Hendaye/Irun to San Sebastian

Our first ‘day’ of riding. And the worst so far. Due totally to bad planning (or none) on my part…

We caught the bus from Bilbao, Spain, to Hendaye, France, but weren’t aware of any border control, or anything, between the two countries. We arrived in Hendaye about 1100 am and staggered down the hill to the bridge back to Spain, carrying the two bike bags (each loaded to their max for the flight at close to 50 lb each), another equally heavy bag containing gear to be transferred to a couple of our panniers, another couple of panniers already loaded and a small day pack. Ridiculous! I was supposed to have learned last summer the folly of cycling with too much gear. Obviously not.

A nice area, still on the French side of the bridge, allowed uninterrupted rebuilding of the bikes. It shouldn’t have taken long but somehow hours passed as we got our gear sorted. It was a good time to discover items left at home in Canada but, luckily, nothing too critical. (Leaving Canada had been a rush; I had been re-cabling my gears and brakes to make room for the handlebar bag I was using this year. I didn’t start my own packing until we should have been leaving for the airport. No excuses.) Fortunately, the weather cooperated; it wasn’t too hot. But we’d not had time for breakfast in Bilbao. Bev went to the train station cafe and got a couple of sandwiches for our lunch while I fiddled with bits of bike. It was somewhere almost 1600 when we wobbled, already a little drained, across the bridge to France and started looking for our route.


We took a few wrong turns in Irun and it was 1730 before we got to the far side of the city. Realising that making it to San Sebastian this day was no longer possible, I phoned the hostess of the AirBnB place we had booked for the night to tell her that we wouldn’t be arriving. She was concerned that we would not be able to find anywhere to sleep (it’s high-season, on the coast) and told me that we could arrive at any time in the night and, if necessary, we could phone her and she would pick us up in her van so we wouldn’t need to spend a night on the road. Outstanding!

We decided to see how far we could get. (It was only 30 kms; really, how long could it take!). We had missed a critical turn, so did more back-tracking but eventually found ourselves on narrow quiet country lanes climbing steeply. Too steeply for us out of shape oldies with heavy loads to ride so much pushing and cursing (on my part) ensued.


The countryside was pretty, very green and under pasture or treed although it was hard to appreciate as the late-afternoon shadows lengthened. We weren’t sure we were on the right path until I recognised a small one-room roadside church from a picture in a guide I’d seen.


The yellow arrow on the wall, which we’d missed at first, was an indication of the way we should go. But, beware, the arrows generally indicate the way for hiking pilgrims which is not always the same way for cyclists!


Notice another yellow arrow on the wall in front of Bev? We didn’t (not until looking at this photo!)

A passing local, out for an evening constitutional (a term I remember from my childhood in Britain: a walk taken to improve health) pointed us up a steep track (opposite another yellow arrow). This was a major mistake; later re-reading of our guide told us that cyclists should stay on the road. What ensued was a miserable ordeal of pushing our loads up a steep, rutted and muddy track for what seemed like forever, and had my pounding heart trying to climb out of my throat. Eventually, we arrived at the end of the track, weary and sweaty. Bev could still manage a smile, though!


A couple of hours of daylight left, and we were still only a few kilometres from Irun.

There was a pretty church (Sanctuario de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe) where we rejoined the road and an abundance of cyclists – roadies, for the most part, out for a hill climb before bed (a more high-tech constitutional). We alternately pedaled and pushed our way up and over Jaizquibel Mountain as the unladen riders passed us with a friendy ‘Bueno Camino.’ They were not flashing by, either, despite their light machines and serious cycling apparel, so it must actually have been steep. They certainly were moving quickly when they came back downhill.


It was really quite beautiful, cows and horses in the fields, views over the Atlantic, clean air. In our rushed and weary state, it was hard to fully appreciate the splendour around us but we did arrive at the high point just around sunset. On some of the following slightly downhill sections, I was still having to pedal while Bev coasted. My rear brake was holding me back (and hadn’t helped at all on the uphill) so a quick adjustment to cable with vise-grips and hex wrench reduced the efficacy of the brake but assisted forward progress.

It was dark when we reached the bottom of the hill and turned left to Lezo. We should have turned right, I think, to where a little ferry would take us across the bay, but it was unlikely to be running at 2230 so we followed the road signs towards San Sebastian. Busy roads and a narrow shoulder was nerve-wracking so we tried, unsuccessfully, to phone for a rescue to our AirBnB host. We carried on, alternately riding for a while and trying the phone again. It looked like we were destined to ride all the way to San Sebastian anyway. Until, that is, our route joined a more major highway and we were stopped by the ‘no cyclists or pedestrian’ signs (next to the sign that said San Sebastian was only 5 km). Damn!

This time the phone worked. Phew! Rescue arrived in the form of a small van (with room for only one bike) driven by our hostess’ husband. He spoke no English so we would call our hostess in English, she would call her husband, then call me back. All to communicate with the man standing in front of me – quite humorous really. It was at first suggested that Bev and I follow the van on a cyclable route but I thought it would probably take longer than two separate trips so off Bev and her bike disappeared, leaving me at the side of the highway at midnight to ponder the self-imposed folly of the day.

A lot of effort for 24 km (according to my Garmin).

As luck would have it, our AirBnB (fully-booked for the next night) was only a few steps from an albergue (an inexpensive dormitory-style accommodation for ‘qualified’ camino pilgrims – those having a credential passport stamped for progress along the way) so we decided on a recovery day (I suspect there will be many of these until we get our legs), sleeping away the morning and wandering around San Sebastian in the late afternoon after securing a place in the albergue.


60 bunks, full by closing time at 2200 hrs.


Lots of churches, crowded beaches, Spanish holidaymakers. Chattering people hanging out in squares. General feeling of bonhomie.




Back on the bikes tomorrow!



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