All entries for Sunday 24 June 2007

June 24, 2007

Riding the Ruta de la Plata, part 6

Follow-up to Riding the Ruta de la Plata, part 5 from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Riding motorcycles along the route of silver. Through the homeland of Pizarro. Conquistadors. An encounter with a nomad from an older Europe. And into stylish, classy Sevilla. Part six of the journals of my ride through Spain.

Part 1: Santander landing, camping in the Picos de Europa
Part 2: Cares River, Desfiladero de los Boyes gorge, Peurto del Ponton pass
Part 3: Easter processions in León
Part 4: Plasencia
Part 5: Extremadura  

Day 6 - into Seville

Snowbound peaks puncutate the horizon to the north of the town of Plasencia, itself with a modest elevation of 316 metres. The morning was bright and dry, with no sign of storm clouds wrapping the distant mountains in the grey menace of the previous day. We packed away our camping equipment, a process now becoming habitual (with my cavernous Tesch panniers, packing is easy). Heading south we initiated a day long descent towards Seville, rolling down on to the wide flat flood plains of the Rio Guadalquivir. Firstly, however, the tight turns and hills of Monfrague National Park's minor roads provided an early morning twist to the plot. As ever, Martin on the faster R1100GS found swift lines through the hairpins, imitating those swooping birds as closely as is possible on a 250kg motorcycle. I convinced myself that his espíritu del camino would simply result in passing the wonderful landscape and birdlife with a tunnel visioned ignorance. My assumption was that upon finally meeting further along the road, I should be able to disapoint my companion with tales of hoopoes, merlins, kites, eagles and storks. He had, of course, spotted all of those and more.

Beyond the park, we rejoined a bigger more certain road, progressively widening like a river approaching the ocean. It drew a line heading southwards, the straight path of which should have suggested its ancient historical origins. On past the town of Cacares, with atmosphere and character becoming progressively more Andalucian, I noticed a road sign that had first interested me on the mountainous road into Bejar:

"Ruta de la Plata"

That does sound heroic. Riding motorcycles along the route of silver. Through the homeland of Pizarro. Conquistadors. So rich were they in silver that they were compelled to seek an even more precious metal, far off in the land of Atahualpa. But to us now, more precious would be this thought: perhaps this road could give some narrative unity to what had so far been a rather haphazard expedition. At one point we travelled through an ancient industrial landscape, now covered with grass and low shrubs. Silver minings perhaps? One could imagine this to have been a route of power, culture and trade, borne along with the caravans of precious metal. No doubt an attraction to the empires that ebbed and flowed over this land: Visigoths, Romans, Moors, Catholics, Republicans and Fascists. We passed Moorish castles, tall and dark strongholds looking out from their cool and shaded interiors across an increasingly hot flat territory. Not only history here though, great wind farms and solar power stations place the landscape in a future just now being realised, a future that exploits the burning heat and light of this land, rather than seeking to hide from it in deep courtyards behind castellated walls. Will the axis of capitalism and civilisation once more drift southwards to Spain when Northern Europe runs out of gas?

Andalucian view
An andalucian landscape

This road, the Ruta de la Plata, is in fact important enough to have its own web site, representing the trading and cultural alliance of the many towns through which it passes (from Gijón on the north coast via Leon, Bejar, Plasencia, Cáceres and Zafra to Seville). Spoiling the romance of the road somewhat, the web site seems to claim that the naming of the road has nothing to with precious metal. Rather, it refers to the way in which the original Roman road appeared to be made of metal, a consequence of the applied techniques of construction (as we say in English, it was a 'metalled' road). Whatever the origins of its title, I was happy with the idea that we had been vaguely following the Ruta da la Plata from the Bay of Biscay, and would continue to do so all of the way to Seville.

Passing through towns and villages with greater frequency, finally a hunger for fuel stopped us. My GS Paris Dakar makes 300 miles before reserve, so stops are more rare than one would expect. The service station provided gasoline and more of the freshly made coffee that powers Spain. As we sat resting, several other small groups of bikes passed by, mostly sports bikes, enjoying a great road. A group of new BMW bikes stopped for fuel, led by a K1200S badged to identify it as a demonstrater from a BMW dealership in Seville. We had started seeing new beemers in Plasencia. I knew that we would see more of them as we got closer to the capital of Andalucia - they are somehow more appropriate here. As for the big K1200S, a fully faired sports touring rocket, perhaps the fastest vehicle on the roads (0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds), what a great bike to be riding on fast sweeping roads like these!

We made one further stop before Seville, finding a bench in a small town from which to plan our attack on the big city. Our conference was gently interrupted by the most subtle act of begging that I have ever encountered, so subtle in approach that I failed to recognize it as such. He was somehow anachronistic in his appearance, perhaps even belonging to no particular place or time. Thin, but not painfuly so, with dark hair and olive skin. He wore a green corduroy jacket, stiff brown brogues, with no socks. That final detail was diagnostic. We had no common language. He was obviously not Spanish. Martin cycled through some possibilities, experimentally offering phrases in French, German, Russian, with Chinese added as a joke. "Roma" he said in reply. Obvious. But perhaps political correctness had drawn us away from the truth. "Narok!" I exclaimed, while miming the act of drinking a glass of beer. I don't know much about Romanian, but I know what I like. With a minimal common understanding established, he had just enough time to tell us of his own expedition traveling around Europe by bus in search of work. And then suddenly he was gone, back on to the bus heading North.

Rio Guadalqivir
The view along the Rio Guadalquivir

Our plan for Seville was simple. The Ruta would first widen out into three lanes, with a spur shooting off along the industrialized western suburbs towards Donana. We would turn eastwards from this and ride straight into the centre. I know Seville. It is an easy place to navigate, with many landmarks and a simple layout. We rode first across the more natural of the Rio Guadalquivir's two channels. And then over the second, artificial channel. As always, the traffic was gentle and bike friendly. Across the other side, I led us along Paseo de Cristobal Colon, following the river, past the Plaza del Toros de la  Maestranza (the bullring of Carmen), the Torre del Oro (golden tower) and the cathedral towards Parc María Luisa, rolling slowly by horse drawn taxi cabs with throttles calmed (although the horses must be used to noisy bikes). Then finally we turned away from the river along the edge of the Alcázares, parking up on the pavement at a nice restaurant next to the old hospital. In the restaurant, at last, we found good Spanish food, and the usual babble of smartly dressed families (each with representatives from several generations). And from there we could plan out our stay in Seville.

Horse drawn taxis in Seville
Horse drawn taxis in Seville

Seville bullring
Toros de la  Maestranza

Golden tower

Torre del Oro

Coming soon, "a day in Seville".