week 10: bicycle touring spain

Bicycle Touring Spain – sort of

There’s something in the air in this city, a freshness, a liveliness, I don’t know exactly what, but I connect with it. To put into words what attracted me about Barcelona is like trying to capture the grandeur of the Taj Mahal on Polaroid film, but I’ll try. It’s a loved city. Clearly the local government and town planners are investing in maintaining and developing it as a place where people want to be, with well-preserved older architecture, innovative uses of space, lots of greenery (the tram-tracks are lush grassy strips!) and new art everywhere. Every neighbourhood has a “rambla” – a pedestrian road with outdoor dining, art, and often big shady trees. People are smiling and expressive, they dress well with awesome hairstyles. Everywhere there are signs of a prevailing open and liberal culture. I spent the day wandering around the city, through the historically-dodgy-but-now-intriguing neighbourhood El Raval, and of course, I checked out one of the Gaudi houses which was definitely dreamy but possibly nightmarish too. Adela took me out for dinner that evening to her local Indian restaurant (palaak and dhal! my love!), delicious food and even better company, Barcelona has me hooked.

The second day Adela drove me around the city on her scooter. Two wheels is my favourite way to travel, and when they’re motorised, all the more fun. We wandered through a local fair but it was mainly just stalls of traditional food and children’s rides, so we left, picked up lunch and hiked to the top of Parc (unsure of name) to sit and look out over the city. After a siesta we went out again with Adela’s friends. Barcelona is full of little bars, some where for a euro you get a drink and a tapa (singular tapas), others which just serve drinks. They were all decorated in unique themes and had relaxed, friendly vibes. At around 2am we headed home, happy.

By this time I was getting quite attached to Barcelona, so it was a sad day that should be my last. Again Adela and I scooted around together on her wheels, she took me to the Templa Sagrada Familia to see a human tower competition which is a typical sport in this region, and one of Adela’s favourite things to watch. It was impressive, each neighbourhood team made up of all ages and sizes, down to the tiny children in helmets who are the star of the show, climbing up to the very top and waving their left hand to indicate that the tower is complete before scampering down like monkeys as the tower dismantles. It was a lot of fun to be a part of the festive crowd, cheering them on. We then sat in the park facing the Passion Facade of the Sagrada Familia, reading about the symbolism as we looked up at the sculptures. There are storm troopers in the middle portico, George Lucas was inspired by Gaudi, or it’s a weird coincidental likeness. Adela’s friend had scored us free tickets to the evening mass, usually entry to the church is 19 euros! We sat through most of the ceremony, fascinated by the weird achritecutre and enjoying the music, then left and ended up at a little bar drinking vermouth and bouncing to live music. After meeting with Adela’s friend for wine and tapas, Adela took me to see Barcelona’s “magic fountain” from the grounds of the art gallery on the hill behind it. Also in the area is an old tunnel that’s been fitted with rock-climbing holds for bouldering. We walked through and watched some of the climbers as they spent their evening hanging onto the wall. The group of people and area itself had a very funky, grungy vibe. We finished the night chatting into the wee hours. I know that when I return to Barcelona, and I will, I have a good friend there!

Death of a bicycle tour in Spain - Meanderbug

The Death of a Bicycle Tour

After studying the map and realising that there was no way I’d make it down to Granada and Seville then back up through Portugal to France in my 30 days in Spain unless I cycled about 100km each day, I decided I’d get the train for some sections. I got the advice of Adela and her friends on which parts would be best to skip cycling, and ended up getting the train down to Valencia. I rode around Valencia a while and then headed south. Google Maps shows a great green patch along the coast below Valencia, complete with a big lake. Again it was deceptive, I thought it must be a national park but instead I ended up spending a good four hours riding through flat, windy fields of freshly-tilled soil. The roads were unmarked and twice I rode a long way in the right direction only to find the road ending abruptly in a muddy field. My front tyre went flat (fourth flat now) and I repaired the inner tube only to have it go flat again almost immediately. After pushing my bicycle through what felt like endless clouds of little insects, I came to the coast and found a spot in an actual national park where I camped. The flat tyre combined with brakes that keep jamming and pads that need replacing again, and a seat post that wouldn’t stay straight, had me think seriously about retiring the bike and doing the Camino de Santiago instead, or another long-distance walk. I decided not to let my tiredness and frustration make me rush into the decision, to sleep and think more in the morning. But I was feeling ready for a change.

In the morning I fixed the flat tyre and packed up my stuff. Just as I loaded it all onto my bike and started to roll out of the bush, the rear tyre went flat. Clearly I needed new tyres too. I repaired that inner tube and set out again. This time I didn’t get lost, but when I was almost at the town of Sueco and AGAIN the front tyre went flat, I gave up. I pushed my bike into town and sat under a tree to think. I had no patches left in my repair kit and new tyres wouldn’t be so cheap, let alone all the other bits and pieces. My dear little bicycle had been faithfully steady for over two months of heavy-duty work, and I had always intended to give her away at the end, and anticipated that she might not make it all the way through Spain. So I unloaded her, tied my sleeping bag, mat and tent to my backpack, took what I needed from my panniers and left her next to a university with bags, tools, and even the keys sitting in the lock. I’m sure some student will give her a new and easier life. Luckily there was a train station in Sueco so I got the afternoon train back to Valencia and booked an overnight train to Granada.

My Adventure Continues

From what I saw of Valencia it is also a very pleasant, livable city. It felt more like a university town than Barcelona, and is a bit smaller. The local government keeps the streets clean and cares well for public places. My favourite part was where the river through the city had been diverted and the old river bed turned into a beautiful park. I bought a harmonica and started to practice scales, something I’d been meaning to do for a while. Then I slept like a baby on the overnight train and arrived in Granada at 7am.

Granada had been highly recommended by everyone I spoke to, and for good reason. The city smelt like flowers, the streets were spotless and there were gorgeous old churches and stone-paved streets. Even the little hydrants, or posts, that dot the sidewalks are covered with floral shapes in relief. I walked around town for about an hour, tossed my bulky leather jacket and black shoes in a charity bin, picked up some maps from the tourist office and planned out some sort of route. I’d head down to Alhama and walk west along the GR7 long-distance walking trail, then leave it to make my way up to walk along one of the Greenways (old unused railroads converted into pedestrian and cycle paths), then make my way back up to Seville. The whole thing would take about 10-15 days, depending on my stamina. Then I set out by foot from Granada and walked, rested, and walked again until in the evening I reached a little town called La Malaha. The countryside by the road was covered in olive trees, much too open for wild camping and not many farm houses in sight. I realised that one of the advantages of cycling is being able to go exploring off the main road for a camp site with relative ease. By foot with a heavy bag it’s a different story. There was nowhere in town to camp either, and no hostel. A young man called Jose who spoke English well offered to help, he knew of a hippie community a little way off at some hot springs near Santa Fe. Failing that there was a hostel in the next village. I was feeling exhausted and sore and thought either option sounded good. Generously he offered to drive me, so we went to the hippies first. Sadly the community had disintegrated over the past few years into three or four lone campervans where once there had been quite a large group of mostly English-speaking foreigners. Jose agreed that something didn’t feel right about camping there, especially as it was quite a long way off the main road and at least 7km out of my way. He drove me to the hostel and came in to arrange the room for me, as the owner only spoke Spanish. The whole time he was so genuinely helpful and friendly, I was so incredibly grateful. Such selfless help from a complete stranger blew me away. He left, and I had a long, hot bath, washed my clothes and slept heavily for a full eleven hours.

The Cull

The next morning I did a big cull of my stuff, throwing out worthless bits and pieces and loading the draw of the bedside table with all sorts of useful things, from a roll of duct tape, garbage bags, spare batteries and a torch. The backpack is still too heavy for long-distance walking but for now that’s all I managed to part with, and now the sleeping bag fits inside.

I walked and hitchhiked to Alhama, getting a total of four rides and walking for about three hours in between them. In town I enquired at a table of retired British tourists who looked like they’d been hiking, and ended up sitting with them for a beer and tapas while they helped me figure out where the track started. With their help and Google’s, I left them to walk down to the river and found a little marker with a bright red GR7 to let me know I’d made it. By this time it was almost 6pm. I walked just a little way and came across a perfect camping place under low-hanging trees by the bubbling stream. The sun may not set until 9 or 10pm here in Spain, but I set up camp, washed myself and my clothes in the fresh water and sat down to write. A splitting headache has been bugging me all day, making my eyes water. An early night in a idyllic place is just what the doctor ordered.

Walking the GR7 in Spain - Meanderbug

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