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.

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 14: Biarritz – San Sebastian. 52km.

Day 14: Biarritz – San Sebastian. 52km.

Photograph of Sarah standing next to a sign saying 'Espagne' on a bridge.

We made it to Spain. 826km. Cue all manor of hilarity at the border whilst one of us remains in France and the other in Spain.

‘It feels like we’re countries apart’.

‘You and I speak different languages’.

‘Men are from Spain; women are from France’.

And so on until tedium set in.

I’ve always wondered about people who live on either side of a border. Some people must have next door neighbours who speak different languages to them and have a different postman. That must be so weird.

It rained solidly all morning. This is my third visit to Northern Spain and each time it has pissed it down. Touristically, they call this region ‘Green Spain’, which is of course a euphemism for ‘pisses it down’.

After the baking hot, colourful palette of Southern France, Northern Spain wasn’t tempting us in. The landscape is deciduous, verdant and mountainous. It is hard work and, in this weather, not even rewarded with vast Pyrenean vistas. The ups are long but the payoffs on the downs worth it. We get up to 53km/hr today which is a bit hairy on a fully loaded bike on a wet road, but it’s got to be done.

Photograph of rainy bridge which marks the border between France and Spain at Irun.

 

We managed to get in to San Sebastian with no problems despite web-based cycle forum concerns about the route and arrived to a wet city in the middle of its annual La Semana Grande festival week. We were expecting a soggy afternoon wandering around in the gloom.

Photograph of rainy, crowded street in San Sebastian Old Town, Basque Country, Spain.

 

Things don’t always turn out like they seem. A couple of hours after the above shot was taken, we took this one.

Photograph of Sarah laughing on the promenade at Biarritz, France.

The sun came out, people swam in the sea and we fell in love with San Sebastian.

Photograph of cloudy skies over Biarritz beach, France.

Photograph of Old Town San Sebastian.

Photograph of beachfront San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain.

 

 

 

Set around a huge sandy bay, La Concha, the city has an old town with a reputation for pintxos (big tapas mostly on bread) and a strong Basque feel to the place. You get a sense that these people know how to have a good time and a good fight for a cause. There are more dreadlocks per sq.km here than I’ve seen for many a year. Only a few hours cycle from Biarritz, but a different atmosphere completely.

Tonight’s intrepidity takes on the purchase of pintxos. With careful observation of the ‘deal’ prior to making my move, I boldly manage to pertain two plates of pintxos and wine in two different bars. I am now Queen of all things Spain. Keith just doesn’t do this kind of stuff. He isn’t brave and struggles with languages (even English). He would just go without. I hate to be beaten by a bocadillo (sandwich). The food is excellent, home-cooked and delicious. Mostly we’re not entirely sure what it is. We’re just glad it’s not another sodding cheese and ham sandwich.

Photograph of Keith in a bar in San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain, eating pinxos and drinking copa vino blanco.

 

Keith, of course, has no compunction about sharing the spoils of my hunting expedition, although I usually have to taste it first and declare it ‘free of gunk’. ‘Gunk’ being mayonnaise, vinegar, relish, ketchup, etc. My beloved is an (autistic) princess with a few specific food preferences. It’s fine; he’s my wing-man and coach who sits in my corner and waits for me to return from the fray of the big world out there. He looks after me in many other ways and I get to eat more, so we have no complaints. The atmosphere is friendly and helpful towards our obvious foreignness. All ages are out, from families to older people. Many people seem to know each other. It feels nice.

Photograph of churros in a brown paper bag and chocolate sauce in a plastic cup on a wall overlooking San Sebastian beach and sea.

Pudding is churros y chocolat on the beach at 10pm. We have failed to shift into Spanish meal time and are eating dessert before most people have consulted the menu for dinner. It’s just too late to be eating; we can’t cope with it. This is the only thing worth eating which makes my eyes hurt (it’s a sugar thing, I have). We had two plates of tapas, four glasses of wine, a bag of churros and two hot chocolates for €40. We have feasted. Full bellies and very tired.

Not time for bed though. As part of La Semana Grande which features a week long day and night programme of free music on stages across the city, raft races across the bay and all sorts of other stuff, there is an International Fireworks competition. Each night, a competitor from a different country puts on a firework display and at the end of the week someone is awarded the Golden Conch. All prestigious stuff, apparently. Literally thousands of people line the streets at 10.45pm each night to watch these displays. It’s good natured, no hassle, no grief.

Photograph of fireworks in a dark sky, San Sebastian International Firework Festival.

 

I know it’s a rubbish photo. We only have a mobile phone to upload from (and write with – hence typos). It was pretty impressive. We have no idea how one judges a fireworks competition. It all seems quite random with not much of a plot, but marvellous all the same. Again, as in Biarritz, I found the stimuli overwhelming and felt totally drained and exhausted from a few hours in a busy place.

Photograph of the beach in San Sebastian at night with lights from buildings in the background.

 

San Sebastian has been a big and pleasant surprise on this trip. We weren’t even sure whether to bother stopping here. We’ve had such an incredibly happy day. It is a fabulous place and one we will definitely return to, although probably not during La Semana Grande next time unless I bring my headphones/ear defenders. Brilliant, but there’s only so much fun a sensorily sensitive girl can take.

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.

Day 11: Mimizan – Hossegor. 81km.

Day 11: Mimizan – Hossegor. 81km.

Every morning, Keith starts his day by lifting each bike to check that he is carrying more weight than me. This seems to make him happy. I have convinced him that the weight of the responsibility of organising our route and food is equal to him lugging around an extra few kilos. He appears to have bought this.

We’re definitely in the Basque region now. There are places names that don’t belong in France: Kometeykoborda, Xapatainbaita, Larrerxeberria. Not a clue. My paltry French surrenders.

Day 11 Mimizan – Hossegor - 01
Buildings and churches are more Spanish, more Alpine (or Pyrenean) rather than southern French.

Day 11 Mimizan – Hossegor - 02

Today we got rained on heavily, saw plenty of lightning and got roasted on the beach at Vieux-Bocau, one of the many dune-backed Atlantic surf beaches along this coast.

Day 11 Mimizan – Hossegor - 03

Finally managed to get Keith to come swimming today (Keith 1 – Sarah 4). He’s only went in the sea for the first time about 7 years ago (he hated the idea of it as a child) and forgets every time how much he loves it. Properly forgets and gets all uppity when I try to remind him. My Dad was a big sea swimmer (my Mum never went in) and I grew up mostly in the water on holidays. I try and persuade Keith over and over again, he eventually he gives in (although on the previous 3 swims I had on this trip, he didn’t) with a ‘do I have to say yes to everything you say?’ then spends the rest of the time laughing his head off and saying how lovely it is. I need to video him so he can remember.

Day 11 Mimizan – Hossegor - 04

Day 11 Mimizan – Hossegor - 05

Had another food blog fail. Bought local Landais brioche which is traditionally flavoured with rum, vanilla and orange flowers and ate half of it before remembering we’re supposed to be documenting these adventures.

Day 11 Mimizan – Hossegor - 06

Day 11 Mimizan – Hossegor - 07

Rest assured it was incredibly good, despite a serving suggestion of having it with custard, sand seemed to be more than an adequate accompaniment. On the subject of beach food, I resurrected a melted bar of chocolate by taking it into the sea to cool it hard again. This worked a treat despite water getting through the wrapper and leaving an undeniably salty taste to the chocolate. Not enough to stop us eating it though.

Day 11 Mimizan – Hossegor - 08

More storms predicted and looming this evening. We’re in a motel. Campsites and most hotels completely full. Luckily this room has space for 2 bicycles (and a washing line).

Day 11 Mimizan – Hossegor - 09

Tomorrow to Biarritz, to hang our pants with the glitterati.