A Californian In The Other Sierra Nevada

Seal of the city of Madrid
Vacation pictures can be vicious disappointments. They may show something of the place and the people, but it can be very difficult to capture the mood. And then there are the shots that didn't make it back home at all. Either the light isn't right, or your photographic skills aren't up to it, or you just didn't have the camera handy. Taken with the Brownie box camera of your mind, these pictures do not exist outside the brain cells that are your life experience. And yet somehow they are more vivid than anything Kodak could produce.

It was Monday morning. We just got on the Autovia de Andalucia. We were on our way to Cordoba to see the Moorish mosque. I clicked the big Beemer into top gear and settled in for the two hour ride. Traffic was medium light and the countryside of southern Spain was sun drenched.

Within a minute, the first "moto" went past at a high rate of knots. It was a late model Fireblade with a Madrid license plate. The rider and passenger were in full leathers. Their luggage consisted of a tankbag and a small backpack. After about a dozen more sport bikes like that, I rolled on a bit of gas to maintain my favorite 95th percentile speed. Everybody were rolling along over hill over dale and past the "120" signs when we saw a long convoy of identical cars up ahead. It was the Guardia Civil, all in appropriately named Nissan Patrol 4x4's. They were in the slow lane doing about 140.

Nobody slowed. Two by two the motos buzzed past the traffic cops. Deep down inside, I flinched for half a second, but my right wrist didn't know it. We went with the flow. A few seconds later, the 4x4's were but specks in the mirrors. We crested a rise to some clear road; I looked down and saw the speedo reading a smidgen on the far side of 200 kph.

Is this Moto Nirvana? No, it was just Spain the day after the 1999 GP at Jerez de la Frontera, and bikers and cops alike were just going home. I've never seen so many bikers pass so many cops going so much faster, with so little drama!

Here's old world for you: right in downtown Madrid, two blocks from the Royal Palace, amidst all the cell phone toting teenagers, we saw this itinerant knife sharpener, plying his trade in front of a restaurant. His grinding wheel is driven from the bike's rear wheel via a pulley and giant rubber band.

Long dreams and short reality

I've wanted to do an Euro moto tour for a long time, ever since Cycle magazine's first Edelweiss tour reports in the early 80s. But I was poor and squidly then.

A hundred thousand miles later, an Euro moto tour is still the trip I dream about. But things have changed. I no longer ride on faith and testosterone. I'm married now, and I would not think of going on a big adventure without my wife.

One thing that hasn't changed is my stature. At 5'6" and 115 lbs, I am on tip toes with anything larger than the middleweights that I have ridden most of my motorcycling lifetime. Add a slope in any direction, and even parking can be an exciting sport.

To add to the challenge, my wife would not tolerate anything less than full touring bike comfort. Three years ago, I bought an R1100RS. I had hoped the extra comfort compared to my yeoman EX500 would entice her into riding with me more. It turned out to be borderline acceptable.

And so it was that we found ourselves at BMW Movilnorte in El Plantio, a suburb of Madrid, facing a blue R1100RT with 886 km on the odometer. I had read a lot about this bad boy, but the thing that stuck in my mind is the weight: 622 lbs with a full tank. That is over 5 times my impression on the scale. If you are the 165 lbs BMW test rider, the equivalent bike for you would be an 800+ lbs K1200LT. If you are 200 lbs, the equivalent is a half ton bike, probably a World War II Dnepr, with sidecar, only this one would flop over if you bobble it.

To add to the adventure, this was the first time we have traveled to a foreign country where neither one of us spoke the language -- at all. Not even a little high school Spanish (I took French, my wife took German.) The sum total of my Spanish consists of taco and burrito, which they don't eat in Spain. We bought a phrase book and a pocket dictionary. True to form, we did not open either until we got on the plane.

This was our hotel for the first night on the road, the Parador at Alarcon. It is an 8th century Moorish fortress. Our room is in the tower, with 6 foot thick walls and a 2 foot window. The window sill looks like a tunnel.

Food words are never in dictionaries ... are they?

The tour started out uneventfully enough. Gustavo from Iberian Moto Tours rode his K75 to show us the way thru El Plantio to the autovia then waved goodbye. I came to a fork on the M40 and promptly picked the wrong direction! But I didn't care because I knew it's a ring road, and our exit is almost exactly half way 'round. And besides, we are finally on the big tour, dadgummit!

An hour into the first leg, we encountered language barrier number one. As we approached Tarancon, my wife said "How about lunch?" We rode thru town without seeing much in the way of likely food. On the other side of town, near the intersection with a big-ish dual carriageway, were a couple of roadside restaurants. We followed our noses into the one that reeked of sauteed garlic. One item caught my eyes on the menu: mollejas al ajillo. After two days of tapas in Madrid, I had learned that ajillo is garlic. From a previous trip to France, I remember "moule" is French for mussels. French, Spanish, them romance languages are all about the same, right? We ordered the mollejas. The bivalves that walked thru the kitchen door looked distinctly devoid of shells, and tasted more land-based than sea-based. Out came the pocket dictionary... m - o - l - l ... Ah here it is: molleja -- sweetbread! It was tasty -- the garlic was nicely caramelized and crispy and there was plenty of it. However the pancreas was a first for both of us. It's a good thing we are omnivores...

The Ear of Van Gogh. Concert poster in Ronda.

Universal biker sign language

Puerto del Pico, 1352 meters up in the Sierra Gredos. High enough for fog. Cold enough to give a Fog City boy the warm fuzzies. Up ahead in the mist were the flashing lights of a road work truck. As we drew near, a Cal Trans type dude materialized out of the vapor, in hi viz yellow from head to toe. He had a small STOP sign in his hand.

"Blath blath blath," lisped he.

"No entiendo!" panicked I.

"Blath blath blath muy peligrotha blath blath blath," patiently, but equally fast.

Ah! Danger danger Will Robinson! I've seen that word on countless subway doors. "The train tracks are dangerous; if the train stops between stations, stay inside." I never thought New York City's large Puerto Rican population would be beneficial to me in this way.

We had a few more minutes of language barrier number two, during which I pulled out my pocket dictionary and tried the words for ice, oil, etc, and Mr Cal Trans resorted to body language. I don't know how they say "tankslapper" in Spanish, but the gesture would have been instantly recognizable at Alice's Restaurant. Hold out your arms, with hands curled around the invisible grips. This being Spain, where most bikes are sporty and teenagers aspire to Alex Criville instead of Marlon Brando, the grips are considerably lower than they would be back home. Anyway, properly positioned thus for riding air moto, one wiggles the buttocks as if doing the twist, et voilà! Instant tankslapper!

Finally just as I gave up trying to pinpoint the nature of the slipperiness and was about to pull my helmet on, Mr Cal Trans walked over to his truck and pointed at the fuel tank! Ding! Diesel spill!

So after mucho grathiath, we were on our way again, well circumspect. A few hundred meters up the road, the powdery white line of oil-dry started, familiar as a headshake cresting the hill on Page Mill Road. It wasn't a massive spill, it wasn't precipitating, and it was certainly already well cleaned up. They sent a guy up to the top of the pass to warn the dumb tourists of this piddly stuff? Toto, we're not in Marin County anymore!

Traffic in Ronda, during the one nanosecond when the place wasn't crawling with giant tour buses.

Toto, we're not in CA anymore, part 2

I am a naturalized US citizen. What that means is I had to fill out one of those lengthy applications where all the boxes are too small. There was one that said, list all your convictions, including traffic violations, use a separate sheet if necessary. I used a separate sheet. With that kind of background, I feel as if I have been conditioned by Pavlov himself to increase my heartbeat at the sight of any figure of authority. But what if "Driver license and registration please" is in a different language?

Just as we approached the valley floor and the fog began to lift, I saw two men in quasi-military uniform by the roadside. One of them stepped out onto the road and waved us over. I pulled in behind their green and white Citroen hatchback, with "Guardia Civil" on the side and a blue light on top.

"Blath blath blath documentathiones por fabore."

"Si," out came the bike's paperwork from the left side fairing pocket.

"Blath blath blath [something that sounds like conducting] ..."

"Si," out came my California drivers license. I'm sure "Class: C M1" didn't mean jack to them!

We had a few more exchanges where they would rattle off long bursts of staccato Spanish at me, and I would key on the one or two word I can pick out of each sentence. Thus I affirmed that the bike is a rental (moto, alquiler,) showed them my passport (pathaporteh,) and informed them that my wife is American as well (Americano tambien.) At the end, the two cops clicked their heels, saluted crisply, and rattled off one last burst: "Buen viaje." They even held up traffic to let us pull out!

That was it -- no probable cause, no attitude, and no citations. It would be our only traffic stop, Spanish style.

The cathedral in Guadalupe. Somewhere in the Moorish patterns on its facade is a Star of David. For a modest sum, you get a guided tour whose high point is a visit to the sanctum high above and behind the altar. There the Virgin is spun around from her usual perch overlooking the nave, to face the secret room. The tourists then line up to kiss a relic of the patron saint of the Americas. Being wary of coodies we stepped aside and watched the smooching.

Lombard St, only two way, and in Spanish

It was a warm afternoon when we pulled into Guadalupe, a little country town in Extremadura, the wild wild West of Spain. We were looking for the Parador.

This is a chain of state run hotels. Some are modern, but all the ones I chose for this trip are historic buildings of some kind. One is a gated palace siamesed onto the distinctive town walls at Avila. Two others (Alarcon and Siguenza) are hilltop fortresses that can be spotted from miles away.

With this "raise the drawbridge and we'll ride out the siege mentality," given any intersection, I would automatically go in the uphill direction. In this particular town, my instincts eventually got us up a really steep alley. The further up we went, the more it felt more like riding into somebody's courtyard. Finally I gave up and rolled to a stop next to some locals talking animatedly.

"Disculpe! Donde esta la Parador?" My Spanish had improved from non-existent to rudimentary.

"La Parador de Turithmo?"

"Thee." I can even lisp random ess sounds just like the locals.

"Blath blath blath." Uh-oh! Unfortunately my language skills were mostly one way!

This time I had the bright idea to pull out the notepad from my Aerostich. And the man proceeded to draw us a very nice pseudo 3-D map, with lots of Spanish and some hand gestures thrown in. This here is that fountain right behind you, young man. Here's the road you came up just now. And here's the arch at the bottom. Turn left there, he said, pointing at his left arm. For some reason, this took a good deal longer than you would have thought. We thanked the man and started the moto up.

But first I had to turn the bike around. This is where I wished somebody makes a full dress tourer with hard luggage, shaft drive, and ABS that tips the scale around 400 lbs. Yeah right. With a gaggle of Spaniards looking on bemusedly, and my wife giving me a helpful pull uphill, I somehow managed to point downhill again without dropping the bike. It could have been a miracle. This is the hometown of the Virgin of Guadalupe afterall.

At the bottom of the hill, just to the left of the arch, smack dab where I needed to go, I saw a sign: red circle with white rectangle in the middle. Do not enter. And from our wanderings we already knew that the streets are a rabbit's warren of one way alleys, none of the corners are square, and there ain't no such thing as going around the block. Curses. Lefthander up the hill may know this town like the back of his hand, but he clearly doesn't drive!

By this time, I was too sweaty and pissed off to care. I turned onto the wrong way street. Fortunately it turned out that the Parador is only a hundred meters further. Two short blocks and a blind right turn later, I am parked in front of the flagpoles. This Parador is a 15th century hospital. It's plain white stucco, and across a narrow street from the back of the cathedral. So much for hilltop fortresses.

Ancient BMW playing chicken with Citroen in Segovia. Note the shrine above the archway.

Valet parking at the Alhambra Palace Hotel

We had just crested the Puerto del Suspiro del Moro. Sigh of the Moor Pass. Five hundred years ago, teenaged Boabdil, the last king of the Moors, stopped here on his way into exile in the Sierra Nevada mountains. He wept at the sight of the city he had lost. His mother, as pushy as any Palo Alto soccer parent, scolded him: "You weep like a boy for the city you cannot defend as a man." If Boabdil had seen the city today, he would have truly wailed -- at the sprawl, the smog, and the general LA-ness of it all.

The Moorish palaces at the Alhambra complex are among the biggest tourist traps in Spain. This was the only town where we could not book a night in a Parador. And the tiny parking lot at the Alhambra Palace Hotel, where we were to spend two nights, was overflowing with cars. The valet attendant beckoned me to follow him as he walked between two columns of Audis and BMWs, folding their mirrors in as he went, then waved me onto the sidewalk right in front of the lobby.

I don't know about you but if I had to ride a US$15K bike that isn't mine between several hundred thousand Euros' worth of luxury cars, with just a couple of centimeters on each side, I would pretty much just straddle walk it under power until I get thru.

When I got to the sidewalk I made a sharp left, and tried to back up to a flatter spot. Only it was uphill to get there. The valet grabbed the tail trunk and helped me pull it back. After I heaved it onto the centerstand, he asked:

"Blah blah blah cuanto kilos?"

"Tres cien ..."

"Tres cien kilos?!!!" he made an astonished face. "Como un toro!"

Without knowing it, we had come to Spain to be in the midst of a bullfight!

Alley in Siguenza.

Nuts & Bolts

We rented our BMW from Iberian Moto Tours. Their main thing is organized tours, with luggage van. We wanted to go on our own for the extra adventure. It's also a lot cheaper, but you have to do your own planning, find your own way around, and you cannot take home any souvenirs that don't fit in the motorcycle's luggage. (Lace is excellent, ceramics not so good.)

For US passport holders, no visa is needed.

US drivers license is fine. Spanish drivers are generally very good. They keep right except to pass, and they expect you to do the same. In two weeks and 3000 kms, I saw one car passing on the right on the autovia. There was almost no drifting across the lanes to straighten out the curves, which is more than I can say for some other European countries. Keep your speed down when going thru villages, and do not cross solid lines for passing. In heavy traffic scooters and narrower bikes routinely split lanes and pass on either side to get to the front. Unfortunately our BMW is way too wide for that most of the time. The roads are generally in top shape, even the obscure and narrow one lane goat tracks going over the mountains.

The bigger hotels and restaurants, and all shops that expect tourists, take credit cards. And for those that don't, ATM machines (our credit union is on the Plus network) are everywhere, from the airport to the smallest pueblos.

We went in the first two weeks of May. We covered a big loop around Madrid, thru Castilla - La Mancha, Extremadura, and Andalucia. We had one day of heavy rain, and one day of light drizzles. We brought rainsuits but didn't touch them. The Aerostiches kept us dry except for a small wet spot in the crotch area, where the water collects and seeps in thru the zipper. Regardless, next time I would probably leave the rainsuits at home.

More pictures

Lacemaker in Almagro: this woman talked our ears off even though we only understood may be 5% of what she said. She's been making lace since she was five. She is now sixty something years old. She has sixty something shuttles in her apparatus. My wife thinks there is a definite sequence in moving the shuttles. I am convinced they are just thrown around at random.

Doorway in Cordoba. The intricate tile mosaics seem to be an Arab influence. They are common in Andalucia.
Roadsign in Madrid, no Photoshop tricks! The signs are over the entrance to a tunnel with 4 meters of headroom. Above the tunnel is a small park. El Toro in Santa Elena.

Street scene at sunset, Siguenza.

Route Sheets

Home  :  More moto stuff Updated: 28 April 2002