Martine and I realised that after 30 years in the UK it was time to consider our next move. So after having researched a number of destinations, we decided that Lisbon would be it, possibly because subconsciously it reminded us of the Beirut of our teenage years: easy going, the beautiful light, good natured and hospitable people, the sea everywhere… we have been here since 2018 and never regretted our decision… this pandemic was almost enjoyable.
In late May of this second year of the reign of the evil Covid king, Martine was away so I decided to do a 5 day tour from Portugal to Extremadura, and Castilla e Leon in Spain. I started on Saturday by attending a Level 1 BMW Motorrad Off Road Course in the mountains of Mação two hours from Lisbon. The drive from Lisbon was mostly motorway but the last 10 kms on the N244 down to the Alamal River Club was simply awesome, hilly and curvy. The course was organised by Carlos Martin and Ricardo Azevedo from MotorXplorers and I could not have hoped for better instructors. I am 65 and up to then I was petrified of leaving the stability of asphalt, but Carlos and Ricardo gently raised my comfort level which came handy later on during this trip.
From there you ride the N3, M351, M536, IC8, N241 and N233 to Castello Branco. The numbers matter less than the excellent riding full of twists, turns on hairpins. Clearly the engineers felt that straight lines are a waste of good asphalt in such an outstanding scenery. Although you don't exceed 550 metres in altitude, this is essentially a mountainous road with one corner after the other, some tight, some sweeping, surrounded by woods.
At one point I was confronted by a 2 km stretch of unpaved road. I would normally have looked for an asphalted detour, but the MotorXplorers course gave me the confidence to switch suspension from Road to Enduro, put on second gear, stand up and ride this uphill road…. My only concern was a mild fall and having to lift my 250kg bike on my own in 32 degrees. I had not seen a car for 15 minutes as drivers prefer the excellent motorway between Abrantes and Castello Branco.
Castello Branco is a rather sleepy town. I can see however that it can be the gateway to mountain hiking and many other healthy activities. Don't look for a grand “White Castle”, it was essentially a small fortification guarding against Spanish invaders, and is not really white.
I left reasonably early to avoid some of the day’s heat but before leaving Castelo Branco I decided to top up the pressure of my tyres at a petrol station. No matter how much I tried I only managed to reduce the pressure to unridable levels. I am not handy, in fact at home it is Martine who does all the repairs while I look on with awe and amazement. Now the Portuguese are some of the nicest people on earth, particularly to foreigners riding bikes. Quickly a group of young men tried to inflate the tyres (also unsuccessfully), called a tyre repair shop (it was closed), offered to charge the battery of my inflator etc, until one of them realised we could top up the pressure by reverting the pump’s valve, so off I went… One day I plan to speak Portuguese half as well as these young men speak English.
From Castelo Branco to the Spanish border, the road is gently undulating but almost flat. Crossing into Extremadura with no border checks and no PCR test (only possible through the road as I write this) gave me an irrational sense of elation and freedom. The road to Ciudad Rodrigo is hilly and rolly, and rather empty. Eventually it becomes mountainous, almost alpine as we ascend to 850 metres. It was still hot and the road signs warning of ice and snow seemed out of place in June. I crossed the aptly name Rio Frio and a bit later the more majestic Rio Erjas, and here I was in Castilla e Leon. The forest became less dense and the vista moved to an agrarian landscape with rather straight roads.
I had a rather hot lunch stop at Ciudad Rodrigo, a walled medieval city and a Unesco protected site. If you do this do remember where you left your bike outside of the city walls. I had to try 3 different exits through the fortified walls before I was reunited with mine! From Ciudad Rodrigo to Salamanca the agricultural road is dusty and rather straight, and I had been delayed by my tyre pressure issues at the beginning of the day so I jumped on the A62 to Salamanca.
Salamanca is simply majestic. Its pedestrian area is huge. You wander around watching beautiful people. It boasts two cathedrals, one Romanesque and the other Gothic and a world class university. In fact, if you ever decide to crash learn Spanish, this is the place to go. The Plaza Mayor is one of the most beautiful in Spain. It is immense and illuminated until midnight. The last bull fight took place on the Plaza in 1992. Find the medallion of Franco…
I was concerned that it would rain the following day, and during the night the skies opened up and it rained pretty much non-stop. In the comfort of my bed, I was hoping that there would be none left for the next day.
While yesterday I left early to avoid heat, today I left early to avoid rain. As I was heading south I could see rain over the hills far to the east while my side of the sky was reasonably blue but the temperature was easily 10 degrees lower than the day before. I stopped and donned my rain gear as windshield and as talisman to ward off the rain, but inevitably it started to drizzle…
Suddenly the rather flattish and dullish road became quasi alpine and climbed up to 1250 metres. I was riding the SA201 in the Parque Natural de Las Batuecas-Sierra de Francia, at over 1000 metres altitude in 12 degrees and very dense fog. With quasi no visibility I descended into the valley on the other side of the mountain in a series of very tight hairpins. Fog dulls colours and I am colour blind. Eventually as I reached 600 metres I was once again in Extremedura, the fog lifted, and I could see the narrow SA201 with a deep chasm on my right.
At the bottom of the mountain, the road reverses to a dusty agricultural and industrial landscape but 70 kilometres from Trujillo I jumped on the X308 and then the X208. I was in the Parque Nacional de Monfrague, a beautiful curvy ride complete with lakes, eagles and bird watchers
Extremadura is from where the Conquistadores come from. Trujillo is the birthplace of local hero Francisco Pizarro, riding his horse in the centre of Plaza Mayor. Pizarro was the illegitimate son of army colonel and was essentially illiterate. He obliterated the mighty Inca empire aged 50, but I don't think you will find many monuments to Pizarro (probably none at all) in Peru. Pizarro was in fact a hard, ruthless man with a killer instinct. In an ironic karmic twist he was himself murdered in Lima aged 66.
At 600 metres and dominating Trujillo, in fact all the surrounding plains, Alcazaba is a formidable stronghold built by the Moors and reinforced by Fernando and Isabel. The historic centre of Trujillo is very well preserved and it is a pleasure to stroll its labyrinthian streets before dinner.
Even the Via Michelin route planner cannot change the geography of the mostly flat landscape between Trujillo and Lisbon through the Alentejo. Head to Portugal through Caceres where you should stop for a coffee in the Ciudad Monumental before you head to the border. The EN246 and the N356 are 30 kms of very nice and curvy roads until you get to Portalegre. From there the Alentejan landscape is flat and the road is straight, full of lorries so you may as well climb onto the A6 in order to join Lisbon quickly...
If you want to ride Portugal
MotoXplorers rents almost new BMWs from Lisbon, conveniently close to the airport. IMT is also a reputable renter of BMWs but I have no direct experience of them. In Porto I heard good things about Northroad PT. Alternatively, Eurobiketrans will deliver (and ship back) your own bike from the UK to Porto. Finally, Brittany Ferries is considering a route from South England to Porto.
Borders as we like them, no officials, no PCRs. The Force is winning over the evil Covid
This is my own version of the “Big Mac Index”. I order the same lunch pretty much everywhere I stop: tosta mista (essentially a toastie of ham and cheese twice the size of its equivalent at Cafe Nero and truly freshly made), one Aqua da Pedras, and one expresso. Prices have average €4.00 with a maximum of €4.50 (Mertola, by the castle) and a minimum of €3.57 (anon-descript café in Odemira).
Born in Egypt, raised in Lebanon, educated and worked in Belgium, then lived in the US and the UK, Lemy and wife Martine have been living in and enjoying Portugal since 2018. Lemy has travelled extensively on his own and rented motorbikes throughout the world, more often than not with Martine.
We are incredibly lucky to own the only “limited edition” BMW 1250GS “Saudades”. Saudade is one of the most beautiful words in the entire world and has no English equivalent. It is a word truly created for incurable dreamers. “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist”.
I had planned my route using Via Michelin (touristic road/ no motorway). I use Via Michelin when I don’t know which itinerary to take, the only inconvenience is that I have not found a way to transfer the itinerary directly to a GPS. I was not disappointed on this trip as unbeknown to me the itinerary took me through 2 natural parks.
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