Travel northern Spain one of the coolest ways imaginable: on a Vespa
Classic Italian motorbikes are easy to handle, and tour through Castilian countryside takes riders along empty back roads to historic towns, nightly feasts and atmospheric hotels
“What do Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando and John Wayne have in common?” asks Lee. “They all owned Vespas. Some people laugh at them for not being as macho as other motorbikes, but this is seriously one of the coolest ways to travel. They’re so much fun … you’ll see.”
It is the first evening of our long-weekend adventure, in a charming inn in the pretty town of Tamajón. Over a bottle of local ribera del duero wine, we are discussing our 200km trip through the hills and fortified medieval cities of Spain’s Castilian heartland in the Ayllón mountains – a crescent-shaped route around the north of Madrid, starting in Tamajón and finishing in picturesque Navafría.
Our hosts are The Flash Pack, a group-travel company that says it will remove the dirty work and inject some style – with the bonus of professionally taken photographs to download and take home afterwards.
Founded by the aforementioned Lee (Thompson, a photojournalist), and his partner Radha Vyas, the company aims to identify the best boutique hotels, wines and cuisine in a certain region, then weave them together into an innovative journey. I’ve signed up for their most popular trip: the four-day Vespa tour. Other trips range from crossing Iceland in Jeeps to sea-kayaking around the Turkish coast.
But first – as the vast majority of us are complete novices – we learn how to handle a Vespa. From Madrid airport, our 10-strong group are shuttled 90 minutes north to tiny Tamajón, where we meet our two Spanish guides for the weekend – Big Javier and Little Javier.
In the sleepy town square, we get to grips with our shiny new rides, bouncing and bunny-hopping across the sun-splashed cobbles. Once we’ve overcome the natural impulse to put your feet down whenever your balance is challenged, it’s a breeze. The bikes are automatic, with a twist-and-go throttle on the right handlebar and bicycle-style brakes on both sides. Once you’ve mastered the John Travolta-style hip thrust to get the bike off its stands from a seated position, you’re away. Pretty soon we’re zooming about Tamajón’s square like children who’ve just had their stabilisers removed and refuse to come in for tea.
But come in we eventually do, and dinner at our rustic posada in Tamajón is a feast of local produce, including plenty of the moreish morcilla, a black pudding-style sausage. Next morning we saddle up like a posse of off-duty John Waynes. The 10 Vespas are all either bumblebee yellow or Campari red (“The colours of the Spanish flag,”says Big Javier). Our goal for the day is Sepúlveda, an ancient hill town 90km away.
We set off into the open countryside like a colourful motorised centipede, the Javiers bookending our colourful procession, with Little in the support van containing our luggage at the rear. The first thing I notice is that these 125cc scooters can seriously fly. It’s hard not to whoop as we soar down empty roads, our only concern the pitifully low speed limit.
The riding isn’t hard: we stop for coffee or something to eat every hour or so, and there’s a handy compartment for water at the base of the steering column. By mid-afternoon we’re devouring a steep switchback like mountain goats, little bleats from our horns marking our progress. The group dynamic is perfect. I’m not sure what I was expecting (a Mod-life crisis?) but the seven women and three men in our poor excuse for a biker gang get along famously. Most are single thirty- and fortysomethings up for a quirky weekend away, and the vibe - fuelled by Lee - is one of energy and excitement.
As soon as the helmets go on, though, you’re in your own little world, and these periods are supremely peaceful. There’s something Zen-like in racing along seemingly forgotten back roads, intermittent gusts of fresh lavender and pine the only punctuation to our private meditation.
In Sepúlveda, we dine in a superb restaurant hugging the city’s ancient battlements, Casa Paulino. Once again the meat – this time suckling pig and oxtail – is the star of the show, while our hotel for the night, La Posada de San Millán , is a medieval Moorish fortress with heavy wooden doors, ancient stone walls, antique furniture and four-poster beds.
By the time we scoot out for our third day, we’re all comfortably in the swing of things, leaning fully into corners and, wherever possible, pushing the bikes to their limits on the straights. Feeling the wind rush by seems a far better way of engaging with the environment than being boxed inside a hire car. Bugs ping off our helmets as we race along.
Our final night is spent in Pedraza, the best town of the lot. It’s a smaller, Spanish version of Carcassonne, and many of its ancient cobbled streets are too narrow to drive a car down – but not a Vespa. We snake back and forth through its dusty stone arteries looking for our hotel, Hosteria del Arco, before parking up and catching the last rays of sunshine in the pretty town square.
Sipping a cold beer by our gleaming bikes seems like the perfect end to the trip. As Little Javier bustles back from the bar with another tray of drinks, some of the group are already on eBay, looking for Vespas to buy when they get home. I admit I’m one of them. As the sun sets over Pedraza, the colour of the future is clear for me: it’s a deep Campari red.
How to do it
The four-day Vespa trip was provided by The Flash Pack (theflashpack.co.uk); from £800pp self-guided or £989 on a group tour, including Vespa hire, insurance, three nights’ half-board with wine and airport transfers but excluding flights. The next departures are on 17 September, 1 October and in spring-summer 2016.