Running Through Countries, Part I: Portugal to Spain

April 27-May 2, 2023

We’ve criss-crossed Spain multiple times on two wheels, beginning in 2006 in Barcelona, last year to store the bike in Malaga, and this year from Malaga to Gibraltar to Portugal and back across to Barcelona. To be honest, we’ve enjoyed Barcelona, Malaga, Manilva, Cadiz, and more, but Spain is a relatively large country, and there’s a lot in the middle that, aside from Madrid and some other attractive places, looks a lot like New Mexico in places and Nebraska in others. So we’ve decided to blast across on a mission to get to new ground.

Leaving the Douro Valley for the last time (this trip, anyway), we headed towards Barcelona again. Originally, the plan was to take the ferry from Barcelona to Sardegna (Sardinia), and island-hop to Sicily and southern Italy. After some research, we found that:

(A) We were once again arriving before the official high season, and the campgrounds on Sardinia were still closed. I emailed a couple of them begging for a piece of dirt to pitch our tent on, and was told “sorry, we’re closed” each time.

(B) Sardinia is “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” land, so the hotels and AirBnBs are way above our budget. Combined with no camping and no house sitting opportunities, this didn’t leave many options.

So we decided to take the land route around to Italy, through France. We’ve done this twice before, but we were on a different budget and staying in nicer hotels back then when we were both working. This time we were going to take a different route.

Our first night in Spain was spent in a very small, non-touristy village called Berlanga. As we rolled into town, it again looked like many other small towns we encountered in Spain: that is to say, closed. These places really roll up the sidewalks in the evenings. Aside from our hotel and the small cafe/bar attached to it, we didn’t see another business open. In fact, the hotel sent me a message while we were on the road, asking when we expected to arrive, as the front desk clerk only planned to show up to check us in, then leave again.

The hotel — a total of about six rooms — turned out to be great. The room was nice, but the woman who checked us in was extremely nice. Extremely limited English, of course, but thankfully we were back in a country where I could communicate, and my rusty Mexican Spanish was working pretty well. The online reviews for the hotel nearly all mentioned her as one of the top reasons people enjoyed their stay, and I would agree: if more hotel staff were as nice, enthusiastic and happy about their jobs as Araceli at the Hotel Rural Villa de Berlanga, it would make choosing hotels a very simple task.

Looking across the town square from our hotel. This is about as busy as it got while we were in town.

Our hotel and the cafe/bar in the background. The only other guests at the hotel were another couple that showed up on a BMW. They spoke no English, but they offered us some great tips on routes through the Basque Country, “heaven for motorcycles” as he put it. Unfortunately we were now on a schedule (I hate schedules), so the Basque Country will have to wait for another time.

The cafe/bar next door was attached to the hotel by an interior door, but Araceli explained that it was not owned by the hotel. We ordered a couple of hamburgers and took them up to the balcony of the hotel, overlooking the local castle ruins, and enjoyed dinner. I asked the ladies at the bar if they served breakfast and the response was priceless:

Them: “Yes”
Me: “What time do you open for breakfast?”
Them: (Brief glance between them)…”Eight thirty? Nine O’clock?”
Me: “Okay, Nine o’clock”.
Them: “Maybe.”

Like I said, it’s a small town, and we were pretty much it at the hotel.

They take the term “HAM Burger” seriously in Europe. Unless you see “Angus Steak Burger” on the menu, you can pretty much expect it to be ground ham, pressed into a patty, and lightly cooked (sometimes looks like it was steamed). Think SPAM, in the shape of a burger patty.

The next day we made it to the coast, just south of Barcelona, to a campground. I had emailed the campground a couple of weeks earlier and asked if I needed a reservation for a tent pitch on this specific date. The answer was “No. Just show up.”

So we just showed up. I walked into the office and asked for a tent pitch.

“Do you have a reservation?”
“No, I was told we didn’t need one.”
“You were told wrong. We are sold out this entire week.”

Huh. I walked back out to the bike, a bit irritated by the attitude. I pulled up the email exchange on my phone, and found where they had told me I didn’t need a reservation. I walked back into the office, stood in line again, and got a different employee. I showed him the email, and he checked me in. The other guy that originally blew me off was obviously irked about this, and stood up and stormed out.

Later that evening, we met a German bicycle tourist setting up his tent near ours. I struck up a conversation with him, and he said he was told that they were sold out and didn’t have space for him when he arrived. He pleaded that he was on a bicycle and it wasn’t possible for him to just go to the next campground. He said the guy checking him in then walked down to the tent area, looked, and told him that he would let him stay, but that they had a two night minimum. The bicyclist begrudgingly paid for two nights, even though he was only staying one night.

I asked him, “Was it the guy in the white shirt?”
“Yes!” he replied.
“Same guy. We were also told by him that they were sold out. But a different guy checked us in, and we didn’t have to pay for two nights.”

This is the tent area at the campground. The green tent belongs to Herman, the bicyclist from Germany. Ours is behind his, and there is one tent and a hammock to the left of the photo. So if you take our two tents out, the remaining tent and hammock constitute the “sold out” condition that caused both of us to be turned away. Hmmmm….

Fortunately the place had a cafe/bar with nicer staff that took good care of us, and the three of us shared stories of our travels over dinner and beers. Herman, the bicyclist, had recently retired from teaching, flown with his bicycle to Portugal, toured Portugal, and was now on his way back home to northern Germany, where his wife was set to retire in mid-June. He’s two years older than me, and I wish I was still in his physical condition. I might have to get the bicycle out whenever we get home.

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