The way the early morning sun lights the village clinging to the side of the mountain behind us brings the name of the story to me in a second, and the moment is instantly consigned to my mental notebook. The warm, golden sunshine ignites my soul as it sets the Spanish countryside ablaze with color. It is the moment I thought would never come. Struggling through heavy rain for three days, fighting inner demons as we picked our way along treacherous roads, and riding with our hearts in our mouths, knuckles white on the bars, had been tough. These difficulties were important though, and at that moment totally necessary, as the scene of intense beauty filling my visor could not have been so incredible without the struggle. Anyone can come to Spain, when under the cloudless blue sky the late afternoon sun is turning the small white Pueblo’s gold against the pastel Spanish landscape. But to see it after the rain intensifies the moment. The way the act of traveling tears through the fabric of time. In the saddle of the Tuono I am singing in my helmet, as the throttle gets twisted hard in search of the day’s new horizons.
On the pages of Jupiter’s Travels, Ted Simon learned not to let the rain enter his soul. Trudging around Cordoba, Spain, under skies heavy with low-lying rain clouds I remind myself of this. Accompanied by my friends, Dennis and Sam Gage, for our third European adventure together on two wheels, if anyone was feeling down, they weren’t admitting to it as we explored the ancient Spanish city.
Cordoba has been a center of population since Roman times, and in the Tenth Century was the largest city in Western Europe, possibly the world. Home to many philosophers, poets and flamenco dancers across the ages, modern Cordoba is famous for its floral patio arrangements that adorn the historic district. With limited time, and three motorcycles waiting, Dennis led us off for a visit to the Roman bridge that leads to the Mezquita across the Guadalguiver River. Dating back to 784 AD, the Mesquita was once the second largest mosque in the Muslim world, although today it is a Roman Catholic Cathedral. Digging back into the cobwebbed recesses of my mind, I recalled stuffy history lessons about the Holy Wars and the fight between Christianity and Islam, but couldn’t remember learning about Cordoba.
Later in the day, we made our way to the Ramani family dealership, where we found three identical Aprilia Tuonos waiting. Noticing they were wearing race compound tires, with the first drops of rain beginning to fall we called a quick safety meeting. This ensured we were in heightened awareness mode as we slowly made our way back to the hotel to plot our next move. For 17 years of age, Sam has a very mature motorcycle riding head on his shoulders, but the Tuono Factory makes a lot of horsepower, so intense caution was in order. Back stateside, with visions of endless sunny days, and challenging, twisty roads, we had planned a day trip to North Africa. Now, facing a bleaker reality, we still elected to make for the “Rock” at the end of Spain, Gibraltar, and to embrace any adventure we might encounter along the way.
Early the following morning Dennis led us out of Cordoba with intermittent drops of rain threatening to turn into a downpour. The roads were lightly trafficked, and within a few miles we were rolling through flat farmland heading to the Castillo de Almodovar Del Rio. Perched on the only hill for miles, the strategically placed castle strikes an impressive pose sitting high above the surrounding landscape. As one of the few castles in Cordoba that is open to visitors, it is actually quoted as the best preserved in the whole of Spain, thanks to a complete restoration by its owner the Count of Torralva. Dating from Muslim times, it is magnificent inside and out, and for a brief few minutes the sun broke through to light our photographs.
From here, we made our way into the heart of the Andulcian countryside with the town of Osuna as our next point of interest. To our sides, miles of expansive farmland slid away to the cloudy, gray horizon. There were few cars, and most of the drivers we did meet were courteous and sane, which was a complete contrast to the Italian motoring public we met in Sicily on our last European adventure together. With sketchy road conditions and limited visibility, we were quickly appreciative of this fact.
Narrow, cobblestone streets in one of the many gorgeous, whitewashed towns these adventurers encountered on their travels.
Arriving in Osuna, we soon began picking our way through the narrow cobbled streets of whitewashed houses with their barrel-tiled roofs. Renaissance mansions with massive wooden doors seemed to be in competition for the most elaborate wrought iron grilles. Near the center we parked and did some exploration on foot, marveling at the secret courtyards hidden behind these strong doors, many featuring elaborate copper designs. At the top of the town, we toured the old cathedral and looked down at the town of Osuna huddled against the foot of the hill under the most incredibly threatening skies.
With slashes of rain whipping across us, we made our way south on a secondary road listed as A 451 on my Michelin map. Within minutes we were back in time again, bumping through miles of uninterrupted farmland. Under the thick blanket of cloud, night came early as we picked up the main road to Arcos de la Frontera. Riding in the half-light while around us ugly rainstorms raged, we somehow pulled up at a pleasant hacienda on the outskirts of town without getting soaked. Greeted by a smiling lady, she was unfazed by our bikes and gear, and looking at her photograph collection in the dining room, I soon figured out why. Located just 30 kilometers from the MotoGP racetrack at Jerez, she regularly plays host to the factory teams during race season.
For dinner we decided to head into Arcos and weren’t disappointed by the decision. Perched on the top of a tall ridge of sandstone 300 feet above us, strong lights bathed the walls in color. It was a sight that will be consigned to memory forever. Entering a labyrinth of tiny streets, we were surprised to find few restaurants open, so settled for pizza at a lively bar. Fascinated by the series of aerial photos of Arcos plastered all over the walls, we checked our guidebook. Learning it is the first town on the tour of white villages, it certainly has to be one of the most stunning.
This fired us up for an early morning tour and easing our way along the most technically challenging streets of our motorcycle adventures together, Dennis, Sam, and I weaved our way to the top of town to enjoy a marvelous balcony style view of the fertile Guadalete Valley. Blasting us with the most incredible wind, we quickly retreated to explore the Gothic church across the courtyard, before slithering out way down to the highway on wet cobblestones. With the sunshine in my soul provided by the kids climbing on my bike, we made for a mountain range that disappeared off into the black cloud. The journey took us through rolling hills, and when the thick cloud cleared long enough, we enjoyed views of craggy ravines and rugged mountainsides with few trees in sight.
As visibility was down to a few yards at times, it was challenging and as we were filming for an upcoming documentary, it was my job to carry the cameraman. Weighing over 250 pounds with his gear, this upped the degree of difficulty, and I was very relieved when we rolled into Grazalema for some steaming hot coffee and a sandwich. An authentic Pueblo, clinging tight to the side of the rain soaked hillside, life in the village seemed as if the clock on the tower wall had stopped decades ago. Taking a stroll, we found another balcony like Arcos, and enjoyed the melodic sound of goat bells and beautiful views across the rocky countryside.
Exiting Grazalema, we quickly picked up a main road, and as the temperature dropped, we made our way to Rhonda on the A374. A mountain town that would be one of the brightest jewels of the trip, we called an early halt to our riding day that gave us a great opportunity to play tourist. As Andalusia’s fastest growing town, Rhonda is famous for a number of things. The most breathtaking of these being the 18th century Puente Nuevo (new bridge) that takes the main road over the El Tajo Gorge 300 feet below. The Guadelevin River was little more than a muddy trickle, which was surprising with all the rain we had seen, but the white houses perched precariously on the side of the steep-sided chasm made up for any lack of raging water.
Walking back into town we came across the Feria Goyesca, the home of modern bullfighting. Originally a sport conducted on horseback, (if you can call killing bulls with a sword a sport) a legendary bullfighter, Pedro Romero, broke tradition with the introduction of Matadors who faced the bull on foot. As depicted in Goya’s paintings, fighters and spectators still dress in the traditional style for the annual bullfights held in September. In lieu of this, Dennis and Sam gave us a good demonstration.
Surrounded by museums, 16th century convents, and cobbled streets leading to one treat after another, it was long after dark when we made it back to our hotel. With every square inch of available wall space covered in photos dedicated to bull fighting, aging hams hanging over the bar, and marble tile floors, it was the perfect place for dinner. Ordering huge Paella, the collective grin on the tired faces told me that it had been a good day, and we ate ourselves into a food coma before staggering to bed.
Rolling out of Rhonda in pouring rain we climbed into the foreboding Sierra Bermeja Mountains the next morning. Quickly into the clouds, visibility was once more near zero, and riding cautiously, I had time to observe the wet, rocky, barren verge to our side, and nothing else. It was a long ride and a test of our mettle, as we struggled with the worst conditions of the trip. Thankfully, by lunchtime we had hit the coast and were heading toward Gibraltar.
Still hunkered down against the rain, my mind drifted back 10 years to another ride I took here, also in pouring rain. At the time I was on a five-month ride around Europe on an old dual-purpose dirt bike. Making the correlation to where my life was then and now, kept my mind from the worsening conditions. On arrival, we did the ubiquitous photographs with Gibraltar in the background, before crossing the airport runway to enter the British colony for real. Thankfully it was blocked off, and no planes were landing.
The rock itself takes its name from the original Arabic name, Jabal Tariq, meaning Rock of Tariz. This dates back to the Moors who invaded in 711 AD. In Mythology it was one of the Pillars of Hercules. With its strategic geographical location controlling the narrow straight between Europe and Africa, it has a fascinating history.
British Bobbies, fish and chips in an English pub, and school kids in neat uniforms, using sentences containing both English and Spanish at the same time, made the experience like entering the twilight zone. British families watched English soccer on big screen televisions, as Spanish tourists talked to us about their cruise. Nearly exhausted from a long, cold day riding in heavy rain, we sat in some sort of trance trying to figure out where we were. Trying to digest two pounds of British lard, and half a gallon of tea, we waddled out to our bikes, our heads spinning at all the stimulation and history around us.
British and Spanish cultures collide in this English pub at Gibraltar where the adventurers paused for a bite to eat.
Back at Tuono central, with a familiar set of handlebars and a speedometer in front of me, I was quickly back in the groove as we blasted up the E 15 for Marbella, one of the hottest tourist traps on the east coast of Spain. We elected to avoid the town and headed into the mountains to a small town called Ojen. Here the bliss meter cranked to high as we found La Hosteria de Don Jose, the most authentic Spanish hotel imaginable. Unfortunately, this mood quickly left when we couldn’t find a restaurant open for dinner. Thankfully we were able to raid the kitchen for a snack, and go to bed on a full stomach.
Waking to a stunning view of the Mediterranean framing the sun filled horizon, the mood at the start of our last day was at red line before we even hit the road. Carving our way around the mountains, and getting views of the white village behind us, the title for this story was born. And, before long we had picked up another secondary road north through the picturesque mountains with our eyes set on Cordoba.
A short, but scenic ride to Anterquera, the road cut its way through the peaceful Spanish countryside, and we were soon climbing across the El Torcal mountain range at an altitude of 4500 feet in the cleanest, crispest air. Featuring a stark landscape, littered with boulders and few trees, a lone, white house near the top was the only sign of civilization for many a mile. Dropping down into Anterquera and realizing this would be our last chance to play tourist, we parked and explored on foot.
Boasting a population of 40,000 people, we got drawn into the relaxing Spanish lifestyle for the last time, lingering over lunch and exploring ancient cathedrals. Sitting too long on the defensive walls around the church of Santa Maria la Mayor, we gazed out over the Pueblo Blanco, as the sun set lower and the local people went about their business. Needing to ride back to Cordoba to return the bikes, and a crazy night drive to Madrid to catch our early morning flight home, someone had to finally make the decision to un-weld our souls from this sleepy Andulusian Pueblo Blanco and force us to ride.