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.

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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.

Mileages

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)

Riding the Bardenas Reales

Day 9 Wednesday 24th July

Today was an easy day, just riding 80 odd miles to, around, and back from the Bardenas Reales, a place that has fascinated me since I first saw pictures of it quite a few years ago. Everything went according to plan. I set an alarm and  when I arrived downstairs for breakfast at opening time, one person was already leaving and another well into their meal. Unlike my last restaurant there was someone there to serve. Every time I think about when to leave tomorrow to get back to the port to catch the boat I find myself deciding to leave earlier. Now it is 8.30. I was practising my French (they speak some French here – very little English) to ask for special dispensation to check out early but I can see that won’t be necessary. An early start might beat the worst of the temperature as it really starts to rise at lunch time. The boat is due to leave at 3.30 but maybe we can board much earlier – if we are lucky.

Back to today. It takes about 20 minutes or so to get to the town where you can find the road that leads onto the Bardenas Reales. It is all dry and agricultural/industrial around here. On either side of the road you can see the dust rising from the wheels of vehicles on farms and industrial estates. Once you turn into the national park there is a visitor centre with a large car park – with huge spaces for buses. A few people were there already, though it was only 9 in the morning. You carry on a narrow tarmac road until you get to a fenced off military centre where you have to chose whether to take the gravel track to the left or the right. I chose left, to ride clockwise around the area and to branch off to the north on the way. The desert landscape with its bizarre rock formations and a number of deserted shacks seems more like a constructed film set than a natural feature. It is strange, and strange to be breathing its air, feeling the bumps of the road and experiencing its heat (it wasn’t too bad – between 26 and 30 degrees) when I have seen so many photographs. I stopped a few times too, to take obligatory photographs and got some good footage of the ride. I headed up the northern track towards El Paso though I turned back before I got there in order to continue to ride in the desert. One great thing about the ride is the confidence I got riding on gravel all morning. To start with I was riding tensely and in second gear. By the end I was sailing along at 30 (over the speed limit) enjoying every slip and slide. So that later in the day when I had to make a U-turn into roadside gravel I did not hesitate. This was a really enjoyable, stress-free, part of the whole trip. I must find more similar challenges – predictable ones not the crazy narrow tracks that end up going nowhere from earlier in the week.

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I stopped at the end to visit the information centre with the expectation of getting a cup of tea and a cake – but it seems that they only have some stony artefacts and a list of rules about where you can and cannot drive and what you must be wearing even, to go into their building. That answers my puzzle as to why I saw people returning very quickly to their cars after walking into the entrance.

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So, I decided to head for Tudela, about 10k away to find something to eat, a supermarket with air-conditioning and easy parking. I was looking for the Spanish Gin that I drank in Casa Camino – but despite visiting two large grocery stores, that did have air-con and ample parking, none was to be found.  I got back at soon after 1pm with the ingredients for a fresh lunch and for tomorrow’s journey though I am not sure how well it will travel in the heat. I still have a packet of figs that I bought at Arjuna before I left. I opened it at Portsmouth waiting for the ferry. I picked out a wiggling maggot from the top and, as I was hungry, ate one or two figs. But I have not been so enthusiastic since then, probably because I have not been that hungry since then.

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Leaving Galicia, arriving at Palacio de Cutre

Sunday 21st July

Today started nicely with a fond farewell from my hosts at Casa Camino. (Their kitchen was amazing I thought). Once wobbling down the stony drive, I was off, not very confident that the GPS would take me directly down to the main road after its confusions on the way there and my host’s disparaging remarks about Garmin and Spain (see later near disaster). But soon enough I was on the motorway travelling approximately east. I was trying to remember, as I rode, my previous visit, and in fact other early expeditions to Europe. I could not quite get back in touch with them but I had a sense that my concerns and focuses while travelling had shifted. But this morning, with a good road, very little other traffic and courtesy of cruise control the first hour or so travelling was very relaxed. My equanimity gradually unravelled though. First, it started to drizzle and the temperature dropped, then I discovered that the signs indicating what in the UK would be a motorway service station, are in fact pointing to scratchy old petrol stations and two or three miles off the motorway in a forlorn town. But being fuelled up is a good feeling and, via one blocked off re-entry to the motorway, and much riding in drizzle behind slow moving cars, I was back up to speed, but getting damper and needing to find somewhere to re-establish homeostasis in the face of the growing pressures of the body and two cups of coffee, and three glasses of orange juice at breakfast. So the next phase of the journey was not as relaxed at it could have been. I eventually stopped at a service station – a rare cafeteria by the motorway. These places are definitely not the shiny chains that you encounter in the UK, but places with a few tables and a long bar, with some recently made food on top. I ordered café au lait and tortilla then headed off. All going reasonably well from the motorway to an A road but still not confident that the GPS would take me where I wanted to go, along the route that I expected. Ok, it said, turn right. I obeyed. Turn left to join the – number of the road I had just been on – and then the tarmac road turned into a woodland stony track plunging downwards, then into a muddy puddle, still with the GPS urging me on. But when the track curved off steeply down to the right I decided to cut my losses and turn the bike on what looked like the last bit of disused tarmac that remained from some ages old road – a godsend as to turn the fully laden bike on a narrow track running down hill would have been a huge challenge. Hopefully all this is captured on helmet cam.

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But back we went this time through the mud without slowing down or skidding and another 4k down the road before turning off to the left, over a level crossing, down narrow twisty lanes. I have grown nervous about the entrance to rural hotels and campsites and the Palacio is no exception.  It has a steep drive made of irregular cobbles. I stopped to gauge the challenge then went for it, going rather faster than I wanted to but making it up without dropping the bike – the vision of which always quickly flashes unhelpfully into my mind.

The Palacio is not what I imagined, especially after three days of rural simplicity and newly refurbed buildings. This is a rather swanky hotel/restaurant/wedding reception type place with floral wallpaper and floral coverings on everything possible, doyleys, antique dolls, rocking horses and cots on every landing. The staff that I have come across, though, seem friendly and helpful, telling me that the restaurant is closed on Sundays but offering a snack instead. In fact, now that I have gone down and been served by them a generous platter of cheese and meat, with two glasses of unusual white wine, their hospitality has won me over. I talked with one of the owners afterwards for quite a while about her daughter who is studying at Greenwich University. There was a wedding here last night and the last guests were driving off in Mercedes as I arrived and now workmen are dismantling the base of the marquee down on the lawn – using my favourite noisy power tool to undo the hundreds of screws.

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My room is under the roof, with an old-fashioned bathroom suite and it required some window-opening to get a breeze into the musty atmosphere. So I made it with the usual minor dramas and high anxieties – leading to the usual sense of exhaustion. But the wifi seems strong here which is a real treat.   I have to decide how to spend tomorrow and the squaring up to the challenge of riding up that dreaded drive if I ride out somewhere.

The GPS tells me that I spent four hours riding a total of 213 miles.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Ride to Thorpeness, Aldeburgh and Orford

A long day and some promise of sunshine led me to take the bike from Cambridge out to the Suffolk coast to three places that I had visited before but separately, in order of arrival, Thorpeness, Aldeburgh and Orford. Apart from a deluge of rain early on, the day ended with sunshine to greet my arrival. Thorpeness and Aldeburgh are lovely English villages and full of tourists with a long stoney beach and a short straight beach road between them.

Orford ness has a strange topology and a stranger past. I’ve never seen the derelict buildings of the old atomic weapons testing site and by the time I usually arrive there (I see that the last time I visited was nearly 2 years ago), it is cold and I’m ready to return. I’ve also never worked out how you get across the spit. The seafront where I parked up has a small tea room, rather characterless I thought but in a lovely location.

I edited the four hours of sometimes cold riding to a 4 minute video.

Ride to World Famous Comfort Cafe

Overcast today but the last opportunity to ride for a couple of weeks, so 35 miles of nice-ish roads out through Fulbourn, Balsham and West Wratting, and back on the main road stopping at the biker’s favourite World Famous Comfort Cafe, with half a dozen bikes parked outside. Strangely the place is comforting in some inexplicable way – you can sit outside with a mug of tea and cherry cake for a total of £2.50, minding your own business.

Ride to Little Gidding


Wretched GPS never takes my routes seriously and has a strange love of the A14, so every ride seems to involve some miles on this nasty trunk road. Nevertheless, I had some nice riding to the church at Little Gidding, which inspired one of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. The church itself was closed. Very low key down the end of a track.
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I didn’t know that the Giddings are not that far away from Fotheringay, not just the name of a folk rock band but the place where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned and executed. Charles the first sought refuge at Little Gidding, so being a monarch was not easy in the 17th century.
On the way home I chose the A660 which is, I found out, a high accident rate road for motorcycles, with lots of warning signs and a police bike cop talking earnestly to two riders wearing one piece leathers. They all had their helmets off so it was obviously an in depth discussion.
I rode through Kimbolton, one of those old English market towns that clearly at one time had far more importance and wealth than they do now, though the Kimbolton School, housed in the impressive castle means that there is still some wealth there. St Neots, another of those pretty but strange towns near to nowhere (once an important staging place on the road north from London I imagine), was bustling, the warm weather obviously bringing people out, including the rider of the brand new water cooled BMW 1200gs just out.

This was the first weather this year suitable for enjoyable motorcycle riding.