Ruta del Norte – Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country, Spain

I found this blog sitting in my unpublished drafts so thought I would put it up. This was at the end of a tour we did in the Spring of 2019, before Covid!!, cycling up the Ruta de la Plata from Sevilla. This bit is from La Polar de Lena near Gijon to Bilbao.

For some reason I was under the misapprehension that our first day in Asturias we were going to roll downhill to the sea and the end of the Ruta de la Plata. Well I was definitely wrong there. Heading up away from the busy roads
The motorway rolled down the main valley all the way to the sea. To avoid this and all the endless factories we headed steeply uphills that were usually about 14% or 16% going up and much steeper coming down, about a 200 m climb each time. Although we were going about 6 km each time we had probably only moved along the valley about 3 km when we came down.
I didn’t mind the hills as it was really pretty, you can see the motorway down in the valley
The little alpine villages each had their own characteristic old wooden building up on large stone mushrooms, just the same as we had seen in Ireland. I think this was to protect stored grain etc from vermin.
But after 4 big climbs, with some bits much steeper than others, it began to take its toll on my knees.
The woods were full of these lovely lime green hellebore
We stopped at some benches at the top of one of the hills for a light picnic lunch with a fantastic view of distant mountains.
We eventually got to Oviedo after 50 km, the Capital of the Asturias region, and after getting through the usual ugly outskirts of the city found the lovely old centre and stopped for an after lunch coffee.
We managed one more big climb up the side of the valley then decided to stay down and take the almost deserted old main road that ran along near the motorway. Good decision as we were able to roll the last 20 km into Gijón. As we arrived at the ugly outskirts we could actually see the sea.
Amazing! We had got to the end of the Ruta de la Plata after about 1400 km and cycled about 85% of it off road. It was really only the last few days we have had to cycle on roads and we haven’t seen any walkers on this section.
From now on we will be heading east towards Bilbao on the Camino del Norte, but this time we really will be going along it in the wrong direction.
Leaving Gijon on a misty morning as we turn east along the Camino del Norte. For the last few weeks, since we started cycling north through Spain, we have had a northerly head wind everyday. Not always strong but always there. Today we turned east for the first time and lo and behold the wind today is from the east.
Wonderful misty hills.. Although we are following the Camino del Norte from now onwards the cycle route is mainly on the N632, so no gravel tracks. Its probably just as well as we don’t have long to do the 325 km to Bilbao so we are having to up our daily mileage.
After yesterday’s steep climbs it was pleasant to cycle up gentler gradients while being passed by large pelotons of weekend warriors all desperate to keep up with the one fit guy at the front.

It was nice to get glimpses of the sea from time to time. As cider is so important in Asturias I expected to see lots of apple orchards. We passed one or two fairly small ones, but the trees were overgrown and hadn’t been pruned for a long time. Every bar in the area seems to be a Sidreria though and the locals consume large quantities of cider, even at lunchtime. Hope they aren’t driving.

Pouring the cider in a sideria. They pour all the cider like this, and only about an inch at a time, so the waiter has to keep coming back to pour the next bit. More performance art than waiting.
We arrived at the old fashioned seaside resort town of Ribadesalla in good time for a walk along the promenade!

Our plan to start early the next day was thwarted by the fact that we couldn’t get breakfast until 8.30. With over 90 km to do and my knees still a bit sore from the hills the other day. The road we were on was very quiet and for the first 60 km in the morning it rolls with gentle gradients.

It’s very lush and green with distant views of the snowy peaks of the Picos Mountains.
We make good time so are able to partake in the Spanish custom of taking a minimum of 2 hours over lunch between 2 and 4 p.m. followed by a large ice-cream before setting off for the final 30 km of the day. Of course the hills got bigger and steeper after lunch or did I just eat too much.

About midday we left Asturias and entered Cantabria. There is quite a noticeable difference between the towns and villages here on the coast, which are all occupied and well maintained, and those in Extremadura and Castilla y León which are dilapidated and often deserted with all the inhabitants over 80.

After climbing the biggest hill of the day we dropped down into an incredible time warp village of Santillana del Mar.
On closer inspection it was full of tourists, hotels and cafes, but it is still very pretty and we are staying the night here. We just had time to explore before it got dark.
Santillana del Mar was so well restored that I was surprised when told that each house has been restored from ruins individually by separate owners and not as a joint venture. Unusually for Spain they have also managed to keep most cars out as other old towns we have stayed in have been a nightmare of cars roaring deafeningly over the cobbled streets.
We passed Santander as quickly as possible. It definitely looks better from a distance!

I knew that our last day was going to be tough as it was a long old haul into Bilbao but I hadn’t reckoned on the number and sheer height of the hills, the really strong headwind or, towards the end, the volume of traffic. At the end we found something I didn’t think existed, the perfect cycle path. We were on it for about 18 km going into Bilbao. It was a wide two lane cycle way, with directional lines, with a separate marked, wide area for pedestrians. And signs to say pedestrians would be prosecuted if their dogs were not kept on a lead. The really good surface made it suitable for roadies and we had flyovers, bridges and embankments to save us going up and down, bike roundabouts and junctions. I have never seen anything like it.

We left Noja following the Camino on little country lanes. That was nice while it lasted, if a bit steep.
One of the last old towns we passed before the busy run into Bilbao started
The roads slowly got bigger and busier as the day went on. The coast here is fantastic and the steepness of the green, rugged hills adds to the beauty of the area.
The countryside was lovely before it disappeared under tarmac and concrete

Unfortunately the motorway also follows the coast and was never far away. The motorway stayed fairly flat while our road dropped down far below it or climbed high above it. And in fact some of the motorway bridges where quite dramatic in their own way.

I was getting really tired, headwinds are really draining, and the increasing roar of the traffic was really getting to me when Bernie announced that we were turning off on to the wonderful cycle way I mentioned. As soon as we turned off the road the constant roaring in my head stopped and we could hear the birds singing. Peace! We were on this for over 18 km

Then an incredible thing happened. I am sure I heard drums roll and distant laughter in the heavens; the wind changed and we had a tail wind for the first time on this trip.

Unfortunately after 18 km of the cycle way we had to do a bit on the road as we couldn’t find the joining path and somehow we ended up on an inner city dual carriageway that dropped down in to a short tunnel. Terrifying is putting it mildly, we just had to keep peddling as fast as we could, there was no shoulder and we didn’t even have our back lights on. I could hear a roar, like a train, coming up behind me and I didn’t dare take my eyes off the road to glance in my mirror but thankfully the truck was in another lane as it hammered passed.

Arriving exhausted in Bilbao. We were back on the cycle way drifting past the Guggenheim and other weird large things. I collapsed in to the first cafe I saw and just sat in the sun.
In my tired state, as we cycled under this, it seemed as if it was moving
looking up through all the curves inside the Guggenheim

We had a relaxed morning rearranging the panniers so the right things would go in the aircraft hold and we wouldn’t end up carrying any tools in our hand luggage by mistake.

We had opted for the slightly longer, busier but not so steep route to the airport. We had cycle tracks to start which we intermittently lost and found again later. This always happens in cities as you never know where they are going. They sign roads why not cycle ways?
Then for a short while, as we climbed, we were out in the countryside with the sound of birds singing and cowbells. I am going to miss the bells.
Before long we were heading down a quiet dual carriageway and entering the airport.. You can literally cycle in the front doors of Bilbao airport
We had the two plastic bike bags strapped to the back of Bernies bike so it didn’t take long to take off the peddles, let the tyres down and twist the handle bars around, then tape on anything loose. Our bikes are steel and have Rholoff hubs so not much to damage.
Two of the panniers go through as hold luggage and the other two we carry on as hand luggage with our helmets in small backpacks.

All went on without a hitch and our bikes and bags were almost the first off in Bristol. And amazingly it was also sunny in England!

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