Pyrenees Birthday Tour 2019

Two Goldwings, two couples and two weeks in September, riding through the Spanish side of the Pyrenees mountain range. What a great way to celebrate my 60th birthday! The ride would see us primarily riding through Spain but would also include Portugal, Andorra and a small bit of France.

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Bev and I were riding my 2007 Honda GL1800 Goldwing, towing our Portuguese-made trailer. We were joined by Paul and Angela, on their 2018 DCT Tour Goldwing. The trip was the culmination of a 33-year-old dream for Paul and Angela, who envisioned touring Europe on a Goldwing in the 80’s. For me, it was an opportunity to do something memorable for a milestone birthday.

In planning the trip, I tried to ensure that daily riding time didn’t exceed four hours, so that we would have time to explore and enjoy the various locations along the way. On some days, it was significantly less. And there were some non-riding days built into the schedule for sight-seeing and relaxation. Motorways were mainly limited to the days at the beginning and end of the trip – a necessary evil to cover the miles and get us to/from the Pyrenees region. I used the Via Michelin website to review optional routes to each destination. Those routes were then entered and saved onto my TomTom Rider 550 for trip navigation.

Day 1.  Porto, Portugal to León, Spain

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TomTom route from Porto to Leon

León was essentially a stepping stone between Porto and San San Sebastián, falling about half-way along the motorway route to get there. But it was the first day of the tour, so even the 402km along the motorways had an extra buzz to it. The trip was underway!

We stayed at the Abad San Antonio Hotel, situated next to a large hospital, about 4km from the historical centre. At less than €60 per night, it was a great deal. Large, modern, spacious (wheelchair accessible) rooms with secure underground parking for the bikes.

 

A short taxi ride got us into the historical centre for some early evening sightseeing. The evening light nicely illuminated the old buildings, creating a nice atmosphere for a walk along the cobbled streets.

 

We enjoyed drinks on the plaza, next to the cathedral, followed by dinner on a narrow lane adjacent to Plaza Major. After dark, the old town was transformed by lighting which gave a new perspective to the old buildings.

 

Day 2.  León to San San Sebastián

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390km route from Leon to San Sebastián

Bev and I loved our first visit to San Sebastián and were looking forward to sharing it with Paul and Angela. We were particularly keen to expose them to pintxos – the Basque version of tapas that San Sebastián is famous for. Located just a few kilometres from the French border, it would be our launch-pad into the Pyrenees. But first, I had to source replacement tyres for my trailer!

Prior to the trip, I had checked the lights and tyre pressures on the trailer but I overlooked checking the tread depth. During a fuel stop between León and San San Sebastián, I noticed that the tyres weren’t in the best of shape. Oops! Replacing them became the priority once we had checked into our hotel.

Our hotel for two nights was the Casual del Jazz. This small, boutique hotel is well situated, close to the river. Importantly for us, it had secure underground parking for the bikes. Whilst parking usually costs €15 per vehicle per night, we were able to squeeze both of our bikes, and the trailer, into a single parking space. So we only had to pay for one space.

 

A Google search located a tyre repair shop that was a 10-minute ride from the hotel. Unfortunately, they didn’t have suitably sized tyres in stock. They checked next door at a Yamaha dealer, but they didn’t have any either. After a few phone calls, the guy in the shop told me that he could get the tyres for me within an hour. A price was agreed, and I returned an hour later. The tyres arrived about the same time that I got back to the shop. Before long, the trailer had new shoes for the rest of the journey. Job done and great service!

 

We were ready for some pintxos! We took a nice stroll along the riverbank and into the historical town centre, where most of the pintxo bars can be found. The proximity of so many bars, located on quaint, narrow lanes, contributes to a wonderful dining experience. Rather than selecting a single restaurant for dinner, diners can wander from place to place to sample the variety of pintxos at each one. Along with a few beers or wines.

The pintxos are laid out along the length of the bar, so that customers can examine the options and make selections. We wandered around the lanes, popping into each place to see if the layout of food tempted us. We loved the busy, noisy atmosphere that surrounded each of the bars. And the food was amazing! It ranged from familiar chicken wings to exotic sea urchins. It included meats on skewers, squid on bread, Iberian ham and cheese, stuffed peppers, baked clams, fish balls, salmon with roe, sardines, octopus, and much more. So delicious!

 

Day 3.  Rest day in San Sebastián

Our third day was spent exploring a bit more of San Sebastián, as well as eating more of the delicious food. The old district is such a lovely place to wander through. We visited the Neo-Gothic Cathedral of Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd) that was consecrated in 1897. We checked out La Concha beach. We passed by the 16th century San Vicente Church – the oldest church in the city. And we admired the beautiful architecture of the plazas, narrow streets and shopping areas. The park areas were busy with families, relaxing and enjoying their city. San Sebastián made a strong impression on all of us.

 

Day 4.  San Sebastián to Eugi

It was the fourth day of our trip, but our first day in the Pyrenees. The next eight days would see us gradually move east, through the heart of the Pyrenees, into Andorra and beyond. We were leaving the motorways behind us, to experience thrilling mountain passes, winding roads and gorgeous scenery.

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The Pyrenees mountain range, straddling France and Spain

Our route for the day was split into two segments. The first 79km segment would take us up to the 672 metres Izpegi Pass (aka Col d’Ispeguy). As we rolled over the top of the pass, we would find ourselves in France, for a 49km descent down the mountain and back into Spain, to the village of Eugi.

 

We enjoyed some lovely views on our way up to the pass, along with our first introduction to hairpin bends (the first of many on the trip). The top of the pass was sign-posted so we stopped for photographs and refreshments at a small cafe. There is an amazing view from the car-park, over the valley into France and the mountains beyond. There could be no doubting that we had reached the Pyrenees! During the planning of the trip, it had not occurred to me to check for any sporting activity in the area. As it happened, the day before, the entire pass was closed for a stage of the Tour of Spain cycle race.

 

On our way down the valley, we stopped briefly at a small village with a river running through it. Very scenic and worth a photo stop.

 

And here is a video compilation of the ride down from Izpegi Pass to Eugi. The graffiti on the road, from the cycle race, is still visible.

 

Whilst we could have ridden about 27km further to overnight in Pamplona, we opted for a lakeside stay in the tiny village of Eugi. It seemed as though the Hostal Exteberri was the ‘only game in town’ and was a popular watering hole for locals. The ground floor served as a restaurant and bar whilst the two upper levels housed several guest rooms. The rooms were rather basic, but the views were amazing! Well, our room had views of the lake – Paul and Angela drew the short straw with a room on the opposite side of the building.

 

We enjoyed drinks and lunch at the hostal, overlooking the lake. Whilst Bev, Paul and Angela relaxed, I took a hike around the shore of the lake to the dam. The evening was also spent at the hostal, enjoying dinner and drinks.

 

Day 5.  Eugi to Sos del Rey Catolico

Again, our route was split into two segments, crossing from the Navarre region into Aragon. The first 94km would take us from Eugi to Roncal. Then a 69km stretch would take us to Sos del Rey Catolico.

 

Whilst Roncal was our first scheduled stop for the day, we pulled into a scenic village along the way to take some photos.

 

It would be possible to drive through Roncal without seeing anything special, as its historical stone houses climb up the side of a hill, partially obscured from passing traffic. But take the time to park your vehicle and walk up the narrow, twisting cobbled streets and you’ll find quaint old stone houses. Push on to the top of the hill and you will find the 16th century Church of San Esteban, which provides a sweeping overlook of the village and the valley beyond it. Certainly worth the time and a bit of effort.

 

We ate lunch in a small bar/cafe located under the Roncal town hall and then we pushed on towards our destination. But I had to pull over when I saw an old stone village, perched on a small hill with a backdrop of mountains. It turned out to be the abandoned village of Esco, in the Aragon region. The village dates back to the 12th century, and possibly back to the Bronze Age. But the building of the Yesa Dam in 1959, and the resulting reservoir, caused the inhabitants to abandon the village in 1960.

 

The ride took us from the lush mountains of Navarre to the more austere appearance of Aragon. Segments of the ride are captured in this video compilation.

 

If the landscape provided a stark contrast, then so did the accommodations. Having left the basic hostal in Eugi, we arrived at the historic Parador de Sos del Rey Catolico. The parador is located in a former stone mansion and the interior maintains a historic feel. The guest rooms have rustic tile floors and furnishings. The lobby area has old bare stone floors with exposed wood beam ceilings, furnished with rugs and comfortable seating. As expected with a historic building, parking is outdoors.

 

I read that “If Sos del Rey Catolico were in Tuscany, it would be a world-famous hill town.” It is certainly one of Aragon’s most beautiful villages and is historically significant. It was one of the most important fortified towns in the region during the 10th and 11th centuries and a small castle was built in the town in the 12th century. In the 15th century, it was the birthplace of King Ferdinand II of Aragon, who would later become King of Spain. The old stone town still retains a historic feel. Whilst it is clear that buildings have been renovated, the renovations have been sympathetic and use the same type of stone, so that they blend in with the surrounding buildings. But as we walked around the town, it seemed that it was hardly lived-in. It didn’t seem to have much life.

 

Day 6.  Sos del Rey Catolico to Torla

The first 79km segment of the day took us to Jaca, where we intended to spend some time and eat lunch. But we weren’t impressed by the large town and the challenge to find a parking space. We decided to skip the town and continue with the 55km segment to the mountain village of Torla.

 

The day provided possibly the best riding we had experienced on the trip, so far. It included a beautiful, winding road up the mountain to 4,668 feet (1,422 metres), through a tunnel and down the other side, on our way to Torla. And the scenery was marvellous. Five minutes of that ride are captured in the following video compilation.

 

Having already experienced amazing mountain views during our ride, as we rode into Torla, we were greeted by a majestic mountain backdrop that rose up behind the Silken Ordesa Spa Hotel, our home for the night. Hotel parking is on the roadside but we were fortunate to find a couple of places at the front of the hotel, where they could be seen by the reception staff.

 

After getting settled, we walked back along the road to explore the historic village of Torla. The village sits at an altitude of 1,032 metres in the Ara River glacial valley and is surrounded by several peaks that range from 2,000 to 2,848 metres. The village fortifications are believed to have commenced as early as the 14th century and were gradually extended and improved over the years. The village still has buildings that date from the 13th to 18th centuries. It has become a tourist hub for those wishing to explore and experience the nearby mountains and has many restaurants, bars and gift shops. Yet it still retains some historic charm.

 

Day 7.  Torla to Vielha

Our first 45km leg of the day took us from Torla to the beautiful hilltop village of Ainsa. The second segment to Vielha covered 104km.

 

Each day of the trip had been getting better than the one before. Day seven can be summed up as ‘sweeping bends, tunnels and majestic views’. The views were the best of the trip so far, the roads were excellent and we passed through several tunnels, including the final tunnel on the approach to Vielha that was 3.5km long. It was a stunning day that saw us reach an elevation of 5,219 feet (1,590 metres).

Our first stop was the historic village of Ainsa, not to be confused with the newer town of the same name that lies below it. Perched on a hill and still retaining its defensive wall, the village dates back to at least the 11th century. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Sobrarbe, and subsequently part of the Kingdom of Aragon. The village is comprised of two parts – the walled remnants of the castle and the historic quarter, where the houses border a large plaza with a church tower in one corner.

Throughout our trip, we had experienced very little vehicular traffic and no crowded locations. That changed as the road climbed to Ainsa, as we found ourselves in a long snake-like chain of cars, slowly winding its way to the village. Fortunately, there is a large car-park at the top of the hill that was easily able to accommodate the influx of visitors. And the paid-parking was only €0.30 per hour. Our visit had coincided with some type of harvest festival, so the walled castle area was full of farming machinery and agricultural displays. A large tent housed many stalls that were selling regional produce. There was even a small display of classic motorcycles that drew me like a magnet. We wandered through the displays before heading into the historic quarter where we enjoyed lunch by the plaza.

 

After a delightful visit to Ainsa, we made our way towards Vielha, enjoying some spectacular scenery along the way. We managed to find a couple of places to pull over for photos.

 

Whilst we couldn’t stop frequently to take photos, I did have my TomTom Bandit action camera running to capture video of this spectacular ride. Unfortunately, the compilation video is over eight minutes long and the file can’t be uploaded to the blog!

Our hotel in Vielha was the ETH Pomer, which had a secure underground parking area for the bikes. Rooms were rather small and basic, but were adequate for the night. And the hotel was well located in the town centre.

Apparently, the town fills with skiers throughout the winter but on this evening, it was the local townsfolk who were turning out, all dressed up, to celebrate a local festival.  There was even a fun fair in town, so we went for a ride on the bumper cars. We wandered around the quaint town and then had a lovely dinner at the Gourmet D’Occitania restaurant – delicious regional food, served family-style, with some tasty craft beer and local wine. Excellent!

Day 8.  Vielha to Andorra La Vella

The route for the day had a single objective – a 145km ride to Andorra La Vella, the capital of the principality of Andorra. This visit added Andorra to my list, as the 61st country I have visited.

 

The ride saw a mix of hairpin turns and long sweeping bends, with mountain views for the entire ride. At one point we had to stop while hikers convinced a donkey to get off the road. And my Bandit camera took a direct hit from a suicidal insect.

 

 

 

This two minute video compilation gives a glimpse into our ride for the day (before the insect splattered across the lens of the camera).

 

 

For the next two nights, we would be staying at the Magic Andorra Hotel. It had a secure multi-level parking garage, a spa and views of the nearby mountains. It was also in a good location, close to the city centre.

 

For most of the trip, we had been visiting and staying in old historical villages and towns. But Andorra la Vella deviated from the norm. It is a large city with modern stores and duty-free shops as far as the eye can see. And that came at just the right time, as I needed to buy a new camera.

The Sony RX100 IV camera I have owned since 2015 had developed yet another fault, a couple of days before. It has already had two trips back to Sony for repairs and this latest problem was the third fault since the last repair. Rather than spend more money repairing the Sony, I decided to buy a replacement. And Andorra’s discounted prices provided a wonderful opportunity. I had researched options and decided to buy a Canon G5X mark II, a model that had only been released about a month earlier. I have owned three Canon SLR and DSLR cameras (including my current EOS 80D) and have been very happy with them. So dropping the problematic Sony for a Canon made sense. And the G5X has all of the features that I liked most about the Sony – a compact camera with a pop-up viewfinder, a tilting viewing screen, and a hand-held night mode (amongst other features). Because it is such a new camera, most of the camera stores hadn’t yet received it, but I was able to find it at one store and got it for a very good price.

 

Day 9.  Birthday in Andorra

It was my 60th birthday and we had a non-riding day in Andorra. And a good thing too, as it rained overnight and for a good part of the day. In fact, it had snowed on a couple of the peaks that were visible from our hotel room.

 

My first goal for the day was to visit the Dainese Store, so that I could buy some casual clothing at great prices. I also got to admire a replica Barry Sheene helmet. Barry was my hero as a kid and I wanted a replica of his helmet when I was 16-17 years old. It was cool to see a retro-replica now being offered by AGV.

We all had lunch at the Chester burger bar and then headed back to the hotel for some spa time – sauna, steam room, jacuzzi and a massage.

 

For my birthday dinner, we headed to Cantina de La Adelita, a delightful Mexican restaurant. The decor was gaudy, the food was delicious, the owner was friendly and the drinks were a hit (most notably the margaritas and the chocolate tequila). We loved it! What an enjoyable way to celebrate my birthday!

 

Day 10.  Andorra La Velle to Ribes de Freser

We exited Andorra with a 104km ride, directly to Ribes de Freser in Spain.

 

We encountered several tunnels along the way, with mountain scenery on a cloudy day. Fortunately, the rain of the previous day had cleared. This video clip shows parts of the journey between the Andorran customs checkpoint to our arrival at our apartment.

 

Instead of a hotel, our two nights in Ribes de Freser were spent in a rented apartment in an old stone building – Le Casassa de Ribes. The two-bedroom apartment was located on the upper level of the building, providing uninterrupted mountain views from the front porch. The house’s location, 3-4km up a steep winding road, was a double-edged sword. It allowed us to enjoy beautiful views in peaceful surroundings but it also meant that we had to ride the bikes to get to the town below. And we weren’t keen on riding on that road at night.

 

We ate lunch at a hotel in the town and decided to cook dinner at the apartment. But that was easier said than done! We were unaware that it was a major Catalan holiday and almost everything was closed, including the local supermarket and the larger supermarkets in nearby towns. We rode for miles, trying to find something that was open. We finally found a small convenience store where we were able to buy enough supplies for dinner and breakfast (along with some beer and wine, of course).

 

Day 11.  Day trip to Nuria

This was a non-riding day, based in Ribes de Freser, so we took the opportunity to visit the famous pilgrimage site and ski resort of La Vall de Núria.

Whilst it is a valley, it is at an elevation of 1,960 metres and is surrounded by peaks that get close to 3,000 metres. The only options to reach Vall de Núria from Ribes de Freser are by hiking or via the narrow-gauge rack & pinion railway. The railway travels 12km and rises 1,000 metres. So, we rode the bikes down the hill, parked them at the railway station and rode the train up the mountain.

The valley is dominated by a religious sanctuary and a mountain lake stocked with trout. In the winter, it is a ski resort, but there were plenty of tourists joining us for the train ride to enjoy the beautiful location. And, whilst it is not yet winter, there was already snow on the higher peaks.

 

 

Day 12.  Ribes de Freser to Zaragoza

Sadly, we were saying goodbye to the Pyrenees. We were at the stage of the trip where we began to make our way back across Spain to Portugal, utilising motorways to knock out the 362km to Zaragoza.

 

We checked into the NH Sport Hotel, after some navigation issues. The hotel is a bit outside the centre but had the all-important secure underground parking. We caught a taxi to Plaza de Pilar in the centre, where we enjoyed the scenery, some food and drinks.

 

Day 13.  Zaragoza to Valladolid

We spent six hours on the road, as we covered the 354km from Zaragoza to Valladolid. The ride was rather uneventful, although we were tailed by a traffic police car for about 5 miles. I was on my best behaviour and ensured that our speed was 10% lower than the posted limit (which is a legal requirement when towing a trailer behind a motorcycle in Spain). After trundling behind us for a while, he finally overtook and went on his way.

 

We checked into the NH Ciudad de Vallodolid Hotel, cleaned up and crossed the river into the historical centre. We were immediately amazed at how busy and vibrant it was. As luck would have it, we were visiting the city at the time of the Feria y Fiestas de la Virgen de San Lorenzo (Fair and Festivities of the Virgin of San Lorenzo, patroness of Valladolid) which was running between 6th – 15th September. All of the areas surrounding the Plaza Major were crowded with people of all ages, out to enjoy the festivities.

As we had planned an early start the following morning, we couldn’t stay out late. However, we did get to see three gigantes performing in the plaza. We sampled some local street food, enjoyed some drinks and stumbled onto a very nice restaurant. As we were walking back to our hotel, the crowds were streaming into the centre. It was clearly going to be a very busy night.

 

Day 14.  Valladolid to Porto

The final day of the tour! We covered the remaining 400km (248 miles) from Valladolid to Porto in five hours. We started out earlier than normal, as we were hoping to avoid bands of rain clouds that were showing up on the weather radar. Whilst the roads were wet and the morning temps were around 16C (60F), we managed the whole distance without any rain.

As we got closer to Porto, the roads dried out and the temperature gradually increased, until it was reading 29C (84F). I was sweltering in the heavier jacket and gloves that I’d chosen for the cooler temperatures and was glad to reach home so that I could take them off!

 

Over the two weeks, we covered about 3,750km (2,330 miles). We visited 12 cities/towns/villages and rode in four countries (Portugal, Spain, France and Andorra).

It was a wonderful trip and a great way to celebrate my 60th birthday. Having Paul and Angela along for the journey made it extra special.

Time to start thinking about the next one!

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