Aragon HISS – October 2013

Autumn 2013: The Sistema Iberico – Aragón

The ‘Sistema Iberico’ is the range on mountains that runs roughly north-south  right across Spain between Madrid and Zaragossa. Unlike the Pyrenees these mountains are very ancient so they tend to be well eroded; like the highlands of Scotland there are no ‘Alpine’ landscapes, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who claims that the Scottish mountains lack grandeur! Furthermore, the Sistema Iberica is much larger than the highlands, being some 500 kms (310 miles) in length and having six peaks of over 2,000 metres, the highest being Moncayo 2,313 metres (7,588 feet). This ‘gentle’ profile makes these high mountains much more accessible to trail riding than the Pyrenees, indeed the summit of Javalambre, (2,020 metres) the fourth highest mountain in the system has four distinct trails to the top* – all of which are in the HISS itinerary, naturally. (* OK, there’s a ski resort and various observatories up here too, so road bikers can get there as well with a bit of effort over the last few hundred metres ! )

The mountain chain is far from homogenous, however, and has many distinct landscapes and ecosystems and some more than spectacular geology, the two combining to memorable scenery at almost every turn. The trails, like in all HISS events, are suitable for all levels of skills and machines, the terrain here being well drained and stable – torrential rain and winter blizzards allowing – and include many long distance runs of over 30 kilomtres.

The Sierra de Albarracín is home to pristine forest - it's also full of cave paintings!
The Sierra de Albarracín is home to pristine forest – it’s also full of cave paintings!

As before I’ve selected the trails that form itineraries around distinct mountain ranges, in this case four: the Sierra de Albarracín, the Montes Universales, the Sierra de Javalambre and the Maestrazgo ranges. The first two ranges are adjascent to the base camp whiles the latter are on the eastern section; separated from the centre by the city of Teruel and the valley of its river, the Turia, which exits to the sea at Valencia. But it is possible to cross this ‘barrier’ almost exclusively on trails whilst the main and secondary roads in the whole region are amongst the best I’ve ever come across in Spain!

Looking over the Montes Universales from one of several summits that are rideable on the HISS trails
Looking over the Montes Universales from one of several summits that are rideable on the HISS trails

Similar to the Pyrenees HISS it is possible to ride a ‘circumnavigation’, in this case on roads as opposed to trails, whilst both roads and trails radiate out from the base camp at Albarracín. See my Google map for some clarification. The Teruel HISS covers a much more extensive range than the Pyrenees and when I first planned this I had bigger bikes in mind. But now that I’ve done about half of the detailed survey – and owned and ridden a smaller bike! – I’m reassured that these trails and roads are ideal for any Adventure Bike Rider!

Not forgetting some of the best road riding in Spain!
Not forgetting some of the best road riding in Spain!

The base in Albarracín a real gem – one of numerous towns, technically a city but it’s hardly more than a village, that claims to be the most beautiful in Spain but in this case I think it’s literally true! There’s a degree of tourism based on this but it’s in no way a tourist trap, rather there is plenty of infrastructure, bars, restaurants, etc. and the campsite is one of my favorites, perhaps in my top five best campsites in Spain list, which is a compliment indeed! We will have a whole section of the site to ourselves – delimited by the terrain so we have to be very careful with our use of space – including our own sumptuous toilet/shower bloc. There is a good bar/restaurant that does fixed price menus in the evenings as well as the usual pizzas, grills, etc. Furthermore, there is an enclosed barbecue which is build inside a little stone building. We have to share this but it’s a valuable resource in case of bad weather.

October is a lovely month here with usually settled, sunny weather. But the area is very high, Albarracín is at 1,200 metres, so it can be cold at night. I’ve picked this week carefully for various reasons: the second half of September is often unsettled but October is normally all right – naturally there’s no guarantee of this! – the ferries are cheaper * and the summer is officially over, so there’s little chance of trails being arbitrarily closed due to fire risk – not that in times of severe drought whole regions can be off limits but generally prohibited trails are clearly signposted. (* the area is actually closer to Bilbao and Santander than the Pyrenees HISS site. My Michelin route planner allows four and a half hours ride from the Pyrenean border crossing at the Portalet pass – which compares well with two hours to the Pyrenees HISS from the French border at the Val d’Aran. It’s also closer to the coastal resort areas in Valencia and Alicante and very close to routes to and from Morocco, which some HISS veterans did along the way!

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Day 5: Escape across the desert!

Day 5: Thursday June 21st – Escape across the desert!

Blog log: 432 kilometres today – 1,483 total so far.

I had to make a start getting nearer to the Maxitrail party on Saturday and was tempted to join them in their ride out in the morning. One post on their topic was suggesting a start at the Sierra de Moncayo, one of my possible destinations, one the far side of the Ebro depression west of Zaragoza. But I didn’t want to go directly that way as it meant riding through the Monegros, an arid zone an area close to home that I know too much anyway. I also wanted to visit two more valleys in the Pyrenees, the Anso and Hecho, that I only knew a little. Plus I also wanted to avoid the N240 trans-Pyrenean trunk route, which is genuinely horrible!

My other big objective was to ride through the Bardena Blanca ‘desert’! This has become well known in riding circles thanks to an article in Adventure Bike Ride magazine earlier this year, so much so that a large group from my HISS rally went on there on their way to Santander and the ferry home. But got there first having driven through the reserve last autumn! So I knew that the 50 km trail posed no problems for me technically and in the event of a breakdown or accident I was certain that someone would come along soon enough , either other tourists, forest rangers or even the military police from the army base, which is located right in the centre!

The Bardena Blanca - approaching the military zone
The Bardena Blanca – approaching the military zone

The Bardenas, in the plural, are ancient land use areas granted by various royal decrees down the centuries. Almost all of the zone is in Navarre with a bit that runs over the border into Aragon. They are in the arid zone of the great depression formed by the river Ebro and in many respects they are similar to much larger areas of ‘desert’ space in that region (I use ‘desert’ in parentheses because they are just short of being technically desert – but what a few millimetres of rainfall between friends!). Three different zones make up the Bardenas and it’s the arid ‘white’ zone, tha Bardena Blanca, which gets everyone exited. It’s a small river valley with new soft earth that erodes quickly and dramatically mostly from the effects of the stong winds, leading to a remarkable landscape that is much used by movie makers and dare I day it – wannabee Sahara explorers!

Bardena Blanca expanse
Bardena Blanca expanse

Meanwhile I had a great time in the Aragon Pyrenees, passing swiftly and fast out of Navarre and into the Vall de Anso – the pass over from Isaba is truly lovely, but like many of the Pyrenean roads that I feature in my guide, is little more than a country lane. The route passes down the Anso valley which is narrow here, passing along a long but not very dramatic ravine. But before I went that way the trail to the head of the valley was ooooh so inviting! just afew kilomtres of easy trail but worth the diversion .  .  .

Near the head of the Anso Valley
Near the head of the Anso Valley

It also softened me up for crossing La Bardena of course. This trail is super easy as I’ve already mentioned – there’s a strict 30 KPH limit but .  .  .

the Bardena route is sooo inviting!
the Bardena route is sooo inviting!

After that I had a dilemma – I wanted to carry on a spend some time in the Sierra de la Demanda by a nice looking back road to research next year’s HISS rally but the time I’d spent in the Bardena has cut the evening short. So i decided on a quick hop to the camping Moncayo – disaster, it was closed! So I had to ride up to Soria anyway – horrible, the trip meant using the national high road, riding into the sunset and, as I’d quite my lining from my riding suit to go through the desert’ I got b*****y cold to boot as I rode onto the central Meseta in he dusk! Luckily, I knew the camping and was assured a warm welcome!

Day 1: a pootle up the Pyrenees

Day 1: La Pobla de Segur to Ochagavia

Blog log: 387.5 kilometres ridden today.

Off at last! After the HISS event at the end of May time flew by with little spare for planning, so this trip is very much a seat-of-the-pants thing with only outline plans made.

First observation is what a change it is to be riding alone, having spend most of my recent riding time with other bikers and much of my waking hours thinking about routes and how to disseminate this information it was great to feel a genuine sense of freedom – and the N260 between La Pobla de Segur and Pont de Suert is an unbeatable way to get in-the-mood!

SourceURL:file:///Macintosh%20HD/Users/pollycampbell/Desktop/Day%201.doc

First observation is what a change it is to be riding alone, having spend most of my recent riding time with other bikers and much of my waking hours thinking about routes and how to disseminate this information it was great to feel a genuine sense of freedom – and the N260 between La Pobla de Segur and Pont de Suert is an unbeatable way to get in-the-mood!

I try to avoid doing this ride too much in case I get bored – how is that possible on this road!  – and the last few times have been different, twice accompanied by trail riders for the HISS Rally and the last time a quick burn up to get myself back into ‘road mode’. This time was different again as fully laden the bike behaves differently – very well in fact, especially as I had a short test ride on the fabulous C1311 with the extra weight. Oddly enough the little G650 thrives with the additional 25 kilos, maybe I should go on a diet!

On from Pont se Suert I take the A-1605 to Campo saving the N260, which is lovely but with a very bad surface, for another day. This is a lovely route through a ravine to Bonansa and the ‘port’ of the same name, which leads into the valley of the Isaba river. From here the HU-V-9401 runs around the southern slopes of the Turbón mountain – a spectacular local landmark. The landscape here is grueling, a badlands environment with amazing erosion set amongst dense forest. This was once a quiet back road but is in the process of being ‘improved, with huge bypass around the village of Egea. Fortunately it looks like the old road is being kept open for access to the village. It passes through a very lovely ravine.

The N260 from Campo to Ainsa has been ‘improved’ to the point of being useless for biking but as my mate Ted says, “At least you can look at the magnificent scenery”- Ted has been bumbling up and down the Pyrenees for at least thirty years and showed me a ‘new’ route last autumn through the Cañon de Añisclo gorge that runs up into the Ordesa National Park. But I get a bit cañon-ed out at times and wanted to try the ‘high’ route into the Val de Vio – It was not disappointed!

Rejoining the N 260 at Sarvisé and on to Biescas was the first time on the trip I encountered any traffic – one of the advantages of avoiding the N 260. Worse was to come over the lovely Puerto de Portalet pass as I got caught up with literally hoards of French Sunday drivers returning home after their day in Spain. They also clogged up the ‘last chance’ filling station at Formigal, loading up with fuel at about 20% less than French prices – a worthwhile tip is to stop a bit  further back into Spain that I forgot to my cost!

After the frustration it was great to get off the main roads again, this time onto the Tour de France routes over the Pyrenean ‘Cols’. These routes are signposted which was handy for me as my map didn’t cover this area. I ended up going over the ‘Col de Marie Blanque’ through lovely countryside – the green was almost hallucinogenic to my eyes as I’m so used to living in an arid part of Spain. The ‘Col’ itself was relatively free of tourists, who tend to clog up theres passes to the extent that it’s often difficult to stop and photograph. But at least here they were actual cyclists!

The next stage was a bit of a mistake. The D 441 towards the Pyrenean pass at Col de la Pierre St. Martin turned out to be a tiny country lane! But it passed through the lovely Forêt d’Issaux, which although was rewarding gave me a hard ride of it – hard to think of racing cycles up here, especially when the Tour route rejoined the Tour route towards the Col itself – I was so glad of the sign saying I was on the way to Espagne that I even photographed it!

The pass at Pierre St.Martin has got to be one of the most beautiful of the Pyrenees. You ride right up amongst the peaks thereabouts and to the west look down along the while remaining range towards the Bay of Biscay. I encountered ferocious winds on the top, however, and was running very late by then, so I only stopped once on the far side to record my welcome back into Spain – my ‘home’ ground after all!

The ride on to my camp site at Ochagavia was more than welcome – I knew the roads well having holidayed here before at as the evening drew on I was glad to know where I was headed!

Day 5: Rest, Recuperation, Review and Revision.

Saturday, July 2nd.

Blog-log: Blog-log: Kilometres from ‘Go’: 1456.2 (none ridden today)

Location: Albarracín

The weather forecast was for a muggy day with temperatures reaching 40º in the Guadalquivir basin to the south and near that in Madrid to the north-west I was glad to have given over the day to rest and recuperation, leaving me to explore Albarracín ‘city’ and consider the rest of the tour, review plans, equipment, etc. which I hope will be of use to other bikers planning a similar trip.

I’ll describe Albarracín and the region – an amazing area for both road and trail biking – in a separate post, the first of a whole category of ‘Places’. But I’ve already learned quite a bit about touring and it’s worth recording it here:

  • Plan of action: the ‘mode’ of the tour, i.e. hopping from region to region and stopping at each for short breaks, is working well so far – given hat this is the first of these stages to have been completed. The contrast between riding point to point with the bike fully laden and then riding footloose and fancy free, exploring the area at will and thinking on my feet is highly satisfying – not least because my bike changes its character significantly between the two set-ups (more below on the bike). I certainly think I’d get bored if I were constantly in ‘touring’ mode. In the meantime I’m beginning to plan three night stays to reduce the fuss of pitching and striking camp too often.
  • I feel that I’m carry too much, but like most people I’ve agonized about the checklist! Actually my kit and clobber is very minimal: five lightweight polyester tee-shirts, two long sleeved cotton vests, pair of shorts, walking trousers and trunks. Add a few pairs of socks and pants and that’s it! I’ll come of to the ‘kitchen’ below but now for the ‘accommodation’: obviously the tent looks enormous and the chair looks like an indulgence, but I’ve bourn in mind that I’ll be spending a lot of time in Galicia and the North Coast, where it can rain and rain, even in July but especially in May/June when I had originally planned on going. Being bolted up in a tiny tent squatting on all fours is no way to have a holiday – and just sitting around in the bar gets both expensive and boring. But the tent is a drag to put up and especially take down I’ll debate the virtues of igloo and tunnel tents in a special chapter but in brief you have a bother versus space issue – the tent is huge inside, so much so that if needs be I can sit up, cook, and keep all my sodden gear in the ‘lobby’, well away from the dry zone in the tent itself.
  • On the catering front I’ve nothing but praise for the Trangia 27-2 cooker set with kettle. Being a tea addict of epic proportions I simply don’t function without a litre of tea of a morning, i.e. three Trangia pots full! The alternatives for me are to buy litre bottles of drinking chocolate – which is what I do for a quick getaway – or go for coffee in the bar. But both of these get expensive and in the case of the latter you may have to wait for 9 or even 10 am for the camp site facilities to open. So quite apart from being able to cater as such, the Trangia will have paid for itself by the end of this tour alone – a good investment! I’m planning a special ‘book’ of camp catering, which will include shopping and eating ‘on the hoof’ as well a some notes of Spanish ingredients, recipes etc. – you can see some of this already on the Food and Drink chapter but one fine day there will be a downloadable ‘book’ on the subject! A final note on the Trangia: I just got the standard meths burner (Sp. alcohol de quemar) despite lots of comments on the blogosphere about the gas or multi-burner options: quite apart from the significant extra cost and payload I’m not convinced that it is at all necessary to have ‘instant’ variable heat. After all, it’s not as if we’re doing Cordon Bleu cookery and I find tat the kettle is boiling by the time I’ve fooled around making up the powdered mils, charging the tea bomb, etc. OK time will tell and I’ll try to include a full review of this in the relevant chapter in the light of experience!
  • On to the bike: as mentioned above – fully laden you really notice the extra weight and above all its distribution, even with Wilburs gas hock absorbers. In fact adjusting these to suit makes a big difference – I only put this on a few days before setting off and I’m still experimenting with pre-load and improving stability all the time; stiffening up the rear shock is doing wonders to cure a very skittery front wheel! But I think it’s really a matter mind-set. Touring is a style of riding and scratching around the really twisty bits is quite another. I’ll wait for BMW to give me a 1200 GS to see if the two can be combined in the one load, but in the meantime I’m happy that my little bike fits in with my ‘plan’ – easy does it on the laden tour sections and ‘Hey, let’s rock and roll!’ when I’m established at a base camp!

Finally I spent the day planning the next stage in detail – into the scalding inferno at the heart of Spain – Madrid!

The Vango Omega 250 tent feels big enough to host a cocktail party - in fact it once held me, Mrs Spanish Biker and our two huskies! - I've been envious of bikers with tiny single pole tents but later in the tour my time will come I'm sure. Meanwhile the downside of the tunnel tent is beginning to matter - it's essential to get a good pitch with holding for all the pegs, and to make sure you get sun enough to dry the flysheet out on the morning you strike camp - in this case after a thunderstorm at 03.00!
The lightweight 30 litre kit bag from Overboard was a freebie with the 60 litre duffel bag. But it's come into its own holding the dry and warm liners for my breathable summer riding suit - I have to allow for the northern climate, even though I'm now in the broiling centre of Spain. I strap this to the big tent bag using the latter's own compression straps independently of the Rok-straps to the rack, so that I can easily access extra layers on the road. The zip-lock bag that it came in is my 'larder': from left to right: powdered milk, tea, couscous and muesli, then yet more tea, couscous and milk powder.

Day 4: The Serrania de Cuenca

Friday, July 1st

Blog-log: Kilometres from ‘Go’: 1456.2 (229.7 ridden today).

Location: camping Ciudada de Albarracín, Albarracín.

This was the first of my ‘Discovery Days’ – based comfortably at the camping and feeling well rested all I had to do today was ride. I didn’t plan any big mileage, that’s not really the point, rather to explore the area, enjoy its natural beauty – and ride some of the best roads in Spain – that is to say, The World. In summary, a fantastic day!

As it happens I stayed out much longer than I anticipated and didn’t do as many K’s as I had planned. This was partly because I kept stopping for photographs, on the spot plan changing, etc. – and a quick bathe in a sylvan stream . . .

The Serrania de Cuenca is to the west of Albarracín, adjacent to the sierra of the same name, which I planned to ‘do’ the following day. But in fact the two are quite distinct, a phenomenon that often occurs at the frontier between the autonomous regions, in this case Aragon and Castilla la Mancha, as I suppose that when they were created during Spain’s long reconquista (722-1492) they were natural zones for economic activity dependent on the climate, natural resources, etc. The reconquista is esential in understanding spain’s history and, as a result, its political and cultural geography: when the Moors, who had invaded from Morocco and occupied virtually the whole peninsular, were driven back little by little by a series of alliances between what were originally independent principalities – ‘Spain’ only really came into existence with the ascendancy of Carlos the First, who’s grandparents, the so-called ‘Catholic Kings’ Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabella of Castile, united the country with their marriage. They must have been quite a couple, Fergy and Isa, as not only did they expel the dreaded Moors with the fall of Granada in 1492, but in the same year they also sponsored Columbus’s jaunt to that little colonial place on the far side of the pond (just my little joke!).

Back to the ride (“About time too!” – I hear you cry!). I knew of quite a few of the tourist sites in advance and decided to follow them in a round trip going clockwise, starting with the Nacimiento de el RioTajo, meaning literally the birth (place) of that majestic river.  Then to the Ciudad encantada (the ‘Enchanted’ City), the Puerto del Diablo (The Devil’s Gateway – a great place for Iron Maiden fans I would imagine!), the Hoz de Beteta (in Spanish hoz, is a simile for cañon, canyon in English, although I’m not quite sure if it is exact – all of the hoz’s I know seem to be wider than they are tall, no less beautiful for that in many cases I should add. Note that the words desfilladero and, in Catalonia and Valencia and the Balearics ravines are usually called congosts)- oh, and you also have garganta, which normally means ‘throat’ – and whike I’m at it there is a conca, which usually refers to an eye socket but in geography it’s a depression in the landscape, usually large as in the Ebro Basin – the Conca de Ebro in Spain.) And finally (phew!) the Nacimiento de el Rio Cuervo.

 

The advantage of doing this was that these are all very well signposted so I didn’t have to keep stopping to check the map – one problem here is that the signposts on the ground are often to places other than those that appear more logical on the map (I’ve written about this elsewhere on the blog – check it out here for more) and it’s not only infuriating to keep having to dig the map out of the tank bag – I normally make a list of villages and maybe some sketches as maps have a habit of going over the page in mid-voyage! – doubly so for me as it can also mean rooting out either my reading glasses or, better really, the magnifying glass. This wouldn’t be so bad if it also didn’t mean an instant brew up – being wrapped even in warm weather riding gear in temperatures of well above 35º and sitting on top of a hot bike is no fun, so I also pack a pair of trunks and a camping towel just in case!

The disadvantage, of course, is that you run the risk of getting caught up all the other grockles in their hideous coaches, mobile homes, Goldwings (sorry, I really am sorry!), and so on. Worse, perhaps, is the risk of running across one’s fellow countrymen, with few exceptions boors hideous. Luckily for me I look Dutch and ride a Spanish registered bike, so I easily blend into the background, unless I order a cup of tea – ha ha!

But this is inland Spain, the only tourist are likely to be weekend Sunday Drivers, Domingueros, so going on the Friday was all part of the plan – I imagine that the proximity to Madrid is a serious factor here, Spanish Domingueros are bad enough, but Madrileño Sunday drivers make the human frame quake in fear! As it happened I had the entire day more or less to myself – with the exception of the roads to and around the Cuida Encantada, which is only a few kilometres away from the city of Cuenca, I came across no more than a dozen or so other vehicles during the entire day, something pretty much I take to be a law of nature here after living here for so long!

The undoubted high spot of a very good day was finding the Puerto de El Cubillo road, which instantly got elevated to an ‘Ace Ride’ possibly the Acest of Ace Rides! On my out of date Michelin map of Catalonia/Aragon this road was massively dotted in red, which means bad news – possibly the end of my planned ride – but on the ground it’s virtually brand new. In fact on the western side, which is in Castilla la Mancha, it is brand new, I could almost smell the paint of the road markings!

As I said above, the ride took much longer than I anticipated as the return leg from the Ciudad Encatada (which is a tourist trap if ever there was one) is a really small country lane that passes though the pristine forests called Las Majada.s In fact I had had more than an overdose of pristine and spectacular landscapes all day, which I hope to have captured at least a glimpse on the videos. So a revision of the route got me home at a reasonable time to freshen up and begin to explore the city (sic – it’s tiny!) of Albarracín during the cool of the evening – and to cook my first meal with the mighty Trangia stove! In fact I’m going to go through the Hoz de Beteta on my way to Madrid on Sunday, so I’ve resolved a little dilemma of doing the same route twice – or three times in fact as I’ve nominated today, Saturday July 2nd, as a rest day!

But the big deal on the day was that my revised route took me back over the Puerto de el Cubillo – ahhh!

The monument at the source of the river Tagus (Tajo in Spanish) is pretty gross - typical of the Franco period! - but it's an interesting thought that I could visit the mouth of the river at Lisbon when I'm in Portugal next week!
The ride through the forest of Las Majadas is very hard going - terrible for sports bikes - but it is definitely worth it!
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!