By Doug Menchhofer #179186
The sun’s arc was well into its downward slide through cloudless Spanish skies, although total darkness wouldn't come until after 10 p.m. on summer’s second day in Catalonia. Mild fatigue was growing slowly in the wake of a red-eye to Barcelona, a celebratory night at a boisterous sidewalk cafe, the confusion of navigating Barcelona’s crowded streets after too little sleep, dodging traffic on the highways leading to the northern mountains, and five hours of riding through the stunning Pyrenees foothills. The day had been hot in the valleys, though dry conditions made for pleasant riding, and the runs through higher altitudes had been delightful. Another three hours lay ahead before we would reach Arties, our first destination in the higher mountains, just a stone’s throw from the French border.
My trip with Phil, Jim and Jeff was planned as a discovery of northern Spain, beginning in the northeast, following a counterclockwise loop along the south side of the French border into Basque country. Continuing along the northern coast, we hoped to reach Santiago near the western shore. Our return would lead us through Salamanca, Segovia and back to Barcelona. Rather than join a guided tour, we preferred the freedom of setting our own pace, maintaining options for detours and layovers. Still, we had booked lodging in advance so we would arrive after each relatively long day at a planned destination with the peace of mind that comfortable rooms would welcome us. Our budget was not unlimited, but we were able to justify booking rooms for most nights in Paradores, Spain’s offering of roughly 90 deluxe hotels typically located in breathtaking settings. With discounts we were quoted around 75 Euros apiece (roughly $105) nightly by sharing two rooms between the four of us. Breakfast was included, allowing us to indulge in an open buffet of smoked salmon, Sorrento ham, fresh eggs, cheeses, pastries, fruit, yogurt, cereals and juices each day before setting off. This proved a huge advantage in fueling our bodies through the first half of each day.
For our bikes we contacted Iberian Moto Tours (www.imtbike.com) roughly four months in advance of our ride and found ample options remaining. Jim, whom we elected as our ride leader/navigator, opted for an R1200GS in contrast with the K1200S that he regularly rides at home. Phil chose the same bike; his regular ride is an R1200GSA, so he felt right at home on his rental. Jeff,the only group member who isn’t a regular BMW rider, chose the amazing new K1600GT with the comment, “I hope it doesn’t feel too small!” In comparison with the Goldwing that he usually rides, the K was a natural for him, though he was chided that transitioning back after returning home might be tough! As an R1150RT owner, I chose a 1200RT, a bike that I already loved. Throughout the rental process we were deeply impressed with the staff at IMT Bike. Moira promptly answered all questions during the months leading up to our arrival. The pick-up process also was well organized and instructive. Mikel and Serge were unflappably thorough and patient as they walked us through the idiosyncrasies of our bikes, each of which was in pristine condition.
Leaving Barcelona, fields and orchards gave way to hills and valleys, some barren and others forested. By late morning we left the main highways, and by early afternoon had traversed several miles of switchbacks. Climbing toward a 2,000-meter pass, Jim’s GPS suddenly announced we were proceeding in the wrong direction – evidently we needed to return to the village of Ripoll, where we must have missed a turn. After backtracking 20 minutes, the GPS changed its mind again, telling us to turn around and go back up! We could draw only one conclusion – it was time for lunch and a look at our paper Michelin maps.
Spain has many traditions, some dictating the course of each day. Siesta generally begins at 2 p.m. and lasts through the heat of afternoon. We discovered this first day that our dining options would be sparse to non-existent if we didn’t conform to this pattern of Spanish life. Locating a café with seconds to spare, we ordered bocadillos (sandwiches) and soft drinks from a waitress who clearly had thought she would be on her way home by this point in the afternoon. From the map we concluded that returning back up the mountain was our correct route, though the confusion of the GPS remained a mystery. This tendency for GPS error would plague our entire trip. Because many of the roads we travelled were exceptionally remote, we decided then to scrutinize the maps prior to starting each day’s ride; still we would later discover how costly wrong turns could be.
Route N 260 appeared on our maps as a “scenic route,” a designation that proved to be understated. Our group had practiced for the trip by riding long days through the mountains and forests in southern Pennsylvania, honing our group riding skills and extending our stamina. Probing deeper now along this mountainous route into the Spanish Pyrenees, we rode with a mixture of confidence and focus, enjoying the soul-stirring views while remaining fully engaged in the technical aspects of lining up for each curve, working the gears and preparing for the unexpected around each blind corner. Then we encountered the Catalonian police.
Truth be told, the most uncomfortable part about being stopped by the mossos (police) turned out to be fear of the unknown. Stereotypes of corrupt policemen notwithstanding, we really had no reason to fear being pulled over, and this stop proved to be routine. Our papers were checked and found to be in order. We hadn’t been observed violating any laws, obscure or otherwise. Greeted with my best Spanish, the officers seemed friendlier hearing my attempts to acknowledge that we were in their country, not in the U.S. Finally cleared to proceed, we were cautioned that this particular road has had more than its share of motorcycling deaths. We were entering a stretch with some notorious switchbacks, and these officers clearly didn’t wish to have further contact with us later that day under less pleasant circumstances.
Indeed, the road soon demonstrated how it had earned its reputation. Shifting constantly we logged our slowest pace of the day. Diverting onto a smaller road, we wound up through the highest pass of the ride, past snowdrifts that stubbornly persevered into the longest days of the year. Climbing steeply, we avoided looking for too long down to where we had just ridden, mindful of the already dizzying heights we were leaving below. With evening approaching, clouds closed in around us while the temperature dropped precipitously. A heavy mist began to collect on our windscreens, requiring a stop to don liners and heavier gear that we had lugged through the hot valleys below.
We descended below the clouds where the village of Arties finally rolled into view, its elegant stone Parador bidding us welcome. Daylight waned. We had taken all that one day could offer while another six awaited us. As we relaxed with an exquisite meal, sounds of singing and drumming filtered up through the open windows from the street one story below. A parade honoring St. John’s Day passed jubilantly by, including what must have been nearly every occupant from this tiny village in attendance, followed by fireworks, much applause and general commotion. It was midnight and our first day had announced that it decided when and where its offerings stopped!
Dawn brought the vision of a distant mountain shrouded by low clouds, its snowy peak just discernible as belonging to Earth rather than sky. Pink and blue hues infused mountain and clouds alike, sounding a subliminal call to begin the next day. Some of us heard the call more loudly than others. Each was assuming a less communal attitude than before, the demands of the previous day’s ride showing. We each harbored unique expectations, finding time amid busy schedules, making significant financial commitments to be there; our individual wants were emerging. Jeff and Phil lingered over breakfast, enjoying the natural beauty of our surroundings and savoring the break from the road. We were underway by 11 a.m., the heating of the high summer sun well in progress.
The road continued through mountains, though elevation changes were less extreme, and the speed we could maintain was brisk. Fast sweeping curves replaced hard switchbacks, as we again marveled at the country’s diversity of scenery. A man-made lake appeared jewel-like along the adjacent river, spectacular in its setting of granite canyon walls and soaring peaks in the distance. The road passed through several tunnels, the longest of which ran five kilometers through the cool center of a mountain, bringing welcome relief from the fierce sun. Soon we entered an extended canyon of approximately 25 meters in width – barely enough room between the sheer rock walls for two narrow lanes of pavement, a guardrail and a cascading river. As the canyon snaked through turn after turn, its walls climbed to 60 meters in height, bringing shade to much of the passage. The effect was euphoric! Eventually the canyon opened and the landscape was tamed; the road straightened and we each found sixth gear. By 1:30 p.m. we were seated in a café taking refuge from the valley sun while sharing the elation of the morning’s ride. We would at times still become modestly frustrated and even mildly annoyed with one another, but in that one stretch of road we had each independently come to the conclusion that sacrificing individual preferences for the sake of this experience was an easy decision.
As the day drew on, we began distancing ourselves from the mountains. The road followed a wide lake for several miles and then entered a section of lower rolling hills. We skirted Pamplona where the bulls would run within the week; a stop there was tempting, but would have lengthened the day significantly. Instead we pushed on to the parador of Argomaniz, where we arrived with a generous amount of daylight remaining, allowing time to shower and relax in this updated renaissance palace once visited by Napoleon.
By our third day we had discussed riding styles, adjusted our riding positions, agreed on a reasonable departure time and come to a consensus about most of the small details that had dogged us up to that point. Rolling away we became a single unit, coordinated in both movement and spirit.
By midday the highways were behind us as we arrived at the crowded seaside town of Comillas. Choosing a restaurant away from the tourist-filled town center, we enjoyed a quiet lunch of fresh seafood beneath a canopy of enormous sycamore trees. The fresh seafood was consistently delicious, and we were completely awed by the flavors hiding in dishes such as wild mushrooms in pasta, grilled leg of lamb, quail legs, and my personal favorite, scrambled eggs with foie gras (fatty liver) and wild mushrooms. Outstanding Spanish wines complemented our evening meals, and we eagerly looked forward to the fresh green olives, regional cheeses and tomato bread served commonly as appetizers.
The park of Picos de Europa envelops roughly 1,000 square kilometers in the region of Cantabria, a short distance south of the central Atlantic coast. Glacier-scoured granite cliffs surround the local paradorat Fuente De, creating a setting to rival those of Yosemite. Route N 621 follows the Rio Deva as it snakes through the canyon leading to Fuente De, replicating the spectacle we had enjoyed on our second day of riding. Arriving from the coast, we were immediately captivated. However, we encountered a dilemma: our plans had us facing one of our longest days in the morning, in order to reach Santiago by the next evening, but we had hoped to find time to hike in Picos de Europa. Real fatigue after three full days of riding had become prominent on my colleagues’ faces, as it must have been on mine. The elation of having reached this remarkable place was wilting with the realization we would barely have our feet planted on the ground before having to again pack up and move on. Or… an alternative came into focus. We had also booked rooms at the parador in Santiago – perhaps it would be possible to switch for a second night in Fuente De? Salamanca lay due south, making the ride there comparable to either of the next two planned days had we continued to Santiago and back. This idea immediately gained unanimous support, and seemed one of the best decisions of the trip. We had passed the time limit for cancelling without penalty, but the desk clerk worked her magic and soon informed us that yes, they would be happy to accommodate our request. High fives all around!
Giving ourselves a day off may have been one of our wisest decisions, as it reanimated everyone. Our free day dawned with the sound of cowbells beneath bluebird skies. Jim and I enjoyed an early morning hike high into the mountains. Later in the day the four of us ascended to the ridge top by way of a telefericstretched precipitously from the valley floor. The views were simply astonishing, and we enjoyed the final daylight hours of our “vacation” day watching soaring ravens high above the valley floor below.
Feeling vastly more refreshed than we had at any other point in our journey, we began our next leg early the following morning, wrapping clockwise around the southern perimeter of Picos de Europa, planning to continue southwest toward León and on to Salamanca. We hadn’t counted on more GPS gremlins though, and our plans were to be laid askew once again. Owing partly to an immensely pleasant stretch of road through the canyons on the western side of the park, and partly to the uncustomary high clouds that prevented our navigating by the sun, we missed a turn. About the time our early breakfast had fully worn off and the afternoon sun finally broke through, the GPS revealed its mischief – the blue swath of the Atlantic coast drifted down from the top of the screen and into view. We had ridden northward beyond our intended route for at least two hours through impressive twisties, and were now over 400 kilometers from our evening destination! As we entered the village of Cangas de Onis, the heat of the lower elevations again bore down, accompanied by growing hunger and the realization that we were in for a very long day. Resting in the shade of a café at the western edge of an ancient Roman hunchback bridge, we watched fishermen bragging about their day’s catches, as men younger than ourselves leapt from the higher perches of the bridge’s abutments into the cool water below. Tempted to linger, we finished our mid-afternoon lunch and slowly prepared to nearly double the mileage we had planned for the day.
Loath to ride into the night, we ruled out returning through the canyon. Instead we chose to pick up the coastal freeway westward to Oviedo, there turning south through León for the long grind to Salamanca. Working to our advantage was the fact that Spanish roads are generally excellent; the route ahead offered 120 km/hour limits, which we could handle with ease and relative comfort. Less fortuitous was the weather of that waning afternoon; away from the coastal mountains the temperature climbed to 105° F while the unfettered wind buffeted us with gusts in excess of 30 mph. This led me to prematurely conclude that things couldn’t get any worse, though how could I forget those gremlins? They remembered me, conspiring to energize my electric seat heater just for fun! I hadn’t quite adjusted to the small LED display on this newer RT where tiny indicators for the heaters reside; all detail was lost through my polarized sunglasses. So, aware that it was becoming hellishly hot but feeling pressed to keep pace and tough it out, the rotisserie ride proceeded. I eventually discovered my error and corrected it, though relief from the relentless sun would still lie hours ahead.
Occasionally during the haul through near-desert conditions, I wondered what payback awaited us in Salamanca. The mountain towns and villages of the north featured spectacular surroundings; by contrast the flat plains had become an obstacle to overcome. Imagining the reception I would receive for having selected this city as a destination if it lacked gracia, I tried to think only of the soft beds and air conditioned rooms that lay ahead. Finally, around 10:00 that evening we rolled dog-tired into a town of astonishing beauty and richness. Spain and Portugal were playing the final match of the European Cup soccer championship, and every bar was riotous with Spain in the lead. We found our hotel where we quickly showered and changed. Making our way to the nearest suitable café to quench our hunger and unwind from the solitary hours on the road, we proceeded to consume an appropriately analgesic dose of red wine while soaking in the sights, sounds and flavors of this dynamic university town. As if contrived, a group of local Flamenco musicians filtered onto the steps of the Universidad Pontificaacross the cobblestones from our outdoor table, starting an informal jam session that would last into the wee morning hours. The world was a good place to be, and Spain was a very good place to enjoy it from!
Our sixth day on the road would delight us with new rewards. The amazing Roman aqueduct in Segovia humbled us with its grandeur, the ruins of a medieval castle in Atienza echoed of an ancient life from another world. The road traversed salt ponds that had been worked for centuries as a source of this essential mineral, still yielding a steady supply. Riding through open rolling hills, we were each conscious of the fact that this night’s parador would be our final home on the road before closing our loop back in Barcelona, giving to a day of added contemplation and reflection. As a destination that seemed fitting for our final night under way, we had chosen the expansive twelfth century castle in the hamlet of Siguenza. Ascending the steep and impossibly narrow cobblestone streets to the castle’s forecourt, we parked among the gleaming Mercedes and Audis, self conscious of our dusty riding gear and of the overall image that we must have projected.
On our final day, the road to Barcelona once again turned blistering hot. Truck traffic mounted steadily on all of the significant roads we travelled. Gusty winds pummeled us through the higher passes. Breaking for lunch in the severe heat of the early afternoon, we found an air conditioned sanctuary with a gregarious proprietor whose mission seemed to be to impress us with hospitality and generosity! The finest paella of the entire trip was placed before us, followed unexpectedly by a heaping platter of savory broiled chicken. Thoroughly stuffed, our preferences for dessert were then requested, to which we could only groan! Not satisfied with allowing us to skip this final course, the owner stuffed a grocery bag full of doughnut peaches for us to take away, ripe and exploding with flavor. The meal had cost $9 apiece.
As we emerged from this oasis, the suffocating afternoon heat fell on us like a thick blanket. Our recently satisfying meal became heavy and paralyzing. The road brought little refreshment, until we gradually climbed into the relative cool of higher elevations along a familiarly twisting and lightly travelled mountain road. Passing dense olive groves planted in a landscape of ancient, hand laid stone terraces, the road climbed on, dazzling us with unexpected beauty. We stopped to lie beneath towering, electric generating windmills, hypnotized by the sweep of their elegant white blades and the repetitious fvfvfvfvtttt of the blade tips cutting sharply through the air. Crossing a gentle rise, we came abruptly to the rim of an impossibly broad and deep canyon, charging us with adrenaline and causing our hearts to race as we took in this latest panorama that had followed so many before it. Our last day would not disappoint!
But our last day would eventually bring a close to our journey, with a mixture of elation for having safely experienced an adventure far beyond our expectations, and sadness as the bikes were reclaimed by IMT for other travelers to enjoy. The bikes had performed absolutely flawlessly – always eager to start, never hesitating through demanding conditions. Our odometers showed some 3,000 kilometers added to the bikes in the past week, the digital media that we had filled with videos and photographs ran into the hundreds of gigabytes and our memories were equally filled with a cornucopia of experiences that had overwhelmed all of our senses. Someone broke out the peaches that had baked and sweetened in a luggage box since lunchtime, and they were savored by all in IMT’s shop more greedily than the finest champagne. In the morning Phil would return to DC, while Jim, Jeff and I would join our families in Ireland for a final week together, where we would reminisce and dream of new adventures. Could this amazing experience ever be surpassed? Perhaps if we set out to allow our adventures to open themselves up to us, taking whatever each day has to offer, with the spirit of never trying to prove anything… who knows. We could only hope for future journeys and the opportunity to see where they might lead us.