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The Pyrenees by Motorcycle

Posted By David Olson, Wednesday, January 28, 2015

    Most journeys begin with some end, a destination, in mind. Unless you are a motorcyclist.  Then it is the journey, the small stops on the road, and the eventual let down: I have arrived. It is Tuesday, and I am almost on the way to Barcelona and the Pyrenees. I will meet my brother, John, and his wife Brenda, who will ride two up. Our roads, our lodgings are known thanks to my brother's planning. Yet remaining is the uncertainty of the next corner, the next village.




Early morning departure. In bed at 9 the night before, then sleep in fits and starts. Perhaps a tree has fallen on a power line in the northwest disrupting power in the southwest. I wake, check my watch...still six hours before I leave for the airport. Relieved? Somewhat, but even more tired. Finally, finally it is up and off. I actually arrive before TSA opens the security line. No photographs, no lasting memories yet, but my journey hasn't really started. I am in the aluminum sausage at 35,000 feet winging my way eastward into the Atlantic night.

   There is only the troubled sleep of a six foot body crammed into a small space. I read somewhere that one should sleep when the sun is down, sort of a circadian rhythm thing. I am a bat flying at night...not much rest. I arrive in Barcelona on schedule and the rendezvous with my brother and his wife at the Cafe di Fiore goes without a hitch. We even have all of our checked luggage. Life is good, but I am tired. Not so sure I can trick my body; it has been over 24 hours since I lay in a real bed.

   The Rambla: this is a bucket list item. The first time I walked the Rambla was in 1970 as a very fresh Navy lieutenant (JG). Now, these many years later, it is still the same. Thousands of people of all age and description. Ice cream vendors, sidewalk hawkers, the milieu making up the Rambla. Rediscover Los Caracoles, not quite right for us. Find a good restaurant and order

   Off to see Gaudi's masterpiece cathedral. Still under construction!  Then to the beach. Lunch on the beach, this is really nice. We pick up our motorcycles, and we are armed and ready to go.

   It is Friday morning. Rested, fed, and ready to ride, I feel human. First, stop for gas, an amazing quest in the city, but we finally find one after doing a bunch of "izquierda y derecho."  We navigate out of the city. The GPS is a piece of work to be sure. Totally fearless, it leads to some unnecessary directions, but eventually we escape. Many miles, now in the foot hills of the Pyrenees. We are on the green and yellow roads, that is to say the ones built before the surveyor's transit. It is kilometer upon kilometer of unending turns. Intense rhythm reminiscent of slalom skiing. We arrive in Campdevanol, a really nice hotel with an accommodating staff.

   Campdevonal is in the Pyrenees foothills. It is a small village tangential to the N152. It is early afternoon, and we encounter a group of hale and hearty Swiss motorcyclists. It is tempting to knock back some of the local cerveza. My brother and I elect to take an afternoon excursion. We pull out the Michelin Zoom map, not the book store map, and look for a devious, serpentine, green road. Our search rewarded, we remount the BMW GS motorcycles and sally forth. An hour later, we return. Holy smoley, there are no straightaways, only varying degrees of turn radius. And this is only a preview of the remaining ten days. We drink our beer, well, beers. The Swiss are still there.

   Morning, the Catalonian sun has melted away into a gray sky. We are learning the basic rule of the Pyrenees: if you can't see the top of the mountain, it is raining; if you can see the top, it will rain. Not to worry, we have our all-weather riding gear and button up. North, then at Ribes de Freser we turn northwest toward Ax les Thermes, our next haven. Warm and sunny Spain is behind us now, yet, we can still see the tops of the mountains. Growing in height, we climb and descend on increasingly higher passes. Puigcerda: we enter France and join the N20. We climb on sweeping turns that tighten as we move upward until apexing at the Col de Puymorens on the N320. We are in the high alpine region so typical of European mountains. Only the traffic mars this ride and reminds us the "N" (national) routes marked in red mean traffic.

   Ax les Thermes is a popular tourist spot and part of the Tour de France route. It is also nestled in a narrow, pretty Alpine valley and has hot springs. Dropping our gear off at our lodging, we again elect to take the afternoon excursion. The leaden skies open into a steady drizzle. We find a small cafe and stop for lunch. The rain starts. Mount up, and off again. My mid-layer is getting moist. As it turns out, I have not fully secured my jacket. A good lesson. The ride is wet and twists through the deciduous forest. Fun, but we are glad to get back to Ax les Thermes and somewhere dry. We later go to the village and discover the local street market. It is another good day.

   New morning, same gray skies. We lope westward along the north side of the Pyrenees, stopping briefly in Massat. I love these small villages. We are the aliens observing the earth people living their lives. They don't mind, actually they are indifferent to us. We continue past St. Girons and on toward Bagneres de Luchon. We are in lands similar to the Appalachians. Time for a break, we stop for lunch in a nondescript village. Pulling into a gravel parking lot, we carefully align our 600 pound bikes on the slight grade. We discover Chez Jo.

   Chez Jo is the epitome of the village restaurant inn. An elegant middle-aged woman is stacking chairs on the outer deck. No need, it will rain today. She beckons us into the old house salon. It is lush in its warmth. Regional artifacts adorn the walls, a guitar in its rack awaits the virtuoso. I offer to play “House of the Rising Sun,” but John and Brenda discourage my art with a look of constrained horror. In a form of French, we communicate our desire, and our host leaves for the kitchen. An entree of country ham and cantaloupe slices arrives, then the main plate heaped with mutton and au gratin potatoes. Could this get better?  Well, the fresh blueberry pie removes any doubt. We are warm, fed, and dry. And it is raining again.

   Did I mention the wet? My riding gear stubbornly refuses to seal. Fortunately, my companions are doing better. It is only a couple of more hours to Bagneres de Luchon, and we arrive. The rain has let up, we have a dry room, and the sun comes out. It is beautiful. The town is the nexus of bicycling. From the valley floor we look up into the high meadows and peaks. Those are ski runs!  

   Today is a big day. We are doing the five classic cols of the Tour de France. The sun is shining, our machines are ready and packed. First one then the other, the low throb of the R1200GS "wasser boxer" disrupts the morning quiet. Brenda assumes her position on the rear pillion, and after the soft thunk as we drop into first gear, we ease the clutches and move out. Mild turns and slight climbs give way to the stair stepping turns and grades. It is a synchrony of clutch, shift, throttle, brake and on and on. The sweepers are behind us, and I must perfect synchrony. Too tall a gear, a missed shift, a sloppy throttle, and I stall. The road is narrow, single lane. Close margins. I approach a tight hair pin that climbs up and right, swing a little wide, and my head turns uphill--can't stare ahead. I am in the turn, second gear, RPM at 2200, rolling on throttle, a car coming downhill slows. I straighten from the turn, a little wide on the exit but ok. Roll on throttle, prepare for next hair pin left. The road is straightening. I note the encouraging phrases painted on the pavement. I like to think they are for me, but accept this is the aerie of bicycles and montaneros. Motorcycles allowed, barely tolerated. We approach the Col de Peyresourde, and I pass bicyclists climbing an incredible grade. Descend and climb again. I summit next to the sculpture of bicyclists at the Col de Aspin. John and Brenda arrive.

   Some photos, then the comfortable throaty rumble of our engines returns. I descend, but it is a little easier. We don't lose speed in turns on descents, but this poses a new hazard of swinging wide and exiting into oncoming traffic. And then there is the manure on the road. I am in a pastoral area. Sheep, horses and cows are common on the roadway, and they mark their passage. Today is dry but still a little spooky, and I have felt the lurch as tires lose traction. Oh, this is too funny: someone has painted an image of multiple spermatozoa swimming up the mountain. Anything to encourage the bicyclists. We stop for lunch at a small cafe in the alpine valley. Start engines, climb up, go down, turn, turn...we arrive in Arette, France.

   We ride to St. Jean de Luz in the morning. It is raining. The road is slick. In the turn, a sweeper, the tires lose traction, it is so fast. I am fighting to suppress my Survival Reactions described by Keith Code. I am still up and thankful of BMW engineering. I am driving even slower, with laser focus on all road signs cautioning "slippery road."  We reach St. Jean de Luz. We are halfway through our journey.

   My brother's friends, Catherine and Truman, greet us as we arrive at their apartment. They make room for us: warm hearth, bed, and company, followed by soome great food and conversation at a nearby restaurant. Encore, one more night following a day of local riding along the Atlantic coast. It is time to return to Barcelona. We drive southeast from St. Jean de Luz, then turn east at Olague. Rolling country and forests. It is the Basque country.

   It is time to leave the valley and begin our traverse across the southern Pyrenees foot hills. We roll out of a climbing sweeper at the top of a ridge. At the crest, a parking lot with a food cart. Odd, there are people hiking across the road. We slow, stop, and park the bikes. We are in the midst of modern day pilgrims trekking El Camino de Santiago. This is an ancient road whose origins lay in the Roman times. In the ninth century it was the path home for Santiago's body, returning from Jerusalem. An amicable Australian strikes up a conversation.

   Perhaps this is a good time to reflect on our journey. It is secular, there is no spiritual basis. Yet, those who ride understand, at some point on a long ride, one finds a center. The road, the machine, the soul merge in a symphony of peaceful solitude. When we stop, we share this harmony not so much in words but in a joie de vie. We are not trekkers or pilgrims on the ancient road, but I feel we share the same inner peace.

   Isaba. A small village in the Spanish Pyrenees and a center of hiking, kayaking, and randonee in the winter. The national road bisects the town and cobbled paths lead away to secret alleys. Our lodging is deep within the ancient streets, and it is improbably modern. It is quiet. A modern complex of resort condominiums is at the eastern periphery. We convince the owner to open his bar and settle outside for our cervezas. Soon we are joined by a group of presumably German motorcyclists. It seems when we open a bottle, motorcyclists gather. I must explore this mystery.

   We continue to twist our way eastward across the supine ridges leading to faraway peaks. The country is changing and reminds me of the New Mexican Gila wilderness. An incredible formation of reddish cliffs marks our gateway into Jaca. We have a great lunch and a stroll on the local rambla, resplendent with shops, people, and music, then move on to our night's lodging in Villanua. The day is still young, the sun is shining, and we need some more turns before calling it a day. So off to the summit at Candanchu, which is also a large ski area.

   A new day, we are blessed with sun. The Aragon sky is azure and pleasantly cool. Heading south on the N330, we intercept the N260. It is an incredible road of changing conditions, canyons, and, yes, more twisties. To the west of Ainsa, we enter a narrow valley enclosing a ghost town. We stop and look at Janovas, empty structures, a single lane bridge leading into it. Seems like something from a Hemingway novel. We continue.

   Beyond Ainsa, a return to twisting single lane roads. My brother cuts in on a switch back only to encounter a tour bus, which obligingly slows to let him pass. It is close, and the driver honks. Earlier, I have had my moment by not fully slowing for a 30 kmh limit only to swing wide on a blind curve. Memo to self: You can only push these things so far. We arrive in Forcat.

   Forcat is not a village, it is more like a group of farm houses alongside the main highway. A dog barks as we drive up the access road and park. A middle-aged woman, Alicia, greets us. My high school Spanish falters, but we introduce our selves. Her daughter, Lydia, saves me...she is fluent in English. It is a rural, like a bed and breakfast. Incredible find, how my brother found it remains a mystery. Dinner at 8:30, and the day is young. We explore the Parc de Pyrenees and discover a huge dam in the high Alpine valley. Only one more stop, La Seu D'Urgell awaits us with one way streets and street dancing. Food choices are limited, and we end up eating a gyro. It is the worst food of the trip.

   Off to Barcelona via the Caldi tunnel. Normally we would avoid long tunnels, but it is clearly the best route. We emerge at the south portal, and voila, a beautiful descent through a high valley. We near Barcelona, and before us are the saw tooth spires of Montserrat. Brenda takes over navigation, and we enter the park. It is a worthwhile excursion. After a short visit, we continue to Barcelona. We find the rental agency without a hitch. Our journey complete, we prepare for an early morning departure.

   I am back on the plane with the sun at my back. The unending day.  It feels as if this journey has yet to begin, but it is past. I am left with memories, photos, and an insatiable desire for the next journey. It is why I ride.



Tags:  Pyrenees 

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