By 8.30am we were packed and ready to leave Camping El Greco at Toledo. The main reason for the early start was that our next route would take us through Madrid and, knowing how dreadful the traffic (and everything else) can be in capital cities, we were prepared for the worst. As it happens, we had a very unexpected treat coming!
It took us about 45 minutes to reach the suburbs of Madrid and, as I expected, the direction signs and road designations became very confusing, very quickly. I suppose it was inevitable that I missed the turning for the road to Guadalajara – I did spot the sign, but we were four lanes away from the off-ramp and we had to sail right past it. I decided to turn back at the next off-ramp, but none of the next three exits over the next five miles offered a chance to turn back the way we came.
Eventually we stopped for fuel just before getting to the full urban sprawl of Madrid and fate smiled upon us in the form of a very cheerful lady who spoke excellent English and loved the chance to practise it. She explained that it would be a tortuous affair trying to back-track to the ring-road and find the correct interchange for the E90 to Guadalajara and Zaragoza, and she advised that we continue to head into the city and go down into the tunnel about two miles ahead of us. It sounded pretty straightforward…
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Not only were we not aware of the high-speed road tunnels beneath the centre of Madrid, we were also totally unprepared for the scale and complexity of them. As an example of civil engineering on a grand scale this system of tunnels must surely equal the London Underground rail system! They’re basically underground motorways where no stopping is permitted and everybody, including our contingent of two trikes and four bikes, goes hell-for-leather; swooping in and out of a myriad of tunnels with barely time to glance at the signs to look for a familiar place name in the hope of eventually coming back above ground heading out of the city in the right direction. It was an exhilarating feeling making snap decisions whenever a fork or three-way split suddenly came into view, and the adrenaline was running high as I began to feel like a small animal trying desperately to escape a hungry predator (my imagination always has to stick its oar in when things get exciting).
After what seemed like an hour, though in reality it was much less, of last-minute lane changes into the gaping mouths of alternate tunnels, I finally saw daylight ahead and to my utter relief the sign overhead included Zaragoza, which was our ultimate destination on that day. I remember my lovely girlfriend Mandy and I punching the air when we saw that sign, and then she hugged my shoulders and said “You did it!” There are few feelings that compare with knowing that the person you love is proud of you as you emerge from the gates of hell into the heat of a Spanish summer morning under a totally cloud-free blue sky!
As we happily left the city behind (I’ve always hated capital cities, London being a fine example of how shit they all are), the scenery began to take a most recognisable form. Perhaps a good way to describe the feel of it is to mention that both Mandy and I have the habit of singing, humming or whistling to ourselves when travelling on bikes or trikes (as I imagine many bikers do) and, as we headed past Guadalajara and on towards Zaragoza, I found myself whistling a medley of Ennio Morricone tunes from the Spaghetti Westerns and, every now and then, catching a brief moment of Mandy humming the theme to The Magnificent Seven. This part of Spain is so evocative of the vast sprawling plains and wind-carved hills that feature in so many old cowboy films, and the heat of the afternoon was wonderfully intense, and the air so still that you begin to yearn for the feel of even the slightest breeze.
Camping Cuidad de Zaragoza is a municipal campsite with very good facilities and a very nice swimming pool, but the bar and restaurant close ridiculously early (about 10pm if memory serves). It was on arrival at this campsite I realised I had left my brand new Halifax credit card back at the station where we filled up before the Madrid tunnels. I’d got this card specifically for the holiday because it’s one of the very few where you pay no transaction fees for purchases made in Euros. Luckily I’d overestimated the amount of cash I’d need for the trip, and my mate Paul had got a Halifax card too so he let me use that to fill up at the many unmanned ‘card-only’ petrol stations we encountered in Spain and France.
The following day we set off for La Mora, just east of Tarragona on the Costa Daurada by the Mediterranean Sea. After stopping for breakfast at a popular truck-stop at Fuentes De Ebro, we had what would, thankfully, prove to be our only contact with the Spanish police when two of them approached Paul and myself, insisting that we put on our helmets. Knowing that arguing with these well-armed pricks was futile, we grudgingly acquiesced to the dull-witted fascists and donned our bash hats. Thirty minutes later I pulled into a disused petrol station and took mine off again.
The ‘cowboy country’ continued as far as Lleida, but after we turned south the scenery turned a bit bland until we reached the mountains at L’Espluga de Francoli. After that we enjoyed some rather spectacular steep and twisty roads as we came back down towards Valls before skirting the eastern edge of Tarragona, and pulling into Camping Torre de la Mora, a fabulous campsite within sight of the deep blue Mediterranean.