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From Bilbao to La Rioja: cycling Spain

Published September 3rd, 2015

In July Student Flights’ consultant Duayne Christou embarked on a solo cycling tour through Spain’s Basque Country. Starting in Bilbao and heading down to the famous La Rioja wine region, then onto run with the bulls in Pamplona.

Check out his epic journey below…

View from Isla de Santa Clara back to San Sebastian

How many kilometres did you cycle? VS how many bottles of wine consumed?

My GPS clocked over to 600km coming into Bilbao. I consumed more than just wine as Basque people do have a love for spirits, particularly chupitos! I’d say I had about 1 bottle for every 60km so I’ll let you do the Math.

Did you run with the bulls and how close did you get to a live bull? Any bruises / near death experiences? 

How could you attend San Fermin and not run?! Yes I ran and yes I actually came in contact with a bull. I guess this is one thing everyone wants to see photos of but unfortunately, I valued my life over my camera that day.

Pintxos party!

Best pintxos you had in San Sebastian?

Everyone goes to the The Old Quarter lined with cobblestone streets with bars side by side. Personally though, it’s pretty pricey for what you get – it’s good for the one night out, but value for money is in the ‘Gros’ neighbourhood, just over the bridge where locals go. Plaza de Catalunya is a big square which has a bunch of small bars serving pintxos where the locals spill onto the streets. The best one I found was Viura II, just off the square. Favourite pintxos by far was the bread with jamon, cheese and quince topped with pine nuts.

The crowd outside Viura II

Lots of cycling on this trip, did you have to train for it? 

I’ve always enjoyed my sport and trained hard for it. In this case, all that discipline disappeared. I decided to purchase a bike two months out from the trip and I cycled about five times. I got sick a couple weeks prior to leaving so that stopped any training. By the time the trip came around, I was healthy, and for me that was enough.

Where did you stay on the way?

I mixed it up. Day 1 was in a 4 star hotel (Look at me, big spender!). That quickly changed. The main thing I needed was security for my bike. So I opted for cheap hotels in good locations when needed. On the way to Pamplona I camped out a couple of times, and then during the festival I did Airbnb. I did a hostel one night and locked the bike up safely in storage. After a few more nights camping, I returned to that four star hotel for a nice warm shower and firm bed.

Camping in Lizarra

How many hours did you cycle each day? 

My typical day involved packing up my tent (if I wasn’t lucky enough to have a proper roof over my head), shower, clean up, eat then hit the road. I’d cycle from around 9am until 5pm most days. Obviously I’d stop frequently to take photos and explore small towns or go for swims. But generally they were long hot days on the bike.

Best vista you saw on your trip?

This is honestly a tough one. The thing with cycling is it’s not about the destination, but about the journey and how you get there. On a hand full of occasions, I got caught riding up hills. My biggest accent was over 800m. The lookout at the top faded as far as the eye could see. I saw everything from the famous lush mountains of Basque Country, to the vineyards of La Rioja and the glistening coastline of San Sebastian to Mundaka. My favourite vista (see below) was a monastery located on a rock formation which could only be accessed following a set of stairs.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe - a 3 hour cycle from Bilbao

Keen cyclist? Check out this Tour de France trip in France

Mad for Spain's festivals? Check out a list of their wackiest celebrations!


 

Top five places you visited?

- San Juan de Gaztelugatxe – Monastery, mountain, sea, enough said

- Zarautz – A beach one hour cycle west of San Sebastian

- Isla de Santa Clara – an island you can Kayak out to from the beach of Playa de la Concha in San Sebastian. Yes you must Kayak

- Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao) – worth going just to get a pic with the biggest puppy in the world made of flowers

- Pamplona – San Fermin festival, the purpose of the trip

Duayne at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

How's your Spanish? Did you get by, especially in the more rural areas? 

The north of Spain speaks Basque first, then Spanish and thirdly English. In the smaller towns there was no English so the bit of Spanish I knew got me by. To enjoy the north, I'd highly recommend travellers to learn some Spanish before hand to enhance their experience!

Duayne's kayak at Playa de la Concha in San Sebastian

Tips for anyone planning a cycling trip in Spain?

If you cycle the north, plan for the unexpected. I had days of 40 degrees at the base of mountains changing to 10 degrees and rain in the peaks. Take clothing to suit all conditions and never run out of water. Caught out with no water is just painful and dangerous.

Pamplona street scene

Three items you wouldn't leave home without?

Toothbrush, antiperspirant, iPod

Did you meet any interesting characters along the way?

Travelling by yourself means you meet people everywhere you go. I have some great memories of the locals I met all being really generous and hospitable. Pamplona brought out the crazy people which I’m sure was due to the festival being on.

Check out Duayne's bike short tan

How did you relax after a long day cycling? 

I built up a massive hunger at the end of each day so I’d literally find the first local bar in town, order a beer and then munch on as much tapas possible.

Best beach you enjoyed?

 Zarautz beach was the best beach I came across. It was as Spanish as it got with beach front restaurants, a church overlooking the shoreline, kids surfing waves and locals lapping up the sun.

Zarautz Beach

 

Duayne's cycling map

Keen to explore Spain next summer (on two wheels or more) check out our Europe Early Bird offers for 2016

Student Flights' Consultants

At Student Flights, our consultants have travelled along those well-worn routes before diverting from the beaten path to explore the real side of foreign countries. These blog posts shine a light on just some of the experiences our consultants have had on recent adventures. We hope you enjoy reading the blog articles written by the Student Flights' Consultants.