Easy Riding in Spain
by Clement Salvadori
"We rode hard.
"We rode fast.
"We rode long. And when the riding was done we ate well. We drank well. We slept well. And the next day we would do it all over again."
So much for abusing the Hemingway style. But somehow, the combination of Spanish mountains and a fast bike just seems to elicit the syntax from The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
A motorcyclist lives to ride, to find new roads to travel, often far from home. The north of Spain has stunning riding potential--especially the byways that wind through and over the Pyrenees Mountains and the Cordillera Cantabrica.
These mountains are not manicured, not tamed, not hospitable. Instead, they present ruggedly beautiful vistas, graced with soaring green hillsides and little villages where ruined castles stand on distant hilltops. Routes wind down narrow ravines, cross lonely passes, and run alongside rushing rivers.
I was on a 14-day motorcycle excursion run by Edelweiss Bike Travel. The company provides excellent guides, reliable motorcycles (BMWs and Suzukis for this trip), and superb accommodations.
By day, we'd explore the backroads of mountainous northern Spain, heading from Barcelona west to Leon, and then back again. At night, we'd enjoy the hospitality of the Spanishparadorhotels.
First, let's clarify some nomenclature. A posada is the old Spanish word for an inn, and a parador was an inn of a higher class, intended for nobility, when the lords and ladies traveled with retinues and such.
About 75 years ago, pre-Franco, the head of the Royal Tourist Commission looked around and saw that much of Spain's history was crumbling. Although maintaining a castle was an expensive proposition for an individual, the government had funds to convert these paradores into well-appointed inns. By attracting tourists, the state could both benefit local economies and help preserve history.
Each parador is unique. Accommodations might be in an ancient castle with a baronial dining hall, plus the refinements of modern plumbing and an excellent kitchen. Other choices include a medieval hospice in the center of Leon, offering spacious rooms and six-foot bathtubs; and a many-leveled hostel built into the walls of Sos del Rey Catolico, an ancient town in Aragon.
My wife and I flew into the Barcelona airport where we were greeted by our Edelweiss guides, who took us into the city to meet the other tour members. There would be 11 of us, plus one guide riding in the lead, one driving the chase truck carrying our luggage.
We left town early in the morning, heading north along the beaches towards the Costa Brava--the Stormy Coast. The roads were tight and twisty, and a favorite for local motorcyclists. After lunch we headed inland, through the backroads of the Sierra de Montseny. Traffic was practically non-existent, the towns and villages secluded and quiet.
Our first parador was at Seo de Urgel, in the valley of the Segre River, just south of the Principality of Andorra. While sitting in the bar waiting for our evening meal to be served (in keeping with Spanish custom, we never dined before 8:30 P.M.), I was perusing the wine list. One of our guides asked me why I was doing that; I allowed as to how my wife and I would like to have a bottle of wine with dinner. On this trip, he said, the wine will come with every meal. Part of the parador package--very thoughtful!
Each day served up new adventures. Late one afternoon we climbed over the umpteenth mountain pass of the day, Puerto de la Bonaigua, and dropped into the Valley of Aran, at our ski-lodge parador at Arties. Pyreneean roads, at least the small ones, are not smooth strips of asphalt, but ones which have been patched and patched, and patched again. Plus several times a day, we'd gridlock with herds of horses, sheep or cows, all of which keeps the pace modest.
Crumbling keeps and castles dotted the hilltops, relics of more violent times. We could turn off and visit some of them, stopping to picnic beneath the walls or climb dank towers inside.
What City Hall is to present-day America, a castle was to 14th-century Spain. No 911 number to dial back then--you would have to know how to defend yourself. Preferably in a place from which you could pour boiling oil down on your tormentors.
A "rest" day was scheduled at Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Some people actually did rest, but others went off with a guide to wander the roads of the Sierra de la Demanda, to eat fresh bread and cheese in a high mountain meadow.
For many miles, our route coincided with the Holy Road, also known as the Pilgrim's Way. This was the long route that Christians from all over Europe followed to Santiago de Compostela, where the (supposed) tomb of the disciple St. James the Greater (a.k.a. St. Jacob or Santiago) was found in the 9th century. Since no reasonable theory could explain how the remains got there from Jerusalem, where Herod had them flung over the city walls 800 years previously, a miracle was declared, and the faithful flocked to the site. To this day, you see pilgrims walking along the Camino de Santiago, intent on seeking salvation.
We did not get as far as Santiago, since the city of Leon was our turnaround. It was also the setting for the biggest of the paradores where we stayed: the former hospice was so large, it blanked out one entire side of a huge plaza. As we pulled up in front of this massive, 16th-century building, one of the other riders asked me where our hotel was, not believing we would actually be sleeping in this magnificent structure.
From Leon, we headed north and east into the Cordillera Cantabrica, a 300-mile stretch of mountains along the Bay of Biscay. Although the mountains aren't tall, only climbing to 8,500 feet, they're steep. The range includes the Peaks of Europe, the largest national park on the continent.
Carved out of rock, roads follow whitewater rivers, or hairpin up and up--and down and down--over the many passes. We were now in Basque country.
The two million Basques speak a language unrelated to any other tongue. Fiercely independent, they were a thorn in the side of all Spanish governments until granted certain autonomy over the past 20 years.
Their beautiful homeland is as remote and untrammeled by modern impediment as any place on Earth. In particular, the valley leading to the Estacas de Trueba pass was magnificent. We passed steep slopes covered with grass and sheep, stone barns and houses, and fields surrounded by rock walls. Mules are still used for daily transportation. Although it seems a hard life for those of us accustomed to video stores and fast food, it does this proud people proud.
And, of course, we saw more castles. At Loarre, we rode up a mountainside and clambered over the ramparts of a huge fortification built 800 years ago on Roman ruins. It puts Disneyland to shame, with acres of grounds surrounded by towered walls, courtyards, chapels, and the mighty keep.
For our last night at a parador, we slept in a massive fortress begun by Louis of Aquitaine 1,200 years ago. Its battlements loomed over the town of Cardona, a warning to the Moslems not to push any further north. The walls were three feet thick, and at night the wind moaned through the corridors and hallways like cries from victims of the dungeons far below. The church bells tolled through the night.
And back to Barcelona. We covered over 1,700 miles, most of which I haven't had time to mention here. But Spain was glorious in spring, with wildflowers giving bright colors to the roadsides and fields. And great roads to ride.
Based in Mieming, Austria, Edelweiss also has two U.S. offices. West Coast: Tri-Community Travel, P.O. Box 1974, Wrightwood, CA 92397. Phone: (800) 582-2263 or (760) 249-5825; Fax: (760) 249-3857. East Coast: Hartford Holidays Travel, P.O. Box 536, Williston Park, NY 11596. Phone: (800) 877-2784 or (516) 746-6761; fax (516) 746-6690.
Or, contact Beach's Motorcycle Adventures, Ltd. at: 2763 West River Parkway, Grand Island, NY 14072-2053. Phone: (716) 773-4960; Fax: (716) 773-5227. Website: http://bma.buffnet.net; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Activity Index under "Motorcycle Touring." ::::