Basque Bikepacking… Una Vuelta de Vasco

We both had two weeks holiday remaining and enough air miles to get to Bilbao and back. That seemed liked enough of a plan to get started.  I thought up a route and fiddled with our bikes whilst Jenny worked her magic on our clothing to climate calibration (CCC) and optimised the pack list for bikepacking. The flight date approached faster than we could say zanahoria. It was time to explore El Pais Vasco (Basque Country) on bikes!

Of course, our return to full time jobs last year has made this kind of free time more sacred. The schedule-less, open-ended touring mode was replaced by a frantic two-week bikepacking binge, where we seek to make the most of each and every day. When we weren’t grinding up the hills, we were dusting off our Spanish with curious shopkeepers, eating Idiazabal or looking for a place to wild camp (amongst the noisy pony gamelan – see explanation below).

We were fortunate to stay a few nights with a lovely couple Mayra and Aritz, introduced to us by our friends James and Sarah. In addition to hosting us, they provided insight to the Basque culture, language and food – all integral to the uniqueness of the region.

At times we felt like the Basque Country is to Spain a bit like Scotland is to England – an autonomous region with some ambition to secede, lots of sheep, unpredictable drizzle and cooler weather than it’s southern sister; there are certainly some parallels.

Route Notes

Basque Country has great bikepacking potential. The parks we visited are expansive without fences and gates and the towns and cities are super bike friendly. The cycling highlights from our trip were Aralar and Gorbeia,  La Plazaola and Urbasa.

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We strayed off our planned route quite a bit, hence the interesting shapes! You can view it in more detail on Everytrail or Strava.

Other Route Options

There were also plenty of areas we sadly missed out due to time constrains:

Climate Considerations

Basque Country receives more rainfall than other parts of Spain, particularly along the coast. August and September are good months to visit, though September also has the advantage of less tourism and ‘off season’ rates for hotels, parks, etc. We’ve heard that Spring and early Summer can be very wet indeed.

Bilbao to San Sebastian (Costa del Vasco)

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Only about 5km from Bilbao, I had already led us off piste. Oops! This is a bit steeper than it looks…
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Grabbing some supplies at Ciclos Jesus in historic Gernika, we found our first Basque buddy.
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We flirted with El Camino del Norte as we ambled towards Lekeitio, a charming little fishing town with very little traffic in September…
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…stumbling across a family caravanning spot (Camping Santa Elena), now closed for Autumn during the week, but the gate was open so we cheekily poached a secluded ocean view.
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The new spice kit is black magic. Thanks James & Sarah for the idea.
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We continued along the coastal highway through Mutrika and Deba…
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…and then we went off piste for some ‘type 2’ fun; it wasn’t completely rideable, but much nicer than the highway between Deba and Zumaia…
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…some interesting erosion caused by the waves on Playa Sakoneta.
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The Basque trail networks are marked with these symbols, seemingly inspired by the  nearby Animated Forest.
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We climbed up from Playa Sakoneta…
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…until we joined a singletrack traverse…
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…with more coastal views…
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…and quiet dirt roads leading down to Zumaia.
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We found our way to Ogi Berri, the Basque Bakery chain which translates to ‘new bread’. We thought it sounded a bit like Yogi Bear and just kept saying ‘hey, boo boo’…

San Sebastian

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We stayed with Mayra and Aritz in San Sebastian through an introduction from James & Sarah who stayed with them last year.
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Aritz showed us around some of his favourite local trails, with some stunning views…
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We had lots of laughs…
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…I guess you had to be there…
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Jenny & Mayra flew down the lovely ridge run…
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…and raced towards the bottom…
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…obviously so fast I couldn’t catch Mayra in focus…
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…and a well deserved dinner back at the flat, with the most incredible tomatoes from Aritz’s father’s garden…
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…and a ubiquitous Basque after dinner snack. Figs on the left, Idiazabal (unpasteurised sheep cheese) with Membrillo (quince jelly) and walnuts on the right. This became our cycling power food from this day forward…
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The gorgeous bay is paradise even on a bad day…
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…how can you argue with this?
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Tourism thrives in the heart of the Old Town of San Sebastian (though it was rebuilt after a fire/siege circa 1813).
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We got a local tip from Mayra and Aritz, for this top pintxo spot just off of the more touristic streets. Check out La Cuchara de San Telmo. You will not be disappointed!
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The renowned michelin star cuisine does trickle down to the more moderately priced establishments – it’s all about the pintxos!
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San Sebastian is home to the longest (850m) urban cycling commuter tunnel in the world,  repurposed from a disused train tunnel.

La Plazaola

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Our departure from San Sebastian led us to La Plazaola, a 40km section of disused rail way that was repurposed for walkers and bikers…
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…following the river on easy ‘train grade’ (2-4%) with countless spots for a snack and snooze…
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…but I didn’t feel like snoozing…
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…so I explored…
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…whilst Jenny did some strange experimental yoga in her noisy shorts…
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…we lost count of the tunnels on La Plazaola…
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…in one hill and out the other.
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There are several watering holes along La Plazaola with little cups to let you know it’s safe to drink.
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A light drizzle persisted in the afternoon as we climbed higher and the temperature fell…
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…so we retreated to an unlikely shelter in a drainage tunnel underneath the road above. I did wonder if we would be woken in the night by a river flowing around us, but it seems we got lucky.
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The final tunnel at the top of La Plazaola is a few kms in length…
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…finally, we were spat out the top near the town of Lekunberri…
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…where we stocked up on more Basque treats…
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… and had yet another greedy cyclist picnic…

Aralar

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At the top of the climb from Lekunberri up to Aralar, Jenny magically launched from her bike into this position and immediately began snoozing in the sun…
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…so I let her rest whilst I climbed up to explore the refugios near the summit…
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…where it all opened up…
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…until a mysterious fog blew into the sunset…
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… and some sinister ponies appeared…
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…with some curious ovejas…
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The sunset and fog continued to wrestle as the sheep followed each other in no particular direction.
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I stopped near the summit to peruse some confusing Basque signage.
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Sierra de Andía loomed over the nearby valley as though it was guarding the climb up to Urbasa
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We were greeted in the night at this camp spot by a gang of ponies with bells. I had to chase them away around 2:00am because they were making so much noise, it was like a Javanese gamelan (we were both wearing earplugs). We started calling it the Gamelan de los Caballitos (Pony Gamelan)
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The next morning, I lured Jenny back up to the top to show her the views from the day before…
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…though now much more clear.
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The noisy ponies with their bells just feigned ignorance to the cacophony from the night before…
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…so we bid them farewell and stopped for a coffee here; Double cowboy brew… black, no sugar, thanks.
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A gorgeous traverse continued northwest, completely opposite to the direction we’d planned but we were powerless to its blissful gravitational forces…
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We crossed paths with another rider who climbing aggressively grinning ear to ear; he mentioned we were approaching some nice singletrack on the way down to a lake…
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…so we continued, weaving on and off the doubletrack…
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..down to the singletrack down along the Maizegi, the other rider then joined us for the descent.
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It’s that time of year again. We didn’t think twice before gobbling enough to deserve a tummy ache.
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The traffic came to a stand still as we joined more bell toting travellers.
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All our hopes for a dip in the fake lake were quelled when we saw the ‘prohibido’ signs…
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…so we indulged in this descent to drown our sorrows…
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…even entering our first ever singletrack tunnel…
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…finally reaching the bottom of the valley, with Urbasa now looming over us in the distance – a swift reminder that we’d spent most of the day going down hill…
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…so it was time to get carbed up on some risotto and steak at an amusing ‘Irish pub’ with a Basque menu called the ‘Derry Taberna’ in the highway town of Etxarri-Aranatz.

Urbasa

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The menu del dia gave us the energy we needed to climb out of the valley up to Urbasa. We stopped for the panorama near the top…
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…and then turned off on gravel into Urbasa…
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…where we set up for another wildy, albeit not the flattest spot for a tent!
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Urbasa sits just above 1000m, so it gets a bit chilly when the sun goes down. Luckily this little penguin was packing her down jacket, hence the smile.
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The sun rejoined the party for breakfast with another pot of cowboy brew.
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Continuing into Urbasa proper, even on a Sunday we hardly saw any humans.
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We ditched the bikes at the top of the Nacedero and went for a hike down…
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…to check out these gorgeous pools. The area receives high traffic tourism and is heavily protected, so it’s not possible to ride bikes or swim in the pools. We were a bit put off by high number of tourists with selfie sticks, so we didn’t hang around too long.
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Another day, another stealthy. Strictly speaking, camping is prohibited in Urbasa, but we were told that respectful overnighters are tolerated as long as it’s off the main road.

Vitoria

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From Urbasa, we made our way towards Vitoria along La Via Verde del Ferrocarril Vasco-Navarro – another disused rail way repurposed for cyclists and walkers.
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The steady rail grade down to Vitoria slices through even the smallest hills.
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We reached the centre of Vitoria in quite a dishevelled state, after four nights wild camping with no shower and with now rumbling tummies…
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…so we found a cosy double room beside the Catedral Santa Maria.
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I can often be embarrassingly unappreciative and impatient in museums, but I thoroughly enjoyed Fournier de Naipes – a museum dedicated to the history of playing cards. Much of the history is based around the Fournier card company of Vitoria, but it also includes info about the prior art of Chinese and Indian playing cards.
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Vitoria’s streets are handsome and charismatic and yet it doesn’t have the more blatant touristic qualities of San Sebastian and Bilbao.

Gorbeia to Bilbao

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We headed into Gorbeia a day late after we were forced to retreat from the permadrizzle to a truck stop hostel the day before. I was in a particularly sour mood over this, but fortunately the weather cleared and we ventured in despite slightly spongy roads.
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Gorbeia is lush. It gets more rain than the other parks we visited. This poor pony was still trying to dry off.
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We ventured into the soggy forest…
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…as the sun began to burn off the clouds, but we were still left with some muddy surfaces to slow our progress…
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Jenny… can I use your water bottle?
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This pony kept biting this sheep’s ass and I found it quite amusing.
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And this one kept rolling around and jumping up and kicking the air. Crazy ponies. No gamelan bells though.
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I swear I didn’t make this mess.
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Another lunch spot
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Froggy.
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I left Jenny to read her book while I searched for a glimpse of the Gorbeia summit. If you look closely, you’ll see a tower near the highest point. Looking at the Strava heatmap, it looks like most cyclists approach the ascent from the south rather than the north. This would have been our intended route in better weather.
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From Pagomakurre, we began a long descent on the north side of Gorbeia…
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…where we finally hit the country lanes on the outskirts of Bilbao.
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It was nearing the end of our trip so we stayed in Bilbao in order to make an easy way to the airport. We found a simple spot in the centre and used their broom to clean the bikes.
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Apparently, the Guggenheim is an icon in Bilbao. I wasn’t too fussed about the museum, but I loved the giant spider. Red Bull had taken over the whole area in preparation for a cliff diving competition the following day
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We had one final climb to get out of Bilbao to the airport…
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…which gave us some perspective on the climbing we did in Gorbeia…
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… and a final descent on El Camino de Norte, to end the loop just as it began.

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