Green Spain-Friday

Santiago de Compostela
September 19 – 26, 2022


Friday – Picos de Europa – Villafranca del Bierzo
Map Link

It was cloudy when we left Fuente Dé but that wasn’t too surprising: we were in the mountains, after all! By now the group was well organized and the process of “breakfast – pack – luggage dispersal – once again decline the offer to ride behind Hana – pull out for another day of fun” had become a smooth operation. The night had been another good sleep, although eating so late was really difficult, as laying down right after consuming so much food wasn’t always comfortable. But somehow we were surviving – and still enjoying the breakfast buffets that were put out each morning.

Leaving Fuenta Dé

It was nice to be able to get “up to speed” this morning. We were retracing our steps from yesterday afternoon back to Potes, and this is the section where Dan and I were held up by slow vehicles. There were no such problems this morning!

Morning light

Passing through Potes

At Potes there was some concern because we were taking a right turn and Mac and Micah were no where to be seen behind us. Dan was ahead of me and had made the turn, but I stopped at the side of the road in order to catch them so they didn’t miss it. I told Dan this, and he told Hana. I am not sure what else was going on around the corner, but my connection with Dan was soon lost, so I assumed that they had continued on.

So I waited. And waited some more. I kept my eyes glued to the mirror, looking for the single headlights of two motorcycles coming up the road behind me. I did see motorcycle headlights, but they were always “someone else” and I waved as they went by.

More waiting. I was really starting to wonder what had happened, and what – if anything – I should do, when I saw them approach. I waved to get their attention and they let me pull out in front of them and we took the turn. I really wanted to stop and ask them what was up and if they needed to stop for anything else, but Mac indicated “No”, and we kept on riding. At this point, David pulled up behind us in his truck and I knew that there was nothing to do but catch up to everyone else.

The camera setting dial had shifted again

Northern Spain – how is this still a hidden gem?

How expensive could a Spanish speeding fine really be?

Time to find out!

We were crossing the Cantabrian mountain range

This road was excellent. The corners were smooth and predictable, the pavement was clean, and the views were ever-present. At no time did I feel bored with the riding, or stressed about catching up with the group. I knew that they were somewhere ahead of me even though my Sena never connected with Dan. Mac and Micah were behind me, although I eventually out-paced them. I was alone; just me, a motorcycle and an amazing road. I felt free in a way that only comes with motorcycling. It had been a long time since I had this feeling and it was fantastic.

I never did actually “catch up” to the rest of the group, but instead found them stopped at the Mirador (Viewpoint) del Corzo near the San Glorio Pass. I had rounded a bend and there was Hana in her hi-viz jacket, waving me into a tiny parking area. Break time!

The bend at the overlook

Another chamois! (although the internet insists that it is a Roe Deer – bah!)

Group shot

Public Works of Cantabria marker from 1972 – 50 years!

The break was helpful in that it allowed me to learn what had held up Mac and Micah (it turned out that there were issues back home that needed urgent attention) and for the group to once again be whole. We took group photos, enjoyed the view, waved at a group of UK motorcyclists who had pulled in, and then were putting our gear back on to continue our way over the pass.

As I was sitting on my bike waiting for our group to organize itself for departure, four or five guys from the UK group were excitedly discussing “the road”. But as they walked across the parking area, two more bikes approached and zipped on by – much to the dismay of the UK guys. Apparently the passing bikes were part of their group and they had completely missed the turn off. Whoops!

Continuing to San Glorio Pass

After descending from the pass along the lazy, curving masterpiece of a road, we reached the tiny village of Llánaves de la Reina and with a sharp right turn, the road entered a completely different landscape. We were back to narrow, stony gorges and lichen-colors rocks. I love roads like this almost as much as I love the languid curves of the back side of a mountain pass.

Following the “Arroyo del Naranco”

Tiny house!

Blackened hillsides: the first real evidence of the forest fires I’d read about from the past summer

The day was fantastic. Our group was stretched out but never too far from each other. The road was about as perfect as I could want: smooth surface, little to no traffic, periodic settlements for interest, lots of varied scenery, comfortable weather. I really couldn’t ask for more.

Village of Los Espejos de la Reina

Despite the greenery in the hills surrounding us, the lake bed of the reservoir at Riaño was almost empty. I tried to reason that it was September and that while a hot and dry summer was to blame, things would fill up quick enough with winter rains. I sincerely hope so, as the dry beds were disheartening to see – but also really, really, fascinating. The valley had been flooded in the 1980s by the dam construction and, based on some of the comments I found online, this was not well-supported by some.

“Due to planned construction of a dam and reservoir in the 1980s, for flood control and generation of hydroelectric power, the village and its lowlying farmland were to be submerged, as were six other villages in the associated dam project. The residents were relocated to New Riaño, built as a replacement higher above the reservoir waters. In 2010 the village had 532 residents.”

And here’s a heart-felt review that was posted on Googlemaps from the area:

“(Translated by Google) RIAÑO LIVES … the place that today lives under the waters of an illegal swamp, and that one day it will rise again from its ashes. In (the valley), there existed for more than 1000 years eight towns that are the ones that will resurface in a valley full of life. Sooner or later, we will empty the marsh … cauldron to cauldron.”

Approaching the dry bed of Embalse (Reservoir) de Riaño

Not much of a lake to support the Riaño Yacht Club

“New” Riaño

Puente de Torteros – leaving Riaño behind

The reservoir’s long, dry fingers stretched out in many directions and left a deep impression on me. While I appreciate the “clean” energy that hydroelectric dams can provide, it comes at a great cost to both society and nature. Is it worth it? I often think “no, it is not”. This is especially apparent when a dam is removed and the area is returned to its previous natural state. To me, that renewal is incredibly satisfying.

Eventually the valleys became “natural” once again and the road instead followed the small rivers and ravines that were supposedly feeding the reservoir. At least the manmade scars here were less abrasive to my eye.

Village of La Uña

Stupid camera setting dial kept moving

The beautiful road we were on crossed the Province of Castile and León border and continued into Asturias. But instead of continuing further north into Asturias with the road, we made a surprise left and returned immediately to Castile and León. For anyone following along with the map links provided, this turn was at “Bar en Puerto de Tarna” from CL635 on to LE333. The new road is what I call a “goat path”. I love goat paths, probably more than I like any other kind of road.

My definition of a goat path decrees that it must have at least some of these features: narrow, poor pavement quality, only individual houses or outbuildings (no villages or towns), no other vehicles besides maybe a tractor, and a high likelihood of having to dodge at least one farm animal. This road didn’t have everything on that list, but it had enough to make me happy!

Not the worse lane I’ve ever been on

We hadn’t been on road very long before Hana pulled over onto a grassy verge. It was photo op time and a chance to enjoy the view. There were a lot of comments about the quality of the road surface, but we were on the right bikes for it, and no one had any problems with roughness. I confess that a part of me prefers this kind of road because then there is a real “excuse” for me to keep my speed reasonable and enjoy the views.

Looking back at the view and the “nice” road we had come up

Dan’s always got my back

Taking time to smell the roses – or at least check out the vegetation

Coming down the other side of the ridge

Back onto “normal” roads, we were once again riding down a valley interspersed with small towns and periodically interesting people. For instance, the guy in the photo below had just slowly crossed the road but not before stopping numerous times to wave at the motorcyclists as we rolled by. I couldn’t quite tell if he was happy to see us, or angry at our interruption of his quiet town; his body language was hard to read.

This place rocks!

It wasn’t too much longer when we came up yet another reservoir with very little water in it. The road hugged the contours of the hills above the bathtub ring that indicated where the water level would normally be. Because of the steepness of the slopes, the dead and dry band of brown wasn’t as vast as I’d seen in other places, but it still indicated a severe lack of moisture in the region.

My photo

Google street view from May 2015 – not the exact spot, but the same view

After passing through a number of small towns, we finally stopped in one. We were in Boñar and it was time for our coffee stop. That had been quite a morning’s worth of riding!

The town of Boñar

The coffee shop wasn’t anything special, but it served hot drinks and some little snacks. We sat outside under a covered area for the short time we were there, doing the typical “Weren’t those roads awesome?” and “How about that rough pavement?” and “What was that old guy doing in the middle of the road?” questions and comments that motorcyclists tend to do during mid-ride breaks. The temperature was a bit on the cool side, and it felt like it was going to rain any minute. In fact, it did spit a few drops at us, but it didn’t look like it was anything worth gearing up for.

It was a short stop and while I am usually “ready and waiting!” when it was time to head out, for some reason this time I felt really unprepared as I was standing by the bike. I haphazardly got my stuff together, threw on my helmet and gloves and swung my leg over the seat. I jumped into line as we pulled out of Boñar and finally got myself settled.

We hadn’t gotten very far before I realized what I had done wrong: my Olympic Tough camera was not physically attached to my tank bag. As I indicated back on Day 1 in the parking garage, I use a tank bag so that I can take photos on the fly. How this works is that I have a heavy-duty retractable keychain hooked onto my tank bag with the key end clipped to the camera. This ensures that I have 100% confidence that if there is an emergency I know that I can drop the camera and it’ll still be there afterwards. In addition, the lanyard gives me peace of mind that if the camera slips out of my hands while taking a shot I won’t have to go back to find it. Granted, the lanyard is sometimes too short and I can’t always get the camera just where I want it, but for most of the photos I take, it works splendidly. It is a rather genius set up, if I may say so myself.

But with the camera not attached, I didn’t want to pull it out of its pocket and take the chance of dropping it. This means that there is a long stretch where there are no photos. While they say that a photo is worth a thousand words, I am not about to type thousands of words to make up for the lack of pictures. Naturally, once I realized that I couldn’t take any photos, I felt like I was seeing the most Spectacular Sights Ever – especially when we reached the (reservoir) Embalse Barrios De Luna.

The road approached this reservoir from downstream of the dam, which was different than the previous reservoirs. I didn’t even realize that it was a dam when it first caught my eye. What I saw were two tree-covered mountains and between them was a naked, rocky wall. Only as we got nearer did I see that there was a natural break in the rocks, and that’s where they had built the dam’s wall.

Once I was home, I caved to my need for photos and snagged some screenshots from Google street and satellite views.

Streetview of the dam

The low water level of this particular reservoir seemed much more drastic than any of the previous ones. I think that is because in the other reservoir lakes, I didn’t really notice a lot of the evidence of the drowned villages. Sure, there was a road here or there, or maybe a stone wall running through the dried mud, but in general there wasn’t a lot to see from the road. That all changed with this lake.

The dam was opened in 1956 and left sixteen towns underwater – sixteen! Many of them were visible from the road and it was all I could not to stop, park the bike and go explore the lake bed. I suspect that if it was just Dan and I on a trip, it might have happened. And if it was just me, it definitely would have happened. But it was neither case and I kept on riding. Fortunately, Google satellite view can bring some of those images from my mind and to the screen.

The road we were on, with skeleton villages exposed on the lake bed

While prowling around on Google I noticed that this “ruin” was marked on the map (2022)

And the street view from 2018

A Parador was drowned! (Parador de Riaño, built in 1951)

This view shows the water level as I saw it – note the bridge on the righthand side

Streetview of that bridge (May 2022)

One more…

Needless to say, I was kicking myself for not having attached my camera. And I chaffed at the idea that I couldn’t just pull over to clip it on place. Ok, yes, I could have pulled over for this. But I didn’t want to disrupt anyone else’s ride, knowing that we were asked not to pull over needlessly (was this “needlessly”?)

Fortunately for my mental health, we stopped for lunch not far from the dam. Restaurante Hostal Garcia in Villasecino was a busy place with almost all of the tables full of chattering locals. There wasn’t room for all of us to sit together, so the Canadians sat with Hana and David, while the Swiss group sat nearby. Our table was noticeably quieter than theirs.

Lunch at Restaurante Hostal Garcia

I have a camera again!

The riding after lunch was fast and easy. There was nothing demanding about it and the group kept up a spirited pace as we covered the last miles of the day. As usual, Dan and I discussed the sights along the way, speculating on the industry of the area, or pointing out a particularly interesting building.

One of the topics of discussion between us was the post-coffee stop slumps that Dan had been experiencing. This was the opposite of what one would expect: a coffee stop causing sleepiness? But Dan would sometimes get a coffee with cream and rationalised that the carbohydrates would kick in and override any positive effects of the caffeine. Once he figured this out, he stuck to straight espressos and the problem disappeared!

Lots of stone buildings in the region

After passing through the city of Villablino, we followed the River Sil southwest through more green mountains. This region is pretty much “all” green mountains, once again earning the moniker “Green Spain”. I love this region.

Dam on the Sil River

The Sil River was a hive of activity. Or at least it was a hive of activity. The evidence of mining and hydroelectric industries that dotted the roadside was quite impressive. It was hard to determine if some of these places were derelict or just in rough shape due to the nature of the industry or lack of current maintenance. It was also difficult to determine just what activities took place along the Sil Valley. I did some research when I got home and the most surprising is the mention of gold mining:

“The river has been a rich source of alluvial gold, and was most extensively exploited during the Roman period, following the conquest of north-west Spain by Augustus in 25 BC. The upper reaches of the river possessed large placer deposits, and the region around Las Médulas yielded large amounts of gold. It was extracted using hydraulic mining, involving the building of numerous aqueducts to expose and wash the alluvial formations.”

In addition to gold, there is also mention of gravel, roofing slate and coal resource gathering. And the most surprising of all? Chestnut harvesting. “One of these things is not like the other.”

Slate-roofed houses – probably sourced from the region!

Sometimes I take a photo of a town name just so that I can better pinpoint the photo locations later

Open pit mining at Carbón

The last stretch of riding was on a motorway under sunny skies. The threat of rain from our coffee stop had never materialized and we had had another wonderful day on two wheels.

Coming up to our exit

We blew through the city of Ponferrada (the second biggest city in León!) and out the other side where we exited at Villafranca del Bierzo. Our hotel, the Parador de Villafranca del Bierzo, was close to the main road and right on the edge of the admittedly small town.

To be frank, this was my least-favorite stay of the trip. The hotel, while nice and clean (“The interior of the building conveys the elegance, class and comfort of a contemporary building…”) I did not find it to be very inviting or interesting. But not everything can be interesting, and if nothing else, at least there were more interesting things to see in the town.

Parador de Villafranca del Bierzo

After dropping off our bags and gear, Dan and I did a quick solo tour of some of the historic highlights of the area – and some lesser-known sights as well. With the free time that we had between “checking in” and “dinner”, there was always time to explore. We usually left the rest of the group to their own devices, not willing to structure our day any more than we had to. There would be time to gossip with them later at the dinner table.

We’re on the Clam trail!

First stop: Church de San Francisco (13th century Romanesque building)

Famous 15th century Mudejar coffered ceiling

Dan and I have a habit of straying from the Tourist Trail and wandering down more local streets through nondescript neighborhoods. Often these areas offer up considerably more interesting things to see than the ever-present church/castle/cathedral that is in every town. There was no guarantee, of course, but that was part of the fun!

An “older building” on a side street

Detail of how the “older building” was constructed – and how it is falling apart

Our street became even less of a thoroughfare

Residence of the Marquises of Villafranca (16th century)

A local and his dog checking out the grape harvest – they were both very friendly. The grapes? Not so much.

Back at the hotel we adjusted our clothes for the evening walk and met up with the group in the lobby. Hana and David had cautioned us that the restaurant we were going to tonight was new, so there weren’t any reviews and they had no idea of what to expect. Well that sounded like an adventure to me!

The restaurant was about a ten minute walk to the other side of town which gave us a chance to see some things again, as well as see some new things.

The Clam Lives!

Clean and tidy streets

The stone buildings came before the utilities – they had to put the wires somewhere

The streets may be clean, but maybe because there’s no one here to dirty them?

Not all buildings were derelict

This one just screams “I am ancient!”

Collegiate church of Santa María (16th-17th centuries) across the street from our dinner location

I love the little details that have survived the centuries

“La Colegiata Food & Drink” was ready for us when we arrived, with a long table set up in their outdoor seating area. The staff were amazing and efficient, and Hana once again played translator for us with the menu. And while the service was good, and the food was great, I think that the highlight was the “support staff” that kept running around underfoot.

The group opened bottles of wine, the conversation grew louder and tasty food kept coming out of the kitchen. Each night an effort was made to have new neighbors at the dinner table, so that we took turns getting to know each other. Tonight was another interesting night of learning more about the other half of our group, and reaffirming that they are a fun and cheerful bunch of Canadians. Wait – isn’t that redundant?

After dinner we walked back to the hotel in the dark, taking a different route in order to see more of the town. It was a nice place: a mix of prosperity and neglect, which gives me hope that some day the prosperity will expand to reclaim the neglected buildings. I always rue when an old (historic) building is torn down (or falls down). New buildings may be more efficient and better appointed, but the style will never be as good as the classic architecture of begone years.

The night passed peacefully. While there was an occasional faint drone of a vehicle on the motorway, the sound of palm leaves rustling in the wind was soothing and I slept well.