Thursday 21 November 2013

From Barcelona, through Spain and onto the shores of Africa.

The ride into Barcelona was hideous. I'd promised myself to try and avoid the big cities where possible due to the complete hell it is to drive into them. It's no secret that my bike is tiny, and thus, isn't really allowed on the motorways or big highways. Yet, however hard I try to avoid these roads, I always end up being taken onto them. Entering the big cities in France, Nantes and Bordeaux for instance, was enough to make me swear to avoid them. Having a huge truck driving up behind you about a metre away from your rear wheel trying to force you off the road is quite a frightening experience - thoughts come into my head about what would happen if my engine cut out. A mangled death. Or if they overtake me I have to steady the steering as the force of the wind round the massive tyres suck me into them and then the velocity of the truck blows me back out again, nearly sending me into the road barrier. And then again and again. And again.
 Usually there is little choice but continue on these roads in fear until you enter the city. There probably are smaller roads leading into them, but again, no map. I just follow the directions that Google maps tells me to
go which avoid the highways, though they seldom do. I feel comfortable in blaming it on bad road signs. Barcelona was different though. I literally couldn't find a way that wasn't leading me onto a highway. For an hour I was screaming the bollocks off the engine just hoping for the end of the road. I didn't take into account just how massive the outskirts of the city were. And I was entering in rush hour too. I had absolutely no idea which way to go once I was in Barcelona, so I just headed for the centre. By the time I got into the city it was dark, my brain and body was shattered and I was shaking with adrenaline. When I could, I just rode my bike onto the pavement, turned the engine off and sat down. I wouldn't have done this to myself again if I wasn't visiting an old friend.

I used to live with Mariá in Romania, in a beautiful, massive and very cheap top floor apartment in an old communist block building. Which also came with a schizophrenic landlord that liked to point a loaded gun at my face. I hadn't seen her for years and was looking forward to spending some time with her.
 I eventually managed to find the place she was working at that night, by pushing my bike along the pavement in the busy night time streets to peoples iphone directions. Once I found her place I put my bike on its stand and tried to collect myself. I'd done 13 hours that day and was quite ruined. People were quick to perk up my spirits though. The sight of my loaded up bike was quite an attraction, and all sorts of people came over to ask questions, take photos and give encouragement and advice. One guy in particular was really interested in what I was doing. He said he'd done something similar around Europe with a Vespa. I shook his hand and gave him my card with my website on. Five minutes later he came back and put 5 Euros in my hand and walked off.

After a few good days of swimming in the sea, eating very well and drinking, my tiredness had subsided. I didn't expect to meet so many new friends and eat so well in my time in Barcelona, but due to Mariá's boyfriend, Andreas, I happened to endulge in a big way. Andreas worked for a new company called EatWith, that organised hospitality cooking events. Through the website people organise dinner parties, either hosting a dinner or you go round to other peoples homes and eat there. Most people are strangers but you end the evening with new friends. It really is a great way to meet new people and eat some very good food. Every night, apart from the one when we hosted, we ate out at other people homes, mostly on roof terraces overlooking the city.
The friends you make with EatWith.

 One of the best nights I had was on the Saturday, eating on a beautiful top floor terrace with ten other guests, eating a five course meal of quality food that I really couldn't afford in a restaurant. Andreas made me do a little speech about my ride and the reception was beyond my expectations. Some of the positive words people said were beyond my imagination and, when finding out that my tent had broken and that I'd spent the last days camping just sleeping outside, two lovely people, Jesper and Orieta, decided to give me theirs.

Jesper and Orieta on the left and Andreas and Mariá to my right.

Jesper and Orieta really are fantastic people. I went round to their apartment the next day to pick up the tent, being rode through the city by sitting on Andreas's crossbar on his bicycle, and ended up staying for dinner. Literally the best taco's I've ever eaten. And vegan too! We spent the night drinking wine, talking about music and art and their future plans of moving to Peru and setting up an art/music café. See you guys in Peru! 

The beautiful view from Jesper and Oreta's place. 

I left Barcelona a few days later and after a manic few hours trying to find my way out of the city I succeeded and took the coastal road South. I had been told just how beautiful the coastal road was, and it really is, riding with the Mediterranean sea on my left and mountains and forests on my right whilst going round hairpin bends on small deserted roads. It was on this road that I did the faithful oil change.

The last oil change before the breakdown.

I was only due to ride around 90 miles that day as I had a place to stay with my first couchsurfing host, Oriol in Amposta. I was surprised that I even managed to find his front door on my own accord... this was a first! Amposta is a small place. 

Oriol and his Mum.

Oriol lived in an apartment and his Mum lived next door so they both shared a floor together. His sister lived upstairs too. It was a nice place, very cosy and family orientated. I stayed in the guest room in his Mum's place for two days. With it being my first couch surfing experience I was very humbled and appreciative of the welcome and hospitality I received, but apparently its very normal for them, they have people to stay all the time. I love couchsurfing.
 Even though Amposta is a small place it boasts a national park which is situated in a little outcrop of land spreading out into the Mediterranean sea. I took 90 there free of baggage and rode on some dirt roads which will be very good preparation for some in Africa, including riding on sand for the first time.

 Two days later I left Amposta to make my way further down the Eastern coast. The morning was full of rain, the first on the journey since I'd left Northern France. I was in high hopes that I'd leave the rain behind once I got on the road and headed South towards La Vall D' Uxió . Yet about one minute after I said goodbye to Oriol's Mum, I had my first accident on the road. Just around the corner I came to a junction and thought a van was going to pull out in front of me, which, combined with the wet road, the paint markings, and the oil on the tarmac that I noticed later, threw the bike sideways as I braked. The front wheel slipped to the right, the bike fell to the left and I was thrown of it, skidding along the road on my left side and back for around three metres. Its a good job I was only doing 25 mph at the time. I eventually stopped skidding with my face just in front of the vans wheels. I laid there for those brief few moments when you know you could be hurt, waiting for the pain to come. But it never came. A crowd gathered and helped me get little 90 of the road. All that was damaged was a slightly ripped pannier bag and a bent left foot pedal, which also left a gouge in the road. It took a lot of reassuring and smiling to convince the crowd that I was okay. I didn't get one scratch on me. I was very lucky. All I remember from the moment the bike fell was the sound, the sudden crashing sound of the bike hitting the road. This came before all realisations of what had happened. Its quite daunting how quick a serious accident could be. As the Columbian guy in Bordeaux pointed out, it is the bike that is the most dangerous thing on this trip. People are quick to point out quite fantastical predictions about how I'm going to meet my doom, kidnapping, murder and bum rape... but really the most dangerous thing is riding the motorcycle itself. This minor scuffle was a major warning injection.

Later that day, whilst still being shaken up from the crash, my super glue repaired screen finally gave in when I was going 40 mph down a highway, snapping off and hitting me in the face...

I reached La Vall later in the evening and sat by a fountain in the main square, reading as I waiting for my second couch surfing hosts, Veronica and Fabio to finish work. The benches around the fountain were full of old people, all congregating for there evening chat. Some would slap each other whilst halfway through sentences, some would abruptly break out into opera in the middle of a conversation and the resume talking as if nothing had happened. These were happy people.

I was only meant to stay with Fabio and Veronica for one night but I ended up staying for three. I really connected with these people and it was a joy to discover just how much of a good thing couchsurfing can be. We spent evenings drinking in local bars and eating tapas, and socialising with there friends. I got persuaded to stay one more day by everyone as one of their friends who lived in a house in the surrounding hills was having a paella, pool and beer party. It became evident that day that I really was drinking a lot on my way through Europe. After a lot of beer and gin and tonic, and only the Englishman braving the October water in the pool, it was time for the Paella. Its was interesting, not like the Paella I'm used to back home. This one was made from chicken, rabbit and snails. This wasn't the first time I'd eaten snails before, but it was the first time they had tasted like a garden. I might think more kindly towards them if I didn't shit myself for a week afterwards. My innards are telling me it was the snails. They know.

 Later that evening I got my first taste of the eccentric Spanish tradition; the running of the bull. I find bull fighting a disgusting sport, and I feel uneasy about sending an enraged bull out into the streets for peoples enjoyment. Though, whether I was there or not, it wouldn't have made a difference. La Vall D' Uxio is a small town, and it still keeps this tradition on a Saturday night. As we walked to the area where the bull is released you could feel the excitement in the air. The residents in the area put up metal shields against there doors and windows and you could see the age in them, etched with marks from bull horns from years past. On the outskirts of the area were metal bars blocking the small streets. They were made so people could enter if they wished and escape if they had to. Successions of cannon fire had been echoing around the streets for most of the evening. These indicated that the bull was soon to be released. As nine approached, people were on edge, waiting for the final signal. I was inside the area, through the bars with Fabio whilst Veronica peered through on the safe side. The people were manic, you could feel the energy and anticipation bouncing off the walls. BOOM BOOM, the cannon went off and people ran around in a frenzy... The bull was running through the streets.  
 It was hard to tell where the bull was. People were anticipating its movements... then you hear the bells. Bells are attached to the bulls neck to warn people its there prior to seeing it. The same reason for this also justifies putting kerosene blocks onto the bulls horns. I find that uncomfortable. If I was a bull in captivity, I don't think I would mind the opportunity to be able to chase people around streets. Having fire attached to my horns though... no living thing would want that. I had been assured that the horns would not actually feel the heat though. 
 So as the rumbling of peoples feet on the pavement accompanied the growing jingle of the bells, the streets began to light up, casting shadows of people running around like a flock of dispersed sheep. The bells got louder, the fire became visible and then the bull charged. People parted and the bull ran forward. Fabio grabbed me and pushed me through the bars as the bull ran passed and charged through the little alleyways.
 I'm not going to deny, it was exciting, and I wanted to see more. People ran down the streets, following the direction where the bull ran. I wanted to follow but Fabio persuaded me that we were in a good place and it really isn't safe to go chasing the bull. We lingered in the area for a while, listening out for the bells. The jingle came again, and the streets lit up with the colours of flame. People started running towards us but I wanted to stay, I wanted to be in the middle of it. Fabio's mind was fully set on the side of caution though, which was probably a good thing. The people ran closer and I didn't move, so Fabio started shouting, 'Liam. Liam! come!' We both managed to get behind the bars just in time before the bull charged through a group of people. 

I'm glad I experienced this bizzare Spanish tradition. I still find it quite challenging to accept on the bulls behalf however. At least with this one the bull isn't deliberately hurt though.

  Veronica and Fabio.

It took me two days to reach Ciudad Real after leaving La Vall. I spent the night in transit camping next to a dilapidated old mud and red brick farmhouse perched on a hill in the countryside. This was the first night in the new tent... its better than my old one. The main plus is that its free standing, meaning that I don't need to peg it into the ground for it to be standing erect. I would have found it hard to drive the pegs into the ground that night, and I imagine some of the ground in Africa will be harder still. Is the size of a palace too and doesn't let light out too easy through the dark blue material.

The roads the next day were some of the most pleasurable that I've ridden on in the journey so far. I successfully managed to not get lost all day, cutting my way through central Spain on tiny roads which I had mostly to myself. I cruised at 40 mph for hours in the heat, took long breaks under trees and covered 230 miles in seven hours. Once I reached Ciudad Real I managed to find Miguel's front door with the help of a lovely lady in a cafe; she drew me a map on a napkin! I pushed my bike along the pavement, following the napkin and found Miguel's house. As I was sat on his front door step waiting for him to come home from university I was planning my route to Portugal and contemplating whether I would reach Morocco within a fortnight. I decided I should only stay in Ciudad Real for one or maybe two nights. I never imagined that I would stay there for a month.

The first delay was a giant hangover after drinking in bars all night with Miguel and his friends, accompanied by shots that no one seemed to pay for. This was only a minor delay of a day, but during hungover rambling on the internet I had discovered that Senegal had recently changed its visa regulations. British citizens never needed one before, but now most nationalities do. I thought it would be fine to pick one up in Rabat, but annoyingly they only issue visas for Moroccan citizens. Same with Mauritania. You also need to show proof of flights and hotel reservations. Not great for the overland traveller. Another annoying thing about the visa was that it was biometric, which means they have to take copies of your finger prints. Most Senegalese embassies in the capitals of Europe hadn't got round to installing the technology for taking your finger prints by this time either. Organised much? Luckily the embassy in Madrid was up to date, but due to Ramadan I had to wait until the following week. Miguel and his family were very kind to let me stay whilst I was trying to get this all sorted. When the time came I got the bus to Madrid, (fear of impending doom on the motorways) took the tube to the embassy whilst Peruvian men played lived pipe music on it, handed my incorrect documents to the bubbly lady behind the desk and got my visa within 20 minutes.

That was on the second Friday that I was staying at Miguel's. By the Sunday I was ready to leave. I was sad to say goodbye to the family. It was similar to leaving home again, but I new that I needed to leave. I said my goodbyes and was on my way... 5 hours later I was back again with a broken bike.


 If you want to know the details, please trawl through the updates to see what went on with that, but the fact of the matter was... I broke my bike, spent a lot of time and money getting fixed and learnt quite a bit about engines and regret in the process. Breaking my bike was a devastating blow. I’d spent months trying to find a bike with little mileage and in good condition, and now I’d managed to break it, just 2000 miles into the journey. Moods went up and down with the news of how much my bike had been damaged. Eventually, after much consideration and debate with what I was going to do, I bought an old C90 engine from Scotland had had it shipped over. Much of my original engine was okay and was in better condition than the new one so we just replaced the damaged parts.

The guys at the garage and their magic hands.

 I wheeled my bike to and fro the garage four times throughout the stages of it being fixed. Each time I would walk past a disused building (something you see quite regular in Spain) and there was an old man that would work inside. He was 84, and would spend his days inside that building making psychedelic, kitch houses and small streets out of found objects, lollypops etc. These houses that he makes would give the artist, Jeff Koons something to think about. Even though I was downhearted each time as I wheeled my bike to the garage, it was a pleasure to see someone who was so late in the years to fully comprehend the touch of death to live a life so colourful and visually prolific.

After one month at the Rodreguez household I was ready to leave again. It was a pleasure staying with them for a month. I arrived as a stranger and I left with what felt like a new fa mily. A lot happened in that month, too much to write down for the blog. I made a circle of friends there which made Ciudad Real feel like a home from home again. It was hard to leave, and I found being by myself on the road again hard. Thank you, Miguel for giving me your bedroom for one month! And a massive thank you to the whole family for the warm welcome, generous hospitality, amazing and interesting food... and all that red wine also! 

These guys are great. I kissed the old lady too... cultural confusion.

Within two days I reached my last stop on the European continent, Algecrias.  I had being invited to stay with a family, Raffa and Beatriz and their two small children. I arrived in the night and when I entered their apartment I could see Africa for the first time from the balcony. This was the first time I had seen the continent with my own eyes. A whole new world lay before me with those shining night lights of Morocco reflecting over the small strip of water that separates the two worlds. I was excited and nervous.

Those mountains in the distance belong to Morocco.

 Europe had been very kind to me and I was sad to leave it in a way. I couldn't have lived so comfortably and so well in my time travelling through Europe if it wasn't for the kindness of all the people I met, new friends and old. A sincere heartfelt ‘thank you’ goes out to all the people who have helped me over the past two months travelling through my home continent. For the most part it was better than I imagined.

Africa awaits. This is the end of the beginning. I think the real adventure is about to start….




  1. The trip so far sounds awesome Liam. I wish I had your Kahoonas. We are all following you in the Fleece. Good luck buddy.
    Jordie Kev.

  2. Cheers Kev. Glad everyone hasn't forgotten me back there. I'm missing Kirkstall Pale!