I left my heart in Cataluña

cataluna featured image

Sometimes, touring and track days just go together so well, as Misti Hurst finds out

Some things in life are meant to go together. A crisp glass of wine with a delicious meal, a chunk of hard cheese with fresh, crusty bread, scenic motorcycle touring with track time. Cat McLeod of Leod Escapes has found the perfect pairing, combining four-six days of breathtaking road riding with two days of exhilarating track riding; on world-famous Moto GP circuits no less!

Having done one of his combo tours two years prior, through the Italian Alps and on Sachsenring in Germany, I had high expectations of this inaugural trip through the Spanish Pyrenees and onto the Moto GP circuit of Aragón. The bar was set very, very high.

Carving around mountain passes

Leod Escapes chose IMT (International Motorcycle Tours) to provide local guides and a fleet of BMW rental bikes, and together they designed the routes that would include the things that he wants most for his customers to experience; incredibly diverse roads, stunning scenery, local cafés and restaurants, authentic food and wine and, of course, two full days of track riding on a Moto GP circuit. There were 17 of us in total: two Canadians, 13 Americans, and two Catalan guides.

However, with the epicness of my first Leod Escapes experience to contend with, I was almost expecting this one to fall short. How could any trip possibly be better than Italian Alps, and Sachsenring? My friend Nicole, who accompanied me on the last trip was my motorcycle riding sidekick on this tour as well.

We spent the first day comparing this new group of participants with the last group of riders, the first day of roads and riding with the last trip. Even when we rolled into La Seu d’Urgell to our castle/hotel accommodation, complete with separate parking for motorcycles designated by a hand-painted sign: Motos. I was still content in believing that this would be the second-best tour I had ever participated in.

But then, as day two wound it’s way to an end in a flurry of twisty roads winding through desolate villages dotted with crumbling stone walls and we rolled up to a beautiful majestic castle, surrounded by what our animated guide Sergi described as a “Circus of mountains,” I realised I was experiencing something beyond magical.

There was no need to make comparisons. This would be epic in its own way, this would be a different kind of special. There we stood, flushed and tired from the day of riding but completely revived by the 360-degree view of purple-tinged mountains, touching the sky.

Perfect Pyrenean scenery
Perfect Pyrenean Scenery

We snapped pictures trying to capture the richness of the moment. Within seconds, another dash of pink, clouds swirling in the ever-changing sky. We drank wine and Spanish liquor under the shadow of the mountains, thick and full, and so began the complex formations of friendship, deep and binding, under a canopy of stars.

The next days unfolded almost like a rollercoaster ride that only goes up, every day building on the previous, getting better and more amazing with each twisty road and mountain pass that we traversed.

Just when we thought it couldn’t possibly get any more stunning, an outrageous, beautiful ribbon of road would appear in the middle of an idyllic town surrounded by lush green hillsides and dotted with stone farmhouses and churches and on the top of one of those hillsides would be another stately castle.

“It’s like they just put a curve here for the sake of putting a curve here,” said Justin, fellow tour participant from Detroit. “They could make the road straight, but they filled it with curves instead!” We were awake, but it felt like we were dreaming.

Who needs a track
Who needs a track when you have roads like these

On day three we wound our way through single lane, well-paved roads with dotted white lines on each side, no centre line as if riding along a paper map with edges that dropped off steeply; vibrant hillsides roaming with goats and cows below.

We dipped into France and rode up over Port de la Bonaigua pass, 2,072m high, and simply stunning. From the top looking down, it was like a scene from a fantasy novel, rich and olive tinged, with dark curvy roads thrown in for fun.

We then crossed Col du Tourmalet, 2,115m, a famous section of the Tour de France and stopped for lunch in a small French village, Luz-St-Sauveur, which happened to be hosting Festival Du Foire, a fair to celebrate the autumn lamb harvest.

We improvised with parking and then wandered the streets, hungry but too curious to sit and eat. With a big band playing trumpets and clarinets, we danced and frolicked while browsing local vendors selling wine and craft beers, rounds of cheese and fresh sausages, and cooking up meaty lamb chops on homemade grills.

Our day in France felt soft, lovely, like riding through an ancient romance novel. I was lost in the passion of it all, new friends growing closer with each sweet minute, beautiful scenery, flowing roads.

the gang
The Gang

Suddenly our riding was halted for a few moments while we waited for weathered old men and sheepdogs to corral a herd of sheep down the road. As if we were riding 100 years ago, the hollow clang clang of bells being rung by farmers wearing caps and trousers, sheepdogs working the heard back and forth instinctively, as they slowly meandered down the road, and finally over the stone walls, back into the verdant hillside.

The most beautiful vista, Arrens-Marsous, came next, the place that made me pull over and stand in awe.

Rolling green hills as far as the eye could see, surrounded by higher jagged mountains and some dark clouds, which turned out not to be clouds at all but mountain peaks that rose so high, I believed them to be touching the sky. And then, while trying to return to the group, having to wait for cows to leisurely cross the road while a wild horse stood vigilant nearby watching, the curvy road disappearing ahead.

Mooove over
Mooove Over…

This spectacular pass was closely followed by the most challenging and frightening pass, through the town of Béost, and up over the Col d’Aubisque, barely wide enough for one car, carved into the side of a rocky cliff. While I’m not scared of heights, I couldn’t allow myself to look down over the edge for fear of riding over it.

How exciting! How beautiful, and startling all at once. “That was a whole different universe of sheer terror.” Said Tom, one of the more cautious riders in the group who did happen to be terrified of heights. “I did it! I loved it!

The views were amazing! This is what touring is all about, growing as a rider, and a traveller as well.” We were so high we were actually in the clouds and snaking through a thick foggy blanket, back down the other side. Riding through the Spanish Pyrenees to Aragón is a little like enjoying tapas, you get a little sampling of everything; spicy, rich, flavorful, filling.

As we traversed southeast across the country, the air warmed and thickened, the scenery morphed from lush, green hillsides to dry rocky vistas mixed with shades of reds, pinks and oranges. Even the pavement changed from deep and murky greys to an orangy-pink hue and widened as we moved closer to the race track; Motorland. Aragón!

Soaking it all in
Soaking it all in

As the road opened so did the throttle and suddenly we were speeding towards the town of Alcañiz in a steady line, back and forth smoothly and evenly and I fell into that trance, in the zone, at one with the motorcycle.

I could see Sergi a few riders ahead, intuitively reading the group, allowing this burst of speed, but keeping us all in check. “Listen to your heart when riding,” He had warned us on day one. “If it goes, bap bap bap bap bap, really fast, then maybe you’re riding over your head.

Try always to ride with the heart that goes, duh dum duh dum, duh dum.” He’s the same guy who also described his work as a guide for IMT as a “dream job, like surfing a cloud.”

As we paused at the base of the pastel-coloured town of Alcañiz, like a Lego block mash-up of light pink, orange, yellow and white pieces, surrounded with stone towers, and buildings, we could see the formidable castle at the top of the hill, almost glowing with the slowly setting sun.

Exploring cobbled streets
Exploring cobbled streets

I can’t begin to explain the sheer joy and happiness I felt while winding through the narrow cobblestone streets, bells jing jangling, wafts of coffee and cigar smoke filtering through my helmet as we weaved higher and higher, to the entrance of the Parador Nacional de Alcañiz.

High castle walls, tinged a burnt orange from the setting sun, towering archways and right out front, marked with black ribbon a parking area for our motorcycles- the sign: Grupo Alojado IMT BIKE: Passion for Motorcycling. That moment. Wow. One thing that set this trip apart from the last was our accommodation.

Most nights we stayed in Paradores, think luxury 4-5 star ‘hotels’ in converted castles, monasteries, fortresses – a way to help fund the upkeep of these historic monuments. Stunning, majestic, impressive, unique and gorgeously beautiful. Consistent with the rest of the tour, somehow the Paradores seemed to get more and more impressive as the days unfolded.

And the food and wine! No matter if you are Catalan, Basque, Galician or one of the other 17 different cultural identities, Spaniards are proud of their regional menus and wines. Wine is part of the Spanish dining experience and each evening we were offered an extremely reasonable, pay one price, try all the red and white to your liking.

Everyone loves bikes
Everyone loves bikes

We enjoyed locally produced wines from unique varietals such as Tempranillo and Garnacha and menu items like Iberian pork, fresh hake, veal, and Mediterranean seafood paella. Through relaxed dinners that started around 9 pm as customary, and ran long and leisurely into the night, we got to know and like each other deeply.

“These two absolutely make the trip.” said Paul of our IMT guides, “It wouldn’t be the same without them.” We all agreed. Sergi Besses, or ‘slim’ as he was affectionately called, was vibrant, full of energy and always smiling.

A talented rider and excellent guide who entertained us each morning while giving us a quick rundown of the route and the roads we might expect to encounter. “Today we add some pepper to the ride,” he would grin while pointing to the map and then throwing his hands in the air shouting “Yella Ramella!” An inside joke, which very roughly translates to mean, let’s go sheep! And David Noya, our modest and humble driver who followed behind, as a support vehicle and luggage transporter, always looking out for anyone that may need any extra support and ensuring all the details were well taken care of.

Learning from the masters
Learning from the masters

Quiet and serious at first, he quickly revealed himself as a passionate and sometimes silly instructor of riding and driving, who just so happens to be extremely fast, holding the 2004 Catalunya Championship Title for racing 600cc. We were a mish-mash of personalities, falling in love with the entire experience. Our last night in Alcaniz was so special.

Having just spent two full exciting days of track riding, on the World Class GP Circuit Aragón with two-time World Superbike Champion, Troy Corser, instructing us through the Race Academy School and growing and improving as riders, a celebration was required.

Where better to commemorate motorcycle riding and cherished memories than in a tiny, hole in the wall restaurant in a cave that just so happened to be filled with pictures of famous world champion motorcycle racers that frequented the same place.

Track time in motorland Aragon
Track time at Motorland Aragon

Wine, shots, toasts, speeches, delicious food, hugs, laughter and then singing as we walked back up to our castle on the hillside full up, on life. And then! As if the night wasn’t epic enough, sharing drinks with Corser himself, in a stately bar, in a massive castle, under a sky sparkling with stars. Awake but still dreaming. The next morning, under a sky of soft feathery pink, we rolled out of Alcañiz and towards our next destination, Cardona and the final Parador of the tour.

I did not expect what came later that day, exhausted after another day of impressive touring, we rounded a corner to behold, there in the distance, a fortress more massive and impressive than all the others combined. Wild hand gestures ensued as we neared, Parador Nacional de Cardona, a 9th-century castle built by Wilfred I of Barcelona.

Words cannot describe this place and the emotion that came from it. It was here that I broke down in tears in the grand medieval dining room, in front of everyone, knowing that our experience was winding to a close. So full up and so empty at the same time. The stone walls and archways, the ancient paintings, and the silence that fell around me as I stood on the top of the tower, under a waving Catalan flag was too much.

Cardona Castle
Cardona Castle

It was as if the ghost of Cardona Castle, the one that was said to frequent room 712, the same room that Nicole and I had specially requested, had bequeathed her grief on me. Legend says she died of sadness, of a broken heart and in those stones and arched doorways, I felt something so strong and ancient.

Nicole, the more empathic and intuitive of us both, felt tapped into something spiritually higher than my melancholy. Hers was an energetic, more psychic experience from within the emotionally filled walls. We ate grapes, warmed by the sun, that Brad had chopped off a vine from a vineyard on the side of the road, and toasted each other with full-bodied wines and Blanca de Navarra Liquor. It was almost time to say goodbye.

I fell in love there, in that country, with the pavement and the mountains, the valleys and the stones. I let go and that is the magic of travel, something about movement and motion, propelling forward even if you don’t know where you are going. In the end, it wasn’t so much about riding motorcycles through a storybook of the most incredibly stunning scenery or even about turning laps on the exhilarating Moto GP Circuit of Aragón, but of the coming together of a unique group of people.

Riding into Barcelona after an intense and emotional nine-day adventure, I noticed an ease in which we rode beside each other, more tightly condensed and connected, in perfect formation. Gone was any fear of riding in an unfamiliar city next to new people and in its place a sense of comfort and finality, the best ending to a life-altering experience.

We pulled into IMT bike headquarters with gas tanks empty but memory cards full up, physically, and mentally exhausted but emotionally fulfilled and with excellent timing… Just in time for a cold drink and a siesta.

Want to ride the Pyrenees and Aragon? Here’s how you can…

The Tour

Misti was riding the Track & Tour Spanish Pyrenees to Aragon tour offered by Leod Motorcycle Escapes. The tour features six days of riding on the mountain roads of the Pyrenees and three-track days, along with training from former Superbike World Champion Troy Corser, at Motorland Aragon. Based on a single rider in a shared room riding either a BMW R 1200 R or R 1200 GS, the trip will cost $7,144 (approximately £5,400). Head to www.leodescapes.com for more information.

Getting there

This specific tour leaves from Barcelona and clients are required to make their own travel plans to meet there. With this in mind, there are regular and reliable flights between many UK airports and Barcelona. For example, you can travel from Stansted to Barcelona for around £90 with Ryanair.

Riding skill required

The Leod Escapes website says that the tour is meant for intermediate to advanced riders, with narrow, sweeping, curvy roads and some cobblestone pavement being on the menu.

Is a Track Day for you? 

Track days are amazing for learning new skills and being able to practice them in a controlled environment. The Race Academy with Troy Corser will give you the opportunity to learn new techniques and practice at your own pace and many of the skills translate directly to the street. Training and improving your riding via track days and riding schools should be on every riders’ list of things to do. Aim to be the best rider possible to reduce risk and make riding safer, faster and more enjoyable.