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18th January 2016

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Adventures Abroad, Part One

Ever been tempted to go motorcycle touring on the Continent? Stuart Urquhart took the plunge with a long-distance trip that started in Spain. Well, actually, it started in Scotland...

The Spanish Pyrenees. Never in a million years did I imagine I would find myself riding through one of the world’s most picturesque mountain ranges. It was a truly breathtaking road trip, and hopefully this six-part tale may inspire others to plan a similar trip of their own.

So how did I get here? Well in August 2011, I introduced my southern biking family to an intoxicating trip around Scotland’s west coast, after which we formed a similar plan to visit my cousin’s ‘back yard’ – France. This I’m happy to say grew arms and legs at the various planning stages to include the Spanish Picos, the French Pyrenees and the WW2 beaches surrounding Dunkirk. Our company would be four, comprising: my long term friend Ray on his BMW 1200 GS; my cousin Richard on a Yamaha 1200 Ténéré, a seasoned globe-trotter and our appointed guide whose credentials include a bike trip from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico; Richard’s son, Graham on his Harley 883 Sportster, and yours truly from on my Hinckley 900 Bonneville.

Adventures Abroad - Riding Classic Bikes in Spain

Plymouth to Santander was the best ferry route to the Spanish Picos and, after a damp motorway slog from Fife to Plymouth, the ferry turned out to be a welcome rest. Unfortunately Graham’s Harley snapped its drive belt only 40 miles from Plymouth. This unforeseen event was bad luck but we agreed to meet up with Graham later – not an inconceivable plan given the regular UK ferry crossings to France. So we boarded the ferry with heavy hearts but later enjoyed some relaxing beers in the ferry’s luxurious bar followed by a calm overnight crossing through the Bay of Biscay.

Day 1: Santander to Medina de Rioseco. 16C, 350 miles

When seasoned globe-trotters Richard and Ray took off into the busy Santander streets I struggled to keep up. During these first few ‘virgin’ minutes, waves of ferry traffic began cutting in front of me and I was knocked out of my comfort zone as I scrambled around Santander on the wrong side of a very wet road. This was compounded by aggressive Spanish drivers overtaking at speed on the wrong side (for me) and kicking up a blinding spray. My concern was that I’d muck up my exit at the next roundabout or traffic light. And being tail-ender I managed to get stuck at every ‘winking’ traffic light. However, I was soon up to speed and cursing and bustling through the aggressive Spanish traffic.

Then we burst free of the suburbs and I was entranced by the awe-inspiring wall of distant snow-capped mountains. Road signs were all Greek to me and as we hammered along I kept one nervous eye on my mirrors in the expectation of chasing blue lights, only relaxing once we’d reached the open countryside.

Adventures Abroad - Riding Classic Bikes in Spain

After a few hours blasting we stopped for coffees and I was relieved to see the roads were steaming in the warming sunshine. I was further relieved when Richard said we were already within easy reach of the Picos Mountains. Some 30 minutes later we passed signs for Picos National Park and I was immediately at home thundering through the quiet and twisty roads, climbing ever higher as sparsely scattered villages began to rapidly shrink below us.

It wasn’t long before I spotted my first eagles spiraling up from the valley below – unmistakable forms with characteristic upturned feathers. As I watched their effortless glide, the peace was suddenly shattered by the passing scream of two garish leather clad bikers. My kneejerk reaction produced an unintentional wobble sideways as my Bonneville blocked the path of another impatient trio that jostled behind me in preparation of a suicidal pass our group.

I detest bikers who impatiently hassle other traffic in the selfish interest of all-out speed. Suddenly, they were past our group in tight formation and narrowly made the next bend. Immediately an emerging lorry honked and the startled driver shook his agitated fist in our direction – obviously assuming we were all together. Later we passed the racers studying maps in a lay-by and their friendly waves perhaps made amends for their poor road manners, but to a man we were still smoldering at their aggressive riding.

We spent the rest of the afternoon sight-seeing, taking pictures and climbing our way up to a view-point which had a life-size bronze of a beautiful deer that Mr Disney would be proud to behold. The view was spectacular across a deep valley to the snow-capped Picos (2648m) and no traffic could be seen anywhere amidst the winding road we had just ascended. We were very much on our own. In the next pass I was amazed to see vultures nesting high in the cliffs as we followed an emerald green river which tossed and tumbled down into a wild gorge. All the lakes and rivers we encountered in the Picos and the Pyrenees were emerald green in colour and we deduced this magical effect was the result of suspended minerals being produced in glacial melt-waters.

Adventures Abroad - Riding Classic Bikes in Spain

After a thoroughly warm and relaxing day’s ride we arrived at our luxurious three-star Hotel ‘Vitoria in Medina de Roseco’ for a well-earned meal and cool beers in the evening sun. What a start!

But our thoughts returned to Graham back home. Would he be able join us?

Day 2: Medina to Soria (Matalebreras). 24C, 350 miles

Day two dawned with wall-to-wall sunshine. We knew our planned route south to Soria would be a hard day’s ride and we were relying on Richard’s SatNav plotting off-piste routes to avoid busy main roads. Back road exploration often added miles to our journey but almost always delivered interesting scenery. The few villages that we visited were very clean and attractive (no rubbish!) with iconic Spanish churches and nesting storks squatting precariously upon ancient tiled roofs.

Unfortunately this welcome ‘eye candy’ soon began to disappear in the vast vista we were traversing in a diagonal line from west to east. This was compounded by getting lost on several occasions. Richard soon discovered the SatNav was delivering a delayed signal due to a failing battery which resulted in a few wrong turns… After our epic trip through the Picos Mountains we were all beginning to tire with the straight and featureless roads, lumbering trucks and fierce cross-winds of central Spain.

The monotony was broken by lunch in the historic town of Lerma. We visited the historic church of ‘Iglesia Colegial de San Pedro’, a beautiful architectural treat which we discovered was built in the 1600s during English rule. Many of the town’s ancient buildings looked striking with plain tiled roofs, clean masonry, wonderfully decorated window shutters and monolithic entrance doors to the extent that I began to seek out this architecture during every village stop.

Adventures Abroad - Riding Classic Bikes in Spain
Bonnevilles (old and new) on Now...

After a long siesta in the pleasant heat we resumed our trek through the featureless landscape. Once again we had several disagreements with the SatNav and our guide(s) resorted to traditional maps. The bonus of a properly working SatNav, however, is exploring well away from the beaten track and the benefit of being able to navigate while on the move.

All too soon we became fatigued and decided to head for the next town and seek refuge at the first hotel. It occurred to me that we were not accustomed to the hardass travel that Richard took in his stride. I was starting to hallucinate about pints of ice cold beer when the SatNav led us to a trucker’s hostel in the outskirts of a town called Medina de Rioseco. To say I was flooded with visions of Tarantino’s ‘From Dusk till Dawn’ is no understatement.

As we man-handled our luggage through the foyer’s spaghetti western swinging doors I nervously chuckled at the salted limbs and cleaved torsos hanging from hooks above the coldly-lit neon bar. I later learned the meat was a local delicacy (cured and salted goat) and NOT abducted bikers as I’d first suspected. The bar’s menacing display and its peculiar odour, cold linoleum floor, 1960’s wooden café tables and chairs and a collection of garish one-arm bandits had me patting myself down for silver bullets and a revolver. This was a no-frills trucker’s café and more shocks lay in wait...

Adventures Abroad - Riding Classic Bikes in Spain

The same comfortless linoleum floors greeted us in the dingy bedrooms and when I opened the drawn curtains I was confronted by a red neon brothel taunting me from across from the hostel’s car park. I was all but heading home. I suggested to the lads that we slept with our feet against our bedroom doors as a life-preserving strategy and both my companions were doubled-up at my fertile imagination. Later in the bar my mock-fear went into overdrive when the hostel owner (who was now grinning manically and wielding a coffee filter like an axe) insisted on a cash payment before we hit the sack. I later informed my two companions that the barman was hoping we were flushed with cash and on payment we’d be robbed, gutted, salted and hung out to cure above his bar. What a laugh we had as we downed more beers and threw caution to the wind.

Late in the evening we discussed the day’s uninspiring ride and agreed unanimously to plot the shortest possible route back to the Pyrenees. Our dream to reach Palamos and see the Mediterranean was in tatters, but we were all ecstatic at the prospect of spending more time in the mountains. Of course I could not have been more wrong about our congenial host either – as paradoxically, we ended up enjoying one of the most delicious meals of the whole trip, we all slept well, and we lived to tell the tale…

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