ACTIVATE Spain

Follow the exploits of the Active Junky team as they take on a brand new objective. In search of multi-sport adventure, the travelers will explore different destinations—while telling stories, sharing photos and reviewing gear as they go. This time around? The rolling hills, towering spires, and pumpy single track of Northern Spain.

Searching for Adrenaline, Finding Culture: A Journey Across Northern Spain

Words and Photos by: Drew Zieff

Spain is more than siestas and bullfights. The country may be known for its wine and weather, but trust us: the northern coast of Spain is home to an adventure-worthy topography that’s well worth a flight across the Atlantic. The landscapes you’ll find here are awesome in scope, aesthetically breathtaking, and perfect for a number of outdoor activities, from mountain biking and hiking to mountaineering and fly fishing.

Along the northern coast, rolling green hills drop off into the Cantabrian Sea, reminiscent of Ireland’s famous cliff-lined shores; trails spiderweb across this technical terrain, making for incredible mountain biking and hiking. Mountain biking in Basque country was assuredly the highlight of our trip, and for a week we stayed in Hondarribia, a small Spanish town a stone’s throw from the French border, and rode staggeringly steep singletrack along these Basque bluffs.

But there’s so much more. Limestone spires surge out of the foothills in Picos de Europa National Park — a prime yet often overlooked zone for multi-pitch climbing and mountaineering. The exposed northern coast is also susceptible to southern swells, and, especially in the winter months, surfers can score world-class waves. Fly fishermen can chase salmon runs in Asturias casting streamers beneath ancient stone bridges, plying the riffles created from water swirling around the centuries-old foundations. Dip inland, and the marine climate gives way to the heat of undulating plains, where vineyards dominate the landscape and exquisite varietals of Spanish reds go for a few Euros a pop.

While the landscapes themselves call for outdoor enthusiasts to come running, it’s the constant of culture that makes adventure in Spain so tantalizing. Everywhere you go, you’re reminded of ancient history. Crumbling stone towers mark the ridges you’ll walk. You’ll fill your CamelBak at a cathedral spigot while nuns file into the chapel for prayer. You’ll splash through streams on your mountain bike and then cross decrepit granite bridges — one at a time, just in case — when the creek gets too deep for your bike to ford. The architecture, the art, the very attitude of the Spanish people — all of it makes for an experience that you simply cannot find or re-create elsewhere.

We spent a month exploring the Iberian Peninsula, road tripping across northern Spain in search of adventure. It’s safe to say we found it. That said, we would’ve happily extended our trip — there’s a lifetime of adventure to be had here.

Featured Destination: Basque Country

The Basque language, Euskara, is one of few languages that has no linguistic cousins. As the Romans conquered Europe, Latin infiltrated existing dialects — hence the similarities between the “love languages” of French, Spanish, and Portuguese and the ability for a French speaker to decipher a bit of Spanish. But the Basques, a proud people advantageously situated in heavily-wooded mountains, didn’t take kindly to the Romans and beat back the invaders for centuries. Today, around one million Basques speak Euskara. It’s a source of pride, a spoken symbol of resistance. You may wonder why the Basques fought so hard to hold on to their heritage, but those questions fade when you visit this land, explore these mountains, and, well, to be honest, eat their tapas.

There are a million things to do in this little slice of northern Spain. You can visit the Guggenheim or check out a La Liga game in Bilbao, go surfing in San Sebastian and refuel with smoked fish tapas, or drive through the forested valleys in search of outdoor adventure.

The reason we went to Basque Country was to check out the mountain biking. And we don’t exaggerate when we say that airfare alone was worth a single day of mountain biking here. Led by the Basque MTB guides, we dropped hundreds of meters down rarely ridden singletrack alongside the endless blue of the Atlantic Coast. We hooted through rushing streams, popped over logs and boulders, slashed across muddy banks and then rolled into an ancient village square just in time to wash down fried sardines with a light Spanish lager.

We may have only learned a couple of words in Euskara, and we aren’t likely to remember them (it’s a dastardly difficult language to learn), but we won’t forget the trails and ales we experienced along the way. We’ll be returning, in the not so distant future, just to mountain bike here again. The singular culture, the welcoming people, the to-die-for cuisine — that’s just a bonus.

Asturias

Asturias, in one word, is green. The mountains are home to forests thick and wild, and the rolling hills are perfect pastureland, cloaked in a blanket of lush green grass that’s beloved by sheep and shepherds alike. We flew into the Oviedo airport, one of the smallest and easiest to navigate airports we’ve ever seen, and went straight to Aviles to cheer on the American team competing in the World Duathlon Championships. An industrial seaside town, Aviles isn’t worth more than a single day of exploring, but race day proved to be rowdy, as we watched Spaniards sweep the age group podium. After the race, we drove to the coastal town of Cudillero, a fishing village nestled in a cove of protected coastline that’s famous for it’s colorful, tiered houses — be sure to sample the seafood here. Asturias is a cultural hotbed, but our gear testing team still found time to cool off and put products to the test, jumping off bridges into the bay of Cudillero and the rivers that wind through the verdant valleys.

Parque Nacional de Los Picos de Europa

If there’s one spot that every outdoor enthusiast needs to check out in Spain, this is it. Straddling the border between the provinces of Asturias, Leon, and Cantabria, three sky-scraping, glaciated massifs make up this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and mountain-lover’s playground: Ándara, the eastern massif, los Urrieles, the central massif, and el Cornión, the western massif. In each, you’ll find limestone cliffs, winding trails, and panoramas you didn’t know existed in this quiet slice of Spain.

Climbers: With mountain ranges like the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Dolomites so nearby, Spain’s Cantabrian Mountains are often left out of classic climbing conversations. However, the limestone spires here are home to some of Europe’s most spectacular and uncrowded climbing. Of particular interest is the trophy of the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes, the most aesthetic peak in the park, a standalone limestone tower that will have multi-pitch climbers salivating—though flashes of changing weather, particularly fog rolling in from the nearby sea, have fatal potential. There are also plenty of opportunities for boulderers and climbers of all ability levels.

Check out this climbing guide from UK Climbing to get more info on what’s available when climbing in Picos de Europa.

Hikers: There are plenty of trails to be trudged in and around the National Park. Hikers can start from the surrounding towns, one of the two visitor centers, or even take the Fuente Dé cable car from Camaleno up into the high alpine. One mellow walk is strolling around the Lagos de Covadonga (shown), while more ambitious hikers can join the crowds checking out the famous Cares Gorge trail, or plan a multi-day backpacking trip—there are also a few huts sprinkled throughout the park, including the famous Refugio Collago Jermoso. If you’re looking for a bit of luxury, you don’t want to bring a tent, or you’re looking for a high-alpine hideaway, these huts are a superb basecamp for hiking and/or mountaineering. Expect fog, cowbells, and vistas that will make you wish you brought a better camera.

Bikers: Driving up to the Lagos de Covadonga, you may recognize the classic road cycling climb from La Vuelta, Spain’s answer to the Tour de France. Winding, narrow roads, exposed cliffs, and a steady, sustained grade make cycling these famous mountain passes quite the challenge. Mountain bikers can strike out to find singletrack, although a guide is recommended. Bikepackers will have a blast touring from town to town.

Santander, Cantabria

With a climate similar to that of the California coast, the rugged Cantabrian shoreline is a welcome escape from the sizzling south of Spain. Shouldered by Asturias to the west and Basque Country to the east, Cantabria doesn’t see the same amount of foreign tourists as hotter, more renowned locales in Spain, but many Spaniards journey to Santander to flee the heat. As such, the capital city of Santander has a bustling old city feel that’s reminiscent of San Sebastian—minus the throngs of international sightseers.

Beaches curl around Santander, with our favorites edging around the Magdalena Peninsula— a stunning 69-acre outcropping of rock that represents the ultimate mishmash of Spanish culture: the peninsula is home to soccer fields, a sprawling palace, three old galleons, and a couple of clothing-optional beaches for good measure.

Head to Santander to soak in the sun, drink up the metropolitan buzz, or take advantage of the high winds and turquoise waters with a kite- or windsurfing lesson. Our best times in Cantabria, however, were had out of the city, cruising the winding roads along the coast, stopping in tiny seaside towns and sampling the local tapas.

Pro Tip: This is one place where it’s well worth having a car, as many of the remote beaches and secluded towns are tough to access via public transportation.

La Rioja

If you’ve ever popped the cork on a Spanish red, chances are it was from La Rioja. An arid land of rolling hills, La Rioja has seven valleys that run parallel to each other, all fed by the mighty serpentine flow of the Ebro River.

La Rioja has been home to some of Spain’s finest viniculture for well over a thousand years. The majority of the wines coming from the region are blended reds, also known as tintos (which means “inks” in Spanish), with the Tempranillo varietal being the most prominent grape of the region.

Driving through La Rioja, you’ll pass many a vineyard, though it’s recommended that you call ahead to schedule a wine-tasting appointment. Sometimes, the smaller wineries won’t have an English-speaker on staff and the tours will only be offered in Spanish.

Still, wine-tasting here is a treat, as many of the wineries were established hundreds of years ago—and each has their own perspective on the history of the region.

Our favorite part about the wine here, though, was simply how affordable it was. A decent Rioja in the United States might run you well over twenty dollars. When you’re perusing the selections in Spain, however, you may find jaw-dropping $7 euro bottles—bottles you wouldn’t even be able to score back home anyways.

The Gear that Got it Done

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