Thursday, 19 July 2012

Paradise Please

Other than my brief update recently, I last went into some detail that finished with a steak-et-frites supper at a campsite near Valence last Thurday (struth, that's a week ago! You really do loose all track of time on these trips).
I made an early start that morning as I had a 400k-plus kilometre journey to consume and wanted to make Chamonix by early evening and get there via the mountain roads. It wasn't long before I felt the temperature dropping as I ascended the rolling terrain of the Vercors Regional National Park, then skimmed the outskirts of Grenoble making excellent progress.

Unbeknownst to me, I had managed to plot a route that was occupied by Stage 12 of the Tour de France, which I knew was taking place but hadn't bothered to check its whereabouts. The many kilometres of cars parked nose-to-tail on both sides of an earlier quite valley road should have been the initial indication but I rode until the smartly dressed Gendarm at the eventual road block, confirmed the herd of cyclists were soon to arrive. What's more, it would be two hours before the road was returned to normal duties. So, it's either a detour of some 80 kms or why not join the already enthusiastic crowd that is building in numbers by the minute and give an extra cheer for our own, our very own, Bradley Wiggins,current holder of the Yellow Jersey.
"Une table, monsieur?" ... I must have been standing within the boundaries of a roadside eatery, the only building in fact for some distance either way ... "Mais oui", I unhesitatingly said as if already planning it in my head. Then within seconds I am sat at a just cleared table on the edge of the pending Tour De France passage. 
"Menu, s'il vous plait?" ... "Poulet seulement", ... "Parfait". I felt like chicken anyway, honest.

A quick mention about the TdeF; the stage I witnessed covered a total of 226 kms and after the immense entourage of mainly motorbikes, police, support vehicles, camera crews, etc the various sized packs of cyclists came hurtling by and I mean hurtling. You really can't appreciate on the telly how quick these guys are moving, it's quite phenomenal. But what is more astonishing is that once the road was opened, my route retraced where this stage had been and for at least 50 kilometres, I was engine-braking a tight twisting mountain descent, having to constantly dab the back brake, it was that steep and these riders had just climbed it having already pedaled over 100 kms to the point of climb. Fit? Beyond fit!

Much cheering and scoffing done, I continue through the mountains and more spectacular scenery...

Winding routes that add a 1,000 metres in altitude in no time at all, temperatures dropping at one point to 11 degrees Celcius, but the scale of the terrain is difficult to capture with an iPhone camera; excuse my finger or is that the tip of my nose, but I digress ...

... roads, that are barely the width of a car and have quite literally been carved out of vertical rock faces leave me wondering how they were built (hopefully with safety nets).

As there is no traffic, I stop to take in the sheer enormity of the landscape and a brief look over the small-walled edge that might save a skateboarder but not much else, has my vertigo kicking in in a single heart-beat.

It is frighteningly straight down, like looking from the roof of a New York skyscraper, the magnitude is overwhelming yet beautifully breath-taking.
I arrive much later than anticipated at my dear friend's place in Chamonix, but within minutes, wine in hand, on the terrace, we are frantically talking at high speed, filling in the blanks since we last met some 5 years earlier and all at the feet of the mighty Mont Blanc; its ever-majestic presence towering like a king over his subjects.
I end up spending the weekend with his lovely wife and two very happy, bouncy children of 9 months and 3 years, whose relentless energy reminds me of those sleepless days past. We reminisce.

A phone call to my Dutch friend on the Saturday has me packing ready to leave the following day but with an attitude that collectively matches their children's excitement as I am about to climb high into the French and Italian Alps and witness what should be the 8th Natural Wonder of the World.

I exit the Mont Blanc tunnel, all 17 kilometres of it, into glorious sunshine and high expectation. I am not disappointed and the number of other bikers around, confirms that I'm headed in the right direction.
The bike never vertical, the road very challenging, requiring an immense level of concentration, if only because there are no barriers. Tarmac, 1 foot of grass then a steep slope that takes you back to where you came from. On that point, I have always loved that moment, the one that starts with a growling, low-revving, bike emerging from another hairpin bend, your head turning to look down and see the miles of grey and black ribbon below that are already a memory. All to often I want to stop and take pictures but that means disjointing the ride which as any biker knows, you don't want to break the rhythm, once in the zone, stay there. I'll store the views to memory or postcards.

After an exhilarating, adrenalin-pumping ride through patchy snow-lined roads with two French guys on sportbikes who cheer and punch the air, thumb's up, as they veer off taking an opposite fork in the road, I stop for coffee and a big drag on a rolly, the lighter still shaking in my hand as the remnants of the adrenalin wear off. Then I realise that I have another 230 kms to go to get to the valleys of the Ardeche and it is now 6pm. I've obviously been having way too much fun and although I've been high-octane riding for the last 5 hours, tiredness has yet to rear its sleepy head.

Cutting a long story short of trying to find the house (needle) in the no-light pollution, pitch black Valle de la Bourges (haystack), I catch sight of my 13-hours-of-driving tired, Dutch friend in the headlights as he had earlier heard the sound of a lone 1200cc motorcycle reverberating in the hills.

I've already told you about this truly idyllic place and as I mentioned to my host, Sander, on the first day, "if you can't relax here, you can't relax anywhere".

The river is blood-rushingly refreshing, it's deep pools interconnected by small waterfalls that zigzag through the white rocks that shelf considerately as jumping spots ...

... including a little sandy beach area and all this on the doorstep.

The cool fresh early mornings quickly warm to sun drenched days of hammock swinging reading interspersed with the odd snooze. As I type, the Isley Brothers 'Summer Breeze' is playing on the Hi-fi with its speakers perched on window sills filling the garden with the musical version of our lazy existence.

Since my arrival, I have willing taken on the role as chef but as it's my last night here and it has been unanimously suggested that I deck-chair sit comfortably while being waited upon with lashings of Pastis as the now grown to 7 people party prepares a vine-covered, alfresco dining extravaganza. Although tinged with a little sadness at the thought of leaving paradise tomorrow, the ice-cube clinking Ricard is already lightening the mind.

Albeit a short trip it has been such a pleasure, some fantastic riding in outstanding scenery and over-flowing with great friends old and new. I really couldn't ask for anything more, I am that lucky guy.
Other than an overnight pit-stop in a small pretty Logis near Le Mans that I stayed at 2 years ago, I will be heading for the tunnel at Calais for a UK arrival Saturday evening, therefore this is my last blog of this trip.

See you all very soon and even though Dione Warwick has just started singing 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head', I will do my best to bring some of this glorious sunshine home.

Living The Dream xc

Monday, 16 July 2012

Angels Do Exist

Please excuse me for being so tardy but I will update y'all with a summarised account of my doings hopefully tomorrow. I have had the most wonderful weekend with a lovely family in the shadows of the mighty Mont Blanc; peg-scraping, adrenaline-rushing, high-altitude rides through the Alps of France and Italy that has culminated in a near 1,000 kilometre round-trip to my current location, relaxing with a former Dutch client and good friend in the Ardeche valley of Le Bourges. The venue is to good to be true; a renovated, 400 year old, stone house on a predominantly pine-tree'd hillside with a private, cascading, mountain river and not another property in sight. I cold not have designed it better with a year of thought at hand.

Anyway, more to come, pics included but I ask for your patience. Oh, given the beautiful remoteness of this place, there is no mobile phone signal at all, so email is the only method of contact as of today because, this morning, I set-up the internet connection and wifi access ... well I have to earn my keep somehow.

I must go as the angels are calling ... bon nuit from heaven xc

PS My current home... at least part of it.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Pyrenees To Alps

I left the Roman village of Alet-Les-Bains this morning to a wave and thumbs up from the netted-curtained window of the adjacent caravan. I kid you not, just a forearm with hand attached, waving like a King (or maybe Queen, whoknows these days), having heard the bike start up. Then a quick cafe-au-lait avec pain-au-raisin at the shop next to the bar I was in last night where I passed pleasantry's with a Welshman who lives in Bridgend (that's just outside Cardiff for you English) but has a Welsh-German accent due to time in Germany. Bloody strange, I had to listen intently as there were no subtitles.

So where to? Having been in contact with a great biker mate that I know as we worked together 20 years ago, I'm on my way to Chamonix to meet Rob. I haven't seen him in years but we text now and then and I really enjoy his company. He will HATE me for saying this but he is Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story ... alive, fun, positive, upbeat and always smiling. One day he will realise that it's not how Buzz looks (he is a red head) but how Buzz is that makes the reference such an enormous compliment. This is a guy who loved the outside and lived it properly: motorbikes, surfing and skiing; the latter his true love which is why he lives in Chamonix with his relatively new family living the dream. I absolutely love him and can't wait to see him.
Last night I said I'd be with him by tomorrow (Friday) afternoon, not thinking to check the map. 700 bloody kilometres! No worries, just have to eat 'em up. Over 400 today, so 300 tomorrow, no sweat. (Note to self ... Road from Ales to Privas .... Outstanding! (Probably the most at one with the bike, I have ever been. I could have closed my eyes and 'Used The Force').

Found a campsite, south-east of Valence which as usual, is wonderfully friendly, (why can't the whole world be like a campsite). Anyway, I pitch and prepare my non-suite in record time having already smelt the frying entrecote waft from the camp kitchen which is where I am now. About to be totally fed and fully watered for change out of 13 euros ...  oh, bit of cheese just arrived as the madam suggested I needed something to finish off my wine ... life on the road hey, such a chore!

Looking forward to the snow free Alpine roads tomorrow and seeing Rob again and his family for the first time.

I am that Happy Camper xc

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

A Perfect Day

My journey starts with multiple trips from room to bike, one of the hazards of staying in a hotel, but returning for the last bag I'm faced with a now closed, electronic garage door. Can I find a switch? Is the receptionist aware of this? Ah, I'll call the hotel, except my phone is in the last bag, bugger! Somebody will come, but I'm the only vehicle in this very small underground park. Any unlocked doors I find only lead to locked doors, so I return to the offending exit as there must be an internal switch somewhere. Basically, I found a junction box with a small whole in it that looked like a reset switch so I Swiss Army knifed it and bingo.
"I thought you had left" said the receptionist,
"Not yet" said I.
"Forgotten something?" she said, "No, but I was locked in the garage".
"Oh", she said, "I thought you had left". I carried on.

Baring a few circles when a major roadworks confused the SatNav I soon got to Puigcerda which according to the map was where the squiggly bits really started, which they did, but I decided to stop for lunch in Llivia (small Spanish enclave in France).
As I have talked enough before about great winding roads and cannot think if anymore adjectives to describe various types of bends I shall let some pictures tell the story.

Other than walking over the Pyrenees, back packing when I was 18, this was certainly my first proper venture deep into these mountains. Absolutely totally and utterly spectacular; stopping often to sit and absorb the scenery that on one occasion made the Cheddar Gorge, (which is itself magnificent) look like toy town.
I reach Axat my target for the day and although I barely did 300 kms it took over 6 hours and the concentration had me tired. Half an hour later, I found the most delightful, English lady owned, bijou campsite right by the river I'd been following most of the day

and I've just ordered a Croque Monsieur in the prettiest, leaf-shaded bar (and barn) in this wonderful, stone-built village, Alet-les-Bains. French taste really is chic.

I can't tell you how pleasantly mellow I'm feeling right now, I count my blessings.

A fabulous day's riding, relaxing supper en francais and riverside slumber ... a beautiful day, 'A Perfect Day'.

Good night and vive la France xc

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Onward And Upward

It's 7am and time to say hasta la vista to Barcelona and head for the hills. Had an easy, relaxing day yesterday, strolling the streets, coffee-sipping people watching (which included Iggy-Pop), lunch on the beach and reading. Last year I read about Jack Kerouac's travels in his book 'On The Road'; this year it's Mike Carter's 'Uneasy Rider' tales which is an excellent and funny read if you like travelling. It is also where I learned about the Horizons Unlimited website that I registered with yesterday and why I'm excited about today.
I posted a question on the site asking for route ideas through the Pyrenees and boy, did I get a fantastic suggestion. I plotted the route on Google Maps first before programming a TomTom itinerary, and the resulting blue line that dissects Puigcerda and Llivia (a small Spanish enclave in France), sqwiggles like an intestinal tract. Oh goody!

Off to pack and load up now ... catch you later xc

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Horizons Unlimited

Grant and Susan Johnson started travelling the world on a motorcycle back in the 80's.10 years later they started a website for motorcycle travelers. It's a brilliant, incredibly helpful site but when you have 2 minutes free go to the following link and click the video. You'll be amazed at the sort of people that do this ...

Try it, you will love it.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Barcelona Bekons

No messing about today, let's just get to Barcelona, after all it is one of my favourites. Nothing to say about the journey as I had my head down for most of it and with 400 kms to cover, I just wanted to get there by mid-afternoon.

Arrived in the busy centre around 3pm, parked up on a pavement, right outside one of a thousand cafe's and quickly consumed two delicious capo's. Where do I stay? Thought a trek up into the hills behind the city may offer a villa bed & breakfast with vista but after an hour of hunting and baring the exceptionally well position Hotel Gran Florida at 175 Euros per night, I returned to the buzzing metropolis to seek shelter.

A quick surf of the internet and I found a place with ensuite, free WiFi, 24 hour reception and private secure  parking, all for 40 Euros and centre, it certainly is, just off La Rambla.
Hmmm ... the room is most definitely small and cozy but perfect if you're my size! Frankly, it's fine and for the price in this quite expensive city I'll have it ... for two nights actually. I have riden over 1,100 kilometres in the last 3 days and I would like to give my rear a rest, not that I need an excuse to spend time in the beauty that is Barca.

Right I'm all settled, have brought you up-to-date and re-formatted my previous blogs that don't format well when posting via mobile. Sounds crazy but I'm off on a sushi search ... probably my most favourite bite and need a fix as it's been some time.

Sayonara xc

Sunday, 8 July 2012

It Just Get's Better ...

I awake to another beautiful day after a food free evening given the over-indulgent lunch. An Activia yoghurt marginally dents the emptiness and I'm ready for the road. I hope to get to Valencia which as mentioned is a good 400 kms with a timely half-way stop at Albacete for lunch, the MotoGP and the British Grand Prix.

I already pre-programmed the GPS with various waypoints before shut-eye and hope the biking Gods weren't too busy; well it is Sunday after all.
Within 100 metres of turning right out of the campsite I knew I'd been blessed, the road contoured the rolling hills and with 10 minutes I was in the zone. Tight bends, hairpins and switch-backs galore, never a flat piece of road as I climbed and descended the olive tree smothered terrain.
Even better, I was alone on this day of rest , not a vehicle to be seen for kilometre after kilometre. The dynamics of the ride reminded me of the Ligurian Hills in Italy last year, with stretches of barrierless, mountain clinging road leaving your fate totally in your own hands. Christ! A sign for Aldeaquemada, that's my first waypoint; can't be there already, only feels like I left the campsite 5 minutes ago.

A glance at the TomTom, the screen still like a plate of red spaghetti, and yes I've been weaving like a spawning salmon for over 40 kms. Time for a coffee.
I find a tiny cafe where 6 men, all in green, may be forestry workers given the heavy soled boots, who have just been served a carni-feast. Steaks, chops, chorizos, pork bites, tortillas, beer, wine and baskets of bread ... and it's only 11am. I'm guessing they've either been up since 4am or this what happens in the hills on Sundays. But they talked, no, shouted, all at the same time, at such a pace that each sentence sound like one word, only pausing for each fork-filled mouthful. Very friendly bunch who glasses high, cheered me off. I could have stayed and listen to them for an hour, however, I was keen to return to hot tyres.

I don't want to bore you but the road just got better and better all the way to Albacete (baring the last 20 k's), that's well over 150 kilometres of bends, proper bends.
In fact, one stretch, where I did meet with other bikers, was full of high speed, long sweeping bends and S's and the black tarmac looked and felt like it had been laid the day before.
I mentioned yesterday that the edge of my tyres were kissing tarmac, well today, they were making love to it. Such a rush. There really are biking Gods!

I search for and find a restaurant with bikes parked outside and join the televised German MotoGP 6 laps into the race to be soon followed by GB F1. I have some 3 hours of viewing time to consume so lunch is on and the adrenalin has time to seep from the holes in my boots. One beer, one wine, olives, winkles, chicken skewer, tuna salad, coffee and the Spanish equivalent of Bailey's but nicer (on the house) ... 11 Euros the lot!
After much whooping and cheering, I leave with handshakes and general biker type adios's and return to a more belly-full sedate pace.

If you ever find yourself on two wheels (or four for that matter) in Spain then this route is a must. In order, Santa Elena, Aldeaquemada, Villamanrique, Villanueva de la Fuente, Albacete, Casas-Ibanez, then Valencia although the last 60 kms is straight.
I must mention my BMW R1200GS, she was simply outstanding today; 225 kilos of bike, 50 kilos of luggage and 75 kilos of me, she handled like a dream and must have surprised the odd sportsbike I passed. Well balanced, sure-footed, German engineering. Wundebar!

I'm now in a campsite by a lake to the south of Valencia which I will visit tomorrow before deciding on my next port of call.

Sleep well, I will, nite nite xc

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Live To Ride, Ride To Live

Leaving Seville after a day to remember, I fire up my trusty steed and we aim for Cordoba, about 180 kms NE. A previous consultation of the terrain feature in Google Maps (which I use constantly and is brilliant) reveals that the most direct route is flat so I set the GPS to head straight for the hills to the north and my first real encounter this trip of winding roads (and peculiar road signs).

When I say winding, they're not quite the switch-backs and hairpins of the Alps or Romania's Transfargasan but very enjoyable nonetheless with the edges of my Continental Trail Attacks regularly kissing tarmac.
A coffee stop at El Pedrosa, a small, almost deserted village gives me a chance to catch up with messages, one of which reminds that it's the British Grand Prix at Silverstone this weekend. I check the kilometres to go and realise I can easily get to Cordoba, find a place with a TV and watch today's Qualifying over lunch.And that's exactly what I did.
As the 'Quali's' only last about an hour, I immediately ordered a dish of incredibly tasty large prawns, described as langoustinos on the menu, that were so yummy I needed all the bread in the basket to polish the plate to its last micron layer of garlic and herb butter. Deeeeelicious!
Oh look, it's raining at Silverstone and the Qualifying has been temporarily halted by a rainstorm that's going to last longer than 10 minutes.

"SeƱor, muchos grande gambas, por favor."

Well, had to be done and I did. Outstanding! ... even the second time around and another plate left clean enough to bypass the dishwasher. Won't mention the results other than what's happened to Jenson and thank you to Jennie Gow (BBC F1 5Live Team) for the ReTweet.

Prawned and Qualified, I continue my journey NE is search of a campsite that takes me over 100 kms to find, but the end result is a worthy hillside view of the classically, deep red and orange terrain that I've been weaving through all day.

I set my tent in the shade, its front door facing the desirable breeze and I'm ready for an early night. Tomorrow, I shall head for Valencia on the coast, another motor racing venue, which is a good 400 k's from here, Santa Elena.

The heat has been relentless today that had me open-jacketed and in jeans for the latter part of the route; it was still 37 degrees as I pulled into the campsite and that was at 7pm!

Great riding, great day xc

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Sevilla by Noches

Flamenco; having opted for the non-dinner, non-tapas, just watch the show cheap seat that had me sat in the balcony looking down on the heel-worn stage, I ended up with what I thought was the perfect view.
What a performance, made all the better by a very enthusiastic crowd. 
As this was my first true flamenco experience, it was for me an extravaganza of foot-tapping exhilaration. The last time I felt this way was at the Hammersmith Apollo, London while revelling in Michael Flatley's Riverdance. Boom! The stage lit with rose garnished, tight-haired, high cheek-boned ladies, all very striking in their dark-eyed makeup, oozing passion in that slightly stern 'Don't fuck with me'  look, accompanied by dominantly proud,  high-elbowed postures of matadorian men that even with neck-high waistbanded trousers, still managed to look undeniably masculine.
The industrial work-rate of their feet was staggering; at one point, the lead man's Cuban-heels, with toes off the floor, vibrated a sound that would have left a military drum roll asking. The clapping, double-clapping, off-beat clapping, thigh slapping, slapping-slapping, galloping castanets, fan swirling and fingertip-wearing guitar playing, all combined into such mesmerising magnetism that the only drink I had was the first one that came free with the ticket. The hour and a half went that fast! I could wax on lyrical, but I'll bore you, however, I found the whole performance incredibly strong, deeply passionate and immensely uplifting.
I left El Patio Sevillano with my feet above the pavement in a Bobby Darin, "Beyond The Sea" kinda way and headed for El Rinconcillo. Full of dance and song as I walked, I realised that I had an internal void that only Jamon Serrano Iberico could neatly fill given that my previous intake had been grateful party left-overs of Activia and a banana at 9am.
El R (well I have been there twice now) was buzzing, matching my still twitching feet, and I didn't waste time launching into Gambas and Vino Blanco de la Casa ... nice! The rest of my menu was created by generally pointed at other customers dishes for my relay of tapas, as my Spanish is all ish and no Span.
I am actually writing this as I eat so please excuse any errors as the Vino de la Casa has been flowing for three hours and has since been replace with a 'tipico' Spanish compliment to cafe; a herbal based digestive that is exactly that, although quite obviously not alcohol-free.
Also worth noting is that my 'cuenta' is bugger all; I know this because, as fore mentioned, it's written in chalk on the bar, although Miguel (see pic) did do that wavy-hand thing a couple of times when serving the odd tapa. Maybe he thinks I'm a restaurant critic.
Anyway, one more for the road and I'll head back to the hotel. I'll publish the post now and add pictures later. 

Sevilla, te amo ... Buenos noches lovely people (that means you too) xc