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  • Jamie Shannon

Basque Country and entering the Spanish interior. Coastal roads and intense heat.

Setting off today meant a continuation of the climb I had started when I arrived in San Sebastian. I’m really not sure if this part makes the whole ordeal worth it but it’s always good fun either way. This, including large dual carriageways and the like are really the only times I feel the need to wear my helmet too as the traffic is usually very light on the roads I was now using.

The weather, as has been the case for the past three or four days, was both hot and humid and nearly always cloudy though, this being a very mountainous region. Indeed, before I arrived, I had an image of Spain in my mind. This consisted of wide open plateaus, dotted with olive groves and medieval villages with sun lit hills forming the backdrop. I really couldn’t have been more wrong. I didn’t expect the north at least to be this hilly, humid with an almost tropical feeling. People have told me that it almost always rains across the northern part of the country and that the regions along it consist mostly of mountainous terrain. I had wanted to cycle along the northern part before turning south towards Portugal but I wasn’t so sure this was going to happen now.

When I reached the bottom, and came out from the coast to join the main highway, a car pulled over and a man, whom spoke excellent English, asked me where I was headed. I replied no particular destination was my direction but probably west if I had to be precise. He told me which towns to head for, only one of them being written on my map. I thanked him, said Spain was beautiful and got back on my way. Help everywhere I went was the overriding story of this trip I thought.

I spent the next few hours slowly making my way along the beautiful Basque coast dotted with small fishing towns and ports including Zarautz, Getaria and Zumaia. I stopped for a while in Zarautz to find a supermarket which turned out to be much cheaper than I thought possible. An old man kept staring at me in the queue but then turned away when I saw he was looking at me. He then proceeded to stare at me again and so I stared at him until he moved his eyes in another direction. This was becoming ever more common; maybe it was the bedraggled look I had or perhaps that my clothes weren’t the cleanest but this thing was getting a little tiresome.

The road throughout the day became one steep climb followed by one long decent after another. I was thoroughly exhausted. I thought that I couldn’t possibly do this all along the coast. If I did, and apart from being absolutely shattered, I wouldn’t make it to Portugal for another two weeks. With this thought, at Deba, I decided to turn south and hoped for the best. As it happened, I couldn’t have made a better decision. The highway followed a river through the stunning valleys for the remainder of the afternoon and thus, my legs were saved.

I stopped for a couple of hours in Elgoibar to have a beer and to use the internet. The town square where the bar was located was full of families sat on the terraces, drinking wine and munching tapas. It was a very lively place and very different from the towns of France which were, for the most part practically deserted.

What with the entire region being extremely mountainous, there were very few places in which to camp. I managed to find a dis-used factory site and some wasteland at the end of it that looked, if not ideal, then suitable enough for my simple needs.

As it grew darker and I began putting up my tent, I found the ground, under the top soil to be completely covered in concrete and didn’t know how I was going to erect my tent on it. In the end, after putting up the two central arches, I managed to pull the two ends taught with my bungee cords connected to my bike, using my bags on the inside to hold down the inner fly sheet. It worked reasonably well actually.

When I woke up, and as I was packing my stuff away, I found I was missing fifteen euro’s from my handlebar bag. I was quite angry with myself as I had lost a toothbrush and another pair of shades one or two days before and so I resolved to find it. I backtracked a little and, low and behold, there it was, lying on the ground just waiting to be scooped up. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was thus mightily pleased to have found it.

I made my way through the valleys that typify the Basque county and towards its capital, Vitoria, the sky becoming ever more blue as the day went on. I really can’t emphasize just how beautiful the landscape was. It was, at times breath-taking.

After Arrasate, the highway began to climb here and there and I resigned myself to my fate of hauling the bicycle up these steep hills before strapping on my helmet, turning up the volume of my music and enjoying the descents. With the weather positively beautiful now, I was really enjoying Spain.

Nearing Vitoria, and wanting to stick to the smaller roads, I made my way up a slight incline and into the hills of the surrounding area. If I had known what was to follow, I probably would have taken the main highway. I don’t know how long the climb went on for and I don’t know how steep it was. I only know that it was nearly as difficult as the one up to my campsite back in San Sebastian. It wasn’t that it was really steep, it was simply that it just went on and on and on. Around every bend, there was another turning and after every sign that indicated you to slow down, which there were many, was another sign of the same sort indicating you to slow down some more. It seemed like it would go on forever. It was tiring beyond belief.

Coming out of the high, forested area that I had been cycling through the previous few days was like a breath of fresh air; the deeply cut, forested valleys now gave way to spectacular sun drenched plains as far as the eye could see. When I envisioned Spain before I arrived, this was indeed the image I had in mind.

The small road I was travelling on gave way to larger dual carriageways as it headed towards the Basque capital.

I didn’t stay in the city too long, just enough to have a look around and relax under the beaming sun for a while. I nipped in a supermarket to grab a beer and a huge tub of ice cream which I devoured feverishly whilst sat in the park. With my belly full to bursting, I headed south out of the city before finding the National highway that led towards Miranda.

Coming out of a village just north of Miranda, I happened upon a small gravel road where I was assured by two people that it joined back up with the highway at its end. I thus. carried on cycling down it until it came to an abrupt end at some bushes, with a railway line running beside it. Two other people then indicated that it was okay to cross over the tracks to where the road lay on the other side. I wasn’t particularly fond of this idea and its certainly not one that’s used very thoroughly back in the UK but, when in Rome, I guess. I had to take everything off my bike and ferry it across the tracks in four trips, making sure at the same time, that I couldn’t hear the distant rumble of a train.

Safely across, I carried on a little longer and found a forested area on the right with a pretty open space within in which to camp. Flat, quiet, safe and secure and with a river running beside it, It was the perfect place for me and hoped it would continue well into the future.

I was heading into the Rioja region the following morning and thus I knew It was going to be hot however I was simply not prepared for the overwhelming ferocity of the heat. It simply took my breath away. The scenery all the way into Haro was quite spectacular with sheer cliffs rising above the highway and a river that ran below it. I spent some time in Haro, walking around the old town and stocking up on some food, water and the like.

Towards Santo Domingo de la Calzada, the landscape became quite hilly and the air grew hotter and hotter until I could simply cycle no more. The wind was non existent which is usually a good thing but today, I was actually praying for it to return. My mouth began to feel like a desert with the dry air sapping away any moisture that my water left. The heat sapped away my energy too so in the end, even the slightest incline became torturous. There was also no shade to be found anywhere; no trees, farmsteads or shelters of any kind. The land was scorched and barren and I thought I might not be able to handle Spain if it continues like this.

I did find some respite from the heat under a bridge where I sat for an hour or so to gather my thoughts on what looked like an increasingly unlikely prospect of my making it to Portugal. It was my intention to cycle in a south easterly direction towards the city of Segovia but the thought of crossing further into Spain’s interior seemed like suicide. I thus decided to give Segovia a miss and instead head directly west towards Burgos.

With my newly hatched plan, I set off again along the main highway now in the direction of Burgos, hoping beyond hope that it was a relatively smooth and flat road. It wasn’t. The whole of this region consisted mainly of rolling hills and is covered in farmland used mostly, it seemed for the harvest of grain. I saw no animals at all. If I could make it to perhaps Belorado, I would be happy I thought, and so I just put my head down and cycled on, watching carefully for the thunderous trucks that continuously plied the highway.

Eventually, I came to a winding section of the highway that made its way up to the Castilla y Leon plains. There was a sign indicating an 8% climb and this filled me with dread. Why did it have to come now at 9 pm when I was already exhausted and simply wanted to find somewhere to camp. No one answered my question but it was a rhetorical one anyway. I ploughed on, insisting to myself that when the first opportunity of a possible campsite arose, I would take it unequivocally.

Near the top, and as it grew darker and darker, I spotted a place to camp; quite discreet and secure. The only problem being that I had to haul everything up two fairly steep ridges in order to get to the top. In the end it was worth the effort. It was at times like these (good song by the way) that I was very happy I had invested in an inflatable mattress.

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