Guernica is a few sombre miles behind me when I espy something I’d not seen before in real life: a Repsol petrol station. Repsol of course is famous for its sponsorship of the Honda Racing Team over the past twenty years. The Repsol paint job on a Honda Fireblade is as iconic as the model itself. Legends like Mick Doohan, Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez have all won multiple world titles under the Honda Repsol banner.
Given Veronica’s mild capriciousness when repeatedly fed the supposedly superior 98 fuel in France, and since the Repsol brand is s strongly identifiable with Honda, plus with a half empty tank, it would be foolish to bypass the opportunity to fill up with normal petrol ostensibly compatible with my engine. As I roll up, it turns out that this is a serviced filling station, the first such one I’ve seen in mainland Europe. However, as the pump operative approaches, I politely decline his services: I don’t feel comfortable with anyone else performing what is a very routine function whilst I stand there idly literally next to him. The guy understands. It feels as through the serviced petrol pump is a weird luxury. After I fill the tank, we both go inside the shop and I pay him. After returning outside, I take a few swigs of water, eat a fruit bar and set off in the direction of Santander.
Veronica is sounding much better than the other day. Maybe it’s because it’s a bit cooler, in the mid 20s, or maybe because she prefers the 95 Repsol. The route takes me through Bilbao. I’d been there before a couple of times, once renting a Harley Davidson Road King there a couple of years back. It’s not the most exciting of cities bar the excellent Guggenheim gallery whose construction there some years ago gave rise to the concept of arts led regeneration. My enjoyment of Bilbao was also curtailed by the fact that after I returned the Harley to the hire place, I’d rented a push bike and ended up on the ground bleeding due to the conduct of a Dutch tourist, whom I did not thank for her riding ability at the time.
Passing through Bilbao and riding towards Santander along the coast is pleasant. Despite the region being mountainous, there are not too many twists and cruising along at around 110 is comfortable. The mountains on my left and the ocean on my right look beautiful in the sunshine, beauty which I register almost subconsciously as it reappears later in my memory almost like a photograph. On reaching Santander in Cantabria, the temperature suddenly drops and I begin to feel almost cold. This is the first time I’ve felt uncomfortably cold since getting drenched in the Netherlands a few weeks previously. Santander is known for its microclimate but the starkness and immediacy is unexpected.
The city itself is strange. Certainly part of it can be described as an urban centre, but by no means all of it. It feels as though several neighbourhoods from different time periods and each with a different purpose have been thrown together in no particular order. There are a few clutches of high rise buildings, each grouping apparently from a different decade. There is the port, next to an old part, then there is a dried up river bed which divides the city in two with houses at the bottom, and then there is the slightly less old part which seems almost entirely residential. This is the neighbourhood where I head. An urban landscape quickly gives way to small groups of five or ten houses set among fields. Beyond these one can see cliffs, the famous Santander lighthouse and the ocean.
I’d booked a guest room in a private house earlier that morning for a few Euros. It’s a white house with a large front yard, concreted over and with gravel. Dismounting Veronica, I knock on the door. The landlady emerges. She introduces herself, welcomes me in and takes me up to the room. The room is huge, very comfortable, with a large window, a walk in shower and so on. I return downstairs, unpack and walk Veronica backwards facing uphill to park her as near the house as possible. Upon re entering, the landlady and I have a quick conversation about the kitchen, shower, wifi and so on. She is using a translation app on her phone to write sentences and show me English translations on the screen. I say “Si”, “no”, “gracias” and when I need to ask something more complicated, I use the app too. Of course data or calls cost me exactly the same as they do in the UK, one of the many benefits British people visiting mainland Europe enjoy thanks to Britain being a member of the European Union. The app stays permanently open, and we understand each other well enough.
I have no plans for Santander, and no expectations. Casting around for something to do in the evening, I almost punch the air in victory: there is a biker bar which apparently serves excellent burgers about 10 minutes’ walk from where I am staying. The Road provides spectacularly, and I am grateful. I decide to take a siesta and then head to the place and see what happens. Little do I suspect the sort of evening I am about to have.
After a quick shower and siesta, I get dressed (the usual outfit: jeans, shirt, Honda baseball hat) and step out. There is a note stuck to my door. It says “8.30pm, Ventilador, calle Canadio”. If there is one thing I’d learnt on this trip, it’s to go with the flow. Someone, presumably the landlady, wants to meet me at a certain location. I look up the place. The address is slightly wrong, but it’s clearly the right location, about 45 minutes’ walk away, with the biker bar en route.
The temperature has risen, and it’s warm again, in the high 20s. Walking to the biker bar through the fields with cows and horses and the tiny hilly streets, one is struck with a sense of matter of fact calm. Life here flows at the pace that’s necessary for whatever moment in history we are at. Things in town or at the port might occasionally get hectic. That’s fine. Right now there is no hurry, that’s OK too.
Arriving at Biker Bar Perada, the first thing one sees is the awesome beer pump, a refitted Harley engine, which pours both alcoholic and non alcoholic beer. I’ve never seen anything like it. I order the signature burger, as the place has a reputation for them. What arrives is a masterpiece: a bun the size of a plate, with a burger patty inside to match. Except you can’t see the patty because it’s completely obscured by five thick succulent rashers of bacon, a large fried egg and a pile of onions and cheese. I ask for ketchup, the young man behind the bar throws in a very generous slug thereof, probably enough to fill a small coffee cup. This is one mother of a burger. The price is a couple of Euros, one of the best value meals I’ve had to date. If ever you are in Santander, you must swing by this joint.
Finishing the burger, which is an effort given is prodigious size, and crossing the strange dried up river bed which divides the city in two, I make my way through the historical centre. I don’t know much about the history of Santander and had no plans for it whatsoever. There are some beautiful buildings, and due to the hills the street plan is confusing. It appears that each building and street was built spontaneously, as the need arose. Eventually I come across the square where the Ventilador is located. Someone shouts my name. It’s the landlady, V, she is sitting at an outdoor table with two others. I get a drink and let the Spanish conversation flow around me, trying to participate when I can. One of our fellow drinkers says goodbye and leaves. The other, A, is also staying at the guest house. She is a wall and roof garden designer from Madrid, in town for a week long art event. She spent a few months in London a few years back and kindly speaks English to me when possible. V is using the translation app, my Spanish has improved a bit over the past few days, and communication is surprisingly easy. V takes us to another bar where we try very tangy Cantabrian cheese which is so blue it’s practically black and a huge platter of padron peppers. The bar serves Cantrabian cider which is sour and cloudy and is served in a kind of wooden pump contraption which sucks the liquid out of a bottle via a tube and pours into an angle glass from a height to aerate it. We talk about everything: travel, politics, nature. The perspective on Europe is interesting: many Spanish people see France, Britain and Germany as the “main” EU countries which don’t understand the problems of “peripheral” countries “like Spain”. One of the main challenges identified is illegal migration by sea. People are largely disillusioned with Spanish politics. Too much corruption they say, and all the politicians ever do is talk. Indeed on the television, between the football matches, is a rolling news report about a major corruption scandal, interspersed with footage of some African people swimming away from a sinking boat and being thrown life rafts. Whether the news cycle reinforces opinion or opinion informs the news cycle is unclear.
Our hostess V is one of the most energetic and positive people I’ve ever met. She is constantly looking for ways to treat her guests and make us comfortable. After the fourth bar she leads us back, cycling ahead of us a little unsteadily. We ascend the first hill via the impressive funicular which runs every few minutes. We manage to catch the penultimate one shortly after midnight. We cross the dried up river bed via a road bridge and ascend the second hill on foot. The rural bit of Santander where the house is incredibly beautiful at night: the silence is soft and almost physical, the stars are stunning in their clarity and the only thing disrupting the sky is the revolving beam of the nearby lighthouse, in itself quite gorgeous.
V brings us back to the house and we sit out on the balcony overlooking the horizon of the Biscay. The conversation has been exhausted and there is no need to say very much. I feel like I’ve known these two all my life, and I thank the Road for leading me to them.
The next morning I drag myself out of the very comfortable bed and get a pot of coffee going. This is not a tea household. A appears from somewhere in the house. I make her a coffee too. She asks me where the landlady is. We are answered by the front door banging: V rocks up in a bright pink spandex outfit: she’d been out cycling. She lets us know that she is taking us out for a walk. A and I grin at each other: there is no stopping the woman. Of course we’ll go.
I run up to my room, change my Zenith Motorcycles t shirt for a base layer top which should be able to deal with either set of weather conditions and take my water bottle to fill up in the kitchen. We set off, heading away from the city. We pass fields, the terrain becomes more rocky and finally we reach the coast. It’s stunning: the surf clashing with the rocks, the changing colour of the horizon, the smell of the ocean. A says it reminds her of Scotland. It has something of the Giants’ Causeway too but of course it is unique in its loveliness. There is something about this moment: the two wonderful people I am with, whom I did not even know until the day before, the wild playful waves, the stark uncompromising beauty of the rocky shoreline, the infinite horizon. Looking north, some six hundred miles out of sight lies England. I have a ferry booked for that evening, but it’s a flexible ticket and at that moment I seriously contemplate cancelling it.
We make our way around the cliff to the lighthouse, adorned with a large Spanish flag, slightly frayed around the edges. We stop for a drink at the café at its base and then carry on walking all around, with a vista of the Port of Santander eventually surprising us by suddenly appearing from behind a nondescript cliff. V leads us back to her neighbourhood and takes us for a huge lunch at a local hostelry: lentils with bacon, pasta, fried fish and meat, a cheesecake, all wholesome very tasty and very filling food. We carry on talking over lunch about everything and nothing in our strange but entirely comfortable mixture of Spanish, English and the translation app. When the bill arrives, it’s barely a few Euros each.
The guesthouse room was supposedly booked until noon. It’s now 4pm. V won’t hear of extra payment for overstaying when we get back. She tells me that we are not in in any hurry. I shower and pack my bags, still wondering whether I should change my ferry. Without an iota of planning or intent, the stopover in Santander turned out to be an absolute highlight of the journey. But there is a very good reason for which I had planned to get to Plymouth when I did, and I keep my resolve.
With the canvas bags packed, I head downstairs and take the locks off Veronica. A and V come down to see me off. V has one more treat in store for me. She takes me across the street and opens a garage which contains a beautiful white 1940s BMW motorbike. I throw my leg across and try the seat for comfort. It’s a perfect fit. On returning to the courtyard, A asks to pose with my bike. I lend her my helmet and take a picture of her on her phone. There is no need to set the satnav, it’s obvious where the port is. Saying my goodbyes, I roll out with a farewell “beep beep”.