Where: The Basque coast stretches from the city of Biarritz, in northern France, across to Bilbao, in northern Spain. On this trip we visited the city of Bilbao and then the area around Bermeo.
When: November 2017
Why: This was a weekend get-away from Pamplona and a birthday trip for my love.
Most people when they think of Spain think of the stereotypes of Andalusia: hot, dusty plains, craggy mountains, calm blue seas with crowded, white sandy beaches, sunshine and sparkles. The reality is that much of Spain is actually quite wet and wild, more akin to Cornwall or Scotland than to the Mediterranean beaches. Nowhere is this more so than the wild, Basque coast.
This beautiful area, located around the cities of San Sebastien and Bilbao, is as wonderful and unique as any of the treasures found in Southern Spain. This landscape is wild and raw, with craggy mountains, cliffs and rocks battered by the ocean, interesting weathers of fogs, storms and sunshine. This is a dynamic, lush landscape full of natural wonders, good food, interesting culture, hidden beaches, small islands and lots of things to see, do and explore.
There’s so many hidden places on this coast and so many interesting unique things to see and do that I just want to go back again and again – and thanks to the convenient Euskatren network, whose little trains potter around this coast, I can get back quite easily.
For us, the Basque coast is just on our doorstep, so can be our weekend playground. But even for those further away, I would still recommend a trip to see this area. With many flights to Bilbao from UK airports, and good bus and train connections, this interesting coast is well-connected and easy to navigate.
Just don’t expect sunshine and sangria.
Getting here and getting around
For our trip, we hired a lovely little car (a Citroen Desire) from Europcar in Pamplona. A weekend’s hire with full insurance cost about 70€.
Getting around this area on public transport is not too difficult as the towns and villages are connected by bus and by the lovely Euskatren service. The Euskatren trains are small, commuter-like trains that run around the Basque area – around San Sebastien and Bilbao.
There was a station in Mundaka and in Bermeo. Bermeo is the end-of-the-line for the train that runs from Bilbao to Guernika, then up the Oka Estuary to Bermeo. I know the trains run from around 6 a.m., even on a Sunday, as the line ran right past our hotel and I was awake to hear them pootle past. The line in our area was really dramatic: it was high on the cliff face and zoomed along the coast on viaducts and high rails.
I would love to explore this area of the coast on these small trains, and I have plans to ride these rails with my tent in the summer.
You can find a map of the Euskatren network here and get times and ticket prices here.
Bus information for this area of the coast is mostly embedded into Google maps, though I did find some services missing. Bizkai Bus runs the buses in this area. Their website is in Spanish and is really not user-friendly, but you can get route and time information here.
For those coming from the UK the nearest airport is in Bilbao, which has flights to London, Bristol, Edinburgh and Manchester. Bilbao airport has a good bus shuttle which takes about an hour to get to the centre of town (You can’t buy tickets on the shuttle bus at the airport; you have to buy your tickets from the booth inside the arrivals hall, next to where the shuttle bus departs from, and they don’t take cards – cash only).
Another option is to fly into Biarritz in France and to then get a direct bus from the airport to San Sebastien.
What we did on our holiday
It sounds silly, but this was a major focus of our trip. We needed furniture and the Ikea in Pamplona is not a proper Ikea, so we jumped into the car and went to the big one in Bilbao. I loved it! I know globalisation is bad, but it was such as comforting, familiar experience. The products were the same, the food court pretty similar (though it did have its own unique Spanish options). It had the Swedish meatballs. It was great.
Yeah, it’s not a tourist attraction – but it was still what we did on our holiday.
Bilbao Transporter Bridge / Vizcaya Bridge / Puente Colgante (UNESCO)
Vizcaya Bridge is a transporter bridge. It was the first transporter bridge ever built, being constructed in 1893. There were only 23 of these strange bridges made and now only twelve left in use. The transporter bridges have an outside metal frame, high above the river, then cars drive onto a platform which hangs from the bridge frame. Cars and passengers are then floated across the river to the other side. This allows big ships to pass under the bridge, without having to have cars get up to a great height to get over the river.
Two of the transporter bridges were built near to where my dad grew up in Warrington and my nan used to have a model of the transporter bridge in her house – so I really wanted to go see one. There are also famous transporter bridges in Middlesbrough and Newport, Wales. Wikipedia has more information about the bridges.
Puente Colgante connects the Bilbao districts of Portugalete and Getxo. In Portugalete we drove up a short street where we had to park to wait for the platform to come to us. Jeff jumped out of the car to try to buy a ticket, but the ticket machine wouldn’t accept notes or cards and he didn’t have any change. There were a queue of cars behind us and we were a bit worried about not having a ticket to go onto the bridge and there was nowhere that we could turn around. Luckily, there was a ticket lady on the platform who took notes and who had a card reader. She came to the car and sold us a ticket directly.
Being on the bridge, especially in a car, was really strange as we were moving in the car, but not driving. It was a very smooth crossing and it took about three minutes. We were at the front of the platform and I did wonder if anyone has ever rolled off.
If you’d like to visit the bridge as a tourist attraction you can get out and walk across the frame at the top. There is also a very nice restaurant. A visit where you walk across the top and then come back on the gondola platform is 10€.
A ticket for a car is 1.55€ and it’s 40c per passenger – a bargain price to experience a World Heritage wonder.
You can fins opening times at the website: puente-colgante.com
Mundaka and the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve (UNESCO)
I love looking at maps and I love looking at maps of the Basque Coast. I love looking at all the inlets and bays, the estuaries and islands – wondering what is hidden away there. When I was planning this trip for Jeff, I really could have booked for us to stay in any of the towns along the stretch of coast between Bilbao and San Sebastien, but I chose for us to stay in the village of Mundaka as it is located on the estuary of the River Oka, which is a UNESCO world heritage protected biosphere.
Mundaka is a famous destination for surfing. Although it can be very cold here, this coast is very good for surfing as it is on the Atlantic ocean and so there can be great surfing waves. (More information on surfing in Mundaka can be found here).
Mundaka village itself is a pretty village made up of a tangle of medieval houses and new estates. It is based around the port and has a couple of bars and supermarkets (and a chorizo vending machine, which I found hilarious).
I went to explore Mundaka on the Sunday morning and I had a nice hour explore. I started off by having a paddle in the sea and a look at the interesting rocks on Laidatxu Beach. Laidatxu Beach is an orange sandy beach at the end of the town, with a viaduct on the cliffs up above it. A stream empties into the sea here. I think the rocks here are volcanic and you can see the layers in the rock where lava hardened. They’re really interesting and they are what makes this coast unique.
I then walked through the village, past some cool playgrounds, around the coast to the church of St Mary’s, which overlooks the estuary. I spent some time looking at sea-birds and breathing in the fresh sea-air. I then wandered past the port and across to the headland where the Chapel of Santa Catalina sits on a lonely headland.
Santa Catalina is a beautiful chapel, partly because of it’s exposed location, overlooking the sea, but also because of its interesting interior. This is a fisherman’s chapel: it looks out to sea, the font is a huge conch shell and there are wooden fishing boats hanging from the ceiling. Although I couldn’t go inside as it was locked, I was able to look in through the window. Mary was spot-lit by the sun. It was so simple and earthly and real.
I then wandered back through the village, stopping at the supermarkets to buy breakfast – and then it was on with our day.
We didn’t properly explore the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve as we didn’t have time. We could have gone to the bird centre, which is further inland towards Gernika. www.birdcenter.org.
Euskadi Tourism has a lot more information about the area, including information about the reserve. Wiki has a page about Mundaka.
Dragonstone / St Jean de Gaztelugatxe
The focus of our visit was San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. SJdG is a really cool island, close to the town of Bermeo. It has a double natural arch, is topped by an ancient hermitage and it has a wonderful causeway path to get across to it. It is more famously known as Dragonstone now, as it featured in Game of Thrones.
To get to SJdG we had to drive around the coast and then walk there from car parks up at the top of the cliffs. There was a restaurant by the car park, an information centre and lots of space for cars – though I suspect they may run out of room in the summer. We went on a random weekend in November and it was still really busy.
There were two paths to get down to the island: the steep, quick one and the long, slow one. We took the quick, steep path to get to the island and we found that we had to go quite slow, as the path was quite crumbly and rocky. There were occasional handrails, but it was still quieter a rough path and wouldn’t be suitable for anyone who has difficulty walking. We walked back on the road and though this route took a much longer time, it was a much safer, gentler walk. It took us about 20 minutes to walk to the island and an hour to walk back to the car after.
Down by the causeway path there were some very smelly public-toilets and a drinking fountain.
What I loved here were the rocks. I love the layers and the patterns, the grooves in the stone that go from the land out into the sea. The water here was crystal clear and inviting – even in the autumn.
To get up to the monastery you have to cross the causeway and walk up 240 steps. At the base of the staircase a footprint has been embedded into the rock. It is said that if you put your foot into this footprint you won’t get blisters on your feet for the next year. Something I can currently attest to not be true. It is also said the footprint belonged to a giant who climbed the hill in three great steps.
The pathway was tough going but there were lots of rest stops. It was also really busy with tourists and I can imagine that in summer this place could get extremely busy.
As we climbed we could constantly hear the bells being rung from the hermitage above. It’s actually tourists ringing the bell (I even had a go myself) as it is said that if you ring the bell three times you will get good luck.
At the top of the hill is a plateaux with a lovely hermitage on top and an area where you can eat picnics – and that is all. The church wasn’t open for visitors when we were there.
I’m glad we went, but to be honest – like many amazing places – this place is almost better to appreciate from afar, as when you are on it – you can’t see it.
Wiki has a page about SJdG and so does Eusk Guide.
Apparently to get here by public transport you get Bizkaibus, line A3524, which goes from Bakio to Bermeo, and which stops right next to the car parks. It is quite a limited service and only runs in the week, but you can get bus times here. Bermeo and Bakio are both on the Euskotren network.
We stopped off in the lovely town of Bermeo for both dinner on the Saturday night and lunch on the Sunday. Bermeo is a gorgeous, little community, based around the sizable harbour. Next to the harbour is a large square with gardens, art and lots of restaurants. We ate in Izaro, the Irish pub, on the Saturday night (big sarnies and beer) and then went to one of the cafes in the square for rations for lunch on Sunday. We ended our trip eating huge ice creams as we walked along the harbour side.
Bermeo had quite a few shops and would be a good base if staying in this area. I loved the quiet of Mundaka, but we couldn’t find anywhere to eat in the evening here, whereas Bermeo was quite a lively place to be – so if we return I think I would arrange for us to stay here instead.
Where we stayed
I found accommodation options in this area, in this season, to be quite limited and also a little overpriced. Apartamentos Mundaka seemed to be the only okay accommodation on this area of the coast that wasn’t preposterously expensive. It also had rooms overlooking the sea/estuary/beach in Mundaka, which was just what I wanted. As an autumn trip, I wanted us to have a room with a romantic view – somewhere where we could sit inside, relax and watch the sea.
Our apartment at Apartamentos Mundaka was lovely. We had a self-contained unit with everything we needed: kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom, big TV and bed, balcony overlooking the beach. It was warm and cosy and I would have loved to have been able to stay here longer. It was self-catering accommodation and so we were pretty much left to our own devices and there were no food or drink services, but that was okay as the supermarket was just around the corner. We were able to park right outside the hotel and there was more parking just under the underpass, by the beach.
I couldn’t have afforded to stay here in the summer, but for an autumn break it was perfect.
I paid 75€ for the night. I booked it through booking.com.
By far, the best website I have found for this area is tourism.euskadi.eus/basque-coast.
Fodors has a suggested 6 to 8 day itenerary for exploring the coast.
Basque Country Magazine has extensive information about this area, including information on many of the small towns and villages – all in English: www.basquecountrymagazine.com.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny, unless otherwise stated. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.