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)

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.


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.–192

From the north to Navarra

This is another post that starts with ‘phew’. It was a mammoth day of travel from coastal Asturias down to Navarra, next door to the desert of Bardenas Reales. Although according to the GPS, I rode only 278 miles over 5 hours and 5 minutes, it feels like much longer. Luckily today there were no hitches but the dramatic rise in temperature took me by surprise. After a cool misty start and 22 degrees, I began to notice near to Bilbao that the air was starting to feel hot. It was 33 degrees and it gradually climbed to high 30s and even 40 degrees which is what it is outside now. But I am sitting in my hotel room at Hospederia de Alesves where I arrived at about 4.45. The shutters were firmly shut against the sun and the air-conditioning is on high when the owner showed me into the room – and it has stayed like that ever since, with the lights on in this high ceilinged room that has matching grey carpet on the floor and one wall. The place is a historic building but converted in a contemporary way with no attempt to recreate some fantasy of history and nostalgia (well, there are a few antique items placed around the staircase).


I had no idea how problematic a high temperature is – although I have memories of having two small children in hot, hot South Australia. Everything on the bike was hot – and the bits I brought in, the GPS, baggage, the food in a pannier and all warm and hot. My bottle of water, bought from the fridge in a petrol station was warm to taste an hour later. There was nowhere to park the bike in the shade outside. So the first thing I noticed when walking into the narrow bar, restaurant and reception was that it had air conditioning and was cool.

It seems crazy to be sitting in a darkened room with the lights on when it is bright sunshine outside but it is a matter of survival!

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I am pleased to be away from Asturias, not because it isn’t beautiful but Garmin and that part of Spain do not seem to mix.  Throw in a steep mountainous terrain and there are some problems with riding a large motorcycle. Strangely it felt liberating to get out onto large sweeping roads. Culture, or perhaps I should say tourist culture, is different over in this part of Spain. The two people who are running the hotel here seem more urban that their equivalents out west. I just had dinner in the restaurant – I was starving. The tables were quite busy and the food was fine – though I will avoid the steak tomorrow on my last evening in Spain. This was quite a trek to get over to this area but it marks a different style in this short trip – and I’ve been wanting to visit this area for many years. My plan is to get up early and leave early to be back here in my dark air-conditioned room by early afternoon. And the next day to also get an early start on my journey back up to the ferry terminal.

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.

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.

the road less travelled

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.


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.

Day 6 Walking (part of) the Camino Primitivo

Day 6 Saturday 20th July

I am moving into a different headspace. Its something about the discussions I have had with people here, including the hosts who have built up a lot of historical knowledge about the Camino walk and in particular this apparently lesser walked primitivo – which this hotel is sited on. And something about spending three hours today walking on the Camino route, with the smell of cow shit and eucalyptus, farmyard buildings, sleepy kittens lying in the middle of the warm road and the varied greetings of walkers – proper walkers. One group was boisterous, one or two extremely taciturn, most friendly.

Equine friend encountered

I came back at about 2 and ate pistachios and Brie washed down with a beer I picked up a few days back. Since then I have been catching up, and trying to tell the GPS exactly where I need to go tomorrow. It seems there are two separate locations available – and obviously only one of them is right. Even the GPS coordinates point to what looks like the wrong location. It will be about 3 and a half hours travelling, and mostly on main roads but perhaps on a Sunday the roads are (even) quieter. Time seems to have slowed down since I have been here. I can’t believe that I still have two more hotels to travel to and experience. Tomorrow’s is fairly near the coast to the north west of the Picos and the last, in a way the most intriguing, is close to the Bardenas Reales dessert which I have only seen in photographs.