Spain: Off-road through the land of Don Quixote

PART 1:  Basque Country (Euskadi), Navarra and Aragon regions.

During the winter and next spring, I plan to ride some trails on the Iberian Peninsula and in France. I’ll leave the touring bike behind for a little while and take my mountain bike. The whole set-up and what I take with me is described here.
The touring bike with all it’s bags is so heavy, it can hardly be lifted from the ground. The mountain bike with all it’s luggage weighs only 25 kg, and on top of that I carry a small backpack of about 6 kg.
This means I leave the Hilleberg mansion behind and swap it for a small Decathlon tent I still had laying around, I’ll carry a much lighter sleeping bag, lighter rain gear, less clothes, no stove or cooking pots, smaller camera,… only the hardcore essentials.

As I didn’t want to race against the seasons, I took a train down to Hendaye, the most southern place at the French Atlantic coast. It’s only a 6 hour ride with the tgv from Paris.
I arrived in Hendaye around 18:00 hrs and instantly crossed the border into Spain to spent the night in Hondarribia. This is the same village where I finished the ‘Transpirenées’ in 2012 and ‘Transpirenaica’ in 2014, 2 brilliant off-road routes, one on the French and the other the Spanish side of the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast.
The clouds I saw in the mountains when I arrived by train where gone the next day.

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The Atlantic coast at Hondarribia

dscf0149Before I start I have to give credit to Toffel, a Belgian biker who shared his ‘Transspain’ route, and Zinaztli, a Spanish biker for a lot of routes he shared. I combined their routes, and added a bit of my own.
My first day, I rode the last part of the Transpirenaica route in reverse direction, upto the ‘Pitara’ pass, a low crossing of the Pyrenees, but with very nice wild camping possibilities. It felt so good to be on the bike again.
The second day, at the Collade de Ibardin, I went from the French Basque country into the Spanish Basque country, down to the valley of the Rio Bidasoa, in Navarra province.

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On the climb to Pitara pass.
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At the Pitara pass.
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First camp site just above Pitara.

Day nbr 3 proved to be the hardest of the whole stretch between Hondarribia and Cartagena.
I had to climb out of the valley of the Rio Espelura via a hiking trail to Txaruta mountain, the highest peak of the Montes de Bidasoa range. The first 3,5 km I pushed the bike from 250 meters to 900 meter. Very, very hard labour, some parts almost impossible. Once I was up at the flank of the mountain, the track continued climbing a bit more and stayed high for a while. After less then 11 km, exhausted, I searched for a new camping spot.

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The steep push up Txaruta.
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And some don’t seem to make it.
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Shelter near the top of Txaruta.

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Which way should I go ?  Oh yeah, the steep one…

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dscf0182From to the top of Ezkaba, a hill of 895 m just north of Pamplona you have an excellent view of the city. There’s an old fort at the top, ‘Fuerte de Alfonso XII’.
I stayed one night in Pamplona to have some time to visit the city. There’s a nice cathedral, a nice square and on Thursday nights, coincidently the night I was there, they have their famous “El Juevintxo”. That’s ‘pintxos’ (= tapas) on Thursday, where you get a small beer or wine and a tapa for 2 Euro’s in many of the town’s café’s.

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Fuerte de Alfonso XII
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Pamplona Cathedral

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Leaving Pamplona, I passed the citadel, a walled fortification, built between 1571 and 1645 under the orders of King Felipe II of Spain. A very sophisticated defensive system was devised, following the model of the fortress at Antwerp, a regular pentagon with five bastions at the corner.
It is regarded as the finest example of military architecture from the Spanish renaissance.

dscf0348Continuing south, I crossed the Sierra de Izco towards the tiny village Leoz. It’s here I had my first flat tyre of this year. These nobby mountainbike tires are much lighter and much less robust as the Schwalbe Marathon’s on my touring bike. I repaired the tyre, but it was flat again after 2 km.
I couldn’t find where it leaked, but saw that my rim tape was partly moved to the side walls of the rim. It’s glued in the rim, so you can’t put it back. To solve the problem and protect the tube a bit from the spokes I tore a piece of 15 cm from a bread bag, folded it double and laid it between the tube and the rim. Then used my only spare tube. Fingers crossed this works out.

A bit later, beyond the village of Uzquita, I spend the night in my tent at the top of the mountain range, under some wind mills, feeling like a modern Don Quixote 😉

dscf0362From the historical village Ujué, I descended to the Barranco Aliaga, following the stream on dirt roads till it’s confluence with the Rio Aragon, near the small town of Carcastillo.

It being a Sunday, much hunters were out. In Catholic Spain, God’s day of rest is used by a big proportion of the population to hunt down and kill animals. Not sure if that was his intention. The bullets are literally flying around your ears.

But it were not only hunters bothering me today. Carcastillo has it’s own plaza de toros (bullring), and today was the annual fiesta. This bothered me twice. First, that meant all shops were closed and I badly needed food, and second, the whole town was fenced of with wooden fences so the bulls could be released and chased down the streets. The ‘festivities’ were gonna start between 5 & 6 pm. I considered for a second whether I had to take this ‘opportunity’ to experience some Spanish tradition, but decided against it. I ‘d want to save the bull, which would surely create problems for me.

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You can see the wooden fences at the corner, to protect people and houses once the bulls will be released.

Eventually, I could buy some bread in a small cafeteria, took some water at the village fountain and continued cycling.  What followed later this afternoon and the next day was some first class, and little known, spectacular scenery.  ‘Las Bardenas Reales’, a big, desert  / moon like area with sandy hills, spectacularly shaped by water and wind.   I was so glad I hadn’t taken a room back in Carcastillo, but instead could pitch my tent and sleep in this wonderful environment.

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Northern entrance of Las Bardenas Reales.

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At the southern end of Las Bardenas Reales, I cross the Rio Ebro, one of Spain’s major rivers, and ride into Aragon, the third Spanish province of this trip.

In Borja, a charming little town along the N122, I found a neat little bike shop to buy 2 new spare tubes and a rim tape (I could ride another 500 km or so before I had my next flat and replaced the bread bag in my rim).
South from Borja, I crossed the Sierra de Nava Alta before pitching my tent for the night in a deserted valley north of Illueca.

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Ridiculously red sand on a mining road north of Illueca.

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Illueca is a small town, the capital of the Region of Aranda. Raised on a hill is the castle of Papa Luna palace. The building is the birthplace of Pedro Martinez de Luna (1328 – 1423), for a while pope Benedict XIII and also know as ‘Papa Luna’.

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After breaking camp in the morning, this is where I was coming from the previous day…
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… and this is where I was going. Sure enjoying my days here.
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The Palace of ‘Papa Luna’.

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After crossing the Sierra de la Virgen, I entered the town of Calatayud over an old railway turned into cycle path.

From Calatayud I rode upstream in the valley of the Rio Jalon to Ateca. The next days were going to be very spectacular.
First I rode up to the ‘Embalse de la Tranquera’ reservoir.

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The square in Calatayud.

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‘Embalse de la Tranquera’

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My last night in Aragon, I camped along a little dirt road between Ibed and Jaraba.

To be continued….

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