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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!

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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!

Bikepacking Portugal (Part One)

Bom dia from Nazaré, 250 kilometers into a dream cycling journey along the Portuguese coast from Porto to Lagos.

My second visit to this beautiful country and my first time backpacking is off to a great start passing along the beautiful coast and through adorable villages, enjoying warm dinners and sunny coffee breaks. I’ve found Portugal is a wonderful and affordable place to explore on your own, especially on two wheels.

I’m touring on a racing bike borrowed from a friend, doctored to accommodate a rack purchased from Decathlon. The light frame and fit will help me maintain a steady pace along a patchwork of roads that loosely follow along the coast and in south, the Fishermens Trail, also know as the Rota Vicentina. The ride is meant to be simple with the freedom to dismount and take day hikes or explore on foot in villages or beaches. A tent, sleeping bag, pad, spare tubes, pump, odometer, power bank, lock, tarp and small supply of clothing are in tow. For ease of travel and to experience the local cuisine along my path, I decided against carrying cooking supplies; Portugal is a great place to find cheap, delicious meals and fresh produce and my route never strays too far from the beaten path. I am however, carrying a wine bottle opener and utensils.

A dinner of Francesinha and wine in Porto.

Planning the route was a challenge as there is no single cycling coastal route. While waiting for the bikes to arrive (shipped from Austria) my travel companion and I explored Lisbon by day and examined maps and organized our itinerary by night. The biggest issue with the planning was eliminating some dream stops from the trip – for me this included Coimbra and Sagres. There are simply too many historical and alluring sites in Portugal for one trip but once we acknowledged this, it was easy to agree to a rough path. The itinerary is loose enough to add days in places we loved, or to wait out bad weather and make small detours if something amazing or unexpected showed itself along the way. We decided to research multiple places to stay each night and pick the option that made the most sense on the go. Our route began in Porto and hits Nazaré, Obidos, Sintra, Parque Natural da Arrábida, Aljezur and Lagos. When cycling paths are available we will follow them but we are also using major roads in some stretches to save time. The journey also includes a train trip from Lisbon to Porto, our starting point, and two short ferry rides, one over the Tagus in Lisbon and the other from Setúbal to the Troia Peninsula. The route will cover about 700 kilometers in total over two weeks.

You could say things officially began in a north suburb of Lisbon where we assembled our bikes and then boarded a train to Porto. We found our tickets a few days in advance on the Rail Europe website. One way to tickets were about 30 USD and the bicycles were free to transport, however, we had to chose a seat on a train that still had room for the bikes. Before leaving we made a stop off at a suburban Decathelon to buy spare tubes, a mini pump, bike rack, sleeping pad and padded cycling bottoms. These items were cheaper than they would be at home and the quality was appropriate for our needs.

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The bike all packed up.

Porto is an interesting city to explore and has it’s own feel, much different than Lisbon. We found a cycling-friendly hostel not far from the train station and after securing our bikes inside we wandered around the Baixa neighborhood and riverfront. The beautiful weather and springtime air added the perfect touch to a lovely evening of rich food and lots of port. I almost wanted to delay the trip to spend more time in the city but I knew I was likely to become attached to every destination and would have to learn to move on – something I always find hard while traveling.

The following morning we crossed the Ponte Luis and took an immediate right onto the Av. Diogo Leite. A bike friendly riverfront road follows along the Douro until the Atlantic coast at the Douro Estuary Viewpoint. We then took off south along the coast on a well marked and maintained cycling path. Cafes and markets are everywhere on the first 100 kilometers and most communities have bike parking and a welcoming vibe to cyclists. It felt largely suburban and was a good opportunity to tweak the bikes and the packing system before we were far from civilization. If we were to have forgotten anything or needed a change it would have been easy to find a bike shop or hardware store.

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The first of a few unplanned wild camping nights. I would recommend spending a few bucks on international or Skype calls to confirm campgrounds are truly operational before showing up.

The first night of camping was a dream staying on sand near Reserva Natural das Dunas de São Jacinto, about 70 kilometers south of Porto. The sound of the sea and the soft sand was very comforting to me and I was really grateful such a wonderful place was our stopping place for the night. Although the day’s terrain was flat, navigating the continuous urban landscape was tiring; we were almost constantly checking our map app to ensure we were on the right course. We made so many errors and took “the long way” several times so that our odometers read 90 kilometers when we made camp. Navigation is a big frustration of going your own way but something we were mentally prepared for.

About 150 km south of Porto, the modern buildings and bright seaside settlements thin out before Nazaré and the landscape is dominated by forest. It was at this point we realized how unfamiliar we were with Portugal itself. We had seen a forested camping area on the map and decided it would make a nice place to camp that night, however, unknown to us it had been destroyed a year before in a devastating wildfire. The entire area around Marinha Grande was ashen and grey, it was honestly frightening to see. Although a few long sections followed an even cycle path, even the roads are damaged (as of 2018) – partially melted and with a rough riding experience similar to cobblestone. Fortunately, some patches are already starting to recover with wildflowers and shrubs in every color bursting through the soil and deer exploring the hollows.

After two nights of camping we wanted the third night spent indoors at Nazaré Hostel and take it easy. The city is absolutely gorgeous, known for it’s massive waves and extreme surf competitions. Nazaré is what I imagine when I think of Portugal – dramatic cliffs and oceanscape with a little town set along a hill dotted white washed houses and red roofs (thanks Sue and Brian for suggesting this pretty town).

NazareEvening

Nazare in the evening.

After three days what do I think of the route? We arrived in Portugal directly from a three month trip in Southeast Asia and managing our private belongings and working with what we already have dictated the way we packed. I have a 40L backpack strapped to the bike rack and am not using actual panniers. This works well most of the time and forces me to travel light but on uneven roads it jiggles loose. My travel companion is was able to get two of his own bikes shipped to us from his home for about 50 USD. The trade off with the huge savings is that the bike I’m using is a little too big and not meant for rough roads. It does seem to be working well for what we have done so far. A nightly ritual is chaining the high value bikes up with a padlock to keep them protected. Edit: at no point in the trip did anyone attempt to take the bikes. We felt the peace of mind was worth carrying around the lock and chain. Drivers seem attentive and we feel safe on the road,  however aggressive dogs have caused us problems. I was actually bitten in the leg south of Nazaré on a busy public road but had enough thick layers on to prevent puncture. Edit: To us, dogs ended up being the most threatening part of the trip, which was overall very safe.

If we enjoy our adventure on the Portuguese coast we will immediately follow up with a two week trip through southern Spain. I look forward to updating you!

Thanks for reading!