After living apart for six months, JAMES OXLEY and his wife embark on a journey through France and Spain and inadvertently find themselves on a two-wheeled pilgrimage.
“You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess. It’s a love story, baby just say yes.” Pop star Taylor Swift was in good voice as she blasted through the deafeningly loudspeakers of the Honda Goldwing. Backing vocals were enthusiastically supplied from the pillion seat by my wife Karina, direct to my eardrums via our helmet intercoms. I smiled at the look of surprise on the faces of the French motorists we overtook. The sight of 343kg of gleaming motorcycle hurtling past in a whirlwind of engine noise and teen pop probably wasn’t something they saw every day.
I admit the experience felt a little surreal to me to. If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be married to a beautiful woman, striking out across France and Spain on a £30,000 motorcycle, with a job working for Adventure Bike Rider magazine, I would have asked you where I needed to buy the lottery ticket. But somehow, I found myself in that enviable position. My only regret was letting Karina choose the music.
The two of us often travel together on two wheels but this journey had a special significance. Six months earlier, I’d been offered the job at ABR. The only catch was the office is located in the Midlands, some 250 miles from home. So, after just a year of marriage, we put talk of buying a house and having a baby on hold, I packed up my bike and we began living apart. This motorcycle trip represented the first time we’d spent more than a weekend together since I’d left. We had no plan, no route, and no accommodation booked, just the open road and each other for company.
I’d managed to borrow the Goldwing from the good folks at Honda’s UK headquarters. The luxury motorcycle was my way of saying thank you to Karina for her patience and understanding. I wanted a bike that she would enjoy riding as much as I did. A ‘we bike’ rather than a ‘me bike’, free of the aches and pains of pillion travel. The Goldwing would prove to be the perfect choice.
The previous evening, we’d boarded the Brittany Ferries overnight sailing from Plymouth to Roscoff in northern France. Unfortunately, we hadn’t been able to book a cabin, so we bought a bottle of French red wine, reclined our leather seats, and talked excitedly about the journey ahead. The gentle rumble of the ferry’s engines, combined with the effects of the wine, lulled us to sleep and we spent a night at sea dreaming of the road ahead.
Despite not having planned a route, Karina and I knew we wanted to ride towards Northern Spain and explore the Picos de Europa mountains, so we decided to make La Rochelle our first stop. The port town is located about halfway down France’s west coast, some 280 miles from Roscoff. We avoided toll roads and motorways, instead opting to cruise along France’s superb network of quiet D roads.
The day passed in a contented blur of rolling countryside, music, chatter, and coffee stops, before we arrived in La Rochelle in the late afternoon and parked up at our hotel. Keen to stretch our legs, we took a stroll to the city’s vibrant Old Port area, passing the famous medieval towers that have guarded the town from seafaring invaders for centuries. The area was bustling with people enjoying a Saturday night out, so we decided to do as the locals do and took a table outside one of the port’s many bars to toast the first day of our adventure.
The next morning, we continued our journey south under cloudy skies and rain showers with the aim of reaching the seaside town of Biarritz about 240 miles away. The Goldwing cruised effortlessly at speed and, before we knew it, we’d passed the famous wine region of Bordeaux and were threading our way through the vast pine forest of the Landes de Gascogne National Regional Natural Park. We’d passed through light rain showers throughout the day, but as we entered Biarritz, the heavens opened.
I’d visited the resort town during my first ever motorcycle tour and I have vivid memories of sitting on a clifftop at sunset watching surfers catch waves in the sparkling Atlantic Ocean. It was paradise. Unfortunately, the bad weather meant Karina and I found ourselves walking through a damp and dreary seaside town seemingly devoid of people, so we found a cosy restaurant, ate pizza, and drank wine until we got the giggles.
Biarritz is located less than 20 miles from Spain and as soon as we crossed the border the next morning, the sun appeared from behind the clouds for the first time on our trip. Our aim was to reach the Picos de Europa by the end of the day, some 230 miles away, but we didn’t particularly care what route we followed or how long it took. We travelled through the Basque Country, an autonomous region of Northern Spain, passing through the city of Bilbao and later around Santander. It was on the N634 coastal road that we encountered our first pilgrims.
To begin with, we were a bit bemused by the intermittent sight of backpackers walking along the road, often miles from the nearest town or city. But soon enough, a light flickered in the back of my mind and I realised we must be riding along one of a network of walking trails that make up the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James). For more than 1,000 years, people have been making pilgrimages to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in the northwest of Spain, where the remains of Jesus’ apostle St James the Great are believed to be buried.
By chance, we were following the most popular route of ‘The Way’, the Camino Frances, which stretches from the town of Saint Pied de Port in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, across Northern Spain to the city of Santiago 500 miles away. I waved to some of the pilgrims we passed but their eyes were firmly fixed ahead and my greetings weren’t returned.
Later in the day, we found ourselves nearing the Picos de Euro- pa, a mountain range famed for its spectacular peaks and superb motorcycling roads. The sun was low in the sky, so instead of exploring the mountains, we rode to the sleepy town of Cangas de Onis and booked into a hotel. The next morning, we awoke excited at the prospect of the ride ahead. There are numerous roads and trails to be explored in the Picos for a curious rider with time on their hands, but we only planned to spend a day in the area.
With this in mind, we decided to ride one of the most popular routes by following the N621 and N625 which loop around much of the Picos. The roads wiggled across the map so erratically, they looked like they were drawn by an alcoholic with the shakes, a sure sign an exhilarating ride was on the cards.
We began the day cruising along the meandering AS114, following the path of the River Casano before turning south onto the N621 and plunging into the spectacular Desfiladero de La Hermida gorge. Imposing cliff faces towered above us on either side as we traced the twisting path of the River Dell. Periodically, we passed under large nets designed to stop rocks tumbling down the mountainsides and obliterating a motorist or two below. Despite the safety measures, plenty had slipped through, so I took extra care around the numerous blind bends in case a rogue rock was nestled in the middle of the road.
We emerged from the gorge and continued south through the small town of Potes and beyond. The Goldwing’s built-in SatNav showed the road ahead becoming seriously twisty, and soon enough, we got stuck into a series of hairpin turns and tight S-bends as we travelled up the 1,609m San Glorio Pass.
After a brief stop to enjoy the view, we continued on to the village of Riaño which sits in a spectacular location perched on the edge of a huge reservoir, overlooked by jagged mountain peaks. The midday heat was stifling so we stopped and gulped down cool glasses of lemonade while trying to figure out where to stay that night. We looked at Google Maps on our phones and Karina pointed to Gijón, a city on Spain’s north coast. After a day of riding in the mountains, we agreed it’d be fun to hang out in a city, grab some food, and enjoy a cool sea breeze.
We saddled up and joined the N625. I barely recall a straight stretch of road for the next 40 miles as we wound our way over hills and mountains. The riding was sensational and the views spectacular, but the thing that struck me the most was how thick and green with vegetation the region was. It created a Garden of Eden-like experience and, combined with the brilliant roads, it’s little surprise so many bikers return to this part of the world year after year.
All too soon, we completed our loop of the national park and we arrived back in Cangas de Onis. The Picos had more than lived up to their reputation as a brilliant motorcycling destination and we’d barely scratched the surface.
The Goldwing made short work of the 60-mile journey to Gijón and we soon found ourselves navigating through a maze of city streets until we finally reached our hotel. There was a small café next door with seats out front, so we settled down, drank cold beers, and ate slabs of tortilla while watching the city pass us by. Feeling refreshed, we took a stroll through the marina and along the picturesque Playa de San Lorenzo, the city’s main beach.
Despite being a Wednesday, Gijón was awash with people sat outside restaurants and bars enjoying the sunny evening. The sight of a huge sculpture constructed from thousands of beer bottles gave the impression the locals enjoy a good time around these parts. We would have liked to have investigated further, but after a long day in the saddle, the pull of a comfortable bed and air conditioning was too strong to resist.
The next morning, we had a decision to make over breakfast. Did we continue travelling westwards to the Galicia region in the far west of Spain, perhaps staying overnight in Santiago de Compostela, or do we turnaround and begin our journey home? It was Thursday and we had a ferry to catch 800 miles away on Monday morning. If we continued further west, we would need to put in a couple of long days on motorways and toll roads to make our ferry. That was a chore both of us were keen to avoid so we decided to ride east and explore Spain’s north coast along the Bay of Biscay at a leisurely pace. It turned out to be an excellent decision.
We meandered our way along the coast, hugging cliffsides with spectacular ocean views, before dipping inland along snaking roads lined by explosions of vegetation. Any landscape this green must get plenty of rain but thankfully we enjoyed the ride in dazzling sunshine. At the village of Lastres, I couldn’t help but pull over and take a few minutes to soak up a view of forested mountains tumbling into a sparkling, turquoise sea. It looked more like Hawaii than Europe.
We also found ourselves on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route once again as we passed scores of pilgrims following the distinctive scallop shell markers that line the route. I wondered what motivated them to take on such a journey. Were they escaping the rat race? Seeking enlightenment? Or simply looking for adventure? Our motivation at this point was our stomachs. Karina had read the city of San Sebastian was one of Europe’s top foodie destinations, so we decided to take our look for ourselves.
We discovered a sun-drenched coastal city alive with surfers, cyclists, runners, and people relaxing outside cafés smiling and laughing with friends. Somehow the hustle and bustle of the city merged seamlessly with a laid-back beach lifestyle which centred around the golden sands of Playa de la Concha. We drank cold beer, ate delicious seafood, and soaked up the laidback vibe after a hot day in the saddle.
Into the mountains
We could have spent a few happy days enjoying San Sebastian, but I was aware we were tantalisingly close to the Pyrenees and I was itching to ride some mountain passes. We decided to continue the pilgrimage theme of our journey by heading to St Jean Pied de Port for lunch. The picturesque town sits in the foothills of the French Pyrenees and is one of the most popular starting points for the Camino de Santiago. On motorways, the journey would have taken about 90 minutes, but we spent the next four hours winding our way along the wiggliest roads we could find on the map, passing through a series of villages that time forgot along the way. The riding was sublime, the sun was beating down from a clear blue sky, and we had all the time in the world. For me, this was motorcycle touring at its best.
Unfortunately, my Zen had all but disappeared by the time we arrived in St Jean Pied de Port. The riding had been superb but the oppressive heat was now roasting us alive in our textile jackets and jeans. We were both hot, sticky messes, so we slumped outside the first café we could find. The town bustled with tourists, interspersed with eager pilgrims about to begin their long walk along the Camino. We sat and people watched contentedly, neither of us able to find the energy to get up and put on our motorcycle jackets again.
“How about we find somewhere to stay in town tonight and we take the afternoon off?” I asked.
I could see the sense of relief on Karina’s face as she wholeheartedly endorsed the plan. We found a campsite in town located next to the cool waters of the River Nive. After putting up our tent, we spent the rest of the afternoon reading, relaxing, and dipping our legs in the river alongside local families, before exploring the cobbled streets of the medieval town in the cool evening air. Over dinner and a few glasses of wine, we agreed to return to St Jean Pied de Port one day to walk the Camino de Santiago ourselves.
However, there was the small matter of completing our current journey first. We had just two full days of riding left before our ferry departed for England. Between us and the finish line lay the entire length of western France. Thankfully, for the first time on the trip, we had a destination planned, the town of Saumur in the Loire Valley. We’d visited the previous year during our honeymoon and Karina had her heart set on returning. Fond memories came flooding back to the both of us as we cruised along the banks of the Loire River, its waters sparkling in the golden hues of the evening sky. Finally, the familiar sight of the Chateau de Saumur came into view, looking every inch a fairy-tale castle guarding the town. After booking into our hotel, we took a stroll to reminisce and ate a romantic dinner next to the Loire.
The following day, we only had a couple of hundred miles to cover to Brittany, so we made plenty of coffee stops, and enjoyed a relaxing final day on the road. Our campground, Yelloh Village Belle Plage, was nestled next to a sandy bay called Anse de Stole. After putting up our tent we took a stroll along the beach and toasted our journey with a couple of carafes of French red wine before enjoying a final night under the stars.
We awoke to cloudy, overcast skies and made quick work of the 90 miles to Roscoff to board our ferry home. Unlike the outbound crossing, we’d managed to book a cabin so, once I’d ensured the Goldwing was securely strapped down, we headed straight over and collapsed onto our beds. At that moment, the cumulative fatigue of travelling more than 2,000 miles over the past 10 days caught up with both of us. We were tired but happy after enjoying a magical trip together. Like the pilgrims on the Camino, we’d left the world behind and immersed ourselves in our own deeply personal journey. And, while we hadn’t sought any religious enlightenment, the simple pleasure of exploring the world on two wheels had brought us closer together after spending so much time apart. And as for the big Goldwing, it became a third member of our family that we were genuinely sad to say goodbye to. We would have loved nothing better than to have adopted it and taken it home with us, but I think those nice people at Honda would have had a thing or two to say about that.
The Honda Goldwing is by far the best road touring motorcycle I have ever ridden. In fact, it’s an engineering marvel. As you’d expect, the bike feels perfectly poised cruising at high speeds, but take it into the mountains and the handling is agile enough to have a blast in the twisties. For me, it is the king of two-up travel, making long days in the saddle a pleasure for rider and pillion, eradicating the aches and pains usually associated with long-distance motorcycle journeys. If you’re looking for the ultimate luxury motorcycle experience, and you want a happy pillion rider, look no further.
Want to ride in France or Spain?
Travelling in France and Spain is a rite of passage for many UK motorcyclists looking to expand their horizons beyond home shores for the first time. The world-class riding to be found in the Alps and the Pyrenees mountain ranges also make them a popular draw for more experienced riders. Both are easy and enjoyable places to ride. France and northern Spain are best ridden in the late spring, summer, and even early autumn, when the weather is warmer, although always be prepared for rain.
The currency is Euros and the cost of food and accommodation is broadly similar to the UK, with cities usually pricier than rural areas. Both countries drive on the right. A smattering of French or Spanish goes a long way, although many of the people you’ll meet will speak English, particularly those working in the tourist and hospitality industries.
We travelled from Plymouth to Roscoff with Brittany Ferries, which operates multiple cross-channel sailings from the UK ports of Plymouth, Poole, and Portsmouth to the north coasts of France and Spain. Karina and I began our journey in France, but if you’re just planning to explore Northern Spain, I’d recommend taking the ferry direct to the Spanish ports of Santander or Bilbao, which are both a short ride from the Picos de Europa. Brittany Ferries also offers a series of motorcycle tours. To find out more, visit www.brittany-ferries.co.uk.