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Southern Spain

Ask a lot of people in Britain where the most southerly place  in mainland Europe is located and they will answer ‘Gibraltar’. This was my answer too when, over a year ago, we sat in our cosy, green tent on the Nordkapp peninsula eating pasta and sauce. We had just visited the most northerly point and Jerry suggested that we should now take in the most southerly on our cycle journey. Having sailed into the Mediterranean twice from the Atlantic, Jerry knew that going a little bit further south to round the southern Spanish headland of Tarifa was key to not hitting land on the way in. So, not for the first time on this trip, I realigned my geography of Europe and we started heading south. Now, almost thirteen and a bit months later, six of them on the road cycling, we were pedalling along the narrow, rock-lined road that leads out from Tarifa town to the fabled headland. The headland is more of a defence clad rocky island that, due to sea level changes, is now attached to the mainland by a narrow sandy isthmus on which the road runs. There is not much to see here, unlike Nordkapp with its metal globe, just a handpainted board with a map announces the significance of this place. We asked a couple, admiring the view across the Estreche de Gibraltar to the mountains of Morocco, to take a picture of us and made a note of the distance on our cycle computers. 14064km (8790 miles).

Tarifa, Spain: the most southerly point in mainland Europe

Over 9,500km completed between the two points through thirteen culturally and geographically diverse, yet historically interlinked, European countries. It was time to visit another continent!

We had received two recommendations from friends to take a trip to Tangiers whilst we were so close to Africa. Morocco is less than 12 miles (20km) away from Tarifa and, because it is so mountainous, is clearly visible from the town on most days. I thought we could stretch our budget to the return ferry fare and then wander around on our own. It turned out, for some mysterious reason, that a one day guided tour, including the ferry, was cheaper. We booked our tickets and the following day found ourselves joining about sixty other tourists for a taste of Tangiers. We started on a coach tour that took us up out of the city through the rich, big house part of town. Our Moroccan guide, Rashid, spoke about seven different languages, but today was only using three, Arabic, Spanish and English. In between jokes about his mother-in-law, he told us about the different sheikhs and Sultans who had summer residences here because of the cooler climate, some of the history of Morocco, and how a few women are in positions of power within the country. Our first stop was a lighthouse on the northwestern corner of the country, where the cold waters of the Atlantic meet the warmer waters of the Mediterranean. This is often a place where cetaceans are spotted, but we had no luck spotting any in the ten minutes we were given to look around.

Moroccan Lighthouse above Atlantic Ocean

Our next stop was the highlight of my day out, a camel ride. Definitely a bucket list tick. It wasn’t a long journey, just 20 metres and back again, but I was a like a kid again, riding high on the hard, blanket covered saddle, balancing with ‘no hands’ for a photo and leaning forwards and backwards as the camel stood up and got back down to the ground. Well worth the €2.00 cost. I’m sure it can’t be a very interesting life for the camels and I wondered about animal welfare issues.

Riding high on a camel

Back in the city, Rashid walked us around the souk to see the shops and stalls, the narrow lanes and the Moroccan architecture.  It was market day and the Berber women, in their straw hats, were in town to sell flat, round breads, dates and other fruit and vegetables.

Berber market bread stall

Kids were out playing in the narrow lanes and these two girls agreed to having their picture taken as they swung on the step railings.

Fun in the Medina lanes

The architecture has a mixture of Arabic and European influences, and looks very similar to that found in a lot of southern Spain. Not surprising, as the Moors (Arabs) ruled much of Spain in medieval times for up to eight hundred years and various European countries had colonial interests in Morocco over the last couple of hundred years. The Kasbah, or palace had many similar features to the Alcazaba Palace we had visited in Seville: mosaic tiles,  carved, wooden doors and intricate plaster ceiling.

Intricate plaster work in Tangiers Kasbah

Returning to the souk after a lunch of cous cous, spicy vegetables and kebab followed by mint tea and a very sweet pastry, our group of tourists was accompanied by an ever increasing number of street sellers. Various local goods were being offered, brass camels, embroidered cushion covers, leather belts and purses. We politely declined to purchase with a ‘La shukran’ that means ‘No thank you’ in Arabic. I had looked this phrase up on the internet before our day trip and it proved very useful. Jerry and I didn’t feel particularly hassled by the traders but we weren’t looking for souvenirs. Some of our fellow travellers had a constant barrage, particularly once they had bought an item or two. All in all it was an interesting day out and I recall Jerry saying, as we travelled back on the ferry, that maybe now he would consider some cycle touring in Africa. (Watch this space!)

We haven’t had much contact with Warmshower hosts over the summer. Partly because the climate is warmer and partly because it gave us more spontaneity as to where we travelled and how far to cycle each day. We decided to try contacting a few around southern Spain to give us more insight into living in this warm climate. So far we haven’t been successful in finding a host, but we did get some very useful route advice from a host living just north of Gibraltar. We had looked at the map for getting from Tarifa to Gib. and could only find main roads and motorways. Mandy suggested a gravel road route through a natural park dedicated to the conservation of the cork oak. After a bit of bike pushing up a stoney, steep track, it turned out to be a delightful route.

Riding through the cork oak natural park

The road had been built in the 1940s by political prisoners of the Franco regime to provide easier access to fortification points that were being built as part of Second World War defences. Spain was theoretically neutral during the war but thought the Straits of Gibraltar a key position to be able to defend if necessary. Now the road is used by cork harvest wagons, a few local residents, and cyclists – it is one of the few completed sections in Spain of Eurovelo route 8 that runs all the way from Tarifa to ? It climbs high over a mountain pass to cross the Tarifa peninsula west to east. The hills are covered in cork oak forests and, particularly at this autumn migration period, Griffin vultures float around on the thermals looking for food. They were high in the blue sky this day, but we got a better view of them a few days later when we camped near the top of a mountain in the sierras and they wheeled past on the thermal almost at head height. Their bald heads pulled back beneath their broad, brown-feathered wings. They seemed interested in checking out the new, temporary residents.

To visit Gibraltar, we stayed on a campsite in La Linea, the poorer neighbourhood town on the Spanish side of the border. There are are no campsites in Gibraltar. The only flat piece of land is the airport that was rapidly built at the start of WWII for use by the Royal Air force and is now an international airport used by many holiday makers visiting southern Spain. This has only been possible since 1985, when Spain joined the EU and was required to reopen the border between the two countries. Franco had closed it overnight in 1969, leaving many Spanish residents of La Linea jobless. We crossed the border on light bikes, waving our British passports at the Immigration control officers, and joined a frenetic, mad throng of cars, buses and scooters heading the kilometre across the runway to the town of Gibraltar. Napoleonic defences are evident everywhere. Solid, thick stone built walls and batteries with entrance tunnels and drawbridges. This is a strategic 400m high headland that has been fought over since medieval times when the Moors first built a castle and other fortifications here. Forming a less well known, and much older part of Gibraltar’s history are the Neanderthals. They started living in a cave on the eastern side of the Rock around 55,000 years ago. At that time theory sea level was considerably lower and they looked out across three miles of fertile, hunting plain to the Mediterranean Sea. They ate rabbit, cattle, deer, wild pig and sea food and left the bones and shells in large, midden pits. Life here in the south of the Iberian peninsula was very stable with a good climate remaining through many of the ice ages. Archaeological evidence shows that one hearth in the cave was used continuously for 8,000 years. The last evidence of their habitation dates to 24,000 years ago, several thousand years longer than anywhere else, and is probably due to the milder climate. The reason for their extinction is unknown, but is thought to be connected to some abrupt climate changes that disrupted their food supplies. Certainly it is unconnected to the growth of modern human populations, as they only arrived in the area 18,000 years ago. We came face to face with two of the Neanderthal residents in the Gibraltar museum. Based on skulls found in Gibraltar, they are highly skilled reconstructions that bring this human species to life. A grandmother and grandson stand together meeting each new visitor with mixed emotions.

Neanderthal reconstructions in the Gibraltar museum

The museum is exceptionally good value at just £2.00 per person and gives an insight into the human and natural history of the rock. An excavation in its back yard reveals the many ages of more recent habitation of the rock from the medieval Moorish town through to the 18th century. Key to living on the Rock was the collection, storage and movement of water which was in short supply, and many cisterns and aquaducts have been built by each group of inhabitants. In the 19th century, a giant rainwater catchment system covering 250,000m² was constructed to improve the sanitary conditions and reduce the outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever that were killing thousands of inhabitants and soldiers. Today, all of Gibraltar’s drinking water comes from a desalination plant and a separate supply of saltwater is used for sanitary purposes.

We couldn’t visit Gibraltar without a visit to Marks and Spencer and to a British pub. In the first, I visited the underwear department for a new sports bra, and at the second we enjoyed a pint of Tetley beer. We could also have had fish and chips for supper but chose instead to visit the Morrison supermarket for some treats from home: scotch eggs, British tea bags, and Chelsea buns.

The obvious route north from Gibraltar in Spain is to follow the coast, but lots of holiday makers have made it to the Mediterranean coast long before us and it is now full of busy roads and large conurbations. Instead we chose to head inland for quieter roads, easier wild camping and less people. Inland, in Spain, means uphill. At first the road had a very gentle incline and, other than for a headwind, we were able to speed along and had covered about forty kilometres by lunchtime. We sat in a concreted children’s play park and cooked up cous cous with red pepper and sardines, followed by yogurt, biscuit and fruit. This has been our standard lunchtime fare on the road since leaving Porto in June. We sometimes vary it with pasta, lentils, carrot, peas and sweet corn. I enjoy eating much the same thing every day, the simplicity of knowing what I am looking for in the supermarket, less decisions, and less stress.

Next to the play park ran a railway, the mainline from Algeciras, a large, industrial port near Gibraltar, to Granada, where we were headed. We soon heard the klaxon of the adjacent level crossing warning of an approaching train. Quickly dropping my saucepan (it serves as my food bowl) and spoon, I leapt to my handlebar bag to find my camera. I have a mad keen, train buff nephew back home and in each country I have tried to capture a picture of a train for his Facebook page. We had been in Spain for a total of two and a half months and I had so far failed to capture one of their speedy engines. Luckily for me, this train stopped first at the nearby station and so came past us at a rather sedate pace. I did a bit of juggling to get my camera through the iron railing fence and came up with the necessary image. Two minutes later, with the aid of data through my Spanish sim card in my phone, the photo was uploaded and Alfie was being informed of its presence. The magic of modern technology!

South bound Spanish train

Our pace after lunch was considerably slower as we started to climb 600m of steep ascent into the southern Spanish sierras. Spain is, according to Wikipedia, the second hilliest country in Europe after Switzerland and we were to meet a lot of these hills in the coming weeks. As the weather had been cooling down and day time temperatures here at the beginning of October were ‘only’ in the high twenties, we had stopped taking a shady siesta. For fifteen kilometres, we toiled our way up the hill round switchback bends that spread the gradient to one possible to ride with our bikes’ gearing. There was little shade and soon the sweat was hanging in a drip on the end of my nose before splatting on to the hot tarmac beneath my wheels. We both grew hotter with the exertion and the sweat on our foreheads, no longer able to soak into the already sodden sweat band of our helmets, started to trickle through our eyebrows and, mingling with suntan lotion, seeped into our eyes. I blinked in a vain attempt to clear the stinging liquid and final resolved on cycling squinting out the corner of one eye. However, this approach was not tenable for long and we both had to take frequent breaks to dry our faces. On one bend, we met a driver by his parked car. “¿Quereís agua?” (Do you want water?) he asked. “Si, por favor” (Yes, please). It turns out he had stopped by a cool mountain spring and he helped us resupply our water bottles. He was a mountain biker from Algeciras and, whilst he was interested in our tour, he thought us crazy to be cycling up the hill in the heat of the afternoon. I think he may well have been right. He told us we were about three quarters of the way up and the road levelled off after Gaucín. Bolstered by this information, and the wonderful mountain panoramas that were opening out around us, we continued plodding upwards until we reached the col and a well deserved biscuit break.

Well deserved break

My most repeated word for October, cycling in the sierras has been ‘Wow!’ There have been stunning vistas in every direction, with the craggy mountains taking centre stage. We have seen soaring eagles, scavenging vultures, surefooted Ibex with their bouncy kids, and heard the scratchy, chattering song of Stonechats in the wayside shrubs. The villages cling to the hillsides and ancient white painted houses crowd in on hilltops to form pueblos that have stood here since the middle ages. There are solid, square Moorish defensive towers and forts, and later rounded Castellan additions. We have camped high as often as possible, watching the sun sink golden behind the western mountains in the evening and rise again next morning to light up the eastern ranges in a soft pink and yellow glow. Even after three weeks cycling through their heights, plains and valleys, I have not tired of their delights. There have been many times when ‘Wow’ is the only word I can utter.

If I mention Malaga, what is the first image that pops into your mind?

I can be fairly certain that it will not be a vertiginous path built into the walls of a deep gorge to facilitate the maintenance of water channels in an early twentieth century hydroelectric scheme. We first heard of the Caminito del Rey from a Dutch couple on the campsite at Seville. One evening, over a beer, they had shown me online pictures of this place they were going to visit and told me a little of its history. I was immediately fascinated and keen to visit.

The Caminito del Rey in the early days

The original path was a series of balcony walkways suspended more than 100 metres off the ground. Created from iron rails and concrete slabs attached to the vertical cliff sides of the gorge Desfiladero de los Gaitanes, the path wound its way down from a reservoir to the hydroelectric plant eight kilometres downstream. The path got its name after King Alfonso XIII walked along it whilst opening the scheme in 1921. Over the years it fell into disrepair until much of it was only accessible by experienced climbers using rope protection. A series of deaths from falls through missing sections of the path towards the end of the twentieth century finally forced the Province authorities to close the path completely in 2000. Since then, it has undergone a complete multi-million Euro revamp, bringing it up to modern safety standards and, for the first time, making it accessible to everyone who is fit enough to walk the five mile length and can afford the €10.00 entrance fee. We splashed out and were not disappointed. Togged up in the regulation hairnet and helmet, we wandered our way along the metre wide boardwalk. Thankfully it is built on the shady side of the gorge, so we were protected from much of the afternoon heat. The rock, a pale gold, has been worn away over thousands of years by water and stones. Looking over the handrail deep into the gorge, smooth, round kettle holes are visible along the edges of the river. Rock doves nest on tiny ledges and vegetation clings in narrow gulleys wherever there is enough soil or a deep enough cleft to send down roots. The skills and ingenuity of the architects, engineers and labourers that designed and built the paths is evident throughout and there is a poignant memorial to three Spanish friends who were the last to lose their lives here as they attempted a Tyrolean traverse across a wide ravine. Near the lower end of the gorge, the path crosses a wire suspension bridge 100m above the rocky river bed and then climbs and descends across a wide, vertical rock face to reach the safety of the access track coming in from the north. A very enjoyable afternoon’s ramble through Malaga’s industrial past.

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One response to “Southern Spain

  1. That walkway looks amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

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