Last year we biked some serious hills in the French Alps; so we wanted something less strenuous this year. We decided to go to Spain for a change, and settled on a trip through Andalusia from Granada through Cordoba, Seville, Cadiz, then the Mountains to Ronda and finally to Gibraltar.
Here is a map.
Map of Southern Spain with our trip in red, places we stayed in blue arrows.
The trip started inauspiciously enough the night before we were to leave, when, packing my bike, I managed, through sheer idiocy, to break the shifting lever in the back hub. This is an incredibly delicate part that just begs to be broken, and in doing so means you can't get your bike out of first gear. This was a trip that was supposed to be a high-gear adventure, no hills to climb.
All packed up and ready to go. The bikes fit in the boxes, and the boxes look like large suitcases to the airlines. They fold down and we carry them on the back of the bikes when riding.
Getting to Granada itself was a bit of an adventure as well. Normally we would fly to some hub in Europe (Gatwick, Amsterdam, etc) and then take a cheap European flight to our destination. The problem was that Granada's airport was not an international airport, so the only way we could get to Granada was by flying Easyjet to Madrid, and then paying through the nose for Iberia to get us the last hop from Madrid to Granada.
As it was, the flight from Vancouver to Gatwick was in the worst plane we've ever flown in. It was supposed to be an Air Transat flight, but they subcontract their Vancouver flights to Thomas Cook, we will avoid these in the future. The seats were so small that I struck my knees hard against the seat in front when I sat normally, none of the seats reclined, the entertainment system didn't work, and more worryingly, they had wired the reading lamps backward, so that the switch to the aisle lamp controlled the window light. This worried us because it makes you wonder what else they have wired backwards, say in the engines. The cabin crew had to announce several times that assaults on the crew would not be tolerated, and gave everyone the names of the people they should complain to. Kate eventually got £100 back from them, but it was one of those flights you're glad to see land.
Well, the next thing to go wrong was the wheels on our bike boxes. I had rigged up some wheels so we could roll them more easily, as we had had problems carrying them around last year. This is generally more of a problem in train stations than in airports. I hadn't had time to test the rig out unfortunately, and ended up as a literal rolling disaster down the main street of Granada (the Grande Via de Colon) as we got to our pensione.
The pensione was pleasant enough, in the centre of town, and close to restaurants and buses. The owner spoke English, which was a relief, as our Spanish was poor and rusty.
Our view down the Gran Via de Colon from the patio in our hotel. The Alhambra is at the upper left. Kate liked the fact that we had to get onto the patio through a window.
The first day we set off to get tickets to the various tourist attractions, primarily the Alhambra, and to see if we could get a replacement part for the broken shifting spindle on my bike. We actually found one at the only bike store that sold Dahons in Granada, but it was already on a bike. They had to ask their boss about selling it to us, so we came back the next day, and they said they couldn't. It turns out they had little faith in Dahon to ship them a replacement, probably justifiably. I found that a small spoke would screw in to the threads so I took it to a machine shop we had found and got them to fabricate a replacement from the spoke. For all out entertainment, it's hard to beat having to explain what you want machined in practically non-existent Spanish to someone who has no English at all. But the guy was pretty intelligent and we got it done. I could now ride my bike, no thanks to Dahon.
Where our hero learns much Spanish about metalworking.
The Alhambra was worth it. Granada was the last bastion of Moorish Spain to be reconquered by the Christians (in 1492 actually -- the year they sent Columbus off). The gardens (the Generalife) are pleasant enough, but the real treasures are the Moorish palaces (the Nazarid palaces), with their peaceful pools and finely carved walls and scrollwork. The massive Palace of Carlos V which sits atop part of the old palaces displays the typical triumphalism of this era. Which is fair enough, they won.
The Generalife Gardens.
Another pool in the Generalife gardens.
Some of the delicately carved tracery in the Nazarid Palaces.
A pool in the Nazarid Palace grounds.
A reflecting pool in the palaces.
The Alhambra was first and formost a castle, these are the walls and towers that still stand, taken from one of the main towers.
Every place has different eating habits. In Southern Spain, breakfast is coffee (good coffee), and toast (tostada) with some spread on it. A common spread, and not bad, is to pour olive oil (aciete found everywhere in quantity here) on the bread, and spread tomato over it. It's not France, but it's quite tolerable.
We finished up Granada with the Cathedral (pleasant but nothing special) and a visit to their Science World Park (quite entertaining, and unvisited). One of the highlights was riding up to the tower with a Spanish or South American eagle whose keeper "exercised" him by letting him glide down.
The butterfly room in the Science world had a fine display of butterflies.
This is the eagle on the way up the tower.
Leaving our Pensione in Granada.
We were biking to Cordoba from Granada in three days. You could probably do it in one long day, but we normally like to have our first day be an easy one, and we like to travel on less busy roads, which wander somewhat. So the first day was an easy bike ride to Alcala la Real along the main road out of town, then accross country to Cabra, and finally North to Cordoba.
Painted tree sculpture at the entrace to Alcala la Real. Alcala means "fort" and there were a lot of alcalas throughout Southern Spain.
This is where we discovered that after the printing of our map (a Michelin Andelusia map), they had changed all the highway numbers. Now highway numbers are a surprisingly useful aid to navigation in rural Europe. Without them I occasionally had to resort to the GPS on my phone (at criminally extortionate data rates).
It was biking into Cabra that I did something (I don't know what) to my knee. I put it down at a stop and went into excruciating pain. This was my bad knee with no cartilage, and later the doctor said maybe some meniscus slipped — dunno, but we were worried at the time. It turned out that while I couldn't walk, I could still bike and we got to our hotel all right. Fortunately, it slowly cleared up over the next week or so.
The dry olive grove country side we were riding through.
More olive groves.
We had reserved a room in a two star Hotel (the Riviera) in Cordoba near the main street, and about a kilometre from the old centre. This was the kind of hotel that Kate and I liked, cheap, unpretentious, pretty quiet and near the interesting sights. The desk man spoke English, and the Wifi worked in the common area. There were good restaurants a short walk away.
The Grand Mosque in Cordoba is worth a visit. Where cathedrals are built high, mosques are built wide. And this is tremendously wide. It covers an enormous area with hundreds of columns (all stolen from ancient Roman temples and buildings, one assumes), and is quite spectacular. Right in the centre of it is, again in Reconquista Triumphalist style a moderate cathedral. Not large, but quite presentable. Since the mosque was built over an older Visigoth Church, which was almost certainly built on top of a Roman Temple, it was completely in keeping with the normal, adolescent "my God can beat your God" of organized religion. This mosque alone is worth a visit to Cordoba though. Kate would have liked to see it in action with thousands of people down on prayer rugs.
The Grand Mosque is pretty unpretentious from the outside.
This is the Mithrab in the Grand Mosque. It's for aiming your prayers.
Inside the Grand Mosque.
More shots from inside the Grand Mosque.
Kate tried to capture the light coming through the stained glass windows in the Mosque.
Sunshades over a street in Cordoba.
We visited it twice, saw some other stuff, walked around Cordoba in the heat, and generally enjoyed the place.
Stork nests on top of power pylons leaving Cordoba.
Leaving Cordoba we stopped at the restored castle of Almodovar, about 20km along the road. This is very scenic and generally represents the late Victorian romantic view of how mideval castles looked. It was one of those places that I swear I will never go to on a bike, steeply uphill. Why don't they build castles and lookouts down in the valley and on the flat? I know, I know the answer to that.
The castle of Almodovar with hill. Looks like Orizaba.
Kate wants to be a goatherd in Spain.
We stayed the night in Lora del Rio in the only hotel in town, which was upstairs in an ice cream parlour. Interesting place.
The next day, we headed into Seville. Kate was thoroughly fed up with the highway we were biking along, so she wanted to head into Seville on a smaller road that we encountered sooner. It was fine, but because the name of the street leading to our hotel changed three times in two blocks we only found it by using my GPS.
We had excelled ourselves in choosing a dive this time in Seville. Admittedly we were dead centre in the old town, a ten minute walk from the Cathedral, but the place clearly strained itself to keep a one star rating. None the less, the place was clean and the location was excellent.
The first day in Seville we looked over the Cathedral, which is big, real big. Christopher Columbus is buried there (for now – it seems like everyone wants him), and there is a fine altar, and impressive chapels; but it's basically really, really big. The Geralda is its bell tower; this started out as a Moorish Minaret, and has a helical ramp inside all the way to the top. This was supposed to be designed so that two mounted guards could pass without dismounting. I think the mounts would have to be pretty scrawny, but I could see it working. Clearly the Cathedral is build over an older mosque.
The controversial Plaza Major.
Float in a religious procession in Seville.
Festival with dancers and chorus line recruited from audience.
Children's slide with an odd theme.
I wanted to see the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Italica. This is a strange set of ruins, since it is out in the middle of nowhere. Most Roman cities simply grew bigger and were buried by the newer growth. With Italica, everyone left, there seemed to be a problem with the ground settling, so we have a ruin that was at least not built over.
Mosaic floors from some Roman houses in Italica.
However, in the late middle ages, the citizens of Santiponce moved their city from the middle of the flood plain to beside Italica, and used the ruins as a rock quarry, so there is little left of the above ground buildings; and the amphitheatre, which was presumably covered in marble, was used to make lime and mortar. Some nice mosaic floors are just about all that is left.
After Seville we headed South to Cadiz. We have now biked past enough citrus groves, olive groves, cotton fields, and wasteland to last a lifetime. The first night was spent at a 4-star spa out in the middle of nowhere. This is clearly the off season, as we were practically the only ones there. They had a skeleton staff, so while they tried, it was not the full 4-star experience. Kate was amused by the fact that we were locked in during the night. I was amused by the fact that the door was entirely glass, and there were plenty of battering rams furnishing the reception area in case we needed to get out in the night.
The next day was down a highway, through the "urban wonderland" (read that as a massive euphemism) of Jerez de la Frontera and then down to Cadiz. We ended up going through vicious winds just South of Jerez, where we both decided that when you see wind farms, bike elsewhere.
So we were through Puerto Real and cruising along the last kilometres into Cadiz, when we hit the bridge just at rush hour. It had only one lane going into town, no bikes or pedestrians were allowed. The alternative now would be to backtrack and go 20km around the bay to come in on the causeway. Our compromise was to labouriously manoeuver the bikes on the tiny forbidden walkway, lifting them up around lampposts in the howling wind. Then the walkway became impassable. Kate considered taking a picture, but decided not to record this truly inglorious experience. We watched as another tourer biked the whole way across on the road. Traffic didn't really like it, but they understood. So I finally talked Kate into trying it. She went first because the wind was ferocious and batting her around, and she was afraid of falling. I went last as I was more massive and thus windproof. It was harrowing.
We liked Cadiz. Instead of a hotel, we had an appartment there for the two nights we stayed. This meant that we could make coffee in our room in the morning, and it generally seemed a lot freer. There is not much to see because as old as Cadiz is – it was called Gadez when the Pheonecians took it from the Greeks (and it was probably just the island back then, without being joined to the land by a causeway) – it is fairly small and everything has been built over everything else. There is a slim museum, and some churches. But it is a nice walkable town with a good beach and tourist hotels along the causeway. Kate could imagine it being a fine "home town" to live in.
Street scene in old Cadiz.
Pruning a tree in a park in Cadiz.
Topiary in a Cadiz park.
These are puppets from the art museum in Cadiz?!? Kate insisted that this picture go in. Sorry.
They had a practice roadway in a park in Cadiz for kids on bikes to learn how to ride. Another Kate pic.
We headed out of Cadiz over the causeway. This is a standard highway, but with good wide shoulders. One thing we found in Andalusia is that the highways were almost always good biking. They may at times have had a lot of traffic, but they always had wide shoulders.
For some reason, I wanted to see the town of Medina-Sidonia. As you probably remember, the Spanish Armada that was to invade England in Elizabethan times was led by the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, so naturally I wanted to see what the place was like. Well, when we got there we found that it was on top of a big ugly hill, and I use the word ugly here in place of the effluent laden prose I came up with at the time. It was a hot day, and I didn't want to see it that badly, so we went around. Now I had finally bought a new map in Jerez that had the current highway numbers. It turns out that it didn't show the current roads around here, and we got lost, were helped by a Brit from Gibraltar, and ended up biking along the service roads beside the highway to our next town. Neither the service roads, nor the junction we had to take to get to them were on the map. Nor were the grades marked as they are in the Michelin maps of France. This is probably because the only maps of Spain you can get are 400,000:1, while in France 200,000:1 is the norm. This scale is too large for biking. As Kate put it, she didn't mind being an adventurer, but she objected to being an explorer.
This is Medina Sidonia with its hill.
The night's hotel was supposed to be in the town of Alcala Las Gazules so we dutifully rode the service road to the turnoff and climbed the 300m or so to the town, and didn't find the hotel. Tired and desperate, I asked directions to the hotel. It wasn't in the town, it was down beside the highway that we had just left. If we had kept on the service road for another couple of kilometres, we would have run right into it. So we had an easy ride down to the hotel, knowing that we were going to have to climb right back up again tomorrow morning. Our least enjoyed downhill ever.
The next day we were into the hills of Andalusia. It was a day of riding through cork-oak forests, with a lot of up and down, and finally ending up in Ubrique which is a town in a valley with remarkable cliffs around it.
Kate at our hotel in Ubrique with the cliffs behind.
When we biked out the next day, we found that the biking was informed more by the cliff bits than the valley bits. We had a grunt of a climb up a serious series of switchbacks over a pass that allowed us to bike through more cork-oaks. These forests are quite pleasant, but we were always worried about the heat and the lack of water. Fortunately we always seemed to encounter "ventas", bar/restaurants that sold tapas and would give us water, often enough to never face serious problems.
Cork Oak and forest. You can see where they harvest the cork bark.
Goats keeping cool on rocks?
We came down out of the cork-oak forests and along the valley to Ronda, where we climbed the long haul into Ronda itself. It was long, but fairly low angle.
Ronda is an interesting town. The original town, and citadel presumably, was built on the shoulder of a hill that is cleft from the main flat hilltop by a very deep gully. Although it is bridged now, this gully must have been a considerable problem to anyone wanting to take the town when it was first being defended. Ronda is massively touristy, but it is still worth visiting, and we wish we could have stayed another day to explore it some more.
The new bridge in Ronda. You can see the massive cleft that it traverses.
You can see the size of the cleft looking down the other direction. A very defensible side.
The next day was epic. We left in a cold rain – quite a change from the heat prostration we had been experiencing (Kate was thrilled that she got to don her rain gear after dragging it around for 3 weeks) – and headed over the pass that would take us to Jimena de la Frontera, where we had booked a hotel. The pass was a long one, that spent a lot of time going along high crests, until it finally dropped down into the valley where Jimena was. It was raining most of the time along the top, and we stopped for tapas and coffee at the only venta we found.
This trip was significantly different from our previous trips in that we had booked all the hotels in advance. This time we were using the internet booking services bookings.com and hotels.com and not trying to look up the next night's hotel and calling ahead. The information seemed hard to come by here in the South of Spain, and my Spanish was not very good over the phone.
This meant that we had booked our hotel in Jimena on bookings.com and I was relying on the map they supplied to get there. Well the maps in bookings.com are just fed the address and the town, and if it cannot find the address in its' database, rather than tell you, it simply puts the pointer to the centre of town. We had this problem in Alcala las Gazules and ended up going up and into town and down to the highway. Well, it happened again in Jimena. But in Jimena the centre of town was really steep and uphill, which our heroes climbed, and found no hotel. So we asked at a nearby hotel, not ours, that we ground our way past. They gave us good directions, but it was 5 or 8 kilometers out of town. We headed down there. It was also not marked with a sign (the proprietor later said: "Yes it is: the Kilometro 24 is the sign!"). So we had gone a kilometre farther, looking for the sign, since all hotels have signs, and I was getting out my computer to get a phone number to call, when a little truck pulls up and the driver jumped out waving a pamphlet for our hotel. Evidently, the hotel where I had asked directions, had called our target hotel and told them about us, and suggested they had better be on the lookout.
It was a strange hotel, four kilometres off the highway along a dirt road (not good for bikes). The food was good, the people were friendly, and we met an Austrian couple who were the only other people there and we talked to them a lot as they spoke excellent English. The next day the man that found us drove us and our bikes back to the main road, which was nice of him.
The final day of biking took us down the highway for Algeciras, then over some small roads to San Roque, where we had lunch and then, out of San Roque, around a bend and right in front of us, some distance away, was this great big rock. The first thing you think is "Man! That looks defensible!", (Kate thought "What's that!?!"). We easily got onto the highway that headed towards it and we were clicking off the kilometres to the end of the trip when I got another flat! Curse, curse, curse...
Our first view of Gibraltar, as we turned the corner out of San Roque.
We finally got to our hotel in Gibraltar without too much further trouble. It was a pleasantly seedy place: The "Queen's", with almost a full English breakfast.
The next day was cool and raining. We were walking down the main street toward the centre of town when we were approached by a guy offering a tour of The Rock. With some others, it seemed almost reasonable, so off we went. He was a personable guy with a potted history of the place and took us to see some of the big sights, the St. Michael's Caves, the seige tunnels and the monkeys. All quite worth seeing.
This is an underground auditorium in St. Michael's Cave.
The monkeys (apes?) are entertaining.
Here is a guy doing a steep slab move with good technique.
Looking for anything interesting on one of the vans.
Poster about the WW II caves.
The rock is supposed to be like swiss cheese because of the caves, both natural and man-made. There are 30 miles of tunnels in a five mile long rock. You can see some of the holes in the face.
A plane taking off from the airport at Gibraltar.The Gibraltar airport is famously across the road into Gibraltar from Spain, and it is entertaining to watch the gates on the road shut and airplanes take off, as if it were a level crossing at a railway track.
The next day we biked around Gibraltar, on the way we saw the 100 ton gun, a massive feat of Victorian Engineering. Note that this is a huge muzzle loader, the loading was effected by steam driven rams when the gun was rotated to a loading station. It was never fired in anger. The one time it was tested, evidently it broke most of the windows in the town nearby, so they never tested it again.
The 100 ton gun.
We then biked to Europa Point, where you can look across at Africa, less distance than across the Straight of Georgia.
Africa across the straight of Gibraltar.
We biked up the East Coast of the Rock around the North and back to out hotel. The next day we flew out. We stayed at a hotel near Gatwick for a night, and then the long flight home – this time on a better plane.