John R. Bopp is in charge of the English-language version of our blog. But he’s not just an English teacher and translator, he also loves the Basque Country and seeing it on his motorbike. So, he put together these last two favorite pastimes, and we were able to convince him to share it with us in our Viewpoints section.
On this first occasion, he’s sharing with us his route all around Biscay, combining his two favorite hobbies, the Basque Country and his bike. We hope you’ll enjoy this as much as we did.
Tour of Biscay on a Shadow
John R. Bopp
Back in May 2020, the home confinement period finally came to an end, and the government started allowing us to move about, as long as we stayed inside the province . Being a biker, I was itching to get some miles in on my Shadow, whose name is Elizabeth, so I planned out a route to test the limits of how far I could go without violating any rules.
I got up early and left my hometown of Barakaldo to cruise up the N-634 northwest towards Muskiz. The Left Bank is quite interesting to drive through, but the highlight is Muskiz’s towns of La Arena and Pobeña, both quaint towns with amazing views of the Bay of Biscay, the former also serving as a popular surfing spot. This body of water did prevent me from going further north (and the Cantabrian border from going further west), so after a coffee I turned around and headed southwest, towards the Enkarterri.
The Enkarterri, or Encartaciones in Spanish (perhaps translated as “the annexes” in English) is a region of Biscay to the west of Bilbao that is full of small villages nestled among big mountains. To get there, I crossed through the Mining District, which Muskiz is a part of, and whic was hugely important to the industrialization of Biscay in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the iron ore here was of extremely high quality. At first, the iron was just exported, mostly to Britain, but then factories were set up along the Nervión, and Biscay became a world steelmaking capital. Today, most of that industry is gone (as is the pollution it caused), and the mines are mostly closed, so the region has recovered its greenery.
While enjoying the gentle curves and excellent views on my way to Lanestosa, the westernmost municipality in Biscay and indeed in the whole of the Basque Country, I very nearly crossed over the Cantabrian border into Villaverde, an exclave of Cantabria wholly surrounded by Biscay. Not sure if that counted as crossing a border or not, I elected to play it safe and turn back around.
It was no time at all before I found myself in Balmaseda. This amazing town, the largest in the Enkarterri, was a hugely important center n the middle ages. Populated since time immemorial, thanks to being in a location that was easily defensible, due to the mountains and the Cadagua River, in 1199 it was officially founded, being the first in Biscay to be given the title of “villa”. It was also economically important, connecting Castile to the ports in Biscay. When it was founded, it was actually located in Castile, but went back and forth between Castile and Biscay for a few centuries, depending on who married whom. Today, you can still enjoy such amazing sights as the 13th-century bridge, or the 14th-century St. Severinus parish church.
While the city is well-connected to Bilbao thanks to the newish Corredor del Cadagua freeway, we bikers tend to avoid them, so I continued southeast on the twisty roads, eventually picking up the BI-3254 and then turning south onto the N-240. The greenery through this part of the trip was stunning, and I kept having to stop to grab photos.
Eventually I did manage to pass Otxandio, but ran smack-dab into the border with Araba before I could get any great views of the Urrunaga Reservoir, so I turned back around and started heading northeast. This brought me into downtown Otxandio. This 12th-century town was also an important medieval trading post, and has always been the gateway to Biscay from the south. It’s actually located in the Ebro River drainage basin, meaning it’s on the other side of the “continental divide” from the rest of Biscay. But what most called to me was the fact that it is also the gateway to Urkiola Park.
Indeed, heading due north out of Otxandio on the N-623 takes you right into this breathtaking natural space. Established in 1988, the park encompasses 15,000 acres and includes Anboto, 4,367 ft tall and central to the stories, myths, and legends of the Basques. I could go on all day about Mari, the central goddess of the Basque religion, who lives in the mountain’s caves, and all the stories set here, but there are many, better resources for that! Instead, I’ll focus on the beauty of the natural space. I had to stop so many times, as the blue mountains and verdant valleys never ceased to be simply stunning.
Of my many favorite pictures, the one with Mugarra in the middle in the background I think does a great job of showing that. Again, I’m on a motorcycle, so the road is unavoidable, but walking up the hiking trails to the tops of all the different mountains would take weeks! And based just on what I’m seeing from the roads, they look to be totally worth it, if you’re into not having a 750 cc engine do the moving for you.
After crossing Durango, I did get one last look at the park from the other side, getting Mugarra (right) from the other side.
After crossing under the motorway, I continued northeast on the BI-633. While no longer in Urkiola Park, crossing the mountains near Mallabia was no less stunningly beautiful.
After refueling in Markina, I quite unexpectedly bumped into the Bay of Biscay again. Of course turning eastbound, I was shocked to discover I had almost accidentally crossed in Gipuzkoa! I managed to stop just in time. But, while turning around, I couldn’t help but snap a photo of Saturraran Beach. It may be in Gipuzkoa, but no one said I couldn’t look!
Ondarroa is the gateway to Biscay from the east, and it was a perfect place to stop for lunch while overlooking the sea. The town was chartered in 1327, and was given exclusive rights to the bridge crossing the Artibai River. Today, it has an excellent beach and harbor, and is a wonderful place to relax. And, just to the east and west of the town are vista points, providing excellent views of the town and the sea.
I continued westwards along the BI-3438, hugging the coast. This brought me to Lekeitio, a town granted its charter in 1325 and which has a rivalry with Ondarroa that goes back to before either town was founded. Also a fishing and whaling port, legal problems (and worse) with Ondarroa were frequent until the modern age, with one suit over logging rights lasting over a century! Things seem to have calmed down today, and I got a great photo of Lekeitio’s 15th-century basilica; inside is an enormous altarpiece which is definitely worth checking out.
After Lekeitio, the BI-2328 heads inland, back through the windy mountain roads with those verdant landscapes that just don’t quit.
I found I had to make a quick stop in Ispaster. This 12th-century town was also a rival to Lekeitio back in the day, though being mostly inland, its economy was far less dependent on fishing. But what caught my eye was the plaza in front of St. Michael’s church, complete with a ginormous tree!
Continuing westward past Ea and Elatxobe (I found myself running out of time, otherwise I would have stopped here, too!), I finally entered the Urdaibai Estuary Biosphere Reserve. This absolutely stunning park was established in 1984, and just in the nick of time, as there were plans afoot to turn the entire mouth of the river into a resort. Fortunately, it is preserved in its current status, though there are small villages throughout the park that are worth visiting. For the biker, the views along the way are breathtaking, so be careful to not forget to focus on the road! It took me a very long time to get from the mouth to Gernika, where the first bridge over the Urdaibai River is, as I couldn’t help stopping to admire the ever-changing views.
One of those amazing views was not natural, however. About halfway between Laida Beach and Gernika, one comes to Arteaga Tower. While it looks to be a medieval castle, its location on the valley floor hints that its location is not very strategic. Indeed, it was built more as a palace, and construction only started in 1859! Today, it is a beautiful luxury hotel, but it still makes for excellent photos!
Again, I was running out of daylight, so I did not dawdle in Gernika, and elected to take a more direct route home, meaning I’d miss the Bermeo and Bakio coast, including San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Indeed, I had personally visited these places only a few months prior, so I decided to just start making my way home directly. But I did have one final stop: the Biscay or Hanging Bridge over the Nervión between Las Arenas and Portugalete. I know it’s not like I’ve never taken pictures of the bridge before, but this UNESCO World Heritage Site is not only beautiful, it’s a great way to cross back to “my” side of the river! With the sun setting behind Serantes (so spectacularly I forgot to take any pictures until the best had already passed!), I started Elizabeth up for the last few miles home.