Mountain Biking the Basque Coast of Northern Spain
With all the great places in the World to ride, it’s tough to choose where to go for a mountain bike vacation. The North Atlantic Basque Coast adjoining Spain and France is known to Canadians as home to tough-as-nails Basque fishermen who come to the Newfoundland coast to steal cod.
The Basque do very well in road-cycling suffer-fests so our hopes were high for the quality of trails here, and we were not disappointed. The trails we rode certainly reflect the care of people who treasure their homeland.
Over the course of our rides along the coast, we rode three distinct areas: local trails near Irun, the Artikutza Natural Park, and a coastal trail between Hondarribia and San Sebastian. The biological and geological diversity of the Basque Country itself is remarkable, with each region hosting a different industry, including fishing, farming, manufacturing, and parks.
Our trusty shuttle perched on a roadside as a North Atlantic storm descends.
Our first day involved riding some local trails around Irun, a town just south of the coast and a little inland of the Spanish towns of Hondarribia, and it’s French neighbor, Hendaye.
Once you leave the coast the mountains pitch upward. Irun itself is on an east-west valley. North of Irun is one set of mountains rising to approximately 400m above sea level. South of Irun are ridges and another set of mountains rising up 800m. These mountains and ridgelines are honeycombed with trails and forests. Irun is a logistics center between France and Spain. It was also an important battleground during the Peninsular Wars of the 1800s and the focal point of many invasions from the north and south. If you ride bikes here, you’re riding through a lot of history.
Photo: Wayne Bernkoff.
Steve chasing Lee.
The trails around Irun are signed. However, the network is convoluted and it is not easy to find the best parts without local knowledge. We were lucky to have Borja of BasqueMTB lead us around, especially when the hail and snow started pelting down.
Calm before the storm.
The Storm brought hail and refreshed the trails for our Shore-tech skills. Borja was competent at slippery roots!
Riding through some old tunnels.
Irun trails and elevation profile.
After a nice soaker of a ride, we were back in the comfort of our hotel at Bista Eder in Hondarribia. That evening we walked into Hondarribia which has elevators and an escalator in the city to navigate the steep hills.
An escalator that will take you back up for stair gaps!
We had planned to do this ride with an uplift to the ridge just above Hondarribia/Hendaye following the St. James coastal trail (aka Camino del Norte) west and ending at San Sebastian. However, Mother Nature had other ideas. As Igor of BasqueMTB joined us for the ride he looked a bit concerned about the weather. We reassured him, “we are Canadians used to the cold.” Igor then opened the door of the van so we could experience the 60-knot winds blowing stiff sheets of rain across the east-west ridgeline.
Luckily the ride started with a climb so we could get warm. The winds really started picking up as we crested the ridge, blowing us downhill.
On a very dark ridgeline.
We take shelter in a tower before dropping off the ridge back toward the coast. Here the BasqueMTB van kindly waited in case anyone wanted to bail.
In the trees escaping the rain.
A break in the storm as we leave the shelter of the trees and start the small climb to the coastal headwalls.
The Basque Country creates exceptionally tough mariners and this coastal scene is a reminder why.
We bailed halfway on the coastal trail. The weather deteriorated into an epic coastal storm strong enough to blow garbage bins and dumpsters away.
After drying out and regaining feeling in our frozen limbs we wandered around town. This was our dinner in Hondarribia at another Tapas bar.
Artikutza and the Camino del Norte coastal trail
Conditions dried out somewhat for the third day, but it certainly started out with a chill in the air. There was so much chill that there was still snow on the trails.
Igor accompanied us once again. He grew up in nearby Oiartzun which made him an excellent guide for our ride in the Artikutza Natural Park. The park is protected as it provides water to the town of San Sebastian and surrounding areas. Since access is restricted, you need a permit to recreate is some areas, and this must be arranged in advance. Fortunately, our local guide set everything up for us.
Artikutza links up to a network of natural tunnels and micro-ridges forming fun, earthen-banked leafy slalom trails. We then got another uplift to this ethereal emerald green, mossy forested trail leading seamlessly to yet more singletrack descents.
Afterward, we convinced Borja and Igor to let us ride the Hondarribia ridge descent again so we could experience it in weather that wasn’t completely hideous. Bombing down a mountain was a good way to end our Basque costal excursion.
Igor would do fine on North Shore trails.
Snow is soon forgotten as we drop into the natural berms of the lush Basque forest in the Artikutza.
After dropping us at the top and parking the van Borja ran up the trails to escort us down.
The sun broke out in full glory and we dried out our shoes and shorts while Steve found some 1000-year-old stairs to ride.
Now back on the trails again, we headed up to the emerald-green-carpeted forest.
Indescribably beautiful. It’s like a golf course, but with singletrack. So smooth, so fast, so curvy, and so much fun
Then it was down through natural curves that were tight, twisty, and sinuous.
Wayne ending the 2nd lap
Back on Hondarribia ridge, but this time with much better weather.
The Bay of Biscay was much calmer on this day.
The classic BasqueMTB coastal shot.
Our route on Day 3, minus the Coastal trail portion.
Where to Stay
We stayed in the town of Hondarribia at the Bista Eder, a very nice house that operates as a B&B. It has a massive garage with secure bike storage and a bike wash. The house offers a stunning ocean view and is about a 20-minute walk into town where all the restaurants are located.
There is a store nearby as well if you need snacks and don’t want to walk into town. In the main square, there are many Tapas bars. For dinner, we just walked to town, go into one of them, order a couple of Tapas and a Zurito ( little beer), finished eating and went off to the next Tapas. After doing this 2-3 or more times we were full. It was a great way to have dinner!
Back of the Bista Eder. There is a pool, but it was too rainy for us to use it.
Breakfast at Bista Eder.
I love that Spain has these great shoe cleaners. 🙂