Why northern Spain is a motorcyclists’ mecca
Two imperatives dominate motorcyclists’ dreams when planning a summer or autumn tour for when we’re once again allowed to travel – and it’s impossible to say which is more important.
The first is for bends and lots of them, preferably in an endless series of swooping twists and turns, perhaps snaking through dramatic mountain scenery peppered with lakes, rivers and pretty villages. The further removed from our experiences of city centre lockdown, the better.
The second? Sunny weather. Nothing takes the fizz out of a bike tour faster than UK-type drizzle that clogs visors, penetrates ‘waterproofs’ – and turns those dry, grippy bends into a skating rink.
But there’s a conundrum; which type of bike is best for modern-day touring? The traditional sports-tourer beloved by generations of riders or the adventure bike, which over recent years has enjoyed booming UK sales?
We set out from Portsmouth to Santander on Brittany Ferries’ ‘Cap Finistère’ on one of each – BMW’s big, powerful BMW R 1250 RS Exclusive sports-tourer and the taller adventure BMW F 750 GS – to find out.
Northern Spain has become a motorcyclists’ mecca for good reason. Not only is it famed for its temperate climate, usefully ‘extending’ the summer for British visitors, it’s also home to the spectacular Cantabrian Mountains, running parallel with the coast and stretching for 180 miles from the Pyrenees in the east to the pass of Leitariegos in the west, just below Santander.
Packed with miles of beautifully-surfaced, well signposted roads, they’re the mountains you see in children’s books: towering and craggy, sparkling with rivers and lakes, their valleys gouged with deep, forested valleys. They’re mostly traffic-free too; perfect, in other words, for assessing two very different motorcycles.
Our nine-night route, aimed at dodging major roads, was designed to provide not maximum mileage but maximum enjoyment – and plenty of time to develop riding skills on those never-ending mountain bends.
Joined by my advanced-rider brother, Andrew, we aimed to savour the mountain air, explore the regions’s bewitchingly pretty towns and villages – and enjoy Spain’s famously hospitable paradores, elegant government-run hotels aimed at breathing new life into endangered old buildings, and reinvigorating local economies.
First stop was an 18-mile hop from Santander and it set the tone for the remaining tour. Nestled among hills, historic Santillana del Mar is the quintessential Spanish tourist honeypot; a beautiful medieval town crammed with architectural treasures gathered around cobbled squares.
Hidden off the ancient town square the Parador de Santillana exuded the ambience of a grand mansion.
Next we headed south, venturing deep into the Cantabrian countryside towards vast, remote ‘Embalse del Ebro’, one of Spain’s largest reservoirs. Its gently curving shoreline road, punctuated with roadside restaurants, gave us the perfect opportunity to acclimatise to riding on the right while investigating the relative merits of our two – very different – motorcycles.
The big, powerful BMW R 1250 RS Exclusive entertained superbly by rolling gently into bends and tracking as straight-as-an-arrow, its 136bhp two-cylinder ‘boxer’ engine eating up the miles in highly relaxed fashion. The taller GS meanwhile offered a more laid-back seating position, a more absorbent ride, its wide bars making parking and manoeuvring a cinch, its twin-cylinder 850cc engine (confusingly labelled ‘750’ to demarcate it from the more powerful ‘850’ model) superbly elastic. We covered just 115 miles on day one but took all day, stopping at roadside restaurants, revelling in the deserted back-country roads.
We were in motorcycle heaven as – on successive days, via a network of perfectly-placed, highly atmospheric paradores – we found exactly what we’d come for; mile after mile of perfect, snaking, undulating, switchback bends as far as the eye could see.
Invariably well-surfaced, frequently in a series of multiple switchbacks, they proved addictive, perfect for practising the art of safe cornering. Each bend was heralded by clear advance warning signs and chevrons, each posted with its own speed limit, reliably indicating the curve’s severity.
Where else – other than on a track day – could motorcyclists expect such a generous helping of bends until – having clocked up a leisurely 600 or so miles on our clockwise romp through Cantabria – we ended up back at imposing Santander?
So which bike would I choose? It’s a tough one. The bigger, more powerful, long-legged 136hp R 1250 RS Exclusive (the range starts at £12,500) is beguiling. It is, after all, a sports tourer par excellence with a leant-forward seating position, impeccable road manners, a 140mph+ top speed, new Shift Cam technology for greater torque and decent paniers.
The lighter, more nimble F 750 GS (substantially less expensive, from £8,520), producing 77 horsepower, offering an upright seating position was hugely entertaining too.
Both excelled – but we each had our favourites. I was drawn to the effortless power, huge reserves of torque, thrilling acceleration, predictable handling and sharper performance of the RS. I loved its wide, comfortable saddle, its quickshifter (for clutchless up and down gear changes), its supremely powerful front brake and ‘toys’, including adjustable-on-the-fly ride, riding modes ranging from Rain to Dynamic Pro, and its protective two-stage screen. I kept it in ‘Dynamic’ mode for a crisper response and ride on those mountain bends.
Andy preferred the cheerful GS and its more upright seating, its ability to be flicked in – and out – of bends, its cavernous panniers and top box, its pliant ride and easy-going nature. He too enjoyed its quickshifter, flexible engine and the small screen, great for deflecting motorway-speed buffeting but able to vent the rider on hotter days too.
There is a twist to this tale. Many riders venture to Spain for ‘off-road’ riding that is available, ranging from little more than un-made tracks to much tougher terrain. When we became hopelessly lost one evening we found ourselves on an increasingly rutted, gravelled un-made road. Riding the R 1250RS was unpleasant. The narrow handlebars, leant-forward position, short-travel suspension and weight made it totally unsuited to this teeth-chattering section.
The F 750 GS was in its element; sure-footed and well-sprung, its wide handlebars making steering around obstacles child’s play. Whatever your bike, it’s all about the route – and the planning, in the end.
How to do the trip
We travelled with Brittany Ferries between Portsmouth and Santander, riding straight onto the Cap Finistère to sample comfy, well-equipped sea-view en-suite cabins. No wonder they call them mini-cruises.
Brittany has partnered with Paradores of Spain, offering tour packages in elegant, high quality hotels. They even suggest routes linking different paradors.
More at brittanyferries.com/holidays or call 0330 159 4500.