Sun-drenched Spain was Europe’s original package-holiday destination, but beyond the Costas lies a land of culture and beauty just waiting to be explored by bike.
Why go cycling in Spain?
Away from the coastal tourist hotspots there’s much in Spain to attract holidaying cyclists. The country boasts some of Europe’s finest cities and is a hotbed of culture.
Not surprisingly, for one of the most mountainous countries in Europe, it is also home to some of the continent’s most spectacular scenery.
Road cycling in Spain
Northern Spain is just about as far away as you can get from Spain’s tourist hubs – and not just geographically. Opt for a cycling holiday around the Cantabria province and you will be welcomed by rich green vistas, handsome coastal towns, secluded coves and dramatic peaks.
Santander, a busy port and the capital of Cantabria, is a good place to start. From here, cycle east along the Costa Verde towards Gijon, 180km away in Asturias. The road skirts the coast and will take you through, or near to, traditional towns and villages that dot the northern reaches of Spain.
Stop at Santilla del Mar for a wander around its cobbled streets or a visit to the Altamira Caves (dubbed the ‘the Sistine Chapel of cave art’, it has some of the world’s most startling examples of ancient cave painting).
Call in at Comillas, just 16km or so further along the coast, for its art nouveau buildings, including Gaudi’s El Capricho, and loiter in Llanes to explore tiny beaches like the glorious cove at Villaneuva, sat at the end of a long and narrow canyon, hemmed in on either side by sheer rock.
And as you wind your way along this verdant coastline, over to the south lies the Picos de Europa National Park. With its striking peaks, deep caves, brown bears and wolves, the Picos offer a tempting, if challenging, diversion inland.
Over to the east, the city of Girona acts as either a great start/finish point for a circular route around Catalonia or, for the fit, a terrific base for daily excursions to the coast or into the hills. Head west and you’re into some serious mountain territory, used for training by some of the world’s top professional teams.
Mountain biking in Spain
Andalucía is a haven for mountain bikers. There is a huge variety of riding available across a number of different ranges.
A good base for a few days is the city of Córdoba. Here trails wind their way high above the city. There is more than 1,000km of flowing track, and riders of all abilities will be able to find something to suit them.
Alternatively, stay in the area around the mountain town of Castril, in the Sierra de Castril. Rides here can be as easy or as demanding as you want them to be. From a relatively simple jaunt through the Rio Castril valley, tracking olive groves and tree plantations, to a testing 40km slog into the Sierra de Cazorla, complete with leg-burning climbs and devilish drops, anything is possible.
Further south, the Sierra Nevada National Park offers some of Europe’s southernmost serious mountain biking. There is an endless variation of mountain biking in this 860km-squared park. Follow farm tracks, cycle through forests, or scale rock-strewn desolate peaks before dropping daringly back down to earth. This is mountain biking at its most natural.
For something different, head to the Basque Country and into the western Pyrenees. Stay near San Sebastian for a good range of riding within an hour or so’s drive. Make tracks into the Pyrenees for some challenging climbing and descending on diverse trails, or cycle into the hills just behind this stunning coastline for some gentler (but no less spectacular) riding.
What non-cycling activities are there?
Along the Costa Verde, Gijon is a pleasant city in which to spend some time. Attractions include a museum dedicated to Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, an author and philosopher who played a large part in the Age of Enlightenment. Jovellanos was born in Gijon in 1744 and his birthplace now houses two rooms dedicated to his life, as well as 19th and 20th century art.
Over in Catalonia, Figueres is home to the Dalí Theatre-Museum, which houses the largest collection of the surrealist artist’s work.
In Andalucía, you could go to see some flamenco to get a flavour of the culture and heritage of this fascinating area. Try to get to a display away from the tourist traps of coastal Andalucía for a more authentic experience.
When’s best to go?
Spain has a not entirely undeserved reputation for days of endless sun, but its climate is much more diverse than that. While southernmost Spain enjoys a very mild climate in winter but suffers sweltering conditions in summer, the northwest sees much higher rainfall all year round.
In general terms avoid winter, particularly if you’re planning on riding in the mountains, and high summer when high temperatures can make for uncomfortable riding.
Spain has a huge number of festivals and fiestas with which to try to coincide a visit, including:
Cantabria: The Battle Of The Flowers, held in August in Laredo (45km west of Santander), which sees the streets bustling with flower-covered floats and performance artists in a spectacular parade.
Andalucía: The Cascamorras Festival in Granada in September, celebrating the discovery of a statue of the virgin over 500 years ago and involving paint throwing – not one for those who dislike getting messy!
Catalonia: The Festes de la Mercè, which sees traditional Catalan human castles (castellers) and folk dancing throughout the region.
How’s best to get there?
Fly or sail to Santander or Bilbao for Cantabria. Fly to Girona or Barcelona for Catalonia, Malaga for Andalucía, and Biarritz or Bilbao for the Basque Country.
Where to stay
Continuing the luxurious theme, the five-star Hospes Palacio Del Bailio in Córdoba is just about as plush as it gets. Prices from €245. Alternatively, camp at El Brillante for €24 for two people and a tent. In Castril, try La Fuente, from €45 for a double.
In Girona, stay at the Ultonia, which has secure bike lock-up and a workshop, and does doubles from €80. You can rent a bungalow at Camping Igueldo in San Sebastián from €250 for three nights or take a tent and camp for €18, for a car, a tent and two people.