Basque Country – Spain & France

A few days away…and once again trying to chase the sunshine!  Not easy to guarantee during a period of Spain’s infamous South Wind.  The south wind is strong, warm, often bringing lovely clear skies and stunning sunsets, but also sporadic heavy rain and showers, and did I say it’s really strong?!  It regularly appears in autumn up north in an effort to strip all the trees of their leaves – sometimes doing so before they have a chance to get their beautiful autumn colours, but not so this year – and we were determined to find some lovely autumn woods and try and get some nice relaxing walking in.  Our initial plan was to head towards the Basque Country, inland as the sea was too rough for surfing, and the across into France (mainly to stock up on cheese and cheaper organic produce in the supermarkets!).

Day 1

We started off heading towards Bilbao, and on to Durango, where we cut off the motorway south towards our first stop, the Parque Natural de Urkiola.  We’d read about this area on van forums, and had a far glimpse of the tempting peaks here from the motorway – it looked pretty special, and it was!  Starting by climbing up through the park with the peaks around us and the trees indeed displaying some beautiful autumn colours.

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We parked up at the Urkiola pass, where there is the Santuario de Urkiola, various restaurants, a visitor’s centre and a 3 tiered nearly flat car park.

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There are lots of walking options from the pass, the Toki Alai visitor’s centre has details of all as does this website with PDF downloads and there are various information panels around too.  We decided to try the first half of the PR BI 80.  It was a good choice as a starter walk, taking us up past the visitor’s centre (closed at this point) up a good track with stunning views to the coast.

Further up through the beech and pine woods, we then reached the top of Saibi hill with fabulous 360º views in all directions from its windy cross.  Which, it turns out, is a memorial, as this hill’s strategic position meant it was trenched and bombed extensively during the civil war – the scars and craters of which are still clearly visible today.

The way back down took in more lovely views, pine woods and lots of red berried holly trees.

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We stopped into the then open visitor’s centre (which also had toilets), which had some interesting displays and a very helpful guide.

We then paid a quick visit to the Santuario, which had some unusual stained glass, before heading back to Berta and enjoying some lunch.

Note to selves, it gets dark early now!  As we’d started walking late, and had a late lunch, it was pretty much dusk by the time we actually left Urikola, so we decided to head straight to our overnight stop – Oñati.

Oñati is right in the heart of the Basque Country, and is very Basque!  It has a great AC area, very well prepared, plenty of space, and good services – BUT it’s also very exposed to the south wind!  We parked up, and decided we’d stick it out as a couple of others were too – it was rocky, but there was no precipice to fall off.

That evening we walked the 300m or so into town (downhill on the way…uphill on the way back), which was bustling – all the bars packed!  We had a beer, and walked around the main square, the impressive looking church and past Spain’s first Catholic university.

And yes, we had a very windy night.  Oh, and typically THAT was the night the gas bottle ran out at 1.20am…yes we have a second, but no, neither of us was getting up in that wind to change it!  The contents of the fridge just about survived…

Day 2

The next morning, the wind was still up, but when we opened the curtains – wow there was a view too!  Just behind the area is a huge hill, beautiful covered in autumn colours, what a sight!

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And it tempted us…rather than going straight on east as our plan had been, we decided to check out some walking up in that direction instead, at Arantzazu.  If this means anything to anyone, this is basically like the Basque Covadonga (Asturias) – a HUGE basilica on the edge of a mountain – it holds 1200 people!  The buildings themselves are all pretty concrete and ugly, but the setting is stunning – especially at this time of year surrounded by beautiful beech woods.  There’s a small parking area right by the basilica, which at that time of the morning it was easy to park in, but there was also a huge amount of tiered parking, which looked good for overnighting too.

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There are several walks up here, all well signposted and there are details of all of them at the tourist office next to the gift shop.  There are also several restaurants, the gift shop, toilets, etc.  The “classic” walk appeared to be the GI 3006 Senda de Urbia, which takes you up through the woods to a col where there is a restaurant – and can be continued as a circuit.  However, we decided to go for something which would keep us down in the valley where the trees looked more spectacular, and where it was a little more sheltered from the wind, the GI 3005 El Camino Escondido.  After inquiring at the tourist office, the guide there recommended us to do it in reverse, first going down the steep “steps” into the valley bottom, so as not to have to do that at the end – a good bit of advice.  It was a lovely walk, lovely trees, pines, and across a traditional Basque sel – a circular pasture.  Had it been sunny, there would have been a lot of shade for most of the route too.

Post walk we stopped for a drink at one of the bars, and popped our heads into the huge basilica, and the modern painted crypt beneath.

We then did a good bit of driving through some industrial valleys and some impressive Basque villages with their huge caseríos, to find somewhere to have a late lunch stop – and ended up at a Park4Night spot next to a church in a lovely valley bottom in Berastegi.  Parked up in a little flat car park next to the large church, it would have been a good overnight option, and there were a couple of marked walks and their information boards here too.

After lunch dusk once again encroached, and we finished off our drive for the day, heading into Navarra to what we’d heard was a great overnight parking area at Oronoz, at the Parque Natural Señorio de Bertiz.  And it was indeed a perfect place to overnight – large, flat car park, a couple of other vans there, and a short walk into the village which had a couple of bars and basic amenities.

Day 3

After a very quiet night we woke up to lovely autumn leaves on the hill next to the car park – enticing for our walk that morning – and some beautiful yellow leaved trees right out the back window.

The Parque Natural Señorial de Bertiz is an interesting place, with an interesting history, it is actually a huge finca including a visitor’s centre, Jardin Historico (3€ entry), a botanical garden, palace, large kids park, picnic area with BBQ, and toilets.  There are also several options of marked walks through the beech woods, and some interesting things to see along the way too.

We opted for the shortest walk, Irturburua, which took us through the most stunningly coloured beech woods we’d seen so far, lime kilns, charcoal burners and chestnut stores.  And a nice treelined drive back to the van via the small palace.  Oh, and a stop off at the visitor’s centre to see the relief map and get a cheeky ice lolly!

We made a quick stop pre-lunch just a little further on at Elizondo – which turned out to be a nice idea.  We managed some street parking, and wandered along the pretty riverside with some hanging houses to the main square, where we were greeted by Basque music and dancing going on.  We stopped for a drink and pinxo at one of the bars, before wandering back to Berta.

We then continued on up the beautiful Valle de Baztan towards our next stop.  This valley we’ve actually driven up some of before, on our last Basque Country van trip, and there’s a lot to stop off and see and walk here.  This time we were heading firstly to the Cuevas de Urdax, which we’d booked online a few days before.  We got to the flatish car park (totally suitable for an overnight) in time for a quick lunch before our cave visit at 1530.  There’s a little visitor’s centre/shop, some lovely picnic benches, and toilets at the site, and a water fountain which the locals were coming along and filling their plastic bottles at.  We were the only ones on the 1530 visit, so enjoyed a private tour of the caves.  And they’re interesting, tree roots hanging through the ceiling, bats around and about, trout stuck in the river which flows through the cave.  It’s all in Spanish, with automatic lighting and sound, added to by the friendly guide.

After the visit we drove down into the village of Urdax itself, and parked up in front of the monastery (which looked perfectly fine for an overnight too).  We paid a visit to the monastery, which had a good Basque art exhibition in its cloister, and had a wander around the village, which has a couple of nice looking bars/restaurants, and some interesting things to visit, a restored mill, a birds of prey centre, a large tourist office (with info on walks) and possibly an old forge, although we couldn’t quite figure it out (the tourist office was shut by this time).

For our overnight that night, we headed over 5 minutes into France to the village of Espelette, famous for its peppers which can be seen hanging in on the buildlings around town.  Our original plan had actually been to head a further 10 minutes on to Cambo les Bains, where there is a paid AC area, however we then discovered that Espelette had 6 dedicated motorhome spaces in its main car park, for free, so we tried there and got lucky, a couple of free spaces!  Not very flat, but with chocks doable.  And right in the centre of the village.  At this time of year, during the week, everything was pretty much shut up, but we did find a cheese shop open, and one bar, where we enjoyed a drink on the terrace (it was a lovely warm evening).

Day 4

The car park backed on to the main road, so by 7am there was quite a bit of road noise, but that got us up and into the village to pick up some very good croissant at the bakery, and an interesting walk book from the tourist office (De la Nive au littoral basque – 60 balades y randonnees), housed in the curious old marie building.

We decided to try and find a bit more of an interesting place to eat our breakfast, so we headed up to a Park4Night spot which was supposed to have great views.  Just next to an airstrip and war memorial, the views would have indeed been fantastic, but the low cloud rather limited them – a nice spot though all the same (make sure to approach from the main D918 – the road from Espelette is much tighter!).

It’s an interesting area just around here, aside from Urdax and of course Zugarramurdi, Sare is close with La Rhune train, and there’s also Ainhoa, one of the prettiest villages in France, but from what we could see the previous evening, not motorhome friendly, so we left that.  Cambo les Bains is also closeby, with the Villa Arnaga, unfortunately closed this late in the year, but we did make a detour to its AC area to change waters.  It looked like a good stopover, and there are water facilities outside the barrier too, so we could empty and fill (2.50€ for 10 minutes of water) – although the water tap was ANOTHER one we hadn’t encountered before (every time we think we’ve bought all the possible connections needed – still caught out!).

We then used the new walk book to find a little wander to do that morning, and chose a stroll to a Roman Bridge in the nearby town of Larressore, so we parked up there in front of a fronton.  But it turned out that we’d parked outside a rather special place, the Makhila workshop.  We could see something going on through the windows of this small workshop, and went to have a look.  Turns out they make a kind of beautifully carved wooden Basque cane, silver topped and bottomed – and the workshop actually has UNESCO status!  The guy inside was more than happy to explain it all to us and show us some examples – we were too scared to ask how much they cost!  But certainly works of art.

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Inspired by that, we headed off down the road to investigate the Roman Bridge, which didn’t appear to be all that Roman, but was in a nice setting and took us past some lovely Basque houses and through the famous Espelette pepper fields, which was a bonus.

We then stopped for a drink on the main square of the town, where there was also a Casino supermarket and toilets, and walked around the church to admire its traditional Basque circular headstones.

We wanted a nice easy lunch stop next…well…it started out as a good idea, a nice Park4Night spot on the Nive river, looked perfect…but then we used Google maps to navigate us there, and as often happens, we ended up going the “quickest” route, which took us down to the Nive at a different spot, only to find the route along the river to the Park4Night spot was now closed to traffic, and is a bike/walking/access road only.  So, a bit stumped, we managed to park up right on the river bank in a little layby there, and settled for that.  It was actually very pleasant, and after lunch we enjoyed a walk along said path, down to the original car park to check it out (it was a good spot), and back again.

This took us pretty much to dusk once again, so we continued on towards our last overnight – Biarritz.

Biarritz has 3 official AC areas, one we stayed at last December, and was perfectly fine, the Milady site, which is often full (both of those south of the town and I think both 12€ the night), and another site in Anglet-Ocean just north of the town.  We decided to try out this one this time, as it was cheapest (6€ the night incl. services off season), right on the beach, and had good bus connections to the centre (they all do in fact – the no.10 bus connects them all with the centre – 2€ for a 24hr ticket, very easy).

It was dark by the time we got to the area, and we had a little trouble at the barrier, having to ring the help line number to get in (an interesting test for my French, but I did it!).  It’s got interesting reviews this place, it’s not flat, that’s the first thing.  Really not flat in places.  Chocks will help in some instances, but not in others.  It’s large, 66 places I think, but is evidently PACKED during high season.  This was not high season, this was a rainy Monday night in November, so it was pretty much empty, several very large vans taking up several spaces (has a rep for this apparently), and we were able to find a relatively flat spot at the top end.  It’s quiet, feels safe, is RIGHT above the beach (which is lovely and boardwalked) there are restaurants nearby (closed in Nov) and the bus stop is just outside.  Yes, it must be hell in high season, but off season we were very happy.

Day 5

After a quiet night, we had a quick beach walk that grey morning, before getting the bus into Biarritz town centre.

It appeared we had chosen a week when lots of small businesses were closed, so our shopping spree was rather cut short, but we always enjoy wandering around Biarritz and its maze of streets.  It was high seas too, so fun to walk along the seafront round to the old port area.  We headed to our favourite haunt, Le Crepe Dentelle, for lunch for excellent crepe and Breton cider, mmm.

Then we headed back to Berta, and with the obligatory supermarket fill up stop, we headed back homeward into Spain.

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