HISS Rallies 2014

H.I.S.S. – High Intensity Sojourns in Spain

Both rallies in 2013 were a great success despite somewhat disappointing attendance figures. Everyone had a great time, including ourselves, plus it seemed that everyone got what they were looking for. As with everything, however, there were lessons to be learned both from the extremely useful comments made at the events and subsequent feedback both from people’s trip reports and private mails. In addition Mrs S and I kept our eyes and ears open during the events themselves.

So, bearing all this in mind we are going to run both the Catalonia and Aragon HISS rallies again next year at the same venues but with some important differences and improvements, the most obvious being the dates, with Aragon at the start of summer and Catalonia at the end of the season:

Aragon: June 16th to 20th 2014
Catalonia: September 1st to 4th 2014

These dates are chosen to fit around local conditions, weather, day length, etc. plus things like fiestas and holidays that impact both the accommodation and, believe it or not, the likelihood of ‘sharing’ the countryside with large numbers of local excursionists. There are also issues around nature and wildlife, in Catalonia the red deer are numerous and during the rut, which happens in late September and early October, are a genuine hazards on some of the most popular trails. On the other hand, I may be able to get permits to ride some trails that are prohibited due to their proximity to rare bird nesting sites – by September, these may literally have flown 🙂

I’ve also chosen the dates to fit my own timetable as experience shows that many riders arrive the day before and leave the day following the rally, so the rallies offer five days riding – although in fact most people took a rest day and another reason for moving into the summer is that tourist facilities like white water rafting, pony trekking, etc. are fully available then. So Mrs S and myself have to be able to get to the locations for the Sunday before and not leave until the Saturday after, not an easy call!

Fees:

I’ve ended up heavily of our pocket on the year despite the fact that most of the work was already done for the Catalonia rally the guides cost a small fortune to have printed – not helped by the small number of copies – as did the guides for Aragon, which were larger format. But the big cost was the three trips I made to Aragon, one in October 2012 with Mrs S in company for the preliminary reconnaissance (I’m not counting my earlier visits that were part of my Tours of Spain in 2011 and 12) and two visits this year, each of two weeks duration, when I rode almost all of the trails. But both rallies are going to be extended for next year so yet more costs will accrue, so I’ve devised on a ‘rolling’ price scheme which I think is fair to everyone.

There are three ‘Membership’ tariffs:

1) £50 for a first HISS rally attendance. This ‘membership card’ includes a .pdf file of rally notes, riding guides, hazards specific to Spain, rules and regulations, etc. plus a check-list of essentials such as documentation, health cover, insurance, etc. which is mostly common sense but always bears repeating and is useful for riders who haven’t ridden trails in Spain or even ridden abroad at all – as has been the case on several occasions.

2) £25 for any attendance at subsequent rallies. This ‘loyalty card’ includes a route guide updated from the previous time (see below for guides) and personalized notes for itineraries and routes that either weren’t covered before or take into account personal preferences, e.g. historic sites, restaurants, etc (see below for more on this too). Note, this ‘membership’ also applies to those who were at the first HISS in 2012 🙂

3) The VIP Playboy club – or Playgirl as the case may be J This is a free ‘life membership’ for any rider who has volunteered to help reconnoiter a HISS rally in the past. Note that this is not just a case of an afternoon out while you’re passing through on another trip but an actual commitment and doing what I need to have done. The current members of the Club are Phil-in-France and Mr X for their contributions to the first HISS and beyond, plus a special ‘Good Bunny’ platinum membership card to Tramp for his invaluable help with mapping and understanding Satnav’s!

Guides:

The guides will be in A4 sized bound folders and include maps, co-ords for start, finish and key waypoints, i.e. only those where the trail is ambiguous, otherwise riders should follow the obvious main trails, a description of how to find the subsequent trail and a list of the trails that either coincide or are close by, plus notes on POI’s, fuel, eating and drinking holes, etc.

Experiments with A5 and smaller sizes make the guides difficult to use despite being easier to carry. I’ll print one guide for every four riders plus some spares (HISS rallies don’t have teams but ride out in groups that constantly chop and change, electing ‘leaders’ and navigators as they go – three rallies has proved that this idea works well, see my generic notes on how HISS rallies work for more on this). GPS files are available but shouldn’t be used without the guides as some inaccuracies are inevitable, given the sheer amount of data. Regarding the GPS: to follow the trails Satnavs with ‘tracks’ function will be needed to follow trails, but road going Satnavs are OK to find the start and ends of the trails, bit with the caveat that these will tend to lead people completely astray – again I stress that it is essential to read the guide! Read throgh the various ‘Official’ Rally reports topics on ABR forum for examples of these.

Routes:

The arrangements for the 2013 Aragon rally were so successful I’m going to reassign the Catalonia routes along the same lines, i.e. into distinct areas with ideally two itineraries, one clockwise and one anti-clockwise. In each case I tried to make one itinerary free of difficult sections for novice riders and/or big bikes. This worked but for some riders who thought the other itinerary would all be ‘technical’ rides, which was not the case. Instead I’m going to add special sections for those who want really challenging rides. These will be readily accessible from both sets of itineraries and often link other individual routes.

These sections will be ready for the Catalonia HISS as I know most of them even though some are too touch for me to ride – especially alone! – so these will be a ‘genuine’ challenge as well as helping groups chose their own plans for the day’s riding – it’s worth re-stating here that my itineraries are as much to do with ordering the trails clearly for people who don’t know the geography (very important in Aragon where the terrain is extremely disorientating!) rather than existing to be followed to the letter. Again, the idea of the HISS is to ride where the fancy takes you, but to know there a trail available where and when you want it!

Another innovation is that I’m going to include itineraries for the best road sections. This is in part because some of Spain’s best roads are found in the HISS locations – and that’s saying a lot! – and these are also often essential to get to some of the more distant trails, especially in Aragon where the HISS ‘territory’ is huge (and will be much more extensive in 2014) – groups had no difficulty in riding long distances in Aragon – 150-200 kms per day on trails was the norm, but riders found that they had a long way home on boring roads whereas if they had used the back roads well this wouldn’t have happened.

In Catalonia the situation is rather different bit I’m going to add a whole new region, just to the south and still very mountainous, which will incorporate some spectacular road rides. Between these additions and the POI’s (see below) I hope to give much more scope for choice.

Places of Interest:

At the Catalonia venue I’m going to include a few dozen POI’s, i.e. castles hermitages and other historic sites, plus, natural phenomena like rock ‘bridges’ caves, viewpoints, accessible summits, etc. Although most of these will be included in the routes this list will serve as a summary to help folks who like an objective chose their trails but I’ll also ascribe points to each based on difficulty of access etc. so if anyone wants to make their own ‘navigation event’ they can use these. All of these will be genuine places of interest, with a few notes about the history, geology, etc. as opposed to just being a few code numbers attached to trees, road signs etc. NB this will purely be a private thing between individual groups of riders, I will adjudicate but I stress that I’m not going to organize any kind of competition!

If this proves popular I’ll try to do the same for subsequent Aragon rallies as I’ll make note of these on this year’s exploration visits in April/May and on the rally itself in June – in fact if there is enough interest in advance I will try and get some ready for this June. I already have some; cave paintings, abandoned villages, ‘camps’ used by partisan guerillas during and after the Spanish Civil War, etc, as well as the usual castles, hermitages and so on. So please tell me if you want this.

Registration:

As before, registration is simple. Just mail me from the Contact page on my The Spanish Biker website, giving your ‘given’ full name – for the camp site’s records, which have to match your passport – an ‘avatar’ or nickname for use in public, plus a non-refundable deposit of £10 to secure your place. It’s also handy for me to know your personal name, e.g. Chris, Dave, Dogbreath, or whatever (There have been quite a few!) that you use amognst your friends J

I’ll make a lost of attendees on specific topics on the ABR forum so riders can contact each other by PM or on the topics themselves. In extreme circumstances I’ll pass messages between riders who aren’t on that forum, but note I will never pass on email addresses on ‘round robin’ messages, which I try to avoid using anyway.

Please note that this is not an ‘official’ ABR rally, I just use their forum to keep things in one place – the HISS rallies get discussed in several other forums, four to my certain knowledge and possibly more – and I very much appreciate ABR’s support in my using this facility.

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Day 4: Back to Plan ‘A’!

Day 4: Wednesday June 20th – Back to Plan ‘A’!

Blog log: 378 kilometres today – 1,051 total so far.

Straight to Day 4? Torrential rain began on Monday evening and carried on all night, and carried on drizzling all day on Tuesday . . . making it pointless to ride in the mountains. So so-called Day 3 was spent making do and mending, getting my camping set up better and making a start on this blog and the Adventure Bike Rider forum topic.

The camping had good enough facilities for this, plenty of space in the bar for working with Wifi and even some useful plug sockets – which makes a change. But even I can’t spend all day in the bar, so when Google maps started playing up I gave up and went for a walk in the drizzly village. Ochagavia is seriously pretty – very typical of Navarre. The camping belongs to the village and is run by a loose team of young people, it is also a centre of village life. Highly recommended, even being stuck there in the rain.

But I did have plenty of time to plan Day 4. having learned the lesson on Monday to give France a chance to dry out I decided to do my original route but backwards, staying on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees where it promised to be sunny. I’d also decided to move on and stay somewhere further west along the Basque coast – there are lots of campings along that coastline and I’d been particularly recommended the camping at Mundaka. But even as I was packing up in the morning I changed my mind – back to Plan A!

I reckoned that by the afternoon things would be brighter on the French side and I was right – earlier in fact and as I passed close to the pass at Roncesvalles, which I knew already and was going to by-pass, I decided to take a look over to the other side from the top as it was so close. What a good idea – a thin mist was melting away even as I was photographing he view and I decided to carry over to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port and throw all my plans into the metaphysical trash!

I ‘spotted’ an tiny pass that looked too good to miss, the Puerto de Izpegui, that also took me more directly to the Hendaye – via a few Tour de France passes to boot! The Pyrenees really have dwindled in stature in this area but are no less lovely, rising steeply from lush agricultural land – full of scantily clad British holidaymakers enjoying the strengthening sun! up to mountain pasture, seriously pretty!

Back in Spain I joined the N121b and headed north to the frontier at Ainhoa – easily memorable as it’s a Basque girl’s name – and then turned quickly west over the Col de St Ignace, getting quite a surprise rounding the last bend straight into crowd queueing up for a narrow gauge railway at the bottom – how very British it all seemed!

From there the obvious way forward was to head to St. Jean-de-Luz – a French name even I could remember! – and carry on into Hendaye along the ‘Corniche Basque’ as opposed to the boring main road or, perish the thought, the peage autoroute! The weakness in the plan was exposed when I got lost in St. Jean trying to find the beach and the Corniche. I lost time, patience and cool – literally! – OK, so maybe I should have a Satnav, but if I did I wouldn’t have found all these lovely rides after getting a bit lost!

The frontier towns all have a lot in common: the French towns are prettier but rather dull whilst the Spanish towns are visibly profiting from the cross border price difference; fuel, fags and booze never fail to pull the crowds. Both ST. Jean and Hendaye – at least the beach part – are typically French, twee almost, whereas Irun really is an ugly town, or rather puts an ugly face on. Like may Spanish towns and cities you have to right in to the centre to se them at their best as there’s no concept of ‘leafy suburbs’ in Spanish urbanization.

So getting to Cabo Higer (or Higuer in Castilian) was a bit of an anticlimax after an urban street fight to get there. It was also a bit grotty – clearly I’m the only person with big ideas about extremes of geography! But there’s a camp site there – that I was glad not to be staying at! – and a little cafe where egg-and-chips with a ‘sin alcohol’ beer put me right back on form!

I would have liked to have ridden a bit further down the Basque coast but time had really marched on so I decided head straight back to Navarre and back up into the Pyrenean passes on Plan A. The Basque Country is not the easiest place for biking as it is heavily urbanized, with villages and small towns stretching along the highways in the narrow valleys. I realized that I’ll have to explore the Basque County as a trip in its own right one fine day!

The N121 to Pamplona is a serious trunk route and I only used it reluctantly to whizz over to another part of the country. I still wanted to retrace my steps on Monday and complete all those lovely passes – a splendid sunny evening’s riding was in store!

The Puerto de Artesiaga road is little more than a country lane, but definitely a worthwhile ride. It’s heavily used by cyclist and in any event isn’t safe to ride at any kind of speed. The southern slopes are deeply forested – in fact a royal hunting forest – and all trails are closed here. But the road more than compensates, especially once I doubled back up to the France and the Vall des Aldudes and a return to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Then the maximum highlight of the day, the French side of the Irati forest and the pass of the same name. I know the Spanish Irati – you have to walk there as it’s a Reserva Natural – and found the French side equally impressive, especially from a motorbike!

The road is more than fantastic but time consuming and I was also getting pretty tired by then. The past is also immensely vertigenous! More was to come as I retraced my steps up the Puert to Larrou, scene of my encounter in the fog on Monday. Approaching from Larrou I realised that I had ridden almost all the way to the village before I turned round! The views from the top are indeed spectacular – more so havine relised just how terrifying the drops were on the poor verge of the road – that I rode in almost zero visibility!

What a day!

Day 19: Asturias – Inland to Nirvana!

Saturday, July 16th .

Blog-log: Kilometres from ‘Go’: 4563.0 (272 ridden today)

Location: Camping Lago de Somiedo

I had a bad night in the Camping San Rafael, truck traffic persisted all night and I probably ate too well in the transport café/restaurant!  But at least this meant I got up early and was on the road around nine. I stayed on the N 624 highway rather than going up onto the new autovia, the A8. But the road was so boring, with straggling ugly villages and no scenery to speak of I quickly changed my mind and before I knew it I was approaching Navia, where it was time to head inland. The little that I saw of Navia was a disappointment; I had imagined a pretty fishing town but the steelworks just at the end of the little estuary completely spoiled the scene, both with its own ugliness and with a hideous blackening of the water and mud flats in the inter tidal zone. I quickly forgot about this, however as the road that I had searched for, the As 12, wound upstream, leaving the river and quickly gaining altitude in a series of ever more sharp curves – a sensational ride!

It's not just The Spanish Biker who struggles to capture the grandeur of the Asturian landscape - panaoramic video to follow!

The Asturian mountains are notoriously green as the weather from the Atlantic system gets bottled up there by the high Picos de Europa just a little way to the east – making the rain come tumbling down! The mountains themselves are much more grand that their height would suggest – by Spanish standards at least. I think this is partly due to settlements, which are located on shoulders of mountain rather than in the valleys or on the heights, as occurs elsewhere. This is a very ancient pattern as was evidenced by the excavated remains of the pre-Roman village of Castro de Pendia, which occupies a similar spot.

The other feature of the Asturian mountains is that they shelter the interior to the south from the worst of the weather, making both the plains of León and the southern flanks of the Cordillera Cantabrica arid – as I was to find at Parque Natural de Somiedo, which is a special nature reserve due to its unique biosphere – and my goal for today. I was also heading into the territory of Matthew Copeland, an acquaintance Ted, whom I’d ‘met’ on the Adventure Bike Rider’s Forum. Matthew and Ted have ‘mapped’ 6,000 kilometres of trail riding which Matthew uses as the basis of his guided ride business: Asturias Bike Tours. We had hoped to meet and over the next few days our paths played a sort of cat and mouse game right around the Cordillera that was never to allow us to have a ‘face-to-face’, sadly!

In the meantime I stopped at the oddly named town of Grandes de Salimes as it was a natural break – I was glad of the coffee that I had there! The next stage, on the As 14 as far as Pola de Allende, wound up and over the Sierra de Rañadoiro on yet another ‘Ace Ride’! This ride is seriously flawed, however, as it is on the Camino de Santiago de Oviedo, which is evidently very popular! Time and time again I would round a right-hand bend, tucking well in to the hedgerow to find small knots of pilgrims covering into the gutter for fear of, what must have seemed to them, two wheeled Armageddon bearing down on them! I got used to this and approached all blind corners with more caution than usual, but that long, meaningful, penetrating stare, especially from the women, that unnerved me more than a little!

I was followed on this ride by a group of bikers who didn’t seem to be in a hurry, and I idly wondered whether this was Matthew leading one of his road rides. But we never coincided – our ways parting, so it seemed, at Pola. Sadly the ride was marred by worsening weather, and it fact I went into the cloud as I approached the summit at Puerto del Palo, so I have no idea what the view was like nor any photographs to record the moment!

Adveture bikes are very much in the minority in Spain where sports bikes dominate the market, closely followed by the custom scene.

After a horrible time riding into the teeth of the holiday traffic heading out of Oviedo on the AS 15 I was glad to turn off into the valley of the Somiedo river and enter the Parque Natural, despite a very narrow road full of Domingueros (Sunday drivers). But suddenly the sun shone and as I rode up into the Vall del Lago and my destination there – going up a series of seriously hairy hairpin bends in the process – to what I have decided is a location close to paradise. Moreover as there’s neither Internet nor mobile phone coverage there – I decided I was going to stay a while!

The Valle de Lago is a little world of its own - tucked away high in the Asturian mountains on their border with León
The 'Lago' in question is a large glacial tarn, some seven kilometres furthe up the valley
And the camp site was paradise too!

Day 15: Portugal to Las Rias Baixas, Galicia

Tuesday, July 12th Muros.

Blog-log: Kilometres from ‘Go’: 3748.3 (202.7 today)

Location: Camping San Francisco, Lauro, Galicia.

I spent a good night although it had become very cold. By this time I was getting used to my half-cocked air bed; I could get to sleep with it inflated and wasn’t bothered then when it leaked slowly – two weeks on the road and I have not problems sleeping on the hard ground! The other knack I’ve learned is to listen to music on the Mac if I have bad neighbours, addicted even to the sepulchral tones of mellow jazz as performed back at Madrid (I bought the CD at the gig and put it on iTunes). I had a relatively short ride to my next camp in the Rias Baixas, furthermore I know both the beginning and the end of the route so didn’t have much of a problem with navigation. Also I’d managed to see the weather on TV and knew it would clear during the day, so as it was early I rolled over and determined to have a bit of a lie in – then I heard the rain begin!

By the time I’d got up and had my tea – thanks to the fantastic Trangia stove I was able to face each day feeling roughly human – the first roll of thunder crashed through echoing around the mountains and it started to pour. If there’s one thing worse than setting up camp in the rain it’s striking it. But luckily I was close to the kitchen building and was able to clean, dry and pack everything there after a dash through the sheltering trees. My tent packs up under the protection of the fly sheet and that I can fold in the separate ground sheet from the ‘lobby’ and strap to whole to the duffle bag without getting wet things inside with the sleeping bag, towels and other delicates. In fact by the time I set off – still at 11.00 as usual I don’t know how! – the rain had stopped and a vile sticky heat was building up, which didn’t help my temper having to wait an age to pay my bill and check out. My last ‘act’ of Portugal was to have a bit of a row with the campsite manager. Although he spoke English at first I answered in Spanish – this becomes a habit here when I speak in Spanish or Catalan far more often than in English – which led him to speak in Portuguese, which by this time, and given the context of a simple transaction, I was able to understand. This reinforced my ‘habit’ of speaking in Spanish which he wouldn’t – I found it inconceivable that he couldn’t! – answer back in. All very  fraught and I was glad to hit the road, even though the surface was slimy, the wind buffeting the bike badly as I rode over the otherwise very enjoyable mountain pass on the N202.

Down on the Portuguese bank of the Miño the N301 is a very good road indeed and apart from being cut up a few times by overtaking fast cars as I wrestled with the wind I began to have a good ride. The frontier at Ponte Barxas is closed down of course, but the buildings are still there and the town has the look of a minor garrison, which I suppose it was for many centuries. A few miles further and I stopped for fuel at Cortegada, where I had both my first road intersection and taste of that Galician speciality – lying!

There are not garages like this around any more in Spain - salt of the earth!

In fact lying isn’t quite the right word. Galicia is a land of mystery and witchcraft that is enhanced by its dense forests and dank climate (which is putting the latter politely!). The Galician reputation is not so much for lying and for not telling the truth, or preferable not saying anything at all. The popular story is that if you ask a Gallego (that’s the word for the language and the people) a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ question the likely answer will be “Well. . .” In this case the happy lady in the patrol garage asked where I was headed and helpfully gave me directions to somewhere else entirely – which I ignored by instinct!

Mariners call this type of weather "Lumpy". Bikers call it "Bloody 'orrible" - the Summer of 2011 begins to take shape!

In fact I knew the way over a very enjoyable road and had plotted a ‘short cut’ across the country that avoided the autovia, the old Nacional road that it had replaced and the city of Vigo to which they both go – a very good idea indeed! Not only that but I found myself with yet another ‘Ace Ride’ – I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do when I get home! But for now the PO – 255 road takes you from just outside Cañiza, a nice town now that the N120 has been superceded by the Autovia A52, all the way to Pontevedra over some highly enjoyable mountain passes, lovely rolling countryside and the few villages that is passes through are lovely, especially Fornelos de Montes, an absolute find in this out of the way place – another location that I wish I could have stayed in!

Bijou residences like this are almost ten a penny in Galicia - if you can stand the climate

The Ace ride ends at Pontes de Caldes, where it joins the PO 234 and gradually becomes more urban in the penumbra of Pontevedra city. There’s no alternative but to ride through the city but that’s not a problem, rather the opposite as you get your first view of the sea here, or rather the Ria. Rias are sea lochs that run right inland for many miles. Their sheltered waters allow Galicia’s prodigious maritime economy to flourish on the otherwise hostile and tempestuous tempestuous coast. They are also very beautiful with fantastic beached and produce the best seafood on the planet! My aim was to stay here at one of the prettiest of the small sea ports, Muros, actually in Coruna province some way to the north. But the seaside route is very long and tortuous and likely to be clogged with tourist traffic. So my plan was to take the Autopista AP-9 for the short hop to Padrón, avoiding the N550 which I guessed would be horrible – as nacional roads usually are when they run parallel with a toll road. But the wind was so strong I decided to avoid being blown off the bike on the several long viaduct and equally long, howling cuttings that the new construction has. In fact all I saved was the toll, not to bad, as the N550 has equally modern works and as it turned out I had it all but to myself and I was in Padrón, where I had another short cut up my sleeve, almost before I knew it.

Muros is one of the most popular towns in the Rias Baixas. Despite its picture postcard prettiness it is down to earth and unpretentious

Padrón is famous as the birthplace of Jose Camilo Cela, Spain’s fist Nobel laureate and an extraordinary travel writer. We’d stumbled across this house by accident last year whilst traveling through the area and this lead to the following rather typical conversation:

The Spanish Biker, “Oh look, there’s Cela’s birthplace. How odd, I always thought he was from somewhere in Galicia!”

Mrs The Spanish Biker, “This is Galicia, Simon, we’ve been on holiday here for two weeks!”

The Spanish Biker, “Er, oh yeah, so we have”

The other famous thing about Padrón are the lethally spicy green peppers that are a popular tapas throughout Spain, and beyond – they’re available at Waitrose so I’m told! The rule is that one on five blows your head off although everyone now laments that this proportion is now down to one in ten, or worse. There is huge debate about how and why only some peppers, even from the same plant, are hot while other aren’t – all I can say is that if you buy them in or near Padrón they all blow your head off!

Hottest deal on the street? Pimentos de Padrón are sold hot and loose - treat with caution!

The hop over to the coast at Noia is on the AC-308 which is a lovely road through some very wild country, you really feel the proximity of the Atlantic here – fortunately the wind was both subsiding and was blowing straight at me as I went over the top, and by the time I reached the coast the tempest was all but over entirely and the day was turning into a lovely sunny evening. At Muros I had a slight disappointment. The petrol, garage girl told me there was no camp site in the town – I hadn’t checked on Google as I’d had no internet – but I should follow the signs to Camping San Francisco just along the coast. Again in Galicia she wasn’t lying but wasn’t exactly telling the truth either. In fact there are three campsites in Muros, whose municipality included several other villages so they appear as such in Michelin. I found another rather grotty campsite on the beach just outside Muros and was annoyed at the price of €18. So I carried on to Louro and found the San Francisco after asking direction from a biker by the roadside – who turned out to be in the camping too. My heart sank as I saw the ‘1ª Classe’ emblem on the sign, which usually means pricey and caravan crappy. But in fact the place was lovely, set in walled grounds that were formerly part of the monastery next door and the price was only €15. The only snag was that the Wifi only worked in tow chairs at one table in the bar – weird stuff this WiFi, so my blog was destined to get even more out of date!