Day 10 – Monday 6th April – Sierra Nevada (82km) – [MAP]
Sierra Nevada is the second higher range of mountains in Western Europe, only surpassed in height (by quite a lot, granted) by the Alps. It is quite an interesting fact when you consider its location, by the sea, in the south of Spain, quite close to Northern Africa. It leaves the Pyrenees in 3rd place by a meagre 78 metres, the 3,482m of Mulhacen against 3,404m of Aneto, the highest peak in the range that separates Spain from France. Being a mountaineer I find this fact a tad annoying, since it was possible to almost drive to the top of Mulhacen until 1994, when the road was closed to preserve the area, and still today its ascension has little to no difficulty, while the climb to Aneto is a long and technical affair requiring experience and physical preparation.
On the other hand, this meant that on this particular occasion, being on holiday as a biker and not as a climber, the range offered the opportunity to go from the warm and sunny bar terraces in Granada to the point where the road was closed, well above the snow line, in a less than an hour ride on a road that the Top Gear guys ranked along the Transfagarasan road and the Stelvio pass as one of the absolute best in Europe despite the fact that it led nowhere.
The main road leads to Sierra Nevada ski slopes, which were still open at that time of year, and just before reaching the town of the same name at the foot of the slopes, a smaller road starts to the left, next to a car park for one of the ski lifts, which winds up the mountain to reach a Guardia Civil mountain station, where a boom across the road prevents unauthorised traffic to go any further. At this height, even if the boom had been lifted it would have been impossible to ride any further, as the road had not been cleared past that point and was covered in snow.
We stopped there and walked up a bit further on the snow to see the sights of the ski slopes to one side and a breathtaking landscape on the other, stretching north as far as the eye could see.
After taking some pictures we hopped on the bike again and rode back down to Granada to find the motorbike shop that worked with the transport company that was going to take our bike back to Barcelona. I tapped the address into the GPS and an hour later we stopped at their door, the temperature much higher than in the mountains.
The place was called JMoto, and it was a Triumph dealer. Javi, the guy who ran the place, was really nice, and he let us get changed in the shop, as the plan was to send the riding suits, boots and helmets in the motorbike, take our luggage and fly home in civilian clothes. Imagine trying to board a plane in riding gear while carrying a helmet! I had to remove the sun visor from my new helmet and take it with me in my suitcase, but in the end everything fit in the top case and panniers. We signed some papers, gave Javi the keys, thanked him and said goodbye to our bike. It was now time to take a bus to the centre and find a good place to have that paella I had promised Nat.
The good thing about a city like Granada is that, unlike Barcelona, it is quite difficult to go wrong when it comes to eating out. Make a mistake in Barcelona and you can easily end up in one of the many tourist traps that offer crap food at outrageous prices, but here everything was so good and so cheap, that any place seemed to be a safe bet. We found a nice restaurant with a terrace by the river, from which we had a nice view of the Alhambra while we ate, and spent most of the afternoon there.
After lunch we killed some time walking around the old town one last time and then headed to the centre to taste one last thing before heading to the airport: the local sweet specialty, a cake called Pionono.
While having cakes and tea I took the opportunity to bring my writing up to date – I had been writing very little in the previous days – and also to find out how to get to the airport. The taxis were bound to be expensive, and we discovered there was a shuttle service with a stop quite near where we were, so it was settled. We took the bus and 40 minutes later it dropped us at the airport.
The flight back to Barcelona was fast and uneventful, and the only thing I regret is that by the time we took off it was 10 pm and it was already dark, so I could not get one last look at Granada from the air. It had been 10 days on the road this time, I had seen some new places I knew little about, and in one way or another, each one of them given me great memories.
The plan for Sunday was to get up early, take the motorbike and head up Sierra Nevada, see the sights from the mountains where the highest peak in the Iberian Peninsula is, then ride down to other side to the Almeria region, visit that and head back to Granada for the evening on some other mountain road, because on Monday I was dropping the bike at a bike shop from which I had arranged transport back to Barcelona and we would take that day to visit the city on foot. The problem, however, was that after the “one last beer” the previous night we had a tremendous hangover and we got up quite late… Not only that, after 9 days on the road I also fancied a couple of quiet day off the bike, much to Nat’s delight, so we decided to take it easy and just wander around the city.
A lot of people had told me about Granada and how much they had liked it, and I can tell that it more than met my expectations. It is a vibrant city with a lot to offer – there is a very active student life and night life, fascinating history, extensive cultural and architectural heritage, excellent food and atmosphere, inviting tea shops, quaint backstreets and alleys in the old town, and a general laid-back attitude that invites the visitor to take things easy.
We spent the day walking around the narrow streets of the old town, went up the San Nicolás viewpoint high on the Albaicín quarter from which spent a good while gazing at the unforgettable view of the Alhambra, stopped here and there for a drink and some tapas, the afternoon turned into the evening and the endless string of tapas turned uninterrupted from lunch to dinner.
We retired to the hotel relatively early, at least compared to the previous night, as we had decided to get up to an early start the following day and ride up to Sierra Nevada before taking the bike to the shop.
Day 8 – Saturday 4th April – Ronda to Granada (276km) – [MAP]
Another early rise, another proper breakfast, and since I was not going to be able to ride until we had had breakfast, I was determined to make a proper job of it this. We sat at a terrace in one of the pedestrians only streets in the centre of Ronda and I ordered a full breakfast that included two big loaves of the local artisan bread, one with lettuce and tomato, the other one with bacon and a fried egg, coffee and freshly made orange juice.
With our stomachs full we went to see the sights we had seen the night before, but this time in daylight, so we could fully appreciate how deep the gorge that the Puente Nuevo span was. The views from the middle of the bridge, looking down at the ravine more than a 100 metres below are impressive. Even though most of the pictures of the city that can be found on the Internet show the view of the bridge at a distance from below, when one approaches it from any of the main roads it is not visible at all, contrary to my expectations of turning out of a corner coming down from a mountain road and seeing the bridge suddenly come into view in front of me, but looking down from the top we saw a small country lane that went down to the point where the gully opened, so we decided we had to find a way to take it and see the most famous view of the bridge.
It was not that hard, out of one of the gates in the old wall there is a small street that starts off the right, called Calle de los Molinos. It is a narrow cobbled street, and we had to be careful as it was quite steep and slippery. Near the bottom there is a small space where we could park the bike and take a walk up the gully to admire the bridge from below, which is maybe an even more imposing view, as it can be appreciated in all its imposing size. Back on the car park we saw a couple of friends who had just parked and were changing into climbing equipment, and they told us that there is a via ferrata under the bridge, and many more in the region. I took good note of that for a future visit.
The road only led to some fields and the old mills that gave it its name, so we had to ride it back up again, and this time the difficulty were the cars and pedestrians that were coming down the other way, the sun already high encouraging people to come out and visit.
We had reached Ronda the previous day via the A-369, a great road, and the plan today was to take the other main road to the south of the city, the A-397 to Marbella. It was marked as a more important road on the map, and I was not expecting much, but it turned out to be absolutely marvellous, an opinion easily confirmed by the many bikers coming up the road we met. Luckily it seemed that most people were coming up in the morning either to visit Ronda or to ride the road and the traffic would be denser on the way down in the afternoon, so we were glad to find virtually nobody on our side of the road.
I was not keen at all to visit Marbella, a place famous for appearing on the news perpetually on stories related to political corruption, and a refuge for the most tacky, shady, decadent kind of wealth in the country, but Nat accused me of being prejudiced and said that I could not judge a place without seeing it. Fair enough. We rode into Marbella, parked the bike and went for a walk. It was exactly what I had thought it would be. “I told you so” and a wasted hour later, we were back on the road heading for Malaga.
We took the coast road in order to enjoy some views, but out of everything I had seen so far, this is the one place I will never ever set foot on again. The landscape (it does not even deserve that name) was something like this: housing estate, housing estate, housing estate, industrial estate, housing estate, campsite, housing estate, golf course, housing estate, campsite, golf course, housing estate, industrial estate, campsite, industrial estate, golf course, shopping centre, housing estate, campsite, shopping centre, housing estate, industrial estate, shopping centre, golf course… I guess the coast must have been a beautiful place at some point, but easy money in the development business and a complete disregard for nature had destroyed it long ago.
We got to Malaga by lunchtime and stopped at the first place we saw, called “La casita de la patata”. It had a terrace and I could park the bike in front of it, so I thought it would do. They served a sandwich that is typical from the city, called “campero”, made with a special kind of bread that has the same name. I order a meat one, and Nat ordered a vegetarian “individual” pizza. She also wanted some side snack, so she ordered what she thought were “patatas bravas”. A moment later I was served a huge sandwich, she got a pizza that could easily feed two people and the potatoes turned out to be one massive baked potato open and stuffed with meat, salad and sauce. So much for a light meal before hitting the road again… We tried our best to finish it all, but it was impossible, and those who know me can bear witness to how much I can eat. This was just too much. Needless to say, we had to drag ourselves across the road and lie down at a park overlooking the marina for at least an hour, Nat fast asleep and me reading my book.
Once were able to ride again we left Malaga still following the coast road, but things were much better here. Old fishing towns had not been ruthlessly replaced by tall apartment buildings and the sea was visible from the road. It is true that it was not as beautiful as other parts of the coast, but it was a welcome improvement after Marbella. Our next and final destination, however, was Granada, which was inland, but I did not want to go all the way to Motril and take the motorway from there, so when we got to Nerja we turned off the coast road and headed up one of the small roads that crossed the natural reserve of the Sierra de Tejeda mountains.
These are quite tall mountains despite their proximity to the sea, and the road leading to the top is very narrow and windy, following the shape of each drop, shoulder and gully of the rocky terrain. It was a fascinating landscape, especially once we reached the top of the pass and saw the other side. The contrast between the south and the north face of the mountains was as stark as sudden, the south face almost bare of vegetation, hard and aggressive, with sharp rock formations, the north face a series of gentle slopes covered in lush grass, clumps of trees here and there growing denser as we rode down towards Granada.
The mountain road joined the main motorway right in the outskirts of the city, so we were there in a matter of minutes, and got quite far into the centre before finding the streets cut to traffic again because of the processions and learning that our hotel was right in the middle of it. We took a side street, parked the bike about five streets from the hotel, and took a walk. Luckily, things were better organised than in Jerez and there were crossing points regulated by the local police to help people get across the street without disturbing the procession.
It was already quite late, so we only had time to have a good shower and put on some nicer clothes before leaving for a visit of the city’s main tourist attraction – the Alhambra. We had been warned about the number of tourists there and told to book our tickets in advance, but even so we had only managed to find tickets for a night visit to the gardens, not the whole place. Still, it was better than not being able to visit it at all and it would be quite a romantic thing to do at night.
We did not have time to walk up to the entrance, which is a nice but long stroll uphill from the centre, and were told at the hotel that because of the processions it would be impossible to catch a bus, so our only bet was to take a cab. The driver also warned us that he could do no better than the bus across the city centre, and that he would have to drive out of the city, take a bit of motorway and approach the city from the other side. In the end it was only a 12€ fare and we got to the entrance 10 minutes before the visit, so it was not bad at all.
The world is a small place, and a friend of ours from Barcelona was visiting an old friend from high school in Granada those days and had booked the same visit at the same time, so we met him, his friend and her boyfriend, and they gave us some valuable local insight during the visit.
The gardens were a deeply relaxing place to see at night, softly lit, the sound of water running from the many fountains in the gardens, the city lights at our feet.
Once the visit was over, and without any hurry now, we walked down back leisurely to the city centre in search of a good place to enjoy the famous city tapas. Local advice was invaluable again, and they took us to their favourite places, away from the tourist path where we experienced firsthand what we had always heard – you can live in Granada without ever paying for dinner; you simply need to order a drink and you are served a generous and usually quite elaborate tapa for free, which means that you can just go out late afternoon or early evening with a bunch of friends, have a few drinks and go back home with a full stomach.
Our friend’s friend was pregnant and they were getting up early to go to the beach the following morning, so they headed home, but he stayed with us for one last beer. And as it is usually the case when the sentences “one last beer”, “I’m taking it easy tonight” or “I’m not drinking tonight”, we lost count of the beers we had, which later turned into gin and tonics, and we spent the whole night dancing and drinking. By the time we got back to our hotel it was almost daylight and we felt as if had already been in the city for a week.
Day 7 – Friday 3rd April – Jerez to Ronda (331km) – [MAP]
No more early rides without having breakfast from this point on; Nat made it crystal clear that she did not care whether we had to ride 900 km into the Sahara desert before sunset or whatnot, she was not getting on the motorbike without proper breakfast. So we left the hotel and got breakfast like normal people do, and then got changed, loaded the bike and headed south to visit Cadiz.
We got there quickly, there was not much traffic, and taking advantage of being on a motorbike we rode up to the entrance of the Fuerte de San Sebastián, parked there and took a walk. Built in 1706, it contains a metal lighthouse which was the second electric one in the country. Some of you might recognize the place from scenes in the James Bond film “Die Another Day” in which Pierce Brosnan goes to Havana. It was probably much easier to shoot here than on location in Cuba!
We took a quick ride around the old part of the city and then headed to Conil de la Frontera, where we intended to leave the main road and follow the coast all the way to Tarifa, the southernmost point of continental Europe. We tried to stop at Conil, but the traffic there was hell, lots of tourists trying to get to the beach, and besides it was starting to get too hot to push the motorbike around in those conditions, so we went on to out next stop: Zahara de los Atunes.
Now, this was more like it – even though it was sunny and the temperature was quite high if we stopped, the breeze coming in from the sea was quite chilly, so we were very comfortable riding those wonderful roads along the coast. The day was a bit windy, and we saw a lot of people practising kite surf on the beach. We rode through Barbate, well known for its “pescaitofrito” and we saw indeed fish being unloaded from the boats and several small kiosks by the road from which the tempting smell of fried fish came out. It was a bit too early for fish, so we went on. By the time we got to Zahara it was already lunchtime, and seeing that the place looked much quieter and welcoming than Conil, we decided to stop and have some tapas. We parked the motorbike right in front of a terrace, and the moment we stopped moving we quickly felt how high the temperature was. We took refuge in the shade and ordered some beer, salmorejo with tortilla de camarones and chicharrones. I cannot find the words to describe how absolutely delicious it was. We tried to take a walk, but at 34ºC and wearing motorbike trousers and boots, it was not the best idea, so after seeing the beach we got on the bike, happy to feel the cool wind again.
And quite windy it was… as we approached Tarifa the breeze turned into wind, which turned into a gale by the time we got there after riding through some nice hills by the coast. We parked the motorbike the best we could to protect it from the wind and make sure it was not blown over on its side and took a walk across a narrow road that connects Tarifa to the Isla de las Palomas.
The island is the southernmost point in Europe (if we do not count overseas territories like the Canary Islands, Réunion or the Falklands) and I found it fitting that I had got there on the same motorbike that in 2013 had taken me to the northernmost point of Europe, the Nordkapp.
Africa was easily visible from here, and my wish to walk to the other side of the island and get a good view of the other side of the strait was crushed when we discovered that the island was closed off by the Spanish government, the causeway that connected it to the mainland leading only to a locked gate. We walked back to the motorbike, the Mediterranean to our right, the Atlantic to our left, a very strong wind blowing sea spray and sand into our faces and making it difficult to walk upright.
Next and last stop of the day was Gibraltar, which I was very curious to visit. The rock was given to Great Britain in 1713, at the end of the Spanish war of succession, as part of the Utrecht Treaty, and has remained a British territory ever since. There is a border that has to be crossed to access it, and it is infamous for the long traffic queues that form there in rush hour, only made worse by the weird fact that the access road crosses the runway of the rock’s airport and has to be closed like a railway level crossing every time a flight has to land.
We just skipped to the front of the queue, usual procedure on the motorbike, showed our ID cards to the border police and were let in, it was a funny feeling knowing that I was riding my motorbike on a real runway. We wanted to get to the top of the rock, but it is a natural reserve and people wishing to access it must pay 10 pounds per person plus 2 pounds per vehicle, which made the total price 22 pounds, a little over 30 euros at the time of writing this article. Too much, we tought, and in any case it was already getting late and there was still a long way to go before reaching our final destination, Ronda, which was about; so we went to visit Europa Point, overlooking the strait from the other side of the rock, and in the end we did not need to pay anything to see the famous monkeys that live in Gibraltar, there were plenty of them on the way to the Point.
Even though it was late, I refused to take any more motorway on the way to Ronda, even if it was just a little, so up we went on the A-405 and the A-369, starting from Miraflores, and I immediately knew it had been the right decision. The road was good enough to keep up a decent speed, meaning that we were not going to take too long to reach Ronda, but at the same time it was interesting enough, with a combination of good landscape – green hills dotted here and there with the typical Andalusian white villages – fun corners and little traffic.
We got to Ronda by sunset, and this time we were lucky, the hotel was not in the way of any procession, even though we had to ride around the city to enter from the north in order to reach it. The motorbike in their underground car park, a shower, a change of clothes and we hit the streets to find a nice place to have dinner.
Ronda is a stunning city that has won the heart of many writers that over the centuries braved the hard roads that crossed the mountains to reach it and drink its charm, a mural in the old town containing their quotes from novels and poems witness to this.
The city is placed high on a plain that is split in two by a deep canyon, at the bottom of which runs the river Guadalevín. Three bridges connect both sides of the city, the most impressive the Puente Nuevo, new bridge, quite a misnomer when we learn that it was built in 1751… It is a massive 120-metre tall stone structure that is lit at night, so we were able to admire it even though it was already late at night. Not only were able to see the bridge, but we were lucky enough to catch a procession crossing it the moment we arrived there, it was the best view possible view of the bridge.
Day 6 – Thursday 2nd April – Carrapateira to Jerez (459km) – [MAP]
I knew today was going to be a long day… I had not got as far as I had planned to the previous day (not that I was complaining, my stay in Carrapateira had been most pleasant) which meant that I had a long ride ahead of me to be in Jerez on time. My girlfriend was flying from Barcelona in her first day of holidays (and her birthday too!) and I was to pick her up from Jerez airport after having dropped everything at the hotel and made myself presentable to her. You know, civilian clothes, a shower, a shave, removing insects from the beard…
The plan was to spend the morning on nice roads again, visit the Algarve and then take the motorway into Spain to get to Jerez as fast as possible.
I first visited the lighthouse in Cabo de Sao Vicente. It is right on the most southwestern tip of Portugal, and even though it is not particularly more beautiful than anything I had seen on the previous day, the place showed more signs of tourism than anything on the coast I was coming from. There was a hotdog stand in the car park by the lighthouse, and there was a constant stream of coaches dropping big groups of tourists armed with selfie sticks and ready to take their pictures with the coast behind them.
Next stops were Sagres and Portimao, which were even more touristic – lots of apartments, traffic everywhere… I was not really enjoying this part of the route, and I started to have doubts about taking the detours from the main route that a visit to Albufeira and Faro required. In the end, and seeing that it was getting late, I decide to stick to the inland route, and I did not regret my decision. To me, Algarve was at its most beautiful there, lush green hills, little villages, no traffic, great roads… I had a wonderful ride, including a stop in a restaurant at a small village for what turned out to be the cheapest meal of the whole trip.
Near Tavira the estimated time of arrival that the GPS was giving me to Jerez was becoming too late, so I decided to finally get on the motorway for the rest of the ride. There would be a relatively straight line along the coast to get to Jerez, but there is the Doñana National Park in between, which meant a long detour via Sevilla.
After almost 300 km of sheer boredom I rode into Jerez and followed the GPS instructions to the hotel. It was half past seven and the streets were oddly deserted. A few minutes later I found out why. Thursday was the first day of the Easter holidays in Southern Spain, and for those of you who have not visited this part of the country, this is a religious holiday period that is celebrated in a big way here. There are religious processions at different times of the day, especially late evening and night, and that was where everyone was – in the city centre watching of these processions walk past the entrance of my hotel. I got as close as possible to the street where my hotel was, but the police had cut access to the area; I tried to talk to the police officer and convince him to let me park the bike a bit closer to the hotel, but there were a lot of cars trying to get around the area and he had no time for me, so he just waved me off. The only useful bit of information I got from him was that the streets were going to be cut for the next hour and a half to two hours, so I decided to go to the airport and have a coffee and read my book to kill the time until Nat’s plane landed. Fat chance… Jerez airport was tiny, and unlike Barcelona, there was nowhere to park the motorbike for free, so I made up my mind to try to approach the hotel from a different street in the hope of running into a more understanding police officer. This time I was luckier, and they let me park the bike on the other side of the police barrier so I could take my stuff to the hotel on foot, check in and then park the bike somewhere else.
Now picture the scene: a street packed full of pious old ladies and respectable citizens all dressed in their absolute best clothes to admire the procession march past in respectful silence. And suddenly, a smelly, sunburnt man, wearing a dirty motorbike suit, with a backpack hanging from one shoulder and a helmet from another, a waterproof duffel bag splattered with dead insects in one hand and a travel bag in the other, trying to push his way through the crowd, pushing and shoving grannies and girls in long black night dresses aside, who steps in the middle of the street and crosses right through the procession while Jesus our lord saviour is solemnly inching forward to the sound of the drums. They all looked at me as if I were the ultimate blasphemy turned biker, I guess I got myself several tickets on the highway to hell that evening…
Anyway, with all my coming and going and trying to get to the hotel it was already time to go back to the airport and pick up Nat, so there was no time to shower, shave or change, I offended a few more grannies getting back to the motorbike and rode to the airport, the sky already dark.
She was coming straight out of work and was delighted to finally be on holiday, we rode back to the hotel, and by this time the procession was finally over, so not only were we allowed to ride much closer to the hotel, we could also access the entrance to the car park.
After a well-deserved shower, we hit the streets in time to have some delicious tapas and enjoy some local wine before the next procession got underway. They lasted all night, the last one still packing up as I was taking the bike out of the car park the following morning.
Day 5 – Wednesday 1st April – Lisbon to Carrapateira (286km) – [MAP]
Today was going to be, again, a day without breakfast. I took the bags to the motorbike, which I had left in a car park next to the police station. I had been told that it cost about 5€ for 24 hours, but as I walked to the bike I realised that the only thing separating the car park from the road was the pavement , and there was a small ramp for wheelchairs leading from the car park to it, so I was very tempted to just ride up to the pavement, onto the road and out of the city with an extra 5€ in my pocket, but when I went to validate the ticket at the machine to check the price I realised that at that time of the morning there was already a worker in the control booth, so I forgot the plan and paid like a good law-abiding citizen. Anyway, I did not want to leave a bad impression of adventure bikers in such a nice city.
I crossed the Ponte 25 de Abril once more, happy to see that while I had had to pay a bit over a euro to cross it into the city, there were no toll booths on the way out, even though I was made to pay for the motorway further down the road. About 50km separate the capital from Setubal, where I was heading to board a ferry that would take me to Troia, a small town at the northernmost tip of a narrow strip of land stretching from Comporta that separates the Estuario do Sado from the ocean. There was a ferry at half past every hour, and if I hurried and the process of getting the tickets and boarding was not too long I calculated that I could make it to the 10:30 one, so I reluctantly paid for the motorway once again and sped down to the harbour.
I bought the ticket at booth on the entrance of the harbour and found quite a long queue of vehicles already waiting for the ferry, which was just coming in. I stopped behind the last truck, but then three guys who were trying to sell cheap sunglasses and other stuff to the people waiting in the cars told me to ride all the way to the front. The advantages of travelling by bike… There was another biker there, a guy from Lisbon who was going to spend the day on the beach on the other side with his girlfriend, and we chatted for five minutes while the incoming traffic rolled out of the ferry and then we were told to ride up.
It was a sunny day, and the crossing offered magnificent views of the estuary as we sailed from one side to the other, passing a few enormous cargo ships on the way. I wanted to have breakfast on the ferry, but I was so busy admiring the views and shooting some videos, and the crossing was so short, that I missed the chance once again.
The ferry dropped us on a small jetty where a few cars were waiting to board, and I said goodbye to the other biker and his girlfriend and rode out of the tiny harbour and turned right, past some military facilities, heading north to find some Roman ruins I wanted to visit. The settlement is on a small peninsula within the peninsula, near the northern tip, and was inhabited until the 6th century. It included some baths, two-storey houses and facilities to dry fish, which was probably the main source of food and income of the town.
Across the ruins, a few rotten hulls of fishing boats lie on the beach, offering the amateur photographer some really good shots.
The sun was already quite high by the time I got on the bike again to head south, so I removed the thermal layers of the jacket and trousers for the first time in the trip. We’re going to the beach!
Troia peninsula is more than 10 km long, but only a few hundred meters wide, and from the road white sand beaches can be glimpsed through the pine trees, some people sunbathing, a few brave ones swimming and a lot of them fishing.
Comporta is a small fishing town where the peninsula meets the mainland, and from there on, a small road follows the coast all the way south. My plan was to ride on that road, taking smaller ones at some points to get closer to the coast to see the beaches and cliffs and visit some capes and lighthouses.
Out of Comporta, and as I rode south through the first few towns, I was surprised at how quiet the area was. The landscapes are amazing, and the coastline offers a beautiful combination of beaches and cliffs, but there seemed to be little in the form of tourist industry for such an idyllic place. There were small hotels and signs of rooms to let above some restaurants and cafés, but that was about it.
My first stop off the main route was to visit the Lagoa de Santo André, a fresh water lagoon by the beach, and a good place to have a swim in calmer waters than those of the Atlantic. It was a shame that despite the sunshine, the weather was a bit too chilly for a bath… From there I went down to Sines, with the intention of riding the ring road around the it and see the cliffs west of the city. I was surprised to find the city was dwarfed by huge refinery facilities, and there was a motorway made of oil pipes leading from the coast inland to the refineries. There was nothing much else to see, so I decided to ride on.
Out of Sines the landscape improved quickly, once the city and the industrial area was left behind the natural reserve of Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina started, stretching all the way to the southernmost point of the country. I was glad this place had been declared a protected area and there were no huge apartment buildings spoiling the coastline as there are in most of the Mediterranean side of the Iberian Peninsula. There were only small fishing towns every now and then, and by lunchtime I stopped in one of them, Porto Covo. It is a tiny town of whitewashed houses and narrow streets leading to the beach. I stopped in what looked like the main street, a pedestrian street gently sloping towards the beach with a couple of restaurants and a souvenir shop, chose a restaurant that looked good and sat down at a table in the street.
This was my third meal in Portugal, and I was starting to realise that while the prices were similar to Spain, the amount of food was not. One dish can easily serve two people, and in fact that is common practice, most people order one dish and share it. By the time I was done with my meal I was too full to get on the bike again, so I took out my book and spent about an hour enjoying my black coffee and reading in the shade.
I took it much easier in the afternoon, combining the main road south – which was not such a main road, it was still a nice, narrow country road, winding up and down gentle hills – with some detours to visit sights: a small abandoned resort overlooking a beautiful beach past Longueira, cape Sardao in Cavaleiro, a small church by the sea near Sardanito… From there i regained the main road in Sao Teotónio coming down from the hills that overlooked the sea, and rode to Aljezur, where I turned away and up the hills again to ride the loop that is the M-1003-1, at the tip of which there were some roman remains of what had been a settlement built on top of the cliffs.
There was one more stop to make before riding the last bit of the day’s route to Sagres, a small detour to visit a beach and another cape near Carrapateira. It was already getting late by the time I got there, and before starting on the road to the beach I saw a small restaurant with a front porch made of bamboo canes and some hammocks rocking in the gentle early evening breeze; there was a hand-painted sign saying “rooms available”, so I decided that it was the perfect place to spend the night. I had considered camping, but all the batteries for my GoPro were empty, and I needed somewhere to charge them up for the following day. And what the hell, the place looked very welcoming and staying there would give me time to see the sunset from the top of the cliffs nearby.
I checked in, went for a walk on the beach and rode up the cliffs to see the sunset. By the time I rode down back to the hotel it was already dark. I had a shower and then enjoyed a wonderful dinner of grilled octopus, fished that morning, with vegetables grown in the back of the restaurant.
Day 4 – Tuesday 31st March – Merida to Lisbon (289km) – [MAP]
New day, new country! There is always a feeling of trepidation, curiosity, excitement, to enter a country one has never seen before. I had only one day to visit Lisbon, and determined to make the most of it I set off with the first light of the day (and without breakfast) and decided to endure the boredom of the motorway in exchange for an early arrival at the Lusitanian capital. Out of Merida it was the usual drill: hostel address in the GPS, bike loaded, fill up before the border (cheaper), miss the iPod for the nth time… and not much fanfare once at the border, in fact, none at all, not even old unused border control booths, just a small sign by the side of the motorway and I was in a different country.
I like the feeling of crossing into a new one, even within the EU, where many things are pretty much standardised, I still take pleasure in the little differences that tell me I am somewhere else than my homeland. The motorway signs are a slightly different shape and colour, the people move in a slightly different way, the ads by the road have a different air… I am not talking about the language, that is obvious, but thousands of other small details that make up the whole landscape of a country.
Shortly after the border the sunny morning turned into a very foggy one and the temperature dropped so much I had to stop at a service station to change my gloves for winter ones, put in the thermal layer of the suit and get the neck warmer out of the panniers. I also took the opportunity to buy a regional map of southern Portugal that I had not been able to buy in Barcelona (out of stock, apparently).
By the time the GPS said I was approaching Lisbon the weather was glorious again, warm and sunny as I caught my first glimpse of the majestic Ponte 25 de Abril stretching across the river Tajo into the capital. I stopped at the toll booth, where they would not accept MasterCard nor Visas, which meant that I had to take off my gloves and find the one a bit euro in cash to pay, creating a minor traffic jam behind me.
Once across the bridge I was greeted by a fascinating city – steep streets, many of them still cobbled, going up and down, beautiful run-down buildings, yellow tramways, a glimpse of the river every now and then.
I found my hostel quite easily and the girl at the reception was kind enough to expedite my check-in even though I arrived there earlier than expected. She also pointed me in the direction of a car park next to a police station a couple of streets away where the bike would be safe for my stay.
After a quick shower and a change of clothes, I hit the streets eager to find the city elevators and a restaurant that a friend had recommended. The free map they had given me at the hostel was quite useless, so I just walked in the general direction of the centre, getting lost in the small backstreets and enjoying the atmosphere. I walked into a park that overlooked the city and from where I could see the Barrio Alto and the Santa Justa lift in the distance. What looked like a tiny park turned out to be quite big, and I discovered I could walk down to the lower part of the city from there, around what looked like a school (part of the park was on the roof!) and then down a couple of alleys. To my surprise, one I had reached the bottom, I turned a corner and almost walked into the Ascensor do Lavra, one of the funiculars linking the lower and upper parts of the city. It was just there, around the corner, in a narrow street, no signs indicating how to get to it, and just a small sign with the timetable by the stopped car, with the operator leaning against it and having a cigarette.
It was all painted up in graffiti, far from the spotless yellow in which you usually see it in guidebooks and holiday brochures, and I could not make up my mind whether that was a good or a bad thing. I love urban decay, I like the kind of city that has a strong personality, that is not all neat and tidy, places like Berlin, and this city looked the Berlin of southern Europe, I want special places, I want the regular tourists to say “ugh, it’s old and dirty” and leave these places to the travellers. So I guess it was a good thing.
I walked up the tracks to take some pictures and I don’t know why I remembered that I had a Geocaching app in my mobile, and thought it would be fun to find one in Lisbon. I checked and sure enough, there was one right there by the lift tracks. Nice location.
I strolled across the Avenida da Liberdade find the Ascensor da Glória in a slightly cleaner condition than its counterpart on the other side of the avenue, which I took to get to Barrio Alto and the restaurant Sinal Vermelho, one of the many that line the small streets in that neighbourhood, where I enjoyed some wonderful cod. Make sure you visit it if you are in Lisbon.
After lunch I visited the Santa Justa lift, and then, not feeling like walking much with such a great meal in my stomach, I looked for the famous eléctrico 28, one of the old tramways that is known for its route across the city and especially the part that crosses Alfama neighbourhood, where it speds up and down narrow streets with only a few inches to spare between the tram and the houses.
I, like many others who visit the city for the first time, had assumed that the 28 was a tourist attraction, but it is not. It is one more tram line in the city’s public transport system, and many citizens use it to go to and back from work, having to fight hordes of tourists armed with cameras for a space in the tiny tram. I got on near one end of the line and was lucky enough to secure a seat by the window, but in the late afternoon rush hour it was soon packed full of people, and I felt guilty every time we went by a stop and there was no room for more people to get on. There I was, another tourist taking pictures from the tram, not letting people get back home after a long day at work.
I got off in Alfama, after a rollercoaster ride during which the driver had little regard for pedestrians that had to jump out of the tram’s way and make themselves flat against the walls of buildings to let the yellow beast fly inches from their noses.
Get lost in Alfama and it is easy to forget that you are in a capital city. It is a maze of backstreets and alleys, old houses built one on top of another, with the sounds, smells and colour of a little coastal village rather than a city.
Once the dark fell I took a seat in one of the two tables that a small tavern had in an alley and I ordered some seafood. To me, this was the perfect place to do so, deep in the labyrinth of Alfama, away from the main tourist spots, chatting to the tavern owner and enjoying the peace and quite of the warm night.
To end a great day I decided to take a walk back to the hostel even though it was quite some distance, but I wanted to enjoy the streets of this wonderful city one last time.
Day 3 – Monday 30th March – Toledo to Mérida (342km) – [MAP]
When planning the route across Spain I wanted to visit the area south of Madrid, as I had already been north of it several times on the bike and I wanted to see something new. Out of Toledo I could either take the motorway, be done with the riding in a couple of hours and spend the rest of the day visiting Mérida or head south-west and take the roads through Cijara natural reserve, which looked a much more appealing prospect than having to endure more motorway miles; however, that meant that if I still wanted to have time to see Merida I had to get up really early.
The alarm clock went off at 7 am and ten minutes later I was already dragging my bags to the bike, which was park a couple of streets away, in a small square reserved for residents only. It was still dark and the streets were deserted, in sharp contrast to the previous evening, when hundreds and hundreds of people had lined these same streets to see the processions. The only other people up so early on a Monday morning were the cleaning crews, hosing the cobbled streets to wash the litter away. They patiently waited for me to load the bike before cleaning that last spot on the square, and then I was out of the city in the dim light of dawn, riding carefully on the wet steep streets and looking forward to a nice morning ride.
The sun came out as I was turning off the main road and into the Montes de Toledo, I opened my visor and took in the smells of the forest in the morning as I rode up a perfect road in zero traffic.
The perfect road did not last long, however… I had started riding on the CM 4157, but the good tarmac went on to become the CR 701 and my CM 4157 became barely a paved forest road which apparently had no traffic other than logging trucks, so no wonder it was more a collection of patches and badly repair potholes than tarmac. Even at a moderate speed the bucking and vibrations were quite annoying, so I had to take things very easy and enjoy the landscape.
I was having a great time maybe halfway between the point where the road had turned away from the main route and the Cijara reservoir when I heard a clanging sound coming from the back of the bike. I slowed down and the sound died away, but the moment I sped up and the bike started shaking on the bad road the metallic sound was back. I did not feel anything strange on the handlebars or though my bum, so I assumed that something had come loose in the panniers. I stopped to check, trying to find what was vibrating, but could not figure it out. I had determined that the sound was coming from the left side of the back of the bike, maybe under the pannier, maybe behind it, but I could not see anything wrong there. The jerrycan was still firmly attached and made no sound when I tried to rattle it with my hand, and so were the water bottles at the front, the mounting frame for the pannier, the passenger footpeg, the lid, the padlocks, and the duffelbag attached to the lid. I rode on, and the sound appeared again as soon as I gathered a bit of speed. It sounded like I was dragging an empty can behind me, and the whole was starting to annoy me. I was in the middle of nowhere, with zero cell signal and I had only seen one other vehicle on that route, the logging truck… I did not feel like spending the whole morning there waiting for somebody to drive by. I stopped again and checked the sidestand and centerstand, without any luck either. Then, as I crouched down to check the chain, I saw it. With all the vibrations one of the bolts that hold the chain guard to the swingarm had fallen off and the chain guard was rattling against its mounting point. It is a part that is made mostly of plastic (I have the standard one) but it has metal plate on the back mounting, which was making the mysterious sound. I tried to fasten it with a zip tie, but I was afraid the vibration would quickly break it, so I just took the whole thing off and strapped it on top of one of the duffel bags until I got to a town where I could find a bolt.
Much more relieved, I went on my way, enjoying the beauty of the park. I noticed that there were signs that read “natural reserve” every few kilometres, but to my surprise there were also a lot of signs indicating the limits of private hunting land, and some ways down the road I saw a lot of cut down trees and some logging equipment, presumably that was where the truck I had seen earlier came from. Hunting and logging seemed a peculiar way of protecting life in a natural reserve… well, Spain is a peculiar country, I guess.
I was now in Extremadura, and after turning into an even smaller road around Cijar reservoir another flashback from Kazakhstan came to visit – first it had been the bolt loosening vibrations, and now it was the unexpected-ten-inch-deep-with-jagged-edges pothole. Not wishing to break a rim again, I slowed down to almost walking pace and played the avoid-the-pothole videogame for a while.
The bad road ended near the village of Helechosa, and from then on the road that took me to the dam was marvellous. I stopped there to take a few pictures of the dam before joining the main road for the last stretch to Mérida, and was surprised to see a sign announcing that I was in the Siberia Extremeña.
I got to Merida by lunchtime and checked in at the hostel I had booked. It was just 15 minutes away from the historical city centre, I had a nice room with bathroom all to myself and they had free underground parking space for my motorbike. Nice!
Merida’s roman ruins are amazing, and despite the stifling heat I was determined to see as much as I could before sunset, so I got started right after having some tapas for lunch in the main square. I went down to the river and crossed it using the new bridge to have a good view of the old roman bridge and take some pictures, but it was probably not a very good idea… it was 4 pm, the bridge was quite long and there was not a shade in sight.
Needless to say, I was the only fool walking across at that hour. The walk back across the roman bridge took me to the Alcazaba where you can buy a ticket that grants access to all monuments in the city for only 12€, and should you not have time to see them all, the ticket has no expiry date, so you can come back any time in the future and see the rest.
I started my sightseeing tour in that 9th century fortress, and spent a bit longer than needed visiting the aljibe, an underground cistern that collected water from the river where the temperature was a lot nicer than outside.
From there I went to the main sights of the city, the amphitheatre and the Roman theatre, but not before visiting the forum and the temple of Diana on my way there.
The amphitheatre and the Roman theatre are two of the best preserved buildings from that period and a good example of how the Romans understood the importance of keeping the population entertained. Walking down the stands and looking and the imposing stage it was easy to imagine the place full of citizens, seated in different sections according to their social class, enjoying the plays.
It was getting late, but it was still quite hot. Time for the last visit before heading back to the centre for some more tapas and beer. I had left the Circus Maximus until the end because I knew that at 400 metres long and 30 wide I would not enjoy walking up and down under the sun on the same sand where Diocles obtained many of his 1,462 victories.
When I was done with the visit I realized it was still early for dinner, so I decided to make the most of my ticket and finish the tour with a visit of the crypt of Santa Eulalia.
With the sun finally low, I found a nice table at a bar in a sidestreet and enjoyed some well-deserved beers before ordering a few more tapas and heading back to the hostel. One more sight waited for me on the walk back, though – the aqueduct, standing tall across the small river just outside the old centre.
Day 2 – Sunday 29th March – Villarroya de los Pinares to Toledo (384km) – [MAP]
I had had trouble sleeping the night before, courtesy of the heavy dinner and the alcohol, and as I got up to have a shower at 7 am I promised myself to be more careful next time. My plan that day was to ride to Extremadura and stay at a hostel called Via de la Plata in Hervás which I had seen on a previous trip and looked interesting, but the day before I had called to check whether they had available rooms and discovered to my dismay that they were closed for the time being, apparently because the guy who ran it had not had his contract renewed. That, having received a text from a friend of mine telling me he was spending a few days in Toledo and finally the fact that I had almost an extra 100 km to cover that day since we had not reached Teruel the night before made me decide to forego Hervás and the Valle del Jerte and stop at Toledo. After all, I had already seen that area a few years before, and all I needed was an intermediate stop on my way to Mérida, which was the place I wanted to visit.
We rode out in the chilly morning, all layers on our suits, and not long after leaving town came to the crossroads where our roads parted – Gerard was heading to the town of Valdelinares, which is supposed to be the highest in Spain, and I was heading south to Teruel and then West to Toledo. We said our goodbyes and wished each other a good route and less than an hour later I was in Teruel.
I did not stop, I have spent countless summer holidays in the area and know the city well, but contrary to what most people seem to think, it is a very nice city and there are lots of interesting places to visit and things to do in the area, so it is well worth spending a holiday there.
The road from Teruel to Cuenca was almost deserted and offered nice fast sweeping corners and very good tarmac, so I had a quite a good time, and was leaving Cuenca behind and entering the motorway for the second part of the journey quite soon.
This motorway is witness to how stupidly money was spent on unnecessary infrastructure when the country still had permission to reach deep into the EU pockets. There is practically nothing between Cuenca and Ocaña, past Tarancón, where the motorway ends, and in the whole journey on it I only saw two other cars.
Needless to say, it was unbelievably boring, and had it not been for the fact that I had already told my friend that I would be in Toledo by lunchtime, I would have avoided it and stuck to smaller roads.
Toledo is a city with a rich story and heritage, and having met my friend, dropped my bag at the hotel and parked the bike, we went off to find a good place to have lunch and then to wander through its narrow streets all afternoon. The city was bustling with life, lots of tourists having come to see the Easter celebrations, and there were people everywhere. We walked around until the evening, when we sat down at a small bar in an alley that served excellent burgers with great rock-inspired names. We both choose an AC/DC, which seemed quite a balanced one, not too heavy. Funnily enough, the simplest one was called Bon Jovi.
Having forgotten what I had promised myself in the morning, I wanted to have a gin and tonic after dinner, but the streets appeared to be quite deserted and most of the bars were already closing. I had forgotten that it was a Sunday and most people worked the following day. We found an open bar were we got a pair of passable drinks before heading for bed. I wanted to leave before sunrise the following day – my intention was to be in Mérida by midday to have time to visit the city and also ride some interesting roads in the morning, I had had enough motorway today.
Day 1 – Saturday 28th March – Barcelona to Villarroya de los Pinares (415km) – [MAP]
It was 8 am on Saturday morning and loading the bike was taking longer than expected… Besides my stuff I had to carry Nat’s riding suit, boots and helmet, and I had also decided to take my camping gear just in case, as I had not booked hotels or hostels for every single night. My bike sleeps in the street, by the main entrance to my building, so I could not put everything on it the night before and just get up and ride away. By the time I was done, I was already late to meet my riding mate for the day.
A friend of mine had recently bought a V-Strom and we had talked about doing something together for Easter, but he only had four days off, so I suggested riding together on the first day all the way to a house my family owns south of Teruel, and then he could ride back to Barcelona and I would go on to Hervás, on the other side of Sierra de Gredos.
We arranged to meet at 8 o’clock and I got to the meeting point about 20 minutes late… to find that he was not there! I checked my mobile and saw that he had called me and sent a text: he had forgotten some parts of his new GoPro camera and had gone back home to get them. I had also just got a GoPro for my birthday, and unlike the one that was stolen on the big trip, this one came with a WiFi remote that I had mounted on the handlebars so I could record while riding without having to reach for the camera and risk crashing, and I was looking forward to trying it on this trip, so I could hardly blame him for going back to get his.
In the end we set off at about nine, a bit later than expected, but no big deal, we had a place to sleep that night and the whole day ahead of us. I have to say that I had been a bit overoptimistic in planning the route, and the initial idea of riding only secondary roads all the way down seemed a bit too much now, especially since I was not riding on my own and we would be stopping quite often to test the cameras, so we decided to skip the bit that was closest to Barcelona (we could do those roads any other weekend) and take the coast motorway to get to the interesting bits faster.
Oh, did I regret that decision… Not only was the motorway tremendously boring, but on that particular day it was also very windy, and we had a couple of scares when sudden gusts of wind almost blew us off the bikes. We made it to Reus in the end, and from there to Flix to start the first interesting bit of road of the day.
Past Flix there is a road that goes to the town of Riba-roja, first along the reservoir that carries the same name, and then up the hills where some of the decisive battles of the Spanish civil war were fought. It is a small winding road that nobody takes, and after the long slog of motorway and with the wind already gone, we finally started having fun. Once the road reaches the top of the hills there is a small dirt road to the right that goes to the remains of some tranches built to defend the area during the war. It seems that a lack of coordination and bad intelligence meant they never saw action, even though the fascist troops broke through the lines nearby. The place is well worth a visit, not only to see the trenches but also to admire the views over the reservoir.
We took turns to ride in front and record each other, and I was happy to see that my setup was working well. I first tried the camera mounted on the topcase to record myself from the back of the bike, and then I mounted it on the helmet, which I preferred, because it gave me more flexibility to point it different ways. It was on one of the stops to check the cameras, while I was waiting for my friend to change the position of his, that I checked my tank bag and realised that I had taken the wrong keys to the family house.
I could not believe it… it was almost lunchtime, and we were too far from Barcelona to even consider turning back. I called my father to see if there was any neighbour that might have a copy of the keys, but there wasn’t. I told Gerard and we decided to keep going anyway and find a place to sleep. More of an adventure.
His family is from a small village in the area where we were, called Bot, so he suggested stopping for lunch there, as he knew a good restaurant. While we were having some rather excellent grilled meat we checked some places to stay that night on the mobile phones, but everything was either expensive or already full. In the end we got the address of a backpacker’s hostel in Teruel and decided to stay there.
The excellent meal took its toll, and we were feeling a bit heavy back on the motorbikes under the early afternoon sun. We rode on to the beginning of the Maestrazgo, a mountain range that extends from the south of Catalonia all the way near Teruel, and offers a maze of backroads that wind their way up and down valleys and gorges, and rises to the high plains and passes to offer excellent views. It is a very sparsely populated area, and one can ride for hours without coming across another car, which makes the area a perfect place to enjoy a motorbike to the fullest.
After riding to Valderrobres we took a tiny road up the mountain, where we switched bikes. It was an experiment I was very interested in doing, since both bikes were the exact same 2007 model (even down to the colour), but mine had done over 130.000 km and his was barely run in (he got a hell of a deal). I was very happy to see that other than a smoother throttle and clutch action (entirely my fault, I should have changed the cables or at least lubricated them a long time ago), there was virtually no difference. I remembered how many articles I had read praising other bikes “quality” and wondered where that perceived quality would be if I treated one of them like I treat mine. One difference I noticed was how soft the standard suspension was, diving noticeably under braking, when compared to mine, fitted with stiffer Hyperpro springs. Swapping your springs for better ones is definitely money well spent on a V-Strom.
We swapped again and rode on to find the consequences of the recent heavy rains that had affected the area all around us. Fields were still flooded, mud had washed over the road in many places, making it tricky to ride around blind corners, and there were rocks on the road at some points. Turning into an even smaller road that had to take us back to a main one, we came across a sign that said that the road was closed. It was only a sign, the road was not physically closed, so we decided to risk it, wanting to avoid a long detour. We took it slowly and after some kilometres we saw the reason – there had been some mudslides that covered half the already narrow road, so a car was unlikely to fit through, only a big 4×4 might have made its way driving with two wheels on the pile of mud. A while later we also saw a small section of road that had been washed away by a stream, leaving only half of it.
Back on a bigger road and heading south, I wanted to stop at a place called Santuario de la Balma, a church that had been built under a huge rock. I remember seeing it for the first time on my previous trip in that area, but there were some roadworks in the access and I could not visit it. I feared it would be the same story again because of the rains, but this time it was open.
Getting off the bikes at the entrance we almost had a shower under all the water that was dripping off the mountains. Inside church it was even worse – water was seeping through the walls and leaking from the roofs, mostly where the ceiling joined the rock face. I was surprised they had kept the place open. On the way out we stopped to play with the “guard” dog and take some pictures, and off we went again.
By now it was clear that we were not going to make it to Teruel in daylight, which was a pity, since the last part of the ride through the Maestrazgo offers sensational views of the sunset. We pressed on trying to catch some shots in the dusk light, but shortly after Cantavieja, which is about half way the night caught us. The temperature dropped fast, and at this point we were high enough to see some snow by the road. On a long, fast stretch of road, with me riding first, a couple of dogs walked out of nowhere and onto the road. I braked hard and fortunately they decided not to cross. It was a close shave, the brakes on these bikes are quite a joke and hitting a big dog at speed means a nasty accident. A bit later it was a rabbit and then some goats by the side of the road. By then I had decided that enough was enough, we were still an hour away from Teruel, it was pitch black and there was no point pushing it on the very first day of the trip. Time to find a place to sleep.
I thought it would be complicated, as there are only a few villages in the area and they are all very small, but on the second one we came across after me making the decision to stop for the night I saw a sign on the side of the local bar that said they had rooms, and we stopped to ask. The locals looked at us as if we had just landed from another planet, at that time of night and in full motorbike gear, walking into a bar where nobody but the few people who live in the village go. We got a cheap room with two beds for the night and after some deep fried local specialties, a few beers and a gin and tonic we crashed into bed.