Spain: Navarra & Basque Country / Euskadi

Route: Etxalar – San Sebastian – Lekunberri – Vitoria-Gasteiz – Berberana

Waking up in spain the next morning, me, and the hill tops around me are bathing in a sea of clouds. What a sight. It is if I were a couple of thousand meter above sea level, while I’m standing at barely 400 meters asl. I take it very easy in the morning. The last days have been hectic enough, and I intend to take a hotel for one are two nights in Lesaka.

Route Basque Country
The Route I rode in this blog post.
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It’s good to be back in Spain, back in the country with the worlds best car drivers. Nowhere else on my travels I found the big majority of the drivers giving you so much space when they pass you, or just waiting patiently behind you when they can’t pass you safely. Often, I’m not even realizing a car is behind me because, contrary to other countries, they don’t speed into you, almost under your rear rack, braking at the last moment, revving the engine…. no, they come slowly, unnoticed. Spain is also one of the few places in Europe where you can spend winter comfortably AND it’s a country with an immense diversity of landscapes.  Downsides… yes, there are a few…. Spaniards are loud.  There are way too many dogs.  You seldom will have a night in your tent without hearing dogs barking, especially in the southern half of the country (but they are almost always behind a fence or on a chain, so not attacking you).  And Spanish kitchen is overrated. You can eat very good here, but the typical ‘menu del dia’ some people are so enthusiastic about is 99% of the times a disappointment. Meat, potatoes, no veggies.  
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Back in Spain, where you will always notice this semi-wild horses in the mountains.

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France is at the other side of the hills.
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Unzipping my tent in the morning, heating water for a coffee. Not a bad view at all.

The downhill over a good track into Etxalar is very steep. This is were the difference between v-brakes and good disc brakes show. I’m torturing my rims. Etxalar is a very neat little town. A tv crew was just making some shots, even of me enterig the village. Who knows I will appear on TVE 🙂
There was a sign outside the tourist info, about Carmen, and an opera, and a girl from

this village. I don’t know anything about the famous opera, and I wonder whether it is about that one and whether the story starts here ??

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Lesaka, the next village is a bit bigger. but has a nice center also All the hotels are full. I should’ve stayed in Etxalar. Alas, no rest days for me. After my siesta I leave town and climb back in the hills. Back up to 400 meter. Down I go via the track under the power lines. 16 to 19% the cyclometer says. Ouch, my rims 😦
From the Presa (reservoir) San Anton, another climb follows. The sealed road NA4000 (‘NA standing for the region of Navarra) is very quiet, but nevertheless, I opt for the continuation of the climb for a goat track, again under the power lines. My progress is too slow for the cyclometer to measure any inclination, but it will be in the 16 – 19% range again (I’m pushing of course, not riding). Instantly my shirt is soaking wet again from the extreme effort. Shoulders, knees, everything hurts from pushing that heavy load up the steep track.
Pure joy 🙂

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In the distance you can see the steep track I came down, than passed the Pressa San Anton, and the steep uphill track again.

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Up at the Aritxulegi pass (500 meter), I am standing above the the tunnel of the NA4000. This is the border between Navarra and the Basque (Euskadi) regions. There is a side track where cars can come up to a picnic area. No good to camp here, so I go back down a bit to a place where I ‘m less likely to be disturbed, and better sheltered from the wind. The weather is changing.
At night, I hear fools, probably drunks, yelling and screaming at the picnic area, flashing strong lights and they are racing cars, braking through curves and the tunnel, wearing out their tires in one night. Good decision to come back to the place I am.

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On the via verde into San Sebastian.

Under very grey skies, with some rain, I ride down the hill and briefly hit the coast in San Sebastian, also called the world most gastronomic place. Not any city on this planet has more Michelin Stars per square kilometer then San Sebastian.. The city was Europe’s cultural capital in 2016 and has 186.000 inhabitants. People, people, nothing but people and cars, so after a stop of 30 seconds, I say goodby to the coast and head back inland. Inland, that’s the ‘Montes Vascos’, the Basque Mountains. They form the eastern section of the Cantabrian Mountain Range which I hope to cross east to west. The Basque coastal range forms the water divide of the Mediterranean and Atlantic basins. The Bay of Biscay causes great weather changes in this region. This is the ‘green Spain’.

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Beach in San Sebastian.

I could already ride the whole way into San Sebastian on bike paths, and leaving town, I prepared a route all along bike paths as well. Splendid.
In Urnieta, just out of town, I take my first hotel of the trip. It’s getting late, all mountains are covered in dreary, dark grey clouds, and I just feel liking having a good shower instead of keeping my eyes open for a camping spot.

Soon after leaving Urnieta, I can take the Plazaola-Leitzaran Greenway, starting in the Basque town of Andoain to Lekunberri in Navarra region. It’s 41 km long and there are no fewer than 32 tunnels to negotiate on the Basque part of the trail alone. Also multiple viaducts, some over a hundred meter in length. Slowly, slowly, like an old diesel engine, I climb from sea level to 660 meter asl at Uitzi, the highest point of the line.
The first half of the Greenway follows the Leitzaran River.

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On my second day on the via verde, I meet a Belgian couple with their son, riding the Vuelta de Vasco, the route I picked up after San Sebastian as well. This via verde is the easiest part of it. Some good climbing, on and off-road, is awaiting.
But first, I have to wait in Lekunberri for the end of the siesta and the (small) supermarket to reopen at 5 pm.

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This little cups on a string are still present along trails, to help hikers have a drink. I guess soon they will all disappear forever due to corona virus, and a permanent change in our habits (I never used them anyhow, but still, it was a friendly gesture).

Upon leaving Lekunberri, I meet another Belgian couple from Brussels, riding part of the trail on hired bikes. It’s amazing. Every other hiking or cycling tourist I meet along the way seems to be Belgian this year.
Out of Lekunberri, I have to climb to a hight of approx. 1.200 meter via a quiet paved road. But the weather is turning, and it is turning rapidly.
Violent head winds, darker and darker clouds. Soon I dive into a forest and prepare a spot to pitch the tent. The winds is still increasing and the trees are swaying violently, dropping branches, dead and living ones. A big one falls right next to my tent and I opt to break it down again and move asap. A broken tent means big troubles for me, and the tent is way too new to have it destroyed like that. And if it’s a big branch, maybe not only the tent will be destroyed…

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The field where I woke up, after replacing the tent from the forest in last nights storm.

I move to a field a bit further on. At night, I hear the relaxing sound of the tawny owl (bosuil). I think that must be the most successful owl in Europe, because I hear him often at night in various countries.

Next morning the sun is out again, and I am on my way before 9 am. Partly because of the heat (the sun was on the tent), but mostly because I was being attacked by hordes of aggressive horseflies.
First up the paved road to the Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar. Today, after about 1750 km, I climb for the first time on this trip above a height of 1.000 m.
The Santuario stands at about 1.220 m asl. There is a cafeteria where I eat and drink something. I also buy a big chunk of typical basque cheese from a vendor at the top.

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Monte Beriain (1.494 meter), seen from Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar.
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Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar, built at this spot to thank Saint Michael the Archangel.

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Then back down again to rejoin the Vuelta de Vasco for an off-road trip through Aralar Nature Park. It definitely is the highlight of my trip so far. An ‘adventurous’ gravel road, spectacular mountains, blue sky, temperature around 34 degrees C. Just perfect. I’m crossing the Basque/Navarra border a couple of times.

I make it a short day. From here the road descents into the valley of the Arakil River, and from the top of the Santuario earlier today, I could see that’s not a place I want to be stuck for the night. A highway passes thru, one village after the other. No, better quiet up the hill.
Well, quiet it never is over here. All the animals, cows, horses, sheep, goat have heavy bells around their neck, and they are all over the place. But that’s still better than traffic noise.

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The weather will turn around completely the next days. Temperatures will drop by more than 10 degrees and there will be rain. Main thing is to get down to the village before 1 pm to buy provisions before siesta starts. After that, quite some climbing and no more chances to buy anything before the capital of the Basque region, Vitoria-Gasteiz.

But….. nothing worked out like that.
Opening the zipper of my tent in the morning, I saw a flat rear tire.
After breakfast, I took off the rear wheel. Going with my hand through the tire, I found two thorns inside. I mended the two holes in the tube. But then found another one.
And another one.
After using almost half my repair patches and half the tube of glue, I was good to go.
220 times pumping to bring the tire on pressure, loading all the luggage, including a soaking wet tent only to notice…. I had a flat tire in the back again….
Aaaghrrr !!
Off-loaded everything again.
Started to rain harder.
More wind.
I now put the spare tube I have inside, but that’s a tube with a small leak I can’t find.
220 times pumping to bring the tire on pressure.
It is completely hopeless I will make it in time to the shop before siesta.
The descent is much harder as expected. It’s basically through a dry river bed with big rocks. Unrideable.
I have to pump the rear tire a couple of times before I’m down in the valley.
It’s 2:05 pm.
The shop in Arbizu closed at 2 pm.

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Too stony for riding.

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I ride eleven km to Alsasua where I find a supermarket that’s open.
The bike shop is closed though.
Till Monday 10 am.
There’s a Chinese shop. They tend to sell everything, so… who knows, they have a tube ?
They do. 28 inch tubes, 27,5 inch tubes, oh…. and one more 26 inch tube.
I grab it, happy I am saved.
Outside, while cutting the package open, I’m thinking … “o-oh, I didn’t check whether the valve is presta and not schraeder”… Schraeder of course.
Aaaaaghr… won’t fit in my rims.

In the drizzle, I rode up the hill in search for a place to camp, with food for two days and nine liter of water. Found nothing suitable so it is back down and I ride to a small pine forest squeezed in between the busy highway and the provincial road I’m on.
Not the nicest place, but it will have to do for two nights until the bicycle shop is open.

Monday morning, 10:20 am I am standing at the bicycle shop. The paper with opening hours which was there on Saturday, is now replaced by another paper. It says the shop is closed until next Monday.
Can you believe that ??
Forty hours I am waiting in my tent, meters away from a busy highway, and now this ??

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This means I cannot ride through the Sierra Andia and miss out on the Parque Natural Ubasa y Andia. That’s a real pity. Luckily, I find a reasonably interesting, and quiet route all the way to Vitoria-Gasteiz (250.000 people), the capital of the Basque Country. The last stretch into town, I rejoin the ‘Vuelta de Vasco’. It’s a via verde (greenway) all the way into town.

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It is said Vitoria-Gasteiz has the second highest standard of living in Spain. Between 1950 & 2020, the population exploded with a factor five ! They’ve got a club playing in the Primera Division; Deportivo Alavés. The well know cyclist Mikel Landa was born here.

I check into a hotel and spend the afternoon strolling through town, buying two new tubes, a slime tube and a regular one, and have diner.

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Leaving town, still on the off-road ‘Vuelta de Vasco’, The route is initially nice. You pass a big shopping area a few kilometer out of town with a big Decathlon, a Carrefour supermarket and a Chinese shop for all your needs.
Now starts a really hard stretch, which I had to push the bike almost all the way. You reach three hill tops, and the last one is so steep I could hardly hold the bike and push it up. But your reward is expansive views over the country side, no people and multiple excellent wild camping options. Up on the ridge, or a bit down towards Jugo. I camped a few kilometer before Jugo, with only 2.2 liter of water in my bottles. I just wanted to stay here and enjoy the views to Olazar mountain from my tent.

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With empty bottles (but still enough water for two big cups of coffee in the morning), I rolled down to Jugo, filled up, and continued to Murgia, where you will find a small supermarket and bakery. I now left the ‘Vuelta de Vasco’. Initially I wanted to go all the way to Bilbao. It’s supposed to be a nice town, but in corona times, I prefer to skip towns if possible.

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The alternative I created was probably better than a visit to Bilbao.
Ok still some bike pushing on some stretches because it was so steep, but mostly excellent riding. The two big rewards of the day were ‘Salto del Nervion’, three hundred meter deep cliffs, and ‘Mirador Esquina Rubén’, both in the ‘Monumento Natural de Monte Santiago’. Lots and lots of Griffon Vultures (Vale Gier).

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Salto del Nervion
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Salto del Nervion

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View from Mirador Esquina Rubén.

Via quiet villages like Berberana and Villalbla de Losa, without any shops, but with water points, I finish the day next to a potato field, not picturesque but nicely sheltered from the sun.

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Next episode, I will continue my ride further west through the Cordillera Cantábrica.

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