November 13, 2016
We awake to a bright sun and perfectly warm day. The heat which had followed us through much of this leg is long gone and we welcome it’s absence. After we pack the bikes and say our goodbyes to Santiago de Compostela we emerge from the hotels underground parking, savouring that moment of blindness as the sun fills our eyes destroying the darkness. It’s one of my favourite moments in a given day. Four steep, right-hand turns should return us to our starting point but here, in this magical place, it frees us from the confines of the city and back onto the open road.
Miles roll by without any protest and the day feels glorious on the bikes. The road is comprised of gentle curves that allow our minds to absorb the scenery; as we head north the flat plains begin to rise to our east forming the Cantabrian Mountains, and to our west the Atlantic disappears from view. The landscape is stunning – as are the bridges; Spain has more bridges than anywhere else we’ve been and what they may lack in visual interest (they seem mostly function over form), they make up for in sheer scale. They’re all long and tall.
The only mild excitement from the day comes in the form of a road-closure; the Guarda have set up a roadblock and randomly check vehicles for what we’re not certain. Rather than get pulled over, we’re greeted with a smile and a thumbs up before being waved along, back onto the highway.
Crossing the Cantabrian range toward Basque country reveals even more beauty though the temperature takes a noticeable dive. By the time we reach the top of our first pass we hit a chilly 11°c which feels quite cold after weeks in 40° plus heat. Along with the shivers comes a dense fog-bank that shrouds the world in a blurry haze that soon hides anything within a few feet of us. We don’t love the fog. It’s a hazard that seems innocuous to the uninitiated but the dangers of travelling on roads draped in clouds is very real. Soon enough though we begin our descent and drop below the mist.
As we descend to the northern edge of the range, the sun returns though the blue is muted by soft clouds that drift inland from the Atlantic. The warmth returns to our bodies and, from time to time, we’re offered a glimpse of the Bay of Biscay to the north – usually while crossing a long bridge that spans a deep gorge. The wind, as it turns out, has plenty to say as we reach the mid-point of these giant structures and it takes considerable strength to lean our shoulders into it.
Finally, we hop off the highway and onto a nice ribbon of road that slows our pace before gently delivering us into Navia, a beautiful little town that sits on the eastern edge of the Rio Navia, a wide river that flows steadily into the Cantabrian Sea. Our home for tonight is the Hotel Casona Naviega, a small B&B owned by Antonio and Veronica. Inside, the first thing we notice is the smell – it’s incredible! It’s like Christmas pudding, ancient wood and well-read books. Sitting at a small desk, Veronica welcomes us warmly into her home when Nita notices a familiar song playing quietly on her laptop, while a more typical string quartet plays over the house speakers. Nita’s love of the song by Damien Rice is barely contained and suddenly a bond is born in the music. This place is great.
We unpack the bikes after riding the wrong way up a one-way street – at Veronica’s recommendation! It’s honestly been one of those things that seems to be a motorcycle privilege in Spain. Locals tell us to do it. The police do as well. So, in this instance, it seems pretty normal. Into the parking lot and we unpack quickly; the town is too beautiful to miss. In no time we’re making our way along Navia’s wide main street towards it’s centre.
It’s easy to meander here. The river seems to lull our senses as we walk along it’s edge and time in Navia moves at a crawl. There are plenty of cafés and restaurants to keep the foodies happy while a couple of nice looking hardware stores catch our attention. They remind Nita and me of our “Dates” at the local hardware shop in a life that seems so far away from here – from this time.
Even on Navia’s mostly empty streets we see pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Easily identifiable by their backpacks, walking sticks and shells, a few groups finds shelter from the sun under nearby trees while enjoying a moment off of their feet. Just 300 km to go until they reach the cathedral.
Our stomachs are growling and we nestle into the corner of a small restaurant seated nicely along one of Navia’s narrow side-streets. The first three visits by it’s staff are quite abrupt and they seem far less hospitable than the town would lead us to believe. By the fourth visit though we’re being treated as well as the locals. The warming-up process can be a surprising and sudden experience. Why there’s a shift in warmth we’ll never know but, at this moment, we’re happy for it.
The meal is decent and the hosts remain friendly but to be honest we’re excited to get back to the Casona Naviega and the wonderful room Veronica and Antonio have prepared for us. It’s not long before the sounds of the street and the breeze from the open window lull us to sleep.
It’s been a while since we’ve enjoyed a sleep like last nights and we awake with a real excitement for the day. Nita’s heart has been trouble-free for the most part – outside of it’s normal craziness. That’s to say there’s been plenty of irregularities but no full-on tachycardia. It’s a trend we hope she can keep up for the next few months before her operation.
Breakfast is amazing. The spread is incredible and offers us more choice than normal. Beyond all of the delicious pastries, cakes, breads cheeses and cured meats that seems to define breaking-the-fast in much of Europe, being able to order eggs here is real bonus! The staff are all lovely and there’s an instant affinity between us which is a joy more frequent than we’d expect. While the excitement in our bellies to hit the road is still palpable, there’s a real desire to spend more time in Navia with these folks.
With the bikes packed, Veronica joins us in the parking lot for a goodbye hug and some photos before we make a left and head the right way down the one-way street.
It’s a cooler morning and our gear wraps us like a warm blanket. To be honest it’s our favourite riding weather; there’s no rain, the roads are clear and, like much of Spain so far, free from traffic. The day is a mix of highways, more impressive bridges spanning unimaginable gorges and a return to the N632 – the highway which makes up part of the Camino de Santiago and a route we’ve been hopping on and off of for the past week.
The route keeps us close to the mountains for the first 100km before dropping us into a plain where we’re rejoined by the sun and a cloudless blues sky. The green in the mountain-scape between the countless, lovely towns here is so deep, so vibrant that it seems painted. The stone-walled villages are tiny in stature while the northern architecture has begun to hint at some bavarian influences which, mixed with the very Canadian backdrop leaves us feeling like we’re in Kimberly or perhaps somewhere in Austria.
Once again our need to rush toward Germany feels a bit of a burden; spending more time here in Basque country is the only thought that truly makes any sense. The roads are easy to ride and the tarmac is perfect. Perhaps that makes them harder in some ways; our bodies get achy from the lack of movement. Also our minds tend to wander a little more easily – something we need to keep in check – but is difficult with the beauty that surrounds us.
We find a truck stop for an early dinner and the typical fixed-price option delivers a three-course meal with a carafe of wine for €15 per-person. As tempting as a glass of wine is, we’d rather not risk it and when we’re done it’s left, still full, on the table – much to the amazement of almost all the truckers around us! Drinking and driving isn’t a problem here – as long as you’re drinking and driving.
Closer to Santander we’re flanked by the bluest Atlantic we’ve ever seen. On our right we’re rejoined by the Cantabrian Mountains which now stretch into the distance as far as we can see. The only hint of their end is the snow-capped peaks of the alpine ridges in the distance. It’s a magnificent sight.
We make it to Castilla Termal Balneario de Solares mid-afternoon and are impressed by our hotels grand exterior – especially for the price. The economy in Spain has been decimated leaving high-unemployment amongst the youth, an abundance of empty property and incredibly inexpensive lodging which, while good for us, is hard to celebrate. People here are truly suffering through one of the worst economic crises in modern times and all signs point to it getting worse before it gets better.
However, inside, we begin to find the real reason for it’s low price. Checking-in requires great effort from the young woman at the counter and the energy used at every keystroke is punctuated with a loud sigh and roll of the eyes. Feeling quite badly for having complicated our hosts day, we respond in a typically Canadian and overly-apologetic way – something that drives her even closer to the edge. In the end we decide that compliant silence is best!
The room itself presents us with a slew of first-world problems: there’s no hot water, the sewerage smell is quite strong in the loo and the wifi hates our Macs. Sometimes, usually with hindsight, our “Problems” seem truly ridiculous.
After our (cold) showers, we head to the bar for a couple of (hot) drinks where we stand with others waiting for a barman to show up. When he eventually arrives, he grumbles something incoherent before promptly tossing his tea-towel down and walking off. Nita and I begin to laugh. This place has reached that sacred spot reserved for comedy. Eventually we do get a drink and, when he takes his leave of waiting customers once again, we watch the satire unfold as if audience members at a filming of Fawlty Towers.
His replacement arrives an hour later and begins spraying everything in sight with lemon-scented cleaner that makes every drink taste like Limoncello. Satisfied with the new odour, she spends the rest of the evening standing impatiently behind the bar sighing loudly for no apparent reason. This place is turning out to be interesting! With a decent fill of people-watching, we spend some quality-time with our bikes, tracing our eyes over the scratches and dents they’ve earned over the past year. Both our bikes now also sport giant red splatters which remind us of the insect-carnage we often reap as we ride. There’s a satisfaction from using something as it’s meant to be used, free from the idea of selling it later. These bikes will never be sold. We retreat to our rooms full of nostalgia and welcome the peace.
Our day off in Solares is also a bit of a miss. It is, unfortunately, Sunday which means there’s little open, so we walk around the empty streets enjoying the sun and the architecture, both of which are abundant here. The following morning, as we pack our bikes, we experience our first moment of warmth from a staff-member and joke that perhaps they’re happy we’re leaving. As we make our way out the door and onto our bikes, we’re sent off with an uncomfortable enthusiasm.
What we’re unaware of is that this experience sets a tone for the next while. Perhaps it’s the people or perhaps it’s something in the way we are at this moment in time. We’re sore, a little tired and there’s some underlying worry about Nita’s heart. There’s also the bikes. They’re overdue for a service and the tires are going off quickly. We have a service set in Niedereschach after meeting with Touratech HQ but the bikes are feeling sloppy and we’re not certain how much farther we can push things. So perhaps the problem is us, not the people we’re meeting.
With the date in Germany quickly approaching, we decide to hit the toll-roads to make up time – something we rarely do. While it’s not ideal it is part of the experience for many people travelling through Europe and todays route will have us saying goodbye to Spain as we re-enter France for a marathon run across it’s width. While the tolls in Spain are simple, well marked and organized, the complete opposite is true in France and, historically (hysterically?), our success with their system has been limited. To be honest, there’s a bit of dread in our stomachs for our time on France’s toll roads.
The highway in Spain maintains it’s well-groomed surface, rolling hills and occasional glimpses at the ocean. Towards the border with France we’re even treated to some substantial climbs that provide beautiful views of the world arounds us. At the far end of our Spanish toll-road a lovely woman takes our money and, just like that, we’re in France once again. This time we’ve prepared for the French tolls with pockets of coins and a few bills; North American credit cards are completely useless here.
All of the toll-stations along our route to the campsite are coin baskets and getting through is a simple matter of tossing in the required coins before waiting for the gate to lift. It all goes smoothly until our very last toll booth, which lets me through before it stops working for Nita. With her pockets now empty, I hop off and throw in some more coins to no avail.
We try the help button with little success; the voice at the other end hangs up on me after I try to explain our situation. Most cars behind us have moved to other lines except one driver who decides leaning on the horn is the appropriate course of action. I give him a look that see’s him quickly reverse and move to the next lane without hesitation. I make a mental note to remember that look for future use.
After dumping in another €7 the gate miraculously opens. Once through, I pull over to talk to one of the attendants in a booth who graciously gives me an information leaflet on where to mail for a refund of €5.20. It solidifies the French toll-system as my nemesis – my Moriarty.
Letting go of the angst takes a few minutes but a fun ride down French backroads helps. Being off of highways always seems to bring a calm to our journey. The narrow lanes weave around a countryside that we fell in love with months before and there’s a real joy in returning to it. With a final turn, we arrive at Camping La Pomme de Pin and, it has to be said, that this place is impressive! It’s our first experience at a campsite that’s designed for longer stays and reminds us of a time long-lost in North America. Here, families retreat for weeks over the summer holidays to spend time together, outdoors but with amenities like a giant swimming area to keep the kids happy and the parents cool in the summer heat. It’s quite a treat to witness.
Another thing we notice is that it’s absolutely packed!
Eventually though, we find a great spot to set up the tent across from a well travelled Harley. Its owner is Aaro, a Finnish man making his way through Europe on an adventure of his own. He speaks almost no English and our Finnish is a little rusty (alright, non-existent). Through a great deal of wild gesticulating, mime and pointing, there are plenty of laughs to be had. He’s a lovely guy and our favourite custom add-on to his bike is a handmade face, winking between his cylinder heads! He loves it because they share the same nose. We get all of that without sharing a word in common.
We end the night with dinner on the patio of the camp bistro, a mellow place where the staff are friendly and happily share a laugh with us while we watch the sun drop over the forest. The kids in the park are losing their minds; there’s a magician setting up for a show and he’ll have no shortage of wide-eyed fans. We slowly make our way back to our tent passing by folks playing games in the twilight. We’re quietly excited for tomorrow – it’ll be July 9th (2013) and we’ll have been on the road for year.
Now that’s a reason to celebrate.
The sun makes a bright appearance early in the morning and it doesn’t take much for us to get out of our sleeping bags. We’re excited for the days ride and celebrating our on-road anniversary at camp tonight. Our route takes us north towards Bordeaux, a region whose wines we sampled at length on our journey south from the UK months ago. Somehow we only manage a single toll that passes without issue before heading east along a beautiful web of narrow rural roads that leads us through one beautiful village after another. The cloudless sky leaves a deep azure canvas for the world to paint it’s endless landscape upon and there’s a contentment in us that feels as if it could last until we’re ancient.
Mid-turn, along a shaded hill, we pass under a red-brick railway bridge and arrive at Camping la Pélonie. There’s a renewed heat that makes our riding gear uncomfortable almost instantly one we’re stopped. Barricades are common in European campgrounds and the check-in for this place is atop a nearby hill. We wait for a moment hoping the red and white bar will rise but it doesn’t, leaving me to make a quick hike to reception. Along my way it’s hard not to notice how set-up this place is for a campsite.
Watching the conversation in front of me at reception, I’m happy to see how friendly the banter is; the man picking up a baguette is having what seems to be a very jovial time with the girl en Français. However, when I approach the desk, the temperature in the room suddenly gets a little cooler. Not to worry I think to myself. We’ve found that the language barrier can have this effect on people – it’s not being rude, it’s about being uncomfortable. Her English isn’t great and my French is unpracticed once again.
After a short conversation we’re given a spot at the edge of the campsite and it’s a great place to spend our one-year anniversary of being on the road. Perched on a ledge, away from the frantic noise that surrounds the two swimming pools, the forest rises up a hill behind us. It’s beautiful. We set up camp much to the interest of a family a few spots away whose young son enjoys spying on us from behind a bush. His father stops to say hello and show his boy our bikes while we finish up; kids love our bikes and we love their curiosity!
The facilites at this campsite are remarkable and even manage to out-do our last stop. One of the two pools has a water-slide and, to keep everyone busy, they even offer programs for kids and adults alike. The air is filled with the sound of kids going bonkers which, as we’ve said before, is one of our favourite sounds camping. That and silence.
With our camp set, we decide to celebrate the day with a drink on the Pélonie patio which provides a great view of the grounds. Around us tables are being organized into long family-style runs and we happily imagine what we’ll be eating for dinner while sitting next to strangers – something that usually makes for a pretty fun night. A tall, slender woman who speaks excellent English and seems to be in charge of the table-shifting operation takes our drink order and we settle into the wonderful shade afforded by the terrace. The sun is high, the heat is intense but Nita and I both feel quite happy in this moment.
Half-way through our drinks, we ask the woman about dinner and we’re given plenty of details about a wonderful meal – that we’re not able to partake in! Every week, the restaurant hosts a special meal that’s by reservation only and tonight’s that coveted night. It’s explained to us, with a slight tone of condescension, that for us to enjoy the evenings fare we’d have needed to reserve the night before regardless of having arrived only an hour ago. While it’s a bit disappointing, it presents no real problem for us. I think we’re most bothered by the fact that no-one mentioned it when we arrived – something they do for another couple that arrives while we’re enjoying our bevies.
Suddenly, we’re asked to move from our table with a nice view of the campground to a spot in a far corner of the patio. Since other people are sitting at the same table and not being asked to move, Nita and I are a little confused by the request. “We have to set the table for tonights dinner,” is the story we’re told. From our new seats, we watch for an hour as our hosts change nothing at the original spot. The other folks are never asked to move.
Now we get it; we seem to have become a problem.
Still, back at the tent we have a great camp dinner and settle in for the night as the sounds of children slowly fade into a dense silence that presses against our ears. The sky is black and, with our feet facing the woods, it’s easy to imagine that we’re the only people here. It’s a great finish to our anniversary!
The next morning we’re famished. We hop out of our sleeping bags and make our way to the patio hoping for something substantial. Instead, we’re met by the same woman who lets us know that to get anything for breakfast we needed to – you guessed it – order the night before! Another small detail that would have been nice to know when we arrived. Or at some point during the whole “You can’t eat here tonight” conversation. With a smug grin and forced warmth, she lets us know that we’re “…very welcome to enjoy a coffee in our bar.”
Thank you, no.
Instead, we cook up some eggs and make a beeline for the exit. Camping la Pélonie is a place full of promise that, for us at least, lacks any warmth or welcome. I’d like to say it’s because communication is an issue – but it’s not. Here, it feels as though being welcome simply has requirements we don’t meet and it makes us long for the hospitality of Casona Naviega.
On the far side of the red-brick bridge our shoulders begin to relax and a new day greets us with a blue sky, warm weather and another endless ribbon of road to follow.