10 Questions: Cycling in Spain
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.