The last day riding to Bilbao, on the boat and riding back to London

Thursday 25th July

I’m writing at 3.30 in the afternoon as the boat leaves the harbour and Bilbao and heads out into the open sea toward home. I’m watching the white oil containers and warehouses move past the window (I chose an outside birth for this journey in the hours of daylight). I have a good feeling about this trip and about motorcycling. I think riding the Bardenas Reales was a bit of a turning point that opened up a new vista of riding and I got a glimpse of what off-roading is like. Though this was barely off road it was very different to riding on the highway. This linked up with all the other unplanned off-road experiences on a bike that is, in theory, designed for this kind of terrain though, in practice, rather heavy. In the usual queue of motorcyclists waiting for the ferry to dock and then to board, I talked to a wiry guy about his beautifully tricked out new 1250GS Rallye (BMW have finally got a colour scheme right). He has a real eye for the extra and advised me with a smile to check out Ali Express for its knock-off of much more expensive Touratech extra parts – which I started to do on my phone as I waited. I’d love to trade up to one of these (a new 1250gs) but the project – in concept at the moment – is the lighter weight modified off road bike. In a group bikers can seem a bit off-putting but when you actually talk to them one at a time, you find really sweet helpful guys (nearly all are men – though a lot of them are riding with their partners) who really love their bikes and talking about them.

The last day went exquisitely to plan with an early breakfast, quick payment (this last hotel was cheap as well as being so good – cool, relaxed, unpretentious, quite busy with good meals), easy packing up and a direct and uneventful journey from start to finish (there was a traffic jam just between Bilbao and the port and slightly warming temperature – just up to 30 at the hottest – but good signposting to the ferry terminal). (This boat is moving up and down a lot more than I remember on the way out, perhaps it is going faster). It was so great to get on (my ride down the steep ramp was a bit wobbly with a bit of foot trailing) and great to get into the cool of the boat, then have a shower and make a late lunch from the last food I had bought yesterday.  Now I have 24 hours to do nothing, read to the end of my book, eat, sleep, get up eat again and then head back up from Portsmouth to home. Number one project when home, after cleaning the bike, is to fix the 30 year old toaster that has broken in my absence.


Next morning: Well, last night was rough, so rough that I didn’t feel like going to eat, and neither did many others by the sound of the constant requests over the loudspeakers for people to come to take up their bookings in the restaurant. So after eating a block of halva that I forgot I had, washed down with a little spirit, I lay down on my bed but each time that the boat made a heavy lurch my heart was in my mouth. Perhaps this would be that exceptional event of a regular ferry capsizing, the one in a thousand chance. But it wasn’t of course, and generally by the time I woke at 7.30 ship time, things were calmer and I went up to get a bar breakfast amid people talking about the previous night.

With some wifi I had a chance to catch up on UK and world news which is dispiriting at the moment. And I could see from Google maps that we were just rounding that corner of France that sticks out and soon to turn right into the English Channel. We are due to dock at 2.15. I am in a different headspace to yesterday already, and though I have a few things to attend to, I have most of the next month before having to return to work.

With more than an hour to dock I got onto a UK phone network and learnt that the land I could see out of my cabin was the Isle of Wight. Although we docked at 2.15, it was getting on for 3 before they unloaded the bikes. On this particular ship, the Cap Finistere, the bikes are down in the absolute bowels of the ship. Talking to some other bike riders I learned that there was widespread apprehension about riding up the steep metal ramp onto the main car deck – it isn’t just me.

Riding the 75 miles back to London was straightforward, though from around Merton things slow down tediously and there is the normal road racing between young guys in zippy little BMWs and Audi’s to contend with.

Another trip is over. It has left me with a curiosity for more off-road riding. My dream of rebuilding a light enduro type bike for longer travel is kindled. Also parking in line with, among other bikes, the brand new R1250GS in Rallye colours (and with some very nice add-ons and general farkles) has given me terrible bike dissatisfaction. That’s how the wheels of capitalism grind on, with me as its fodder.


15th  Home to Portsmouth 75 miles
16th From the port of Bilbao to Carrion de los Condes 169 miles
17th Around the Picos de Europe 229 miles
18th From Carrion de los Condes to Casa Camino 218 miles
19th From Casa Camino to Santiago 91 miles
20th Walking no mileage  
21st From Galicia to Palacio hotel 213 miles
22nd From Palacio hotel to Ribadesella 60 miles
23rd From Asturias to Navarra 285 miles
24th Around Bardenas Reales 81 miles
25th Navarra to Bilbao port 152 miles
26th Portsmouth to home 75 miles

That’s a total of 1,648 miles (2652 km)

Yikes: getting stuck, the seaside and a near miss

Day 7 Monday 22nd July

Today has been quite a day. Sixty miles, 2 and a half hours riding, down to seaside town Ribadesella and back. That sounds very simple, and my time sitting by the harbour on a bench in the shade was lovely, eating custard donuts bought from the supermarket there. On the way there and back was not so much fun.


On the way there, determined not to get lost I ended up following the GPS’s mad instructions – I’ve just looked at the track and it is one large ragged circle with no apparent sense to it.

a circular route

There is an air of mystery to the hotel this evening. It is an old, very old manor house, with deeply worn stone steps and heavy doorways. Painted ochre on the outside. There is a main door, made of dark oak, at the front and another from the bar to the terrace at the back – and finally a service entry at the side. But I have just finished a slow glass of wine outside on the terrace, reading, and now all the doors are locked and I can’t get back in. Earlier I saw three women walking around the outside, some way off. I could hear that they were not speaking Spanish. They all had exactly identical figures. I walk all the way round the building. I look down the well.

And on the way back from my trip to the coast, I was sure I knew the way. I wrote the name of the turn off from the main road in pencil on the blue sea part of the map in my tank bag. But I missed it. So I took the next turning and knew where I was going, over the level crossing, past the station. But then somehow I was lost again and the GPS was pointing me in the completely wrong direction. Why does it do that? So I just stopped and turned the bike around to retrace my steps. Eventually I saw the signpost toward the hotel and followed it, still focussed on the frustration and need to find the right route. And then from around a corner, in a small lane with tall vegetation on both sides comes a car. And I am on the wrong side of the road. We are neither of us moving very fast but we are heading toward each other. There is not time to turn the bars. But there is time to move the bike over with my legs and we just miss probably by 6-8 inches. As I sail on I can see that the car has come to a halt right up against the tall grass. With my last glimpse in the mirror I can see it start to move off. This was a near miss.

mutual avoidance

On the way out this morning I followed the GPS instructions to go down the branching spider-web of smaller and smaller tracks, always on the incline and mostly through farms. But eventually, there comes a point where carrying on up a tight hairpin up a steep track into nowhere is not possible. I stop and there is a few feet of grassy track but it is sloping downward and each time I try to stop the bike and put down the stand we roll forward and I nearly drop it two or three times. Eventually I work out the best strategy and end up with the panniers jammed up against the side of a stone building then drag it forward enough to climb back on, start up the engine and make the turn, back over the track and eventually onto tarmac. Never again. I’ve decided that big bikes and small tracks do not mix well.

I just have to get out of here in the morning – without getting lost. Its 3 miles to the main road and a petrol station as the fist step of my rather mammoth 450k ride eastwards tomorrow.

Trip to Northern Spain (photos and vids coming later)

On the way to Bilbao Day 1. 15th july 2019

Leaving London on the A3 is getting familiar now, Elephant and Castle then Kennington Park Road (they seem so far away now and unfamiliar), Clapham, the surprise that Wandsworth is so far west, then Kingston bypass then speedy dual carriageway, the possible delays at Guildford, then the surprisingly nice scenery before Peterloo and finally the efficient M road that takes you right down to the roundabout entrance to the ferry port, past the hotel I stayed in many years ago before an early sailing.

On my arrival at the port a traffic steward warned me that the sailing was delayed but I got in the queue shortly followed by an affable Danish couple riding a BMW 1150RT, who, amongst other things recommended Poland as a beautiful and inexpensive biking destination – they go to get their teeth done there. The sun is shining and the temperature is in thelow to mid twenties.


In front of me was an Englishman, living in Spain riding a Harley, with a kind of sub-hells angels jacket. He told me how it is always him who gets stopped and searched at security. Then a middle-aged couple from Manchester riding a diminutive and immaculate white scooter with designer suitcases strapped fore and aft. She is wearing a pink hoodie and matching shorts. He is similarly dressed in hoodie and completely unprotective gear. They are very funny. We all spend many hours conversing – because the delay seems to expand until the sun has gone down and it is dark. In the security shed we actually have to open ‘one bag’ each that a woman searches through with a torch, neglecting any other spaces. Then we are lined up under the glowing late evening sky to watch seemingly endless trucks, cars and motorcycles pour off the delayed and just docked boat that we need to board. This is very tiring and I am hungry by this time. I tried walking around, sitting on a step, leaning on the bike but there is no avoiding the fact that this is rather miserable.


Finally, unexpectedly, we get waved on at 11 o’clock and about 40 motorcycle engines fire into life. Up the ramp onto the boat and then, one by one, down a steep ramp to the very bottom of the boat where we will have to all turn around when we leave and ride back up the steep ramp into the Spanish sunshine. I finally get to my cabin after going up then down then up again, hot and hungry and needing to plug everything in to get charged up. I drag out and bite into my Neal’s dairy wholemeal baguette and open my bottle of vinho verde, no longer chilled but cool enough and with its welcoming gentle fizz.


By this time it is 11.30. Very many cabin announcements follow, including a description of how to get into a life jacket where every phrase is repeated twice to give you time to think about it. Finally I climb into bed well after midnight and see I have drunk nearly the whole bottle of wine.

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I woke up, slowly, to see that it was 8.30. We would stop at Roscoff at 9 to change crew. Not wanting to miss the sight of land, I made for the bar here for a (not very great) coffee and also not that fresh croissants then spend an hour swapping from sunny side (warm) to port side (better view but chilly) decks to see the crew leave in dribs and drabs pulling suitcases on wheels until the boat pulled out to sea.


So, before we get off tomorrow morning, I need to work out, using my GPS and paper maps, an enjoyable route to my first hotel.

Later. My alarm is set for 6.45 (Spanish time). It took about two frustrating hours to work out how to load a trip into my GPS but with any luck I have an almost non-motorway route planned to my first hotel – which looks a little gem in the middle of a quite un inspiring town to the west of Burgos, with one or two interesting monasteries to visit en route. Before the struggle and after my petit dejeuner I lay on the bed here and dozed at first on top and eventually underneath the duvet where I fell asleep. I must have been tired. Today I wondered around the boat and started reading H is for Hawk. It is a brilliant start and because you know in advance that it is about loss its opening, mentioning the dismembered bodies of baby birds that never hatched, is harrowing. It will not be a book that takes weeks to read. Luckily I have packed another novel. I wonder what balance of riding and non-riding I will find on this trip.

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