Iberian Moto Tours Tour of Pyrenees Mountains in Spain

(The article Fiesta and Siesta was printed in the February 2003 issue of Rider.)

Spain is famous for its beaches, warm weather and the siesta. It’s less well known for its great motorcycling country and abiding love for two-wheeled transport. Iberian Moto Tours (IMT) has been offering tours in Spain, Portugal and Morocco for five years now. Each season’s riding starts in the south, with tour locations moving north as the Spanish sun heats up. “The Spanish love to ride,” says tour leader Scott Moreno, “and they love motorcycles.” Our party of nine riders discovered this over the next week on roads plunging and twisting through the Pyrenees, the mountainous area that separates France and Spain. This natural barrier has resisted human movement for millennia, but proves the perfect terrain for motorcycles. The mountains are full of deserted yet well-maintained twisty roads.

Our week-long “Perfect Pyrenees” tour began in late June, after snow had vanished from the 6,000-foot-high mountain passes. The mountains were green with new growth but the annual tourist migration had yet to begin. The tour was designed for experienced riders, and our group of a dozen had many miles under their collective belts. Yet the next week would challenge everyone.

A castle in Catalonia, Spain.
A castle in Catalonia, Spain.

Before the ride we had a day to explore Barcelona, the second largest city in Spain, proud capital of the Catalonia (or Catalunya) region. Barcelona’s old town is famous for two cathedrals, the medieval Gothic edifice and the amazing modern Gaudi version, the Sagrada Familia. The city center—where we stayed in a modern hotel—is served by an excellent and inexpensive subway system, so seeing the sights is easy, and the cost is only a couple of Euros per trip.

Tour guide Marti (Mar-tee) is a native of Barcelona, and contributor to Spanish motorcycle magazine Motociclismo. Chano, our other guide, previously worked as a motorcycle escort to the King of Spain, Juan Carlos. His majesty maintains a fleet of more than 20 machines and is an enthusiastic motorcyclist. Chano is also a qualified veterinarian, mechanic and photographer.

Sunday at 10 a.m., we don helmets and protective gear, and join the traffic-light grand prix. IMT operates a well-maintained fleet of about 30 latemodel BMWs, and riders have their choice of almost the complete model range, from the basic F650 single through the K1200LT luxury tourer.

Riders photograph a ghost town.
Riders photograph a ghost town.

Soon we’re out of town, admiring the scenery and the castles. The Spanish language dates back to the time of the Romans, but the Iberian peninsula (including Spain’s neighbor Portugal) was conquered by invading Moorish armies in the eighth century. Over the next 600 years, Christian armies gradually drove the Moors out of Spain. This history lesson means every hilltop has its castle—some converted to hotels, as we happily discover later.

Barcelona, and many of the destinations on this tour, are in Catalonia, a region of Spain that would be happy to be a separate country. As part of the ongoing campaign for Catalonian independence (simmering for hundreds of years), the Catalonian regional government has renamed and numbered many roads using C-numbers, instead of the N-numbers used in the rest of Spain. This makes route planning challenging because some towns are known by their Spanish spelling, others in the Catalan language. Thankfully the signage is good, making it a matter of “joining the dots” between towns listed in the comprehensive roadbook provided by IMT.

Catalan really constitutes another language, not just a dialect, sort of a mixture of French and Spanish with the ending of many words swallowed, as in French. Restaurant menus in Catalan are completely unintelligible by anyone relying on a Spanish phrase book. However, every waiter we met spoke at least a few words of English—food is never a problem on this tour.

A farmhouse near San Francisco de la Peña.
A farmhouse near San Francisco de la Peña.

We rode along the Costa Brava, the Wild Coast. Mile after mile of winding cliffs drop to foaming breakers. Traffic has tamed the coast roads, and we’re grateful at the end of the day’s ride to check into the first parador of the trip. Set up by the Spanish Government in the late ’20s, the paradors are a chain of luxury hotels that are frequently converted castles. Our hotel tonight is new, built on a ridge above the coast. To the east, cliffs drop into the Mediterranean, on the west a sheltered bathing beach acts as a magnet for our overheated group of riders. Dinner—the restaurant opened at 9 p.m.—is in a glass-walled dining room overlooking the sea, where we are introduced to  Spanish dishes like paella and tasty peppers in chocolate sauce.

It’s a surprise to several of our tour members to find that none of the dishes tonight—or any other night on the tour—are spicy hot. Spanish cooking relies on fresh ingredients rather than spices for its tastes. Paella, the yellow rice and shrimp risotto, is common everywhere, but you’ll find many other subtly flavored fish and meat dishes on the menu. Local wine—blanco is white, tinto is red—is offered at every meal except breakfast.

Each night a rider’s meeting is held to go over the next day’s route. Though our group mostly remained in single file today, some have received helpful pointers from Marti nonetheless. “You must get into a rhythm!” “Keep an imaginary line in the center of the road—do not cross it.” All accompanied by big arm gestures and much gesticulating, as every conversation in Spanish appears to be.

Breakfast is the most laidback meal of the day, and the meal generally isn’t even available until 8-10 a.m., yet our group finds it easy to adjust. The buffet usually consists of a selection of locally grown watermelon and oranges, various croissants and baked pastries, and tortilla de España, a thick potato omelet, served in slices. After all that, sitting on a hotel balcony, listening to waves and cries of seabirds, it’s hard to pack pointbags and leave. But a full day’s riding awaits. This second day of the tour lives up to the title, “Perfect Pyrenees.”

Reichenbach Falls? No, this bridge marks the border between France and Spain. The French side is prettier.
Reichenbach Falls? No, this bridge marks the border between France and Spain. The French side is prettier.

Leaving the coast, we take busy national routes for an hour or so before turning off the main road at Saint Joan des Abadesses and the start of the climb into the Pyrenees. As advertised, the roads are scenic and twisty, and there’s hardly a tour bus in sight. It’s like the Alps, with California weather–motorcycle heaven.

Andorra is a tiny tax haven in the Pyrenees, an independent country with no tourist attractions except the lure of tax-free goods. There are no castles, no scenery except the bare flanks of the mountains, and only two entrances and exits—one to France, one to Spain. Pilgrims fill up with cheap fuel, booze and tires. You can buy whole motorcycle outfits in moto supermarkets complete with oceans of helmets and acres of leather jackets. A couple of riders on our tour buy new leather gear, and carefully scuff it on the sidewalk before braving customs back into Spain.

From Andorra we head higher into the Pyrenees and into the clouds. Sheep, goats and cattle are road hazards here, and the rocky mountain roads remind some riders of the Scottish highlands. Soon, the narrow, winding road is sidelined with multicolored poles, a reminder we’re high in ski country, and that the snow was thick here just a couple of months ago.

Wild orchids in (French) Pyrenees National Park.
Wild orchids in (French) Pyrenees National Park.

We ride into Arties, our destination tonight, only to encounter a roadblock. The town band has stopped traffic with their bodies and instruments. It’s fiesta time, and they’re not letting anyone through without a taste of local wine from a peron, the glass equivalent of a Bota bag. Ever tried drinking wine wearing a full-face helmet? Not recommended unless your hotel is less than a hundred yards away, as ours was. Dinner tonight has a simple menu: one-pound steaks, sidre (local cider), and a table next to the band. Dancing at the town hall lasts until dawn…or so I’m told.

“France claims only 20 percent of the Pyrenees,” says Scott Moreno, “but the French say it’s the prettiest part.” Today, we agree. The ascent into the country is on the same roads used by the Tour de France bicycle race, and names are spray-painted on the road by fans. “Allez, Lance” reads one.

Our day is spent winding through wooded mountains and impossibly quaint French towns. In the Pyrenees National Park, the wildlife includes marmots, ibex, mountain goats, even bears. We see sheep and cows and evidence of their passing on every road— green ice, the guides call it. Perhaps it’s this hazard that causes one rider to make an unscheduled departure from the pavement on his R1150GS. He’s fine, but the motorcycle is not and is picked up and left in Lourdes overnight.

Wednesday is a rest day; we will spend two nights at a rustic hotel near the ancient city of Jaca. Spanish hotels do not wake up early. At 7 a.m., the exit doors are still firmly locked, and breakfast is not for another hour. The staff is fast asleep despite the alarm sounding at the front desk. I climb out of the window to load up the bike and get ready for a day exploring the region of Aragon. Nearby, a monastery hidden under a huge rock hosted the Holy Grail for hundreds of years, legends say, without ever being detected by the Moors. You can still visit the place, San Francisco de la Peña, 20 miles away on fabulous country roads.

Next to Jaca’s ancient cathedral, fiesta is in full swing. Dancers parade inside huge puppets, the gigante, and chase kids. Spaniards need little excuse to celebrate, and the old town will rock with the fireworks and dancing of fiesta tonight. Come morning, we set off at the crack of 9. The Spanish attitude toward time is flexible—you’ll get where you’re going, so why hurry? Our destination tonight is a thousand-year-old castle, and we can’t wait. Parts of the parador at Cardona were built by the Romans, we’re assured, and we take dinner in the dungeon. Rooming in a castle is the highlight of the trip.

The Spanish love their food, and lots of it.
The Spanish love their food, and lots of it.

The next day we waddle down for the last day’s ride, meandering back to Barcelona and the twisting roads that Marti promised to show us. Soon we can see the mountains near Montserrat. This mountain range goes a long way toward explaining Barcelona’s obsession with motorbikes. It’s a great sportbike road, with fast, sweeping turns alternating with technical corners and knockout scenery, and a suitably climactic ending to a near-Perfect Pyrenees Tour.

Nuts and Bolts
The cost of the IMT Perfect Pyrenees Tour includes accommodation in hotels and paradors during the week, all breakfasts and most dinners (except on rest days), late-model BMWm otorcycles from IMT’s fleet, a chase van that hauls your luggage, and airport transportation. Comprehensive insurance coverage with a $1,000 deductible is also included; for an extra $15 a day, the deductible is waived. Tour cost varies from $2,315 per person (two-up on an F650) to $4,400 (riding solo on a K1200LT with a single room).

You have to buy your own gasoline, lunches and incidentals—reckon on $50 a day. If you can’t deal with second-hand cigarette smoke, you should probably stay out of Spain. Food is best off the beaten track and restaurants can be a bargain, but watch out—nearly half the riders on the tour suffered a day’s worth of Spanish Stomach. Avoid it by eating only freshly cooked food and drinking bottled water. Beer and wine are not really regarded as alcohol in Spain, one reason to avoid the fixed-price restaurant lunches, which typically include as much wine as you can drink.

Madrid-based Iberian Moto Tours is just over five years old and is actually run by an American, Scott Moreno, using Spanish guides. The efficiency of the tour is good but reflects the more laid-back attitude of the country, so you’ll have the most fun if you kick back, enjoy the ride and take an occasional siesta. IMT’s U.S. agent is Armonk Travel, 146 Bedford Road, Armonk, New York 10504; (800) 255-7451 or (914) 273-8880; E-mail: info@iberianmt.com; Web site: www.imt-bike.com.


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