How to Not Ride a Bike Through Northern Spain, With a Surfboard

Each day, the sun is further delayed pushing into the eastern sky. With the horizon line high above the beach shore, you won’t feel direct light until around nine. I’m a fan of rising with the sun, but maybe that’s just an excuse for sleeping in through the productive morning hours. But the days of waking at four in the morning to study (and thumb twiddle) before work are long gone. Welcoming change, adapting to a new rhythm or circumstance, sets the tone for what comes next.

Missed part 1? Find it here

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Among the other old stuff, a Dad appears in his natural environment

The journey picks up in Santander (Central-Northern Spain) where my father made a connecting flight on the way home from a work trip. I dance the “floss” in airport arrivals; he pretends to not know me. We explore caves and sample fresh seafood that the region is known for. Observing structures and traditions, those which have withstood so much time. Lesson learned; our time is limited, but trying to force meaningful conversation is no way to have some.

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Talk to the hand, kid… No wait, he’s waving!

Sometimes I look at others’ parental relation and see the green grass; a well cultivated connection, a special bond. A dynamic of ment(or/tee), of dependence and independence, love and compassion – qualities that have changed with time, introduced and removed, maybe more than once. There should be no deluision that relationships aren’t hard and complicated.

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Searching for metaphors among tall pines

If you find yourself passing through, the contemporary art museum, conveniently located next to the ferry dock from Somo (the boat you came in on), is well worth the visit. There’s tapas, and excellent food and wine to be found in the old district. We ordered a rib dish from a recommended restaurant, “Canadis”, from the share plate menu. For twelve euros, this would likely stand as a 2 person entrée for $30-40 back home. In Spain, the quality of food, portions and overall dining experience in general has been excellent.

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Exploring the grounds of Palace Magdalena; a walkable oasis in the middle of the city

Travelling in the area necessitates a visit to the Picos de Europa National Park. We sent off one morning to visit the Rue de Cares (Cares Route), which promotes epic vistas from within a canyon, the sheer rock faces vaulting directly upwards.

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This is 12 kilometres one-way hike with the option to taxi or bus shuttle back to your car for a hefty price. If the 24 kilometres (~450m elevation gain) is a too big a day to make the round trip, I would recommend hiking to the 8-kilometer mark and turning around.

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Blistered and a bit tired, we made it to the 11km marker, but would have been content with returning earlier – at that distance, 6 hours of hiking, with plenty of rest stops and photo ops.

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“Do something cool!”

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We spent our final day together on a coastal tour; exploring the breakwaters of small bayside villages, and walking cobblestone streets in Santillana Del Mar.

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and then finding paradise:

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Just beyond the ridge, San Vincent de la Barquera sits on a tidal lagoon, protected by Playa de Meron, wedged between grassy headlands. Moments after checking into Camping la Rosal, I run into Fabo who has the warmest, welcoming – and dare I say – fabulous smile. The guy was simply radiating happiness, and he wasn’t the only one.

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The Relaxation Ranch – Camping la Rosal

Perfectly positioned, smack dab in the middle of the north coast, just far enough west to receive sizable swells from the Atlantic, but east enough to maintain a comfortable water temperature, the province of Cantabria attracts surfers from all over Europe. The feeling of welcome is abundant, traveler to traveler – though the hint of Scandinavia in my blood might help accelerate the camaraderie.

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I’ll do the dishes tonight. No, my turn!

I set up camp on a shaded plateau next to some vacant camper vans, say goodbye to papa, and head for the water. There are so many people out, but so much coastline and waves to be had. I smile for the next ninety minutes. Spaghetti armed and stiff-cheeked, I return to meet my Dutch neighbours, in whose camping spot I’ve accidentally pitched the tent. Instead of spatting over who’s in who’s spot (I’m 100% in the wrong), we talk about what card game we will play tonight.

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Skip Bo – the game that unites nations. Ester, Joost & Hanneke

It’s hard to keep track of time here. As if the middle ages were absolved – we’re all back behaving like kids. Playing in the waves, on the beach, from morning until supper time, rounding up to warm meal, and sleep that comes easy. If I had to pick and choose one place to spend an entire visit to Spain – San Vincent would be it.

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Playa Oyambre, just around the corner. “Is there something in my teeth?” – Joost

Four (five?) days pass before the idea of cruising west is motioned. I notice the bike rack on Ester’s van, but wait for the invitation of a ride. It comes, I accept. It’s been almost a week off the saddle, what’s another few days? I’m not sure this is even a bike trip anymore.

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Catching a lift

We set out late the following morning. The hour drive from San Vincent to Playa de Vega turns into a most-of-the-day affair.

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Inviting streets

There’s plenty to see on the way there; dramatic cliffbands hosting what was apparently a hot spring? Felt pretty cold to us!

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Where there isn’t pristine beach, it’s a lot of this

Spain’s smallest beach featuring an offshore goat habitat, quaint villages by the numbers.

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Pictured in the back right, goat island has yet to become a thriving tourist hotspot

There are a lot of Germans here. They presume that if you’re white, you know how to speak German. I held eye contact with a gentleman for a good thirty seconds while he spoke at me, nodding along to his harsh syllables, before responding casually in English. They’re kinda like the Americans of Europe. Super powerful, aware of the status.

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Presumptive? Maybe. Certain; they have cool cars!

We turn off the secondary highway and wind towards the coast, following the river that has already negotiated a fair route through the prohibitive landscape.

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Through narrow streets, passing small abodes stacked on rock pillars, we arrive. Playa. De. Vega.

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A long, consistent beach break, with a hotspot peak on the right-hand side. It works on all tides, and with average daily temperatures above 25 degrees for the next few days, it’s going to work just fine for us.

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Water rushing below the red rock headland flanking the beach

The vibe here is comfortable with fresh drinking water and shower just off the beach, and despite no official camping or overnight parking during these “winter months” when we visited, there are plenty of nooks and cranny’s to set up camp. The surrounding property owner, easily identified by his big smile, strolled past most days and paid no mind; we gave him a bottle of wine for not hassling us.

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Mornin’ neighbours!

Time in the water is refreshing, fun, easy surfing. I have my best session to-date here, a fast gunning left with a dozen little accelerating turns along the face. The time in-between is relaxing; stretching, reading, writing, chatting. The pull to wind down is mas fuerte.

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A change in weather motivates packing up, and carrying on. That, and my somewhat forgotten objective of biking around this section of continent, now to be done over a dwindling number of days.

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“How’s the gas mileage on that thing?” – Nobody

I say goodbye to, what feels like, my European family. My wet tent is a heavy load and legs have become unfamiliar with their principal duty.

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Things maintained; things let go

It is long push from Playa de Vega to Verdicio; or feelings so. The side effects of a hurricane rocking the Portuguese coast have made it to this latitude. The unrelenting headwinds, periodic rain, and unfriendly encounters are all taking their toll.

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A tranquil cruise through orchards before entering the big smoke

Crossing the provincial boundary into Asturias feels different from the Spain I’ve seen so far. There are much fewer public water fountains outside of the big city, the houses have large, uninviting concrete walls and steel gates. For sale signs, vacant, deleterious facades. Appliances, mattress stores, bathroom and kitchen fixtures taking the prominence of retail frontage. Attention focused on building ones comfortable nest, depriving it elsewhere.

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Asturians like their cider poured from a great height. Same goes for their water!

The cars seem to pass a little closer. Friendly smiles become a rarity, someone laughs at my spanish when ordering a tortilla and sandwich to go. Is it all that unwelcoming, or could it simply be a swing from absolute comfort with newfound friends, to the lone mode of travel?

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Solo

It’s becoming clear that passing through the city centres can add an unwanted degree of stress. There usually aren’t great options for entering and exiting beside the highway (Bilbao is a great exception to this). Gijon and Aviles have very industrial economies; you will mingle with big, big trucks. If I were to repeat the journey, I would aim to skip certain urban sections via the cheap and accessible rail options that exist en route.

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Google maps, 99% reliable. Out of touch with this recent detour resulting in another hour of challenging cycling in Gijon

Just as the going seems like the going is a bit rough, the the end destination of Verdicio delivers magnificently.

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No showers, shops, or access to water outside of the busy season – but if you come prepared, it’s definitely a spot worth spending a day or two

The wind dies down, but waves don’t materialize in the morning. Onward!

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Beyond the industrial city of Aviles, the cycling is absolutely incredible. The freeway high above spans the entire valley, while the old road cuts through beautiful country, winding up, down and around.

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This overpass turns a fifteen minute drive into a fifteen second one. Efficient, sure. But do you really want to miss this?

Some hills – moderate climbs, get you up high with great panoramic vistas looking over the ocean below. And of course the elevation earns you a thrill of speed as you coast along moss-lined embankments and lush foliage.

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One hour elapses; one car passes

A fellow cyclist and I match pace – Juan (OG ‘Sean’) is following the Camino del Norte route. He’s done a few pilgrimages by foot but, now pushing into his older years with a bum knee, has taken to the bike. We talk in Spanglish, repairing my sentences as we go, but hold a great conversation for about ten kilometers.

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Get it, Juan!

I buy food, wine, and descend a very steep, like, failing-brakes-lead-to-a-disaster steep, road. Always arrive to the beach with wine, and you’ll be sure to make friends.

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Drafting to compensate for wine weight

Playa Otur is tonight’s destination – I meet another lovely Dutch couple there who offer tasty pancakes; the bottle pays immediate dividends.

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Not Otur, but to give you the idea – these little gems are everywhere

We try and surf in the morning, but it’s a sloppy and choppy mess. Big waves with quick closeouts, a bit too exciting. Joost thinks the next bay over will be good given the conditions, and suggests it would be cruel to make me bike up the big hill to get there. I am obliged for the ride.

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Full of pancakes, Joost and Maika provide a lift up the hill dubbed ‘Steepy McSteep’ and on to the next beach

Playa Frexulfre. We arrive to the complete opposite of what we were experiencing at Otur – big, but long period, slow breaking waves. It’s not long before I have my wetsuit back on, and charge down the pine-lined pathway to the beach. From the perspective down low, the faces are huge. Things always look easier from above… lesser so from shore, and become very real once you’re in the water water. I see waves breaking way out back, left shoulders stacking up with no one around. The surfers have concentrated to the right side of the bay for the medium sized swell on the inside. I strategize to be far away from the herd.

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I stretch, finger tips to toes, half lift, and back down. Once in the water I realize the responsible party for the crowding isn’t the party at all – it’s the current. From shore to the back left, it’s a constant struggle. A slight wind chop, and not so slight closeout sets that blanket the entire bay with aerated foam. Eventually, I’m where I want to be.

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Intently positioned can beat being the tallest tree

Minutes go by, ten, maybe more? Everyone seems to be comfortable with being on the opposite side of the bay, and I start to wonder if my judgement is off.

Not a moment later, I see the pulse of the ocean rise in the far distance – lines eclipsing fishing boats far offshore. The first wave breaks a twenty meters out, and I paddle out hard to clear the shoulder. Just as I crest over the first wave, I see that the second is even bigger.

Digging in hard, directing my board down the line. It peaks at the perfect moment. I point the nose to shore, tuck my chin, and give the final three strokes that my arms can muster. Without awareness of the steps involved, I’m suddenly standing. The drop is slow to initiate, but when it goes the speed is immense. My balance is found on the first turn; I draw a slow and long carve. I reach for my turning point, then rotate my torso counter clockwise rapidly to cut back down the face. Repeat. Again, again, and again. The eventually wave walls up; I point it straight and step on the gas, cutting back up and over just before it closes out. My board slows, sinks, as I raise my arms in the air, yelling to the sky.

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After teasing Kai about his three-sizes-too-large wetsuit and the joys of not freezing to death each time you venture into the water, he ran off in the early morning and bought a new one

Crossing the Galician boundary was a simple and relaxing cycle, sticking to coastal and country roads with minimal elevation change.

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Virina & Ilka, two rad driftwood-collecting chicks from Germany.

After thorougly perusing Cathedrals Beach en-route, I rolled towards Foz, and into the comfort of an AirBnB for the evening. Thirty minutes after arrival, the sky began falling – the largest raindrops I’ve seen on the continent. It is great to be sleeping under the stars, but I’m ever thankful for this roof tonight.

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A sampling of Cathedrals Beach – plenty to see beyond the tour bus zone

The morning following my restful AirBnB stay has all my gadgets charged, and gear dry, but my energy levels are nearing the lower limits. Homesickness. The moodiness of the weather. The winds have risen, goodbye to the warm convection of sun on land, replaced with cold Atlantic air.

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A rolling bundle of very wet gear. I wonder if waterproofing with slate rock would be better?

West of Foz is a gentle cruise following the coastal highway, but I soon leave the flatlands behind, straining my neck upwards to see the horizon line. It’s like you’ve never seen a hill before… I vye to make it to Ericera for the night, and push on to make it happen. Soon enough, I’m close, but something’s not adding up. 16 more kilometres and, 650 metres of elevation? We must be cycling up a black diamond run at Lake Louise.

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Blown out, but beautiful. A pine backed forest, nestled down in it’s own separate reality. The gale force winds continue into the morning, removing the chance of a quality, or safe, session out in the water. Back to reality, starting with one big hilly climb out on cold muscles.

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Relief from the sun, and a downward slope

Today’s destination is Doninos. Not to be confused with the tasty pizza chain, Doninos serves up ultra consistent surf due to the right-hand reef, and sheltered configuration of the beach protecting it from anything northerly or from the east.

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But first, we must get there. And for the first time on this trip, I seriously doubt Google’s competency to help with the matter. For the most part, I believe the software works by suggesting actual roadways that a vehicle with cameras has driven on and recognized a) and off highway road with shoulder or b) something with a bike lane.

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Not a road, Google.

In absence of that, it just looks at the satellite image identifies any parting in the trees as a potential route. Goat path? Sure, that’ll work. Some of the detours are welcomed, others make you wonder if the machines have turned on us.

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Thankful for this detour

Doninos is an excellent spot to stake out for a few days. Good facilities, including a bar overlooking main reef. Opting to rest the legs for a day, but try to surf. I come out of the water humbled, spooked from being held down by a big set.

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The ocean doesn’t know how good of a surfer you are

My muscles are tense, joints becoming pained. Each day has felt like an absolute all-out endeavor. Trying to keep up with the caloric output, but can’t seem to manage on snacks alone. I can almost feel the couscous running through my veins. Restaurants are hard to patronize – siestas being a great concept but can you please open up I’m really hungry gracias. Most establishments don’t reopen for dinner until eight or nine o’clock.

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Chill out, man. But I’m pushing it because time is running out. I have plans to meet Manya in Southern Spain in just over two weeks. There’s a lot of distance to cover between here and there; namely a country called Portugal. My mind runs wild on the various permutations of how the upcoming days will be spent, and the terrifying amount of cycling to be done.

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For the days where you want to hide from the world, or just hide from your bike, there’s this.

A quick dip in the ocean, walk along the cliff-side, and a call home to a loved one – things are better. Or maybe nothing has changed. The pause just serves as emotional damage control, a recoup, and a fresh look at things.

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Back on the road, cruising in the westfalia, somewhere between Playa de Vega and San Vincent, I had a moment with myself. It was a realization that this trip has been the greatest of my life, which almost brought me to tears. In that moment, nothing was going as planned. The feelings came from embracing a random series of events, fluid and dynamic as they were.

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Why can we so hard ourselves when we deviate from the plan? Plans should change. Think about it; during the planning stage, you know almost nothing about your destination, it’s environment or culture, with no possible foresight to the opportunities that will present themselves. It would be tragic if plans didn’t change.

There is no accolade should I do this by bike. There is no need for unnecessary suffering, no reasonable gain to be had while edging closer to an injury.

I’m getting a car. I’m going surfing.

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Playa Nemina. A way’s off the biking route.

Galicia opens up when you swap out the human power. The numerous double-digit gradient roads are no longer an obstacle; they are a scenic drive.

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An evening of work behind the bluffs of Playa Traba

The “hurry up” factor quiets in the back of my mind. The stomach grumbling from down below is soothed; I can finally afford to carry a glass jar of peanut butter.

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A, well rested, self portrait

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The O Facho de Donon Overlook

I cut 200 kilometers, and 2,500 meters of elevation gain, off my journey. I’m proud of it. Not for shying away from the challenge, but for putting pride in the back seat, and being open to doing things a different way. A previous version of myself would have rode every last meter at the expense of my body, and the enjoyment of what ultimately is a vacation.

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I drop the car off in Vigo. The last airport, and natural starting/ending place for any bike tour, concluding the trip through Northern Spain, some by bike, with a surfboard.

Unless of course, you’re following along into Portugal…

Trip Details

Bike Route Taken (Approximate)   ~60km omitted by car out of Santander

Car Route Taken (Approximate)

Recommended Segment Duration: 18-24 days, including rest. Or 24 days to… as many as you want if you’re having a nice time. Trying to do it in 12 does not end well.

7 replies
  1. John M
    John M says:

    Awesome post man – it sounds like you are having a grand time in Iberia.

    Glad to hear you decided to use the car to aid the journey so you could enjoy it and not rush.

    Keep the posts coming !

    Reply
  2. Ester
    Ester says:

    Hi Sean, nice to read and see your perspective of our days spent together in SanVi and Vega. Good times! And hurray for the decision in getting a car. Overcoming our minds and ideas how things ‘should’ be, is a great achievement. Enjoy the ride! Big hug all the way from Amsterdam

    Reply
  3. Primo Nathan
    Primo Nathan says:

    Bom dia Juan, os teus photos são muito belos e eu feliz que tu pareces que tu estás bem. Não faltes o surfe em Nazaré ou Costa da Caparica!

    Reply
    • Sean
      Sean says:

      Hey Nathan! Your Portuguese is on point, man! Thanks for having a read. Sadly there wasn’t much for waves at Nazare, but the country had other offerings 🙂 Sending hugs back to Victoria.

      Reply

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