Day 11: Sierra de Gredos to Serra da Estrella, Portugal

Friday, July 9th Portugal.

Blog-log: Kilometres from ‘Go’: 2881.1 (389.9 today)

Location: Camping Toca da Raposa, Serra da Estrella, Portugal

The last night in the Gredos the minimum temperature fell to below 5º, no joke even with my good sleeping bag, wearing long johns, etc. Furthermore I’d not had much sleep or rest at all at the Camping so loading the bike seemed to take forever and created numerous little mishaps – one of which would be a minor tragedy.

Nevertheless I was on the road by 11.00 – which is turning out to be my ‘standard’ time for relocating – and I had a great ride back to Barco de Ávila, where I eventually found a map of Castile-Leon, just as I was leaving the region. Ho hum, I’ll need it later in the tour after visiting Portugal and Galicia.

My route was very straightforward: cross-country to the small town of Ciudad Rodrigo and then autovia to the border and beyond well into the heart of Portugal to near the Toca da Raposa, the biker’s camp site recommended to me months before by Chris and Tom, two Lancashire (and very Lancashire!) bikers who I’m met at Camping Collegats in the Catalan Pyrenees back in May, which now seemed a long time ago – and a long way away too! Along the way I had the Sierra de la Peña de Francia to visit, which I’d realized earlier that I could do along the way rather than make another stop. This was at the price of using the autovias from Ciudad Rodrigo to Guarda in Portugal, almost all the way to Toca la Raposa. Although this was against the grain for me I came to see this as a good decision – more tomorrow on Portugal.

The first leg from Barca was excellent riding with long sweeping curves from pretty but otherwise nondescript countryside, passing the odd village along the way. There’s no tourism so to speak away from the well know nature reserves or ‘resort’ areas such as the Vega de Gredos see Day 9). The only signs of life seem to be elderly people working their small fields by hand. Depopulation of rural areas is a big issue in Spain and one can envisage whole villages still dying out as happened after the civil war, when in addition to an exodus for obvious political reasons, largely to the United States and France, a second wave of industrialization in areas like Catalonia and the Basque Country drew migrants from the south and west in their hundreds of thousands. Later in the tour I would see at first hand how the rural culture is sustained by the descendents of these same migrants returning during the holidays – including helping with the harvest while simultaneously catching up with their tans in their bikinis and swimsuits!

In contrast to the southern side of the Gredos I didn’t see much livestock on the fields and I was glad to have stopped a photographed some of the famous black bulls – destined for a horrible fate La Corrida one fine day – as in fact these were the last I was to see. I passed through Bejar a pleasant little town  – obviously medieval in origin but with a ‘boom’ of industrialization with water driven textile industry – now just another heritage centre, sadly.

Bulls, cows and calves in León

After Bejar the landscape becomes more hilly and I realized that I had another ‘Ace Ride’ in the making. The villages became more pretty and there was more evidence of holiday cottages, restaurants and the rest of that infrastructure. The countryside was undulating, not really mountainous by Spanish standards, so much so that I begun to wonder if I’d ridden through the Sierra de Francia without realizing it, when suddenly rounding a bend there it was, the Peña de Francia itself – stunning!

The Sierra is the last of the Sistema Central mountains in Spain, although the range extends over into Portugal with the Serra da Estrella, which I planned to explore from La Toca. But in fact the Peña (Sp. peña = cliff) itself seems to end the range abruptly with its thrilling drop! I hadn’t planned to go to the Peña itself, which would have meant a 30-40 kilometre detour, but quickly changed my mind – for obvious reasons!

Wow - there are some sights you just can't ride past!

There is a large church and hostelry on the summit for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago – the first and by no means the last time I was to encounter this phenomenon – but at around midday there was nobody there apart from a few tourists like me. The images speak for themselves, but what is apparent is that the Sierra is much larger and grander than it appears riding through it. And apart from a few areas the environmental sensitivity and access restrictions are light, so the Sierra is a dream for the off-road/adventure biker!

Ok - The Spanish Biker get arty!
. . . worse to come!

What I had thought to be a horrendous Franco-era monument at the top turned out to be a water tower – equally hideous and probably Franco-era too – but between that and the religious structures I made two sweeps of the panorama from different points: one facing west over towards Portugal and the invisible Serra da Estrella, which is a long way away, and one facing east and north over the plains of León. Riding back down to the Peña de los Lobos (Sp, lobo = wolf) I noticed a sign along the minor road to Ciudad Rodrigo, which I decided to take although it meant abandoning the ‘Ace Ride’.

Portugal vanishes into the distance - the end of the 'Sistema Central' is out there somewhere!
Memories of Morocco - although in those days it was in a Renault 4!

The view from the Peña reminded me very much of the road between Tiznit and Gourizim on the way to Sidi Ifni in Morocco (strictly speaking The Western Sahara!), which drops off a similarly dramatic escarpment some way inland. In fact the whole Sierra did with its ruggedness, and apart from the absence of Gran Taxis and trinket sellers popping out from behind every rock the road was almost exactly Moroccan – bumpy if you know what I mean! But after reaching the village of Monsagro, which was a bit of a relief, the landscape changed abruptly to what is called ‘dehesa’, very much typical of the central and southern plateaux and makes a picture postcard view. This is the region of haciendas, the large farmsteads based on rearing livestock, complete with bunkhouses for the herdsmen. You’ve probably already guessed this is the origin of the America cattle ranch, which comes from the word ranchero, meaning a farmer or stockbreeder. I also expected to see black bulls here, as well as the famous black Iberian pigs, which feed on the acorns from the oaks trees and make the best hams in the world, but I only saw a few goats here and there. But, being of the generation raise on Bonanza and The High Chaparral, I also half expected to see Hoss come rushing down the lane with his big belly wobbling away!

The 'Dehesa' seems to go and on forever and is a classic Spanish landscape - never ride into fenced areas - this is fighting bull country!

The secondary road took me right into Ciudad Rodrigo, passing right over the autovia without a junction, so I rode through the tiny city – as I had originally planned to do but abandoned in fact. It’s a small, airy and sleepy little town, with an impressive medieval quarter behind well preserved walls. I think it would make an excellent place to stop the night as the autovia has left it high and dry, so to speak.

The road into Portugal doesn’t merit much comment, apart from stressing the need to stock up on fuel before crossing the border. I did this in Ciudad Rodrigo as I wasn’t sure of the supply later. But in fact there are several filling stations at the border – with huge cues of Portuguese stocking up! – so I didn’t regret the ‘wasted’ capacity. In fact there are a pair of filling stations on the roadside about half way to the frontier.

Once off the autovia I had my first encounter with Portuguese roads – more tomorrow – and of a sudden and dramatic change in the weather, which was so severe I stopped and put o my waterproof and thermal layers even though I was only a couple of dozen kilometres from Toca da Raposa!


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