Just because Google says it’s a road, doesn’t mean it’s a road. (Or, why it took us so long to get to Granada)

Turns out Spain is a pretty big country. On leaving Barcelona, our next must-visit destination was Granada, with some 900 or so kms to ride in between and no obvious route to follow to get there. After sticking to the coast for the first week, we decided to leave the Brits and the other Northern Europeans driving their motorhomes around the Spanish Costas and ride inland to Granada across El Altiplano, a huge and desolate inland plateau mostly over 1000m (England’s highest peak Scafell Pike is 978m to give some context).

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Climbing up to the Altiplano. A mild winter meant that the almond trees were in blossom in January

For a couple of days we rode on fairly big but quiet roads with a good shoulder, before reaching a point where the main road turned into an autopista (not a motorway but near enough to rarely allow bikes). I’d seen this on the map, but read online that if bikes are not allowed on a particular autopista “a viable alternative must be provided”. Google seemed to think we could ride either on or close to the road. So we assumed that either we could ride it or there would be a service road alongside that we could use. And there was. But the Spanish really need to think about the word “viable” (maybe it was lost in translation). First we were on a small road that served farms just off the A92. It was paved but patched badly, but the worst thing was that it went like this /\/\/\/\ while the A92 went like this ———. Knackering. Sitting having lunch on a kerb at a petrol station we cursed the road and hoped it would improve in the afternoon. Instead it turned to gravel….

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Ah, gravel… not a touring cyclists best friend (not ours anyway)

It’s difficult to describe the pain inside of riding on a road that goes up and down sharply, made of small stones at best, large stones at worse, and occasionally just a muddy track, when just your shoulder, the other side of a fence, is a flat, smooth road with a huge shoulder and hardly any traffic. Moral of the story…. Don’t trust Google to map you a bike route.

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Ah, smooth and empty tarmac… shame we were confined to the gravel strip to the left

Despite the brain shaking and the snail paced progress, there were some good points. The scenery was immense. Deserts, mountains, emptiness as far as you could see, this could not have been more different from the built up coastal riding. At the end of the first day of gravel, we were trying to find a the seven bedroom house we had booked for the night (sometimes we need our own space) which was in the middle of nowhere and Google cranked our off-road adventure up a notch by sending us on what can only be described as a sheep track through a canyon. Several hours later than planned we found ourselves out of sight of the A92 riding through scenery that could have been the moon trying to find the damn house but it was an incredible place to be – proper desert, no cars (unsurprisingly), no sounds, the type of adventure that gravel roads should bring.

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Definitely not a road… finding our way through the Baza desert

On arrival we were shown around each of the seven bedrooms, four bathrooms and three living rooms in our house for the night, the fire was lit, and as we cooked a slap up dinner of pasta and something I couldn’t quite rest as the feeling of being bounced around had set into my bones in the same way your body feels like it is swaying when you get off a long boat trip.

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Seven bedrooms was slightly overkill when all we wanted to do was sit as close to the fire as possible

After a second day of bone shaking, which didn’t seem quite so bad as we were at least prepared for it, we suddenly dropped down into another canyon. This time the track was sand but orange rock surrounded us and we twisted around rock formations, past cave houses and through gorges for the last hour of the day as the sun set. Damn you Google for even suggesting this might be a road but the backdrop was incredible.

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Finally we returned to the smooth, heavenly tarmac for the last day into Granada, excited at being able to ride over 10km/hr and not having to stop every five minutes for an ass break. Although the days were warm on the high ground, the temperature dropped with the sun and was below freezing overnight; my bike computer read 0 degrees at 8am that morning. But the stunning scenery again made up for any complaints as we skirted the northern edge of the Sierra Nevada, Spain’s highest mountain range, and the winding nature of the road meant that traffic remained light until we got close to the city.

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Approaching the Sierra Nevada mountain range
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That small blob is Debs… small people, big scenery

With smooth tarmac under our wheels, jam sandwiches for fuel, snowy mountains over one shoulder and Granada, one of the few places on our European must-see list finally within our reach, the gravel tracks faded into an adventurous memory and Google was almost forgiven. Almost.

Thanks to Pascual in Albatera; Nacho and family in Velez-Rubio; Rudi in Benalua de Guadix; and the Sierra de Baza ranger who drew us a highly detailed map and spoke in very slow Spanish to try and help us stay on the best of the gravel tracks….

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The pictures say it all: Cycling the Spanish coast

Sun, sea, sand… The week or so we spent cycling the Spanish coastline between Barcelona and Alicante was (mostly) made up of the three holiday essentials. It also contained the only fall (Debs) and the only puncture (Debs) of the whole European trip. 8 days where the only navigation we had to do was keep the sea on our left. So for this blog post, it’s only really the pictures that matter….

 

Keep the sea on your left……
 
 
Sunset over the ampitheatre remains in Tarragona
 
  
Peníscola old town
 
 
Not too difficult to find a nice spot for lunch every day
 
 
Taking an evening stroll in beautiful Benicassim
 
 
Sunrise from our beach camp spot
 
 
Finally a few hills near Dénia
 
 
After riding through empty resort towns, Benidorm was one of the strangest places to arrive on a bike
 
 
Evidence of thr financial crash was visible in unfinished beachside apartment blocks and even whole resorts
 
 
Between the built up areas there were empty beaches and miles of bike lanes right by the sea
 

I’ve no doubt that cycling this stretch in high season would be a totally different experience, but at times it felt like we had the coastline to ourselves. Of course there are many resorts with countless high rise apartment blocks, and the main road away from the front was often a never ending strip of supermarkets, shopping malls and billboard adverts in English aimed at the ex-pat needing items to fill their new home (though I don’t know how they can need THAT much outdoor furniture). Yet it wasn’t too hard to escape all of that and find a totally empty beach. Maybe not in July though…
Thanks for this stretch to Antoni and family (and the English corner attendees) in Tarragona; Miguel for letting us stay in his empty flat in Ulldecona; Paula in Benicassim; Martin and Sara in Valencia; and all the pro cyclists on their training camps who sped past us and gave us something to chase…

Barcelona: Christmas number two

 

Christmas in January at the Nou Camp

 

Some places have got it right – why have one Christmas when you can have two? It’s weird writing about Christmas in February but then again it was weird enough experiencing it again in January.

After Christmas in Tuscany, we said goodbye to the animals in the rain and went by train to Pisa for some final sightseeing. Some places are empty when it rains – Pisa not so. We were the only fools there on bikes though and had to fight our way through umbrellas to take the obligatory photos. The rain got heavier, we set off on the 20km ride to Livorno, made it as far as Pisa train station before sacking it off and taking our second train of the day. Then after a horrific ride several kilometres out to the port on roads that were definitely not designed for bikes we pulled into the waiting area, got off the bikes and heard an English accent say the magic words – “alright girls, fancy a cuppa?” Wet and cold and with a couple of hours still to wait this was music to the ears. Bob was from 3 miles from where we live and was campervanning around Southern Europe for the winter. After a brew and some warm shelter, he sent us off with a massive handful of PG Tips bags and Sue Perkins’ book. Magic indeed.

 

A rainy Pisa

The ferry from Livorno to Barcelona goes on to Morocco, and the vehicles being loaded on were piled high with possessions cling-wrapped or tarped to their roofs. Most passengers were on for the full duration and were clearly seasoned ferry travellers. Gaps under the stairs had been turned into bedrooms and one guy even had an extension lead and electric kettle. We had the luxury of a cabin but eyed the electric kettle with jealousy. The weather meant a rough 20 hour crossing which was about 19 and a half hours too long for us.

 

Some serious luggage on the ferry

With a few days to explore Barcelona we ate tapas, wandered around the streets, toured Gaudi buildings and watched a football match at the Nou Camp. But the main event was Los Tres Reis – the three kings – Christmas number two. 6th January is when the Kings brought the gifts, so in Spain this is when many families exchange presents. On the 5th January the Kings come to the city on a boat and parade through the streets taking gift letters off the kids (giving a seriously short turnaround time) and handing out sweets at the end. We were told this was a popular parade in Barcelona and had expected a few floats and some crowds but we seriously underestimated the scale of this. Everyone in Barcelona was out on the streets waiting and like the prepared ferry goers, some of these kids were seasoned paraders. Parents had brought stepladders to give a better vantage point for the kids and they were armed with shopping bags to collect as many sweets as possible. The better prepared had the bigger reusable supermarket bags. All we had were our pockets but we were prepared to fight it out with the kids when it came to it. And it did – after half an hours worth of elaborate floats with some kind of story to it that we didn’t really understand but had an undercurrent of kids must go to sleep to get gifts, if not they get coal, sweets were shot out of huge spray guns at the end. We fought our corner and came out with a few handfuls, bowing down to the more experienced youngsters who somehow filled their bags while we caught a few. The worst thing for the kids is the next morning they got their gifts (or coal, who knows) but then go back to school the day after giving no time to play with the new toys. The following weekend there were many kids wobbling around the bike paths on new rollerblades and bikes.

 

Something about dummies

 

Something about letters

 

Something about stars

Another strange thing about Christmas in Barcelona is El Caganer – translated as the crapper. This is a Catalan nativity tradition of a figure with his pants down having a poo. Every nativity scene has one, every home, even the large public ones in the streets. You can buy a crapper figure of any famous person/character imaginable. This year there was talk of removing the crapper from public nativities, as authorities trying to stop people urinating in the street recognise the irony of having a crapper in public. Yet public power – including a song supporting the continued inclusion of the crapper – won and for another year at least he remains. Strange old country. But we had a great time.

 

The Crapper comes in many guises

Thanks to Sam and friends in Barcelona for helping us to experience all things Catalan!