Tag Archives: women traveling

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.

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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 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!

Lucerne

Hello from Lucerne! I’m approaching the end of a restorative week in Lucerne, Switzerland. Rainy days encouraged the slow pace, however, the goal of the week was to simply rest, eat right and relax on a level not quite possible moving from place to place – and it was achieved. I’ve been feeling a bit worn down from travel, having an erratic sleep schedule and not eating as well as usual. Getting the right variety of nutrients had been an unexpected challenge during constant travel. 

Well, not exactly healthy a food, but I appreciated the extra time to bake a Nectarine Pie

The luxury of having free time meant home cooking every meal, something I have missed a lot over the last month. Of course the week involved plenty of treats! After a few tries, I figured out a decent pancake breakfast by converting an American recipe to metric measurements that better fit the kitchen equipment. Math was never my strength but I’m a bit ashamed of the disasters I created my first two attempts. A nectarine pie made for another sweet treat near the closing of the week. I must confess though that I didn’t intend to bake a pie at all but was forced to when I realized the pizza dough that I bought was actually dessert dough! 

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A performance after a long rain.

Aside from wonderful tastes the week offered amazing sound as a music festival was on at the lakefront. The week-long Blue Balls festival meant free shows and art performances took place every night along the beautiful lakefront and brought out all sorts of people. The festival provided an excuse to walk around the old town and to the shores of Lake Lucerne after dinner or try food from a variety of food stalls selling everything from roasted nuts or cheesecake to spicy curry. Aside from the major stages, smaller-scale performances were on a few street corners or mini-stages, giving the festival goers a nice variety of sound and styles. Bands come from all over and a fair number performed with English lyrics so I was able to follow along very well. 

Lucerne is a wonderful base for challenging mountain routes and public transportation makes it easy  (but not cheap) to reach trail heads. Only the final full day of the stay was clear enough to for a day hike and I chose Pilatus. The mountain looms over the city and the dragon tales associated with it made it seem like the perfect Lucerne experience. I visited the city once before and did not have time to hike the mountain. So, I was really happy to do it on a second visit.

The hike began at Alpnachstad, an uncomplicated place to reach from Luzern while being less than an eight hour round trip. Alpnachstad is the start of the famous cogwheel railway which goes to the top of Pilatus and drops passengers off at viewing platforms and a cafe. I would have to really work for my coffee and walked the route starting behind the cogwheel rail station. The six kilometers up is very steep, winding through forest, pasture with happy cows and then a series of rocky switchbacks.

Following the steep footpath up from Alpnachstad took 3.5 hours and the views are amazing.

After gaining almost 1,700 meters, at the top I felt a mix of awe and relief. To the west and south are views of beautiful snowy peaks; To the east is glistening Lake Lucerne. I wish there had been another day for exploring the network of different trails around the mountain and beyond but I’m very happy with how the week progressed. 

Now I’m a bit sore, still hungry and planning a few days exploring Prague!

As always, thank you for reading!

Traveling with an Anxiety Diagnosis

There are some things I’ve missed out on or know I cannot do because of my anxiety but solo travel is not one. I took my first solo trip abroad after my anxiety diagnosis. Although I had to work at it, I want to share the fact that I have anxiety and still travel abroad alone. Social stigma leads us (those with mental health conditions) to believe we are incomplete as people and inadequately manage our own lives. That’s simply not true! With proper preparation and coping we can travel, be brave, meet new people and break out of ruts.

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I cope on-the-go with sunshine, exercise and sleep. Many trips are focused on hiking.

Readers of this blog know I love an urban bike ride. Unfortunately biking can be dangerous and a few years ago I received a concussion after falling off a bike and landing on my head. If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I wouldn’t even have the ability to bike again, so I feel lucky being in the place I am. However, after my brain injury instead of responding to stress in a healthy way, I felt confused, panicked and moody.  I was soon diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and since have taken daily medication. Hopefully I will fully heal one day but I have adapted my life to fit my circumstances, although, still push to retain independence and feed my curiosity.

For years I thought about traveling abroad (studying abroad in college was economically out of reach for me) and visiting a Francophone country since taking French classes as a twelve year old. In my 20s I waited for an opportunity to travel on such a trip with friends, family or a partner but things just didn’t work out that way. Eventually it became clear that if I was going to visit France, or any other way away place, I’d need to go alone. After some research I chose to go to Paris; I couldn’t get bored with the art, movie theaters, live music, delicious food and day trip options. It wasn’t cheap (!)  but culturally France is not too different for an American to manage, with entire areas of the city geared toward foreign visitors. The idea of walking all day seeing sights in the sunshine and at my own pace seemed very calming and fun, not stressful at all.

Unfortunately, many people reacted negatively when I first explained my idea to travel across the ocean and stay a week in Paris by myself, and none of it had to do with the challenge of managing anxiety in a new place. I was warned about the dangers for woman traveling alone and some people even mentioned terrorism should keep me out of Europe. Some questioned why someone would want to go somewhere new and foreign by themselves (only a lonely person would do that). After sometimes being a person that skips things out of worry or fear, it felt strange to hear people come up with wild excuses about why I should be afraid to travel and see those comments as laughable and almost anti-social. It made me think about why I should even worry about traveling at all. I would be spending eight days traveling alone, not reinventing the wheel, so I decided to just focus on building the trip of my dreams and enjoying the adventure.

A few people were very encouraging and even shared their own stories of traveling alone. Hearing coworkers, neighbors, and teammates speak fondly about a period of military service, school, volunteer trips and just regular vacations and how they adapted and what they enjoyed about it was really cool. Listening to them made my plan feel more “normal” – if all these people did it before, then I can do it too.

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Paris at dawn and dusk is amazing.

Being concerned about becoming a person that gives up on things after a health setback, I made sure to go into the experience with an open mind and understanding that a smart traveler is flexible and prepared. If I didn’t enjoy the experience I’d never have to do it again. Even though some things did go wrong (my iPhone ended up falling into a sewer, lost forever), I loved the experience and will maintain that it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – hence my enthusiasm for solo travel and this blog. Now I even make a point of taking winter trips to help stave off the winter blahs for a while and if I’m having a bad day, a future trip gives me something to look forward to. If you are battling moderate depression or anxiety and would like to travel, please do not feel discouraged. With planning it’s possible to have a wonderful, safe and healthy experience. If you are comfortable sharing, I’d like to hear your input on traveling with anxiety or depression.

Thank you for reading!

San Francisco (Part 1)

The Golden Gate Bridge from Chrissy Field East Beach.

Hello from San Francisco! I’m on day three of a long weekend and my first trip that is part work and part play. For two nights I’ve been staying downtown in the Financial District and making it out to eat some great dinners in the Jackson Square (such a variety of cuisine styles can be found here!) and Chinatown areas. I love diving into the very distinct neighborhoods, all offering their own version of San Francisco. On night one my boss took our work group to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (in a narrow Chinatown alley). We tried a few samples and see how the cookies are made. Interesting fact: The cookies get their shape from being folded over twice while still warm, not from a mold. It was a really fun thing to watch. “Naughty” fortune cookies were available to buy in bulk so I helped myself to what I thought would be a humorous gift to friends. However, upon opening one of these cookies I saw that the fortunes didn’t make a lot of sense and if I could get a meaning out them they were still PG – not the level of sassiness expected. Edit: The bag of cookies was obviously too large to survive the weekend without getting crushed in my luggage so most of them ended up being nice snacks at the hostel.

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Sticker art in Mission.

I’m super excited to have found a hostel (Green Tortoise) in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood,so for the first time ever I will stay in an American hostel. I’m wondering if it’s similar to the hostels I’ve used abroad and if I will pick up any friends for the weekend.Edit: I befriended South American and Australians also traveling alone and we had great fun visiting a neighborhood beer bar, taste-testing and comparing San Franciscan coffees and exchanging travel stories and dreams. I’m so glad I got to know them.

I’m trying to look big, like a redwood.

Today centered around a visit to the beautiful Muir Woods. The National Monument,, more than 100 years old, is just fifteen miles from the city,depending on where you start. I probably could have cycled here but chose to drive; conditions were a little wet and I have heard cell service isn’t so great in the park and many visitors end up trapped and unable to call for taxis and other rides. I suspect all this is true, as I saw TWO functioning pay phones near the Muir Woods parking lot. The park visit was a nice hike along the Lost Trail and really being in awe of the towering and aromatic redwoods. The light rain helped to give a colorful pop to all the plant life and may have scared some visitors away. The entire hiking route was very peaceful and empty. I only saw two other hikers.

Tomorrow’s plan is to march up Telegraph hill for the views, then down to Chrissy Field East Beach and then up to the Golden Gate Bridge and maybe beyond if my feet aren’t destroyed. The weather is gorgeous and this city feels very safe. I’m really excited to see what the weekend brings.

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Keeping warm and dry in the boat.

Edit: I also did some whale watching, leaving with a tour from Monterey Bay (above Monterey Canyon). This was one of those things that I though could either be really cool or maybe kind of lame. I’m glad I took the chance because it totally rocked. We saw a pair of whales and they came to “play” with the boat. It was beautiful! The chilly temps and drizzle did nothing to take away the shine of the whales. The drive out to Monterey was enjoyable and the ocean geography make this place a much better option than the tours leaving from San Francisco proper. Unfortunately I have no pictures to share because I was so happy with watching the whales in real time and didn’t want to miss anything fiddling with a camera. I have an extremely solid stomach and found the more powerful waves to be a little fun but I would not recommend this kind of trip for just anyone.

Thank you for reading!

Ruby

Mending Myself

One aspect of travel I know I have not yet addressed in this blog, is how for certain people, taking a break from routine and exploring your boundaries can mend a damaged spirit. With proper introspection. Now I can finally speak to this and it’s not coming out so natural because I have not been especially personal in this blog, but I will try.

For about half a year I’d been seeing someone I thought would be around for a long time and they also happened to be the first person I’d felt seriously about in several years; he was someone I’d been waiting for. However, this summer I was faced with an unwelcomed ending of that relationship.

Then began internal conflict. Feeling lonely and rejected at a certain times, I worried I would not be mentally or emotionally prepared to be completely alone and abroad with the stress of the unfamiliar, or possibly worse, not in the mood to actually enjoy the experience. I thought I needed to be with known people whom I can count on to make me feel valued yet I felt smothered in my home. The site of formerly warm memories that I could no longer stand. If I was already feeling down could it hurt to just try a 10 day holiday?

Probably unbelievable to some, I greatly dislike being vulnerable but at the same time very predictably, I enjoy pushing my limits. It’s odd. I want to be thrilled and experience things and maybe have complicated things happen but not when I’m already feeling poorly about myself. I process things internally.

Behind me is emptiness.

Knowing myself (introverted, curious, wanting newness), I went on with the trip which turned out to mentally be the easiest I’ve taken, although obviously due to cumulative experience. It doesn’t mean I never made mistakes, got bored, or worried. I just reacted to those things in a more constructive way.

Now at home, I’m so overwhelmingly relieved that quite varied  people everywhere I went valued me as a stranger to talk with or friend for the day. It’s easy being outgoing and engaged when there is alcohol or a structured activity but on you own without those things just it can be hard to connect. You have to guess what will make a person want to talk with you; why am I any different than all the other people they’ve met today. These people don’t necessarily know I am not around anyone with who I have an existing bond.

It was especially nice to come across women who were out like me, doing their own thing. I think they ended up being the most comforting people to meet and those I needed to explain myself the least to, if at all. They shared things about where they’d been and what they enjoyed and what motivates them. I was flattered that some of these women wanted me in their company.

Anyways, in a small way I’m more confident that as a person I’m worth knowing and I can make people happy even when I feel ugly. Also, my lense has been bit corrected; the world is so many endless things, people and places and I need to focus more on the positive whole, what is waiting for me and enjoy changes and not focus on the small things in the past I’m powerless to control. I am back to being content with how things are and being the version of myself that I believe is “real.” It could not have come sooner!

Thank you for reading,

Ruby

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

-Antione de Saint-Exupery

 

The Feeling of Anonymity

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There is so much freedom in solo travel. Not just with movement and activities but within the complex relationship you have with yourself; How you present yourself to others; The version of yourself you choose to be. Having no preexisting relationships, you have a rare chance to be exactly who you are in the present. You decide who is allowed to forge a relationship with you.

You have the absolute freedom to be yourself. No one knows your past and will be unable to find anything you do or say “out of character.” Your current positions are a mystery and you are allowed to reveal as little or as much as you see fit. Your future is unknown, thus affording you unlimited potential. You are allowed to remain anonymous or become familiar to those around you.

This freedom, which I do not experience in any other context, is one of the key rewards of solo travel.

Thank you for reading,

Ruby

“A girl should be two things: who and what she wants. ”

-C. Chanel