Iím lucky enough to have some friends resident down on the South Coast of Spain. Whilst the usual mode of travel these days is to fly there, for quite a while I had an ambition to take the overland option, preferably by motorbike.
Eventually I decided it was time to make it happen, so dates were set and arrangements made. My brother very kindly lent me his BMW R80ST, a faithful and most reliable bike that has previously got me down to the South of France and back without complaint.
Anyone who has done one of these trips will know the mixed feelings of excitement, anticipation and trepidation that precede the leaving day. I always try to channel this nervous energy into sound preparations, and so a flurry of planning and list making was followed by trips to WH Smiths for maps and guides and the friendly local outdoors shop White and Bishop for camping gear, stove and mess tins. Another excursion was to the local Hein Gericke dealer for a nice new one-piece rain suit and a thermal base layer garment.
Come the day I fetched up at my brothers place with rather too much to do, - oils needed changing in the engine, rear bevel drive and shaft drive assemblies. Fun was had with a stripped filler bolt on the shaft drive and it was noticed that the gearbox drain plug was only finger tight, - a close shave that one!
After covering all the bike related points we could imagine there followed the first fit up of luggage. In addition to tank bag and standard BMW hard panniers we strapped a rucksack carrying most of the camping gear onto the pillion seat and covered that with a waterproof cover. In the end it all worked out neat and secure, but it was a real struggle to actually mount the bike. Once seated it was a snug fit for me between tank bag in front and rucksack behind, - although it did make a comfy sort of backrest.
Far too late I get underway for the Channel Tunnel. Iím rather a fan of the Chunnel though, - reason number one is the ability to turn up later or earlier than planned and the automatic system usually just puts you on the next available train. Number two is the lack of paperwork Ė just put your credit card in the machine, it prints a ticket, you take it and off you go. Number three is bikers are usually put together on the train. So it is today Ė my four fellow bikers are from Belgium and have been on an expedition to the New Forest. They have been lucky Ė the weather held Ė and have thoroughly enjoyed themselves. My old Beemer looks shabby next to itís neighbour Ė a Transalp, and I can hardly bear to look at the spanking new R1200GS next door.
Getting in a bit of French practice with the lads, the time flies and we are soon about to disembark, only now do I notice the train is practically empty, us and maybe ten cars, thatís all.
Checking that all is zipped up I head off out the train and wave the boys goodbye, heading off in the direction of the grand A26 motorway, arterial mainline to Arras, St Quentin, Reims and more.
Itís always nice to get on French roads. Itís not just a holiday kind of feeling, although that plays a part, itís also the relative lack of traffic and the usually superb road surfaces. So it proves this evening and so I start to chew up the miles to my evening destination Ė a small B and B somewhere between Amiens and Bapaume.
A quick word now about Michelin maps. I had an old one that seemed to cover most of France. Imagine my joy when on the shelves at Smiths I see it split into two maps Ė one of the North of France and one of the South. ĎExtra detail!í I think to myself and buy with glee. Later on at home I find they are the same scale but only single side prints. What a con. I did pack my ten year old ring bound large scale Michelin and this proves to be a life saver. Without it I would have struggled to find any of the accommodation I use over the next three nights in France.
I guess some would say GPS is the way to go, but I guess Iím just a luddite. Maybe I would use it in a large desert or serious offroad situation, in such a scenario it might prove a lifesaver, but in France? Give over.
Anyway a fuel stop is in order. All simple enough but I struggle to get my leg over, so to speak and nearly drop the bike. This is going to take some getting used to.
As is so often the case, by the time Iím near to my destination for the night the light is beginning to fade and Iím reacquainting myself with the reality of navigating by too large a scale map. I end up getting out the ring bound Michelin and naughtily I sandwich it between body and tank bag, its pages flapping in the wind, and occasionally sneak rather long peeks at it as I trundle the lanes amongst this rather bleak, featureless and somewhat misty landscape.
Eventually I arrive at a rather rustic clap boarded wooden framed building and park up the bike. Iíve got the right place allright, but too late for dinner. There is a large open barn where Iím welcome to park the bike, as rain is expected. Good Ė minimal unpacking of the bike!
Itís a weird scene indoors. The landlady Avril and her two guests Dave and John are at the dinner table discussing in excruciating detail the relative merits of the British, French and German hand grenade. You see Iíve literally stumbled into the trenches. The property stand on the actual location of the British frontline during the battle of the Somme. Behind is the British stronghold of Achonvillers and in front the German fortifications that centred on Beaumont Hamel.
Two hours later Iím an expert in WWI hostilities too. Or so it feels. Whilst Avril has supplied me with beans on toast, wine, cheese and crackers the talk has been of little else and itís all pretty enthralling and at times depressing and moving too.
To give just one example the details and extent of underground, mine warfare is all completely new to me;
During the conversation Dave says to me, ďOf course you know about Hawthorn Ridge donít you?Ē. Iím told of the ridge just opposite where the germans were dug in. At the start of the Somme hostilities British miners tunnelled for more than 200 metres, placed 20 tons of Ammonal (similar to TNT) under their enemies and blew them sky high. Not all of them though, - the Brits then rushed forward to attack, only to be decimated by withering fire from two perfectly operational machine gun positions.
The utter inhumanity and utter futility of it all becomes all too apparent after a while. We agree that mankind should really learn some lessons from this. What are the chances though?
Another thought is personal. I sit here getting on famously with three people Iíve never met, Iíve learnt a whole load of stuff that I would never have otherwise paid any attention to. This is just another great aspect of going out to meet the world and the best way of learning I can think of Ė just get out there and see whatís about Ė and maybe history will be brought alive in front of your eyes.
Another thought was more personal still. My maternal grandfather nearly lost his life on the Somme, he laid on the battlefield for three days close to death with shrapnel embedded in his skull. Had he not been rescued by the Red Cross I would not be here today. 93 years ago he could have been lying out there in what is now the farmyard.
Anyway itís time for bed. Iím told not to worry about the ghosts of the twelve british gunners as they usually only appear to women, not men. No problem, after a long day Iím out like a light.
As I arise the mist that fell last night is still clinging to the landscape, and after last nights dinner talk I find it a touch sinister, as if shamefully cloaking what happened here.
Down at breakfast the gang are as chipper as ever and over breakfast a miscellany of fossilised remains are paraded in front of me Ė an ossified chunk of iron that upon inspection turns out to be the remains of a bolt action Lee Enfield, bayonets are bared, luckily only for comparison purposes and Iím told of the local farmer who lives directly above an unexploded mine that is every bit as large as the Hawthorn Ridge one, and remains intact because the action moved away from the spot before it could be detonated.
Iím also told of various other farmers who have mangled or killed themselves in various ordnance related blunders, - unscrewing detonators fag-in-mouth and so on.
This brooding corner of North East France is crawling with amateur historians, treasure hunters and the plain barmy, all united by their fascination with the First World War, but divided by motive. Metal detectors have, I learn, long been banned.
So now time to move. After Dave has kindly pointed out a couple of spots including the infamous crater I load up and confidently hop aboard. Will she start? No she wonít.
Worried about flattening the battery I elect to unpack almost everything and extract my tools from under the seat. Whipping out a plug reveals a dry , sparking plug. I realise that Iíve been doing it wrong. More used to old brit bikes which need flooding I remember that the enrichment device on the Beemer requires full choke and no twisting of the throttle. This does the trick after a bit more churning so I warm her up a bit before reloading, but now Iím off.
A mile or two down the road I come across a British WW1 cemetery, atmospheric amongst the bleak misty fields, so with last nights conversations in mind I stop, pay my respects and take some snaps.
Since then I've found that it goes by the very unceremonious name of "Serre Road Cemetery No1". It holds 2426 soldiers of which a shocking 1727 are unknown soldiers. It is one of literally hundreds of such cemeteries in that part of the country.
Now I retrace my steps and stop at Bapaume to refuel. A word about biking in France in Sunday Ė FUEL! Although stations on the motorway (Peage) are open on a Sunday you will be lucky to find an open station in the countryside, especially in the afternoon. Thus I will be employing ĎDestroyer Tacticsí, - top up at every possible chance.
Soon Iím on the Peage heading for Paris, after a steady hour or two Iím on the outskirts, and aiming to pierce the periphique on the eastern side around Pte de Bagnolet. Of course I forget that to avoid being dumped round to the North side and the horrors of St Denis I need to branch off just after Charles De Gaulle and follow sign for Bordeaux. This means a bit of farting around and an unscheduled visit to the delights of the airport as I attempt to loop round and go again. Eventually I succeed.
The next several hours are spent bashing the Peage. True to the old adage the weather turns brighter once south of the Loire. All the way I am deploying destroyer tactics, in act to excess Ė several fill ups were less than 60 miles apart. It all pays off in the end though as when I finally dispense with Peage past Chateauroux I will find I have enough to get to my destination.
The days end will be at a lovely little B&B the Moulin Fargin in a typically beautiful hamlet called Pressac, somewhere between Poitier and Limoges. From Chateauroux
to Pressac I get back to the glorious riding I associate with southern france Ė empty roads, great for riding and lovely scenery. When a town or hamlet appears they are mostly attractive, so slowing for them is no chore. The sun is shining and Iím loving it.
Arriving at the B&B my hosts allow me to park the bike up in the garage/barn so again I have a minimum of unpacking to do.
After a lovely casserole and some chat over a bottle of wine Iím off to bed and again out like a light, in one of the more peaceful corners of the world.
The plan for today is to trundle carefree in a generally southwards fashion and end up somewhere in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
I enjoy a leisurely breakfast and chat with my hosts the Bardwells, and then saddle up and go. The first part of the day is fantastic, lovely open roads, beautiful villages and great riding. I work my way down to Brantome, scene of previous happy holidays and stop there for a bite to eat.
In the afternoon I continue ever south , passing by Perigeux, Bergerac and Agen. As time goes by I realise that now Iím not using the Peage anymore the miles are coming more slowly, in fact much more slowly. Intermittent raindrops are turning to drizzle, so having learnt from past mistakes I stop and deploy the one piece rain suit..Before I'm soaked, not after.
I realise that Iím not going to make the mountainous areas and finally in Auch I pull over and get out my Bed and Breakfast guide. Things turn out a bit more difficult as people are not answering phones, or are not open, or have no free rooms. I finally reach a lady who has a vacancy, but I canít locate the place on my map, and speaking only French there is no way I can fully follow her directions. At this point my phone does itís occasional trick of going from nearly full charge to flat. So Iím stuck.
After a spot of cursing, or actually a shower of cursing, I pull out my trusty ring-bound Michelin 1:200,000 map. Voila it shows the hamlet of Mazeres and so after an hour of more of trundling down muddy soaking lanes and stopping at farmhouses to ask directions I finally find the place just as it gets fully dark for the night.
Mme Bertheau is 84 years old, sprightly and lives in a beautiful old Moulin that she bought with her husband in 1962 as a wreck and restored.
She speaks no English, but over a hastily put together meal I murder the French language but we have a great conversation! Iím grateful to her for putting me up at zero notice on a cold, wet night.
The morning dawns cold and damp. So itís on with the rain suit again. It takes me a while to get back to main roads, due in no small part to the fact I donít really know where I am. Finally Iím oriented and heading ever south. Iíve elected to use the Aragnouet/Bielsa tunnel. I think itís the second highest pass into Spain. Please donít go on to me about passes such as the Tourmalet, - theyíre higher but they donít go to Spain, they stay within France.
But first I have to suffer murder attempt one of the trip. Heading at a reasonable speed up a clear straight road a young chap in a post van is compelled to overtake me and strains past at full throttle. His rear bumper has just passed my front wheel when he simultaneously slams on the brakes and indicating right veers across me. Yes heís turning right down that side road that weíre almost upon. I manage to haul on the anchors and avoid the inevitable, just. On a trip like this you have to reckon on a few mad moments, so I just have to reflect that this was one of them and I survived it. On we go..
Once past Lannemezan the road starts to rise and snake and the villages and surroundings start to take on an alpine feel. In the damp and mist they are brooding and atmospheric. I stop at Arreau to picture the general feel and the meltwater swelling the river, even this early in the year.
Before long the last French village is left behind and now the hairpins are getting tighter Ė soon Iím down to first gear at each corner and the angle of the bends are matched by the vertical radius. Itís testing stuff to go round one whilst a Spanish lorry is bearing down upon you from above. Fortunately this only happens once as the road is practically deserted.
Higher and higher and now Iím into a full snowscape, luckily it is meltwater coursing down the road towards me, much preferable to it being covered in ice, though Iím surprised itís not, - for it is definitely chilly and my fingers are feeling it. Rather than stop and put on extra layers I press on hoping that Iíll be over the other side before I freeze solid.
Iím up at 1800 odd metres (Ben Nevis is 1344) before I spy the tunnel entrance. Itís very long and uncompromisingly built. It has a constant gradient, losing 200m over 3km and is made from two arrow straight sections connected by a small kink. I trundle into the tunnel and burble down the whole length in fifth on the overrun, flipping the visor to hear the exhaust burble off the walls.
Coming out the other side itís another country but feels more like a new world. I continue burbling ever downwards and before long the rain is gone, the sky lightening and the temperature easing considerably. Everything including the topograghy and flora are typically Spanish and just so strikingly different from what I was in before I entered the tunnel. It could have been a looking glass.
So I wind down the mountains, happy as a lark and singing ďsheíll be coming round the mountainsĒ with made up verses that donít bear repeating here.
From time to time I pass by pretty villages, with all the trees bearing the bright green message of spring
In other place the river is filling flood plains with beautiful torquoise floods fresh from the mountain slopes
An hour or two more of joyful trundling and Iím in the Catalan city of Leida. Iím visitng the HU contact for the area Luis Oromi. He has an impressive BMW and Harley dealership and is a devoted motorcyclist, having crossed Africa in 49 days on a Beemer. Amongst other things he helps me with a screw for one of the carburettor dashpots
and finally leads me out of town to the C-12 road to the coast, on which he and friends bike down to the coast on a Sunday to Amposta to lunch on the best seafood paella in the whole country, before the glorious ride back home. Thanks for your help Luis!
Before I reach Amposta itís drawing late and I pull over in a town, find a bar and ask around for a hotel. The result is less than impressive but adequate and looking on the upside the cheapest accommodation Iíve had for a while. Itís also the first night I donít feel comfortable enough to leave some of my gear on the bike so off it all comes. Before I crash out for the night I resolve to arrange my next nights accommodation in the morning before setting out and to make sure itís a classy joint..
The next morning thereís stuff to do before hitting the road. Breakfast is a non event at this dump and I make do with a coffee. However they do have internet and so Iím able to sort some things. They also have a coin gobbling payphone which paired with Alistair Sawdays excellent ďSpecial places to stay in SpainĒ yields a booking at a very nice sounding hotel in a place Iíve never heard of Bocairent. This is planned to be a short day, around 250 miles as Iíve decided I owe myself a treat.
So after a repack of the bike Iím off again. Riding down the C-12 to Amposta is a continuing joy.
After that Luisís advice was to use the N340 rather than the Autovia. ďIt may be free in Andalucia but in Catalunya we charge!Ē. So I dribble down the coast with various interludes of trying to avoid the Autovia and find the N340.
Now hereís a thing. Prostitutes. In deck chairs. By the side of the road. Thereís no doubt thatís what they are, I pass a couple in a stretch of three miles. The last one I see a few miles gets out of her chair and heads for the undergrowth seemingly at my approach. I find this rather amusing for some reason, but a few moments later I get my explanation as I see a police car heading up the road. They must have alert lookouts to stay in business.
Although for reasons of decency I donít stop to take snaps of the hookers (who after all may charge for this!) I find an amusingly named Merc. Dealers and take a shot of a different arse. I have checked the website which you can see painted on the window www.arsemercedes.com - minutes of juvenile fun to be had.
Apart from that itís not particularly satisfying doing hide and seek with the N430. Eventually I clear the south of Valencia and strike inland towards Alcoy. I find my way to Ontinyent and then thereís a beautiful twisty mountain road over to Bocairent.
My hotel is easily found and as the former train station building, the Hotel LíEstacio overlooks the old town. The manager of this welcoming but undoubtedly rather upmarket establishment Matts Lodder is unfazed by my shabby sweaty appearance with hair plastered to my face and cannot do enough for me. When I ask about the safety of leaving my bike in the car park he says no problem, comes outside and unlocks the side gateway and we park the bike there, safe as can be. Not only that, he gives me the key! By now iíve long perfected the packing arrangements so that for an overnight stop I only need take tank bag and one pannier off the bike.
Bocairent is an undiscovered gem.
The Moorish old town hangs on an escarpment
Over an ancient river course whose sides comprise ancient terraced allotments.
Behind the town is an atmospheric hilltop monastery gained by a switchback path. At each turn in the way a grotto stands and over each grotto two graveyard cypress stand sentinel. Bathed in crepuscular rays it is an almost dreamlike sight which combines with a sudden attack of dťjŗ vu that holds me fascinated. 12 hours ago Iíde never heard of Bocairent, so I know Iíve never been here before but Ö.
Anyway hunger pangs stir me from my reverie and hasten me back to the Hotel, determined there will be no cock-ups on the catering front tonight! It seems my luck is in. The wine list yields a Chilean Merlot available in half bottle and from the menu I order the set meal unware that the mimimum order is for two. The waitress brooks no objection and so I proceed to have a delicious multi course meal for 21 euros topped off with a desert I canít actually accommodate.
I waddle off to bed a very satisfied customer.
Over my beautiful steak the previous night Iíd contemplated what to do today. I want to revisit the stark yet addictive Almeria region Ė Europeís only true desert. I want to travel the roads of the Alpujarras Ė the tortuous roads that cling to the southern faces of the Sierra Nevada. Trouble is I also have a compulsion to just get the trip done. After five days in the saddle without a break Iím getting, well, tired.
I decide in the morning that Iím going to make a big push to my destination. Dave and Mandyís apartment in Fuengirola. Itís a 550 kilometre trip and to do it in a day thereís no alternative but to use the Autovia for most of it.
So once the chores are done and Iíve filled up in the local filling station Iím off. 200 yards up the road comes homicide attempt number 2. As with attempt number one Iím heading up a straight road minding my own business. This time the threat comes from in front. A car is stationary on the opposite verge, facing me. As I come up to it, the driver attempts to pull a U turn in front of me. This would be bad enough, but he gets it badly wrong and ends up sideways and stopped in my lane. As before the anchors are dropped and I have to use the wrong side of the road. Use of the horn doesnít ease the situation but I guess sometimes you just have to express yourself. The young driver gets going as Iím still braking and speeds off, turning off at the first junction to escape my waving fist. On reflection I wonder if he was even old enough to have a licence, perhaps he was just a local lad fooling around in his daddys car.
I guess if you have to have these incidents itís best to get them out of the way first thing in the day. As it turns out the rest of the day is incident free. I have an enjoyable cross country ride eventually picking up the Autovia somewhere near Murcia. From then on itís Autovia all the way.
On and on roll the miles. After a couple of hours itís somewhat depressing to see a sign saying ĎGranada 365kmí when you know your destination is a good way the other side of that fair city. Itís a hot day and I make no excuses about taking more stops than needed. In some of the more boring sections (I say boring, but only because Iíve travelled this route several times in the past) I find Iíve been going flat out for miles at a time, so I enjoy several stops for a bite to eat, a swig of water, to check the oil level, or simply to give the engine a bit of a rest.
Not so boring is the first sight of the Sierra Nevada, proud Mulhacen crowned in white
The hours roll by, the miles roll by, so does the fuel, the flies pile up on the screen. Bit by bit I approach Granada and finally towards late afternoon Iíve actually skirted past it. With this huge psychological milestone passed the fun returns to the days riding and before long Iím branching off from this trunk route to Seville and starting the long gently curving and downhill route, through the Malaga mountains and down to the sea. For some reason when Iíve contemplated this trip in the past Iíve seen myself winding down this particularly satisfying piece of road. I feel just as good as I thought I might, - a sense of achievement and the prospect of some serious beach bashing ahead.
Another hour on and despite inadvertently going through Torremolinos and Benalmadena rather than round them I arrive at my destination. I take a quick snap of the stationary bike and then disappear indoors to be plied with tea and toast and comfy chairs etc. 1631 miles, no mechanical maladies and hardly any oil used. Journeys end feels very good indeed.
It's only after a couple of days of going nowhere even near the old bike that I get back on her and take her right down to Fuengirola Port to annoint her with some salty water, confirm journeys end and gaze at the yachts over an all day breakfast at Happy's bar. For no good reason I decide this faithful R80ST is now to be referred to as "The Duchess"
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