San Sebastian is one of my favorite cities in Spain. I like its position on the coast, its holiday atmosphere, and its rich gastronomic heritage. Via La Vélodyssée, a route which is part of the Atlantic Coast Route – EuroVelo 1, you can travel by bike all the way from Brittany to the Spanish border. You will see the huge forests in Landes, cross the seaside resorts of the Atlantic costs and visit the Bask country.
I traveled from Bordeaux to San Sebastian by bike with a friend to enjoy beautiful natural landscapes while making physical activity. Most of the trip was on La Vélodyssée.
- Distance : around 340 km.
- When to travel? The most pleasant time is between April and October. Keep in mind that it can be very hot in July and August. If you travel in Autumn or Winter, you might have to cope with some rain showers, especially in the Bask country.
- How long does it take to travel from Bordeaux to San Sebastian by bike? It took me 3 and a half days, but the trip can last 3 days if you ride fast and if you don’t make any long break.
- Who can do this trip? Everyone. There are reliefs on some sections of the route, such as in the pine forests along the dunes and in the Bask Country, between Anglet and San Sebastian.
- How to find your way? From Bordeaux to Hendaye, the signs, tags, and road markings include the logo of La Vélodyssée. In this article, you’ll find an itinerary suggestion to travel from Irun to San Sebastian without spending too much time on the expressway. Plus, it’s possible to travel in the other way around.
- Which bike? A trekking bike is ideal. I had a gravel bike, which is also suitable. I advise against road bikes because there are dirt roads. Before leaving, if necessary, install a stand on your bike and make sure that your lights work.
- Where to sleep? In Gironde and in Landes, there are many opportunities to bivouack or camp in the wild near the route of La Vélodyssée. In the Bask Country, I advise you to leave the route to sleep in nature, outside of seaside resorts. Before leaving, get information about bivouacking and wild camping rules in France. Plus, keep in mind that you’ll have to spend time at the end of each day to find a suitable place to sleep. Alternatively, there is a broad accommodation offering on the route, especially campings.
- Where to eat and drink? Regularly eat and drink. Take a water bottle that can contain at least 1,5 litres. Think ahead to always have enough water. The towns and villages often have public toilets, most of the time equipped with a watering place. The picnic areas and stadiums can help you out. As a last resort, you can buy a bottle of water in a supermarket, but keep in mind that it’s not ecological. Enjoy the many restaurants on the route to taste the local food. If you bivouack or camp in the wild, I suggest you take a portable stove, tableware and tea or coffee for breakfast. If you want to reduce the weight of your luggage, take you breakfasts in cafés (they can be closed on Sundays and public holidays).
- Which equipment? What to take in the luggage? I had 2 bags on my luggage racks. You should take a helmet, waterproof clothes, sun cream, lip stick, a yellow helmet, and a pocket knife. If you sleep in a hammock, take a mosquito net and a tarp to stay dry. Bring a strong lock and tools to repair your bike (repair kit, tube, small air pump, chain). A solar charger and mosquito repellant are a plus.
From Bordeaux to San Sebastian by bike: my Vélodyssée experience
We leave at the end of July and plan to be back in a week at the latest. I had never cycled on such a long distance.
Reaching the Atlantic Ocean after going through pine forests
When we leave Bordeaux early in the morning on a Saturday, we find our luggages heavy. The first pedal strokes are difficult.
In Saint-Médard-en-Jalles, after 40 minutes in the Bordeaux agglomeration, we reach the bicycle path linking Bordeaux to Lacanau. It seems like the smells of the pines and of the plants that I know well say, “The journey begins!” At the foot of the pines, I see big ferns and deciduous shrubs. Plus, some violet plants are clearly visible in this green environment. I say to myself that it must have rained more than usual this year. Moreover, I fell the humidity in the air, which makes me sweat. Even though the grey sky indicates that it’s going to rain, I take my waterproof coat out.
Instead of following the bicycle path until Lacanau-Océan, where La Vélodyssée runs, we turn left at a crossing shortly before the town of Lacanau.
We ride on a bad-quality logging road. The bikes startle.
The road is empty. I say to myself that only one or two cars must pass here each day. I see only pines, most of the time standing and living. Sometimes, I pass by piles of trunks next to the road. I admire their brown colour and smell their spicy scents.
We reach the road D107 on which cars drive towards Le Porge. It’s not the right itinerary. We turn back. We say to ourselves that it’s not the first time that we’re going to get lost.
I progress while looking at my phone to find the road we missed earlier.
After crossing Le Porge, we arrive in the urban area surrounding the Arcachon bay. Suddenly, we notice the first sign of La Vélodyssée. We hope that, from now on, we won’t get lost. We ride at low speed because of the cars crossing the path. The oyster port of Andernos-les-Bains welcomes us.
A large number of huts line up next to a white pathway along the water. We stop at Station des Gus. From the terrace behind the small oyster hut, we enjoy the view on the Arcachon bay. The water is visible beyond the dock where sailing boats and motor boats are berthed. The foliage of the trees on the terrace creates a green deck. The rustic decoration is not trim, but I like it anyway. We eat oysters, whelks, and shrimps with white wine. I say to myself that it’s an ideal place to have a break in a natural environment, in a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere.
Suddenly, the rain starts to fall. It makes a loud noise when hitting the roof of the hut that shelters us. Even here, I feel on my harms the drops of water. Luckily, we didn’t leave 5 minutes earlier!
Once the deluge is gone, we go back to the path. As La Vélodyssée doesn’t go along the water, I can’t see the beautiful bay as I wanted to. We quickly ride on a perfect asphalt until we reach La Teste-de-Buch. The itinerary doesn’t cross the city of Arcachon.
Then, the setting becomes natural. I admire on my right the dune du Pilat, whose length impresses me, with the blue sky in the background. There are small dark shapes on it. They are hikers who must enjoy the view on the ocean and on the Banc d’Arguin.
We ride on a path that follows the road between the pine forest and the beach. All of a sudden, the first hill appears. It’s not very steep, but it’s long.
After that, a downhill starts. I put my hands on the handlebars and bend over. I increase my speed without having to make any efforts.
On my left, I notice carbonised trees. Some of them have even been cut. I can only see the base of their black trunks. I say to myself that, little by little, these burnt pines are removed. There is beauty in this sad lunar landscape.
After this hilly area, the bicycle path moves away from the road. It passes behind the small dunes along the beaches. We notice an aid station hidden behind the pines. We hope that we’ll find a tap there. We see public toilets and a watering place. During a several-days bike ride, it’s crucial to always have enough water. Especially if you travel during Summer in the south of France. I admire camping cars parked between the trees and the sunset behind. I hear the regular noise of waves, without seeing them. If we didn’t have to go back to find a place to sleep, I would have gone for a swim.
We look for a place away from the bicycle path and from the departmental road. The site must be located in the forest, to be protected from the wind. At the same time, the vegetation can’t be too dense, otherwise we couldn’t set up our camp. We leave the path and then ride at a low pace on a logging road. There are too many pines and ferns on this wild plot. After that, we find an ideal area. Bad luck: as we are about to settle here, we notice that a couple is already there. There is not much time left before darkness falls. We hurry up.
The third place we inspect, only 200 meters away from the departmental road, suits us. As I unload my luggage, I have a bad surprise. My hammock disappeared. I can’t find it in my bags. It was fixed on the luggage racks with a tensioner and must have fallen while I was riding. I have no other choice than to sleep on the floor on the tarp that was meant to protect me from the rain. Luckily, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to rain at night.
I find it unpleasant and time-consuming to take all the clothes and equipments out of the bag every evening. Plus, I’ll have to put everything back in the morning. During a several-days bike ride, that’s unavoidable. I lay my tarp on the floor and hang the mosquito net on a rope tied to two pines. We hear the continuous noise of the cars. It seems like I can hear the ocean, but I’m not sure. Does this noise come from the road or from the waves?
We eat our picnic on the tarp. The cars are getting rare. After laying down, I feel tired by the physical efforts I made today. At the same time, I’m excited by the wild natural setting. I fall asleep hearing the sounds of the forest. The ones made by the birds, the insects, the cicadas and the wind blowing between the trees.
Swimming day in Landes
After waking up, we debrief about the night. An animal moving around our camp kept us awake for a while. It was probably a deer or a wild boar. I turned my light on to make him run away, which worked. We take our beds and mosquito nets down. My friend tells me that he didn’t sleep well in his hammock because he felt cold. He believes that, if he had slept on the floor, thermal inertia would have warmed him.
As it’s Sunday morning, no car drives here and so we can clearly hear the noise of the waves coming from the beach. We boil tea on the stove and eat brioche. We’re ready to go.
20 minutes later, we arrive at Biscarrosse-Plage. I like the relaxed holiday atmosphere. The white houses in gardens full of pines look like the ones in Lacanau. They are typical for seaside resorts in Gironde and Landes.
We see huge plots of pines along the slick bicycle path.
All of a sudden, the Biscarrosse Lake is visible. The quietness surprises me and relaxes me. We only perceive a handful of swimmers who are far away from the shore but still have feet. After a short swim, we dive deep in the forest. I feel pain in my back. I try to find a pleasant position by pushing my buttocks backwards and by sitting up straight, the shoulders behind. However, in this position, I my handlebar is too far away to grab it.
Shortly before this trip, I sold my trekking bike and bought a lighter and handier gravel bike. I wanted to drive faster during my longer trips. On my previous bike, when I accelerated, I felt resistance due to its heavy weight whereas on my gravel, I reach a high speed without making much effort. I seek these efforts that are part of the physical activity, though. To find these feelings again, I must push hard on my legs or change gear.
In Mimizan, we have a late lunch break. The heat is already intense. The crowded streets surprise me. We step down from our bikes to go by foot to the beach. Right away, we gaze the huge and noisy waves. The supervised swimming area is full with people standing next to the water, staring at the waves and hesitating to dive in the rolls. Only a few men dare to swim. The beach stretches away in front of us. Far away, we see surfers in the water, but no swimmers. I admire and envy the people seated on their board.
In spite of these dangerous conditions, I decide to swim. I go to the supervised swimming area. The contact with sea water improves my physical and psychological wellness. Plus, it’s pleasant to make other moves that the repetitive pedalling. After 15 minutes fighting with the strong waves, I feel tired and go out.
On my towel, I admire the long beach. Looking at the beautiful waves without being able to be in the water is raging. We decide to drive for more than 50 kilometres along the coast of Landes until the Léon Lake. There, we can have a safe swim. We leave Mimizan without regret because the seaside resort lacks charm.
The path goes through Contis-les-Bains. We stop there because our water reserves are empty. Bad surprise: no watering place around. We thus buy water bottles in a supermarket. This little town by the sea is pleasant because it’s not full with tourists and doesn’t have many concrete buildings.
In the village of Léon, we leave La Vélodyssée and reach the small lake. I look at its dark water that has a colour typical for lakes along the Atlantic coast. Our legs that have pedalled on more than 100 kilometres today enjoy the swim. Then, we need to find a place to sleep. We inspect the surrounding of the small quiet beach. As the natural reserve of Courant d’Huchet starts right next to the beach, it’s forbidden to bivouack there. We find a place hosting camping cars that could suit us, but we prefer to find an isolated and natural area. We quickly leave.
After going through Moliets-et-Maa, we take a path that thrusts its way into the forest. I see small sharp plants covering a glad located between 3 plots of pines. We settle on a sandy corner without any vegetation. That’s ideal to sleep! After setting up my tarp on the floor, I admire the pink and blue sunset. I hear the distant noise of the ocean and the cicadas’ song.
In the Bask Country, the scenery changes
My back hurts when I wake up because the floor has bumps. However, I slept without interruptions. At around 9 am, we go back to the long straight lines in the middle of numerous pines and a few oaks. The sunlight is intense but the heat still bearable.
After crossing Vieux-Boucau-les-Bains and Seignosse, we reach Hossegor. The path goes through the center of this little town that I don’t know. The relaxed atmosphere surprises me. I expected a buzzing seaside resort. I imagine it’s because there are few tourists in the street on a Monday morning. We cross the Hossegor canal before reaching Capbreton. A short pause is needed. We have a coffee in the marina, at Monsieur Mouette. On the large outside terrace, we enjoy the view on the quiet harbour. I notice that many cyclists driving on the path along the water. They follow each other in groups of 3 or 4, like caterpillars. They must spend holidays here. If they were bikepackers driving on La Vélodyssée, there would be bags on their luggage racks. Behind the dunes along the beach, I see many surfers with their board under their harm.
We cross more and more families of cyclists. It’s necessary to often slow down to avoid an accident.
The natural landscape suddenly disappears. We follow the Adour river in an industrial area until we reach Bayonne.
While sitting at the terrace of a restaurant on the quais next to the Nive river, I admire the old buildings of the city center. I notice their red or green half-timbering and shutters. Seeing them means that we reached Bask Country. They line up in front of the quais and hide the small streets of the city center.
We reach Anglet. I’m glad that the environment changes again. No more pine forests. Instead, there is a hilly coast. We push hard on our legs to climb the steep slopes along the beaches. I feel my thighs in the zigzag ascents. As I ride at low speed, standing up to stomp on the pedals, I have the time to admire the ocean, the sandy beaches, the huge villas, and the Bask houses.
We have a break in Biarritz to admire the Rocher de la Vierge. This rock is linked to the shore by a metallic walkway. It must be solid to host so many visitors. The touristic affluence impresses me. It’s hard to move forward on the path that goes along the beach.
After riding on several ascents and downhills in Guéthary, we decide to stop at Erromardie beach to swim because it’s not crowded. In August, on the Bast coast, it’s a privilege. The waves are not high because 2 hills shelter the beach. 20 minutes later, the Saint-Jean-de-Luz bay is within sight. From the bicycle path along the coast, we admire the seafront and its elegant buildings. The hotels are next to the half-timbered houses in the small streets of the city center.
We buy food in the city center and then look for a place to sleep. As La Vélodyssée is too close from the coast, we must leave the path. We drive on the departmental road D918 towards the inland.
At a roundabout, we notice a picnic area. It’s exposed to the continuous noises of the cars, but trees block the view. This place suits us, but we would like to find a wild area. It would be a shame not to sleep in the mountains of the Pyrénées!
Further away, we go through a square in the village of Ascain. I notice children playing pelota on the fronton located in front of the terrace of a café. The people who are seated there watch the show and cheer the players up. As I see this, I say to myself that Bask Country has many local specificities and traditions.
A sign announces a 3-kilometres long hill with an inclination of 5%. I change gear.
Huge trees border the shaded road. I see them on my right and, on my left, there is the mountainside. The green landscape shows that it often rains in Bask Country. I slowly move forward, while making sure to stay on the right side of the road to avoid the cars.
The uphill leads to the Saint-Ignace pass, in Sare, the starting point of the Rhune Rack Train. We expected a remote area where we could enjoy a clear view on the green mountains. Instead, we only see a parking lot and many tourists. Some of them go down from the Rune by foot. Others alight from the train. A wooden space draws our attention. It will be busy tomorrow morning, and the terrain is sloped. Thus, we can’t sleep there.
We opt for our initial finding, the picnic area in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Before going down, we take our dinner, made of melons, hummus and sausage, next to the parking lot. I enjoy this meal especially because I cut many calories in the uphill. Plus, I’m in a good mood as I like being away from the bustle of the coast.
We go down the hill at full speed.
I brake because I fear to loose control of my bike. I don’t make any efforts, but I’m stressed.
15 minutes later, we arrive at our 4 stars camping. We put our tarps between our bikes and a tree to create two small tents. Many mosquitos bite us. The hard surface has bumps, and we can hear the cars 100 meters away from us. However, I’m glad to finally lie down under my tarp and my mosquito net.
Relaxing and enjoying amazing food in San Sebastian
I’m tired because even if I didn’t wake up during the night, the sleep wasn’t as restorative as it would have been in a real bed. Moreover, I feel the effect of the bumps on my back and my butt.
Last night, I thought about the rest of the route, but I haven’t decided if I will do the return trip from Bordeaux to Sebastian by bike. In the morning, I choose to come back by train as my friend suggested. We buy tickets from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to Bordeaux for tomorrow afternoon. Why not continue the bike trip back to Bordeaux? First, because it must rain in the Southwest of France at the end of the week. Furthermore, I find it tiring and time-consuming to look for a place to sleep every evening, and I don’t see myself doing that again 3 times. Our aim is to arrive in the San Sebastian today in the beginning of the afternoon to enjoy the pintxos bars and the beach. We’ll ride back to Saint-Jean-de-Luz by bike tomorrow. Let’s go!
We ride on a road going through fields and large gardens surrounding remote houses.
A new travel companion joins us: the rain. Is there one day in the year where it doesn’t rain in Bask Country?
Thick grass, deciduous trees and huge ferns create a green setting. The rain intensifies but we decide not to put our water-proof trousers on yet. We know that we would sweat even more. In the steep uphills on a road of bad quality, I find my back pain uncomfortable. I seek a position that doesn’t hurt, without success.
In the middle of a long downhill at the entrance of Hendaye, we come across 2 bikepackers. Their faces express the pain of climbing under a heavy rain. Then, we follow the huge Hendaye bay on a way shared with pedestrians. I see fishing boats and pleasure boats that don’t move in the harbour. Plus, I notice a man looking for shells on the beach. It’s hard to appreciate the architecture of the city. Maybe I would enjoy it more if the weather was beautiful.
The last signs of La Vélodyssée lead us to the border with Spain, the bridge on the Bidassoa river. The place looks banal. There are no policemen, but the traffic is heavy. After crossing, we have a break in Irun to eat biscuits and put our water-proof trousers on, even though our shoes and socks are already wet.
We think about the last section of the route. Our goal is to drive as little as possible on the expressway that links Irun to San Sebastian. I heard before the departure that one can take the smaller roads that are closer to the coast. Google Maps says that for that, you have to turn right at a roundabout in Mendelu and then drive for 30 minutes on a country road to the Guadalupe sanctuary (Guadalupeko Ama Birjinaren Santutegia). Then, we’ll come closer to our goal by taking a small road.
Soon after leaving, we reach a way where fast cars pass by us. At the roundabout, we leave the road. A hiking path starts. We make efforts to move forward as the rocky ground is not flat. After 10 minutes, we start to doubt the itinerary as bikes are not allowed. The path goes up and becomes moody. The bikes go through puddles that splash us. The rain made the forest paths almost impracticable, even for mountain bikes. We can’t move forward anymore. We get down and walk.
I notice that we don’t head towards the right direction. The path is not the one that Google Maps indicates. The application says that we should ride on a way which is actually not suitable for bikes.
Lesson learned: don’t trust everything Google Maps says.
Instead of going back, we continue straight forward on the moody path until we find a larger road. After 20 minutes, we reach the roundabout where we were earlier. We just drove for 30 minutes on a rugged off-road trail under a heavy rain for nothing!
The high-speed road is the only option left. We move to the hard shoulder. It’s difficult to enjoy the green mountains landscape because of the cars and the rain.
Bikepackers from Hendaye to San Sebastian: it’s worth searching for an itinerary that avoids the high-speed road.
We have a break to take stock of the situation. We decide to follow the signs indicating San Sebastian with a bike symbol. The problem is that they lead to a high-speed road. That’s not what I call a bicycle path! We keep driving on the road shared with cars until a huge roundabout. Instead of following San Sebastian, we turn right in the direction of Lezo. Shortly after, in the small town, a pedestrian comes to talk to us. He must have seen that we’re struggling to find our way. We listen to his indications. This spontaneous kindness surprises me and reminds me that Spanish people are often warm towards strangers in the street.
The road follows the Pasaia bay, which is suitable for port facilities because it’s protected from the waves of the ocean. Ships come in through a natural corridor that is sometimes less than 100 meters wide. I see harbour cranes and notice the loading of a ship. We drive on a long urban street until we reach the city center of San Sebastian.
When we arrive at Zurriola beach, we’re happy but tired. Our feet at wet, but the rain has stopped. I see many people walking on the promenade with a surf board under their harm. I expected this holiday atmosphere for several days.
It’s 2:30 pm. Even though, in Spain, it’s almost too early to have lunch, we go search for a pintxos bar. We’re spoilt for choice in the Spanish gastronomic capital. There are plenty in the old town. We sit down on the terrace of a bar in the Sarriegi square. We eat tortillas, eels and fried balls filled with a sort of hachis parmentier. Although I like the pintxos, I find the place too touristy and too expensive.
So we go to another place, an authentic bar, frequented more by locals than tourists. I went there last year and found the atmosphere and the food excellent. Nothing has changed at Bixente taberna. The cheerful owner takes the time to show us his pintxos with a smile. The decoration is not fancy. In my opinion, in Spain, this is often the sign of quality cuisine. We sit around a small table on the pavement. I overhear two French hikers sitting next to us. They must have found the place by searching for the best-rated bars on Google Maps, as I did last year. We enjoy pintxos with fried vegetables and cheese, tartelettes with ceps, and prawns with vegetables. I love this no-fuss cuisine.
Then we drop our bags at te hotel and head out. Without the heavy load, my bike seems to fly. We arrive at the elegant and wide beach of La Concha.
Sitting on my towel, I admire the buildings along the seafront. I notice several of them with white facades. I like their old-fashioned style. Opposite the beach is the island of Santa Clara, a large rock covered in greenery. After a day spent mostly in the rain, I enjoy a swim in the warm ocean water.
In the evening, we return to Bixente’s place. This time, we choose a pintxo with chorizo and one with black pudding, my favourite, before going to the Eguzki bar in the same neighbourhood. The decoration is more tasteful than at Bixente’s place. Leaning against a window overlooking the street, I notice that the bars are gradually emptying out. It seems that, in the Gros district, they all close at 11 pm at the latest. Therefore, we head back to the touristy old town to find one last pintxo bar.
In my hotel room, I appreciate the shower and the real bed. What’s more, I don’t have to worry about mosquitoes.
Travelling back to France on a pleasant route
At 9 am, La Concha is already very busy. The silhouettes stand out against the light brown sand or emerge from the blue water. I envy the locals for the privilege of a morning swim. What’s more, in the bright sunshine and cloudless skies, the city is more attractive than when we first arrived.
To get to Irun without using the high-speed road, we take a different route from yesterday. First, we find a bicycle path symbolised by red markings on the ground. It’s on a dedicated lane for cyclists, which makes for a pleasant journey.
A railway line passes before my eyes, on my right. Suddenly, we pass a small station.
Then we cross the Arrobitxulo park before reaching Pasaia. We join a bicycle path that runs alongside the river Oiartzun (Oiartzun Ibaia). The cars have disappeared. There are only trees and lawns.
We leave the track at Oiartzun to join a small road heading towards Irun. It climbs steeply and passes isolated houses. At the top of a hill, I take the time to enjoy the sublime view. The thick grass of the meadows and the mountains in the background are all different shades of green.
Suddenly, a descent appears. I shift up a gear and let gravity take me forward.
I want to lean forward to increase my speed, but I don’t want to lose control of my bike. I feel my muscles tense as I brake. Then, the hook on one of my bags comes loose. I stand on the side of the road and attach the luggage that nearly fell off. It was close.
We enter an urban area. We reached Irun without riding on the express way! This itinerary is also valid the other way around.
You want to avoid the high-speed road? Make a detour via Oiartzun, in the south.
We then return to the poor road we took yesterday. On a long uphill stretch, I pass a cyclist in her sixties accompanied by her husband. Watching the slender woman standing on the pedals on the hill, despite her two bags on her luggage racks, I feel admiration. The two bikepackers set off from La Rochelle and rode along La Vélodyssée to Hendaye. I tell myself that staying fir is more a question of practice than age.
On the promenade of the main beach at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, we end our trip with a beer on a terrace. The sky is getting overcast and the wind is picking up. It’s time to catch our train before the rain comes.
La Vélodyssée and the EuroVelo 1 are calling you too! Pick a departure place and plan your route, for just one day or several days.
You have already travelled on this route? What did you like? What was challenging? Share your impressions in the comments!