After 2 years of polar training my girlfriend, Lisa, and I decided it was time for a warm holiday. But with little funding the trip would need to be inexpensive and offer enough adventure to keep me interested.
Cycling to San Sebastian had resided on Lisa’s bucket list for 5 years. The small city lies in the north-west corner of Spain’s Atlantic coast. It is renowned for delicious food, wine and cider, having two golden, sandy beaches and an old town centre with narrow streets lined with bars and restaurants. I was easily sold on the idea.
We purchased two road maps of the region, packed our saddle bags and boarded a train from Paddington to Taunton. We rode over the mercilessly steep and verdant Quantocks to Lisa’s parents’ home from where her dad, Cliff, drove us to Plymouth for a a 20-hour ferry ride on Brittany Ferries to Santander.
The first part of our mission complete. We exited the boat on a sunny Monday afternoon and immediately hit a problem; Santander is not designed for cycles and the roads around the port city were filled with cars and heavy goods vehicles. Wanting to start the holiday off with as little stress as possible we opted to hop straight onto another, smaller ferry to Somo, across the bay.
We skipped the heavy traffic out of Santander but it caught up with us in Bilbao. The city is the Basque regions economic powerhouse and it showed. Factories with flames and dark smoke pouring from shiny metal chimneys lay in-between the green hills that Lisa and I cycled over, sweating and swearing in 30 degree heat.
We struggled to cross Bilbao, it’s large roads wound around the river like spaghetti with few bridges suitable for two tired English cyclists. Eventually we found a route along and over the river, out of the city to Camping Sopelana. The total mileage covered that evening equaled 70 miles. Ouch.
We decided to camp for most of the way to save money and add some element of challenge to the journey. Lisa is not a fan of my tent, with two of us in there it is a bit cramped. The lack of shower also brought some complaints. Our spirits were upbeat, however. This trip was our first taken purely for leisure and our first holiday together. We laughed and joked about the heat, sunburn and exhaustion.
Days three and four meant more heat and more hills. We took quieter roads avoiding traffic but also the flat. We climbed into the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve then further up to Nabarniz, “Why do they put these villages at the top of these bloody hills?” Said Lisa, I was too tired to answer.
The hardest climb came late in the day. We decided to camp at Leagi Campsite, a beautiful spot overlooking the town of Lekeitio and the blue Atlantic Ocean. The problem was it lay 2km up a near vertical road, the owners of the campsite were shrewd not to mention that.
Our goal, to cycle to Donostia, or San Sebastian in Spanish, neared. The riding toward it was mostly downhill through coastal forests. Cars were few on a route we shared with lycra-clad cycling counterparts. The ride was one of the best of the entire trip. The shade of the trees and Atlantic breeze kept us cool and there were not too many steep climbs.
Donostia bustled with tourists. It’s renowned for great food and has more Michelin restaurants than any other city in Spain, boasting 10. Our small budget required small dishes and we stuck to the bars that served the Basque version of tapas called Pinxos (pronounced Pinchos). We feasted on cheese balls, chorizo wrapped in bacon, salt-cod and tortilla.
Two days of feasting ensued. When forced to leave we surged on at speed, fueled by ham, cheese and seafood into France. After a short climb from the boarder the way became flat. We hit the coastal regions, well marked out by cycle routes. Most were separated from the road and would take meandering detours through the pine forests of the Aquitaine region, adding 10s of kilometres to our journey. At first the detours were quaint, but began to annoy us a bit.
The low point of the trip was not the detours but when I forced Lisa into her first wild camping experience. We’d stopped for a giant ice-cream at Luc de Leon, north of Biarritz, a beautiful spot for camping with a flat, grassy shore dotted with trees. Perfect, I thought. Someone else also thought it would make a great campsite and had built a huge one next to our prospective spot, so we had to wait until dark to pitch-up as wild camping is as illegal in France as it is in England.
Dusk came and it was time to hit the sack. We took our bikes across a stream to a secluded field, where our camp would be masked by trees. Despite being seen by a few locals we felt safe and were soon asleep.
At precisely 12am our sleep was interrupted by the growl of a car and bright headlights shown directly onto us. “Fuck” I said, “I think we’ve been rumbled.” Outside a woman called out to us. I unzipped the tent and spoke with her in fractured French. She wore a police uniform and told us “You cannot stay ‘ere. It is OK, I’m cool. There is OK,” She pointed down a dark track “‘ere is not OK.” She left after I reassured her we would move.
Lisa didn’t say much as we relocated. Most of what was said were curses. I felt bad that I’d put her through this.
Our new camp spot was not so nice, alongside the stream it teemed with insects and creepy crawlies amongst the leaf mold where we had dragged the tent.
The next day, on our way to Arcachon and the giant sand dune at Pyla Sur La Mer, we agreed to camp in designated camping grounds. With showers.
At Le Foret campground, in the shadow of the giant dune, we planned to indulge our appetite for adventure and attempted to sign-up for some paragliding and stand-up paddle boarding. Unfortunately our spontaneity went unrewarded. The paragliding schools were booked solid for months.
Lisa’s SUPing dream was ruined by the surf school policy of only teaching surfing on Wednesdays (the day we visited) “Non, we only teach surfing on Wednesday” the tanned, blonde behind the counter in the beach shack informed us. We looked out over the pancake-flat waters of the bay, ideal SUPing conditions. “No SUPing for you, English dogs!” She said, in my imagination.
From SUPing disappointment to supping bliss in the wine city of Bordeaux. We spent our penultimate day there after a short cycle. Many 2 Euro glasses of wine ensued from Bar a Vin at the heart of the city before a returning via the narrow cobbled streets and plazas teeming with French workers and tourists out for a bite.
With time running out we took a train to Paris to catch the Eurostar back to London. Before we left we spent an evening with Lisa’s Parisian friend, Christine. She met us near the Arc De Triumph, perhaps too near. The iconic arch seemed to wink at us and the danger of cycling in 7 lanes of French driving chaos proved too much to resist. Donning our brown shorts, we went for it.
The heat of the Parisian evening exacerbated the stink of the cars fumes. I felt a tinge of fear as we rode onto the cobbled street. Lisa positioned herself in between Christine, a novice and clearly insane cyclist. She smiled and laughed her way around the white-water flow of cars. Horns blared at us, cars swerved around us with inches of space to spare. I took selfies to preserve the moment, possibly our last.
We finally exited, I couldn’t tell you how far we cycled around the daddy of roundabouts but it was enough for me to feel a buzz of adrenaline. The giant grin on Lisa’s face told me she felt the same rush. Christine merely shrugged and remained impassive.
We returned to London fit, tanned and rested. Lisa preferred camping in the heat to the Arctic tundra of Svalbard. But she remains unconvinced of further camping adventures until I’ve invested in a larger tent with an en suite bathroom, any recommendations gratefully received.