Tuesday, July 5th
Blog-log: Kilometres from ‘Go’: 2073.0 (302.1 ridden today).
Location: Camping Sierra de Gredos, Hoyos del Espino, Ávila.
I mentioned my early start to the day in Day 7’s blog. There was more than an ordinary reason for this; I not only wanted to beat Madrid’s horrifying rush hour – or rather hours as in Spain these are staggered as different sectors work widely different hours. At least I didn’t have the school run to content with as schools have been out since San Juan (June 24th) but nevertheless it augured to be an ordeal for a country boy like myself!
But the real reason was my plan to ride right through the very heart not only of the city but the country’s road network itself, Kilómetro Zero, which is sited in the Puerta del Sol. I had a mind to photograph the bike’s tyres on the plaque, which is set in the pavement, but not only did Patrick advise me that this had been moved recently, so he couldn’t guide me to the spot – it’s a big plaza with lots of monuments! – but also there was the little matter of the ongoing 15 M protest camp that has caught the international headlines of late. So, at about three in the morning of the Sunday night, after the jazz, and well oiled perhaps, I concocted the idea of strapping my camera onto the handlebars using my bendy tripod thing – sorry about the technical talk!
So, the following video speaks for itself – I apologise for the quality, it’s probably not a good idea to watch this when you’ve had a couple – and I should say, “Don’t try this at home, children!” Transit in the Puerta del Sol is limited to official vehicles and delivery trucks (just for a few hours in the morning) so of course I didn’t do this, honestly officer, oh no no no! The gateway, as it once was I guess, is aptly named as you can see from the shadow. The clip gives a good insight as to what the Spanish are like before their first cup of coffee – the subject of numerous songs, poems and philosophical debates! Furthermore, as a result of the 15 M camp and the city hall in the Viejo Correos (Old Post Office) building, there was a very obviously heavy police presence, in the form of Madrid’s somewhat notorious Municipales. This is the first, and probably the last time I’ve ever done one of these ‘road’ films – I’ll leave it to the ‘professionals’ in future!
On to the trip proper, once through the city centre, having found Gran Via with some difficulty, it was doddle. Gran Via transforms itself into the A6 autovia – there was a kind of intelligence at work going right through the heart of the city – on the way to La Coruña in Galicia. But I wanted to get off this as soon as possible and chose to head for El Escorial. This is the home of the famous royal palace, now a monastery and school, that is probably the most boring building in the universe – but every good Spanish biker has to go at least once, so I went, once!
But nearby is the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), the highly controversial monument to the victims of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The place was built to Franco’s orders and it is supposed to commemorate the dead of both sides of the conflict. Briefly the polemic, as they say in Spanish, is that political prisoners (strictly speaking prisoners of war but that shouldn’t count after hostilities are over) were used as part of the labour force in its eighteen years of construction. Having said that these convicts were paid and got redemption of their sentences. The facts are always difficult to discern – especially as Spain has never undergone a process of reconciliation, but this is wandering way of the point of this blog. The Valle de los Caidos is interesting to me as a writer on Spain’s history, so that’s the reason I went.
The Basilica, where Franco is buried, is entirely underground, and is so huge it had to be discretely altered so as not to offend the Vatican, as it was in danger of being larger that St. Peter’s of Rome! But what most people think of is the colossal cross, perched on the mountaintop directly above. This really is amazing: at 150 metres it’s pretty big, but add to that it’s at 150 metres above the floor of the basilica. I first saw it ‘live’ years ago from a flight from London to Morocco, hence high above this place in the very centre of Spain – that’s big! I’ll let the image speak for itself and get on with the trip.
The big decision, which I hadn’t already made, was to get to the Sierra de Gredos from either the north, via the beautiful city of Ávila, which would have made more sense, or from the south along the valley of the river Tietar, which hosts string of ‘spa’ type towns all the way to Extremadura to which Madrileños swarm in their tens of thousand at weekends and in the summer. But blood is thicker than water and Patrick, Lola and I hatched a plot for me to pay a surprise visit on Pablo, their younger son, who is lodged with his grandparents for the summer. Pablo is in love with my bike and the idea of bike of his own, of course, when he is old enough. So I couldn’t but agree – besides I really like Pablo and was sorry to have missed him during my visit to Madrid.
The short detour to Escalona was rewarded by the lovely ride through the El Pinar de Almorox pine forest – a taste of things to come – but the down side was a battle upwind through blistering heat, with the ever more towering escarpment of the Sierra de Gredos, with its famously chilly climate, lurking tantalizingly alongside to my right. This part of the valley is fairly narrow and I wondered if the wind was a venturi effect: the Tieta leads in a straight line right across the country and is progressively hemmed in by tall sierras on both sides as it reaches its head, the incredible heat of he Madrid basin – which has to be experienced to be believed! – would inevitable draw winds to it in the rising air currents as the days progress. My bike doesn’t handle winds very well so I had plenty of time to reflect as I was shoved right and left at every small twist in the road. I also had plenty of time to be struck by how ‘Castilian’ it all was – well it would be of course, running close to the border between the two Castiles. The famous Spanish bulls – and their mothers! – were in evidence on all sides, along with beautiful horses apparently in every other field. This is a huge difference in landscape and use to Catalonia, all those long kilometres behind now and I really began to feel that my exploration was beginning: starting with my ‘discovery’ of the amazing Puerto del Pico pass on the Ávila – Talavera highway, the N 302. I never thought I’d find an ‘Ace Ride’ on a Nacionál road, but there it is, no doubt about it. Not only that but the route to my camp site took me onto another ‘Ace Ride’ the AV- 941 from Venta Rasquilla to El Barco de Ávila. So, having settled into my campsite, where in contrast to the torrid heat of the Madrileño night the temperature quickly fell to single figures once the sun had set – the ‘fridge’ of the title! – I planned tomorrow’s trip to revisit both of these amazing roads!