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

Castles and Knights

Surrounded by mountains, the city of Ponferrada straddles the course of the Sil River. It was also home to the aforementioned Castillo de los Templarios, a Templar castle which covers approximately 16,000 square meters. In 1178, Ferdinand II of León donated the city to the Templar order for protecting the pilgrims on the Way of St. James. The castle hosted the Knights Templar’s Grand Master of Castille. However, the Templars were only able to enjoy the use of their fortress for about twenty years before the order was disbanded and its properties confiscated in 1311.

After a quick and refreshing shower, I changed into something more fitting to the environment, grabbed my sunglasses and emerged onto the plaza where my companions were waiting. A pizzeria to the side of the sunny plaza was selected and we ordered food and drink. After all the riding and changeable weather, there was a slightly smug feeling that we were no longer travelling and we were now on a holiday. At least for the rest of the day.

By the time we had finished our food and the once full beer glasses were empty, the hustle of the plaza was dying down. I’m ashamed to say that much of my time in Spain has been in resorts or in ex-pat areas and it had been some time since I had seen the Spanish siesta observed. It was around 2 pm and restaurants and bars had started to close. Like mad dogs and English men, this was our prompt to go and walk around the Knight Templar castle in the sun.

He’s already got one, its very nice

We walked down to the castle and circumnavigated its exterior until we found the entrance. We entered the 12th-century facade that was reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and one would not have been surprised by the appearance of a French taunter. We paid the nominal entrance fee and then compliantly started to follow the arrows that marked out the preferred route through the heavily restored castle.

Much of the access was via new wooden walkways and decking but the original stonework and features were evident although there was a lack of any information about what the empty rooms were, or what they had been used for. Could they have been brew rooms, dorms or dining rooms? Only one had any clues with an array of hooks suspended from the ceiling. A larder perhaps, or the room of torture?

As the procession of empty rooms became a little tedious and perhaps a little overheated by the afternoon sun I decided I would go on a hunt for the holy grail. I amused myself with photos taken from various angles on my hunt hoping that there would be a gift shop at the exit where I could indulge in acquiring an actual wooden goblet.

We were almost done when I decided I’d had enough and sat in the shade by a trebuchet and a pile of round boulder ammunition while my companions when to tick off the final rooms. When they rejoined me we made our way out and I was a little disappointed to find that there was no gift shop. I needed some form of trinket to mark my visit.

Thankfully there was a nearby shop that fulfilled the role of a gift shop in an unofficial capacity and we entered to be surrounded by any manner of knight paraphernalia from plastic swords, bows and arrows, shields, mugs, tea towels, and paperweights. I made my way through the shop until turning into the last aisle. There it was, the wooden grail I had been looking for. I held it aloft and then went to the till where it was gift-wrapped and I made payment.

By 5 pm there were signs that things were opening up again. The bars were filling up with their table spilling out onto the Plaza de La Virgen de la Encina overlooking the Basilica de la Encina, a church built in the Renaissance style in 1573.

We were using the old free food trick again. This time we were served a bocadillo each with every beer at no additional cost. I’m not sure that they had factored in that most English can drink more than they can eat and it wasn’t long before we could eat no more.

We did still have room for more beer. Besides, it was Friday night and the place was buzzing with atmosphere. It was around 3 am before that atmosphere subsided at which point I was in bed and had been for some time. Tomorrow we were heading back to the Picos and to Riaño.

Back to the lake

Our run back to Riaño was around 160 miles that would have us arrive at our destination around late afternoon. We were in no rush and the route looked good with nothing particularly challenging to slow the pace. We got away from Ponferrada at just after 8 am. The roads were quiet which was of no surprise. From what I witnessed the previous night they would still be in bed, with hangovers.

The roads were typical of what we had previously experienced. They followed a valley floor or a mountainous ridge, winding around the formation with a natural flow. This flow was conclusive to a good run as the road swept left to right and back again. It was all very predictable and enjoyable with nothing that tightened to catch you out. We climbed and descended as we switched between ridge and valley.

We had picked up the CL-626 and just north of Mirador Embalse de Luna we turned onto the LE-473. We were hoping for a bit of lunch but finding somewhere was a bit of a challenge. I’d spotted a place on Google Maps that could be suitable a little further on the LE-473. I made a mental note of the turning where we would deviate from our route. I spotted the turning and peeled off.

I had suspicions that the Google listing had been embellished as I negotiated a narrow single track past small farm shacks and dwellings. Some children who had been kicking rocks and playing with sticks were now stopped dead in their tracks as they watched three large adventure bikes trundle by. I suspect it was the most exciting event they had ever had in their short lives. We soon passed a small glass-fronted building, the front lined with white plastic chairs. It looked deserted but I suspected it to be the place from the Google listing. My suspicion was confirmed as the road became a dead end.

We turned around and proceeded back the way we had come. Back past the plastic chairs, the shacks and dwellings, and back past the children. The second most exciting event in their short lives.

Parched and hungry

We rejoined the main road and it wasn’t long on the path of a mountainous climb that we found a roadside cafe. We peeled off and parked up before sitting at a table on the terrace alongside a biking couple and a group of cyclists. We were considering what food they may serve if indeed they had a menu when a woman appeared from inside. We ordered a coke each and when it appeared there was a plate of pinchos. We eat the food, looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and agreed that this would probably see us through.

We were soon on our way and for much of the remainder of the route, we passed roadside restaurant after restaurant. In each instance, by the time we had thought to evaluate our earlier decision the opportunity had passed. It was probably a good thing as personally I was happy with the pinchos and it wouldn’t be long before the lakes at Riaño appeared on the horizon and we were crossing the bridge towards our hotel.

The Hotel Tierra de la Reina is just outside the centre of town which we found to be pretty much deserted on our previous visit some days earlier but the hotel had all the facilities of a bar and restaurant and seemed popular with touring bikers. The weather across northern Spain had improved and it was notably warmer than our previous stay in Potes. It was a couple of degrees down on what we had enjoyed in Ponferrada but without that chill in the air that had defined the early days of this trip.

Fine dining?

The hotel had a pleasant garden to the side with tables and chairs and we sat enjoying the sun while drinking a few beers. A menu borrowed from the bar lay on the table with a few interesting options for our evening meal. I considered the Pigs Ear and Snout Stew, or perhaps the Broken Eggs? The Stevwed Quizzards were of particular interest but I played it safe with Cheek of Local Bullock. It was the right choice.

The following morning once again saw a frost on the bikes. The skies were clear and the sun quickly removed any sign of it once its light bathed the bikes with its warmth. On the road, we were once again travelling up the left-hand side of the triangle but planned to peel off partway up on the N-625 and over some rural roads.

We would initially be travelling through the Parque Natural de Ponga on the way to Gijon. There was a Sunday feel to things which were perpetuated with a lazy morning’s coffee in a small village cafe we stopped at before we continued to climb through hairpins and farmland.

It did appear that most of the livestock of this farmland was on the road. It was either evidence of its presence on the road, or the actual cows themselves. Either way, it was cautious progress to avoid ending up in the back end of the bovine rump. As we descended on the far side the frequency of cows reduced and the road widened so we could pick up the pace.

Manchester by the sea?

We picked up the AS-339 but by Sevares we were all feeling it. It had been an enjoyable but energetic and engaging ride. We all wanted some chill time so opted to approach Gijon on the N-634/AS-1. Our accommodation was a full apartment and having arrived at Gijon a little early to meet our host and grab the keys we topped up our tanks and headed for the coast. After confirming that there was sea and sand we left the bikes and dropped in on a bar for refreshments.

My accommodation is all pre-booked online before travelling. Others do it differently but I’ve done this enough to know where I’ll be, even if there are deviations to the plan. I prefer to pick out the best roads as opposed to wandering and missing some great rides. It also gives me the opportunity to find a bargain. This was one of those occasions and the two-bedroomed top-spec apartment with a large bathroom, lounge (with sofa bed), dining area and kitchen was costing me £55 split three ways. In addition, it came with secure private underground parking.

We met our host at the arranged time, parked the bikes and got a brief orientation tour before being handed the keys and being left to our own devices. We could lock up tomorrow leaving the keys on the kitchen table and show ourselves out. That would be a clean getaway and leave us plenty of time to hit Santander and get checked in for the ferry.

Gijon had an industrial background based on steel and naval industries. Following the decline in those industries, the place was transforming into a tourist and university location and in that sense, it felt a bit like Manchester back home. Manchester by the sea maybe?

While we had visited the beach but it was more of a sandy recreation area than bodies on sun loungers. It wasn’t the seaside destination I was perhaps expecting. It was a lot more built up consisting of modern buildings very dissimilar to the feel of Ponferrada. Besides, we were a good 30-minute hike from the beach now. The plan was to explore the area and perhaps find a decent looking bar that could also offer a bit of food.

The streets were busy with vehicles and the pavements busy with people. In the midst of all the hustle, we spotted a small bar serving a number of tables and chairs on the pavement in front alongside the busy road. We took a seat and ordered some drinks.

Homeward plans

The topic of conversation moved back to tomorrow’s journey and the ferry check-in times. The disembarkation we had previously experienced was chaotic, to say the least. Compounded by the medical emergency delay and passport control, it was something we were keen to avoid on the return leg. It would be a fair old run from Plymouth back home and any time saved would be a bonus.

When boarding at Plymouth it appeared that the bikes up front had ended up in a better position to get off first and so that was the plan. Our planned route was already quite direct to Santander, following the coast. With just over 100 miles to Santander, we decided that we would pick up the faster A-8 and arrive with plenty of time to spare. It was one less thing to worry about and we could get back to our drinks.

Trapped

Despite there being no rush we were all packed and ready for an early start. We would find somewhere for breakfast along the way. We just wanted to get on the road. That was something that was easier said than done. With the bikes loaded we ascended from the bowels of the underground garage to the door that opened to the street. One of us rode up to the door and pressed the button on the remote… nothing. Did we need more metal to trigger an induction loop? I rode up alongside. The button was one again pressed… nothing. We were trapped.

One of us thought they would try their chances from outside. It couldn’t be an induction loop. Our host had let us in from the street with the very same remote. We waited for a minute and then heard his voice from outside our, hopefully temporary, place of confinement. His efforts delivered no better result than the pressing of the button two feet away on the opposite side of the garage door.

I was looking for the contact number of our host when we heard a car engine from within the garage. With an increased urgency I suggested that we press, twist and push everything that was available before realising the owner of the car could be of assistance. With little more than a gesture, he understood the problem and after failing to open the door with his fob he was on the phone to who I resume was the building manager. With newfound knowledge, he had located a manual release and we were seeing sweet freedom as he lifted the door.

After parking the bikes up on the street I made my way up to drop the keys off as arranged. As I left the building I saw a puzzled building maintenance man. He was standing in front of the garage door with a fob. He pressed the button… the door went up. He pressed the button… the door went down. I was just glad we weren’t on a tight timescale. We left Gijon.

To the Santander ferry

The A-8 was as expected a good fast route. We nailed it to the 120 kmh speed limits and enjoyed the views of the coast when insight, and the greenery of the Oyambre Natural Park. We took a break to grab a coffee and doughnut and were soon at Santander. We rolled straight into the checking at 11 am and were then ushered to the desired lane. Only one other bike ahead of us. The plan was to be upfront and upfront we were. We strolled back to the checking booths and to the adjacent cafe to grab a drink and a bite to eat before settling in for the long wait. We had been told that boarding would be around 2 pm. Not surprising as the boat had yet to arrive in the dock.

The lane slowly started to fill with bikes. The riders dismounted and fiddled with their luggage before trading tales of their adventures. There were all sorts of bikes with a large proportion BMW, as you’d expect. The GS is a touring workhorse. Our three 1250GS Adventures had not skipped a beat. Engaging to flick around for a fast run in the twisties, and comfy to plod for miles when required. I should make a particular mention of my CoolCover seat. I’d ridden in hot weather, and ridden distance in the UK but I had not done both distance and hot weather until now. It really made the difference. Similarly, I was happy with my choice of clothing. I was never too hot or too cold.

The boat soon sailed into view and we prematurely rejoined our bikes. It would be a while yet until they offloaded the incoming bunch. As the first few cars emerged, and then the occasional bike, I removed my jacket and slung it over the bike and settled in for the further wait. They seemed to be clearing passport control a lot faster than our experience on the inbound journey. Still, that was a good thing. I just wanted to stow the bike and relax on deck.

Boarding

There was collective relief when we were beckoned forward to start loading the motorcycles. Dozens of motorcycles roared to life as I grabbed my jacket. Some riders with helmets on and some with them perched on top of their head started rolling forward. After 100 yards we had stopped again and had a further wait. Thankfully the wait was just ten minutes but it was enough for the helmets and jackets to come off again.

We were soon rolling onto the ferry. Up the ramp and then down into the bowels of deck 2. We were ushered to turn and face the front of the ship. The ship would empty from the stern at Plymouth. For all the effort to get to the ferry in good time, being at the front of the queue, and then enduring the wait. We would be getting off the ferry plumb last. The only saving grace was that the ferry didn’t seem that busy.

The cabins were still being cleaned so we headed for the bar until we could get access. Having endured a tediously and hot wait to board the first beer hardly touched the sides. We could now kick back and relax.

Cruising the Bay of Biscay

There was a cruise feel on deck. The Spanish sun that was missing on arrival made for a more conclusive holiday atmosphere. I pulled up a chair and sat back with my eyes closed and the sun on my face. I was ready for home.

Perhaps the memories of the outbound entertainment were still too fresh in my mind? Perhaps I was tired? Either way, after a self-service meal and a bottle of white wine (not the half bottle mind), I suggested we go to the bar to the aft of the boat. It was a quieter experience with a piano bar vibe. It was there that we stayed until it was time to head for the cabin bed. Perhaps it was the wine, perhaps an element of exhaustion but I don’t remember climbing into my bunk.

Captain early worm was up before first light again. I wasn’t going to repeat the mistakes of the previous sailing. It was going to be a long day of nothing. I much preferred the previous timetable where you would arrive at the port and be off for midday. I lay in bed and pretended to be asleep so I’d get left alone. I planned to stay in bed as long as possible and eat up the hours. I’d then perhaps get some breakfast. Cooked breakfast I thought. I’d had my fill of cold meats and cheese.

There had been no overnight delays so we were on time to dock in Plymouth at a reasonable time and with a good run through customs, we should be away by 3 pm. It was a good 5-hour ride home so a quick splash and dash for fuel would see us set for the long run home on a two-stop strategy.

Back in Plymouth

Plymouth soon rolled into sight and my phone strung to like on a UK network after enduring the free but slow wet string satellite backed wifi connection on board. We vacated the cabin and took up a position with everyone else to descend to deck 2.

We emerged through the door to the deck to a scene of frustration. The bikes that had arrived later than the ones that had initially boarded had been crammed in like sardines as per our previous sailing. We struggled to access the bike such that we made three trips as we could only hold one bag aloft at the time while we wiggled our hips and salsa danced between the handlebars and mirror. Furthermore, we were not only pointing in the wrong direction but we had no room to turn the bikes. Someone needs to get a grip at Brittany Ferries as the operations team loading the bikes certainly have no appreciation of what it takes to manhandle a fully laden adventure bike around.

It seemed like forever until we saw the ramp open and outside light. A few people had been manipulating their bikes in the cramped conditions but there was a definite opening forming in the Tetris puzzle of machinery. Soon we saw our opportunity and jumped the queue, riding around the outside and off the ramp to ferry freedom. We had placed ourselves in a good position to get through passport control and we inched forward to the booths.

I pulled up to the booth, helmet on, and handed over my passport. She looked at me, looked at the passport and repeated three times. I’m not entirely sure of the process but I was pretty much convinced that only my eyes were visible. Finally, she handed me my passport and I was away.

The bikes leaving the ferry scurried through Plymouth centre like rats leaving a sinking boat. We picked up the dual carriageway and headed out of town. Our splash and dash came at the services near Exeter. Krispy Kreme, coffee, and fuel and we were on our way.

Miles equals stiff cheeks

The remaining miles were tedious. The stops were limited since I was conscious that any time not moving would just bed added to my arrival time at home. I whiled away the hours fiddling with the music on the TFT dash or devising new exercises to alleviate the stiff arse cheeks I was developing. I settled on the ‘rolling squat’ where I would have my instep on the pegs. You then use your calves to lift your bum one inch off the seat and then hold for 30 seconds. Try it, it works.

My final riding companion peeled off with a wave as I approached the outskirts of Manchester. I decided to come off the motorway for the final 40-minute ride and throw the bike around a little on the country lanes as much to sort my bum out as much for enjoyment.

Would I do the Picos and Asturias again? That would be a definite yes. Not just because I still need a workable solution for the Alps, but because the roads were so good. Yes, the scenery while spectacular lacks the breathtaking scale of the Alps but the sheer amount of route options means that there are so many additional roads to be ridden on future trips. Try it, you won’t be disappointed. I’ll make my GPX files available for you to follow or pull apart. Gratis!

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