Just over a month ago a friend posted a picture of a bag she had bought on Facebook with a comment along the lines that she felt lucky to be able to afford it. At the time, I had just written about our budget constraints in my blog and our concerns about the financial longevity of our cycling journey. I was feeling rather low. My friend’s short note made me see a different side to our money worries. I realised we are amazingly fortunate to have enough money to be able to give up work and go off travelling around the world. We have been on the road for close on 18 months, visiting places we had never even heard of before we left and meeting warm and generous people all across Europe. Our journey has been a privilege, a delight and an honour.
We have now reached our friends’ house in the mountains behind Benidorm. The good news is that our apartment in Scotland has let again and we will soon lose our budget deficit. We are beginning to reflect on ‘Where next?’ We have been having discussions with other cycle tourists who have travelled outside Europe about where to go and what bikes to take to other regions. It seems clear that we will need to swap our road touring bikes for more rugged machines with smaller 26 inch wheels. Outside Europe and North America, this is the standard size wheel and spares for other sizes are hard or impossible to come by without ordering them from home at great expense and time. Quite where and when to make the change is undecided. We have decided, though, that we do want to carry on touring and to go further afield from Europe. We have learnt a lot in our first eighteen months about travelling by bike. We both love the speed of travelling and seeing the world at an average speed of 16 kilometres per hour (10mph). We now know more about bike mechanics, simple living and keeping our equipment ‘alive’ by various means. Glue, cotton thread, duck, spinnaker and insulating tape have all been deployed to repair our shoes, clothing, bikes, sleeping mats and tent. For the most part, we have been surprised how long items have lasted with almost daily usage. Today, we finally replaced the jockey wheels on our derailleur mechanisms. They have each turned for close on 20,000km (12,000 miles) and the teeth were very worn.
The last month cycling through south eastern Spain has been olive harvesting time. We came across a couple of guys busy in their olive grove one sunny Saturday morning just south of Antequera.
They spread a large tarpaulin beneath the first tree and then proceeded to shake each branch with a handheld, harvest vibrater. In essence, it is a long armed machine with a hooked clip that is attached to the branch. When power is applied, the branch is shaken vigorously and the ripe olives tumble to the ground. It was a time consuming process working their way around each tree, ensuring that no branch was overlooked and all the dislodged olives were safely on the tarpaulin beneath the tree. After completing a tree the tarpaulin was gathered up, the olives tipped into a trailer and the men started the process all over again on the next tree. Only another two hundred to go!Last year, at the start of October in Poland, the weather got colder dramatically overnight. This year, on our travels in Spain, the same thing happened though the temperatures were about twenty degrees warmer. One evening, just outside Granada, we went swimming in a bright, azure coloured reservoir to cool off after the day’s sweaty mountain riding.
The heat from the sun quickly dried our skin as we emerged refreshed onto the beach. We sat outside the tent to eat our dinner and went to bed confident of more warm weather. As the night progressed, I found myself pulling my down bag up from my feet to my knees, to my hips, my shoulders and finally over my head as the temperature plummeted. By 5am I was feeling so cold I tucked in close to Jerry for body warmth. We awoke to a damp mist clinging to the hills, grass heavy with dew, and our breath condensing in the cool air. The next day, in Granada, we had our first daytime rain for four months. It was a bit of a shock.
Granada is a city like no other. The last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian peninsula, it held out for longer than other cities and provinces against the ingresses of the Castillan Catholic monarchs in the 13-15th centuries by the good fortune of its geography and the negotiating and trading skills of its leaders. It is a city surrounded by hard to traverse mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada that rises majestically to over 3000 metres on its south eastern side. The city, itself, was built on two low lying hills with open views across the fertile plains to the west. The Moors started living in this region in around 700AD and only lost control 800 years later. The last dynasty to rule here were the Nasrids. They carefully aligned themselves with the Castilian rulers providing connections with the Muslim and Arab trade centres in North Africa. They imported gold and exported silk and dried fruits. The Nasrids also supplied troops and mercenaries for service in Castile. Finally, in 1492, following the Battle of Granada, the last Muslim ruler, Emir Muhammad XII (Boabdil to the Spanish), surrendered to the Catholic Monarchs, Fernando V and Isabella I, leaving the whole of the Iberian peninsula in Catholic hands.
The King and Queen immediately moved into the Alhambra Palace, a jewel of architecture and interior design built by the Nasrids. It is now, justifiably, a World Heritage site, designated in the first year that Spain joined the scheme. It is so popular, that tickets sell out weeks in advance. Leaving our bikes at our campsite on the outskirts of the city, we took the bus into the centre and walked up the narrow, steep lane, lined with artisan craft shops, to the Palace grounds.
Over the last couple of months cycling in southern Portugal and Spain, we have discovered that Moorish buildings are very square on the outside. Their trademarks are simple lines, a solid stone construction around courtyards and uncomplicated sloping roofs. Their creativity, artistry and detailed work were saved for the interiors. Entering through the door of the Nasrid palace, we looked around in awe at the colourful mosaic tiling, the intricate plaster work and finely carved wooden doors and ceilings. Each room was decorated differently, in designs based purely on geometric shapes and Arabic script, and the whole effect hung together beautifully. Half way around, we came across two newly wed couples using the palace as a backdrop to their wedding photos. They posed in front of windows, looking through door ways and in the courtyards with reflections in the still ponds. Their photographers giving them instructions on how to stand and how to look at each other, whilst also somehow managing to keep the tourists out of shot. I took advantage of their skill to snap my own picture of a quiet courtyard with just the happy couple.
For photos of the interior without other tourists, I zoomed in to see the finer details or pointed my camera upwards, looking above the heads of the international crowds.
Our visit to La Alhambra was interrupted by me discovering that I had left my reading glasses a couple of kilometres away in the park where we had stopped for lunch. Whilst I beat myself up for my stupidity and fretted over the cost of a replacement pair, Jerry offered to go back and see if they were still there. In the end we both went, walking rapidly through the city, dodging round tourists on the pavements and jumping pedestrian crossing lights, hoping our journey would not be in vain. Twenty minutes later we arrived at the park, and peering through the railings as we approached, I saw the distinctive and familiar purple and pink outline of my glasses sitting on the marble stone wall where I had left them. A relief all round.
Back at La Alhambra (luckily, the ticket permits re-entry) we continued our tour and visited the Generalife, a more informal palace that gave the Emir and his family space away from the formal duties of ruling a country. The courtyards were full of aromatic plants and elegant water features providing calm and cool havens of retreat.
We wanted to see how ‘the other half’ lived in Moorish medieval times. Looking out from the ramparts of La Alhambra, we could see across to the old town and district of the Alabacín that grew up on another hill. The narrow lanes and tightly packed houses reminded us of the Medina in Tangier.
This area, too, is now a World Heritage site. Wandering down to the small river that flows between the two hills, we passed the old Arabic baths. The Moors were the most advanced culture in Europe during the middle ages and, like the Romans, the ruling classes liked to keep clean. Their large town houses were purloined by the incoming Catholics and several were incorporated as cloisters into large convents and monasteries. As we climbed up into the Alabacín, the roads became narrower and the houses smaller. Vines and jasmine twisted up and around iron balconies that looked out onto the cobble streets. Drizzle started falling and we took shelter just outside an old city gate beneath an oak tree much to the chagrine of a small terrier living opposite who barked incessantly until we moved off. Nearby were more balconies filled with the green and white of potted spider plants. Nowadays, this is a desirable place to live with property being relatively expensive for its small and cramped conditions. In medieval times, this is where the tradesmen and poorer classes lived and the smell of drains and rubbish in the streets would have been more pungent.
Our time in Granada coincided with Spain’s national holiday on October 12th. This is the date that Christopher Columbus is believed to have landed in the Americas. It’s a controversial date because of the impact that Europeans had on the continent, murdering, plundering and bringing unknown diseases. Some cities choose not to celebrate it for this reason. In Granada, the day was marked by a small military and municipal parade centered around the Plaza Mayor and Capilla Real, where Ferdinand and Isabel, incidently the monarchs who sent Columbus on his mission, are buried. We watched the parade from outside the town hall. The soldiers in olive-brown uniforms marched in accompanied by a military band, and lined up to await inspection by the General of the regiment. The band played the national anthem and the crowd around us joined in with the words. We recognised it from the days when Fernando Alonso was winning Formula One Grand Prixs. Then dignatories, children and others, all dressed in traditional costumes of varying shades and hues, marched out of the town hall and through the town to the Capilla Real.
Parades seem a popular activity in Spain. Later the same day, we watched another that centred around a saint’s day. Two large statues, one of the Virgin Mary and another of Saint Anthony were brought out from the Iglesia de Santo Domingo amid much ringing of bells, exploding fireworks and music from brass bands. They were carried on giant platforms by about sixteen men and taken on a tour around the city.
Before I left Scotland, I thought that there was only one Virgin Mary, but since visiting Portugal and Spain, I have discoved many more. ‘Our lady of Fatima’, ‘Our lady of the sacred heart’ and ‘Our lady of the immaculate conception’ are just three. I can’t remember which one was walked around Granada that evening.
‘Mmm…..’, I said as I poured over the map one night. ‘I think we have a problem with getting to Baza. There is only a motorway available for 30km and we’re not allowed to ride on them.’ Unbelievably, the Spanish road authorities had upgraded a main road to an autovía and left no alternative nearby through route for cyclists and other non- motorway traffic. I looked for another route and found the shortest was an 150km detour to the north over mountainous roads. If we were going to get to Workaway host, Elé’s cave house on the date we had agreed we would need to get some motorised assistance. Elé had invited us to work on her cave house about 140km to the east of Granada back in the summer and we were very excited by the prospect. I had only seen cave houses in the Himalayas before and had never been in one. This was an opportunity not to miss. So it was that we found ourselves in a bike shop near the Granada bus station one Saturday morning speaking clumsy Spanish to the owner as we procured two cardboard bike boxes and gained his help in loosening my rather tight pedals. We somehow made the 500m to the bus station each with a fully laden bike in one hand and a large cardboard box in the other. Alsa, the bus company, were willing to transport our bikes but only if we packed them into a box or a bag. On our trip we have met many cycle tourists who are old hands at this as they fly from continent to continent for shorter tours. For us, this was our first time. We gave ourselves two hours to complete the deconstruction task. We removed the front wheel and saddle and collapsed our front carriers back against the forks. Then our handlebars were lifted out of the forks leaving them dangling by the brake and gear cables. Then each bike was lifted into a box and the loose items packed around it. More of a jigsaw puzzle than at first sight. We added the tent poles to my box and taped everything up. We were ready for the bus with six items each to carry, not the easiest task to move around with no trolley.
Suffice to say, we managed to get everything loaded in the Spanish mêlée that precedes a departing bus and sat back to enjoy the ride.
Elé and her husband, Andre, bought the cave house ten years ago and since then have been expanding and renovating it during their holidays. It has been a labour of love requiring much tenacity. There first job was to remove the previous residents: local goats who were reluctant to give up their cosy stable. They have come a long way since those early days, levelling the floors, digging larger rooms and creating a light an airy kitchen cum living room on the front. They have installed mains water, drainage and electricity and, finally, the end is in sight and it is almost ready to let as a holiday home. Our tasks were to tidy up the yard outside, finish tiling the terrace and build and decorate a retaining wall for a plant bed. In return we got to sleep in the cave house – now there is a bucket list tick – and were looked after very well by Elé and her mum, Elsabé. Their friend, Eliska, from the Czech Republic, was also working with us all for the week. A novel moment came when we couldn’t locate the grouting trowel and Elé produced one of her flip-flops to take its place.
I’d not built a wall since I did an evening class in bricklaying about three years ago in Perth. With encouragement from Elé, I had a go and managed something reasonably level and true. The following day Jerry carefully covered it with river worn stones that we had collected from a nearby scree slope. Elé was delighted with the result.
At a reasonably constant 18 deg, the cave was a pleasant place to live. There are four bedrooms leading off a central kitchen/living room and a shower room. Only the kitchen and shower room have windows so the rest of the cave is in almost total darkness without electric light. We slept very well but found knowing the time in the morning by the amount of daylight an impossibility. I had imagined the cave would be damp but in fact it wasn’t. Elé keeps the windows open to keep the air circulating and there are no internal doors, just curtains between the rooms. So not much aural privacy. I giggled one morning when Jerry farted in bed, knowing that everyone else in the cave house will have heard it too. You’ve got to know each other pretty well or be quite tolerant to live in together in this environment.
There are many cave houses in this part of Spain. Originally poor people’s homes, their romance has appealed to many foreigners. The landscape is rather desert like and has been used for filming some of the spaghetti westerns. Just picture the tumbleweed rolling across a dry landscape in the wind and you won’t be far away from the reality of this place.
We were told that a lot of the cave houses were created during hard times in the 19th century. Economic migrants from Valencia made their way here to work and having no money to buy or build homes, they just started digging into the sand and siltstone, creating homes underground. When they needed a new shelf or cupboard, they carved into the rock to create the space. Often their animals lived at one end and the family at the other. Much like the Butt and Ben cottages in Scotland. Elé showed us pictures of the goat manure they had to dig out of one of the rooms in their cave. It was over a metre deep. Cave houses these days are much more plush and many have been turned into holiday homes and are available to rent.
It’s been seven months since we last stayed with a Warmshowers host (reciprocal couch surfing for cycle tourists). In part, because we enjoy camping and it gives us a lot of flexibility where we stop. In part, because there weren’t many hosts when we were following the Camino de Santiago and we could stay cheaply at the albergues. I think I also needed a break from researching potential hosts, sending requests and waiting to see if we heard back. As we sat planning our onward route from Elé’s cave house, we had a look at the Warmshowers app to see if there were any hosts along or near our route and sent off speculative requests. What followed was a rich and rewarding week staying with three hosts and wild camping in the mountains on the days in between. We had forgotten how delightful it is to turn up at a home with our bikes and bags and to be welcomed like old friends. To be able to chat cycling long into the night with like minded people who have completed their own tours. Our first hosts were Mallorie and Marc, a Belgian couple who have made a cave house, in the little white village of Gallera their home. They are busy creating a cycle touring atlas starting with France which they have toured many times. The maps contain all the information we have dreamed of as we travelled Europe: Land use for finding campsites, the routes of the Eurovelo cycleways, the world heritage sites, variously graded roads in different colours and much, much more. If you are interested, you can access their website HERE.
We went for a walk together up a local hill to watch the sunset and then chatted all things cycling touring whilst they made and cooked fresh pasta and we tried some regional wine. Several hours later we discovered it had gone midnight and time to go to bed.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast with Mallorie’s homemade jam, we headed off into a rainy morning following a suggested route from Marc. This is one of the wonderful advantages of staying with Warmshower hosts, they have a good knowledge of scenic, quiet cycling roads. That night we camped high in the mountains on a stony plateau under some oak trees and surprised a wild boar out on his evening ramble. In the morning, a tinkling sound of bells grew steadily louder through the woods announcing the approach of a flock of sheep who stopped to stare at us before moving off down hill to find some fresh vegetation.
We rode down hill into a long valley with poplar trees, their leaves turning yellow in the autumn air and, with this symbol of the changing seasons, we finally felt like autumn had arrived. I was enjoying riding in cooler temperatures and not sweating profusely or looking for shade in which to stop to cool down.
Passing a Moorish fort turned Castilian lookout post, we entered a wide gorge with steep cliffs on either side. The flat ground at the bottom was full of recently harvested walnut trees. For five hundred years, the local people of Nerpio have been growing walnuts here and the nuts are renown throughout Spain for taste and quality. High above us, at the top of the cliffs, we spotted some Ibex. The mums wandered gently along whilst their kids jumped and bounded full of energy over the boulders, confident in their surefooted-ness. Later we got a closer view as a mum and kid trotted across the road just ahead of us. Their milk coffee coloured hairy coats ruffling in the breeze and their shiny hooves clicking rythmically on the tarmac.
Late afternoon found us cycling along a road out of Moratalla looking for a yellow bike. Our Warmshower host, José, had placed it on the roadside at the end of his drive to help us locate his home. José, Rosa and their three year old son, Manuel, looked after us exceptionally well. They grow their own organic vegetables and fruit in a plot below their house and treated us to a tour of their garden. One product interested us particularly. It was a white aubergine, and we finally understood why the american name is ‘Eggplant’.
We got to practise our Spanish, getting some help with pronunciation and grammar, and were able to give José some help with pronouncing some tricky English words. They cooked supper for us, recommended cycling routes, and gave us a warm and cosy bedroom. Manuel delighted in showing us his various bikes and in playing the electric piano. He understands a lot of English as José speaks English to him and he watches cartoons in English.
After two more nights in the tent, one camped on the tarmac of a disused road high in the hills, we arrived in Yecla and met Javi.To begin with, we spoke just in Spanish, a real challenge as we have only been learning for five months. I can, for the most part, talk simple Spanish and ask for things but my listening comprehension needs work. Javi was very patient, repeating words slowly for us. He also gained confidence, as the evening wore on, to speak a little English. When we left Britain we were very shy at speaking other languages and were keen to get things right. Now we are keener to communicate even if we fumble or aren’t initially understood. And having a go is an excellent way to practise and improve. Javi’s parents arrived the next morning to cook us the traditional breakfast of Gachasmigas over a wood fire. It is a pancake made from flour, olive oil, whole garlic cloves and water and Javi showed us how to eat it using a piece of bread to scoop mouthfuls directly from the pan. Delicious.
Meals here in Spain are a social event rather than just a way of refueling. Friends and family gather together and share food. Even on our mountain walk with Javi and his friends a day later, we all shared our food, bread, cheese, chorizo and fruit, at breaks and lunch.
Javi is a man of the mountains and took us rock climbing, with his friend Inmar, on the Saturday after breakfast. Then showed us one of his favourite places, the ‘magic’ mountain near Yecla where people lived in the caves thousands of years ago. It was the first place he cycled to on his own from his parents’ house as a child and the place he chose to spend his last night on returning from a long cycle tour to South America. The main cave has a large hole in its roof through which Javi and two friends watched the stars passed overhead.
There are cave paintings nearby and rock carvings, and the whole landscape is part of the cultural World Heritage ‘Arte Rupestre del Arco Mediterráneo Español’. It was truly special and I can see why it has a place in Javi’s heart.
We wanted to show our appreciation to Javi and his friends for sharing their lives and country with us for a few days and so cooked them a Scottish dinner of stovies, followed by apple crumble. We hope to be able to welcome them to our home when we return.
We are now staying with our friends, John and Janet, at their house in the mountains not far from Benidorm. Their generosity is giving us an opportunity to catch up on a number of outstanding tasks. We have given the bikes a good service, including taking Jerry’s bike to a bike shop to have his front wheel hub greased and tightened. It had become quite loose since leaving Granada and was wobbling side to side as he cycled along. We’ve cleaned a lot of kit and found a hole in Jerry’s thermarest that was leaving him deflated every morning. I’ve been darning holes in my sarong/towel and writing blog. We’ve also been out walking in the hills, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea and planning where next.
The rough plan is Valencia, Balearic Islands, Barcelona, and Perpignan via as much Spanish countryside as possible en route.