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A Bike Tour In Spain: Reaching The Peak

Posted January 8th, 2011

As our trip winds down, we inch up the last big hill at a snail’s pace to reach the high point of our journey – literally.

High point

It’s not so high compared with the world’s great mountain ranges but the steep grades and constant ups and downs of Andalucia’s roads have tested our legs as much as the Himalayas. Frankly, our muscles feel like jelly after so much climbing so we are proud to reach this point.

We’re also amazed at how quickly we’ve reached the last few days of our trip. Where did the last 3 weeks go? Then again, 3 years on a world bike tour went pretty quickly too. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that shorter holidays are even more fleeting.

This journey may be nearly over but we still have a few memorable adventures in store. The best one comes as we are cycling through a town and hear the whistle of a pan flute coming from a motorbike. “What is it? What’s he doing?” we wonder. He’s clearly trying to sell something, going slowly past all the houses and tooting his flute, but what? Then Andrew spots the grinders on the back of his motorbike.

“He’s a knife sharpener! Quick! Let’s catch him!”

We chase the man up the hill and wave him down, breathless. We have a cooking knife for chopping our vegetables and for months now it’s been dull, dull, dull. We are thrilled to hand it over and watch him do his work. A few local people gather to watch as well.

The Knife Sharpener

The Knife Sharpener

Grinding the knife

He works hard at making our knife razor sharp for a good 5 minutes and for this pleasure he charges us all of €2.50. “You just don’t see stuff like this at home in Holland,” we both say, thrilled at our good luck to run across this knife sharpener’s path.

Mud also continues to haunt us. It doesn’t help that Friedel’s shoes are very old. We bought them in Thailand. They’ve seen thousands of kilometers of cycling across Asia, Australia, New Zealand and North America. Now, when she steps in a muddy field, trying to get to a wild camping spot, the mud not only squishes up the outside of her shoes but through cracks and to the inside as well. Maybe it’s the end of the road for these shoes.

Muddy shoes

And we explore the city of Carmona, just outside of Seville. When Julius Caesar was around, it was considered the best protected city in Spain because of its fort and strong city walls. We climb the fortress for a view of the rooftops.

Carmona Rooftops

And the glimpses of ordinary life down below, like laundry hung out to dry.

Carmona Laundry

We visit the deserted main square (it will probably be bustling with activity tonight), with its cafes and bars.

Carmona Square

We stand amazed in front of this toy shop, which has dolls piled higher than the door and even on the owner’s truck parked outside! The inside of the truck is jammed full of stuff as well.

Toy Shop

And admire the many mosaics and colourful tiles, especially outside of local bars. This one advertises the sherry that is famously made not far away and drunk by the barrel in this part of Spain. It’s not uncommon to see people having a glass of sherry with their morning coffee.


Soon, it’s time to go home. After a night’s sleep, we cycle in the dark to the nearest train station and get on board. We are tired.

Tired Friedel

Now it’s back to work. Back to comforts like hot showers and soft beds. Back to dreaming about the next bike tour.

A Bike Tour In Spain: Cycling In A Painting

Posted January 8th, 2011

A night of sleep is an amazing thing. All our stresses of the day before fade away and we are ready to take on our next day of cycling in Andalucia.

The weather starts out misty, grey and generally terrible for taking pictures but soon the light and the road combine into something wonderful. The intense greens in the fields, the warm colour of the sun, the rich blue of the sky and the dreamy road makes us feel – just for a few minutes – like we are cycling in a painting.

Incredible light

We don’t stay in the lush mountains for very long. Instead, we sink lower and lower towards the city of Antequera, and we wish we had a longer camera lens to capture each other going down hills like this.

A twisty road

Antequera turns out to be a city with a charming history but one where we are more fascinated by the Spanish culture than the monuments. Spain really does feel like one of the countries in Europe that is truly holding on to its culture and distinct characteristics. Where else in the world would you see a gas station promoting a leg of ham with each fill-up?

Jamon, Jamon, Jamon

We especially love the small shops, where many people still buy food. There are supermarkets too but these little stores always seem to be busy. They have a dedicated clientele. There are the fruit and fish shops.

Small vegetable and fish shops

And the corner store. The signs in the window are advertising lottery tickets (the Spanish LOVE their lotteries) and the fact that the shop will be open to sell bread on Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Small Spanish corner shops

And the bakery – very low key but we’re sure their bread is good!

Bread Shop

Yes, we love the little shops. But on our ride out of Antequera, we spot one of the things we dislike about Spain. The garbage. It’s everywhere. It’s like attitudes towards properly disposing of rubbish and not littering have been shifted back a century. This sign tells people that you can throw some types of debris here but that it’s NOT okay to dump dead animals by the side of the road. Really?? Do you need to be told that?

Rubbish in Spain

And this is what we see as we’re going up the hill. We don’t want to give the impression that every hillside is covered in so much garbage but it’s not an uncommon sight either, just outside of towns.

Roadside Dump

Come on Spain. Clean up your act.

A Bike Tour In Spain: Where Will We Sleep?

Posted January 7th, 2011

When we leave Granada the sky is the most incredibly intense blue we’ve ever seen.

Blue, blue skies

We slowly escape the city and head west. It’s hard to imagine that this will be a tough day on the bike, but it will be. Before long, we’re getting a dose of reality. The hills start early in the day and never seem to let up. When there is a respite, it’s only to glide downhill to a valley and start climbing all over again.

Big Hills

It’s only mid-morning but the sun is already hot. We stop often for breaks, incredible grateful for the juicy, sweet oranges that are sold for literally pennies in every shop.

Juicy Oranges

And after a break, we keep on climbing.

Climbing High

This continues all day. The landscape is gorgeous, but after a while we stop taking pictures. We’re tired. We’re hot. All we really want is to find a place to rest but there’s not much around. This part of Spain is arid and sparsely populated. There aren’t many cafés to take refuge in or trees to nap under.

As we climb, we notice all the ‘No Trespassing’ signs. They are everywhere. Sometimes we go miles without seeing a single unfenced bit of land. This will come back to haunt us later.

Coto Privado

We assume this also means ‘No Trespassing’. We see these signs everywhere. Where we don’t see the signs, tracks are often barred with gates.

No Trespassing

And then, around 4pm, something strange happens. The weather totally changes. One minute it looks like this.

Blue Skies & Friedel's Bike

The next minute a thick, cold mist is rolling in. We have to get out our gloves. We can barely see a foot in front of us. The wind starts blowing. It is the oddest weather we’ve ever cycled in. Erie. Strange. Unexpected. Our desire to take a photo is overridden by our desire to ride down safely from the mountain peak we are on.

This is when the day starts to go wrong. We are not just tired from the hills. Now we are cold, wet and confused. It is 5pm. We are hungry. We’ve had enough.

To make matters worse, we come into the first town so far in Spain where there is no possibility to camp and no hotel. Ahead of us is a steep climb up yet another mountain. We debate the options. They aren’t great. There is no bed for the night in this town so we have to carry on, but where? Andrew suggests up the mountain.

“Are you crazy?” is Friedel’s first reaction. Going up a mountain late in the day, near dark and in the mist, doesn’t sound smart but Andrew has a hunch. “I think we’ll find a spot to camp,” he says. We haven’t seen anywhere for miles. We ask more locals about a hotel (hoping there is one that the other people we asked didn’t know about) but we come up empty.

“Have faith,” says Andrew as we get on the bikes and continue into the mountains. Our legs are like lead. We are looking nervously to each side. At first we see nothing. We pass houses behind gates and barking dogs but nowhere to camp until – after about 20 minutes – a rocky field opens up to one side.

It’s not much, but it’s enough. The bikes are hauled over boulders and up the hill until we find a place big enough to put our tent.

Finally Home

Through the bushes, we have a slim glimpse of the road. All night we watch the cars go high up the mountain and count our blessings that we didn’t have to make that climb in the dark. When we look back on this, we’ll wonder how it is that we always seem to find a place to sleep. We don’t know how this “road magic” works but somehow it does. We’ve yet to be left homeless for a night.

A Bike Tour In Spain: Visiting Granada

Posted January 6th, 2011

It’s nearly 9am before we get out of our tent and start packing up the bikes.

Leaving Our Pine Woods Campsite

The later-than-usual start drives Friedel crazy in particular. Even though it’s winter and there’s no light until 8:30am, she’s been awake for at least 2 hours and would have liked to be on the road far earlier. “We’re losing the whole day,” she grumbles (we haven’t had a coffee yet either). Andrew has wisely learned to ignore these comments.

Soon we are on the road, climbing up hills, through villages and alongside relics of the past, like this wash house. We stop and wonder when the last time was that anyone had to use it? You can see the washboards are worn, and the water still runs through the basins.

Old Fashioned Wash House

We go higher still, until we reach a peak and admire the morning sun lighting up the mountains north of Granada. By now, even Friedel admits it’s hard to be grumpy when you have a view like this. We have them almost every day in this part of Spain.

Mountains North Of Granada

It’s lunchtime before we reach the city itself. Although there was only 30km between our campsite and Granada, this last 30km seems to take ages to navigate. City traffic is almost always a bit stressful and it’s easy to get lost, which we do. Several times.

This means it’s early afternoon when we reach the main reason for our stop here; a visit to the Alhambra – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the low tourist season and mid week but there are still tons of people here and tickets to the most spectacular part of the Alhambra are sold out. We have to settle for a walk around the gardens, but they’re still pretty impressive.

There are ornately carved door and window frames.

Amazing Old Doors and Carved Stone

Beautiful archways.

Beautiful Archways

And quite the view over the surrounding houses – which look more like a village than the large city of Granada.

View from the Alhambra

As the sun fades away, we snap a few last shots in the glowing afternoon light.

Fading Light At The Alhambra

And we wander home in darkness, past sights that are unmistakably Spanish.

Hams For Sale In Spain

A Bike Tour In Spain: Mud & Mountains

Posted January 4th, 2011

“Go back, go back!”

Andrew is shouting but it’s too late. Friedel is already in the midst of the mud that’s washed over the back roads of Andalucia during the recent heavy rains. Once across the worst of the mess, we stop to inspect the damage.

From the front it doesn’t look too bad….

Muddy tires in Andalucia

But from the side it’s obvious we’re in trouble.

Muddy mess

These wheels aren’t going anywhere. The good news is that we’ve managed to plug our wheels full of mud next to an irrigation channel, so after a mere 30 minutes of “spray treatment” using our water bottles as pressure washers, we’re able to hit the road again. On we roll, through olive groves, and past castles.

Olive Groves north of Jaen

Castle of Berrecuo

We stop briefly in Jaen for a night, to see the city and admire the cathedral.

Jaen Cathedral

Then it’s out early the next morning, following a bike route to Granada suggested to us by cyclists from Jaen. Pedro and Andres, we’re sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet you, but we wouldn’t have found this beautiful road without you!

Andalucia is mountainous. There’s hardly a flat stretch to be found and the climb out of Jaen towards Granada proves to be one of the tougher ascents of the trip. At our hill-climbing speed of about 5km/hour, we see Jaen slowly shrink out of view behind us.

Jaen shrinking out of view

After an hour, we reach a small plateau. It feels like we are cycling in the sky itself.

Cycling In The Sky

We look at this local map, and we quickly realize our climbing is far form over. To paraphrase a quote from the Wizard of Oz: “Toto, we’re not in flat Holland anymore!”

Hills on the map

Time for some sustenance. At this local bakery, we pick up a bag full of muffins and half a kilogram of coconut macaroons. Our cyclists’ appetites have returned!

Spanish Bakery

On the way out of town, we can’t stop marvelling at the small-town life that we see all around us. Sometimes it feels like Spain is in a time warp (in a good way), with images that have been all but lost in other parts of Europe, like these two little girls going to do the morning shopping.

Girls going to do the shopping

As the day progresses, it only gets more interesting. Our road runs out. Literally…

The road runs out

We get our first view of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Sierra Nevadas

And we climb ever higher, stopping to admire the views. Andalucia is hard work on a bike, but the scenery is your reward.

Olive Groves for miles

B&W impression of Andalucia

And there are some friendly locals too :)

Cute Dog

The mountains keep coming. They’re steep and long enough that it’s soon clear we can’t cycle from Jaen to Granada (a distance of 90km) in a day. Instead, we find a spot in a pine forest to set up camp. Andrew cooks supper by lamplight, and we rest our legs for the next day’s adventures.

Andrew cooking supper