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Spain-Portugal-Spain…..

By Jon Newey (retired Architect, Blood Bike rider, Adventure traveller) with Tigger (Triumph Tiger 800 XRX)


The ferry from Rosslare ferry port in Ireland to Bilbao in Spain takes 30 hours, and crosses the Bay of Biscay. The Bay of Biscay is 4,000m deep and notoriously choppy. I hunt though my backpack for some motion-sickness tablets and keep them handy….


I could have ridden to Spain through France, of course, but I’m saving that pleasure for the return journey when the weather in northern Europe will be warmer. The Bilbao ferry is great and it’s cheaper than crossing the channel to Amsterdam. I have a 4-berth cabin to myself and my own shower room. There are hardly any other people on this crossing so there’s no problem finding a quiet place to sit and read and no queues in the restaurants or bars. Ideal.



To help pass the time I join a whale-watching group lead by a whale expert called Gracie. Did you know that a porpoise (noun) doesn’t porpoise (verb), that dolphins are whales and all whales do porpoise (verb). We don’t see any whales. Or dolphins. And none of us porpoises (verb). But the thought was there.


My cabin has no window so I’m slightly oblivious to the passage of time. But sure enough, night follows day and day follows night and by mid-day the following day we are approaching the north coast of Spain. The sea has been calm as a millpond. The sky is clear and the sun is bright.


I pack away my book, grab my jacket and helmet and hunt about for Tigger’s keys. The keys are nowhere to be found. I make my way down to the car deck and sure enough the keys are still in Tigger’s ignition. Rookie mistake! OK, sure, no-one can steal your motorbike while it’s in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, but this isn’t a habit I want to encourage. I bungee (verb) the luggage, remove the Velcro strap from the brake lever (top tip #1), check that the clothes peg holding my boarding pass to the windscreen is still there (top tip #2), click the gearbox back into neutral (top tip #3), chat to the other bikers for a while and then wait for the signal to move.

The boat docks, the bow doors open and sunlight floods in. Trucks, cars and a dozen motorbikes all roar their engines and crawl out into the sunshine. The hot sunshine. It is about 26 degrees and after Ireland’s weather that’s quite a shock to the system. As soon as I’m through customs (a ‘customary’ glance at my passport, nothing more) I pull over and start shedding layers. The rain jacket goes away. The winter gloves are replaced by lightweight summer gloves. The sunglasses come out of their dusty case and get squeezed into the front of my helmet. Hola! We’re in Spain!





Most of the other bikers from the ferry are heading south immediately, trying to get to Malaga as soon as possible to make the most of their one-week or two-week holidays. Some are meeting friends who have shipped their bikes out in advance and are flying out to ride them. For me, though, there’s no hurry. There are things in Bilbao that I want to see.




I’ve got a space booked in a 10-bed dorm in a city-centre hostel. Hostels are not ideal for me, given the amount of clobber a biker has to carry about, but they’re useful occasionally for a low-cost stop-over. The All Iron Hostel is very cool and relaxed and there’s a parking space for Tigger. However, my plans for seeing a bit of Bilbao take a serious dent because 1; The ferry arrived late so I have limited time this afternoon. 2; The Bilbao Guggenheim Gallery is closing early today on account of 3; Bilbao’s football team won the ‘Copa del Rey’ last weekend and have decided that today’s the day to have a massive street party that blocks up the whole city. I can’t even walk through the red and white striped crowds let alone drive through them. Shops are closed. Roads are closed. There’s singing and shouting and beer (and resultant other liquids…) everywhere. The football team arrives in the centre of town on a flotilla of boats sailing up the Nevrion river. Chaos ensues. And 4; I can’t get a bed anywhere for a second night in Bilbao, so I must go somewhere else tomorrow. Oh well, Bilbao’s Guggenheim will just have to stay on my ‘to do’ list for another day. I can’t even find a café. They either have their shutters down or are crammed with revellers on a liquid-only diet. Eventually I admit defeat, buy some food at a supermarket, take it back to the hostel and cook for myself. I spend the evening catching up on emails and planning routes for the days ahead.


Most of the occupants of my dorm are Bilbao supporters, in town for the celebrations. Surprisingly, however, I get a good night’s sleep. Breakfast is included in the hostel’s price. By 9.00am Tigger is packed and we’re on our way. Not wishing to admit total defeat we make a beeline for the Guggenheim. It is still closed but the exterior is worth a look. It is a crazy piece of architecture designed by Frank Gehry, the same Frank Gehry who designed the art gallery in Toronto that I visited last year (and for Scottish readers, he also did the Maggie’s Centre in Dundee). The Bilbao building is a riot of curving metal shapes and glass, I would love to see inside but that will need to be some other time.



Tigger and I are heading west towards Oviedo today. Initially we take the motorway to get us out of Bilbao and past Santander. Around noon we turn off onto some twisty mountain roads. There are snow-capped mountains to the left and the sea to the right. The small villages we pass through are idyllic. The temperature climbs up above 30 degrees C. Suddenly there’s a barrier across the road. The narrow twisty road we’ve been following is closed. The diversion takes us onto a narrower twistier road which winds up and up through even remoter villages. For a motorcyclist it is heaven.


At last the road starts sloping downwards. It gets wider, and eventually we turn onto a dual carriageway for the final few clicks into Oviedo. I have a room booked in a town-centre hotel which includes an underground parking garage for Tigger. After the ferry and the hostel it feels like luxury. I take a stroll into town and gawp at Oviedo's medieval architecture. My next rookie mistake is attempting to get a meal in a restaurant before 8pm in Spain. Most of them don’t open their doors until 9pm….





Next morning there’s a breakfast buffet in the hotel. I make use of the quiet garage space to do a bit of routine maintenance on Tigger (tyres, chain etc) and then we’re off, diving into Oviedo’s idiosyncratic one-way system. Like yesterday, we opt for motorways for the first few miles, fill up with petrol, and then turn off onto some twisty roads again. Today the road takes us south towards the border with Portugal, rising up and over the Puerto do Pejeres pass at 1,378m. The road then takes us through the Rio Bernesga valley. I stop at a roadside café for coffee and tapas. A retired doctor called Alberto strikes up a conversation. He’s travelled all over the world and has been to Edinburgh twice.


Not long after, we cross the border into Portugal and eventually come into the small town of Chaves.  Garmin confuses me, telling me that I still have another hour of riding to do, but eventually I realise that Portugal is one hour ahead of Spain, so a planned four-hour ride was actually a five-hour ride, and my bum is a bit numb by the time I arrive.

 

I have a cheap room in a hotel on the outskirts of Chaves. The room is perfectly fine although the neighbourhood is a bit run down. Still, it’s only a short walk into town and the walk is well worth it. The medieval centre is gorgeous, with pavement cafes, old town walls, a castle and a cathedral. No-one speaks English and none of the menus are in English either, but somehow that adds to the charm. It feels like I’m the only tourist.



Next morning I go for a walk to find breakfast. There are plenty of cafes open. Coffee costs one Euro. I get Tigger packed up and we get on the road. The weather is hot and sunny again which is good (up to a point) because I’m planning my first night of camping tonight. We head south through the central mountains of Portugal. We go through Guarda and find ourselves among the vineyards of the Upper Duoro valley. This is where they grow the grapes that they make into Port way down on the coast in Porto*. My target today is the campsite at Valhelhas, high in the Sierra Estrella mountains. We arrive in Valhelhas hot and sweaty. The town has a tiny square, two narrow streets and one café. I get a late lunch, a Portuguese speciality of grilled pork slices with a fried egg on top (and some salad for added healthiness).  The campsite is just outside of town down a short gravel track. It is perfect. Plenty of trees for shade, a river running past, and a bar that serves beer, coffee and food.


I pitch the tent and stash all the baggage inside. Then I take Tigger on an early evening expedition; Portugal’s highest mountain peak, Torre, is only 10km away and you can drive all the way to the top. I can’t resist that... Turning out of the campsite the road quickly starts to climb. We go through the town of Manteigas with the road getting steeper and narrower all the way. Before long we’re high enough to have snow on the verges and a short while later we’re in the car park on the summit. Torre is 1,993m high. There’s a 7m tall tower on the top just to take it up above 2,000m.  Apparently that was important for somebody at one time! There are people skiing on the small pockets of snow.



The only way down is the way we came up. The steep climb has used more petrol than I expected. Local garages are closed today because it is Sunday, so we coast down most of the way to make sure we have enough fuel left to get us to a garage in the morning. Back at the campsite I strike up a conversation with a Swiss gent, Daniel, in the campervan next to my tent. He’s a chef and it so happens that his best pal lives in Linlithgow in Scotland, my home town. Meanwhile two other bikers, Mike and Si, have arrived. They’re both from Aberdeen. We sit on the terrace and chat and share a few beers until the sun goes down.


I always sleep well in a tent. Monday morning arrives and it’s time for Tigger and I to head south again. We soon find a petrol station and fill up.  Today we’re heading for the World Heritage Site of Evora. Backroads take us sweeping through the towns of Castello Branco and Nisa. We stop for lunch in Alter do Chao where I attempt a sketch of the castle. It’s 34 degrees C so I can’t sit out in the open for long and the paint dries instantly on the paper. Oh, the challenges of plein-air painting! By mid afternoon we’re rolling into Evora. The road takes us through one of the arches of Evora’s Roman aqueduct, around the high 16th century town walls, and brings us neatly to the Orbitur camp site.



There’s a café and a swimming pool on the site. Mine is the only tent among the sea of big campervans. With the tent pitched I take the short stroll back into town. Evora is richly deserving of its World Heritage status. The architecture goes from early Roman through to 17th century. The labyrinthine street pattern hasn’t altered in 1,000 years. I sit at a table outside a restaurant in a narrow side-street. In a room somewhere above me the woodwind section of an orchestra is practicing. A jester with a flute and drum wanders past. The streets are so narrow that there is no traffic. It is quite a magical place.

 



I wander back to the campsite. After another good night’s sleep, the tent is packed away and we’re on the road again. The route today will bring us down to the very southern tip of Portugal, at Sagres in the Algarve. We have rural backroads all the way to Sines, a beach resort on the Atlantic coast, where we stop for a coffee and a bite to eat. From there it is fast roads heading south to Sagres. I was hoping for some panoramic sea views similar to the coast roads of Croatia and Montenegro, but this road is just a little too far inland for that and I hardly see the sea at all after leaving Sines. By 3pm I’m at the Airbnb, Tigger is parked outside and I’m standing on my private balcony. At last, a sea view!


Sagres sits on a rocky peninsula that juts out into the ocean at the south west corner of Portugal. Atlantic breakers crash in against the cliffs all round the peninsula. There’s an 18th century fortress and a small beach, but that’s not what most people are here for. Most people here have come to surf. Every other shop is a surfing shop, the car parks are full of campervans with surf boards strapped to them, and the tapas bars are filled with cool-looking surfer dudes chillin’ the way only surfer dudes can. I try to blend in. I fail. I eat ribs and chips and scuttle back to my Abnb.


Next morning the other guests in the Abnb are up and away earlier than me – two hikers and a cyclist, no surfers – but by 09:30 Tigger and I are on the road. Today’s ride will take us right through the Algarve heading eastwards along the coast towards the Spanish border. I have planned a route on Garmin that will take us through Portimao and Faro on the way to our next stopping point, the Spanish town of Huelva. Portimao turns out to be a big resort town with sky-rise hotels and busy beaches. Faro, on the other hand, is a tiny town with a historic centre of cobbled streets, stone walls and gateways. I’ve been to Faro before and quite like the place. After a short stop for lunch – bananas and biscuits that I bought in Sagres - I press on. We cross the Rio Guardiana on the Guardiana International Bridge and ‘Hola’, we’re back in Spain again.


My Abnb in Huelva is on the third floor. I’ve arrived an hour late because once again I forgot that Spain is an hour behind Portugal. It is 30 degrees C again, so by the time I’ve hefted the panniers and backpack up the stairs I’m in need of a shower. I’m going to be here for three days (more about that in the next blog) so I can relax for now. The past week has been hectic, travelling every day between one-night stops. I’ve had no rest days since Dublin. A pause for a few days will do me good…..

 



Tigger miles in 2023 = 8,024

Tigger miles in 2024 so far = 1,833

 

* If you’re interested, the process for making port is this: First they make a red wine using grapes from the Duoro Valley, but they stop the fermentation early so that it is only 5% alcohol and still has a lot of the sweet fruity sugars in it. Then they make a white wine which they distil to about 40% alcohol. Then they combine the two. Storing the resulting blend in oak barrels for a year or two helps to mature the flavours. Obrigado!

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