler buggy which looked more like Steptoe’s wagon with tent, pans and general camping accoutrements hanging off it. We all four slept in a little tent, pitied by other campers who gave us flasks of tea and biscuits. It was utterly miserable. We couldn’t go home because we had to wait for the ferry. Much like today but much, much worse.

I should say that I have history of shit honeymoons: my first one was in a Youth Hostel in the Lake District with just the one child and, this time: a dog. My daughter has the dubious accolade at being present at both of her mother’s weddings and honeymoons. I’m not proud of this.

Santander is a perfectly fine place to be but doesn’t have any spectacular landmarks aside from a stupendously ugly festival hall.

Photograph of the steps leading up to the Festival Hall in Santander, Spain. It is a very ugly building.

There are some nice buildings but disappointingly no llamas. This is more disappointing due to the fact that the city map advertises a place called ‘Las Llamas Parque‘. Hurray, I thought, something to do which involves animals (my favourite). No amount of Googling could reveal any information about the llamas. ‘Llamas’, it turns out is the Spanish for ‘name’ or ‘to call’. Nothing to do with spitty camel things. We then saw on the shopping channel in TV that you can call for free: ‘llamas gratis’ and chortled about getting a free llama with every cubic zirconium ring.

Photograph of a terrace of buildings in Santander, Spain.

Photograph of Sarah with Santander, Spain beach and sea in the background.

Other amusement for today was this unfortunately named women’s clothes shop. It’ll never take off in the UK, although Keith did suggest that I might be a 4×4 woman. I have no idea what he meant and didn’t ask.

Photograph of a Santander, Spain shop sign saying '4 by 4 Woman'.

Other learning is that sometimes things are not as expected. The glorious concoction below was in a photographed ice cream menu of the type popular in the 1970s: peach melba, banana split etc. It looked nice, so we ordered one. Ordering only one may have actually saved our lives. No ice cream in sight. It was a bucket of cream with honey, caramel sauce and nuts chucked in for good measure. One of us feels sick, the other one has developed diabetes. This might both be the same person.

Photograph of a blue ice cream dish full of whipped cream and walnuts and covered in sauce.

FYI: Nata =cream, not ice cream, regardless of its inclusion on an ice cream menu. Reading menus = a good idea. Idiot.

Apart from a visit to the €uro shop (Spanish Poundland) for gifts for the grandchildren – who wouldn’t want a Spain World Cup 2014 pencil case?, we went for walk north of the city to Cabo Major. Cue more photographs of spectacular coastline.

Photograph of rocky coastline near Santander, Spain.

Photograph of coastline, rocks, sea and lighthouse west of Santander, Spain.

We saw a fella with a snorkel and harpoon gun swimming off the rocks looking for his tea. We hung around hoping for a Johnny Weissmuller style encounter with him wrestling a fearsome sea creature but nothing doing. If you look closely, you will see him.

Photograph of the sea and a very small diver

Not a crocodile in sight.

Another evening, another mealtime totally out of sync with the Spanish food clock watching TV we can’t understand and considering phoning up to try and get a free llama. It is useful to know that watching a Jason Statham film dubbed into Spanish does not affect the overall experience one little bit.

Day 21: Noja – Santander. 55km.

Day 21: Noja – Santander. 55km.

Awoke in the Hotel Pelayo, the corridor of which looks a lot like the inside of a wardrobe my parents had when I was a child. For the past few nights, we’ve had the bolster style pillow which effectively means two people sharing one pillow. Where you and your end of the pillow go, there go I. Stupid idea. My own pillow is something I am looking forward to reacquainting myself with. I had made a case for bringing one of them (I’m a two pillow gal so this was evidence of ‘compromise’) with me, but this was vetoed in preference of something useful. Next time…

Despite a few bastard hills, the landscape is flatter here and more agricultural, which means we saw more goats in one morning than at any other time in the past 3 weeks, none of which would come over and speak to me.

We found our new house, but not sure if there’s enough room for Keith’s extensive payslip collection or the waffle maker.

Living out of 8 bags does make you wonder why on earth we choose to accumulate such large amounts of stuff. I have some interesting links about such matters which I shall no doubt ponder more philosophically on at a later date.

We ended up in Somo, which is just across the water from Santander. You can see it. You can see it. You can get a little boat to it.

After taking this picture, Keith said that I was a really good actor. I guess if a director wanting anyone to play the part of a lump of stone, they would just hire a lump of stone. Another career dream bites the dust.

We didn’t catch the little boat from Somo to Santander because that would be cheating. Apparently. We cycled another 20km through industrial wasteland, death defying dual carriageways and hills just so that after 1150km or 711 miles, we could take this picture of our inauspicious, grey, betwixt factory and railtrack arrival at our final destination:

We get to our final hostel and it’s time for me to find out if that black stuff which has clung limpet like to my right leg for the past three weeks is actually bike grease or varicose veins. It’s time for my gloves, which despite daily washing, have stunk of feet since the first few days, to hit the bin. It’s time to return to a life where wiping your sweat with a tea towel tucked into your shorts is not a frequent necessity. It’s time to return to a life of wearing pants (not ever with cycle shorts, see: chaffing).

We’re in Santander for a couple of days waiting for our ferry back to the UK.

Enough time to try and work out how to look forward positively to a return to that other life rather than the low which often accompanies the end of a holiday. If we’re going to have lots of adventures we need to get that sorted or spend half our lives miserable and wishing we were somewhere else, in which case it would be less painful just to stay at home.

We’ve also got to start thinking about our new circumstances and what that means.

Goodbye Sainsbury’s; hello Aldi.

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 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.