A trip to the Basque Country

Jazz outside the Guggenheim

Our trip started with the usual UK Rail near-disaster. We had booked Doncaster – KX with Hull Trains – our journey to Donnie was fine but then the fun began. About 400 people were waiting to join the train and passengers without seat reservations were advised to wait for the next one. For some reason we didn’t have reservations although I had requested them when booking but we decided to risk it and get on anyway. It was packed but someone kindly offered us some seats so for us at least, the journey wasn’t so bad. 

Our next few days were spent around Acton & Harlesden – not the prettiest parts of London but amazing for public transport. You can reach practically all parts of London from Willesden Junction, while Acton now has the Elizabeth line in the portfolio.

All this being so, getting to St. P. for a morning Eurostar was a breeze, and we whizzed down to Paris, popped on the metro to Montparnasse, changed at Bordeaux and were picked up by our friends for a couple of days relaxing in the French countryside, in gorgeous weather.

The weather continued to stay good for us when we returned to Mont-de-Marsan and we changed at Morcenx for Hendaye. We nearly came a cropper at Dax when we realised that the train had split and we were now in the section headed for Pau, but we managed to switch trains just in time. This train takes you through some of the grand old resorts of South-West France – Bayonne, Biarritz and St. Jean-de-Luz amongst them – before depositing you at the border town of Hendaye. A quick ID check and you are headed for the Euskotren service for San Sebastián. This service is something of a revelation, it’s somewhere between a metro, a tram-train (although it doesn’t run on-street) and a narrow-gauge train, coping well with the twists and turns of the Basque Country. 

The whole network covers the entire Basque region, encompassing trains, trams, the Metro, buses, transporter bridges, heritage lines and funiculars  and once you have bought a Barik card is incredibly cheap. We bought ours in Bilbao, and as it wasn’t easy I’ll tell you how to do it:- Go to Abando station, which is the main RENFE (main line) station, and visit the tourist office opposite. Just to the left of the door is the machine that sells the cards for €3. You then need to put some credit on but don’t put too much on – the average urban journey is about 13 cents and Bilbao to Hendaye, which about 100kms, is €2! If you get stuck the English-speaking staff in the tourist office are very helpful. 

The trains are built by CAF, the same company who built the new Northern Rail trains and have space for disabled people, bikes, pushchairs, surfboards etc with no limit. This did result in a slightly chaotic situation on our train from Hendaye to San Sebastián on a sunny Saturday the day before a Marathon – the train was not only heaving but there were about 12 bikes on board. I was quite astounded when an entitled women got on with her two kids, one of whom was travelling in the child seat of her bike, the other one having their own, got on, moved everyone out of the way to make room for the bikes, got two old people out of their seats so the kids could sit down – they moved without demur – and got another passenger to hold the kid’s bike. It all seemed to work though, mostly due to the good-naturedness of the local people. This trip was an exception, there was plenty of space on the other trains we took. It struck me that this is the kind of network we need in S. Yorks, stretching into our neighbouring Shires as well.

San Sebastián is gorgeous and we enjoyed a couple of days eating pinxtos (local version of tapas) visiting the fabulous beaches and admiring the architecture. Then we travelled on to Bilbao. One disadvantage of the Euskotren is that all trains stop at every station, so the journey from San S. to Bilbao is quite lengthy. The region is quite populous so there are plenty of stops!

Masks are still obligatory on Spanish and Portuguese Public Transport The Transport Bridge is part of the public transport system in Bilbao Flexible spaces for wheelchairs, pushchairs and bikes on Euskotren   

Bilbao, meanwhile, is famous for the Guggenheim and has an excellent maritime museum as well. Its industrial heritage makes it more of a rugged-looking town and full use has been made of the riverside to create space for people to walk, cycle and generally enjoy life. Both Bilbao and San Sebastián are cycle-friendly cities with well-used protected cycleways linking up with quieter streets. Looking at your phone whilst cycling appears to be obligatory. E-scooters and other zero-emission personal transport innovations were in evidence as well.

Cyclists crossing a bridge in San Sebastian This bridge in Bilbao has a separate covered section for walkers and cyclists Cycle route along the beach in San Sebastian Cyclists in San Sebastian This escalator gets people up from the riverside to the local centre in Portugalete

We weren’t cycling on this trip but from the train we could see that there was an extensive network of cycleways connecting the smaller towns along the way as well. 

All too soon our time was up and we returned to Hendaye to ready ourselves for a long day of travel – breakfast in Hendaye, dinner in Sheffield. 

We left the excellent Hotel Restaurant Santiago for the short stroll back down to the station and caught the 09:30 to Paris. This is one of SNCF’s crack trains – SNCF now have two brands of TGV service, InOui which are the flagship services and OUIGO which are more cheap & cheerful but just as fast. We had been lucky to pick up some cheap 1st class tickets so were whisked back to Paris in comfort. 

No aircraft were used on this trip. 

From here to infinity…

A colleague writes:

About 8 years ago we returned from Bilbao to San Sebastian, also with outings to Gernika & Bermeo, and went to the narrow gauge railway museum. I loved the major railway terminus feel of San Sebastian station.

in contrast the RENFE services seemed infrequent and expensive and the network often impractical. We went out from SS to Pamplona but came back on the express coach, and also took that from SS out to Bilbao – massive investment in civil engineering with all those tunnels and bridges and high level motorways.

so strange TGV cannot continue through from Hendaye to SS – and we gave up trying to find a viable day rail excursion from Bilbao to provincial capital Vitoria, opting for a tour of the Bilbao metro instead.