Biker’s Bucket List: Northern Spain – Picos & Pyranees
A motorcycle tour of northern Spain is on many a biker’s bucket list and with good reason, as Ollie Rooke has found over two weeks’ exploring the region on his BMW F650GS.
Perfect tarmac, more bends than a plate of spaghetti and almost guaranteed sun. It’s no surprise that Spain remains a bucket list destination for bikers from across the world.
For anyone travelling down from northern Europe, the northernmost regions of Spain feature the spectacular mountains of Picos de Europa and the Pyrenees, where you can explore some of the best motorcycling available anywhere in the world. Let’s tuck in.
WHERE TO GO
In many ways, the best way to travel the Picos and the Pyrenees is without a plan. Simply let yourself discover the roads the regions have to offer, there aren’t many bad ones! But with that in mind, below are a few roads or routes that in my opinion should not be missed, perhaps a base to build your own trip from.
If you’re landing in Bilbao the temptation is to turn West and head straight to the Picos. But, if you’re blessed with time or happier sticking out longer days in the saddle, the Pyrenees lie about half a day to the East. While the Picos grab the headlines, the riding in the Pyrenees is almost as good and much, much quieter, leaving you with miles of empty tarmac to yourself.
Head to Jaca on the main roads and take the N-240 at the earliest opportunity. Continue on this road past Jaca (where it turns into the N330) and turn off onto the N260 (towards France) near Sabiñánigo. At this point you have a choice of two options. Firstly, you can take the road as it turns into the A-136 up over the mountains and into France. I camped in a small town called Laruns and turned back the next day due to bad weather, which led me to the second option…
Following the N260 in the direction of Torla. The road snakes its way through luscious green hills, with stunning views over the valley. You’re almost guaranteed a serene ride, without another car or bike around. Take a left turn into Torla for a photo opportunity, but turn back rather than head into the national park (the road is terrible and doesn’t go much further in). At this point, you can continue your journey further along the border with France, towards Andorra, or turn back in the direction of the Picos.
The N621 needs no introduction. The famous pass takes you into Potes, a beautiful little town and a great place to base yourself for a few nights with plenty of options to rest your head, before snaking it’s way up and over the mountains. Take it slowly though; you don’t want to miss turning off into one of the many viewpoints.
If you’re up for a bit more of a challenge though, why not take a turn off this famous route and tackle one of the more challenging roads in the region. Just before reaching the famous Riano viaduct take a right onto the N-625 from Potes to Riano (should take about an hour, but make that two with stops for photos!). Follow this road until you get to the first left turning, onto the CL635. Continue to follow this quiet pass as it rises through the mountains until you reach a fork in a small village; take the right-hand fork, signposted AS-117, and prepare to descend into the valley quickly, down tight switchbacks.
Once you arrive in San Martin de Rey Aurelio you can loop back around the mountains, and aim for the viewpoint Mirador Del Fito. Doing this will reward you with simply stunning views of the mountains you’ve just conquered and the far off coastline, before returning to your base in the Picos or a night on the coast (Llanes is lovely) for a well-earned cerveza.
Alternatively, another fantastic pass that can begin or end in Potes is the CA-184, leading onto the CL-627. This route will take you further inland, and I stumbled upon it after going cross country after my first week exploring the Pyrenees.
Further afield, if you have the time…
With more time on your hands, once you’ve explored the Picos and Pyrenees, head to Barcelona… I know, a city on a bike tour?! Hear me out on this one though.
I approached Barcelona, as I do all cities with a fully loaded tourer, with a sense of trepidation. But I needn’t have worried. The one-way system, sometimes with up to five lanes of traffic, just seems to work. In fact, it doesn’t just work, it’s actually a blast to ride. Bikes filter to the front of the queues and then take off in drag race fashion as all the lights go green at the same time.
The city is bike mad, and I felt safe parking my bike on the street with a small disc lock (although you should bring panniers and luggage into your accommodation with you).
When heading through Catalonia from the Pyrenees, be sure to make room in your plan to ride the BV-4241. The road cuts across from one small Catalonian town to another, linking Cambrils and Berga. It’s a challenging ride, combining blind twists and hairpins with rapid changes in altitude, but is fantastic and rewards you with incredible views when you reach occasional breaks in the surrounding forest.
If you’re near Barcelona, also consider visiting the Monastery at Mont Serrat. While most tourists take the train or bus up, the roads to the summit are fabulous and the views at the top are a fitting reward for your efforts.
GETTING THERE AND WHEN TO GO
There are two clear options when getting yourself and your bike down to Northern Spain; getting one of the ferries from Portsmouth/Plymouth to Santander/Bilbao or hopping the Channel and biking down through France.
Now neither is going to save you a heap of money either way; after running the maths both come out at a similar cost. Undoubtedly a ride through France can be lovely, but if you’re tight on time are you prepared to endure some iron butt days and squared-off tyres?
Ultimately, most opt for the ferry. You’ll have a chance to rest and relax on the way there and back, and once you land the fun begins, no need for motorway miles! Some words of advice though; stock up on food beforehand (there are microwaves onboard) and check the forecast for your sailing, discovering you get seasick with nothing to take for it at the beginning of a two-night boat trip is not enjoyable…
My tour was during September and early October, which seems like an ideal time to visit. It’s still hot and dry, but the heat is pleasant rather than oppressive and easily manageable in a vented suit. The mornings can feel slightly chillier at this time of year, partly due to the late sunrise, but by 10-11am you’ll be down to a t-shirt in the sun. You’ll also beat the majority of the summer holiday crowds and be able to catch some rays while Britain welcomes in a rainy autumn. To avoid the heat and crowds, late Spring would also be a good time to go.
October is also when the Colombres Rally takes part in a small village not far from Potes, another good reason to go at this time of year. You can read about my visit to this year’s rally here.
WHERE TO STAY?
Northern Spain offers a variety of options for a place to lay your head, depending on your budget. Naturally, the area is awash with hotels and guesthouses; these offer a bed, a meal and breakfast for around 20-30 euros a night. For more budget-conscious travellers campsites are easy to find, although for a similar price you’re likely to find an ‘albergue’ or hostel almost anywhere on the Camino de Santiago route. These offer cheap beds in dorms with the pilgrims walking the trail, so tend to be much quieter than hostels you may find closer to towns or cities. Wild camping is illegal in Spain and I’ve heard rumours of €300 fines for those caught, so I’d advise against it.
As previously mentioned, Potes really is an ideal place to stay and is very popular with motorcycle tourers. A firm favourite for camping in the area would be Camping La Viorna, which lies just outside the town. The campsite is lovely, boasts a seriously cheap onsite restaurant/bar and was popular with British bikers when I visited.
HOW MUCH WILL I SPEND?
Accommodation and food per day can range from about 20-50 euros, depending on what you’re willing to spend. You can keep costs down by grabbing some chorizo/ham, cheese and bread from local stores in the morning and making a quick lunch on the go; you’ll find plenty of picnic stops to soak up the sun while doing so too.
In terms of daily mileage for those happy to ride from morning to afternoon I’d aim for around 200-300 miles a day on the mountain roads, so around a tank to a tank and a half for most bikes. Petrol is reasonably priced too, at the time of writing, 1 litre is around €1.30 (£1.12, $1.44). You can check the latest fuel price here.
Driving standards, roads and speeding
Speed limits in Spain:
Toll Motorway 120kmh/ 75mph
Dual Carriageway 110kmh/ 68mph
Other Roads 90kmh/ 56mph
Built-up Areas 50kmh/ 31mph
It’s no surprise that in an area well-known with bikers and drivers there are plenty of speed cameras in Northern Spain. These tend to be positioned on popular rat runs, rather than smaller roads, and are always very well signposted. But beware, the cameras themselves are deceptive, not because they’re deliberately hidden. Instead, they’re housed in simple white boxes by the sides of the road that are quite easy to miss. As a rule of thumb, if you see a ‘radar’ sign, slow down. A camera won’t be far along after.
Spanish drivers are pretty conscious of motorcycles, although on the mountain roads drivers tend to cross the white line regularly when approaching corners.
As always with roads you don’t know, it’s best to keep your speed down on blind bends. You’re also almost guaranteed to encounter cows, goats or the stuff that comes out of their ‘exhausts’ on the roads. Unfortunately, cows don’t appreciate a decent apex in the same way we do, so once again keep your eyes out and take it easy.
Tip: If you get any rain while on your trip take the roads very carefully. The white painted arrows are just downright treacherous, and even normal tarmac seems to take on an icy characteristic in the lightest of rain. In the dry though, the tarmac quality is second to none, a welcome change from back home.
So there we have it! A motorcycle tour of northern Spain is an absolute must-do, and an easy one to tick off your bucket list. See you on the ferry!
Follow Ollie on tour:
Ollie is touring Spain and Portugal throughout October and November 2019. For daily updates and photos follow his travels: @a2adventurer