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!

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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 23: Touring the Picos de Europa: a good day!

Wednesday, July 20th Casa Gustavo.

Bloglog: Kilometres from ‘Go’: 5322.7 (224.3 today)

Find accommodation in the Picos de Europa

This was one of the highlights of the ‘Tour’ and I guess I don’t need to point this out too much! From Potes the definitive route is over the Puerto de San Glorio – in good weather this time, down the Desfiladero de los Beyos, along the sierra on the AS 114 and back into the Picos via the Desfiladerio de la Hermida. Except – you should do it the other way round!

 

The Puetro de San Glorio really is a ‘must do’ of any trip into Northern Spain. At the top it’s definitely worth taking the 2 km detour to the Mirador de Llesba – amazing – I just had to go back and get more images of the views. The restricted access for trail riding is made more poignant in places like this – sadly one can’t help feeling that some of the off-road contingent have been the force behind such restrictions; local feeling about noise nuisance runs high, unusual in the normally easy going Spain. Fortunately there are plenty of other sierras in Spain where the scenery isn’t quite so fantastic – few places can beat the Picos in this respect (see below) but where the riding is, if anything, even better – read on to Day 26 for an example!

Approaching the Picos from the west toward Cain gives fantastic views which just get better as you ride right to the foot of the cliffs – and the road isn’t half bad either!

In fact I intended to have another no-bike day and picnic with Lisa and her family. But stuff happened and I set off quite late in the morning. I had also decided to take a walk through the Desfiladero de Río Cares – another tourist hot spot. The ravine was a bit of a disappointment mainly because I know so many ravines in Spain, so there wasn’t much so very new to me. Having said that I’ would recommend it to others as it is certainly in The Premier League as far as ravines go. OK, it’s full of tourists, but that’s only in July and August I imagine and at least I was able to leave my riding gear in a helpful restaurant while I went walkabout – otherwise I couldn’t have done it! Furthermore, although the village of Cain de Valdeon, at the entrance to the ravine, is little more than a strip of restaurants and hostals, I had a very good meal at reasonable cost – so fair’s fair – go there, do the walk – and the road to Cain is fabulous into the bargain!

The Desfiladero de Cares is one of the classic walks in the Picos de Europa – definitely worth a day’s excursion if you can afford the time! The walk onward from Camarmeña at the far end takes on a climb to the Peña de Maín, but no-one will blame you for taking the funicular railway there!

Moving on, I joined the N 625 at the base of the Puerto Pontón and roode on over to the head of the Desfiladero de los Bayos. This is most definitely an Ace Ride, but it is much better going uphill rather than down – as I noticed from the numerous Spanish registered bikes doing just that!  The views are much better that way – I spent a lot of time looking back over my shoulder! – and the sharper bends are in shady defiles in the terrain that obviously suffer intense frost damage in winter. Riding through these was quite horrible as I rode from brilliant sunshine into deep shade so my vision was badly affected when I most needed it as the potholes – if I can call them that as most about the size of a billiards table! – were plenty deep! In contrast the uphill side of the road seemed OK as they were a bit more in the sunlight.

At 2,478 m the Peña Santa de Enol is a dwarf by Spanish standards – just don’t tell anyone I said so!

The AS 114 runs a short distance away from the Picos along what amounts to a secondary range just to the north. And the juxtaposition of the Picos seen with the lower hills in the foreground makes for the prettiest of views. In fact I think this is what makes the Picos so incredibly special – they really are a ‘Must do’ for any visit to Spain! As I mentioned earlier, at around 2,500 metres the Picos aren’t particularly high by Spanish standards, nor are they very extensive – the Pyrenees are about 300 kilometres in extent, of which a good 150 kilometres range over 3,000 metres (the highest peak in the Pyrenees, Aneto, is 3,404 metres), but the Picos appear to be much more spectacular as they rise close to the sea as opposed to being well inland and already surrounded by high ground. Furthermore, the Picos themselves rise up amongst some lower parts of the Cordillera Cantábrica which are extremely verdant. And the biking is pretty good too!

Looking  over the mountains that surround the Picos themselves: these ‘hills’ are very inviting and inspired my subsequent route.

Back to the ride then. My jolly along the AS 114 ended at Panes where I headed back into the range towards Potes and ‘home’ on the N621, where I was looking forward to riding up the Desfiladero de Hermida – a route I’d last done well over 20 years ago! What a disappointment! I’d had expected the road itself to have been improved since my last trip, when it was the usual potholed mishmash of rough surfaces typical of Spain in those days. In fact it was the same road entirely apart from numerous layers of new tarmac that simply amplified the bumpiness of the foundation as well as making a frightening drop off the edge. Worse, by the time got there the column of day trippers, including dozens of coaches, were heading back to the coastal resorts. The coaches were the worst problem as they have to swing right into the opposite carriageway to take the sharp corners. So the lesson is to take this trip anti-clockwise and to treat the Desfiladero de Hermida as a means to an end – as lesson I used to good effect when I moved on – see Day 25. More generally: a route from Santander to Southern Spain going west of Madrid (see Long Distance Routes: Santander-Algeciras) would be to head west along the coast as far as San Vicente de la Barquera and then the A 114 to Cangas, N 625 to Riano and on into the wilds of León . . . ah, next year’s trip begins to take shape!

Day 10: Sierra de Gredos – take 2

Thursday, July 7th Sierra de Gredos.

Blog-log: Kilometres from ‘Go’: 2491.2 (111.6 today)

Location: Camping Sierra de Gredos, Hoyos del Espino, Ávila.

I was so impressed with my day at the riding around the sierra on Day 9 that I decided to stay on and explore the mountains in detail. I had also realised that I would be passing through the Sierra de Francia on my way to the Toca da Raposa campsite in Portugal on the next leg of my voyage – as that is what it’s seeming to become!

The main massif of the Gredos is all but impassable to road bikes as there are only a few access roads to villages and farms. There are also drop-off points for hikers, more below. Having said that I asked about off-road riding within the Park at the tourist office as well as wild camping. Basically off-road riding is sound as long as there are no signs to the contrary – of which I saw one or two that seemed mainly about private property. Regarding wild camping it’s no go at all in the Park, but fine everywhere else. The Park is roughly the area bounded by the main roads that I rode yesterday: Arenas de San Pedro, Juste, Barco de Avila and along the AV – 941 through the villages to the N 502. This is obvious enough when you are there; the park area is where the dramatic peaks are and all the picture postcard views! But the Gredos range also includes an equal area to the north of the AV – 941, and this is where I wanted to explore today.

Here the landscape is more open but no less imposing, just different, and was the area that so impressed our Hibernian friends yesterday – they didn’t know what there were missing by rushing off south, although their planned night out in Cordoba made me jealous!

I’d planned a circular route that would bring me back via Barco de Ávila, where I hope, eventually, to get a regional map of Castile y Leon! But I quickly changed my mind once I was on the ground and my ‘little’ jaunt ended up quite a day – a growing habit on this trip. One of the great things about riding to the northern part of the range is the amazing view back over the higher mountains to the south. The details seen from the AV  – 941 are fantastic, but from a distance they are breathtaking – and in one case heart stopping!

My first point of call was to carry on up past my campsite along a road that I hitherto didn’t know existed! This is the ??? that goes to the ‘Plataforma de Gredos’ and having watched several motor coaches going too and fro I imagine the ‘Plataforma’ would be a spectacular viewpoint, so certainly worth the diversion early in the morning before the grackles arrived! But I was wrong, the road ends high up in a cleft in the range, but about a kilometre short of the other side – far too far to walk in full riding kit, even in the cold of the early morning at that altitude! The ride was definitely worth it for the scenery, if not the actual biking but in fact the ‘Plataforma’ a bit of a hole – there a sort of kiosk and a shelter that groups of young hikers had been using as a bivouac. This is an example of the difference between regulation and enforcement in Spain – a note here for potential wild campers and off-road riders: if you are behaving reasonably then the official view is largely tolerant of almost everything, the forestry police have rather bigger fish to fry – like illegally hunting wolves and bears, which is big business and, according to an acquaintance of mine in Catalonia who is a Forestal, a very dangerous business indeed for the police involved! The other lesson is the incredible tolerance given to youth – and in Spain one is considered a ‘Joven’ until age 35! – so if you fall into this category, or your youthful good looks can carry the impression off, then smile sweetly at the officer and hope for the best! Finally – I noticed the following day that there is another road out of this valley, which I’ll include on the detailed map.

Talking of the grace of youth. I’d no sooner headed off north and I just had to stop and make a panorama of the wider aspect of the Gredos when the cyclist I’d overtaken earlier stopped and we got chatting. Daan Jacobs makes my trip pale into insignificance! He’d set off in Early April from Holland and entered Spain via Irún, in the far northwest extreme of the Pyrenees, rode down through the Pyrenees and then followed a similar route to my Trans-Mediterranean, i.e. taking the inland side of the Littoral mountain ranges. He’d also included Albarracín, where I’d just left and on all the way to Cádiz in the far south before riding back up through Extremadura, where he’d done an elaborate detour and wound up in the same village as my camping, Hoyos del Espino. Phew!

We chatted about how amazing Spain is – he clearly relished reliving the memory – and the pro’s and cons of traveling alone, the down side of touring, i.e. you miss so much, etc. Then a shrug, a handshake and we were on our separate ways – that’s good traveling in my book!

I’d planned my route to cross a remote part of the Sierra so that I passed by the source of the river Alberche, which passes through Alberche and in which Pablo (see Day 8) was possibly swimming even as I rode! This detour took me to a big surprise, the breathtaking, or should that be jaw dropping – I’m running out of superlatives let alone adjectives on this trip! – Puerto de Peñanegra (1.909 metres), where the Gredos abruptly ends with a precipitous drop onto the plains of Leon – which stretched away into a seemly limitless distance!

Having stopped for coffee, more attempts at panoramas, etc. I worked out a return route that makes a round trip for some future traveler, and a stunning – this is the heart stopping one! – first view of the Gredos if riders use the route to come this way!

The northern sector of the Gredos is no less spectacular than the southern massif - and is far more accessible for adventurous bikers!
Beneath that angelic exterior is a man of steel! After a seemingly endless climb in the ever warming morning Daan Jacobs was not even perspiring. And check out the sun protection - five months under the spanish sun and not a blister!
One for Pablo's collection: the actual source is a hundred or so metres away from the road, in the middle of a substantial quagmire - not one for my wheels!
Despite the rural idyl, life in the Gredos must be extremely hard.

Day 9: Grand, laddie, well grand: the Sierra de Gredos

Wednesday, July 6th Sierra de Gredos.

Blog-log: Kilometres from ‘Go’:  2379.6 (306.6 ridden today).

Location: Camping Sierra de Gredos, Hoyos del Espino, Ávila.

I was so impressed with the Puerto del Pico that I planned my day’s ride around it, hoping to profit by the morning light for better photography. But first I rode further north along the N 502, to the Puerto de Menga to see if it was worth the extra mileage – it was, oh yes it was!

As I was taking a panorama of the Puerto four British bikes whizzed by and I managed to get a panning shot of the first. I went on down the pass myself and back again, passing a classic VW camper along the way, I was in no hurry – I knew where I’d catch up with the gang!

Nothing I had read prepared me for the grandeur of the Gredos landscape. I was struggling for comparisons with the Scottish highlands, where I’ve never been, when providence sent five Scotsmen to my aid. Asking whether there was a comparison all echoed that although similar these mountains were much bigger than the highlands – “And better!” added one, who shall remain nameless!

Leaving the main road section behind I wanted to circumnavigate the Gredos, riding west down the valley of the Tietar to near the western extreme of the sierra. As I mentioned in Day 8’s blog, the area along the base of the Sierra, called the Vega de Gredos, is dotted with ‘spa’ type resort towns. Although the valley is beautiful enough, with ever more rich woodland and small fields, always with the Gredos lurking to your right and the plains of Extremadura on your left, and the road itself is really lovely for riding, the towns, which get larger as you go further west, tend to straggle and you never seem to get going before slowing down again. I imagine that at weekends and in the holidays these places will be a real pain, but in fact I ‘profited’ – as the saying goes – from the numerous restaurants along the way and had an excellent meal for just 8 Euros – a price that would raise eyebrows back home in Catalonia!

But the best was certainly yet to come. I’d found a route over the western extreme of the range, rather than going all the way on to Placencia. The road passes close by the Monastery of Juste and leads though Peornal, the highest village in Extremadura according to the guard at the monastery, where I had got lost!

This ‘road’ is little more than a lane and is in terrible condition to boot. This posed no problem to my bike – another reason why ‘Adventure’ bikes are such a good idea; even if you don’t plan to ride off-road (which you should never do alone in Spain) you never know what you’re going to come up against. As the road wound up through oak woods, whose dense growths of bracken – rare in Spain – indicate a very wet climate indeed, I passed a guy on a Harley Sportster, having slowed and got the ‘Thumbs Up – All OK‘ signal I rode on, thinking what a harum-scarum ride the guy must have been having – but what the heck, he was out there!

 

I expected Peornal to be a one-street-two-dogs kind of a place but in fact it’s almost a town, quite welcome after so much isolation. But the drop down into the Jerte valley was amazing: the entire valley is covered with cherry trees, a huge contrast to the stark vegatation above the treeling before you reach Peornal – in Spring it must be fantastic!

Despite being the national highway between Ávila and Placencia, the N110 was local traffic only – a mixed blessing during the post-lunch/siesta time of day! – leaving the steep and extremely bendy ride up the Puerto de Tornavacas all to myself. This would definitely class as an ‘Ace Ride’ but for the fact that there’s no overtaking at all right the way to the top – and the visibility is too bad to make up – so if you got stuck behind something it would drive you crazy! Onwards from the Puerto the road is on level ground as far as El Barco de Ávila, a pretty town with a castle, medieval walls, Roman bridge over the river – which in turn has lots of lovely cool looking bathing places – shame I was running out of time . . . I had to be back at the village in time for the shops – all the better to ride the thus-far unridden section of the AV – 941, bliss!

Dozens of cool streams pour down from the Sierra de Gredos into the torrid heat of the plains of Extremadura; each one has its favourite bathing places!
Barco de Avila must be a bleak place in winter - but it's a pleasant town and worth aiming for on a ride out