Lost in Spain on the BMW R1200GS

March 16, 2010
Steve Atlas
Steve Atlas
Contributing Editor |Articles |Articles RSS

Professional-grade speed and an attitude to match, Steve Atlas is the new blood at MotoUSA. Atlas has AMA racing creds that are even more extensive than his driving record.

Spain is an interesting and intriguing, yet sometimes indefinable place. With centuries of European culture mixed across a variety of landscapes, many assume the entire country is filled with art, culture, beauty and history. Until they get there. While most Spanish cities boast one or two of the following traits, there’s truly only one place in the entire
Southern Spain was the site of our latest adventure and what an amazingly beautiful place it was.
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country that has it all: Seville. Just ask the locals…

Located in the western base of Spain, this multicultural and history-rich city of immense beauty is both the cultural and financial capital of the Southern region. The more-than-2000-year-old town is also famous for one very interesting fact: It’s known as the sexiest city in the world. Why Seville, you ask? Research has shown that there is more women’s lingerie worn per capita there than anywhere else on our earth, as such it’s dubbed the sultriest city in the world. What I want to know is who is the guy in charge of finding out what percentage of women wear lingerie in each city worldwide for a full-time job? Talk about a life.

As a result, when planning this tour of the southern coast of Spain, the city of Seville sounded like a perfect first destination: For the culture, of course. Not to mention it’s a mere two-hour ride east of the Portuguese coastal city of Portimão where this ride would originate. The initial plan was to make it into the North African country of Morocco and explore Tangiers aboard the do-it-all BMW R1200 GS we had on loan for the week. Five days, three countries, two continents and one motorcycle, now that’s what I call a getaway. Best part, the little lady was all for it, not scared of the dangers in the slightest.

The plan was simple – or so we thought. My babe and I together on a two-up ride aboard the legendary GS Adventure. First we planned to head east from Portimão toward Seville following the coastline and any roads less travelled we could get turn a wheel on for the first stage with Seville as our destination. After a night in the sultry city we planned to shoot down to Gibraltar and make our way into Morocco via ferry for a day in the African dunes. The aim was to take in as many of the sights and rack up as many miles as possible during the five days we had. A vision of beautiful cathedrals, scrumptious Spanish cuisine, Moroccan sand and accumulating stamps on our passports was our inspiration as we set out on day one.

For this trek the kind folks at BMW had fitted the GS with full hard luggage, so bringing everything we needed should not have been a problem. Right… It wasn’t a problem for me. As for my lovely pillion, well…is there ever enough room? After the painstaking process of stuffing the GS bags with everything humanly possible, or should I say womanly possible, we were off and rolling. It turns out I don’t need more than a pair of underwear and two t-shirts for a five day ride anyway, right? Time to get the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of this place before my brain implodes.

On the way out of town we noticed something interesting about Portimão on the 10-mile ride from the downtown to the main highway. If you go at the right hour, the Portuguese coastal town is apparently the Lot Lizard Capital of the World. A “working girl” must have stood every half-block, waiting for a date as if it was a normal everyday job. Apparently the authorities are either on the take or just don’t care, as I’ve never seen such blatant daylight solicitation – even in Las Vegas! No question… Seville is the City of Sex?

We were happy to reach the well-maintained A22 highway and put the den of iniquity behind us. From there it was 100 clicks (kilometers) to reach the Spanish border where we planned to divert off the throughway in search of some proper roads. The goal was to avoid toll roads and freeways at all costs. Twisty roads of any kind beckoned. Be it asphalt, dirt, gravel or pavement, we had a BMW dual sport and we were determined to put it to good use.

Lost in Spain
BMW’s R1200GS ate up the pavement with comfort and ease, and when things got rough the Beemer just got better. Tough to find a better all-around motorcycle made today.

The GS devoured the paved roads with ease and its heated grips were a nice feature on a 45-degree morning. The first hour was as uneventful as expected so when we discovered there was no border-crossing checkpoint into Spain to stamp our passports, we were a little disappointed. Little did we know at the time that this would become the theme of our entire ride. A few more clicks up the Spanish thoroughfare and we chose the N431 as our first deviation. Our trusty GPS led us to El Empalme and from there we headed due south to the coast through a series of old towns and villas. Finally we got onto a road which wound along the coastline for as long as possible. It started out fairly mundane, with a 20 click-straight through a small village, so I was worried that we picked the wrong road. However, once the ocean was in view we knew our decision was on the mark. What a road it turned out to be!

Weaving and winding through tiny coastal villages on the left with the ocean crashing on the right, the sun was shining and it was 65 degrees. What more could youask for? At times it would go from a normal twisty two-lane road to a bumpy, poorly maintained one-lane street. All the while we traveled up and down hills and into valleys, with a few hundred feet of vertical elevation waiting around every turn, the sun on one side and the water’s breeze on the other. It was a roller coaster of a ride and while the GS may not have been a sportbike, it handled anything we threw at it – this had to be exactly what BMW intended for this motorcycle.

The GS devours freeways with ease, takes any twisty in speedy stride, and when the road gets rough the Beemer only gets better. Even when scouting photo locations down gravel roads, two-up at a solid 80 mph, it was almost like gliding down a freshly paved freeway.

Seville boasts some amazing old-world architecture. Did we mention its considered to be the sexiest city in the world
Seville boasts some amazing old-world architecture. Did we mention it’s considered to be the sexiest city in the world?

After following the Spanish coast for half a day we hit the huge National Forest, signaling it was time to head northeast, Seville in our sights. The goal was to make it there by nightfall as we had a hotel waiting for us. While the rest of the ride would be uneventful, mostly straight two-lane roads, the first half still had us on a high, buzzing from the amazing roads, stunning scenery and sheer delight of knowing we had picked the ideal steed for the job. With big plans in sight, it was reassuring to know the even two-up the monster GS could handle just about anything in its path. We basically made a five-hour detour that ended at the delta around Punta Umbria so we were forced to head back north past an array of resort towns nestled between board shanty camps along the Autovia Umbria where we would re-join the A-497 highway and head to Seville.

Even though the GS is a comfortable machine, after seven hours in the saddle we were both ready for a hot shower and a soft bed. Too bad all beds in Europe are made of concrete. But that’s a different story – my back hurts just thinking about it. The sun was disappearing quick so we dropped the hammer and covered the final 100 clicks with some serious urgency. With my babe pulling double duty as police lookout and navigator, I kept the throttle to stop for as long as possible.

Thankfully Road Test Editor Adam Waheed loaned us his hand-held GPS for this trip and uploaded maps for the area. We learned from our last outing in France the lack of accuracy Google Maps provides in the European Union, so this time it was all about the Global Positioning System. Too bad even with that piece of technology at our disposal we got lost at least twice in the final hours of our ride. The small, hard-to-read screen and our tendency to hit the wrong buttons at just the wrong time led to a series of bad turns that took us everywhere but where we wanted to go. We looked at it as an extended tour of the outskirts of Seville. It’s all good. Once inside the insanely complicated city center we had a heck of a time trying to find our hotel. While this tested the nerves late in the day, we eventually found our destination. It wasn’t exactly the palatial digs we were hoping for, but by then we were ready for a shower and some food so we weren’t going to be picky.

Roasted chestnuts over an open fire. Its Christmas time in Spain.
Roasted chestnuts over an open fire. It’s Christmas time in Spain.

The city of Seville is an amazingly beautiful place. From the river running through the center to the 18th-century architecture to the awesome tapas bars, there really isn’t a town that embodies the best of Spain more than this southwestern locale. We knew as soon as we arrived that our research had paid off. This was the place to be. Angela and I opted to bunk just out of downtown in a small business district at the Hotel Melia Sevilla. Although it was horrid looking from the outside, the rooms were nice and the price was reasonable. It was also within a couple miles of the famed cathedral and city center where all the action takes place.

With most people in Spain, the routine is to eat lunch around 3 p.m. followed by dinner and tapas from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. Our selection of food was endless. Before it was over we came to believe that Seville has some of the best traditional Spanish food in the country. With bellies full and bums worn out we slipped into a coma-like slumber for some much-needed sleep.

We awoke to the sun peeking through the windows the next morning and went in search for some good eats to start our day. We found some amazing fare while wandering the town, mobbing around from spot to spot aboard the Beemer. The real beauty of being on two-wheels in Europe surfaced again. Parking was New York City-bad, but you could put a scooter or motorcycle just about anywhere and no one seemed to mind. We cruised from spot to spot, hopping off and parking right in front of each and every destination we visited.

“The air soft as that of Seville in April, and so fragrant that it was delicious to breathe it,” said Christopher Columbus.

In the center of Seville sat its astonishing Cathedral. Even though Im not very religious  its nearly impossible not to feel in awe of the amazing church.
In the center of Seville sits its astonishing Cathedral. Even though I’m not very religious, it’s nearly impossible not to feel in awe of this amazing church.

And though the famed traveler was talking about the spring air, our day was highlighted by two slightly different but still delicious things: Food and amazing visual beauty. With the famed Cathedral of Seville at its heart and an array of twisting, turning roads filled with bikes, cars and scooter traffic we were forced to assimilate to the fast-paced nature of Seville. First up was a delicious patio lunch filled with the area’s specialty: Cured black ham and cheese on bread. Amazing stuff, cured for years and thinly sliced, we could have eaten for days.

Our exploration continued with visits to an amazing botanical garden, plus the famed Cathedral, known in these parts as the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede (or Cathedral of St. Mary of the See), which, fortuitously, was host to a street party when we arrived. We would like to think they were just happy to see us, though. Held at the Plaza San Salvador, it turns out there is one every day at 3 a.m. as well. These get-togethers consist of music on blast and a host of vendors selling beer and food. Then, as quickly as it started, it all ends at 4-4:30 p.m., with everyone packing up and heading home. It’s a daily fair of sorts, which packs the courtyard with lively young folks having a good time twice a day.

Following Spanish tradition, an afternoon siesta was in order before heading out to dinner. And what a dinner it was. Tapas, or appetizers in English, are the specialty in Seville and while lunch is the key meal of the day, most people only snack while saving room for a late dinner. When in Rome, or Seville, we did as Sevillians do. There was a splendid selection of everything from chorizo and eggs to mussels in butter to more of that amazing ham, plus a host of things I couldn’t even pronounce. It’s a good thing Angela is fluent in Spanish, as it came in quite handy getting around town and ordering food. It may seem that things were really going our way, but when we went in search of tickets to the infamous bull fights of Seville we were disappointed to find out we had just missed the season finale.

Despite missing out on the fights it proved to be an amazing day in an awesome city. After dinner we posted up at the hotel because we planned to get an early start the next morning. We mapped out our route to Gibraltar and snuggled up for some alone time. We were rewarded with the splendiferous brilliance that is a Spanish sunset as seen from our 15th-story balcony as it disappeared behind a city full of red-roofed buildings older than the country we live in. If you ever plan to soak in the sights of Spain, I would put the sunset in Seville down as Number 1 on the list.

Gibraltar provides an amazing view of the Mediterranean sea. Too bad we couldnt take the bike across.
Gibraltar provides an amazing view of the Mediterranean Sea. Too bad we couldn’t take the bike across into Morocco…

After a great day taking in all Southern Spain had to offer, and allowing our rumps to recover from the previous day’s ride, it was time to get back in the saddle. The following morning at the crack of dawn the journey south to Gibraltar began. Following the main roads it looked like an easy two and a half hour trip on our GPS, but we fully intended to get lost. I mean, why fight the inevitable? And we did exactly that. Heck, I took three wrong turns just getting out of town. But that’s the beauty of the ride. No matter what is happening around you, you’re destined to have a good time. In a car it would have been hell on earth, which is exactly why we all love two wheels so much.

After 15 clicks of heading south on the A-4 freeway we picked a random exit and got off, pointing the bike south and going along for the journey. It turned out to be another great ride. We passed though loads of little towns, even logging a solid 30 clicks of dirt road. It felt like a stage from the Dakar Rally – pace notes in hand and only a general direction as guidance. Rocks spitting off the back tire and never knowing what’s coming around the next corner, now this is an adventure.

We made our way within half an hour of the port without touching a single freeway. As for the roads we took, well, your guess is as good as mine. There must have been 200 different little jaunts, not one of which I can remember the name of. Yet the ride as a whole was quite memorable. I could give you a general direction and the exit we got off on, but beyond that your guess is as good as mine. That is where the beauty of this phase truly lay. No GPS telling us where to go, it was all about following a general direction and doing our best to get as far south as possible. The so-called two-hour ride took us a solid six and we got into the port city of Gibraltar late in the afternoon.

Next up was our fateful Moroccan trek, so there was little time to rest. Gibraltar, which is essentially a big rock at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, is a self-governed British territory, so we needed to go though passport control to enter. Finally, a stamp. Located on the edge of Mediterranean Sea, Gibraltar is the place to grab a ferry and cross into Morocco. We had some time to eat some English-style fish and chips before heading to the boat.

I approached the line, rumbling through my gear to find my wallet to pay for two tickets and motorcycle transportation to get to the northern African country via a barge across the Mediterranean. “Two for the ferry and one motorcycle, please,” I said. “I’m sorry sir, but we aren’t bringing vehicles across at this time. We only do that during six months of the year and that period ended last week,” responded the desk attendant. What? No vehicles? You have got to be kidding me! The closest port that would take a motorcycle was another 100 clicks up the coast and there was no way we had time to make it. All prior research showed this as a car and motorcycle friendly port year-round. So much for riding through Morocco.

Once we wiped the shock off our faces and came to grips with the fact that it wasn’t an option, a game-time decision was upon us. Leave the bike and go on foot or turn around and play it safe. Here’s hoping that “secure” lot is well watched, because we came all this way and there’s no way we aren’t going! The GS would be there all day, so our fingers were crossed.

Tangier reminded us of a cross between San Francisco and Tijuana. The sights and sound were well worth the trip as was the tasty Moroccan cuisine.
Tangier reminded us of a cross between San Francisco and Tijuana. The sights and sounds were well worth the trip as was the tasty Moroccan cuisine.

An hour later the ferry was pulling into Morocco. We had finally reached Tangier. Picture San Francisco mixed with Tijuana and a hint of the sand-dune filled Africa as the backdrop and you’ve got the northern-most African big city nailed. Very bohemian, music playing in the streets and vendors everywhere selling trinkets – like I said, San Fran and Mexico all in one.

But without the bike and lacking the ability to cover any distance in the short time we had, we were confined to simply walking around the city. It was a nice day, taking in the sights and eating as much traditional Moroccan food as possible. Sure, we sampled a variety of rich foods but I couldn’t help but look longingly towards the red sand dunes, wishing I had my bike. Man, I hope I get a chance to try this again some day. In what seemed like no time at all we had to catch our 7:30 p.m. ferry back to Europe.

Although it wasn’t the gnarly two-wheeled gravel-blasting Indiana Jones-style African adventure I had envisioned, it was a great day nonetheless. And the best part? No one stole the bike! Our silver steed sat waiting untouched in the lot as we crossed back to British-governed peninsula. Oh, the relief…

Obviously we were a little disappointed not to get to ride in Africa, or more specifically, not getting the photo of our motorcycle parked on top of the Moroccan dunes that I had hoped for, we couldn’t complain too much. Visiting Tangier was cool and we both agreed that we were glad to have experienced it anyway.

Some 1100 miles later the adventure was over. And  as always  much too soon...
Some 1100 miles later the adventure was over. And, as always, much too soon…

We opted for another round of English food and some much needed sleep in the first hotel we could find. Both were just what the doctor ordered. Our trip was almost over and we knew an extended ride back to Portugal along the gorgeous and extremely unpopulated Spanish coast was in our future. As we had a better idea where we were going on the way back we had a lot of time to soak in the sights from the saddle. The rugged cliffs were dotted with red-roofed casas in varying conditions. Some were pristine, others, not so much. Yet, regardless of the dwellings, this land would be worth millions in the States. Without stopping for photos too many times on the way back, we made great time on the surprisingly well-kept Spanish backroads. Once we reached the Spanish/Portuguese border we jumped back on the freeway and headed straight to Portimão.

With almost 1100 miles logged on the GPS our tour of Spain proved to be exactly what we needed. We may not have accomplished our goal of embarking on a gnarly Moroccan adventure, but the rest of the ride and Seville were breathtaking. Even though we were quite often lost the fact that we had so much fun just reaffirms a valuable lesson: The beauty of motorcycling is that the end rarely justifies the means. It’s the means that usually justify the end.

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