Making a difference – sponsored ride for Cancer Research

It’s about time I started posting again so what better motivation than to help promote Graham Lampkin’s epic ride through Spain and France on his 1960 vintage Royal Enfield trials bike!

Over the winter we’ve been working out his itinerary from Santander to the Pyrenees, passing through majestic scenery, some of Spain’s best and most famous trails and, er, as many towns whose name begins with ‘L’ as possible!

Do check out Graham’s site: Lampy goes to L and back – get the ‘L’ joke! 🙂 – for the full story or you can donate directly via his entry on the Just Giving fund raising platform.

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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 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 13: Back on the road

Sunday, July 10th Portugal.

Blog-log: Kilometres from ‘Go’:  3381.9 (369.9 today)

Location, Camping Lamas de Minho, Serra da Peneda, Portugal

I’d worked out a cross-country route to the very north of Portugal which had an added advantage of passing through Spain on the way, the advantage being both to stock up on reasonably priced petrol (it’s about €0.20 more expensive in Portugal) and use my mobile to phone home. It also had the advantage of crossing a couple of mountain passes, something I was hankering for after my rather boring day yesterday.

Much of the Portugueses 'countryside' is in effect urban. Pretty enough in its way but frustrating from a biking point of view.

Once again, though, I found that much of the ride never really got going, but the weather was fine – hot again – and there was both some lovely mountain routes and very picturesque villages along the way. So the lesson is: where Portugal is good, it’s very good! This was the N 228 from Trancoso, a picturesque walled town, to Lamego and the stages at the end of my route (more below). But the biggest surprise was the short section of the A24 autovia between Lamego and the turn for Vila Real (IP 4). This sweeps majestically along and over the valley of the Duero and a couple of its tributaries – all planted with the famous vineyards and seemingly impossible slopes. The road itself is new and it being Sunday lunchtime I had it completely to myself. Normally I hate autovias but this stretch really made the long cross-country route possible for me – eating up the miles in the middle section and giving a boost to morale, etc. The drag was that I couldn’t stop to photograph. But I don’t think I could have captured the grandeur anyway!

Moving on after a fuel stop, for both me and the bike, I had a lovely surprise passing over the Serra da Alvao, both the scenery and the ride being stunning, and on to Mondim, a relaxed looking ‘spa’ town where I was very tempted to stay, it having a nice looking campsite close to the town itself. I regret not doing this now (over a week later and a long way away), as I would have had a chance to experience some of the genuine Portuguese life – for all its loveliness La Toca da Raposa is a little Belgian enclave of its own, and where I was headed was a mountaineering camp, well away from civilization, although I didn’t know this at the time. As it was I rode around the town looking for the road out – eventually getting directions from the fire brigade – and was very envious of all the people who were by then milling around in the Sunday afternoon paseo mode, dressed in their Sunday best and enjoying tempting looking long drinks and ice creams in the pavement cafés while I slowly boiled in my suit, gloves and crash helmet – who’d be a biker!

The lakeside resort of Gedês makes splendid change from the 'typical' Portuguese landscape, but it was heaving with trippers on a sunny summer Sunday!

But I had another unexpected treat waiting for me. I imagined that the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês would be a wild place, which indeed most of it is, but the valley around the town of Gerês itself must be Portugal’s version of Switzerland, although perhaps on a smaller scale, not dissimilar to the English Lake District. I entered the valley against the flow of homeward bound day trippers, which was rather hair raising going down the steep, windy and very narrow road, but was charmed by the lakes, beached and the small, though by definition touristy town. The route I had aimed for didn’t disappoint either – a tortuous climb to the heart of the Gerês part of the Parque at the head of the valley. At the top there is a plateau area of dense forest and there is a small toll to enter this. At the far end the now disused border to Spain and a fine plummet – back on fantastic Spanish roads of course! – to the remote villages of the Alto Indoso valley. There was a fair/market in the region’s ‘capital’, Lobios, and I was diverted down the side streets and had to ask for directions. Having spent a few days being quite mystified by the Portuguese language, which is close to Spanish on paper but sounds Russian in the voice, so to speak, it was even more strange to be given directions in an extremely strong Galician accent, which is very odd indeed; unless you have lots of Argentine friends as I have!

Home is where the heart is - after just a few days it was good to be back in Spain - if you can call Galicia Spanish!

I expected to short hop over the relatively low mountains back into Portugal through pretty but nondescript countryside – more on the Galician landscape when I get there – but had a complete surprise once I crossed the coll; the real heart of the Parque Nacional is a surreal landscape of glacially eroded granite. I wasn’t prepared for this at all, having on purpose done no research about Portugal. So stopped to take more photographs while the sun shone – a good plan as it turned out!

 

Whether it's Ireland or Portugal - the weather looked Irish!

 

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!