Murmurations and blackberries. As the hedges of every Irish bohereen overflow with delightful dark treats, and flocks of birds start to circle in preparation for a long journey south, for the last few years we too have been feeling the sense of transition: our beloved sunny rock off the coast of Africa calls!! This year however, a work opportunity in the Pyrenees was a fitting halfway stop, and in anticipation of two weeks apart for Ewa and I during the work period there, Ewa suggested to do something nice together before..
So was conjured up a mini-bike packing adventure, starting in Biarritiz, going by Bilbao, aiming to finish in Lourdes, and back to Biarritz by train in time for work!
Our lives packed up in our bike bags, we were picked up by the amazing Xavier from Bike Basque, who I would be working with later: he couldn’t have been more helpful and accommodating; from airport collection and letting us store our bike bags and route advice and more: thanks for the awesome start!!
Our early flight meant we had plenty of day left to ride, and the midday was by now absolutely scorching, yet our very light bike packing set up had mainly cold weather gear in it.. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best ! Bikes unpacked, changed into cycling clothing and all bags strapped on, we headed off into the sweltering afternoon: first stop- Lidl! Water, fruit, bread: now ready to cover some ground!
We had some very busy roads to navigate at first, slowly leaving behind the busiest urbanisation while getting used to the weighty swing of a bike with a loaded saddle bag again.. ! Cruising along lightly undulating coastal roads with inviting beaches, it wasn’t until the turn off for our first climb of the trip – the Jaizkibel – that we got away from the congestion.
Climbing up from Hondarribia, it wasn’t long until views started opening up, before dipping back into the trees on a downhill section, that lead immediately into 13% ramps- ouch ! But here we were, finally on a proper climb again !
Emerging from the trees again we were now high up on hillsides that plunged straight down to the sea, lush greens nibbled by sheep- just like home.. ! The top and descent was decorated with the names of pros from the Classica San Sebastian race; perhaps downhill we were as fast as they went up it.. !
Entering back into busy areas, we soon reached the heart of San Sebastian: our stop for the night. We decided to dump our bags at the accomodation (up a hill, and some stairs..! ), before jumping back on our lightened bikes, just flip flops on our feet. We’re not really city people, but it’s always nice to see the high point of any town, and the tight hairpins weaving under the funicular de Igeldo lead to a wonderful vantage point; despite the road being closed near the top.
A large bay, bordered at its outer edges by sharp rocks and the thundering waves that carved them, a central island facing the large sandy swathe around the promenade: as cities go, certainly not a bad one. The temptation to swim out to the island was high, but it was getting late and I decided to skip it- besides, our stomachs’ grumblings were getting hard to ignore! We strolled a little of the old town, before finding an absolutely gorgeous pizza to fill the hole we had pedalled that day: and picked up a few small breakfast snacks before heading back up the hill for the night.
A friend who I had shared some terrific adventures with in the past, and who had been due to be married just as Covid erupted, lived a little further up the coast near Bilbao, and so a reunion was our goal today. Well, reunion for me, ‘finally meeting‘ for Ewa.. And little Emil ! ❤️❤️
We had initially planned to go relatively directly, but we had been advised to hug the coast as far as possible to take in the best spots, and we decided to start with the latter approach.
There was no breakfast at our accomodation, so a few fruity snacks, and of course some coffee (Ewa wouldn’t go anywhere far without it.. !), bags re-packed and we started for the first climb, offering wonderful vistas back down onto the urban sprawl, nestled in hills of green; beautiful in this morning light!
There were a rake of other bicyclers about, which was understandable for a lovely climb so close to a city. The climb offered wonderful views back down to the blue waters, but we were well and truly rudely awoken on the bone shaking descent.. Yikes, just like any little side road in Ireland.. !
That soon brought us down into Orio; where we found absolutely nothing to do with the similarly named confection, but did find a nice café for some breakfast; fresh bread, coffee, OJ, and some fruits from the neighbouring fruteria; perfect, set for a good day in the saddle ! Talk of other adventures, another cyclist in the café was wearing the jersey from the first epic event Mikel & I had done, together with another amigo Valentin: the Luchon-Bayonne back in 2018! Yes we were in the Basque country 😊
In a rare development, back on the road and on the next little hill we actually overtook some other velocipedists; ok it was an elderly couple on a tandem, but we were in cruising mode ourselves, and it wasn’t long before the pecking order was restored as sinewed legs on training rides blasted past us.
Descending back to the big blue on our right once more, along countless beaches, crashing waves, small towns that seemed to be dedicated to barrel-chasing surfers, we breathed in the fresh sea air as we pootled along the marvellous coastline; wonderful roads and glorious sights, disturbed only by the odd fishy smell.. !
After Ondarrua, came a turn for the unexpectly delightful: the once bustling roads suddenly quiet, we climbed, weaved, twisted and turned through an increasingly dense jungle, full of eucalyptus, the openings to peer back down to the sea now rare, we were wholly captivated by this deep bath of green; another delight on this day that just kept giving!
We emerged to Lekeitio: a town brimming with charm, which is entered via a large bridge over a river of glistening caribean hues, and today full of large rowing boats in some sort of event.. ! Apparently we had also missed the even madder event the day before, when in times gone by, a person would hold onto a goose attached to a moving boat by rope, and would successfully complete his challenge if he decapitated the goat before he lost his hold to the thrashing beast and waves.. At least nowadays its only a dummy and not a live bird anymore.. 😱😵💫🦆
Anyhoo.. We were very tempted with a sea swim, but thought we might get a bit further first and thought about swimming at playa de Laga up the coast. We headed for Ea on the way, a truly picturesque village in a valley overflowing with trees. As we approached our planned swim spot, the final few kilometers of road were completely parked up with cars, and it soon became evident that this was quite the surfing hotspot..! Windy and the sea wild and tossed up, we skipped the swim altogether and instead had a picnic with views of the imposing Cabo de Ogoño that towers over the sands.
Making our way along the estuary towards Guernica, we now decided to head direct and inland to meet our friends, stopping only for a quick ice cream, paying 5euro for water and then immediately passing a fountain… 🤦🏽♀️, and seeing our first kiwi tree- cooool !!
We spent the evening catching up the last few years, taking in a sunset on the cliffs near Sopela, under passing paragliders as Emil oohed and aahed!
Day 3: The Longest Day.
Breakfasty farewells saw us head off on a transition day of sorts: direction Haute Pyrenees and France, aiming to cover a good chunk of ground. 190km lay ahead of us to our day’s destination Irurtzun, somewhere outside Pamplona.
The first 45km were a commute along busy busy roads, some consolation coming from the wide berth the majority of the trucks in this industrious area were giving us. Then finally something of interest, as we headed towards the first climb of the day: the Balcon de Bizkaia. At once the contrast was vast; suddenly we found ourselves on deserted roads, only the odd other pedal-person, or forestry vehicle.
The climb had some lovely hairpins, a generally friendly gradient, with just a few pitches into the teens gradients. The top boasted a wide panorama once the tree cover parted, if for a moment, and off we sped down the other side.
It was to be a day of climbs up and down, and our next one -the Gontzagarigana – was the next mouthful we took on, taking in mouthfuls of air as we did so.
At one point our route had us directed towards a main road descent that was in fact prohibited for bikes, and following the road signs for the cyclist’s alternative route was a true delight: instead of a dead straight main road, we descended through an autumn wonderland, on a road that wove through the trees as gently as the breeze that danced the leaves softly across our paths, while we soaked in the magical stillness of rolling effortlessly through this blissful scene. Yeeesssss, warm and wonderful snapshots like this, souvenirs for the heart.
The next climb was a bikepacker’s delight; steady gradients, spectacular surroundings.. Marked by two animal encounters. The first, a spectacular gathering of huuuge birds of prey, circling ominously in a group of 10-15, barely a wing-beat to maintain their patrol, and the second, somewhat sadder: a cat walking in the middle of the road, who on initial glimpse I thought had a funny looking face.. Until upon getting closer I realised he barely had one at all anymore.. 🙁 🙁 The poor guy had clearly come off very badly in a fight with something fiercer, and I almost wished him a swift end by whatever vehicle might be passing next 💔💔😟
Trying to shake off the poor feline’s plight, the summit offered us a view of the first of a series of reservoirs; oases of blue nestled in this day that was otherwise predominated by the colour green.
Speaking of green: one of our favourite things about being in Spain: yes, Mercadona.. ! Hummus, bread, salads, snacks, café soy milk- ready for more km’s with delight in our stomachs !
Next on the snack-a-thon, as we continued over our seemingly endless list of climbs, and the sun now starting to offer softer gold, we passed laden fig trees that were just the excuse our legs needed for a break- om nom nom nom nom !!!!
Onwards we went, filling bottles from a spouting fountain by a riverside in Ordizia, before entering a loooong valley road where Ewa’s Garmin was convinced we were cycling through a lake.. 🧐😆
The exit from this gentle valley came by means of the punishing ‘Azpirotz’; 12% gradients after 170km of pedalling in the heat hit a little differently 😆🥵 That swashbuckling – and back-buckling – ascent crested, only the ‘Zuarrarrate’ remained; uff, thankfully the climb is nowhere near as hard as the name !
By now our long day (with a late start.. Who would have thought… 😌) had stretched the limits of daylight, and as the Sun had said good night and the moon took over watchman duties, we marvelled at the fading dusk background contrasted against this bright celestial torch.
A magical end to a day that seemed to have a thousand chapters, the final one of which read something along the lines of ‘yes that much salad please’ in the hotel restaurant, where we made copious use of the almond vending machine also.. ! ZzZzzZZzzzzzz’s were not long coming !
Further inland as we now were, even more mountains were on our menu today. The route would be significantly shorter, yet our planned escape to France wouldn’t give our tongues any break: the dialectal convulsion of Saint-Jean Pied de Port was our planned destination this fourth day.
We started the day with a tour on foot searching for petit dejeuner, finding out that Asterix had apparently been recruited in the local opposition to the proposed TGV connection; These Romans are crazy.. !
Much as I’m sure Romans would have loved trains, we went with Asterix and opted for leg-power instead, heading off into now rather brown landscapes. These scorched landscapes took us past Langley Virginia.. I mean.. Cia.. CIA.. ?! Anyway, there was a large guard dog there, but no other evidence of intelligent life in this remote hamlet, and our passage was unimpeded.
Not-so shortly after, when blackberry bushes adorned the road verges and a second breakfast was feasted on.
Today the birds of prey were taking their chances, and one swooped within a meter of Ewa at one point as we whooshed through the middle of nowhere- maybe he had his eyes on our baguettes sticking out of our back pockets, however he seemed to settle for something on the road instead- perhaps one of the monster slugs we had been seeing about the place.. !
We summited our highest climb of the trip thus far, the 896m Egozkue, and savoured a couple hairpins on the way down, and then passed through the ‘parque micologico Ultzama’ (we loooooooove shrooomms 🍄🍄🍄🍄🍄) !!!
Things turned a bit to sh*t after that…. 💩💩🚜 Our route looked like it would take us on a gravel detour, but that turned into a dead end at… a slurry pit.. ! Escaping the nasal assault, we searched for alternative routes: massive detour, motorway, or gravel shortcut. Well: there was only one option!
A steep concrete ascent at first, the gravel soon crunched beneath us, and we tentatively tip-toed around some steep hairpin bends, dodged some horse poop and soon were back on tarmac, filling up with fresh ice-y water as we entered the next pueblo.
We had passed several sections of the camino de Santiago by this point, and made a stop at a restaurant that seemed to cater largely to pilgrims of this path; their kitchen was closed, but a little pleading later and generous tomato bocadillos were served, bottles filled and yes they had oat milk.. Two oat capuccinos please !
That lead us into what was supposed to be the day’s second last climb; our first foray above 1000m at the Ibaneta: from the side of our approach only really a long drag. What followed down the other side though, was absolute tarmac nirvana, the descent swooping and whooshing from flowy corner to flowy corner, our grins uncontrollable ! Somewhere on the way down, we were due to take a sharp right to commence our last climb of the day: an ominous 9km at 9% prospect according to our Garmins. Yesterday’s lengthy jaunt not long past, tomorrow’s even longer and harder climbing day looming, this last and somewhat unnecessary detour was hard to argue in favour of, and thus we followed the valley all the way down to the border – vive la France (!) – and beyond, into St JPdP. Yep. That’s easier. Although, actually: Saint Jean Pied de Port. You’re beautiful!! Wowsers !! We hadn’t expected much- anything actually, but what a charming old town, a river cascading through its centre and spanned by a series of bridges, old buildings and castelations, just a charm! Shopping and dinner done, as the crickets sang their lullaby and the full moon glowed, we started to get a little worried as we eyed the forecast for tomorrow……..
Part deux to follow !
Thanks for reading, lots of love !
Constantin & Ewa