Portsmouth to Andalucia, Spain. Notes
Sunday 21st August 2016
Called forwards and slightly sodden, i’m called up for a random search this rainy night at Portsmouth ferry port. Once off the bike I notice my waterproof pannier covers have already ripped on one side, presenting damp luggage through the shredded plastic. The bike is given the all clear and with bags resumed back in position, I hopp one legged toward the wet leather seat, feeding the elevated leg through a gap between luggage pile and fuel tank and onto the ferry we go.
The smell of fuel, clunking metal sounds and the constant drone of engines whirring is exciting, she’s ratcheted to bolted metal eyelets in the floor, pinned to the boat by the harness, I step back clasping panniers containing toiletries and other such essentials for the boat ride ahead, looking small and slightly feeble… I almost feel bad leaving her down here all alone.
I sit on a white chair in cold drizzle upon the metal deck of the ferry overlooking the docks, a northern van-man gives me his lighter to keep as he has a spare, we chat a while before I return to my chair with a rolled up cigarette. It suddenly seems strange to be leaving a place I am comfortable in to go and travel alone elsewhere, scary perhaps (although I don’t let others know this) it has to be done though, otherwise live with ‘what if’s’ forever. Once inside I lie in a 4 berth cabin to myself, a car horn sounds somewhere below where the little motorbike is strapped down and left for the next 32hrs. Sleep for me for now, thoughts are with the bike. Did I turn off that petrol tap?
7.30am, sun just tucked behind the hills of Bilbao, the port cast in shadow as I lean on the rails as the boat docks. All anxieties spawned on the ferry were left at sea once on the road. The focus is now in travelling, not of what could go wrong. Two uniformed port officers called me to the front of the queue of cars, my passport examined in the booth next to us. They said to ‘go to Morocco, good for bikes’ and that I was ‘very young no?’ with their eyebrows raised, I gave them an Indian nod in response… is 28yrs young?
Up into the hills listening to Madonna’s ray of light and feeling bouncy, the sun is above the hills now and the increasing temperature is rapid. A brief flirtation with the toll roads to Haro, a town famous for wine with shops boasting Rioja souvenirs and wine tours. I sit a while in the main plaza de la Paz, guzzling coffee and stuffing another croissant down my throat. No wifi here, I shall hit the road again. My chain looking slightly dry after the rain stripped it of lubrication in the UK, I spend a minute or two casually spraying the visible links through the plastic casing, carefully avoiding the back rubber tyre… That will do, a more thorough job this evening.
A bigger effort to avoid tolls now, using ‘cycling mode’ on my phone’s nav app to do so… the roads I get taken on are perfect, winding through the sandy landscapes of beautiful Rioja. Oranges stretch to the horizon breaking out in rashes of green grapevines, desserts nestled ravines and rocky mountains. So far so good, I like this. On into midday, nervous about the increasing heat but can always stop. Keep going little bike. Must improve Spanish.
Riding from Haro to Barbadillo De Huerros (check spelling) is glorious, winding through and under overhanging rocks and trees, hugging rivers and dams, almost completely trafficless… Roads patched up and not perfect but the scenery overrides this idiosyncratic repair tenfold. The temptation to jump in the turquoise lake is strong as I am now dripping in sweat in post midday sun, so hungry my stomach is burning so I take photos instead of swimming and continue on to find food.
A restaurant… or just a bar perhaps? People are drinking and chatting over the main counter, oh my word – I have no idea how to ask for food in spanish, fool! Making pitiful attempts to the waitress, acting out motions of placing food into my mouth, the locals and bar staff blink at me… I blink back… hopeless. How could I not have learnt this!? Impatiently the waitress shouts at a small group of people at the far end of the bar. A woman with dark hair, mangled stumps for hands and a kind face came over and proceeds to translate. Eating my food I get up, returning to the bar to ask assertively and confidently in Spanish for the bill, as this I knew how, “la cuenta, por favor” said loud and proud. The waitress proceeds to blink at me again, the bar man getting involved too, rolling his eyes and murmuring something making punters next to me laugh. What now!? I raged in my head, scarlet with discomfort and embarrassment. A grey haired man sat next to the woman with mangled stumps for hands and a kind face, jumped to attention seeing my confusion. He explained that I had not finished my food, there was another course still waiting for me on the table. So with a red face and a shy laugh through gritted teeth, I scurry back (through the bar of people chuckling at the naive English girl) sit back at the table and continue to eat the stuffed peppers that had been ordered for me by the lady with stumps for hands.
I wait for several minutes, counting the seconds and pretending to read to look as if i’m relaxed and enjoying my time, then pay, bolt out the door and leap on my bike to rejoin the road – all bar the embarrassment, a stitch and now threatening indigestion, that was a delightful lunch break.
‘Learn Spanish girl’ I roared to myself as I blazed back into the mountains.
I wind up tired and melting in Segovia, order a cappuccino and use their wifi to find a nearby campsite on my phone. What a city, enormous aqueducts, castles, dramatic stone walls and monasteries… the amount of time that was once spent building stuff in this place is unbelievable.
Cool cool cool! I wiggle around the narrow roads following the city walls to leave and find a place to stay the night. An old woman in a small window of a pretty stone house is staring into the distance, she glances down when I pass, wispy grey hair framing her equally grey face – for some reason, and I am not entirely sure why, I waved at her, she simply stares, stony-faced back at me. A lingering image.
A campsite next to a small craft airport, set in the flats surrounded by hills. Long dirt tracks leading here, dirt visible in my left wing mirror, catching the wind leaving dust clouds behind in the golden evening light. Planes launch and land, gliders towed. Spag Boll, nice waitress, German pilots, wolf dog with emerald eyes. Tent pitched beside bike, beer, bed.
Monday 22nd August 2016
Wakey wakey woman, you slept too well for someone on a mattress so shallow that the gravel could be felt underneath. Bundled up the camping gear covered in bird poo from a night spent under a tree – worth having the shade in the morning… Although perhaps why you slept so well.
Fuel and breakfast half an hour or so down the road, sandwich for breakfast and I buy more bottles of water from a petrol station to keep hydrated.
Avila town, a city within its forts, colossal walls! Off over the hills and rocky planes, dessert, mountains, dessert, height, flats, height, flats, dessert. Endless roads… Straight along basins then winding wiggles that ascent and descent the inclines of surrounding mountains. I am still amazed at this heat, travelling at 70 mph and still sweat is dripping down my legs, arms, back, neck. My feet are so swollen that my boots wouldn’t shove when I attempted to lever them off outside a mountaintop cafe one afternoon, probably best to keep them on for the sake of other customers.
The further south I go, my map app and I have two very different ideas of what swimming is. Each time a place is selected because it is situated next to what looks like a refreshing plunge pool, river or lake… The reality that awaits me at this time of year is often that of green slime and stagnant water, sand or sludge.
My romantic idea of stripping down into a bikini, flinging my jacket, letting down my hair and submerging in crystal glassy water is quickly expelled from my imagination. I should have swum in the lake I photographed on the 1st day… captain hindsight strikes again the bastard.
Easing into travelling, mind slowing down. I think about people back at home, rationally, as is the way when separated from routine, gaining perspective from a distance. Confidence growing too, smiling more at people rather than showing hostility and disinterest (a nervous trait of mine when abroad). I care less about what people think of me travelling alone as a ‘young’ female. I don’t mind now removing my helmet to reveal my face in petrol stations and ask directions, I might even start wearing my long hair in a plait outside my jacket (until this point it’s looped and tucked into my neckerchief to avoid unwanted attention)… Who knows, might even wear eye makeup one of these days soon… perhaps save that for Italy.
Achy and sweaty, but happy. The road keeping me content, long and straight or winding down from the mountains, such vast scenery… I just wish that someone up there could turn down the heat a fraction!
Gale force, hair dryer hot wind in the face. Hours of riding side-on into winds on the deserted straights west of Madrid, unsurprisingly because everyone here has sensibly headed off on beach holidays to get out of the heat.
An Andalusian campsite in a woodland, again charming friendly people. I plunge into the swimming pool and let my swollen feet deflate a while in the evening sun, the rays soaking my tired white skin. Activities for this evening include showering and bike chain maintenance whilst a calamari omelette is delivered by the charming campsite owner, an old man who shakes my hand with both of his. We can’t speak much to each other but it is ok… He is startled as I chat to him and one of my tent pegs pings from the hard ground to land by our feet, with which the tent falls slowly and pathetically sideways. Noting this, the old man scuttles off shouting “Momento, Momento” returning back shortly after with a metal hammer and sharp spiked pegs and washers that could better penetrate the hard, dry earth.
I begin to eat the calamari omelette with my fingers when the old man walks by and spots my greasy fingers, again scuttles off and returns my way with a plastic fork and a cup for my beer – this guy is awesome! He leaves, I use the side of the fork to cut the omelette… it snaps.
Tuesday 23rd August 2016
Up and awake earlier today and it’s till cool, I consider wearing a jumper. The sounds of many little birds comes through the fabric of my tent, they are somewhere in the leafy canopy above and their song is loud. I unzip the tent and clamber out from the nest of bundled motorbike jackets, liners, padded trousers and jumpers upon which my thin camping mat is laid over the top, a far more comfortable mattress.
No bird shit on tent today.
The old man sees i’m struggling to get the tent pegs from the ground, and at the exact moment I have removed the last peg with my hands, he scuttles towards me clasping a hammer. He tells me to go to Córdoba, one hour away… I tell him I shall get a coffee there on my way down to Gibraltar, with which he shakes my hand and scuttles off again.
The time-consuming job of bundling everything back onto my little bike is systematic, it all has it’s place and this routine and organisation is important to those who spend time on the road. I heave the bike forward off its centre stand, so laden it takes several attempts to rock over… Grab my bag of litter from the ground and fire up the engine. Every time she bursts into life I get a small pang of euphoria, after the chaos of getting all mechanical problems fixed back in the UK hours before leaving, the relief of a healthy sounding bike is joyful.
I motor over to the campsite bins and dump the rubbish, noticing something in my peripheral vision… It’s the old man scuttling over again clutching something else. He thrusts me a fistful of freshly cut rosemary tied with brown string. ‘For moto’ he says and points at the dials on the front of my dashboard, followed by a waving motion with his hand in circular motions in front of his nose. ‘For moto… si’ he says again. After a while I understand, he wants me to put the herbs on the front of my bike so I could smell them as I rode along… I find a loop of metal that keeps various handlebar cables together and thread the Rosemary through. ‘Si perfecto’ he says joyously, shaking my hand with both of his. Such a simple gesture that makes me so happy, I leave the campsite and wave goodbye to the old man. It smells wonderful as well… I get the impression the old man has travelled by bike before, everything he did for me was perfect without suffocating. Camping Pozoblanco, ciudad del ocio… a very nice place indeed.
Riding more hot roads, super windy today and I ride at a slant, tilting my weight to the left to buffer the wind and remain on course. How empty the roads are… get me to the coast now little bike. Slipped on a roundabout, probably a deposit of diesel from the lorries changing gear. Nervous about chain too… Doubting whether I checked it with the weight off on centre stand or with weight on the tyres.
More thoughts along the way… Travelling solo better as there is no one to catch up with or leave behind… On your own time, timeless… the day and night is my watch keeper. That said, I miss travelling with people, stories shared and observations publicly digested, more fun.
Lost in the maze of streets that network around Córdoba… (See Lonely Planet for description)… here I eat a croissant and guzzle coffee amid the bustling city maze, getting lost on the way out and diversions sending my sat nav into a grump.
Andalusia is pure beauty – modest and vast, delicate and majestic in comparison to the towns and cities north of it and finally the air is cooler. Gibraltar rock and ocean appearing over a hill crest as I descend into Sotogrande. I stay with friends for the weekend here.