Travelling Northern Spain – A tale of Picos and Pinchos (1/3)

I’m no stranger to the ferry to Spain. Over the years when my Dad lived near La Cala de Mijas I’ve taken numerous sprints from Bilbao or Santander to Malaga and around the coast. These previous trips had always been transporting his cars back and forth from the UK, with all other visits by air.

On each occasion, I have looked on at the two-wheel travellers enviously. There was always an air of anticipation as they prepared for whatever route and destination they had planned. I was just a delivery driver in a car. This time however, I was on the bike.

The planning

I’m notorious for taking my time to meticulously plan out my routes. This trip was longer in the planning than most as it was the bare bones of the trip I intended to ride mid pandemic before we locked down again and I was forced to cancel.

Those of you who follow these posts will know that the destination was chosen for us somewhat. The (maybe temporary) demise of Bikeshuttle and my unwillingness to spend the additional days travelling overland to the Alps meant I needed an alternative real-time transportation method. The trick is to keep the bike moving while you sleep. In the past, this was via a moving lorry while you slept in Geneva. Now it was in the hold of a ferry while I slept in the cabin of a ship.

On previous trips, I hadn’t lingered around the north and took a route one approach. Usually heading south at speed through Madrid to Malaga and then to a local bar with the incentive of a cold beer the prize. Only on one occasion had I broken up the journey to Bilbao with an overnight stay in Burgos.

Exploring a new destination

I was unfamiliar with the territory but I started with two words, Picos and Asturias. Unless you are into your hiking or have previously done the area by motorcycle it’s a location that is off the radar of many. The promise of the Alps and to a certain extent, the Pyrenees, made these destinations usually the first choice. I had no expectations only that at this point in time the destination was the best option given the aforementioned criteria.

Planning was quite straightforward. You head for Potes and ride the triangle and then wander around the Asturias. I’d spotted a good run through the Asturias and compared my selection with some published GPX routes from others that affirmed my selection. I also squeezed in a few notable roads in and around to keep things interesting. Our sunshine diversions would be Ponferrada at the most southerly part of the route and Gijon on the northern coast. Just to be safe I was packing my trunks.

Pack your bags

On the topic of packing, I had a clean slate to reconfigure the luggage again. On previous trips with the GSA I’d either been carrying a bulky change of attire for the Distinguished Gentlemen’s Ride or carrying everything but the kitchen sink for The Overland Event. Actually, I do recall taking a kitchen sink.

I could have almost got away with no rear bag but having opted to take the folding chair, drone and Insta360/GoPro bags I had unintentionally filled my right pannier. Only needing a little more space I opted for the 30L bag rather than the usual 50L bag. The straps that came with the 30L are a little fiddly and while it allows you to stack up I reached for the trusty ROK Strap.

But what to wear?

I had been obsessing over what to wear for the trip. Do I go for the trusty RST adventure suit or my new ‘urban’ Richa hoodie jacket and RST jeans? After much deliberation, the casual look won. In my mind’s eye, I’d be hopping off the bike and straight into some Spanish bar already looking dressed for the occasion.

The run to the ferry

There was some concern about the weather and the reports were unsettled. With some concern about getting the jeans wet I stuck on the RainLock pants as I prepared to depart. The jacket was showerproof and I was confident that it could handle the mild precipitation of the long run down to Plymouth. On a scheduled stop south of Birmingham I thought better of it and got the RainLock jacket out. It was a good call. The journey from that point to Exeter was a wet one. Pissing down from the sky and then regurgitating from the road by cars and lorries.

We arrived at the ferry port in good time and joined the queue that had already formed. I hate boarding ferries on a motorcycle. I like to be organised and on a bike that’s just not possible. It’s a juggling act of fumbling for documents packed in luggage and stuffed in jackets. You can’t hear what you are being asked for partially down to the helmet and also the loud exhausts that mean you are constantly starting and stopping the bike. Finally, you are handed more boarding cards and documents to add to the ones you are already ready to drop.

Embarkation was slow but we were scheduled to be away on time. If we could negotiate the maze of corridors and find the cabin we could ditch the bags, have a quick splash and dash, put on the civvies and hit the bar. Besides, there would be no riding until the following afternoon. As the key card went into the door three grown men positioned themselves to burst through the doorway and scent make the chosen bed.

Basic but bijou

What was found in the small sterile white room was a seating bench and a single bed. There was a moment of puzzlement followed by a brief moment of concern that we would be bunking up together in one bed. I rummaged in my bag for the booking confirmation. Yes, it clearly said 4 berth. With almost overwhelming relief I looked up and realised that the missing berths were in the ceiling of the cabin. The fourth (not required) is folded out from the sofa. I felt I’d dodged a bullet. Still, living arrangements were quite ‘snug’. I’d have to insist that the bathroom facility is only used for showering. Other activities can be done in the public areas on the upper decks.

It was a good job I was in ‘holiday’ mode. Being a captive audience the beer prices were top whack. It would be a bit of a swim to find an alternative bar so we sucked it up as much as we did the amber liquid. At least the beer took the edge off the food. The option was either a self-service canteen or nothing. The A la Carte upfront was already pre-booked. Luckily I didn’t have a massive appetite so I joined the queue to get something light to give me some foundation for round two at the bar.

I came away with what was supposed to be a turkey fillet but looked more like a chicken leg covered in nondescript pale sauce. Alongside the chicken leg was a mound of mashed potato that wouldn’t look out of place in a Close Encounters film. I am convinced that the chefs serving up the food were from Newcastle and the outrageous French accent was just put on as a joke.

Entertainment?

The evening’s entertainment was a bizarre mix of cabaret with the highlight of some bloke who had appeared on Britain’s Got Talent (I beg to differ). I was facing away and for the most part, saw nothing. I’m not sure if this was a good thing as most of his act consisted of him shouting “HARDER, HARDER”. I really didn’t want to know what was going on, or did I? With some relief it was soon all over and it was time to retire.

I slept well. The rocking of the boat suits me. Maybe it’s some repressed memory of being rocked in a cradle. I was awoken by a travelling companion making noises that I knew were intended to signal it was time to get up. Unfortunately, my watch and phone had already decided we were close enough to France/Spain that it had added an hour. The ferry was still on British time. It was going to be a wait before the canteen opened for a bit of Petit Dejeuner.

While wandering the decks we were aware of the presence of a helicopter. It was a distraction from waiting for breakfast so we watched while it circled the ship and then departed. It was a couple of hours later that they felt that everyone was up and they could announce that there had been a medical emergency and someone had been airlifted off the boat. Unfortunately, it meant that our arrival time would be 5 pm rather than the scheduled 2 pm. With disembarkation and passport control we would be lucky if we were away from the boat by 6 pm.

I loaded up the routes on my phone the best I could with the onboard internet served via satellite. I could see which waypoints I could skip making a more direct run from the boat to our first night’s accommodation. The revised route would save two hours.

Arrival at Santander

The weather was fresh but pleasant as the ferry slowly manoeuvred into the Santander harbour. I had made sure that I was packed and ready to go. Some time back I had transported an old VW campervan from Ireland and was returning on the ferry to Holyhead. We were on the deck watching the docking procedures and were so absorbed in the process that we missed all the announcements other than the one when a rather stern voice came over the tannoy. “Can the owner of the campervan please make their way to the car deck” barked the order. We made our way to the vehicle and were watched by a considerable amount of frustrated drivers. The cars waiting to get off were unable to because a certain campervan was first off and blocking everyone. It was a walk of shame that I wasn’t prepared to repeat.

Hoping to get early access we headed to the stairwell that would take us to the lower deck. Pretty much every biker had had the same idea, all of which had to endure a frustratingly hot twenty-minute wait. When we were finally released we emerged onto deck 2, the bowels of the boat, to see that since leaving our bikes they had been joined by dozens more. Each bike was so tightly packed like sardines. There was barely enough space to manoeuvre between them with luggage in tow.

Despite the difficulties, we loaded up and waited for the doors to open. On a previous crossing, I had been on the lower deck in a car and chatted with a group of around 20 bikes as they leisurely prepared to disembark. The scene before me was nothing like that. The ferry must have been at capacity with some having fired up the engines in anticipation. The noise coupled with the heat was oppressive and there was an immense relief when I saw the crack of light as the doors opened.

Routes on the fly

Dozens of motorcycles spewed out of the ferry and into the light. Not only into the light but into a holding area prior to passport control. I was already conscious of the time and these additional post-Brexit checks and passport stamps were an unwelcome additional delay. It was a relief to put immigration behind us and get out on the open road, albeit on a revised route.

I had options of taking us on the faster A-67 out of Santander but chose the slower but more direct N-623. The travelling time was almost identical but the N-623 looked like a more engaging road. The ride was a functional getaway from the boat and to the accommodation but I wasn’t prepared to compromise the day completely because of someone wanting to get off the boat by helicopter.

The road was okay if a little damp but as we gained altitude the temperatures fell steeply. From an acceptable temperature in the upper teens, the reading had fallen to 7ºC and we rode into almost zero visibility fog which I suspect was actually a cloud. Through caution, our pace had dropped as the conditions deteriorated. I was starting to wish I’d taken the A-67 which may have taken a lower route. At this point, we were climbing through the Sierra del Escudo National Park. The cold was really biting and the heated grips were on and doing what little they could to help. Thankfully we weren’t far from our destination.

Rural means rural

The hotel I had selected was one based on its being around the right location given the planned mileage. It was a rural area and I didn’t have much choice. You can take rural as actually meaning in the middle of nowhere. Despite looking perfectly acceptable on the booking website as we turned off towards Crespos I was concerned by the lack of anything. The only glimmer of hope was a small sign that suggested that if I continued on the small single track I might soon find some sign of civilisation. We soon took sight of a small group of stone buildings.

According to the book Becerro de las Behetrias, from the mid-14th century, Crespos was a place of residence belonging to Doña María, wife of Diego Pérez Sarmiento. It certainly felt like we had stepped into the 14th century. Maybe throw in some plague or an inquisition as the place was deserted. After a few minutes of wandering about, we picked a building that was most likely the hotel and entered through a wooden door into a garden.

A door opened and out stepped a lady, perhaps in her sixties. As soon as she had appeared she had gone only to be replaced by a man of similar age. He approached us speaking Spanish so we quickly responded with “English” to remove any doubt. Luckily he knew “a little” but it turned out that it was enough for us to get checked in and offered keys to our rooms.

It was obvious that we were the only people here, and I’m including villagers in that tally. Despite the hotel listing facilities such as restaurant and bar, I suspected that wasn’t going to be in the form we had expected. On enquiry, we were only asked the question, “meal for three?”. This was followed by “what time?”. It was going to be what we were given and we’d only find out when it was presented.

I want all the beer

After the events of the day, I was in need of a beer. I would have preferred it to be on my terms but as with the food you only got what you were given. In this case, a solitary can of San Miguel. It wasn’t even the big tin. I was taking no chances and when asked if we wanted wine with the meal I jumped at the offer. Unfortunately, that meant that I was offered no more beer.

The dining room consisted of one long communal table and we had been placed at one end. While I finished the last of my one and only beer I could hear activity in the kitchen over my shoulder. Disconcertingly much of this noise sounded like a microwave. The first course arrived. I couldn’t tell you what it was and I can’t remember how it was introduced. It was a terrine of green with a spongy texture like an overcooked omelette. My mind wandered to all the travel programmes I’d watched. Eat it or you would offend the host. I eat it as quickly as possible akin to ripping off a plaster. I didn’t want the experience to be any longer than it needed to be.

The next course was more recognisable. It was sliced pork covered in gravy. I suspect that the microwave was involved. Personally, I’d given it an extra 30 seconds assuming that it was a 900w Cat E device. Finally, there was a creamy dessert and it was all over. The kitchen fell silent and we were alone. The wine had gone and there was no hope of more. With no chance of further amusement, no phone signal and patchy wifi there was no option but to go to bed. Let’s start tomorrow with a clean slate.

Off to Potes

It was a fresh start to the morning but the weather had improved. It was damp but not raining. It was however bitterly cold. I was in Spain but it felt like Scotland in both the environment and weather. Our host had offered to make us breakfast. It was a standard continental affair of bread, cold meats and cheese, not involving microwaves thankfully, after which we were on our way.

The day’s ride would start off by getting some miles under our belt with the end destination being Potes. It wasn’t a long ride being only 130 miles but some of the roads I’d selected on the approach to Potes would take us through some tight twisting rural roads. We would be travelling through the mountains of the Parque Natural Montaña Palentina, Valles Altos del Nansa y Saja y Alto Campoo and Sierra de Peña Sagra.

We departed Crespos and re-joined the N-623 heading south before picking up the N-627 heading north. The road was uninspiring, the wind was gusting and bitterly cold. It was of some relief that we finally found a roadside service station with a cafe where we could grab some café con leche.

At Cervera de Pisuerga the roads became more interesting and the weather had warmed up to something a little more comfortable. We picked up the CL-627 before splitting off onto the CA-281. The weather was cooling proportionally with the altitude and as we rode through clouds there was a bit of precipitation in the air. Thankfully not enough to have me reaching for the rain gear. We intended to take a looping approach to Potes rather than heading directly on the CA-184. At Mirador de el jabalí we pulled over to gather our thoughts.

Many of the roads were cut into the natural rock and were very reminiscent of the French balcony roads with natural tunnels through the rock face. I could almost have been back at the Combe Laval.

Improving conditions

In some ways, this felt like the start of the trip. The weather while cool was going in the right direction, we had good roads and a good road surface, and we now had the views. At Puentenansa we collected the CA-282 and were treated to a spectacular run through the Desfiladero de La Hermida. At La Hermida we pulled over at the side of the road that would take us to Potes. I was pleased with the route I’d crafted although it was hard work at times. I was relieved to be close to our day’s destination knowing that while I was loosening up I wasn’t quite 100% bike fit. I was getting there though, and it would be welcomed for the coming day’s rides.

I had heard good things about the Hotel Infatado. Just outside of the centre of Potes it would be our base for two nights. It was also a welcome relief to be in control of my own beer consumption at an actual bar. I was more than happy to dump my bags, get changed and sit on the terrace. By now the sun was shining. While comfortably cool, this is what I had expected. I was in my happy place.

As expected the hotel was popular with two-wheeled travellers. It was not long after our arrival that the carpark was filled with another couple of bikes on UK plates and then almost a dozen Portuguese riders arrived on a variety of bikes from Honda Africa Twins down to the little BMW G310R.

We grabbed some lunch at the hotel and then strolled down to the centre of Potes. It was only a short walk down to the centre. It was clear that it was early in the season and many of the bars and restaurants were quiet. It’s a pretty little town which has existed since the 8th century. The River Quiviesa flows through the centre under bridges where I was now standing and eyeing up the bars. There was a medieval feel to the place with the layout of the bridges, alleys and buildings. The scene was overlooked by the imposing Torre del Infantado, a symbol of Potes, built in the 15th century. We grabbed a drink at the bar and took in the atmosphere. Tomorrow would be a good day.

to be continuedin Part 2

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