Monthly Archives: May 2018

Bikepacking Spain: Andalusia

Spain is one of my favorite countries – the amazing array of cuisine, music, language, art and traditions. Each region has a distinct culture and history, making exploring the country a rich experience. The natural side of things is just as diverse; Spain is home to lush forests, winding rivers, rugged coasts, natural sandy beaches, expansive savanna, snow capped mountains, an island volcano, and even a desert. On top of that, most of the country is at a high altitude, which, combined with the Mediterranean climate, means very strong distinct seasonal changes.

I wanted to travel Spain by bike in order to cover more ground than a hiking trip but also remain in close contact to my surroundings. Although I have visited many times before, I had never made it to Andalusia in the southern area of the mainland. After looking at a few sample itineraries pulled from commercial cycling tours (I do this a lot – a great way to get a template), I decided on a route hitting major historic cities (Seville, Córdoba and Granada) and mixing in a variety of landscapes (orchards along rolling hills, curving river valleys, arid plains full of cacti, rugged mountains and maybe even some snow in the Sierra Nevada). Sticking with about 80 km a day, I would have the freedom to stop and linger in a place, wander a bit off course and keep enough time to camp and hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains all in eight days time, a realistic international vacation length for an American. The route gains about 2,400 meters in elevation, the bulk of that on day five, the second half of the leg between Córdoba and Granada.

Seville to Córdoba

I took off from Seville where I arrived the previous evening. One night was enough to eat a delicious dinner, walk about the old city center and get to know a few other travelers in my hostel. I departed from the beautiful city in early afternoon after zipping around the old quarter for sightseeing by bicycle before a Friday tourist crowd began to build. Seville is very bright and cheerful with a classic historic area, picturesque narrow and crooked streets and a massive bull fighting arena. The most interesting place for me was the Plaza de Toros, the famous bull ring and museum. I’ve visited much of Spain over the last few years yet haven’t seen an active bullring. Within the building, sits the Museo Taurino, a small museum decorated with old posters and images of past events and I enjoyed the photographs and artistic renditions of bullfighting.

The Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza

As predicted getting through the suburban build up of Seville was a bit of a pain using roads suitable for a road bike. However, once out of the city, the 90 km route to Palma Del Rio felt easy on the legs and pleasantly flat, winding through farm fields and orange groves the entire way. Cacti grow aside the dusty roads along with colorful wildflowers adding some variety to the scorched fields. The area reminded me very much of southern California.

Many of the fields looked empty but I eventually passed a large orange grove in harvest with workers filling massive bins. Many wore a plain blue baseball cap to protect from a strong May sun. By early afternoon the air was thick with serious heat and my white t-shirt was soiled from sweat the dusty air. After battling to keep dry and warm in Portugal, Spain felt entirely different and like a whole new world.

My camping spot for the night was supposed to be in a park near Palma Del Rio. However, after arriving to the site around dusk, I found that camping was no longer offered and the park closed. Due to fatigue I just spent the night wild camping on a river bend just outside of the city. I had no interest in roaming around looking for guesthouses so late an in a transitional season.

Castillo de Almodóvar del Río.

Day two continued from Palma Del Rio to Córdoba after lazily drinking coffees at a cute cafe in the city watching elderly people out on walks, playing dominoes on picnic tables and just enjoying their Friday morning. After an hour or so resting in the town I started back along highway 431 headed straight to Córdoba.

It was foolish to start the day so late and I ended up feeling the heat quickly. Inland Spain doesn’t have a lingering spring like Portugal and leaps right into summertime heat. At round three in the afternoon when the sun was strongest, I noticed a bright blue baseball cap in the ditch near the road. I stopped to pick it up and gave it a once over and noticed what looked like some paint stains and minor use but it looked clean enough to be my new cap! My previous hat was lost to the sea winds between Sintra and Lisbon a week earlier and I very happy to shade my face with my harvester cap.

Some very friendly goats decided to investigate my bicycle.

Not long after, looking into the distance I was able to make out a very steep and high hill with a castle almost cartoonish in its size and appearance; it looked like something out of a movie. As I cycled closer a very well-preserved castle with Moorish details came into view. I decided to check it out and take a break to lunch in Almodóvar del Río. Through a brief conversation with the local townspeople, I found out the castle is 1,300 years old and got some major retouching about 700 years ago. The good condition of the structure has allowed it to be featured as setting for some television shows.

About 25 kilometers after my lunch break I reached Córdoba and went directly to one of the many squares for cake, coffee and people watching. Afterwards began a very difficult and long ascent to Los Villares Park for a night of organized camping. Only nine kilometers out of the heart of the city, the road to the park was incredibly steep and took any remaining energy I had left. I reached the hilltop park at about 9 pm and felt immense relief seeing cars in the parking lot and a small lit building. However, I was a month too early for camping season! The night workers were very kind and said that since I came all the way up on bicycle and darkness was fast approaching, I could pick a spot in the park for the night free of charge. Although that meant no amenities like a shower or a bathroom after the park closed at 10 pm, it was a welcome comprise. The park looked like a gorgeous place to explore and I tried to see as much of it was possible before heading back down to Cordoba the next morning.

A shot from historic Cordoba.

Spain ended up being a tricky place to camp on-the-fly: sometimes “camping” signs with tent icons really meant a site just for RVs or caravans. Many campsites with full websites online didn’t have information about when their season would begin or had possibly never been updated since the previous summer, making it seem open for business. Overall the camp accommodation scene felt a bit disorganized, especially coming from Portugal, where every location was up and running and any campsite located on major mapping apps were in fact campsites. I wrongly assumed camping and outdoor sports would be more common in May before the brutally hot Spanish summer set in. I ‘d recommend planning to stay in guesthouses, hotels or some other form of accommodation in this area in April and May.

I enjoyed grabbing a coffee and just walking the streets and seeing the Moorish-inspired building details in Granada and Cordoba.

Córdoba to Granada

After spending a full day wandering Córdoba and successfully camping (yay!) in El Brillante, actually in the city, it was time for a two-day challenging ride to Granada. Approaching Granada was like entering a magical world. For the first several hours of riding, olive tree fields hug close to the road and go on as far as the eye can see. The terrain slowly changes from flat to dramatic slopes with sudden sharp peaks. On these peaks usually perch fortresses and castles with little medieval towns below. The white red-roofed buildings sit in crooked rows along streets softy coiling around the hill. Highway 432 route passes many of these picturesque towns-Alcaudele, Alcalá al Real, Espejo, Baena. Only in Granada would I hear the term “pueblos blancos” used to describe these places, which apparently makeup a tourist route of sorts, connecting the major cities of Andalusia. I had no idea to expect this kind of scenery and really enjoyed the surprise.

The enchanting Sierra Nevada mountains are visible from far very away and provided a sort of motivation for the toughest part of the trip. It did take a while for me to notice them because snowy white peaks against a very bright sky create an illusion of jagged clouds. It is a strange visual but when you know to look for mountains, it becomes clear. The area between Cordoba and Granada is beautiful and it’s a lot of fun to just ride while enjoying the view.

SNCOllage

Scenes from a wonderful few days in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The feel of Granada was unique among the Spanish towns. The “old town” is fairly spread out so although the entire neighborhood is dependent on tourism, there is no claustrophobic feeling or huge crowds like the old parts of Seville or Barcelona. There is a small shopping area in the center but it’s less youthful and trendy than Madrid, so there’s a bit less madness. I fount it clean, inviting, relaxing and characteristic of much of Spain, and especially Andalusia.

I initially passed through on the way to the Sierra Nevada but would return to Granada to close out the journey. The first three nights in the area were spent up in the mountains at Los Lomas sitting about 500 meters above Granada near a large reservoir with a wonderful view. Cycling up was tough but very much worth it. The area was just beautiful, refreshingly cool and near a nice network of hiking trails (some going deep into the mountains). Camping for a few days provided a bit of rest and recharging after five days of cycling.

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An archway in the Alhambra. I highly recommend a visit if you are near Granada.

After a few days it was time to go down to the city and see some sights. Andalusia is full of Moorish architecture but Granada is the single best place to see these buildings, along with many courtyard gardens and quaint homes along little streets winding up the hillsides. Even the adorable hostel where I stayed had an open central courtyard! In Granada I really took it easy. I spend a day visiting Alhambra, a palace with an amazing display of 14th-century Moorish architecture located on al-Sabika hill. I normally don’t do things like visit the inside of palaces, temples, etc. but I had a feeling this would be special, dazzling and different. The Alhambra was just lovely and each area had detail and color to appreciate; the visit took a long time and was a great experience.

Two days in Granada went by quickly and thus brought an end to a wonderful journey cycling through Andalusia, Spain.

Thanks for reading!

Bikepacking Portugal (Part Four)

Riding the final 40 km stretch of highway N120 to Lagos went quickly with the last half downhill. I rode straight to the little harbor and to Castelo de Lagos. From there I walked the bike to Miradouro Praia da Batata to enjoy a view of the cliffs before headed to my guesthouse.  Ten days after leaving chilly Porto I’s finally reached the end of my journey through Portugal. Over the last week and a half I’d covered 700 km and it was time to enjoy a break from cycling, to swim in the ocean, put my feet up and eat more delicious Portuguese food. Although I was anticipating colorful waters and rugged coast, I did not expecting to love it so much. This little stretch of Portuguese coast was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. The cliffs of Lagos, specifically Ponta da Piedadel, are just breathtaking. The colorful and massive rock formations are dramatically set against the blues and greens of the shallow ocean. Trekking paths intertwine along the cliffs above seven beaches (more if you’re brave).

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Aside from the beaches and cliffs, Lagos also has historic old town, enclosed by massive old city walls that have seen several centuries of ups and downs. Lagos has a long history, some of which is tragic; the first African slave market in Europe was in the city and the original building remains. The city played a big role during the Portuguese Age of Discovery and was destroyed during the same earthquake and tsunami that decimated Lisbon in 1755.  Most of the historic sights are clustered around the waterfront near the Castle and can he visited in one day.

The city feels distinctly touristy and is very much a resort town. The contrast between both Lisbon and Porto is striking – the human made infrastructure, the local culture and the natural features. The cliffs, caves and beaches along the waterfront and free and open to enjoy. Visiting at low tide will give more access to all of the natural features while going early in the morning avoids the crowds. In mid-day when the sun is strongest, the water takes on different jewel tones.

Lagos made a nice ending to a long cycling trip down the Atlantic coast. Even though it was early May, most of the five rest days had warm weather and sunshine. The beaches were not yet fully packed and guesthouses charged off season rates.

With full sunshine the waters are bright blue and green.

What began as an attempt to ride along the Eurovelo 1 down the coast turned into a completely independent and self directed tour of Atlantic Portugal. At times a bit chaotic, I really enjoyed the journey.  Update: Two years after this trip, I am told that the Eurovelo 1 now has markings along the Portuguese sections. I don’t know if this is true, or how clear these signs are to see. I would highly recommend fixing your own back up course in the case that the route is not easy to follow.

Thank you for reading!

Bikepacking Portugal (Part Three)

After a day of cycling through Lisbon from Cascais and taking a ferry south across the Tagus River we reached Parque Natural da Arrábida. The quiet preserve consists of two main forested peaks and cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, a pleasant surprise so close to the city. We set up out tent in the cozy wooded Picheleiros Campground which was home for two nights and relaxed with a barbecue and settled in to the first day off from cycling (yay). Although some stretches of the ride so far have been through nature, those sections have been uncommon. The bikes are always on a paved road and the sounds of traffic and daily life are usually around. Inside the park was the first chance to really get away for a meaningful amount of time. It felt great to put down our things, rest our legs and just stop carrying things. A hike up to the Nook Arrábida for a view of the sea was enough for me.

Flowers on the cliffs of Parque Natural da Arrábida.

After two nights and a full rest day we rode downhill from Parque Natural da Arrábida to Setúbal and took another ferry over the Rio Sado and adjacent marshes. A ticket for the ferry is just over three Euros and bikes are allowed for free. After boarding I was struck by how many cyclists were on our connection. The riders seemed to have come from all sorts of places and ranged from day trippers from the Lisbon metro area to long distance travels who had cycled from across Europe.

From the landing in Troia we followed a flat highway road for almost 50 kilometers. Not having stop to check the map for so long took away a lot of stress and freed up my mind to wander and take  in the landscape. To our right sand dunes reflected the afternoon sun and the noise of the sea crashing against cliffs droned on. To our left a patchwork of agricultural plots layered in front of inland hills. I loved the scenery and found it more relaxing and beautiful than the constant string of resort towns between Porto and Lisbon.

Colorful spring fields lined the route.

Our day of travel ended at a campsite near Reserva Natural das Lagoas de Santo André e Sancha. Known for the various birds that call it home the lagoon is a beautiful contrast to the wild sea and I made an evening visit at low tide and wandered around in the ankle deep warm water. Just as I was headed back to the campsite it started to rain and the absence of the sun made me feel suddenly cold. Since it being mid April and very much still low season, the little town was near empty and there wasn’t any place to get food. The last grocery stop had been made just before reaching the Arrábida reserve two nights ago. Fortunately the campsite had a modest cafe and bar with a mock living room set up. The place was full of mostly British retirees who spend the winters living in caravans at the grounds and everyone was happy to be sitting inside enjoying a pint with a book or watching the football game on the TV.  We had been very lucky over the last week or so and hadn’t experienced much rain so I couldn’t be upset about the weather turning.

Zambujeira do Mar

Preservation areas like Southwest Alentejo and Vincentine Coast Nature Park protect the shoreline from development. This also means the bike route occasionally intersects both the Rota Vincentina and Fisherman’s Trail. I saw traveler(s) many days in a row as we passed each other on our respective journeys.

The rocky coast just north of Zambujeira do Mar was stunning in both hard evening rain and the following morning’s sunshine.

Springtime weather in southwest Portugal is mixed and changes quickly. Everyday had an hour or two of both hard rain and strong, full sunshine. Sometimes wind was strong enough to push the bike around while other times very still. It was tricky to figure out how to dress for more than a few hours at a time and the back end of the bike always had discarded clothing pieces strapped down, flapping wildly as I went along. Mornings usually began with a dread of leaving the warm tent and stepping into cold or rain but I got used to it and learned to laze around a little waiting for the late morning burst of sun and temperatures as high as 23/74.

Looking down at Aljezur from within the old castle walls. Monchique hills in background. I especially liked visiting the cliffs and beaches at Zambujeira do Mar and climbing to the 700-year-old castle ruins in Aljezur.

After ten days following along 650 kilometers of the Atlantic coast it was time to cut inland towards Lagos on the southern coast for a long break in the Algarve region. I’m excited to tell you about it soon.

Thank you for reading!