Bibao and over the Pyrenees to Pau on the Camino de Santiago – Bikepacking

Of course we had to get to Bilbao first! So we spent two days cycling from the North Devon Coast, up over glorious Exmoor, hard work in hot sunshine but wonderful views, then a soggy wet day splashing across the Somerset Levels and the Mendip Hills to Bristol Airport. In all 183 km and 1700 m of climbing which left our bikes pretty well covered in mud. Luckily the airport hotel had a hosepipe so we gave the bikes a good wash down before packing them in large plastic bags and booking them in for our flight with Easy Jet the evening before our early morning flight.

Setting off from North Devon along the Tarka Trail
Leaving Bideford next to the Torridge River
Views from the top of Exmoor
Cycling along the ridge on the top of Exmoor
Some bits of the climb were steeper than others!
The second day was very wet cycling across the Somerset Levels
We went along miles of muddy towpaths alongside the canals
Swans on the North Drain
Then a climb up the Mendip Hills towards Bristol Airport
Hosing the mud off the bikes before packing
Bikes all packed in plastic bags and all our bikepacking bags in rather flimsy laundry bags.

For a map of our route through Spain click on the link Bilbao to Pau

It was so great to be in Spain again, for many reasons especially how courteous the drivers are. They all slow down and pull out before passing, stop if they think you want to cross the road and no-one drives closer than 1.5 meters. So different from the bullies who drove past us on the way to the airport in the UK. But it’s also nice to see the family time on Sundays. Whole families out for the day, several generations sitting outside in cafes and the children playing.

We thought we would take it easy on our first half day in Spain after our rush to get here, so had plotted a short route to Areatza of about 37 km that avoided main roads. What we hadn’t noticed was the 597 m of very steep climb! I could barely push my bike up the first half but luckily the second half was cyclable. All the while there was a loud thunderstorm rumbling overhead, but it didn’t start to rain until we were nearly at the top.

Once back in the valley, and though some pretty villages we arrived in Areatza. I was pleased with my Spanish when I asked for directions to the hotel from an old man sitting outside a bar. I think his answer might have been more intelligible if he had had his teeth in.

Leaving Bilbao Airport
Nearly halfway up the very steep hill leaving Bilbao
Looking down on Bilbao from whence we came
Nice cycle tracks through the woods
We passed through several small villages
The view from our hotel window in Areatza

The following day we picked up the Vasco Navarro Rail Trail that would take us to Estella Lizarra. It incorporates quite a few tunnels, some 1.5 km long, but unfortunately the important tunnel that is 3 km long and goes under the Col was closed. This meant a steep climb over the top. It was fairly flat with a gravel surface but unfortunately it avoided all the villages which we enjoy cycling through.

Just before arriving at Vitorio Gastiez my front tyre went flat. We are running tubeless and could see no sign of a leak. So we added more gunge sealant but it went down again. Possible problem with the rim tape after flying. It eventually stayed up, but we bought more tape in town incase it happens again.

As it has been so hot we set off at sunrise the following day, and were in lovely open countryside almost immediately. As rail trails go this one was quite varied, and having to cycle up over the Col added interest.

Arriving in Estella Lizarra was quite different. We were now on the Camino de Santiago and the place was heaving with walkers, or Peregrinos, as was our hostel. We were lucky to get a room. Although I am not sure about luck as it was a very noisy place! What was nice were all the bars and the fountain tinkling water in the centre of the square as it was now very hot.

We had a bit of a climb, 8%, to get on the Vasco Navarro Trail
On the Vasco Navarro Trail
The trail took us past but not through the small villages, so no nice cafe stops
View from the Vasco Navarro Trail. The side wind here was so strong we could barely stand up.
Puncture problems coming in to Vitorio Gastiez. The graffiti was everywhere in this town, even over some beautiful old buildings, and people front doors and window shutters.
Vitorio Gastiez
Vitorio Gastiez
Vitoria Gastiez

It was strange setting off on the Camino de Santiago the following day as we are heading in the opposite direction to all the Peregrinos, sort of reverse pilgrims. Also, as the route we are following was made by someone heading to Santiago de Compostela it keeps trying to take us the wrong way down one way streets, of which there are a lot in the small villages.

For the first half of the day the Camino followed an old main road that was not really used anymore. We passed through some lovely old stone villages and at Cirauqui the walkers went over an old Roman Bridge and up steep Roman steps. We decided to cycle around that bit.

After stopping for coffee and pastries we headed off-road onto gravel and stone tracks which wound all over the place, sometimes very steeply. One particular village, Olkotz, had a particularly steep access track with no shade and it was blazing hot with no breeze. My head was really feeling the heat.

We happened to pass through an industrial mining town around lunchtime, and stopped at a restaurant with all the quarry workers. A very noisy place but the food was the best and cheapest we had had so far in Spain.

That evening we were staying high up in a Casa Rural in a tiny, old stone village called Monreal. Beautiful old house on a steep cobbled street, but unfortunately just opposite a church with loud bells ringing every quarter.

Our supper and breakfast were in the only bar in town, where we must have met everyone from the village from babies to grandparents.

Leaving Vitorio Gastiez at dawn
Lots of churches
And misty views
Through woodlands
Climbing over the top of the Col
One of the shorter tunnels
On the Vasco Navarro
It was a relief to arrive at Estella Lizarra on such a hot day. This was out hostel for the night
Leaving Estella Lizarra in the morning
Finding our way out of Estella Lizarra
The old Roman Bridge and steps. Luckily we had decided to go around this bit of the Camino
winding around on the gravel Camino
Distant views
In Monreal looking for our Casa Rural
Finally found our Casa Rural

The next day we were cycling through the nature reserve of the Valle de Ibargoiti where we saw Roe Deer, Eurasian Vultures (Griffons) and Kites. We saw other raptors too that could have been the Short Toe Eagles that live here, but we weren’t sure.

We were on rolling gravel tracks again and could see the Pyrenees silhouetted against the sky in the distance. We were constantly climbing and dropping 200- 300 m on each hill, very wearing against a strong headwind with the forecast rain looming blackly above us. It was just after we had raced down a particularly long, steep hill that Bernie noticed I was no longer carrying the food bag. Must have left it and all our snacks back in Monreal. Bit of a disaster! 2 km before we arrived at Yesa it finally started to rain and the mosquitoes arrived in force. Our hotel was full of workers from the dam, and they had given our room to one of them as he was staying a week. Luckily they had somewhere to put us. We were to meet some of the workers the next day but in less salubrious conditions. It rained heavily all afternoon, so we were glad we had stopped early.

The next day we set off through the puddles not really thinking about what all these dam workers might mean to our route. The dam had been built in the 1950’s by Franco and it had removed the livelihood of the local farming population. Our route went across the bottom of the dam and we didn’t really notice the signs as the track had just got so rough. It wasn’t really until my wheels refused to turn anymore while I was watching Bernie trying to negotiate a lake sized muddy puddle that we realised we couldn’t get through. All our wheels were now seized with a thick mixture of volcanic clay mud and volcanic gravel, just like concrete. We dragged the bikes back up the hill. The watching dam workers thought it was very funny, but the site engineer arrived and told us, in no uncertain terms, to remove ourselves from the site. It took about an hour of scraping our wheels, frames, brakes and shoes before we could move again. Then we sped down the hill spraying mud and stones in all directions. Of course we and our bikes were still covered in mud so it was inevitable that our hotel in Jaca said that we would have to take our bikes up to our room overnight. Bit tricky in the small lift, but it turned out they fitted perfectly in the shower.

The Pyrenees rising in the distance
it was extremely undulating today
Getting a bit stuck in the mud!
concrete like mud and stones
The lake behind the dam
Lava flows of gritty gravel and clay around the lake
The near ghost town of Esco that was abandoned in 1960 after the dam was built except of 4 Shepherds who live variously in the 60 houses that are gradually falling down.
Getting our muddy bike up to our room in the lift
The wheels fitted perfectly in the shower, followed by the bike frames

The next day we had a big climb nearly to the top of the Col on the Pyrenees. We were staying at Candanchu, the last ski resort before the top. It was a climb of 838 m, but felt a lot more. After reassembling the bikes we set off on the rough Camino track for the first half of the climb. It was quite rocky and hard going and also very cold as we were in the shadow of the mountain early on. After chatting to a cyclist we decided to do the second half on the road as it got steeper and rougher higher up.

We went through the really bustling town of Canfranc with its crowded street and full restaurants and somehow expected Candanchu to be the same. In retrospect we should have stopped for lunch in Canfranc. We struggled up the final 6 km on an 8% climb, now in full sun, and finally arrived at a deserted Candanchu. Everywhere here had already shut for the end of the summer season. Our hostel was the only place open and they were shutting the next day. That night they were full of hikers, climbers and cyclists, all hungry, but they only had enough food left in their kitchen for a dreadful supper and a worse breakfast. Meanwhile we hadn’t had lunch and were starving. We ate all our biscuits and apples then went for a walk until 8pm which was supper time.

We left in full sun the next morning and climbed the final 90 m to Somport and the Col. It was also the French border. We raced down the otherside and about halfway down we went back in to mountain shadow and it was instantly freezing. We put our mittens on and should have put our padded jackets on too. After dropping 1500 m we stopped at a cafe and I was so cold I felt really weird.

We warmed up in the cafe for 40 minutes then continued down, now turning back off-road onto the Camino route. This was very pretty taking us over the river and up a steep track covered in wet grass and slick rocks. I suppose I wasn’t really paying attention, as it was so steep I was in bottom gear when my wheels lost traction. I tried to pedal out when my front wheel hit a rock and turned the bike across the hill. I was at 45 degrees now and still clipped in as I fell downhill with quite a thump. Result, bruised lower arm, bruised rib under my shoulder blade and from the side swipe on my helmet a sore neck. I decided to walk up the rest of the hill!

Luckily after that it was all fairly easy with the Camino staying on the small lanes to visit all the village churches on the way down. As it was a Sunday we stopped at Surrance on the way through for a slap up 3 course lunch, just incase. It was easy from there to Oloron-Sainte-Marie and a pleasant hotel.

We only had a short run to Pau the next day where we are taking the day off before the next leg across to Italy. But what it lacked in distance it made up for in steep climbs. Wonderful lush countryside with vineyards and fields of maize and potatoes. Pau has been a stage in the Tour de France many times and is set up for bikes rather than cars.

The first section of the Camino on the climb up the Pyrenees
Visiting the old town of Castiello de Jaca on the way up
It was quite cold in the mountain shadow
A whole hillside of Autumn Crocus or field saffron
Luckily the morning mist had lifted by the time we got up to the top
Getting higher
View of the ski slopes from our bedroom window in Candanchu
The top, crossing in to France
View from the top
Back on the Camino on the way down
Walking for a bit after my fall
Halfway down
Stopping for a big Sunday lunch at the bottom
Heading towards Pau along the valley
Arriving in Pau
Our home in Pau for a couple of days before we head across France towards Italy

The next section of our trip from Pau to Genoa will be up soon. If you have any comments please contact us below.

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