touring notes for northern Spain and a bit of Portugal
I recently completed a brief (12 day) tour of northern Spain in the 2nd half of May, ranging from Bilbao in the east to Vigo in the west. My riding included the Picos de Europa mountain range. Because my time was limited and I had 3 very wet days in the middle, I took advantage of the easy ability to take bikes on many of the trains. As far as trains are concerned, there are 3 different rail companies operating in northern Spain. The national railroad, Renfe, allows you to take a bike on their “circania” (local) trains and the “media distancia” trains, aka “Regional” trains. You don't have to do anything, just wheel your bike on board. Some "regional" trains had hooks for hanging your bike. The bike travels for free. There were varying ways to secure your bike depending on the train. You cannot take a bike on the faster Renfe trains unless it is packed in some sort of bag or box.
Northern Spain also has a number of very useful narrow gauge trains operated by Feve, a private company. You can wheel your loaded bike onto all of Feve's trains, and the tickets are very cheap. Your bike goes for free. The trains are slow because they stop in virtually every village, but they were very handy.
The third company is Euskotren which operates some local trains in the Basque region. I think you can take bikes on their trains, but I never was on any of them.
Northern Spain is not flat anywhere. This is very apparent when you see a 3-D map of the region. The region is also much greener than the rest of Spain because it gets a lot more rain than the rest of the country. The rain in Spain does NOT fall mainly on the plain.
There were 3 days of riding which were especially nice. 2 of these were in the Picos de Europa area. One day was through a beautiful gorge on route AS114 between Panes in the east and Cangas de Onis to the west. There's a low pass you have to cross a couple of km east of the intersection with AS115. The scenery was lovely east of the pass and the traffic level was very low in the gorge.
Another beautiful day was when I crossed the Picos de Europa from Cistierna in the south to Potes north of the Picos on route N621, crossing the 1609m pass called Puerto de San Glorio. This was much easier in the direction I did it in than it would be going north to south. That is because there is a fairly high meseta south of the pass, but you would be starting near sea level on the north side. There was very little traffic along the entire route that day. South of the pass was the only place where I had an appreciable wind.
The third gorgeous ride was in the Miño (Spanish) or Minho (Portuguese) valley. The river forms the border between the 2 countries near the Atlantic coast. I had toured in Portugal previously but we ran out of time and never made it to the Minho. On this trip I spent the night in the pretty medieval town of Tui in Spain, before crossing the river into Portugal on a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel. On the Portuguese side there is a paved rail/trail in the valley. I believe it goes from Valenca in the west to Melgaco in the east. I rode along a portion of it, but at the time, I didn't know how far it went, and I returned to the road when I was near it. I should have stayed on the trail, as the road had a fair bit of fast-moving traffic, although there was a good paved shoulder. The Miño valley is a wine-growing region for both Spain and Portugal, and the Portuguese side produces the famous vinho verde. After Melgaco, there was almost no traffic heading to the Spanish border, and the road was gorgeous. Crossing back into Spain, I continued eastward on the magnificent OR402. This part of the Miño valley is entirely in Spain and was even prettier than the lower stretch, and there was almost no traffic other than lots of Spanish cyclists on training rides. This part of the valley is the Ribeiro wine region.
Two towns were especially nice: Leon and Oviedo. Leon is wonderful, and it was the only town which had a lot of local cyclists. Bilbao, A Coruña, Santiago de Compostela, and Pontevedra were also nice places. Unfortunately, I missed Lugo, a walled town. I would urge cyclists to use the local trains to get in and out of Santander and Bilbao. Santander, in particular, sprawls and has mainly industrial suburbs.
I mainly used the Michelin maps 571 for Galicia (1:400,000), and 572 for Asturias & Cantabria (1:250,000). This is the first time I had problems with Michelin maps. There were occasionally some small roads shown on the maps which didn't seem to exist. A bigger problem was the routine lack of signs indicating road numbers and destinations on the smaller roads and intersections. There are some very good detailed maps for the Picos de Europa region which are readily available in the area. Otherwise, I'm not sure if there are better maps for touring in the region than the Michelin maps.
I was staying in small hotels, but I met a Swiss cycling couple that was mainly camping. They told me that even though it was late May, a fair number of campgrounds weren't open yet. Late May is considered off-season in northern Spain, and hotels were quite cheap except in the Basque region.
I encountered quite a few touring cyclists. About half seemed to be doing some variation on a Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, and about half, including myself, were not and were simply touring in northern Spain. Santiago de Compostela was the only town I visited which was inundated with tourists.
I live in Santiago and was born in Vigo, so I feel I can add something to your comments.
As you say, Michelin maps are not the best option for touring along northern / western Iberian Penninsula. There are much better ones and in a wide variety, actually, but you may only find them here. By the way, Google Maps works pretty good too if you don't feel like buying maps.
As for trains, regional ones (RENFE-Cercanías) only have room for a certain number of bicycles (namely, three in most cases), which could mean a problem if you travel in a big group or if there are other cyclists wanting to catch the same train as you. (Note: FEVE is a state-owned company too). Generally, buses are a good alternative.
There are lots of private campgrounds along the route that you followed, but, as you say, most of them tend to open when the weather starts to improve (June onwards, but, beware: 11ºC and rain today in Santiago; not a very pleasent camping day!). By the way, outside national parks, free camping (stealth, gipsy or whatever) is quite easy; you may not find a single «no trespassing» sign in rural areas, especially, in Galicia. Obviously, the Leave No Traces policy is very much recommended and expected.
As you mention, Santiago is quite full of tourists / pilgrims. Next year is Holy Year (holy years are the only ones in which the cathedral opens its «Holy Door» and you can supposedly gain the Jubilee), and local authorities expect literally millions of visitors (in fact, the galician government, rightly or not, considers the Holy Year as a major profit oportunity, spiritual matters aside). Not very good for us, not-related-with-tourism locals, and not very good for the touring cyclist looking for peace and quietness (or low prices for that matter), but good for bussiness and Jubilee seekers, I guess. Undoubtedly, the Saint James Way will be full to the rim.
I very much like (and love) the Picos de Europa region, in Asturias, and there are other similar places in Galicia as well, namely, Courel, Ancares and Xurés (this last one shared between Galicia and Portugal, being the portuguese part the best preserved by far). Of course, there are also some gorgeous natural places in the Basque Country or Cantabria, not to mention the Somiedo natural park, again in Asturias. Northern Portugal is very much agreeable too.
I'm glad to see that you've had some good ride days here in our little North.
PS, just for the record: despite being my city, I have to admit that, generally speaking, Vigo is not the most interesting town to visit in Galicia, to say the least. It's something like Brest in the french Britanny. In spite of being destroyed in WWII, as Brest, Vigo was conquered by dull concrete buildings during Franco's dictatorship and, after that, by some modern abominations. The nice places that it had are now mostly gone for good, and, certainly, regular visitors miss the ones that still survive.
Thanks for your comments, chandearriba, and for correcting me concerning FEVE. You wrote that buses are a good alternative. I know that the buses in northern Spain are frequently faster than the trains. How readily do they accept bikes? When I asked (twice), I was told each time that bikes had to be covered, i.e. in a bag or box.
Hi again, axolotl. Concerning buses, it usually depends on the company and, especially, on the driver's mood and/or your negotiation capabilities, but, as far as I know, you can always put your bike in the bus' cargo compartment along with luggage. You may have to pay a little extra, protect it or as a zealous driver would say, protect the bus from it (maybe just with a big plastic bag or a piece of cardboard), or take one or both wheels off. Once I just threw my bike in the cargo compartment and nobody said nothing about it. Some say the best strategy is to take the front wheel off and wrap everything up with plastic film, such as in here (http://www.flickr.com/photos/avoyali/1862341501/).
Indeed, buses here are quicker and go to more places than trains, plus they are almost as cheap and comfortable (even for a tall guy like me).