In hindsight, my first campsite at Arenal de Moris on the north coast just east of Gijon wasn’t all that great. The owners had placed me at what turned out to be a busy intersection between the rest of the tents (few), the hired chalets (about a dozen) and the caravans (many). The Spanish gather to eat very late in the day, and at 20:00 the evening meal was announced by a car horn, which was being honked repetitively and enthusiastically by a small child. I wasn’t expecting this boisterous behaviour and wanted to comment, but the locals seemed to be delighted by the racket and I let it slide. My home cooking (to the delight of a gaggle of children) was OK but in secret I was a little disappointed by the tortellini con carne and tuna. Perhaps the makers of fast foods and ready meals in Spain have a secret agenda to encourage those who buy that sort of thing to get married and let somebody with more diverse culinary skills have free reign of the kitchen. Conspiracy theorists would blame the church.
I left as early as possible, keen to get away from the campsite and its proximity to the A8 motorway flyover which must have caused the owners much despair when it was constructed. I also wanted to make some justified noise of my own and hope the owners of yesterday’s honking child appreciated my washing of various pots and pans. From unzipping the sleeping bag to getting on the bike took a mere 45 minutes, most of which was spent fussing with the tarp shelter in front of the tent. What can I say, it looked like rain and I was keen to cook.
The coast to Gijon is very pretty, but after Gijon it turns industrial, and endless chimneys from recycling plants and factories belch smoke (and, in one case, fire) into the morning sky. I took the motorway with the intention of getting a few miles out of the way before dropping onto the smaller roads once I was awake. Traffic was very light, and I wasn’t expecting the grey-haired driver of one car in particular to start overtaking me when the lane he had chosen to do so plainly ended about 100 yards ahead as the motorway went from three lanes to two. I can only guess that his vision must have been defective, for once he’d noticed the impending lack of road he also failed to see the motorcyclist next to him. Saw it coming though, and made sure he was watching as I used sign language to demonstrate what I would like to do to his throat if I should catch him. He must have thought I was waving a greeting because he waved cheerfully back.
Suitably awake now, I left the motorway and continued west on what must have been the original main road before the A8 was built. It hugged the coastline closely, and for many stretches third gear was only a rumour as the bike lapped up one tight curve after another. Here and there the road passed small villages and the occasional town. Once thing many of these had in common were abandoned businesses such as restaurants and filling stations – another sign of the new motorway no doubt. Speaking of motorway, it has to be said that the Spanish are into their concrete flyovers in a big way. Construction never stops, new concrete pillars several hundred feet high dwarfing the already out-of-place looking viaducts and yet more flyovers. A civil engineer’s paradise. A conservationists nightmare.
I stopped at a bridge on one of the local roads to take a photo of just such a viaduct, and came upon the notion to look for fish in the river 60 feet below. I was prepared for minnows at best, and it wasn’t until I’d refocused my eyes that I was dozens of large, silver-sided fish feeding lazily from the shallow water. The smallest was a foot long with the larger ones being nearly twice that size, and there were so many that it would have been easy to roll up one’s trousers, wade out, and grab one. Not that I’d know what to do with all that fish anyway, but I did know that it would not enhance the interior of my luggage in this 30 degree heat.
I was headed for Navia, perhaps an hour east of Gijon and also on the northern coast, for no reason other than the way in which the AS12 grabbed me when I saw it on the map. Imagine taking the thin, knobbly purple thing which lives inside the back end of a mouse, and dropping it north to south onto a piece of paper. That’s the AS12; biker’s paradise. Smooth, perfect tarmac clings to the side of a valley, with the Arbon estuary at the bottom. One sublime, grin-inducing bend follows another, the perfect medicine for squared-off tyres and motorway-sick rider alike. On a whim I took a signpost for Castro de Pendia, thinking that a castle would make a fine place to eat the sandwich I had picked up in Navia as breakfast.
The single lane tarmac road the led down into the valley soon turned to dirt, until a Castro sign pointed to a footpath up the side of the hill. It didn’t say anything about bikes being prohibited and looked fairly easy going, even with all my luggage, so I decided to go for it and plead ignorance if challenged. After half a mile or so the path changed direction and began to look decidedly difficult, so I parked next to an old Renault 5 which had miraculously also made it up here. The Castro itself was a bit of a let-down; the only parts which could reasonably be called “building” were a foot high at best, and were being painstakingly rebuilt by two local enthusiasts. (Good job I left the bike where I did!) They should have it finished in another 200 years, so if you’re reading this in the future find yourself in the area do stop by.
The road carried on throwing bends and hairpins my way as though they were going out of fashion. One particularly sharp turn promised a great view from Mirador el San Esteban to anyone who decided to pull up on the gravel at the side of the tarmac, so I stopped and took a short walk onto the rocky precipice, dodging condom wrappers, tissues, and the occasional human turd along the way. Once there the view was splendid indeed, but I didn’t take many photos as the heat really was beginning to whip the flies into a frenzy, and I had a fairly good idea where they’d just dined.
Onwards ever south, the AS12 eventually changed to the AS14, which continued in similar fashion south-east, leading past a massive lake, complete with damn and power station at one end. The various identical concrete buildings (switch rooms? Stores? Mad scientist’s torture chambers?) were built on the side of the hill as if the fact that ground here was nearly vertical did nothing to deter the architect. All looked abandoned years ago, their empty windows staring out over the lake like the eyes of some unblinking monster. A quick drink of water, back into the hot jacket. Clickety-click, onwards. More snaking roads, this time along the bottom of the valley.
Having observed the Spanish Driver in his natural element, I’ve reached the conclusion that 90% of them are better drivers than us Brits. That’s to say they have better awareness of what’s in front of or behing them, leave more space for bikes to overtake or just bimble, and are actually well equipped themselves to deal with twisty roads and slower vehicles. That’s 90% – the other 10% are so far off the lunacy scale as to make you wonder what kind of medication is being pumped into the water / air supply of their padded cells.
I’d been following a small hatchback, generally enjoying the scenery and waiting for a place to overtake once opportunity presented itself. Whenever we approached a bend, I’d fall back a little, change down a gear, and prepare take a line which would let me see the road after the bend at the earliest opportunity. I’d done just that; fallen in line about 80 or 90 feet behind the hatchback, pulled in tight against the right-hand side of the road to get the best view through the approaching left-hander, when it became clear that the recovery truck coming quickly at us through said bend would not make it round with as much style as he’d hoped, if he made it at all. Tyres were already squealing as the cab of the lorry came into view, and I saw that it was quite a big one – smaller than a 7.5t and bigger than a transit, and that the rear end was beginning to take a much wider line than the front. Time slowed, and as the hatchback in front of me passed the lorry he was still travelling at over 40mph, albeit at a 45 degree angle to the road, most of which he was now taking up. I could see that by the time I’d reach him he’d be at 90 degrees and there wouldn’t be much room for a bike going the other way. What to do? Even if I stopped here he might still smash me to bits like a skittle. Although there was no major drop to my right it was far from what you’d call an easy run-off, and a swerve would probably involve foliage in the immediate and recovery in the subsequent future. The back end of the truck now bearing down on me like a pendulum was very open and no more than 4 foot high, so I could theoretically put my feet on my seat and prepare to launch upwards at the moment of impact, the truck only swiping my bike into oblivion as I completed what would be an ace stunt. In the end I did nothing, keeping my options open as I watched the sideways travelling lorry whizz past about 8 feet to my left in a cloud of tyre smoke and noise. Maybe I wouldn’t have time to do anything anyway, and all these contingency measures were just was goes through anybody’s mind when they’re about to have a head-on collision, who knows. By the time I’d reached the bend I was preparing for seconds earlier, the lorry had spiralled into oblivion in my left-hand mirror, and the hatchback and I continued as if nothing had ever happened. Maybe a little slower.
It was getting late, or at least late if you don’t yet know where you’re sleeping that night, and as I hadn’t seen any signs for camping by the time I’d reached Cangas del Narcea I thought I’d have a look at the tourist information office, which was signposted. And closed. Bugger. By a stroke of genius I remembered the camping waypoint database I’d downloaded onto my Garmin Zumo sat-nav and promptly forgotten about some months previous. Some kind (and probably very, very bored) soul had compiled a list of 19,000 European campsites and made them available in a format which the Garmin can digest, then uploaded them to UKGSer.com. The nearest one was at Somiedo, another hour south-east of Cangas.
Progress was good; more mountain roads, more tell-tale cow slop in both lanes. (I don’t know why, but although I accept that the locals will use the roads for driving their cattle to pasture, I always expect them to be going the same direction as me if their effluent is in my lane, and coming towards me if it’s in t’other.) Sure enough I came up behind a local farmer on his moped, who heard me approaching and waved his free arm for me to slow down. I did, and duly met his heard of 4 cows and 2 heifers just around the next bend. They were taking up the entire road between them, so I stopped and waited for the farmer to catch me up. He did, and all I could think of saying in reply to whatever he wanted me to know was hable ingles? He shook his head but made for me to drive on, so I cautiously rode towards the back of the herd. Who were ignoring me. Who had big, big horns. The farmer just pointed into the middle of the cows and motioned for me to carry on, so I did, and the herd parted like the red sea. Well, the red stream at any rate, there being only 6 of them.
Minutes up the road I came up behind another car travelling the same way, and given my near miss earlier and my close proximity to the day’s goal I thought I’d just sit behind him until we either arrived or he turned off. Out of nowhere comes the little red Citron, a boy racer’s dream that I remember seeing in the last town on the outskirts of Cangas. He overtakes me, makes to overtake the car in front of me, then realises there’s a bend ahead and that despite alloy wheels and comedy exhaust he’s only got a hairdryer for an engine. He pulls in sharply between me and the car in front, raising a hand in apology as his three adolescent passengers turn to gawp at me. (I wonder if he missed my number plate and thought I was police – not the first time that’s happened)
Just then the Garmin points me down a rough looking road into the tundra, as it has recently developed a habit of doing. Often the side road rejoins the one I’m on anyway a few hundred yards further on, making for a pointless detour. I didn’t have time to fiddle with the sat-nav and determine if it’s another pointless detour or a necessary turn, so I hang a left and give it a handful, glad to be away from the traffic and on the kind of road for which my bike was built. After two miles or so, the road ends in a T-junction with another, much larger road, and I turn left again. Seconds later, guess who’s behind me? Chuckling to myself, I let the Citroen overtake me again, before giving chase on an easy stretch with good visibility. He really must have thought I was Police as he pulls over into the next side road and looks at me again, but this time bewildered. I give him the thumbs-up and carry on, really laughing to myself now.
The campsite database turned out to be spot-on, and I arrived in Somiedo around 19:00 to find I was the only camper onsite. A notice in the window of the locked reception building pointed to the adjacent hotel, so presumably I was to check in there. Nobody spoke any English but we got by, them finding out what I wanted and me finding out that I could have any pitch I liked and that the super meercat closes in 3 minutes. Hastily checked in, I jump back onto the bike, completely missing the sign that says “super meercat – 50m” Up to one end of town, no sign of a shop. Down to the other end, still nothing. U-turn behind bus coming up the hill. Bus now crawling. Is he stopping? Hurry up, dammit, all I’ve had today is a sandwich and the shop’s about to close!
I eventually find the store, adjacent to the campsite and still open, the 17 year old in charge smoking a cigarette on the doorstep and talking on the phone. Smiles exchanged, I go inside and buy bread, pate (jar, re-sealable lid), chicken noodle soup, soap, and a liter bottle of San Miguel. Result! Back to the campsite and open choice for pitches. The site is built on a terrace principle at the edge of town, with 4 rows deep enough for 1 tent each climbing slowly up the hill. I choose the top row, not only for the view but because it looks too steep for a car to get up that far, thus hopefully guaranteeing me some privacy if anybody else turns up later. Nobody does, and as the sun goes down over the mountains at the far side of the valley I watch the lights in town turn on from my sleeping bag with a huge bottle of beer. Made it safe through another day.