What to do when winter strikes but exchange one wild, wet, atmospheric coastline for another? After the loveliness of Christmas, an underwhelming New Year's Eve and a hurried TEFL course in London, we packed up and headed south to northern Spain. We paused for a dry day of bouldering at Jaizkibel, a pretty coastal spot just across the French/Spanish border (Atlantic side), and then the rain set in and it was time to explore the coastline and make our way southwest.
Our meta-data says that we use the word rain a lot in our blog articles. This isn't going to change much with this one.
The first night in Spain was underwhelming. We planned to visit the Playa de Itzurun the next day, which is famous for some of the world's longest rock strata, called 'flysch', that extend out to sea and are visible only at low tide - this demanded some time management as it was at 9.30am and we are slow on van mornings. The nearest spot we could find was an odd little car park on a slant, lit all night and tricky to go for a discreet pee. It served the purpose, despite lacking a bit in the van life romance; we managed to be on sight, on time and slightly surprised with it.
Itzurun is in Zumaia, a town that was historically subject to centuries of pirate raids now replaced by gig rowers getting a Sunday morning stretch on. We walked along the river admiring the athletes alongside most of the town including the local police, until we reached the cliffs where we took a devastating wrong turn down the 'beach path'. After half an hour slipping along this muddy, collapsing cliff path it finally gave up its pretence and disappeared, and the hail began. Forwards was an unknown distance of wave slapped boulder field, backwards was retracing our steps. After some prevaricating we reluctantly turned back, a good choice as it turned out as we had only made it along a fifth of a very exposed headland.
An irritatingly short walk through town took us down to the beach. It felt like we had been transported to another world; an empty beach surrounded by tall cliff spines jutting high above and running out to sea. Obviously the rain had followed us there. Deep caves are rent into the rock, we spent some time familiarising ourselves with one whilst more rain splattered outside until the rising tide threatened to cut us off. Itzurun has been used as a set for Game of Thrones, and its easy to see why with such dramatic scenery. We hiked along the strata as they defined prehistory, up to the K-T Extinction which is characterised by a few meters of rock in an ominous dark purple tone. It feels pretty cool to step backwards and forwards along a rocky timeline; dinosaurs, no dinosaurs, dinosaurs, no dinosaurs... You get the point. Then, suckers for punishment, we walked a bit more around the cliffs, and received a second and third soaking.
Part two of tourist day (and coincidentally our second Game of Thrones set) led us to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a hermitage on an island joined to the mainland by a stone staircase. Once again the rain was torrential, and we sat in the car park for a bit, watching people running back dripping and trying to decide whether it was worth it. Inevitably we went for it, heading down a steep slope to the sea where we met an incredibly improbable bridge, a spindly stone corridor thrashed by waves on both sides. This winds back up to the top of the island in 231 well-worn steps that feel disconcertingly airy.
We had some small confusion that led us to believe that there was a castle on the island, this was actually CGI'd on in Game of Thrones and is instead a small stone hermitage dating back to the 10th century. In the nature of these places it has been destroyed several times over the years and the current reincarnation was built in 1980. There is a bell at the top that can be rang three times for good luck, and its jangling was regular even on this quiet and wet winter's afternoon. During our return, unsurprisingly, we got rained on a bit more, and retired a bit damp to an aire in a nearby town.
The following evening took us to the site of the Playa de los Catedrales where we spent a peaceful night staying at the beach parking and woke up to more squally rain showers and gloom. We wandered down onto an uncharacteristically quiet beach – in season it's an extremely popular tourist destination, so much so that tickets are sold and limited to a mind-boggling 5,000 per day. There were about fifteen people braving the weather that morning. The formations are indeed spectacular, caves, arches and stacks standing like a geography lesson on coastal erosion. We were surprised to learn that the rock originates 500 million years ago from the southern hemisphere.
The strong tidal effect on the beach means that there are many rock pools and lots of interesting creatures nestling in nooks and crannies in the rock. Goose barnacles are plentiful (and apparently also a great delicacy). Possibly more exciting than anything else was the octopus we found in a rockpool, grumpily trying to wedge itself further under a shallow rocky shelf. We watched it explore, extending a tentacle out and feeling about itself, change colour a few times and finally collapse in a sulky ball under its ledge, eyeballing us balefully.
Following a successful venture to some free hot springs in the French Pyrenees last autumn we have kept an eye out for more of the same and the name Ourense kept popping up. It was serendipitously bang on our route and we swung by to investigate on a grey afternoon. It was a good choice, they were clean, hot, and completely free. The obligatory pre-soak shower was intensely cold but followed by 40°C gorgeousness, lying back and watching birds bobbing around on the grass outside, feeling stupendously smug. It was very quiet, and we stayed until we were wrinkly and pink like baby mice before reluctantly leaving. It had after all been several days since our last wash.
This was all we saw of Ourense, but there is also apparently a very beautiful cathedral in the town, as a friendly man told us as we wriggled about trying to pull dry clothes over damp skin under towels – always the best time for a conversation.
That evening we crossed the border into Portugal and arrived at a sleep spot that seemed totally isolated and more than a little creepy in the dark. We judged the feeling to be unfounded and stayed anyway, and awoke to an idyllic car park in the dunes that we were happy to share with only seabirds for company. Strange the change that daylight makes.
Nazare was a name that we had both heard in connection with the huge waves that lure in the top surfers, and we wanted to stop by for a look. We had timed our arrival to coincide with messy Wednesday; 30 foot waves which are small for Nazare but huge for us. Unfortunately for surfers it was cross/on/everywhere-shore wind but it resulted in huge chunks of sea water being hurled at the lighthouse where we stood, battered by the sea gale. All very exciting. We tried the local pastry, a bola de berlim, basically a custard doughnut which was good, but perhaps not 1.50€ good, and being served with a scowl didn't improve it.
Along the beach is some rough parking popular with vans and with a perfect sea view, we slept here to the sound of crashing waves and woke to tamer seas and grey skies.
It was time to break from the rain, and head south to enjoy some winter sun. Despite feeling a bit soggy at times, the weather meant that we had some amazing tourist attractions almost to ourselves. What we saw of northern Spain and Portugal was just incredibly beautiful, green, and windswept. We felt like there was so much more to explore, and would really appreciate any recommendations to lure us back.
Keep an eye out for our next blog post, about staying and climbing in Sintra, Portugal. Thanks for reading!