Touring the northern coast of Spain
Numbers on paper can be deceptive. A Royal Enfield Bullet 500 makes just 22hp. And even in its latest 500cc lean-burn engine, electric-start, five-speed, disc-brake form, it’s still a bike that was designed over half a century ago. Yet, the more I ride it, the more I think it’s the ideal bike for a motorcycle touring Spain.
Green Spain is the strip of land in northern Spain between the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian and Basque mountains, and it’s called “green” because it has a wet and moderate coastal climate. So when Phil Butler was setting up his bike hire business here, everyone told him he should buy Honda Transalps, but instead he chose the Royal Enfield Bullet 500.
Forget everything you’ve heard about Spanish machismo. The Spaniards love their bikes, but up here they tend to go for little 250cc cruisers because they fit the roads. “A big bike’s a bit of a liability on some of these roads,” Phil says. “They’re harder work because of the weight, and not much quicker. But the Bullets have been great — they’re light and easy to handle.”
Phil, an expatriate Englishman who has kept his Birmingham accent, calls his business Bike Astur, after northern Spain’s Asturian coast. His is the only resident motorcycle touring company in northern Spain, just an hour or so from the Santander ferry. Riders can ride in, bringing their own bike on the ferry, or fly in — either way, they can ride an Enfield when they get here.
Many travellers have heard of the Picos de Europa mountain range farther south in the country’s interior, but here on the coast you get a wonderful combination of mountains and sea, with a narrow strip of agricultural land in between. Not only does that mean there’s a superb variety of roads to ride and scenery to gawk at, but the area has its own micro climate. If it’s foggy or raining in the mountains, then it’s invariably OK down on the coast, and vice versa.
I’d been here before, and was looking forward to the almost empty roads, so it was a bit of a shock to find a line of traffic. Maybe one of those Spanish mini-tractors was holding everything up, or there was a herd of cattle, or roadwork. But as we filtered around bend after bend, the line went on and on and on. Some drivers were sitting on the roadside fence, as if they knew they were in for a long wait.
Finally, we come to the cause, a cattle fair at the village of Cosio, with the stragglers being herded along the road. Cattle are a big part of life around here, where they’ve not heard of intensive farming. It was obviously a major event, with crowds of people from surrounding villages milling around. The next village we reached was deserted — even the bar was closed.
We climb, away from the pastures and into an increasingly rocky mountain landscape, alongside the Rio Nansa river valley. The valley narrows into a gorge, and just before the top the road hairpins back on itself, allowing us to stop and see the dam — hydroelectric power plants are common around here. Below, the road snakes back down the spectacular gorge, while above vultures soar on the thermals. They’re big ‘uns, with 6-10ft wingspans, known locally as “quebrowtahuesos,” which roughly translates from Spanish as “bone breakers.” Why? Well once they’ve finished eating a lamb, they’ll carry the bones up to a great height, and then drop them to shatter on the rocks below so they can get to the marrow. Nice, eh?
Just down the road, we stop at a bar to sip café con leche and enjoy the quiet. The loudest thing we can hear are cow bells in the far distance. It’s also hot. “I don’t remember it like this in September before,” says Miguel, a mate of Phil’s who has come along for the ride. With his big black beard, Miguel looks as if he’s just walked off the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. He normally rides a Triumph Bonnie America, and he’s right, it is hot. Spain is feeling the effects of global warming — there was an unseasonable four weeks of rain in June, and recently two million fish died because the sea was unusually warm. None of which has stopped the Spanish love of speculative building. Over the road from the café, there’s an unfinished house with floors in place but no walls. It looks incongruous, like a multi-level car park plonked on the side of a mountain. Apparently people often start building before they have planning permission, then have to stop when it’s refused.
We ride south, farther up into the mountains, shifting the Enfields between third, fourth and fifth as the road follows the contours of the rocky landscape. We haven’t broached 50mph yet, but it’s fun, thumping along in the midday heat on deserted roads. At San Salvador de Cantamuda we stop to look at the 12th century church. It’s like a scene out of a spaghetti western — the church has a Mexican feel to it, and there’s no sound apart from chirping crickets. The church is actually Arabic in origin, built on what used to be the border of Arabic and Christian Spain. There used to be erotic figures carved under the roof, until the Christians came along and broke them off a few centuries ago.
Further down in the village we find a very new restaurant. Light bulbs hang from the high ceiling and traditional wooden clogs decorate the walls. Despite the obvious tourist touches, it’s busy with locals on this weekday lunchtime — always a good sign. We have lentil soup and glorious slow-cooked lamb, real melt-in-the-mouth stuff, followed by chocolate mousse. The lamb tastes terrific, and for good reason. Most of the meat in this region is local and organic, not stuffed full of hormones. Cooking is simple and hearty rather than nouveau cuisine — some would call it peasant cooking, but that’s meant as a compliment. And to wash it all down we’re drinking tinto de berano — red wine and soda. The alcohol content, especially with a meal, is low, and it’s pretty refreshing on a hot day.
In Britain, we pay through the nose for wine, but over here a bottle of something quite decent can be bought in the supermarket for less than the equivalent of a dollar and a half, and eight dollars will get something very good indeed. Why, when we can import Chinese goods across the world at dirt cheap prices, can’t we get affordable wine across Europe? It’s a mystery to me.
After lunch, we end up on a bigger road that allows the Enfields to thump up to a 60-65mph cruise — we even overtake the odd truck! The bikes are happy enough at this speed — I’m told the latest Bullets will scrape up to 80mph or so, but there doesn’t seem much point. In any case, we soon turn off the main road onto a smaller, twistier one that winds its way around long, narrow reservoirs. The water level is low in all of them; there’s been little rain since June, and much of northern Spain’s rainfall has to supply the big cities farther south.
But it’s time for us to turn north, back to the coast, and there’s a perfect road to do it on. There are no highways here, although they’re building one along the coast, and the most direct way back is along the ultra-twisty N625 that skirts just to the west of the Picos National Park. It becomes another gorge road, and we ride between sheer walls of rock, sometimes with just some steel netting to stop boulders falling onto the road — or us. Farther down there’s just a vertical rock face, the road and the river — if you make a mistake, there’s nowhere to go.
Whenever we stop, there’s interest in the bikes. “Royal Enfield is very well known here,” Phil says. “In the 1930s the Enfield V-twin was seen as the bike to have. One old guy we met came out to look at the Bullets, and it turned out he’d owned one of the V-twins. It’s not just the old folks though — youngsters like them too. Next year, I’m going to buy some different ones, a café racer, full dress tourer and trail bike, and maybe one of the military spec ones.”
Over the Mountain
For the next day, we’ve got something a bit more challenging lined up — an unpaved road up the side of a mountain. So we’ll be hiring trail bikes, right? “Nah,” Phil says, “we’ll take the Enfields.” We head up a single-track road, gaining height up the side of the steep-sided valley. The road quickly deteriorates to broken blacktop, then hard packed gravel, with grooved concrete on the steepest hairpins. There are lots of tracks in this part of Spain, legal to ride on, and I’m told this is one of the better ones.
Up, up, around the shoulder of a mountain to a high pass, then we’re looking down over the gorge of the Rio Canes far below, and the legendary AS114 that snakes through it. Why legendary? Well, Phil says, just about every group he’s led through it has asked if they can turn around and do it all over again.
Going down the other side the road deteriorates again, with a lot more loose stuff and more corkscrew hairpins with awkward cambers. The Enfields can handle it though, using engine braking in first gear, but I wouldn’t like to try this on a bigger, more top-heavy bike, and certainly not two-up. “I only take the more confident riders up and down here,” Phil says, “and only on the Enfields, not big bikes. I had one guy arrive on a Suzuki V-Strom 1000 which he’d borrowed — he obviously wasn’t enjoying it. So I lent him a Bullet for an afternoon and he was dead chuffed. He really liked it.”
Even when we’re halfway down, the view is still breathtaking. We can see the back of the mountains that surround the town of Llanes, Bike Astur’s base on the coast. We’re still on the edge of the Picos here, and in the distance you can see a group of their distinctive, ragged-looking peaks with what look like sheer cliff faces. Exploring caves, as well as climbing, is popular around here, as the soft limestone has eroded into a maze of caves and tunnels.
Finally, we get down to river level and follow the legendary 114, canyon carving at 50-55mph. That may not sound like much when some of us ride newer motorcycles that will do 150mph, but in the right conditions these speeds can be great fun. As we’re heeling through these sublime bends, I remember the words of a fellow bike journalist who dismissed the Enfield Bullet as a pointless bike. But he didn’t understand that there’s more to life than race bike speeds or getting your knee down, or that, on the right bike, 50mph can be fun. Maybe these Enfields are like Harleys, and if folks don’t understand, there’s not much point in trying to explain.
On my last day we stay down on the coast, and Phil takes me up to a viewpoint. From here, looking east along this northernmost edge of Spain, you can see the attraction of the place. There’s spray over the shoreline, haze over the mountains and a patchwork of little green fields in between. Distant waves breaking on the shore are the soundtrack. There’s no doubt about it, Asturias is a beautiful part of Europe, and an Enfield is the perfect bike to tour it on. Not only that, but the Bullet I’ve been riding has managed 87mpg — arrive by ferry rather than plane, and this really is motorcycle eco-tourism, Green Spain in more ways than one.
How to be a European motorcycle tour guide
Phil Butler never meant to be a European motorcycle tour guide. He was an electrician and gas fitter for 25 years, though he’s always been into bikes. And don’t be fooled by the 50mph Enfields, he’s also got a Ducati Supersport in the garage. He’s been riding since he was 16, on a whole succession of British, European and Japanese bikes.
A few years ago his job dried up, and at about the same time his partner, Jackie, bought a language school in the coastal town of Llanes. It was one of those crossroads in life. “I knew there was potential for a tour business down here, as no one else was doing it. I did some fact finding, worked out the good routes and places to see, and it all fell into place.” Bike Astur is now heading for its fourth season, and looks like it should be around for many more.
How to go
Bike Astur runs tours between April and October, but leaves out August as the Spanish themselves are on holiday then, and the roads and hotels are all pretty busy. A typical seven day tour has both short (80-110 mile) and long (140-200 mile) days, and accommodation is at a modern three-star hotel in Llanes. Fly-ride prices with shared accommodation start around $1,200 for a six-day tour including hire of the Enfield, but not the flight. Bring your own bike and prices (for seven days) start at around $1,150, which includes the Santander ferry ticket from the UK, though you can always hire an Enfield once you’re there. More info: www.bike-astur.com