A very Merry Christmas to all of you, and all the best for 2011.
May your tires always be full of air.
May the wind always be at your back.
May your bicycle saddle always be warmer than this one!!
A very Merry Christmas to all of you, and all the best for 2011.
May your tires always be full of air.
May the wind always be at your back.
May your bicycle saddle always be warmer than this one!!
Fin & Zoa started a long-term bicycle tour in 2008, with their dogs Jack & PocoLoco.
In this week’s 10 Questions, they tell us more about their favourite parts of Spain for bike touring, some of the challenges (surprise: Spain can be rainy!) and practical considerations like where they slept and what the food was like.
1. You cycled a route around the perimeter of Spain. How did you pick that route?
We wanted to check out the Way of St James pilgrimage route that traverses the north of Spain from the Pyrenees to Galicia. After cycling through the charming interior of Portugal word of mouth drew us towards Seville, the Sierra Nevada and Cabo de Gata in the south east corner of Spain. After considering a ferry to Morocco we finally decided to loop back into France via Barcelona and the amazing Dali museum in Figueres.
2. Which areas stood out as great cycling areas?
The scenery of Spain is as diverse as its cultures – from sparse plateaus, to lush, rain soaked hills reminiscent of Ireland, to ornate city centres to the trashy, congested Mediterranean coast.
Some of our favourite cycling in Spain was around the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Andalucía where we stopped for a winter rest.
We fell in love with the tranquil roads surrounding Gorafe, which snake through the crevassed ochre mountains of Europe’s only desert. A peaceful, primal landscape with a quiet beauty of its own.
Another unforgettable stretch on the south face of the Sierra Nevada was Las Alpujarras, which can take you up to the highest villages in Spain. In February entire hillsides were draped in gorgeous pink and white almond blossoms to the backdrop of snow covered mountains. There were some steep climbs but the rewards were enormous.
3. Where did you mostly spend the night, and did you ever struggle for accommodation?
We reserved most of our budget for food and wine, so we usually camped in the ‘wild’. This was normally an easy and pleasant experience in rural areas, although a little hair raising in autumn during hunting season (there were several nights we awoke to the sound of gunfire and animals charging past our tent). Our most surprising accommodations were a lovely and reasonably priced 1 star hotel in downtown Seville (that welcomed our bikes, trailer, and dogs), and a cueva (cave dwelling) that we rented for two months in Gorafe, a tiny town literally nestled into the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Finding a patch to sleep in Spain was rarely dull.
4. What kind of a budget does touring in Spain require, compared to the rest of Europe?
We found Spain to be fair value compared with much of Western Europe, although not as much of a bargain as Portugal. The cost of campgrounds can be quite steep in Spain for what you get – over €20 for a tent and two people. Wild camping will certainly help keep the costs down. In the food department, cheap groceries are available, although with so many inviting bars and cafes, treats can soon start to add up. Tapas are delicious and dangerously tempting, especially when combined with a cyclist’s appetite (although in Granada province – or heaven as I like to call it – a free tapa typically comes with every beer). Expect around €1 for a coffee and the menu of the day in a simple restaurant to cost €7-10. A big bonus for wine lovers is a cheap, tasty and plentiful supply of vino from as low as 59 cents a bottle! (How is that even possible?)
5. Was the food good? Can you describe it?
As borderline vegetarians our food selection was more limited, but still delicious. In fact some of our favourite meals from our European trip came from Spain. Wedges of tortilla (a thick ‘omelette’ with potatoes and onion), paella, and tomatoes and olive oil on toast became instant favourites. We found Spanish bakeries disappointingly bland, especially after coming from bakery heaven in Portugal. If you’re up for an experience try a plate of churros for breakfast – deep fried tubular prisms of doughnut dipped into a thick hot chocolate.
6. Spain has some great ‘rail trails’ or Via Verdes. Did you ride on any of these, and what were they like?
We only become aware of the Via Verdes about half way around Spain, but with around 1,700 kilometres of them, these green ways are definitely worth researching. We did however experience the trails of the Way of St James pilgrimage route, commonly referred to as the camino. These were more suited to lightly loaded mountain bikes than heavily loaded touring bikes, although not impossible with determination. We often made detours onto quiet backroads to avoid some of the more punishing trails.
7. Did you ever have problems with traffic or roads?
We were a little hesitant about cycling in Spain after reading some grim statistics for cycling fatalities. Besides one close call we were pleasantly surprised by the courtesy we were given on the road (although judging by the roadkill not all creatures were so lucky). The Spanish road network is nowhere near as comprehensive as countries like France so we usually took lengthy detours onto secondary roads for some extra tranquility. On one occasion a landslide forced us to cycle on a horribly busy road with a narrow shoulder covered in shards of glass (causing two flat tires). I found cycling into bigger cities like Seville and Barcelona to be a giant headache, even for someone who normally thrives on navigating the hustle bustle of city traffic.
8. What other challenges did you encounter?
Weather was the wildcard. There was the wind, the hail and the crazy storms of Galicia. There was days of rain upon leaving Seville that made for dire camping in olive fields of sticky red clay.
Then there was snow approaching the Sierra Nevada and the brutal headwinds along the east coast which had us more exhausted than any mountain pass could manage. Eventually we gave up on our tranquil inland route towards France and settled on the busier coastal roads. Spain doesn’t have alot of wind power for nothing!
9. What are your strongest memories from cycling in Spain?
The characters! Trashy bars. Roadside rubbish. Roasted chestnuts. Wild figs. Hills. Festivals. Vineyards. Cork forest with pigs roaming wild beneath. Lots of public fountains. Olive trees and sticky red clay. Lively cities. Balconies draped in chillies. Being offered unmarked bottles of wine on the side of the road.
10. What’s one typically Spanish experience that no cyclist in Spain should miss?
There are so many vibrant, colourful festivals in Spain. It would be a sin to not experience at least one.
Thanks to Fin & Zoa for answering 10 Questions and providing the photos.
The mountainous island of Corsica is both a beautiful and challenging place to go bicycle touring, as Mark & Maria Williams found out in September 2010.
On their tandem bicycle, they spent two weeks exploring the island as part of an organised trip with Erickson Tours.
They enjoyed great food, almost perfect weather and spectacular views but had to work for the privilege. Corsica has several mountains hovering around 2,000 meters.
Mark tells us more about their bicycle tour of Corsica, in this edition of 10 Questions.
1. What attracted you to Corsica as a bicycle touring destination?
It sounded like a real adventure. My father has motorcycled the island twice and shared his maps and trips with us. Bottom line: out of the way, small roads, little villages, not too “touristy”, real varied terrain.
2. Can you describe the scenery you encountered, and did the interior differ from the roads along the edge of Corsica?
The beauty of Corsica is the diversity of terrain. Coastal regions (west) were dramatic, narrow two lane roads with the bluest water we’ve ever seen (that includes CA, HI and the Caribbean). There’s nothing flat about them. The interior has mountains up to 2000M filled with pines, rocky gorges and sparsely populated.
3. Corsica is very mountainous, with several peaks over 2,000m. Does that make it a strenuous place to cycle?
Don’t go to Corsica if you are not willing to climb. The good news is there are limited “steep” climbs in excess of 10%. Most of what we rode was 4-6%, and not longer than 5-7 miles at the most; and very manageable on our tandem. We climbed 58,000 vertical feet in 14 days of riding. You won’t see the spectacular scenery unless you are willing to to UP! The descents were equally spectacular, several in excess of 10 miles!
4. You went in September. What was the weather like, and do you think this is a place you could cycle year round?
The weather was perfect; 75-85F, low humidity compared to southern France. We had one major rain storm, but it was warm and lasted only a few hours. Winds come out of the west, but were never an issue. In the winter they will get snow in the mountains but I believe the range is 50-85F from winter to summer.
5. What were the roads like?
We were told the roads were excellent, but it was some of the roughest roads we’ve experienced in Europe. They were still very rideable and all paved. Most were quite narrow; not atypical of Europe but surprising for all the wide open spaces they have. That being said, there were plenty of very nice sections (Col de Bavella for one). There was considerably more traffic than expected for September, which is generally the end of the tourist season. Many of the roads in the interior had very little traffic. Even with the traffic, we never had an issue taking up the space we needed. Everyone seemed very “bicycle” conscious. Motorcycle touring is very popular on Corsica. Because the roads are quite winding, they don’t get the speeds which was good for cyclists.
6. Is there one stretch of road that really stands out in your mind as spectacular?
Two in particular- Porto to Calvi on D81- dramatic coastal views, Col de Bavella on D268 (4,000 ft vertical climb from Solenzara with incredible Dolomite like mountains).
7. What was the cuisine like? And was it easy to find restaurants and cafes along the way?
Cuisine was rustic like the island. This is a place for the carnivore. They are famous for their salami, Copa, Proscuitto, anything from pigs which are everywhere, including boar (sanglier) which is actually quite good in a stew (much like beef Bourgogne). There are plenty of excellent sheep and goat cheeses. Vegetables can be found but they don’t seem to be a staple like you would see in Provence.
There are six wine regions and we found the dry roses to be delicious and the best value. Restaurants can be a little sparse in the smaller interior villages. It’s best to stock up in the larger villages or bigger cities. Remember the mileage is never that great, but the mountains are.
8. What kind of a budget should you count on, and is money easy to access?
We found Corsica to be about as expensive as mainland France. We bought lunch everyday and some dinners. The larger cities Ajacccio, Corte, Porto, Calvi, St. Florent, Propriano, etc. had plenty of ATM’s. The smaller villages didn’t have much so get your cash in the larger cities. Almost every restaurant took credit cards.
9. What’s the main challenge of cycling in Corsica?
It would have to be the climbing. Don’t let it intimidate you. The terrain is really worth it. Again, most climbs are reasonable grades and worth every foot of effort.
10. What’s your most treasured memory of cycling in Corsica?
It has to be the incredibly varied terrain and being able to ride from crystal blue waters to the pine forests in a matter of hours.
Thanks to Mark & Maria for answering 10 Questions and providing the photos.
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for bike touring in Corsica.
Cuba has friendly people, quiet roads and you can tour there on a budget.
That was the experience of Canadian couple Margo & Chris, who spent January of 2006 bicycle touring across Cuba; an 1,800km journey.
Pedalling west out of Havana, they were initially nervous because it was their first bike tour. Those worries soon faded, however, as they were greeted by shouts of “hola” and warmly welcomed in the B&Bs where they slept.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Food could be hard to find, and sometimes they were greeted in towns by young touts, trying to lead them to a particular B&B.
Margo tells about their Cuban cycling experience in this week’s 10 Questions.
1. What attracted you to Cuba as a bicycle touring destination?
We’d planned to travel as a couple once our youngest left for university. We each had various destinations in mind, but Cuba was at the top of the list because we knew we wanted to see it while Fidel was still at the helm. Cuba is a cyclist’s dream with its fairly good paved roads and minimal traffic, due to its oil shortage since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We’re in our 50s and have always been self-propelled outdoor people, and I speak some Spanish. Chris finds languages very difficult, but compensates by being good at reading body language and understanding cultures.
2. How were you received by the people?
I set out feeling nervous because it was our first tour, but I soon relaxed when I realized it was generally a safe and friendly country. For the most part, people were very welcoming, and my arm nearly fell off from waving “Hola. ” We stayed mainly in casas particulares, the Cuban version of B&Bs licensed by the state. Often these were run by a couple our age or older, and sometimes señora would be busy cooking while señor would have more time to chat, patiently answering our questions. Many enjoyed sharing their knowledge of their country’s history and culture with us, and an older couple gave us a serious account of their harrowing experiences during the Batista era. I wasn’t used to dealing with the obvious wealth disparity between ourselves and the locals, and at times on the road at times I found the demands for regalito (small gift) or chicle (gum) from kids made me feel I was viewed as a shop or a bank more than as a human being.
3. What were the roads like?
The roads we were on were paved, but in places there was broken pavement or sizable potholes (baches) to watch for. There was very little motorized traffic due to the oil shortage, but some of the vehicles that did pass left a heavy cloud of black smoke because they ran on very dirty fuel. We’d hold our breath!
There were quite a few oxen and horses on the roads, so that meant manure. We dealt with the heat by starting very early, sometimes before dawn, and in low light it was tricky to see the difference between piles of manure and potholes. The centres of a few towns were cobbled. In a few places there were unpaved options, but we didn’t take these.
4. And the landscape?
We headed west from Havana into Piñar del Rio’s forested limestone hills, and past extended areas of tobacco fields with A-frame tobacco drying sheds. From Baracoa, we climbed to 600 metres on the road known as La Farola (the lighthouse) crossing the Sierra Maestra from its humid north slope to the dry and windy south coast of Guantanamo province. It was a fast flat ride NW across the great plains, which are used mainly for cattle grazing, and the terrain became gently rolling in central Cuba as we rode back to Havana. Cuba isn’t mountainous, so it made a manageable first tour. Much of the land is farmed, as the country tries to improve its food self-sufficiency. Outside cities you can see organoponicos or intensive community vegetable plots, from which produce is brought into the towns.
5. How easy is it to get your bike on public transport in Cuba?
We made a single logistical move during our trip, so as to pedal the length of the island East to West with the prevailing trade winds. This involved a taxi into Havana from Piñar del Rio, with our bikes crammed into the small vehicle, wheels removed. We took a Viazul bus (for tourists and wealthier Cubans) From Havana to Baracoa, and the bikes went vertically into the spacious hold with only the front wheels removed. There were two other cyclists on the bus, so four bikes fit into the hold, and there was a small fee for the bikes.
6. You say in your journal that finding food could be difficult. Why?
Food staples were still distributed to locals under a strict rationing scheme when we were there. The country was only just emerging from the “Special Period” after the Soviet collapse when hunger was very real. There wasn’t much infrastructure yet for independent tourists; I think they’re only just beginning to realize that not everyone wants to be incarcerated into an all-inclusive resort which Cubans aren’t allowed to enter. Breakfasts and dinners in the casas were hearty and delicious, since the locals know where to get fresh food directly from the producer. There didn’t seem to be markets to buy any range of lunch items, however.
Produce was brought into towns from the organiponicos by bike early in the mornings, and we’d hear the seller calling out what he had just as we were rubbing sleep from our eyes. On the road, we’d buy fruit from sellers, and there would be street food in towns or at junctions: small pizza cooked on an oil drum, roast pork on a bun, or sugar-coated peanuts (mani). Towns were widely spaced, so we learned to eat whenever food was on offer, and resorted occasionally to a small stash of power bars and beef jerky from home.
7. What kind of a budget should you count on, and is money easy to access?
The two of us lived in style for about US$50 per day. This covered staying in casas where breakfast and dinner were provided, plus buying street food and snacks as we found them. Free camping is strongly discouraged in Cuba. If you camp on a farmer’s land or stay with a local, you may get the landowner or your host in big trouble, because the government controls cash flow from tourists by a strict licensing system. Cuba does not have standard ATMs, and $US dollars aren’t accepted. We understood you could get cash advances with a Canadian or European (not U.S.) issued credit card. We didn’t do this, but did cash some travellers’ cheques (Lloyds, not American Express) at a bank mid-trip.
We used the two currencies: Convertible pesos (1 Convertible peso = approx US$1) designated for use by tourists to pay for casas, and Cuban pesos (25 Cuban pesos = approx US$1) for buying most street food. We bought convertible pesos at the airport with Canadian cash, and converted some of these to Cuban pesos at an exchange kiosk in Havana.
8. Can you cycle year-round there, or does one season stand out?
Cuba is tropical, with a hurricane season that lasts from June to November that you probably want to avoid. We’d read that December to February could be humid, but we only had one day of light rain even though we were there for the entire month of January. From March to May the weather is meant to be more reliably dry, but it’s also a bit warmer. January is the coolest month, but the seasonal temperature variation isn’t large.
9. What’s one challenge people cycling in Cuba might run into?
The hustlers (jiniteros) can be annoying or downright aggressive. These are usually boys in their late teens who approach as you enter a town and try to lead you to a friend’s casa. Unfortunately, there was no complete listing of casas when we were there, so we would sometimes arrive in a town without knowing where we would stay. I preferred to ask an older woman for help than go with a jinitero. The boys are strongly motivated because they usually get a payment from the casa owner, but we’d heard they sometimes take you to stay somewhere unlicensed or where a theft of your belongings has been planned.
As we got into our Cuban routine, we would ask our casa hosts if they could recommend a casa in the next town, and señora would call ahead and make arrangements for us. Before entering that town, we would look carefully at our sketch map of the casa location to memorize the approach route, so we could ride there without pausing. It’s when you stop to look at your map or notes that the jiniteros descend upon you.
10. What’s your most treasured memory of cycling in Cuba?
I think we’d only been on the road two days, and we were pedalling across Piñar del Rio on a stretch of badly broken pavement. The only traffic we’d seen for some time was cowboys herding rangy cattle. Ahead, we saw a festive looking family group.
Several young women in long frilly dresses were having their photos taken with the family’s rusting Lada as a backdrop. Their mood was festive; this was a qincenaria or special coming-of-age 15th birthday party for one of the girls. There was no hesitation in making us part of the celebration, and they insisted that Chris take photos of me with the whole group. I was covered in sweat and dust, but they gathered around me and my bike in their best clothes, unconcerned by my warnings about the bicycle chain which I feared would damage the dresses. Never mind; this was a party and we were to be part of it!
During the rest of the trip, we would often be shown heavy albums of professional photography depicting a more comfortable family’s most recent qincenaria. It became clear that these were occasions when a family pulled out the stops and displayed their wealth. As well as group shots, Chris had taken solo portraits of each of the girls, and we later mailed prints of these to the family of modest means that had welcomed us.
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling in Cuba:
You can also watch this video, of a bike tour in Cuba:
“Having cycled from the UK to Israel in my early twenties, it’s taken me until my early forties, to get on my bike and tour again. I gave up my job and rented out my house in order to take on the Trans America route from East to West. I then cycled from Vancouver Island to San Francisco clocking up 6000 miles in total in 2010, and losing 56lbs in weight in the process!”
You can read about Stuart’s journey on his blog, Mid Life Cyclist.