Landscape and Climate

Spain has three major climate zones, Continental, Atlantic and Mediterranean, which are related to the topography of the landscape of the central highlands and modified due to Spain’s southerly and westerly position relative to the rest of Europe and its juxtaposition between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean basin.

Apart from these there are several anomalies; the Pyrenees and Picos de Europa are sufficiently large to support Alpine sub-climates, whereas the western slopes of the Beatic mountains, especially the Sierra de Grazalema, located just behind the Costa del Sol and the most attractive route to access the southern ferry ports for Morocco, has a virtually sub-tropical climate – enduring the heaviest rainfall in the whole of mainland Spain! The Ebro basin is prone to severe and prolonged winds when a high pressure systems in the Biscay area coincide with a low pressure in the Mediterranean – these constant winds can go on for weeks and make riding conditions very dangerous. In all cases the climate is one of extremes and in general it is wise to heed weather and transit warnings, always reported on the national TV news, when they occur.

Spain’s climate zones

The central highland regions have a Continental climate, with localized variations influenced by the Peninsula’s southerly latitude. This produces bitterly cold winters and scorching summers – the local refrain, “Nine months of winter and three months of hell.” is no exaggeration! – so bikers should prepare their kit accordingly when planning to cross the centre in winter and summer. Even in Spring and Autumn, which are really and truly the best seasons to travel (anywhere!), the nighttime temperatures can plummet. Although overall rainfall in the central Meseta is low, due to the coastal ranges ‘capturing’ precipitation coming mainly from Atlantic frontal systems, the higher sierras, especially the Guadarrama, are very wet, even the major roads are often blocked by snow in winter. When it does happen rainfall can be intense, two or three inches of rain falling in less than half an hour is not uncommon, making a serious traffic hazard for all vehicles due to poor visibility, floods, etc.

Galicia, in the extreme northwestern juts right out into the Atlantic, having the westernmost point of mainland Spain at Cape Touriñán, suffers the most extreme of the stormy westerlies of the Atlantic weather system. Progressing into the Bay of Biscay these usually diminish in ferocity passing eastwards through the regions of Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country. Most precipitation is captured by the sierras of Condillera Cantabrica. But as Atlantic weather systems reach the Pyrenees, which reach the coast at the extreme southeast corner of the Bay, they tend to go either northwards into France, hence avoiding Spain, or cling to the southern side and pass right along the range, diminishing significantly as they do so. The Pyrenean regions of Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia become increasing more arid.

Vegetation cover is a reliable indication of climate
Vegetation cover is a reliable indication of climate

The Mediterranean climate is strictly limited  to the  coastal strip, which is very narrow in places, and the seaward slopes of the mountains behind it. So even a few kilometres from the sea one can encounter piece winters with minimum temperatures frequently less than five degree Celsius below zero and on the plains seemingly endless freezing fogs, a feature that countless holiday home buyers have learned to their cost!