It is fall, but the weather of Northern Spain wouldn’t like to admit it. Sure, the leaves are in the process of falling and new colours emergent, but the air is rich with warmth, and saline humidity. The sun gradually arcs through the southern sky, casting rays through the less-than-lush trees surrounding my primitive campsite, in which I’m currently sitting on my two-foot wide surfboard sleeve. Without any back support or cushion from the, it just served as a seating area and dining table, and now as an office desk and chair. ‘Spartan’ is a word gaining a little too much popularity in our culture, but so very appropriate in these circumstances
I’m on tour – this time with a bike, light-ish saddlebags, a surfboard, at a lot of pent up energy from the sedentary month past. Starting in Bilbao, which hosts Spain’s northernmost regional airport, my plan is to follow the coast, counter-clockwise, through Portugal and southern Spain, completing somewhere in France or Italy. This is the first chapter of the journey.
Why come here? Spanish, Portuguese, Basque, Catalan, French, Italian – I know none of them! It’s been an active goal of mine for some time to pick up a second language, even if only basic comprehension and conversation. After many botched preguntas (questions), much mumbling, and blank-faced sweaty palmed moments with shopkeepers, the goal has become an essential action. The combination of language, culture, food, surfing, and a slightly sore buttocks, cumulates to a dynamic trip that has me excited.
You might also be wondering; surfboard, on a bike? Confusion comes to most who ask about the trip, so not to worry.
This is a Ho, Stevie! Board rack. It attaches to the seatpost of any bike, tightens with a basic allen tool, and allows you to fold it inwards when not in use. There were a few options out there, but valuable for money and reputation of the vendor sold me. $80 is like on tank of expensive European gas, which gets you to the surf spot a few times. The same amount of money to put a board on your bike… and go as far as your legs will take you? I signed up for the latter.
After two days of settling in to the foreign lands, sampling Pinxtos (pronounced ‘Pinchos’, which are the basque’ian version of tapas), and appreciating/chuckling at the beauty and obscurity of the artwork at the Guggenheim, I departed Bilbao heading southeast out of the river valley and towards Zarautz. Hopeful to find a used surfboard (Segundo manos tablas de surf) on arrival, and stoked to contrast the heat on the asphalt with the crispness of the Atlantic waters.
The first few hours of pedaling were an experience. The roads are nice, the people pass wide, but how on earth does one adapt a presta valve to a gas station pump? Twenty minutes later and some duct tape jiggery had me back on route.
Northern Spain is thought of a hilly, but the national highways which are prefixed with an “N”, (e.g N-634) follow the contours gently and aren’t highly trafficked routes. That being said, it’s not dead flat either. From Bilbao to Zarautz, I clocked about 1,200 metres of gain over 110 KM. Unlike cycling in the Canadian Rockies, where you must cross high mountain passes through a singular 800M+ and multi-hour grind, the most prominent climb on this day lasted about 200 metres, which is much more manageable.
After cresting the pass out of the Durango mountain valley, I took a short break to admire the path just taken, and reflect on mountain life, and mountain people, back home. An older Spanish gentleman, strutting with his shirt off, was marching down his driveway in my direction. Pedro and I struck up a conversation, which led to a farm tour, apple cider tasting, freshly picked vegetables from the garden, and review of some dining chairs that is father made with phenomenal wood joinery (think no nails or fasteners) over 70 years ago. I’m not sure how the chairs came into the mix, but I think he was excited to have a guest and I was happy to listen.
Hours, and many awe-inspiring coastal vistas later, I’d arrived in Zarautz. Completely spent after a nine-hour day of biking in the heat. Unfortunately, the campground in town where I planned to stay was closed. Fortunately, there was another one just a mere fifteen minutes away! Unfortunately, that fifteen minutes of riding was all uphill, 12% grade, sustained. After moments of contemplating a yard sale on the roadside to lighten the load, I gathered my remaining fumes and made it happen.
Enter Marc. Marc struck up a conversation when I pulled up next to his site. There was no car present, just his small, olive green tent and a reflective surfboard bag. He’d made the trip out on a night bus from Barcelona (pronounced properly, Bar-tha-lona), followed by a short taxi to the campground from town. He makes this trip pretty often, whenever the forecast for waves looks good, he says. Marc, at 23, runs his own small technology company, able to work from anywhere. Still living frugally and in a minimalist fashion, but Marc is rich in flexibility, and the option to choose where he puts his time. In my eyes, he is a very wealthy man.
San Sebastian is a hotspot for tourism, with swank hotels, plenty of shopping and pinxto bars as far as the eye can see. We opted to take the train from Zarauth for 2.50 euro, which gets you in to the bustle, and planned on getting out of there once we had our fun.
Surfing in Zarautz is really good when the waves are on; I stayed until the wind shifted, and then put the wind to my back. Marc and I said our goodbyes – this won’t be the last time he enters the story.
Going oeste (west). The general plan was to stick to the coastline, avoiding only the most rugged sections of road. Fortunately, there weren’t many.
From Zarauth to Deba, incredible coastal touring, with one big push inland. From there, the road to Lekeitio is a asphalt feat of engineering. it Not a new road, but fluctuates so little in elevation. Most of the valley “dips” are bridged, leaving you high and enjoying a panoramic view of the coastline, with the waves crashing far below.
If you keep your eyes open, you’ll notice a few areas suitable for random camping. While it’s nice to have a shower and some basic comforts of a facility, sometimes the solitude and remoteness of being out there on your own can nurture the spirit in a unique way.
Water. It’s nice, to swim in, to shower, and especially to drink. In my past tours I’ve always struggled with the balancing act of packing water. Carry too much, you’ll burn out from the sheer weight of it, and a very bruised ego when you ride past a fountain while carrying a cumbersome five litres. Carry to little, and you can get very thirsty, very quickly. It’s worth mentioning that Spain seems to have no shortage of public water fountains in every small village or town, usually separated by a maximum of thirty minutes of riding. You don’t need to haul water – I just fill my bottles whenever I’m running low, and bring a collapsible hydration bag to fill when setting up for the night (like THIS).
The road to Mundaka; more of the same with one beautiful section of inland riding through small villas. Mundaka itself hosts some of the world’s most incredible left-handed breaks, and also a quaint, affordable campground with clean and modern facilities. While the tide and swell conditions weren’t excellent, I still had a few pleasant waves before some evening brainstorming for a new business project.
Rain. That morning I nearly vaulted out of my bivy bag after few droplets touched down. What is this!? I was expecting summer conditions, no exceptions, Spain! The momentary droplets ceased, but were definitely foreshadowing for the rain event later that afternoon, which was a spontaneous, zero warning, downpour. By the time I could say “let me take shelter under this branch…”, I’d been soaked, through and through.
The sun always seems brighter after the storm passes; it is the exact same, but our appreciation for it changes. Feeling grateful, I cruised through country farmland, enjoying low grade hills and valleys, mooing at cows along the way, on separate and dedicated bike lane for most of the ride to Sopelana.
It’s been over a year since I’ve caught a wave. Twelve months of atrophy to the latent surfing muscles, which seem to be so unique to the activity. Your core can work great holding a plank for minutes on end, but as soon as it’s asked to work in a new way, like arcing the back slightly upward off the surfboard for paddling, it gives out. It takes time to get your head back up, physically and figuratively. Sopelana had great waves, about head height with a fourteen second period, but I felt short in my paddling strength. I watched as the face of many good waves slowly crept beyond my ability to catch them.
I still have post trauma from cycling through big cities in North America. Usually, you’re entering on a primary or secondary arterial roadway, which might go from two lanes to six in a hurry. Concrete barriers pop-up all around you, traffic gets wild, the shoulder narrows, things can get pretty frightening. If you’ve toured before, you know the feeling. But in Spain, that fear seems to be irrational. Cruising out of Sopelana and through northern Bilbao, you are met with the most incredible inner-city, dedicated bike paths, plus an ultra-cool gondola ride that shaves off an unnecessary ten extra kilometers. Bravo, Bilbao.
My father plans to visit me in Santander for a few days as a layover for his business trip. I’ve decided to push my way through a hilly region to Laraedo, specifically a lesser-known surfing beach on the north end called Barria.
A trend is developing; the campground in Barria closed. Twenty five degree and sunny doesn’t count as Summer to the Spaniards. That’s quite alright though, because I found this instead:
This place is a dream. And I’m not the only lucid one, a handful of van lifers are relaxing in the parking lot when I arrive. There’s bathroom facilities, surf showers, and endless miles of beach to walk when the surf isn’t up. The swell has dropped down to a manageable waist height, which has me hooting and hollering throughout the morning. I’m remembering what it is to love surfing, again.
Three days later, I’m ready to leave Barria and meet Papa in Santander. After a few hours of riding west, there’s a ferry that will take you from Somo directly into downtown, skipping fifteen kilometres of skirting around the city’s peninsula. Somo’s got great waves too, plus a killer donair in the heart of town.
The passion is off the shelf, and the layer of dust removed. The feelings of excitement, the and joy of being in the water again has been fully granted. There’s a groove you can hit on a trip like this, once comfortable with the simplistic routine and enjoying having a bit less. Surfing, attempting a new language, a uncertainly with travel – all become easy, almost natural, when you’re alright with being no good for a little while.
Part 2 coming soon.
Recommended Segment Duration: 8-10 days, including rest.