This cycling trip was similar to the one we did in Tuscany except that the tour company was a bit of a risk, we just pulled it off the web. It is called Iberocycle and ended up working out really well. It is run by a British guy, Simon, who now lives in Northern Spain and does cycling trips throughout Spain. It was really well organized and the routes were great, always on nice quiet side roads with beautiful scenery. This part of Spain is definitely off the beaten track, very back woodsy. There were few tourists and very little English was spoken in the hotels or restaurants. Made it a bit challenging but we managed!
We got picked up in Bilbao and driven to our first stop, Santillana Del Mar, a little village west of Bilbao (and not really on the coast despite the name). It has been called one of the prettiest villages in Spain and it was very picturesque, all golden stone buildings and cobblestone streets. Apparently it looks pretty much the same as it did in the 15th century. We stayed in a very charming ¨Posada¨, basically a B&B in a restored stone house with wood beams. Our bikes were waiting for us as well as a book with detailed descriptions on how to get from place to place and a history of the area. We did the navigating and someone from Iberocycle moved our bags for us.
Our first stop outside of Santillana was the Altimira Cave Museum. The nearby cave contains some of the best prehistoric cave paintings in the world, dating back to around 16,000 BC. The caves themselves are closed to the public in order to preserve them but the museum contains a really well done replica of the cave and the paintings. The paintings are mostly of the bison that roamed the area in 16000 BC. It was really interesting - well worth the side trip.
From there we rode on quiet back roads through the Cantabrian countryside and along the coast. We had no idea the scenery would be so beautiful! It is very green (definitely a bit of rain falls but luckily not on us), the area is mostly agricultural with dairy cattle, sheep and horses grazing in the hilly pastures. The Atlantic coast is a mixture of steep cliffs and beautiful white sand beaches. The villages all have pretty stone houses (although there are also a few huge mansions with amazing coastal views). Our first day of riding was a very pleasant 40 Km ride to the fishing village/beach resort of San Vincente d la Barquera. We stayed in a very 70's hotel on the beach. A bit old fashioned but with great views of the beach and village. Being a fishing village, seafood was the specialty and we had a couple of excellent seafood meals. We stayed 2 nights and did a hilly 40 Km day trip on the second day. It threatened to rain but we got lucky and headed back to the sunny coast in time.
Next stop was the mountain village of Potes. Our ride from San Vincente was spectacular. It started by following roads along the coast before turning inland towards the Picos de Europa mountains. The weather was perfect and we had a great 60 Km ride. Considering that we were riding through the mountains, it was surprisingly easy. There were a few short climbs but nothing difficult. The last 30 Km of the ride were through La Hermida gorge, a narrow road running beside a pretty river with 600m high cliffs on either side that opened up occasionally for great views. There as very little traffic on the road and we arrived quickly in the pretty town of Potes, the main tourist centre in the Eastern part of the Picos de Europa. It lies at the convergence of 4 river valleys and has many stone bridges crossing the river. We took a day off from riding and did a hike in the Picos de Europa. We took a taxi to a place called Fuente De where a cable car took us up to 1834m. From there we did a great 17km hike that went from rugged limestone peaks down to grassy meadows and finally through beech tree forests to an elevation of 1078m. Then back up 200m to the starting point at the cable car where a cerveza waited for us. The weather was again perfect, no wind, sunny and blue skies so we had an excellent day. Apparently this area is one of the last areas in Europe where there are wild bears and wolves but the only wildlife we saw were the cows, sheep and horses grazing in the grassy meadows we hiked through.
The next day Simon picked us up and drove us to the top of a mountain and we had another spectacular ride down through a river valley to the sea. Not much effort required that day, 23km down and 20km flat took us to the small town of Somo, on the coast across a bay from the capital city of Cantabria, Santander. Had another excellent seafood meal there, complete with colourful chef which reminded us of our experience at Il Pirata in Montorosso, Italy (both because of the colourful chef and the delicious lobster we ate!). Our last day of cycling was just a short 19km spin by the local beaches. The beaches are beautiful white sand but the Atlantic looked a bit chilly for us.
Next stop is the south coast of Spain and the town of Nerja on the (hopefully warmer) Mediterranean Sea.
More photos to come later. Just about out of internet time for now!