Mat and I have been in Spain now for three weeks and have pedalled from Gibraltar over mountain peaks, headed back down towards the coast and then North again to Granada through an array of stunning scenery, breathtaking landscapes, farmland, national parks and a small collection of little white towns. We’ve seen and experienced La Línea, San Roque, Castella Viejo de la Frontera, Jimena de la Frontera, Ubrique, Barrio Nazari, Villaluenga del Rosario, Ronda, El Burgo, Ardales, El Chorro, Valle de Abdalajis, Malaga, Nerja, Almunicar, Jete, Otivar, Morro de los prados and now Granada.
For a beginner bike-packer the cycling overall has been a joy. We have been treated to a mix of both gravel and tarmac, rocky ascents and hike-a-bike all mixed with ridiculously high elevation per km. The GR7 and Altravesur routes cross southern Spain and head east towards Valencia on the Mediterranean coast. Noted as a challenging bike-packing route, the route incorporates elements of the TransAndalus and TransNevada. Despite being a tough route at times, with me having to frequently step off my bike and push, I have really enjoyed the challenge and tried to pedal as much as I can. It has been much more of a mental battle for me rather than a physical one (my ipod has helped with this). That being said, there have been days of heat exhaustion and tired legs – particularly my knees. I know I’m nearly 30 but come on body! I think the true challenge for me has been the heat with days often reaching a sweltering 30 degrees. This has inevitably led to practicing the Spanish art of the ‘siesta’ with early starts of 8am-1pm and then tree dwelling in the shade until 5pm when the sun is lower in the sky and not as fierce on my pasty skin.
Riding steep elevation whilst engulfed by the humidity has meant drinking roughly 5 litres of water per day. I didn’t know that your elbows could sweat? Luckily, the quiet towns have been a saviour for a fresh water top-up as I only carry 4 litres on my bike. Urbique, in particular was a picturesque town that had a particular buzzing atmosphere upon arrival. We pedalled in on the day of their 50th year anniversary of the infamous Bull Run. The town was alive with live music, street food, pink branded t-shirts and excitement. It seemed that everyone from miles around had come to Ubrique for the day to outrun the notorious Bull. Children were obviously not allowed to participate and slapped on the walls were posters which read ‘Don’t Drink and Bull Run’. People were clinging onto windows, behind the metal bars or running in the streets being chased by the enormous animal. We wondered why there were metal gates barricading across the tiny streets when we first arrived. We positioned ourselves well behind the safety gates until the bull was caught, or so we thought, after having passed through and onto the streets in search for an evening meal to an oncoming mad rush of runners – we haven’t ran so fast in our lives! The bull was still loose!
Dotted every thirty kilometres or so these traditional and quiet towns offer tapas, flamenco and magnificent bull rings sprinkled with the Spaniards’ hospitality, passion and warmth which can be experienced everywhere, even with knowing little Spanish. Our most frequently used phrase being ‘dos cervezas por favor’. We are nailing this one everytime. Our most humble experience so far with our phrase book to hand was with a local farmer who spoke no English. He shook our hands and greeted us well, pointed and chatted away (we assume about our bikes), and then told us about a particular camp spot further along the road. Well at least we think he did?! This twenty minute chatter back and forth of little Spanish from us and no English from him made a lovely exchange. We pedalled on with smiles on our faces and set up camp where we believe he recommended.
These rocky and remote dirt roads have been drenched in olive, eucalyptus, avocado and almond trees, dilapidated ruins, littered with sheep and wild bore and the odd mad dog that we’ve had to negotiate with. The sun dried landscapes feel like we’ve been plonked on Mars equipped with factor 50 suncream and a few litres of water. We have become accustomed to the delightful scent of pine trees and juniper mixed with the offensive odour of a nearby wilting rubbish bin. Pushing on we exchange a wave with the locals, feel the mixed terrain under our feet, appreciate the slight contrast between each kilometre of farmland and explore every winding street of each town and village.
Our city rest stops have taken us to places we may never have previously visited. Ronda – a mountaintop city set dramatically above a deep gorge, Malaga – the birthplace of Picasso to visit the main contemporary galleries and enjoy time with our wonderful host Cristina, and Granada to become immersed in the Moorish history and architecture. Granada’s Islamic art in particular has inspired us, especially after visiting the compound of the Alhambra and the Generalife which boasts intricate sculpture, patterns and ceilings. The Generalife is like the Chelsea Flower Show on speed offering romantic gardens, remarkable views over the City all the while being rich in flowers, plants and fountains. The Palace is another breathtaking sight with architectural work of Nasrid art that was undertaken in the 13th and 14th centuries. Sadly, drenched in tourists which irritated the hell out of Matthew. I heard him mutter something about the Plague coming back and to snap all selfie sticks….
As we sit back in our city centre hostel listening to live flamenco in the bustling streets below we plot the route to Madrid passing through the Northern section of the Sierra Nevada. This will be our toughest challenge yet, with not only high elevation to contend with but also a little bit of altitude.