On our last night in the Spanish mountains we camped high on a col on a small piece of flat land from where we could look back to the craggy mountains inland from Benidorm and forward to the flat, fertile Mediterranean coast of Valencia. On either side of us the land plunged steeply downwards. Beneath us, out the front of the tent, there was a white, limestone cliff. A pair of ravens flew up and away and a sharp, cool breeze was blowing up over the ridge from the south bringing an overcast sky which aptly matched my mood. I was feeling sad. That morning we had said our goodbyes to our friend John after three relaxing and fun weeks staying at his (and Janet’s) house in the mountains behind Benidorm.
Between drystone walling and track maintenance projects, we had practised our pigeon Spanish,walked the hills, chatted and socialised. It was hard to leave and we were ready to be on the road again.
Ahead of us lay the west coast of the Mediterranean and, we hoped, sunshine. With December rapidly approaching we were keen to be cycling in the warm and that meant leaving the mountains. So this was our ‘fairwell’ night to the hills that we have so enjoyed since leaving Gibraltar. We didn’t have the place entirely to ourselves. Just before sunset, a guy turned up on a mini tractor to collect stones from the scree slope behind our tent. I prepared myself to go out and speak Spanish to him but, thankfully, he just ignored us, and once his pallet was full, drove off into the gathering night.
The next morning, wearing gloves and a buff for the first time since May, we swooped and glided down 600 metres of steep S bends and switchbacks to the orange groves of Valencia. It’s the start of orange picking season and the trees are heavy with ripening fruit. The groves stretch out in all directions across the flat, wide coastal land behind the sandy beaches. We passed small gangs of pickers, gathering the fruit into baskets and carrying them to the roadside to be weighed and packed into black plastic crates on the back of small flatbed lorries.
Later that day, we arrived at the small coastal town and resort of Gandia. Not heard of it? No, we hadn’t either but having checked our selves into a campsite with a lifesize, fibreglass elephant in the children’s play area, we went off to explore the old town. There, tucked away off the main shopping boulevard, was the rather plain, solid, stone façade of the Ducal Palace dating back to medieval times. Besides being the residence of the Royal Dukes of Gandía from the fourteenth century, in 1485 it became the home of the Borja family from Valencia. ‘Mmm…’ I said to Jerry, ‘wonder if they have anything to do with the papal Borgias?’ The name is spelt differently in Spanish and Italian but pronounced the same. And sure enough, we had stumbled across the roots of the family that have become infamous for their suspected crimes, including adultery, incest, simony, theft, bribery, and murder during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They produced two popes, Alfons de Borja, who ruled as Pope Callixtus III during 1455–1458, and Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, as Pope Alexander VI, during 1492–1503. They were also great patrons of the arts supporting artists of the Renaissance period.
At the campsite, we bumped into a few, so called, ‘snowbirds’. Northern Europeans who head south each winter for the warmth and sunshine of the Spanish costas. Our little tent was squeezed between their giant campervans. The French, in particular, seem to go for mobile homes on a lorry scale. We met an older Finnish man who had done quite a bit of cycle touring in his youth around Western Europe and enthusiastically shared his tales and adventures. Parked across from him was a German couple who were concerned that it was now too cold to be camping in Spain. The temperature wasn’t far different from a Scottish summer day!
The next day, another aspect of a Scottish summer arrived: rain, and lots of it. We dodged a shower in our tent in the morning before pedalling out under leaden skies to start exploring the seaside resorts of Valencia. White and cream apartment blocks line the sea front in small ‘urbanisations’ or urban zones. Small, twisty, coastal roads link the settlements and led us through a landscape filled with orange groves and box-like, isolated farm cottages. Turning inland after lunch, heavy rain drops started to fall on our backs and thunder rumbled in the distance. We cycled faster trying to out run the approaching storm and reach our Warmshower hosts’ home before the deluge arrived. We made it by the skin of our teeth and slipped our bikes into the safety of a dry garage and ourselves into the warmth of a Valencian family home. The storm created the biggest water spout off the Valencian coast for a decade.
All night long the rain hammered on the roof and flashes of lightning lit our bedroom making strange shadows on the walls. I lay in my sleeping bag feeling exceptionally grateful that we had a solid roof over our heads that night. Warmshowers is a wonderful community.
The next morning, the rain was still falling. We donned full waterproofs and sallied forth. Cycling through flooded rice fields, we headed back to the coast. Here the Spanish are recreating sand dunes that were destroyed during the 1970s to create infrastructure for coastal resorts that, after Franco’s death, were never built. This once common habitat has become a scarce resource and is now actively protected. Luckily for us, the rain let up in the morning and we found a cycle path to take us all the way to Valencia, weaving its way through the restored sand dunes. Just outside the city, we crossed paths with Andre, a fellow cycling rover who is heading south to Morocco for the winter. He has been on the road for about a year, cycling 10,000km through Germany and Eastern Europe then heading south through France and Spain. We shared some lunch and then set off in opposite directions.
Our stay in Valencia was wet, wet, wet. Unseasonable amounts of rain fell from the skies and on a day off to explore the city we got completely drenched to the skin. Neither my camera nor phone left the dry, safety of our backpack as we slopped our way across town to an art gallery. We did go through the old town, past the cathedral, but saw not much else than pavements streaming with water, and the return journey was just as wet. The bright light in our time there was meeting and staying with an inspiring, travelling family. Jeff, Katy, and their son Bodhi (now three years old) have walked Hadrian’s wall, the Pennine way, the Camino de Santiago as well as cycle touring around France and Italy. Bodhi is so used to camping and moving on each day that after a week in their flat he asked when they were going camping again. We enjoyed sharing tales of the road and discovering we had stayed in some of the same places on our journey. They wild camp as much as possible and hearing their experiences helped us to recognise that we are better than we thought at finding tucked away places to stop for the night. A chance comment from Jeff the first evening about them having caught a ferry from Sardinia to Barcelona got us thinking. We were a bit planless for the winter since our idea to do Workaway stays on the Balearic islands had not come off. Wow, what if we took the ferry the other way? We could explore Italy’s two big islands before heading back up Italy mainland with the spring. I love the way serendipitous meetings and conversations alter our travels.
The Mediterranean coast of Spain is highly developed and we had been warned it was somewhere for cyclists to avoid: lots of traffic, lots of people and few places to wild camp. So it was much to our surprise to have a very enjoyable week cycling north/east to Barcelona. Most of the resorts are like ghost towns and we cycled along empty promenades past long stretches of sandy beach with hardly a person in sight. We camped most nights at or near the sea and watched the sunset and rise again the next morning.
The weather had dried out and by eleven o’clock in the morning we were able to sit in just shorts and t-shirts. We had our cheapest week ever, living on just €52.00 (about £45.00, depending on the fluctuating exchange rate). This, in part, was thanks to our friend John, who during our stay at his house, had taken on the challenge of finding the fault in our dynamo charging system for the phone and then, with the help of some soldering by the key cutter man in Carrefour, fixing it. My excitement at being able to make use of the electricity I generate as I ride after more than six months of extra resistance but no gain was immeasurable. Now we can once more tour without needing to look for an electrical source every three days. John, you are a star, thank you.
In Andalucia, we got excited about three flamingos. José, a Warmshower host in Murcia, recommended we visit the delta of the river Ebru, Spain’s largest river as it was ‘bonita’. It lies on the coast a few days ride north of Valencia and didn’t exist in Roman times. The whole 320 square kilometres has been deposited by the river dropping silt as it reaches the sea in the last 2000 years. The area is very flat, low lying and filled with rice paddy fields. Cycling along the raised road between the fields, we began spotting familiar waders, curlew, herons, white ibis, and lapwings. The place was alive with bird life, something that had been noticeable by its absence on the sandy beaches of the resorts. Early the next morning, with the sun just creeping over the horizon behind us, we creeped into a bird hide overlooking a large natural lagoon. In front of us was a large flotilla of mallards. Binoculars out, we started to scan around a bit more. ‘I’ve spotted some flamingos’ said Jerry, ‘and not just one or two, I think there might be…..about 300!’. Amazing! Then we spotted two more groups further off in the distance. At least 500 flamingos were standing around in the shallow lagoon.
After a very enjoyable hour watching birds with the sun warming our backs, we set off into a strong headwind in search of pastries for elevenses.
Somewhere south of Tarragona we crossed into Catalunya and I stopped being able to understand so much of the language. Both Jerry and I have improved our Spanish (or Castellan) enormously during our time on the Iberian peninsula to the point where we have spent whole evenings with Warmshower hosts speaking Spanish with just small amounts of English. Now we were faced with a language that has many similarities but links more broadly with French and Italian. I began saying ‘No entiendo’ (I don’t understand) more often and was most tickled when, on occasion the speaker would swap into Castellan and repeat their sentence. Most times I understood. Here, what we call ‘Spanish’ is always referred to as Castellan.
Tarragona is the oldest Roman settlement on the Iberian peninsula. It was occupied by them at the start of the Punic wars to capture Hispania and the city of Tarraco built to be their capital in the region. The city of today is bulging with Roman remains and is consequently a World Heritage Site. In an afternoon tour, we followed the Roman city walls, visited two forums, a circus (where chariots were raced), a theatre and the amphitheatre. The latter, despite being used as a source of building stone in later periods, large parts of its structure have survived.
The major jewel in Catalonia is its capital and largest city Barcelona. For years it was constrained within the medieval walls and was only finally allowed to break free and expand in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution arrived here. Consequently, the old town is jam packed with buildings. Narrow lanes run between the buildings in a random layout. At its heart is the Cathedral, a medieval building with only a small plaza at its front. In the summer, on Sundays, the Catalonians gather here to participate in Sandara dances, a slow circle dance found no where else in Spain. In December, a Christmas market takes its place selling decorations and artisan gifts. The Catalans like nativity scenes and a favourite character is that of a shepherd in Catalan peasant clothes shitting. Not just squatting with his trousers around his ankles, but with a large coil of poop sitting on the ground beneath. No one I’ve asked seems to know why. lts origins are lost in the mists of time. Needless to say, many versions with contemporary characters are now available for the tourists to buy. Current popular choices include Obama, Putin, Merkyl and Trump as well as Freddie Mercury and a plethora of footballers of all nationalities.
Another Catalan Christmas tradition is the Tió, or Yule log. In the weeks before Christmas, a log about thirty centimetres long, is brought into the house. It is given a shepherd’s cap and a blanket. The children have to ‘feed’ the log each day and look after it. Then on Christmas day, whilst the children are sent off to pray, the parents put gifts under the blanket. When the children return they hit the log with sticks to make it poo presents. (Is there a theme here?) The gifts are usually dried fruit, nuts, mandarina, and Turron, a kind of nougat. They are shared by the whole family. We came across a giant Tió in the Christmas fair.
Modernism arrived in Barcelona around the time that the new city areas were being built in a grid pattern towards the end of the nineteenth century. I love this period of architecture, art nouveau, jugendstil and arts and crafts. Here in Catalunya, the movement is called Modernista. Making use of our legs and the metro, we spent a very pleasant day touring some of the highlights. Entrance fees are all expensive, ranging from €8-24.00 so we contented ourselves with external views. We were most chuffed by a visit to a seven floor hardware store, that besides being a treasure chest of interesting and useful items, enabled us to take a peek into the back terrace of Antoní Gaudi’s most famous house conversion Casa Batiló.
Gaudí was reportedly told by his professor when he graduated that he was either a genius or crazy and only time would tell which. He certainly produced buildings that are highly individual and, sometimes, fairy tale like.
The now lesser known Modernista architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, designed the former Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau in the neighborhood of El Guinardó.The complex was built using local red bricks between 1901 and 1930 and was a fully functioning hospital up until 2009. Now it has been reinvented as a museum and cultural centre. Like many of Gaudí’s works, it is also a World Heritage Site, and gives a broader context to this period of architecture.
The most visited building in Spain, outstripping La Alhambra, in Granada and La Prada in Madrid is the Basilica La Sagrada Família. A modern day Christian temple still being built ninety years after its architect, Antoní Gaudi, died in 1926. He saw less than a quarter of it built in his life time, and knew he would not live to see its completion. The current aim is to finish its construction by 2026 on the hundredth anniversary of his death. The scale of the task is enormous, as Guadi left very few drawings and most of his models were broken into pieces during the civil war. The building costs, estimated at around €27 million a year, are being met by the entrance fees paid by visitors. The current architects are using space age technology to recreate Gaudi’s designs, and robot stone cutting machines to cut the stone into finer and thinner sections that are possible to create by hand. Modern artisans bring their own take on Gaudi’s ideas so the building is truly an eclectic form.
We finished our tour at the Catalunya Art museum, taking advantage of their free entrance after 3pm on a Saturday, and strolled through their modern art collection. Then headed down for a finale performance at the Magic Fountain. A water, light and music extravaganza.
So Tuesday we head to Sardinia for Christmas. We are doing a crash course in Italian, which, thankfully, has many similarities to Spanish.
‘Spiacente, parlo solo un po’ italiano’ may help us through the first few days, I hope.