Day 27: Judgment Day!

Sunday, July 24th

Blog-log: kilometres from ‘Go’: 6508.6 (430.9 ridden today)

Location: Camping Collegats, La Pobla de Segur

Judgment Day is about right – the last day of the Tour and a sort of valediction to the whole enterprise! I’d made two decisions during the night: in the evening I decided to ride straight home from the camping at the end of my adventure, rather than ‘explore’ the Los Monegros region, which I knew pretty well already – and having ridden there about half a dozen time in the previous twelve months. Secondly – taken at about 05.00 after having spent an entirely sleepless night in a howling gale, that I was going to call it a day and simply ride home!

The original plan was to spend the day exploring Sierra de Moncayo, just to the south east of Soria. But there were two reasons to leave this: it is fairly close to home and I would be better off doing this as part of a short trip – I also want to do this with off-road tyres fitted and preferably with a buddy I on the trip too. The weather also had one final fling at my trip; the howling gale stopped abruptly at five am, giving me at last a couple of hours sleep, but when I set off late morning, all packed up and determined to ride home it returned with a vengeance as soon as I hit the N 122 towards Zaragoza. This wind is notorious in and around Zaragoza, it’s called the Cierzo and it occurs when a high pressure zone in the Cantabria sea coincided with a low pressure depression in the Mediterranean, the wind being caused by the pressure gradient and exacerbated by the Venturi effect as the valley of the Ebro passes in between the high Pyrenees and the Sistema Ibérico mountain ranges. I need do little more than quote the Spanish language Wikipedia:

Es un viento muy frecuente en el valle, y se puede presentar en cualquier mes del año, aunque es más frecuente en invierno y comienzos de la primavera. En el centro del valle pueden darse ráfagas de 100 km/h. La máxima observada, según los datos disponibles, es de 160 km/h en julio de 1954

“It is a very common wind in the valley, and can occur in any month, but is most common in winter and early spring. In the centre of the valley there may be gusts of 100 km/h. The maximum observed, according to available data, is 160 km/h in July 1954”

I wasn’t expecting the wind right up in the Soria road, but if anything it was worse, perhaps as it also passed in between the Demanda and Moncayo sierras. But it was so strong and was blowing right across my path and I felt I would be blown right over if I slowed down and stopped to take a photo – and how then would I pick the bike up again! – this sensation was made much worse by the fact that the road is elevated high above the verge and only has a narrow margin.

It was bad on the high ground, but much worse as I approached the N232 beyond Tarazona and rode across the very floor of the valley – note that the worst gust of wind had taken place in July – I could quite believe this! But I also knew that once I hit the N232 I was home and dry – and a for bit quicker than I would otherwise be – with the wind at my back. To put this in perspective: I could ride at 120km/h (on the Autovia sections of course!) on just a whiff of throttle. Furthermore, I could ride with the visor open and the relative wind speed made this totally comfortable – as long as my sunglasses kept low flying insect life at bay!

So, bored stiff with the long ride along the long straight road and only having to hang on to the bars I had plenty of time to reflect on my adventures (NB I’ll write full reviews of individual items as and when I get time):

  • The bike: I absolutely can’t fault the BMW G650 X-Country as the ideal mount for this tour of Spain. I’ve commented several times in the blog about adventure bikes in general, which make such excellent touring bikes, but in particular for Spanish road conditions: narrow secondary roads, amazing hairpin bends, steep inclines and, it has to be said, as some of the best routes are in appalling condition!
  • Riding gear: I got this well right. My SHOEI XR-1100 was just right – light (1.4 kg), with good all round visibility and air venting that really works, just right for the heat. Clothing was RICHA:  Adventure jacket and Air Vent trousers. These are hybrid types with removable linings that serve both as insulation and total waterproofing and, in the case of the jacket an additional thermal lining. I needed all of these at various times during the tour – sometimes varying all three possibilities in the same day – and the jacket linings came in handy as a warm fleece for the cold northern evenings that didn’t look too outlandish! The drawback is that I didn’t have fabric liners as the windproof liners get very sticky in humid weather – the lesson is that you have to be ready for anything in Spain.
  • Luggage: I went down the soft luggage route partly for financial reasons, but I also use the bike for lots of different kinds of trip, mainly short breaks away, so I find that the flexibility of the soft luggage is really useful; not only can I ‘juggle’ with what bags I take but can also vary the capacity with the strapping. It seems that every hard luggage biker I talk to ends up filling their cases with non-essential clobber more or less just so as to pack things tightly. As for the security issue. I simply used different bags as day bags depending on what I have to keep secure: the Kriega 20l tail pack was especially useful for me to lug the Macbook around with its shoulder strap fitted, and as long as no-one knew that it was in the panniers while I was on the road I reckoned it was a safe as it would be in a set of hard cases.
  • The camp kit: I had to plan all of my kit to take into account the various climate zones that I would come across on the tour – and I think on the whole I got it right. Good points: the tunnel tent was a great success despite being a little on the heavy side and more bother to put up and take down, especially when wet. But the benefits far outweighed this – being able to sit in the lobby out of the elements was brilliant – so many long mornings sipping tea in comfort (the chair was worth it too, but I’d like a lighter one!). Bad points: taking an air bed rather than a sleeping mat. Even before I melted it I already found that I was forever sliding off the wretched thing!  I quickly toughened up after the ‘disaster’ and now sleep like a babe on my cheap self-inflating mat – about €15 from Decathlon.
  • The ‘kitchen’: this deserves a mention of its own. I can’t praise the Trangia stove set enough. I love the simplicity of the meths burner and the ease with which I could find fuel. Its limitations didn’t bother me at all – after all, when camping there’s always some thing to potter with while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil – and there’s the communing with nature, contemplating the meaning of life stuff to keep you amused. As for ‘serious’ cooking – heck, this is a camping holiday after all! On that note my taking a whole load of herbs and spices really was a waste of space – as Mrs The Spanish Biker said all along it would be – ‘nuff said!
  • Navigation: OK – there are times I cursed not having a Satnav, especially when I got very lost and had to keep fishing my map out of the case instead of using my notes, that were readily visible. But I still think I found much better roads and routes by carefully plotting from the maps or following my nose, as it were, on the ground when I actually got to a place. I know myself too well not to take the easy option if it’s available and I’ve also known apparently rational, intelligent people follow their Satnavs to the most amazing extremes – discarding their own virtues in the process. So until they invent a Satnav that has a shred of intelligence I’ll happily leave it down towards the bottom of my wish list – if a few places higher up that it was!
  • Maps: obviously this is related to navigation, but worth listing apart. I am as happy as ever with the Michelin region series maps. They give a good idea of the lie of the land without confusing things with too much detail. And they are timely and up to date, but having said that I curse the fact that they don’t put the date of publication on the cover, so there’s no way of knowing if you have this year’s edition. Furthermore, it’s not really Michelin’s fault but I found availability highly variable – I wasted half my time in Castilla y León struggling with the 1: 1 000 000 national map of Spain and Portugal (which in itself is an excellent map – especially the ‘High Resistance Paper’ version, which is not only virtually indestructible but you also don’t lose all the key junctions in destroyed creases!). On this note I was gutted to find all the maps I needed on the mapsman site for huge discounts not only on the lost prices but also on the prices I paid for maps at filling stations.

So, the final ‘judgement’ – 6,500.8 kilometres in 27 days. Rain, broiling heat, sun, fog, hail, thunder, freezing nights, breakdowns, pain, discomfort, visiting strange dentists, eating strange foods . . .  Was it all worth it? You bet!

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Day 26: The Sierra de la Demanda

Saturday, July 23rd

Blog-log: 6077.7 kilometres from ‘Go’ (420.7 ridden today)

Location: Camping Entrerobles, Valdeavellano, Soria

Soria is Spain’s least populated province with a population density of just 9 persons per square kilometre. The dominant landscape feature is the Sierra de la Demanda to the north of the capital, Soria itself, and over the border into La Rioja. Originating over 500 million years ago the sierra contains some of the oldest rocks in the Iberian Peninsular, all that time for erosion results in a characteristic rounded shapes to the mountain summits – which average over 2,000 metres (the highest is San Lorenzo at 2,270m). The region is rich in dense forests, ranging from pines on the higher ground to deciduous trees such as birch, beech and poplar in the sheltered valleys.

Typical for Soria: at about 1,100 metres the camp site is nice and cool of a morning - call it dew or call it frost I was glad a a cup of hot tea, full marks to the Trangia stove!

As usual I headed for the nature reserves, both to aid navigation, they’re well signposted, and as they would probably include the most picturesque landscapes. In fact the entire sierra is a Reserva Natural but there are special zones within that. My first goal was the Laguna Negra de Urbión. This is a glacial lake surrounded by dense pine forest that lies under the shadow of the mountain of the same name. The road through Vinuesa didn’t disappoint and I easily found the tarmac lane leading into the  Reserva, despite the season there wasn’t much traffic and the dense forest was certainly something – lovely and cool apart from anything else! But when I got near to the Laguna I found a huge car park stuffed with tourist vehicles – there was even a car park attendant who explained that the Laguna was two kilometres further on, i.e. much too far to walk with all my clobber. So I headed back down another road to the Reserve’s visitor centre, noting along the way that several trails had neither barriers nor prohibition signs – a good omen. The visitor centre is near Vinuesa and was staffed by a young KTM rider – in his civilian clothes I should add – who told me that there are no restrictions to off road riding at all in the entire Sierra. Furthermore, he showed me a trail to the summit of mount Urbión itself – adding the caveat that the last part of the trail was extreme riding – I should think so too!

The Sierra de las Hormazas - typical of the 'Demanda' scenery

For the rest of the day I had devised an anti-clockwise route going deep into the Sierra de la Demanda. It never ceases to amaze me how deserted Spanish roads can be – in plain high season once I had ridden away from Reserve and its attractions I had the roads pretty much entirely to myself – but that wasn’t too surprising really as after I’d reached the Puerto de Santa Inés, which has a new road leading to its even more new ski station, the carriageway deteriorates badly – somewhat typical of Castilla y León I was beginning to think! – and stayed like that for the whole route.

'Normal for Spain' you really do want an Adventure Biker to get the best out of exploring Spain - even if you don't go 'off-road' - the route to the Ace ride over the Puerto de Montenegro

– apart from the road over the Puerto de Montenegro, which is fantastic!

 

Over into La Rioja the roads got a bit better but not much. I also stupidly ignored a filling station and had to ride right out of the Sierra, all the way to Salas de los Infantes, which in spite of appearances on Michelin is actually on the N224. But all was not in vain as I discovered that the CL117, which is apparently a minor road, is a gem – lovely scenery, fast corners and a good alternative to the N234 to Soria city.

"Oh no, not another gorgeous ravine!"

Furthermore, I also go to go back high into the Sierra to Niela in search of yet more glacial lake – La Laguna Negra de Niela – which I again could ride to in the high season. So instead I took a wonderful back lane deep into the forest to re-emerge onto the LR-113 at the border between La Rioja and Burgos. From here I retraced my steps back to Villavelayo, which looks a good place to stay, and then back to Niela by the back road, climbing up the valley of the Niela river and passing through yet another gorgeous – Oh, no, not another gorgeous ravine! – on the way.

Day 25: To the heart of Spain – the Sistema Ibérico

Friday, July 22nd Camping Entrerobles, Valdeavellano, Soria

Bloglog: Kilometres from ‘Go’: 5743.4 (420.7 today)

Today was another ‘long leap’ day to a completely different part of Spain, Soria province in the Sistema Ibérico, at the extreme east of Castilla-y-León. The ride was not only just about the longest in a single day, but I also had a deadline to keep. I’d ordered a replacement brake lever for me to collect at BMW Motorrad in the provincial capital, Soria. But the following Monday was a fiesta, and I’d be trapped in the region until the Tuesday of I failed to make it by 19.00, the early closing time common to all mechanics, motor dealers, etc.

So I had to ‘escape’ from the Picos by a road to set me in the right direction to head south east over some of the more boring parts of the Central Meseta – the tableland that many riders and tourists in general mistake as consisting of most of central Spain. This is far from the truth; it’s just that the major routes stick to this flat landscape in order to avoid navigating the immense areas of high mountains that criss-cross the heart of the Iberian Peninsular.

Looking back into the Desfiladero de Hermida I begun to enjoy myself once more!

I could have taken the CA 184/CL 627 to Cervera de Pisuerga, and I certainly recommend this route, especially for arriving at the Picos for its fantastic views alone, but I already knew this road and the route would have meant an even longer ride through the boring bit and, much worse, having to pass through Burgos. Meanwhile I’d found a back road that left the Picos from the Desfiladero de Hermida at the spa village of Hermida itself. Lisa had conformed that this road was in good condition so despite its tortuous nature I set off – after a very late start, hung-over from the previous night’s party!

Bye-bye Picos de Europa - Hello 'hidden' Cantabria!

I had two treats in store however: the ride itself over the C 282 was both stunning and deserted, and gave me another take on ‘unspoilt’ areas of Cantabria, which, to be frank, is a bit too neat and tidy for my taste – I like the countryside to be a bit more mucky boots than green wellies if you see what I mean! The other treat was riding through the Parque Natural de Saja-Besaya, somewhere that I’d never heard of!

According to the English Wikipedia the Parque Natural de Saja-Besaya doesn't exist - but it does!

This densely forested region is huge in extent, the Parque itself account for 24,500 hectares and looks by my Michelin map to be about half of the region and hardly populated at all. Furthermore, despite the fact that the Parque is an important reserve for the threatened indigenous species of bear, the Oso Pardo, there are only about 500 ha of specially protected land, which implies that the rest is open to public access of all kinds, including trail riding! Once in the few areas where you can see the scenery, most of the time one rides in eerily dense forest – or was it my worsening hangover! – the landscape is magnificent, ranging in altitude from 200 to over 2,000 metres in steeply sided valleys. Definitely worth a further visit!

Passing over the Parque boundary at Puerto de Palombera on the CA 280 the forest suddenly disappears and one enters the valley of the river Ebro, my destination both to visit the source of the mighty river – Spain’s longest (the longer river Tagus, Day  4, flows through Portugal, losing countable kilometres in the process) – and to stop for a much needed café cortado, extra hot because I had begun to freeze!

The source of the Ebro River is a big draw for tourists, complete with tacky monuments - just like the Thames!

The Ebro starts in full flow, with the river being about five metres across at the site of its source, which is quite a tourist place as one can imagine. Apart from this I wanted to take a look at the start of the new GR-99 long distance walking route which I understand is now made up to cycling standards all the way down to the mouth of the river at the famous, and very beautiful, Ebro Delta on the Mediterranean, 930 kms away!

From here on my journey became very tedious indeed, especially the N 232, which is a potential route from Santander to the Sistema Ibérica but for the fact that the section between Villarcayo, where it is joined by the apparently less important CL 629, and Oña, where it is joined by the N629, is absolutely appalling riding – neither the first nor the last road in Castllia-y-León that I wouldn’t recommend even to my enemies! – so I’ll have to revisit my route plan for Santander-Algeciras keeping east of Madrid!

I'm not the only Spanish Biker who needs a coffee break - the BMW R1000 RS was one of the dream bikes of my youth, but this one was a fake, an R650 in disguise!

On the plus side the N 232 took me right up to Logroño where I headed off into the hills on the N 111 directly to Soria, without having to consult my map even once. This route crosses the Sierra de la Demanda, whose northern face was swathed in dense and very cold fog. I was beginning to wonder whether I’d made the right choice of destination – Soria is notoriously cold – when I rode through the tunnel at the Puerto de Piqueras, emerging into brilliant sunshine on the southern side!

Day 24: the Spanish Biker’s fan club!

Thursday, July 21st Casa Gustavo.

Bloglog: No riding today

The day was dull, I’d done my planned ride around the Picos the day before and the WiFi worked in my bedroom – so I spent the entire day sitting up in bed with the Mac, Marmite sandwiches with real Cheddar cheese – thanks Lisa – and totally enjoyed myself!

In the evening I caught up with the Suffolk branch of The Spanish Biker’s fan club. Andy and I had been following each other’s progress around Spain and Portugal for some weeks and we finally coincided at Potes somewhat to our mutual surprise! In fact my extra rest days at Casa Gustavo and an accident in Portugal were responsible for our time in the Picos overlapping.

The two couples, Andy and Gosia, and Winky and Sarah had been down to the Faro bash and were on their way back to the Bilbao ferry. Their campsite was at Turieno just outside a kilometre or so from Potes and Casa Gustavo is about the same distance in the opposite side, so an alcohol positive meeting was possible! This latter being the reason that neither Andy nor I remembered to take a snappy of this historic event despite both of us bringing our cameras specifically for the purpose!

It was good to talk some bike talk – the merits of modern tyres/brakes, bikes owned in the ’70: Kawasaki KH series three cylinder 2-strokes (Winky) Ducati singles (me), terrible riding conditions in Portugal (Winky and Sarah had been knocked off their bike in a hot-and-run incident in Coimbra, the place I hated so much!) – and to have a wander around Potes from bar to bar. Although in fact we only had a couple of beers before I had to head back to a pre-arranged barbecue and left the Suffolk brigade looking for a restaurant – no shortage in Potes at reasonable cost as far as I could see. And we’d also been able to find a mountain equipment shop to buy warm clothing for their walking trip into the Picos on the Fuente De cable car – hint: get there before 10.00 to avoid the queues! – scheduled for the next day.

I guess the main point of this post is to stress that Potes is a really useful base to explore the Picos. With the one caveat about the N 261 road (see Day 23) you can’t fault Potes, plenty of accommodation, plenty of good shops, bars and restaurants and ‘extras’ such as mountain guides if that’s what you want. A nice place.

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!