Plains & Rains in Spain

We are in North America right now, but there’s still a little catching up to do from the European tour. In the last post we were heading East in central Portugal…

Back in Spain there were immediate cycling improvements, better surface, shoulder to ride in, kinder traffic. We were on roads that had previously been the main road, but were now secondary to the expensive newer auto pistes. The two ran almost completely parallel and there was hardly any traffic on either. On the high plains we could see for miles, mainly flat but occasionally snowy mountain tops were clear in the distance. 

Sunset riding on an empty highway
The sun took ages to set, we had 360 degree orange, and arrived at the campsite in Ciudad Rodrigo in the dark. Unsurprisingly there were no other tents. The walled city looked magical lit up at night, a great back drop to our quickly-eat-before-it-gets-cold dinner. The campsite had a bar which steadily emptied as we were cooking. We went in for hot chocolate and saw the debris of a rip-roaring Saturday night. Napkins and cocktail sticks littered the floor. Some serious tapas had been eaten that evening.

After a painfully frosty tent pack up we rode up to the city and around some of the walls. The Parador (state-run hotels in Spain) was very impressive and had lots of suits of armour in. Back on the road to Salamanca the no traffic plainness continued. We entertained ourselves with classic road games, such as:

Which direction will the next car pass us in?

How many minutes/kms until the next field of cows?

How many cars will pass us before the village of some saints head?

When the excitement got too much we returned to naming songs by a group/artist until you can’t think of any more. 


Visiting the cathedral included an outdoor walk up by the towers
 Fortunately when we finally saw Salamanca it looked awesome. Even from a distance it was clear there were plenty of impressive buildings. Most of the city centre was made of similar stone, sandy coloured and very well maintained. The Plaza Mejor was super-fancy – probably the most pleasing of all the squares we had seen. The city looked great by night and day, helped by blue skies and sunshine. Our amazing hosts Javier and Pedro showed us some great tapas places, and the mystery of the debris on the floor of the tame campsite bar was solved, this is what you do with your Pinchos litter. We also caught up with our Christmas presents via Catherine from New Zealand whose month studying in Salamanca coincided with our visit. 

The best square of the trip?

Salamanca seemed a very liveable Spanish city. The downside is that it is still a long way from anywhere. This was particularly important for us as weather reports showed that cold was about to get colder and more unpleasant in every way. Snow storms were forecast for Northern Spain, with much snow above 300m in the region that separated us from the coast and our ferry home. As we were still over 800m with some passes to ride over before dropping down, it was time to get a shift on.

Inquisitive and adorable

For the first time in Spain the wind agreed and we rode the easiest fifty miles of the trip. We arrived in Medina del Campo in time to look at the castle and enjoy relaxing at Paco’s with two very cute cats. The weather was not to be our friend for long, the rain heavy and the wind strong. It was clear that to get to Bilbao safely we needed some help. Cutting out some of the distance with a fifty minute train journey gave us a 50km ride to the end of Bilbao’s commuter rail line. Unfortunately the 50km included a 500m+ climb and the most technical descent of the trip in rain and fog. Not far from Bilbao, the descent we did has been a climb in the Vuelta.


A dash up a pass in the rain
Spot the hi-vis jacket

Never has a warm house been more welcome than that Friday night. The rain was relentless and continued until all weekend. Being stubborn we went for a soggy walk but the deluge made it difficult to enjoy the sights. Cycling to the ferry we experienced a very unique bridge. It had been included directions given to us by a local cyclist, who described it as ‘not usual’. Definitely not, but I won’t spoil the surprise if you haven’t been. The rain began again as we rode through the endless port area and we were very relieved when the ferry staff waved us straight onto the boat and out of the rain on Sunday afternoon.


I’m not sure I can fully explain the relief and relaxation of a long boat or train journey after a lot of moving around. You know exactly where you will sleep. You have packed yourself an excellent and extensive array of picnic food. You have books to read, and if you are lucky (we were) the ferry has board games so you can spend an entire day playing scrabble. If you are really lucky you can speak to people in your own language who think your cycling trip is really interesting (thanks Brits on tour). If your luck is at maximum you have some family who live close to the port at the end of your journey for food, sleep and great conversation (amazing stay in Hampshire). Home time!

Thanks for this ride to: Javi & Pedro, Paco, Raul, Rafa & family, Shelagh, Joss, Emma & Alex.


Tapas and tarts: Eating (and cycling) towards Portugal

Arriving in Granada meant that for the first time since arriving in Barcelona three weeks ago we had finally reached one of the places on our must-see list. Ever since seeing a picture of the mighty Alhambra palace in front of snow-topped mountains this was one place we wanted to work into the trip. We just hoped the gravel road trek across inland Andalucia was worth it….

The Alhambra, with the Sierra Nevada mountain range as a backdrop

It was. Although taking a couple of days to rest in a city where the sun always shines and every time you order a beer it comes with a side of food was unlikely to disappoint. First up was a visit to the Alhambra itself, the 13th century walled complex/palace/castle/fortress that stands high above the city. The fort and old walls were cool to wander around, the palaces and gardens unbelievably intricate and fancy and being perched on top of a hill there were several different vantage points across the city. We were pleased we booked an early slot as by lunchtime the place was full of school trips and coach groups. Although early in the morning up close to 1000m above sea level it was pretty cold and so we were pleased to beat the queues for the hot chocolate machine.

Granada, being fairly close as the crow flies to Africa, has strong Moorish and Arabic influences and so is a nice place to see a different side of Spain. We’d also been told it was the best place to have tapas – although this is popular across the country, Granada bars have kept the tradition of serving free tapas dishes (small plates of food – bread, meat, olives etc) with every drink bought. On a sunny Saturday afternoon the cobbled streets were full of people spilling out of bars but we managed to squeeze into a few and have our own pub crawl Granada-style.

Andalucian scenery – not bad to look at for a few days


Back on the bikes we started pedalling towards Portugal, knowing that we were only a week or so away from a holiday on the Algarve. Plans to take in Gibraltar on the way were shelved in favour of the more direct inland route to Sevilla and the Portuguese border. There is some seriously hilly terrain in Andalucia and for a couple of days we rode either up or down steep hills – no sign of flat ground or even a slight incline. But as is always the case, these roads have the best scenery and we joined up small white-washed towns that the region is famous for. The first night after Granada we stayed in an empty lodge on the edge of a natural park, and in trying to take a short cut through the park to get there ended up riding a steep downhill gravel road for the last hour. The view across the park and down into the valley we were aiming for as the sun set was magical but the last 10km in the dark was not so fun.

Sunset over Sierras de Tejeda


The small inland towns and villages we were passing through could not have been more different to the coastal resorts that were only a 30 minute car ride away. We always stopped in one mid-morning for a break/toilet/50 cent coffee and even at this hour bars were full of men drinking coffee and spirits simultaneously. At one particularly memorable bar stop, an old guy was wobbling around at the bar drinking tequila trying to insist that I tried some – being an athlete in my prime this was not what my body needed for a hilly days ride but he was not taking no for an answer. He ended up spilling most of it on the floor which was a sad waste but probably the best outcome all round.

Do you ever get bored of cycling? When the roads look like this… not so much


The sun continued to shine, and we camped at the dramatic El Chorro gorge but were so tired from riding up so many hills to get there (much more total climbing than the day we crossed the Alps) we had to take a day to rest. Lucky we did as mid-afternoon the next day the sky turned black and it rained and hailed for over an hour, so loud that all conversations inside stopped as it was impossible to hear. Our tent was at the bottom of a path that soon turned into a river, and our porch was the most direct way for the water to get to the other side. All we could do was watch from our undercover vantage point and cross our fingers that the tent would pass its first serious wet-weather test. Aside from the river running through the porch and trying to wash away everything we had left in there, all seemed ok. Waterproofing test, passed; decision-making regarding tent pitching position, requires improvement.

El Chorro gorge


From El Chorro we climbed out of the gorge and over a few passes on our way to Sevilla. We called in to Ronda, balanced on the edge of a deep gorge, to admire the ridiculously impressive bridge and get my brakes fixed – the hills had taken their toll on the poor things.

Ronda’s impressive Puente Nuevo
Sad that going to Sevilla meant that we would not be going to Moron…

Sevilla is another Andalucian gem, and for the first time in a while we arrived at our destination with a few hours of daylight left to explore. Fancy buildings lined the wide streets, as well as many bars claiming to serve ‘world famous’ churros – strips of fried dough served with hot chocolate to dip them in. Of course we sampled this excellent cycling fuel. Strangely there was also a Christmas market – very odd (and unsurprisingly deserted) at the end of January.

Towards the Portuguese border the landscape became flatter and filled almost entirely with olive or orange tree plantations. Our last night in Spain was spent sleeping on the floor of an aircraft hangar where we were invited to help ourselves to oranges from the trees. Our host for the evening told us that the cost of having the oranges picked is higher than they can fetch, which explained why we had cycled past so many overflowing orange trees with their fruits covering the floor and being left to rot. Thinking about vitamin c deficiency in kids in developing countries, this waste made us sad.

Typical small Andalucian towns


Crossing into Portugal by the coast requires a short boat ride across the river Guadiana that forms the border. The first Portuguese resort of Villa Real felt different to Spain – the buildings were more jumbled after the uniform white-washed Spanish towns of Andalucia, and it was the first time in a while we had seen more holidaymakers than locals. Unfortunately as soon as we left town another main difference between Portugal and Spain became clear – Portuguese drivers are terrible, and the cycling experience is made worse by poor quality narrow roads. The only thing we could possibly do was search out the nearest bakery for a pastel de nata, a Portuguese custard tart, essential cycling fuel. After half an hour on the N125, the most direct way to Lagos at the Eastern end of the Algarve, we put our survival over speed and simplicity and tried to pick our way through small roads closer to the sea. There is, in theory, a bike route stretching the whole length of the Algarve coast but after trying to follow this became frustrating we turned inland and didn’t join the coast road again until we were close to Lagos. Being inland meant that we didn’t have the opportunity to call in to beaches or resorts and the route was hillier but the roads were small, quiet and scenic. After a day and a half in Portugal we reached Lagos, excited about spending a few days in a tourist resort where we the high number of ex-pats meant that we could understand what was going on around us!

Sailing to country number 15
The first of what was to be many pastel de nata snack stops…

Thanks for this stretch to Maria and Zigor in Granada, Raul in Alcaucin, Moses in Utrera, Amelia in the aircraft hangar, Steve and Karen of and of course Jim and Tricia for allowing us to have a relaxing Algarve holiday.

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).

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….

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

Approaching the Sierra Nevada mountain range
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….

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!