My great immersion in another country is always, and by always I mean twice, grabbing a two-wheeled machine and throwing myself off the edges of the tourist map. A recent trip to Italy bounced me to Spain to tour the Galfer brake factory just outside of Barcelona. With a few days on either side of Hogueras de San Juan, the Catalan national holiday that I think celebrates children blowing their fingers off at midnight with fireworks, I thought I'd take an adventure on one big, bad motorcycle, an '09 Harley-Davidson Road King. Its 1584cc was way more motor to handle than the 125cc Yamaha two-stroke motocrosser I'd been riding for the past year. In fact, the very first time I sat on an American twin and pressed that little go button was the start of my Harley tour of the Spanish coast. I'd had nearly as little total street experience, I don't speak Spanish, and I wasn't familiar with the traffic laws. I thought, "I might not live a lot longer, but I'm gonna live a little now."
Barcelona, to be honest, was disappointing. More so than many other foreign cities I've been to, it's set up for tourists, and almost has a theme-park feeling. If there's a souvenir shop in sight, you're probably not seeing anything of a foreign country, and I was feeling constricted to a diet of tourist paths, architectural points of interest, and made-to-approximate-comfort-food restaurants. It was two days of living a travel brochure. I was ready to get into the hills on a bike.
I left my Barcelona hotel on foot early Saturday morning and added my contribution to the collection of bewildered tourists at Estacio-Sants, the main train station. Travel by rail is overrated, and the confusion of hopping onto the correct train is seldom rated at all. And once on the right train, what's the fun of knowing exactly where you're going and when you'll get there? Soon I was stepping off that train at the base of the coastal town of Vilassar de Dalt. Mike Loughrie, the owner, spirit, proprietor, and cheerleader of MotoEspaña, threw me in a van and wound us up the hills to his bike shop where there was just one motorcycle left for the big weekend-my shiny maroon and chrome Road King. The paperwork went quicker than I'd really wanted, and I was suddenly astride a rumbling American hog pointed down a narrow Spanish town's road. I honestly wasn't ready for this much bike or this little road, but Mike seemed to think things would go okay, so I deferred to his confidence and eased out the clutch lever. The first turn was a very sharp, very steep, dropping left-hand hairpin indelicately marked with low, coarse, rock walls. It struck me that the corner was a catch device to get the poor riders off the bikes while they were still close enough to push them back.
I stress-sweated my way down to coastal highway N-II and then pointed the wheels at Lloret de Mar, a beach resort in the heart of Costa Brava, the little piece of Spain's Mediterranean Coast that edges up against the French border. Mike had provided a flip-up full-face helmet, so I was set for the highway speeds and open to the salt breeze on the coastal roads when traffic slowed things down. It's impossible not to look like Marvin the Martian with the chin bar flipped up, but this is the way to go for touring in and out of the coastal hamlets.
Now it's worth mentioning that the beaches in Spain are clothing-optional. The great news is that the Spanish aren't ashamed of their bodies. The bad news is the Spanish aren't ashamed of their bodies. Racing past on my hog, my attention alternated between the road and the sights on the beach-some welcome, some not. With beautiful, naked women tanning amid pot-bellied men sunning their Euro-junk, each glance was like a turn in Russian Roulette.
It took maybe an hour to reach Lloret de Mar, and I wedged the big girl up into a narrow scooter parking-slot. The shiny thing immediately grabbed attention. Riding up on a Harley is like being famous...if the paparazzi strolled the beach sidewalks in banana hammocks, flip flops, and man-purses. Really. There are more Harleys than you might suspect in Europe, but the people always seemed fascinated with my bike. Harleys have always embodied that American mystique of wide-open roads and adventure, and the Europeans, confined in geography as well as bike displacement regulations, might appreciate them more than the Apple-Pie-Breath group in the States.
A quick lunch of tapas (the Spanish have a tradition of eating a collection of appetizers rather than a main dish for lunch) with an old friend, an expatriate from the Czech Republic, and the bike and roadways were calling to me. The lean-starting motor had a very dramatic way of firing to life-it sounded just like someone racking a 12-gauge shotgun and firing off a warning shot-and as your ears adjusted the growl of the big twin came up in the silence. Half the Spaniards that were there that day will remember when the American sprang the big bike to life and roared heroically off to conquer Spain, but the other half, on the other side of the street, will remember it as the day the doofus rode off with one of his saddlebag lids opened. Oh well, 50 percent hero still counts.
Highway C-32 glided through the Pyrenees foothills, and at a steady 100 kmph the Harley and I were starting to really get along and enjoy the adventure together. These big bikes really like to stretch their legs. The sun was out, the speed was just right, and I'd occasionally pass entertaining traffic signs that I didn't understand one bit.
This was how to discover a country, far from the beaten tourist paths, following a windscreen instead of a guide holding a placard overhead, and with a schedule of nothing but following every, "Wonder what's over there," impulse. I didn't even care that I was on too much bike or remember that that terrified me. Mike had told me most of his customers take a week or more and just explore the mountains without an itinerary, and this little taste really brought the brilliance of that strategy into relief.
I met up with some new friends I'd made at Galfer and rumbled up into the weekend-house province of Sant Andres de Llavaneras. The big bike brought a smile to nearly everyone's face and the power was great to have on the hills. We wound up at a small farm to take in some dirt bike riding and share some Spanish wine with my growing collection of Spanish friends. Of course things went late, and I rolled back into Barcelona after dark, starving and lost.
Now this: the tight confines of a European city, bisected by sometimes-one-way streets, with a tourist site map, a clutch pull that would give Popeye an aneurism, rave traffic clogging the traffic roundabouts, and the least-helpful population I'd every encountered, became my nightmare. When the Spanish accept you, you are an instant friend, but approach a stranger with anything other than fluent Spanish and you will get the great "Spanish Stonewall." Lost, tired, turned around, and desperate, I ran into person after person who refused to piece together my pantomime or even to point out my current location on a map. Really, they do it spitefully, even in a tourism-based city like Barcelona. A GPS would have had me home in 10 minutes. Instead I "interacted with the locals" and eventually found my way back all by myself. "Immersing yourself in the culture" can suck sometimes, too.
The next day I took advantage of the early morning light to visit Gaudi's Familia Sagrada, then I was lucky enough to spend the rest of the day riding the hills with Umberto and Javier, two more friends from Galfer. My cruiser was holding back the pace they'd normally be at on their BMW GS 800s, but the Road King and I started to really click; lean into corners, take in the sights, and stopping to rest with a view of the mountain that holds the Shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat. We didn't go up to the shrine. I was told, and believed, it was just another tourist point. The cluster of the city was a speck on the horizon behind, and I just wanted to stay in the hills and visit the areas where the locals spend their weekends. But I was on a freeloafing-journalist's budget, so it was back to Mike's shop to hand back the bike after just a two-day trek, then on to a jet to leave the beaches and mountains for other adventurers.
This bike's there now, waiting. And it won't insist you speak Spanish, or try to sell you a watered-down Sangria, but it will take you off to wherever you ask, and some places you wouldn't know to ask about. It's an expatriate friend waiting to show you the real side of Spain, so you can be a tourer, not a tourist.
I went right to Mike Loughrie of motoespana.com, a self-admitted "extremely handsome Scotsman," who's been in the motorcycle touring business for nine years, for some tips before setting out for a great adventure through Spain.
Plan less and don't book your hotels.
Exploring the Pyrenees is all about the freedom to take any road that catches your eye and ride until you're ready to rest. You'll find a hotel room, usually in the range of 70-100 US dollars per night.
Did you know Europe shuts down in August and everyone goes on vacation? This spikes the prices of rooms and you could run into fully-booked hotels.
The rain in Spain
Regarding weather, the best months to tour Spain are April through June and September through November. The winter months will put you in the rain, and the summer months can be blistering hot if you're not ready.
Rent a helmet
Helmets are required in Spain and your Snell/DOT helmet is not legal in Europe. You need an ECE 2025 approved lid to be completely legal. MotoEspaña rents helmets, just reserve your size and let them know if you want the full-face flip-up, full-face, or open style.
Bring a phrase book
Even jot down a few basic phrases you will need, such as, "Where is a hotel?" and, "Could I have your daughter's hand in marriage?" The Spaniards speak Spanish; don't assume your bad sitcom Mexican accent will make you intelligible.
No right on red
It's not legal to turn right on red in Spain. This is just one of the many fun traffic laws you won't know.
Ten is better than seven
Ten days will get you the full and ideal experience through the Pyrenees. Seven can do it, but 10 is the number to shoot for.
Mike's website (motoespana.com) has a cool "Plan Your Trip" section, but Mike loves the sound of his own voice...and can steer you toward some rides that he knows you'll like based on what you want to see and how long you can spend in the country.