Beyond Expectations

Story by Misti Hurst// Photos by Max Klein: Oxymoron Photography
November 14 2018

Spain’s diversity offers magical moments to the motorcycle adventurist

Some things in life are meant to go together – a crisp glass of wine with a delicious meal, a chunk of hard cheese with fresh crusty bread, scenic motorcycle touring with track time. Cat MacLeod of Leod Escapes has found the perfect pairing by combining 4-6 days of breathtaking road riding with two days of exhilarating track riding – on world-famous Moto GP circuits no less!

Having participated in one of his combo tours two years prior through the Italian Alps and on the Sachsenring circuit, I had high expectations of this inaugural trip through the Spanish Pyrenees and on to the Moto GP circuit of Aragon. The bar was set very, very high.

MacLeod has been running these perfectly blended tours for six years, offering international choices: Australian Curves to Phillip Island, Italian Dream to Mugello, or California Curves to Laguna Seca with the California Superbike School. In his quest to create the ultimate riding experience for the adventurous rider, MacLeod ran a contest asking the public to choose where his next tour should be. Czech Republic and Brno? Portugal and Portimãu? Thailand and Chang International Circuit? Or Spanish Pyrenees to Aragon?

The votes were counted and the Spanish Pyrenees to Aragon won as the most requested next trip, and so began many months of planning.

After extensive searching and testing various vendors, Leod Escapes chose IMT (International Motorcycle Tours) to provide local guides and a fleet of BMW motorcycles. Together they designed the routes that would include the things that he wants most for his customers to experience, like incredibly diverse roads, stunning scenery, local cafés and restaurants, authentic food and wine and, of course, two full days of track riding on a Moto GP circuit. There were 17 of us in total – two Canadians, 13 Americans and two Catalan guides would be the first group to enjoy this custom-built and specially requested tour.

High Standards

castle-in-spainHowever, with the epic experience of my first Leod Escapes tour, I was almost expecting this one to fall short. How could any trip possibly be better than Italian Alps and Sachsenring? My friend Nicole, who accompanied me on the last trip, was my motorcycle-riding sidekick on this tour as well. We spent the first day comparing this new group of participants and the first day of roads and riding with the last trip. Even when we rolled into the town of La Seu d’Urgell to our castle accommodations, I was still content in believing that this would be the second-best Leod Escapes tour I ever participated in.

But then, as day two wound its way to an end in a flurry of twisty roads winding through desolate villages dotted with crumbling stone walls, we rolled up to a beautiful majestic castle surrounded by what our animated guide Sergi described as a “circus of mountains,” and I realized I was experiencing something beyond magical. There was no longer any need to make comparisons. This would be epic in its own way and would be a different kind of special. There we stood, flushed and tired from the day of riding but completely rejuvenated by the 360-degree view of purple-tinged mountains, touching the sky.

We snapped pictures, trying to capture the richness of the moment. Within seconds, another dash of pink by way of the clouds swirled in the ever-changing sky. We drank wine and Spanish liquor under the shadow of the mountains, thick and full, and so began the complex formations of deep and binding friendships under a canopy of stars.

Ribbons of Curves

riding-on-a-highway-in-SpainThe following days unfolded almost like a roller coaster ride that only goes up, each day building on the previous, getting better and more amazing with every twisty road and mountain pass that we traversed.

And just when we thought it couldn’t possibly get any more stunning, an outrageous, beautiful ribbon of road would appear in the middle of an idyllic town surrounded by lush, green hillsides and dotted with stone farmhouses and churches, and on the top of one of those hillsides would be another stately castle. “It’s like they just put a curve here for the sake of putting a curve here,” said Justin, a fellow tour participant from Detroit. “They could make the road straight, but they filled it with curves instead!” We were awake, but it felt as if we were dreaming.

On day three, we wound our way through single-lane, well-paved roads with broken white lines on each side – no centre line – as if riding along a paper map with edges that dropped off steeply to vibrant hillsides with goats and cows roaming below. We rode over the stunning 2,072-metre-high Port de la Bonaigua pass before we dipped into France. From the top of the pass looking down was like a scene from a fantasy novel – richly olive-tinged with dark, curvy roads thrown in for fun.

We then crossed Col du Tourmalet pass. At an elevation of 2,115 metres, it’s the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees and is a famous section of the Tour de France. We stopped for lunch in the small village of Luz-St. Sauveur, which happened to be hosting Festival Du Foire, a fair to celebrate the fall lamb harvest. We improvised with parking and then wandered the streets, hungry but too curious to sit and eat. With a big band playing trumpets and clarinets, we danced and frolicked while browsing local vendors selling wine and craft beer, rounds of cheese and fresh sausages, and cooking up meaty lamb chops on homemade grills.

Some Things Never Change

Our day in France felt soft and lovely, like riding through an ancient romance novel. I was lost in the passion of it all, new friends growing closer with each minute, beautiful scenery and flowing roads. Suddenly, our riding was halted for a few moments while we waited for weathered old men and sheep dogs to corral a herd of sheep down the road. As if we were riding 100 years ago, the hollow clang of bells being rung by farmers wearing caps and trousers, sheep dogs working the herd back and forth instinctively as they slowly meandered down the road and finally over the stone walls back into the verdant hillside.

The most beautiful vista of Arrens-Marsous came next – the place where I pulled over and stood in awe: a picturesque town nestled in rolling green hills as far as the eye could see, surrounded by higher jagged mountains and what I thought were dark clouds, which turned out not to be clouds at all but mountain peaks that rose so high I believed them to be actually touching the sky. And then, of course, when trying to return to the group, I had to patiently wait for cows to leisurely cross the road while a free-range horse stood vigilant nearby watching, the curvy road disappearing ahead.  

This spectacular pass was closely followed by the most challenging and frightening pass, through the town of Béost and up over the Col d’Aubisque; carved into the side of a rocky cliff, it was barely wide enough for one car. While I’m not scared of heights, I couldn’t allow myself to look down over the edge for fear of riding over it. How exciting! How beautiful and startling all at once.

“That was a whole different universe of sheer terror,” said Tom, one of the more cautious riders in the group and who did happen to be terrified of heights. “I did it! I loved it! The views were amazing! This is what touring is all about, growing as a rider and a traveller as well.” We were so high we were actually in the clouds and snaking through a thick, foggy blanket, back down the other side.

Riding through the Spanish Pyrenees to Aragon is a little like enjoying tapas – you get a little sampling of everything: spicy, rich, flavourful and filling. As we traversed southeast across the country, the air warmed and thickened, and the scenery morphed from lush, green hillsides to dry, rocky vistas mixed with varying shades of red, pink and orange. Even the pavement changed from deep and murky greys to an orangey pink hue and widened as we rode closer to the track: Motorland Aragón!

Listen to Your Heart

riding-through-the-streets-in-SpainAs the road opened, so did the throttle, and suddenly we were speeding toward the town of Alcañiz in a steady line, back and forth, smoothly and evenly, and I fell into that trance, in the zone, one with the motorcycle. I could see Sergi a few riders ahead, intuitively reading the group, allowing this burst of speed but keeping us all in check. “Listen to your heart when riding,” he had warned us on day one. “If it goes bap bap bap bap bap really fast, then maybe you’re riding over your head. Try always to ride with the heart that goes duh dum duh dum, duh dum.” He’s the same guy who also described his work as a guide for IMT as a “dream job, like surfing a cloud.”

As we paused at the base of the pastel-coloured town of Alcañiz – looking like a Lego block mash-up of light pink, orange, yellow and white pieces surrounded by stone towers and buildings – we could see the formidable castle at the top of the hill, almost glowing with the slowly setting sun. I can’t begin to explain the sheer joy and happiness I felt while winding through the narrow cobblestone streets, bells jangling, wafts of coffee and cigar smoke filtering through my helmet as we weaved higher and higher to the entrance of the Parador de Alcañiz. High castle walls tinged a burnt orange from the setting sun, towering archways, and right out front, marked with black ribbon, a parking area for our motorcycles – the sign: “Grupo Alojado IMT BIKE: Passion for Motorcycling.” That was a wow moment.

Exceptional Accommodation

One thing that set this trip apart from the last was our accommodations. Most nights we stayed in four- to five-star paradores – think luxury “hotels” in converted medieval castles, monasteries and fortresses; it’s a way to help fund the upkeep of these historic monuments. Stunning, majestic, impressive, unique and exquisitely beautiful. Consistent with the rest of the tour, somehow the paradors seemed to get more and more impressive as the days unfolded. And the food and wine! No matter if you are Catalan, Basque, Galician or one of the other 14 different cultural identities, Spaniards are proud of their regional menus and wines. Wine is part of the Spanish dining experience, and each evening we were offered an extremely reasonable, pay one price, try all the red and white to your liking. We enjoyed locally produced wines from unique varietals such as Tempranillo and Garnacha, and menu items like Iberian pork, fresh hake, veal and Mediterranean seafood paella.

Through relaxed dinners that started around 9 p.m., as customary, and ran long and leisurely into the night, we got to know and like each other deeply. “These two absolutely make the trip,” said Paul, a soft-spoken financial planner who’s willing to twist the throttle open on the road and track. “It wouldn’t be the same without them,” as he toasted our IMT guides.

We all agreed. Sergi Besses, or “Slim,” as he was affectionately called, was vibrant, full of energy and always smiling. A talented rider and excellent guide, he entertained us each morning for around five minutes while giving us a quick rundown of the route and the roads we might expect to encounter. “Today, we add some pepper to the ride,” he would say, grinning while pointing to the map and then throwing his hands in the air shouting, “Yella ramella!” An inside joke, which very roughly translates as “Let’s go, sheep!”

And then there was David Noya, our humble driver who followed behind in our support vehicle and luggage transporter, always looking out for anyone who may need any extra support and ensuring all the details were well taken care of. Quiet and serious at first, he quickly revealed himself as a passionate and sometimes silly instructor of riding and driving, who just so happens to be extremely fast, holding the 2004 Catalunya Championship title for racing 600 cc.

We were a mishmash of personalities, falling in love with the entire Leod Escapes experience.

Moto GP Circuit and Troy Corser

Our last night in Alcañiz was so special. Having just spent two full exciting days of track riding on the world-class GP Circuit Aragón with two-time World Superbike Champion Troy Corser instructing us through the Race Academy School and growing and improving as riders, a celebration was required. Where better to commemorate motorcycle riding and cherished memories than in a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a cave that just so happened to be filled with pictures of famous world-champion motorcycle racers who frequented the same place. Wine, shots, toasts, speeches, delicious food, hugs, laughter and then singing as we walked back up to our castle on the hillside full up on life. And then, as if the night wasn’t epic enough, sharing drinks with Corser himself in a stately bar in the massive castle under a sky sparkling with stars. Awake but still dreaming.

Slightly hung over (again) and under a sky of soft feathery pink, we rolled out of Alcañiz and toward our next destination, Cardona and the final parador of the tour. I did not expect what came later. Exhausted after another day of impressive touring, we rounded a corner to behold, there in the distance, a fortress more massive and impressive than all the others combined. Wild hand gestures ensued as we neared Parador de Cardona, a ninth-century castle built by Wilfred I of Barcelona.

An Emotional Last Night

Words cannot describe this place or the emotion that came from it. It was here that I broke down in tears in the grand medieval dining room, in front of everyone, knowing that our experience was winding to a close. So full up and so empty at the same time. The stone walls and archways, the ancient paintings and the silence that fell around me as I stood on the top of the tower, under a waving Catalan flag, was too much. It was as if the ghost of Cardona Castle, the one that was said to frequent room 712, the same room that Nicole and I had specially requested, had bequeathed her grief on me. Legend says she died of sadness of a broken heart, and in those stones and arched doorways, I felt something so strong and ancient. Nicole, the more empathic and intuitive of us both, felt tapped into something spiritually higher than my melancholy. Hers was an energetic, more psychic experience from within the emotionally filled walls.
We ate grapes warmed by the sun that fellow rider Brad had chopped off a vine from a vineyard on the side of the road, and we toasted each other with full-bodied wines and Blanca de Navarra liquor. It was almost time to say goodbye.

I fell in love there, in that country, with the pavement and the mountains, the valleys and the stones. I let go. And that is the magic of travel, something about movement and motion, propelling you forward even if you don’t know where you are going.

In the end, it wasn’t so much about riding motorcycles through a storybook of the most incredibly stunning scenery, or even about turning laps on the exhilarating Moto GP Circuit of Aragón, but of the coming together of a unique group of people. Riding into Barcelona after an intense and emotional nine-day adventure, I noticed an ease in which we rode beside each other, more tightly condensed and connected, in perfect formation. Gone was any fear of riding in an unfamiliar city next to new people, and in its place a sense of comfort and finality, the best ending to a life-altering experience.

We pulled into IMT bike headquarters with gas tanks empty but memory cards full, physically and mentally exhausted but emotionally fulfilled and with excellent timing . . . just in time for a cold drink and a siesta.


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