Home, James
Andalusia (Spain), Part 1

Lost and confused in Sevilla
the Western Pueblos Blancos
a place of great national touristic interest (the Costa del Sol)
the ride to the rock (Gibraltar)
the un-Sevillianized side of the the mountains (the Eastern Pueblo Blancos)


After lots of city traffic, I'm finally glad to leave it behind.
Bicycling to Gibraltar has good and not so good points.
a meeting with another cyclist.
Cyling through the pueblos blancos is highly recommended.

Lost and confused in Sevilla

Once on Spanish shores, I armed myself with a new map for the roads ahead. The weapon of choice was the Fidelsur map of Andalusia. Actually, it was the only map I could find. More about its accuracy later. One and a half days separated me from my next major metropolitan area, Sevilla. So I better get some side road peace and quiet while I can, before I get swallowed by more traffic, I thought. This was not exactly the perfect place for finding small peaceful roads, if you want to head to Sevilla in a reasonably straight line. Usually most of the traffic follows the coastline very closely. But here, much of the coast is designated a wetlands national park. Consequently much of the traffic stays inland too and heads directly toward Sevilla. Still, during the day and a half of biking to Sevilla, my route included about 20 miles of tiny roads, threading together small villages, orchard trees loosely receding to the horizon, distant churches towering in the haze, views onto the great plains of Huelva. The overnight stop had castle walls surrounding it. This was the old sleepy city of Niebla.

Rain struck again on the day I rode into Sevilla. The day covered only about 40 miles. It took till noon for the sky to stop doing its wet morning thing. Then I left the dryness of my room. I was soaked by 3pm. A late lunch was spent, standing above, rather than sitting on a wet bench - at some clocktower in some town, that looked great from far away, like the town bypass on the way out. It would have been so much nicer in dry conditions.

Finally, Sevilla was below on the other side of the Quadalquivir river. Now all that separated me from it was the huge Quadalquivir flood plain. From my vantage point it looked like two limited access highway bridges crossed it, and that was about it. From the center of the city the cathedral stuck its characteristic tower out of  the urban jungle and I knew which direction I had to head. Now all I had to do was get there from here, the suburban side of the metro jungle. I asked a youth just how one could accomplish this. He wanted to send me on a busy 4 lane carreterra on a bridge across the river, just like all the signs that said Sevilla on them. He thought it was the only option. A second man at a gas station repeated this view, assuring me there was a tramo (shoulder) on which I could ride. Well, he did have a point there.  It sounded convincing as well as reassuring,  and so I crossed the braided Quadalquivir and entered Sevilla on the shoulder a 5 lane expressway during rush hour. But it was only to the first exit across the river. Later I was surprised to read in the Rough Guide to Andalusia : "Bisected from North to South by the river Quadalquivir, Sevilla is easy and delightful to negotiate on a bicycle". Yes and what a delightful rush hour it was on a splendidly delightful shoulder, lovely traffic too, and simply splendid clouds of traffic exhaust.

To be fair to the Rough Guide cycling comments, the couple of square miles of parks, squares and gardens in the old centre really are delightful to coast around in. You don't even need to know where all the hidden, obscure side routes are. It takes several years of living in a complex urban environment like this to find them all anyway. This city center is organized around parks. You just coast from one park to the other. The buildings hiding in them, behind colorful fountains represent an enormous range in history. They go back to our old friends, the moors, or were built as recently as the 20th century. The attention of the cycle tourist who emerges from a five lane cloud of smog  from A Quadalquivir bridge, is first grabbed by the more modern buildings. They are the mock mudejar architecture and decaying azulero blue tiled splendor of the "plaza de Espana". When they were built the moors were just as ancient history as they are now. The series of palace like buildings of the "plaza de Espana" originated at the beginning of the great depression, at a world exhibition, called the "fair of Americas". Nowadays you are tempted to put these buildings in the same touristic drawer as the moors - until you are told otherwise.

Every city has a spiritual center. It's the place you come back to again or again. You are drawn to it, either by necessity or by something irresistibly interesting about it. You need it, either to reorient yourself, or because you want to feel the special ambiance that radiates from there. Sevilla's center is its huge catholic cathedral. I returned there for several reasons. In the beginning, the elaborate search for a room started from here. Alleys lead away from the cathedral into the old Barrio Santa Cruz, in similar yet slightly different directions. But direction is a deceptive concept in this old arab quarter. My alley changed direction, at irregular angles, 2 or 3 times, without ever coming to a cross alley. Once you get to one, you've lost all sense of direction. The alleys are narrow and high, so that there is no hint of the direction of the cathedral tower. Narrow, exquisitely tiled hotel entrances lead to stone staircases, then upwards to hallways  looking out into colorfully tiled miniature court yards. From there new hallways lead on to small dark desks, behind which sit complacent men and women. When asked for a room, they always answer with the same word. They repeat the word "completo" (full). This was not the busiest time of the year. It was neither semana santa, nor the "feria de Abril" two weeks later. It was the time between the two busiest times of the year, still busy enough by any standard. The two times, I finally did locate a reasonable and reasonably priced room, it was a double. It didn't occur to me until later that it is actually possible for a single person to sleep in a double room. My sense of efficiency prohibited such thoughts, while I still harbored hopes of finding a cheap single room. This futile search returned me to the centre of the city, the cathedral, several times just that first evening. From there I attacked the complexity of Barrio Santa Cruz maze with renewed vigor. But it was very late and I was very wet. I finally had to settle for 20 euro room. The price itself is not exorbitantly high, but it was exorbitant when you consider what it bought. It was a six by eight cubicle, had no window and a musty smell. For decoration it featured foot prints on the wall, next to the moisture stains. To get to the room you traversed one of the famous latin court yards. This one didn't have the incredible mosaics I had seen in the completo places. Instead it was a 20 meter space for hanging washed sheets in the rain. The way it was raining, they would have to stay there a long time to ever dry out. Rooms like this are common in parts of South America. But there they cost the equivalent of 3 to 6 euros, not 20.

I returned to the cathedral again that first evening. After getting something to eat, it was the only way I could even begin to reconstruct the route back to my hotel, the complex, twisted zig zig course, back to my my musty cubicle. Very late that first evening, was the last time I got lost in Sevilla. By now I had walked down every alleyway , stuck my head into every ,courtyard backtracked around every odd angled corner, and had gawked at all the sophisticated yet funky, distinctive cervejerias in the neighborhood. I had approached the same plaza from three different directions, puzzled over corners in alleyways, and asked myself if I had been here before. Finally I could say, Yes, I recognize this odd angled corner. I have been here before. From now on I also recognized my limitations. I memorized the path between the room and the cathedral by heart. Of course I walked the alleys again the next morning, hoping to find more reasonable lodging. But it was no use. 90 percent of all rooms here are doubles. This is understandable. This is a barrio of colorful tapa restaurants and cervejerias It's a quarter for couples who want to stroll around a while, and then sit in some tapa restaurant, staring into each others eyes for hours. Single rooms are understandably a rare commodity here. Evenings, I returned to my moist walls. The hotel proprietor clearly enjoyed his role as tourist pariah.  "Paahy Paahy mucho mucho  moeny", he yelled as I negotiated my way through the soaking wet hanging sheets.

It was time to return to the cathedral again, finally to look at it in more detail. The part of the catholic cathedral that draws everybody's initial undivided attention is the monumental bell tower. Its architectural beauty has been admired by millions of tourists, described in thousands of publications. Its outside embellishments increase from bare stone to extremely intricate, as its height increases. Tourists gather around it. They stand there looking skywards, shielding their eyes from the sun. The scene resembles that of an airshow, as if an F105 is doing loops in the sky. But instead it's the intricate patterns of old Moorish architecture that is drawing attention. Moorish or Catholic architecture ? Moorish ! Like many historic Spanish catholic cathedrals, this one stands on the grounds of a former mosque. In that way the history of Spanish churches is no different than the Portuguese churches of the Algarve described earlier. After the reconquest by the christians, the buildings signifying the opposing religion were completely destroyed. But in this case something unusual happened. The moors themselves wanted to destroy the minaret of the mosque, rather than see it in the hands of their enemy. This minaret had served as a model for minarets in the arab capitals of Rabbat and Marakesh. It was a symbol that they wanted to see destroyed rather than in the hands of another culture. But the moors were prevented from destroying it by Alfonso, later king Alfonso X of Spain. This minaret tower went on to become the clock tower of the cathedral that everybody was staring at.

150 years after the reconquest by the christians, the cathedral chapter wanted to build "something so large that people think we are mad". They seem to have succeeded. The cathedral boasts the largest amount of enclosed airspace of a any gothic church structure. It's hard to describe just how imposing and towering the interior of this cathedral is, and how small it makes the visitor feel. The main altar is a straight up multi story high relief wall of gold behind bars. Right next to the cathedral stands the old Arab Alcazaba. The juxtaposition of  a catholic cathedral next to an arab palace  is yet another variation of the "catholic church next to the moorish castle" theme described earlier. Only in this case, the church is a cathedral and the castle is a palace.

A palace is something useful if you happen to be a king. They can take advantage of all that luxury and live in them. Consequently the story takes a new twist here. Mosques were destroyed. But palaces are a different matter. The luxury of the exquisitely decadent moorish Alcazaba  could also be put to use by the Spanish rulers. "Pedro the Cruel" even rebuilt it using fragments of other moorish architecture in the area. Charles the V and others added their own empirical touches. And so the two cultures intertwined further, at least as far as the architecture of the royalty was concerned.

I could have stayed longer in Sevilla. One could have toured more palaces. One could have walked through more parks, bullrings, exotic churches, historic hotels and other exhibits pertaining to lifestyles of the formerly rich  and famous nobility. I could have participated in a lectured walk through the Alcazaba, and seen the place where al'Mu'tadid housed his 800 women harem, and decorated the terraces with flowers planted in the skulls of decapitated enemies. But I'm really not that much of a guts and gore fan. Life becomes a tragic farce at that point. But I also could have worked on my architectural sensibilities. I could have marveled at marble column windows, stalactite freezes, and Renaissance additions of questionable appropriateness to delicate Mudejar designs. But my own accommodations were in direct contrast to what would have been on the sightseeing menu. It's one thing to stay in a place like my particular hostal because that is the standard of the area, and that's how people live. It's something else to be taken to the cleaner as a gullible tourist.  So I decided that this was really a bike tour and went bicycling. There was one more very important thing to do in Sevilla, secure a new supply of camping gaz for my very convenient stove. I left Sevilla in similar fashion as I arrived, on a 4 lane limited access expressway, delightful indeed.

The Western Pueblos Blancos

Enough delightful city cycling ! The country is where it's at ! Next on my route were the "pueblos blancos"  These villages were founded back in Roman or Visigoth times.  But the appearance we see today was shaped by the moors. The twisting labyrinth of streets lined by snow white houses is typical of the houses the Berbers (moors from Morocco) built first in North Africa. After the 8th century they also built them in the Southern part of Andalusia. I wanted to string up as many of these villages as I could on my way South and East. You can divide the pueblos blancos into east and west, according to which side of the mountains they're on. The mountains in this case are a spine of rugged bare limestone mountains running down roughly the middle of Quadalquivir province, terminating in the rock of Gibraltar. The western pueblos blancos were the ones first on my list. They tend to sit far away from these mountains, on isolated rock outcrops, looking out over a  rolling agricultural plain.

But first I had to get out of Sevilla. By the time I reached 20 km distant Utrera, I still had the shoulder of the road to myself. I needed the shoulder for myself too. The expressway leaving Sevilla had morphosed to a two lane road. It had more cars than empty space. It was noisy but safe. In the next town, Puerto Serreno, there was landscape again. Now I was rolling through gentle hills under widely space orchard trees. The landscape looked like a ruffled blanket with model castle towers perched on a few selected bare ridge tops as accents. A few miles later I turned onto a tiny winding hard top road that gently climbed above a white village. I stopped and photographed the village, framed by pruned trees. It was getting pretty good. As a matter of fact it was getting so good, that the ride as a whole up to this point, seen as a whole, seemed like a very long suburban commute.

My route rolled  into the western most pueblo blanco, Arcos, the backway. I could try to describe Arcos. But somebody already did a really good job : "Imagine a long, narrow ridge, undulating; place on it little white houses, clustered among others more ancient; imagine that both sides of the mountain have been cut away, dropping downward sheer and straight; and at the foot of this wall a slow, silent river, its murky waters licking the yellowish stone, then going on its destructive course through the fields". Since the spanish novelist Azorin penned this, a small new part of the town has been added at the foot of the mountain. Once I circumbikulated the entire town twice at different distances, I found an even newer part near the main road from Jerez. - This one wasn't very medieval looking at all, but it was good for buying a larger variety of groceries at cheaper prices. And it really doesn't detract from the illusion of living in another time when you roam around the top and end up on a balcony like outcrop with a cathedral on one side and the bare Sierra Grazalema glowing in the sunset on the other.

I was making up my route as I went along. First I headed straight west due to advice from a Stuttgart couple I met in Arcos. They had many more tourist books than I could ever carry on my bike. But before I reached Bosque, the difference in requirements between automobile tourism and bicycle tourism became evident again. I felt a strong desire to ride on a small road again, a path without traffic, a road that plays with the landscape, not a highway that rules the landscape, like yesterday's route into Arcos. I found such a path, a road that is only marked on the particular Fidelsur map I carried. I found out later that it is not marked on the map the Andalusia tourist department puts out, or not even on the respected Michelin map. It winds over hills and dales from west of Bosque, along the edge of the Grazalema Natural Park south. I had lunch in a pasture, under a sign stating "peligro, ganado bravo" - danger, brave cows. This remained a mystery for a while. By day's end the road delivered me to another picture perfect hill town, Alcala de los Gazules. There wasn't a foreign tourist in sight. The highest point in town was the moorish castle. Nestled immediately below were several blocks of ruin and decay. The castle was closed, and a small boy wielding a stick apparently protected it. I asked him about the castle. Instead he told me about a fiesta that was about to happen, a fiesta about a torro of course. - That's when they torture the "ganado bravo", the brave cattle, and people make an enormous amount of noise. The pastures that I had rode across today were a favorite breeding ground for the "brave cows". "Te guste ?" (Are you interested ?)" asked me the little boy about selective cow torture, also referred to as bull fighting by its aficionados. No, not really, I'd rather see the matadors (translation: the killers) torture each other, instead of a poor cow. That would show much greater courage. What's so great about selective  cow breeding to enhance any sign of bad attitude, and then try to kill it ? One thing's for sure. Spanish cow torture produces a lot of noisy Spaniards. It turned out to be a loud night, a real challenge for the entire arsenal of hearing protection devices I carried along, acoustic foam plugs, in addition to the kind of earmuffs airport workers wear when they conduct jets to their terminals. I slept in a cold sweat. But, surprise, when I woke up I was in a mood to ride again.

My route was through the eastern pueblo blancos was determined by hilltowns and road traffic. Head for the first. Avoid the second. After changing my mind twice, my route described a large Z down to the coast. Still it took only three days and exactly 200 miles to reach the ocean again. Avoiding busy roads however, meant missing another hilltown, Medina Sidonia. No matter, Vejer de la Frontera took its place in the route. It was shining on a hill like the white sugar glaze on top of a pastry. Vespas encircled its top like mosquitoes. Vejer's centerpiece was a fountain surrounded by colorful tilework. There I met 2 cycling Spanish couples. They were the first Spanish cycling tourists I saw. The presence of 2 females in the group also is noteworthy. The only other type of cyclist I had seen so far was large groups of exclusively male racers (at least they like to think they're racers), practicing on the weekend. The two touring couples bicycled from their home, pais Basque, on the French border, where bicycle touring is more part of the local culture.

Something else happened in Vejer. My weekend shopping trip in a small hole-in-the-wall-store caused a five  people backup. It took me a little longer to get across what I wanted to buy. But they didn't seem to mind that much. When it came to the dilemma of the loaf of bread being too big for me to buy, a woman graciously offered to buy the other half. When it came to deciding on the Mortadella, the eternal question is "con or sin aceitunas" (with or without olives), con of course. After a week in Andalusia it was hard to understand how people want to do without olives in their Mortadella. Olives are to Mortadella what chocolate is to ice cream. Olives make the mortadella taste come alive. Hard to imagine that, before this bike tour, I had never heard of olives in Mortadella.

A place of great national touristic interest (The Costa del Sol)

A sign advertised a "lugar del interes turistico nacional", a place of national touristic interest. I just reached the coast again. What was this great famous place ? A scenic shore ? A national park ? A protected area with dolphins and whales playing offshore for the tourists ? - Wrong. It was a condo development, a kind of Vail by the seashore, a concrete dessert. It was not quite on the scale of Albuffeira, but wait a few years. The "national interest" must refer to the income and taxes generated for the government. It can't possible refer to interest that any sane traveler might have in it. This was another place reserved for insane tourism, the package vacation industry. There was however, one rustic aspect to this vacation development, and that was the road. It was rutted like an old Baja California track through the dessert. My Fidelsur map clearly showed this road continuing through to the main road towards Gibraltar. But in this case, reality didn't seem to match the vision of the Spanish mapmakers. People on the street weren't much help in solving my problem. They were all  here on their first day of a vacation package, and German, and a nosy lot. For them life was a beach, not a road. A mile further the road ended.

But 5 km back along the shore, beyond the cookie cutter condos and large package hotels, there was a little organic beach town. It was here before all the commercial craziness. Zahara de los Atunes had everything for a pleasant evening. For starters there was an 18 euro room. Hostals like this one, "Hostal Montemar", have that homemade feel. Keys turn in the other direction than you're used to. Doorknobs on the second side of the door are optional. Hallways have little half foot shifts where the owner constructed the last addition himself. Still, everything is tiled in clean splendor, and the fire exit regulations hang on the wall, just like the government says they should.

A little store offered to give me bananas that weren't perfectly yellow any more, and that on a Sunday, but of course after 5 pm when the siesta was over. There was also a beach with a flurry of color sunset, sand with exactly spaced garbage containers, a place to sit and reflect. Something about this place convinced me to stay a day. Maybe it was the fact that I didn't use my ear protectors for the first time. Maybe it was the Jazz on Radio Aqua. Maybe it was the sun setting behind a ship next to cliff straight as an arrow.

All the rides in this area that I had read about, links from the Trento cycling touring pages (there's a link in my links section), as well as three cyclists I had met in Sevilla, traversed this area adjacent to the coast. I was curious to see if I had missed something. I didn't backtrack all the way to Cadiz. Instead I used the opportunity to ride to some out and back points along the shore. The day ride northwest as far as Conil revealed a functioning organic coast. Small dirt alleys lead past innumerable camping mobiles, to little hostals with palm umbrellas and people in various stages of nakedness scattered along the beach. Places like playa palmar attract crowds through their liberty. They stand in direct contrast to the overcommercialized resorts to the north. Together with them they make for a fascinating comparison. The occasional piles of garbage centered around discarded mattresses don't seem to bother anybody in playa palmera. The place of "interes turistico nacional" seems positively deserted in comparison.

The route from the Portugal border to Sevilla, then down to the coast covered about 500 miles in 7 days. The zigs and zags through the pueblo blancos, as well as the day ride along the coast made for a much longer ride than if I would have followed the Quadalquivir coast. Another day of biking about 60 miles separated me from Gibraltar.

the ride to the rock

If there was a guidebook to the most beautiful urban bike paths, the last several miles before the rock of Gibraltar would have to be included. At this point you're still on Spanish territory in the town "La Linea de Concepcion". A wide boulevard winds itself from traffic circle to traffic circle along the shore. A bikepath separates a wide tiled promenade from a  boulevard along the jetty coast. The rock looms ahead like, well, the rock of Gibraltar. Hundreds if not thousands of stone benches line the promenade and invite to stop and enjoy the view. But the benches face inward towards the road, rather than towards what you want to look at, the rock. This could be a sign of the ambivalence that Spain has towards the British rock, or it could just be an Iberian peculiarity. I think it's the second. Many parks and viewpoints in Spain for some obscure reason have benches that a majority of people would say, face the wrong way. Maybe you are supposed to stand in front of them, and use them as footrest for a single foot, while resting an elbow on the raised knee to support your head, contemplating the scene in front thusly. Or maybe you are supposed to sit on the backrest. It remains a mystery.

Sometimes it seems like the Gibraltar Spain border is the only real border crossing left in continental Europe. While you don't even need to show your passboard at most border crossings in European Union Europe, here a thorough inspection causes long delays. Bicycles have an advantage in this situation. While cars were still lined up for an hour long wait, I was able to squeeze through without that cumbersome large metal box around me. Once in Gibraltar, before I had time to click into my pedals, the road passed a British Airways airport reception hall. But not from the back. The road goes right across the runway, for space reasons. This must be the compactest little outpost of an empire around. A minute later 4 separate miniature car dealerships facing the road in form of narrow row houses floated by my moving bicycle. Wait a second, that was the wrong exit from the roundabout. Go back !

Going "the right way" for me meant following the side of the rock that leads to its top. This involves squeezing in along its west side, squeezing through the complete infrastructure of an independent country, from hospitals to schools and yachtharbors. Congestion was already king, even though almost all of the border traffic was still detained on the other side. Here on the Gibraltarian side, English bobbies were directing traffic, but only when it was moving, which was very rarely. Most of the time the bobbies just stood there waiting with limb arms, waiting like the rest of the traffic. Vespas and bicycles tried to squeeze through cracks and crevasses, like   little cockroaches disappearing into cracks of plaster. Bicycles could squeeze through even better than Vespas.

Over here things appear to be very British. Schoolboys and girls wear english uniforms. An entrance to the shops at Trafalgar square has a separate receptacle for cigarettes and chewing gum ! The British have been in control of Gibraltar since 1704. Promoting the causes of the archduke Carlos of Austria during the war of the Spanish Succession, they invaded Gibraltar, burned churches and looted houses. That was 300 years ago. For about 10 generations, inhabitants have shaped their lifestyles to fit this miniaturized environment, and today it's not just British any more. Today Gribraltarians are descended from a combination of Genoese, Portuguese, Spanish, Minorcan, Jewish, Maltese and British ancestors. So what are all those extremely British looking people lounging in the bars of Trafalgar square doing there ? Why, they are British tourists of course. It seems like Gibraltar is on the mandatory visitation list for all Brits within a 500 mile radius.

Wherever you  go around Trafalgar square, you can sign petitions to keep Gibraltar British. The opinion of the inhabitants is really more important than the opinion of visting tourists. But the inhabitants want to remain brittish too, and that's why they ask the tourists. The last time the Gribraltarians were put to a vote as weather they want to remain British they voted, 12138 to 44 for British rule, nearly a tie. The was in 1969, and in spite of that  Franco tried shortly afterwards to force a handover of the rock from Britain by closing off the border. But the British wanted to keep Gibraltar, and supplied it by sea. Meanwhile Spain has become a democracy, and conditions between Britain and Spain are greatly improved. Closer ties to Spain seem inevitable.

My bicycle had carried me to the top of the rock, before I could say "holly traffic jam". The traffic jam was below. But up here I had the road completely to myself. Consequently all the traffic below was Gibraltarian business traffic. Tourists were still on the other side of the runway. The path up the rock is a series of 6 feet narrow lanes, sometimes with little white marked rocks, indicating the spot where you will drive off the road and decend into the depths below if you're not careful. At other times proud imperial stone walls indicate the side of the miniature lane. Even later there are not many cars here. But if there is one, it's a big deal getting a bicycle past it. Some streets are two way, even though I see no way that two cars could get past one another. On top I was alone with the monkeys watching the clouds starting to roll in. Finally the first person for the morning made it up with a cable car.

My favorite spot on the rock was on top of the ridge. Near the middle there's an old moorish observation post. Formerly if offered strategic views. Nowadays it offers scenic views in all directions. Just like the rest of Southern Iberia, the moors controlled this strategic rock. But even the Gibraltar museum, in the streets below, has little information that allows one to form a picture of that time. The story told in the museum does start early enough. It starts way back in the Paleozoic era when limestone was deposited. More recently, relatively speaking, Phoenicans landed in the bay to the North from what is now Lebanon. It was the veneration of the Phoenicians of this impressive rock. That gave rise to the legends of the pillars of Hercules, prominent in Greek legends. Skipping ahead several cultures, the rock became a Moorish city. One single large moorish tower still stands above Trafalgar square, squeezed onto the slope between apartment buildings, looking like it's rapidly becoming part of the rock itself. And then there is that little moorish observation point on the ridge mentioned in the beginning of this paragraph. It gives the best picture what Gibraltar must have been like hundreds of years ago. There is nothing British in your immediate surroundings, except for the narrow wall lined lane that got you here. Otherwise - just dense bushes and twisting, gnarly trees that thrive in the coastal fog and moderate temperatures.

I already tried to convince you, the final approach to Gibraltar deserves to be part of a book entitled "the most scenic urban bikepaths of the world". It's too bad that the day spent in approaching the rock along the coast doesn't fall in the same category. If it belongs in a guide book it should be entitled "100 roads to avoid on a         bicycle". This is the route I had followed. It's still the fastest and easiest route from Zahara. The first part is pleasant enough, leading to the southernmost point in Europe, the town of Tarifa. From here, hundreds of modern windmills line the climb to alto de cabrito (320m). You are now on a busy mostly 4 lane wide road. During good weather there are some views of the several mile distant Mediterranean. I had bad weather. The road is part of the main traffic artery that edges its way along the entire Mediterranean coast of Spain. But as almost always, you have a wide shoulder to ride on. In this sense the road may not be the most pleasant. But it really could be a lot worse.

It's past the city of Algeciras where traffic finally has to become the focal point of one's attention. First you have to ride 20 km of limited  access expressway. There seems to be no other option. I saw a bike racer, speeding by on the other side of 6 lanes of traffic. He looked like he was at home here and knew what he was doing. This is still a place of great historical interest. It's just harder to picture it racing along with thousands of cars. Over here, beyond the barbed wire fence, where the petrochemical plant is now, is where the Phoenicians first landed in a wild bay.  They were so in awe of the rock. that it became a holy ground to them. But times have changed. Over there is San Roque. It was founded by the Spaniards who were thrown out of Gibraltar by the looting church burning British. The year was 1704. From this town on the hill, today's residents can still make out in the distance, the old home of their ancestors. Today the view is modified by refinery smokestacks and their purple haze emissions. Here the bicycle route to the rock exits the expressway, in order to enter yet another expressway, the final and crowning expressway to La Linea. This is not your typical scenic cycling road. But still, when the rock first comes into view, it's a breath taking moment. It's a flat outline in the haze, a jagged cut out form, monumentally towering in the distance behind smokestacks. It's also a breath taking moment, because of all the exhaust from the vehicles racing by.

La Linea is the Spanish town that has grown around Gibraltar, after the British had taken it over. It is also a much cheaper and easier place to spend the night. La Linea also gave me a chance to have my bicycle worked on. I found a bike store. In it stood a proud showcase of parts for sale, break and gear levers, cranksets and gear clusters, axles, bottombrackets. I was interested in the bottom brackets. Mine had been making periodic noises that were a telltale sign of a pitted race. After 50000 miles it was one of the last original parts left on this particular bicycle. So I hated to see it go after all this time. But it was just too convenient. The store was within walking distance of my room, and the mechanics agreed to work on it during their after fiesta work session, sometime between 5 and 9 pm. When I got the bike back, I did notice that the chainring was a little closer to the frame than it had been with the original bottombracket. But with a bike from the mid 80s,  it's hard to get the exact same parts.

All along the Spanish coast, funky North European vans and campers find appropriate places from which to enjoy the coastline. Sometimes these are wild, out of the way spots amongst the dunes. At other times they are free town parkinglots designated as RV lots. La Linea also had such an RV parking lot. Its spaciousness was in direct contrast to the cramped community on the rock,  directly across several hundred yards of water from it. Maybe this spaciousness was meant to thumb its nose at Gibraltar and its ultra cramped quarters. Here in La Linea, there was no need for campers to even park next to one another. Instead they could escape to corners with several hundred yards of dirt and sand all to themselves.

European RVs are much smaller than their American bus sized counterparts. Consequently it was very surprising to see a large American RV bus parked in the La Linea RV lot. This was the only parking lot around, big enough to hold it. The vehicle was as long a Gibraltar city block. I had a talk with the owner lounging comfortably inside - through the screen door. Apparently it was so comfortable inside that he didn't want to step outside his spacious "land yacht". After touring in it for a year in "the States", the British man shipped it over to England. He wasn't completely sold on its usefulness in this continent. As a matter of fact, he wanted to sell it. "I'll take cash please, 80000 lbs, and that includes the Smart on the back" he said to me. Now do I look like I would be carrying 80000 lbs in cash around on my bicycle ? Sounds pretty desperate to me. He already had made some concessions to the local conditions. Instead of pulling another gas wasting Explorer or other American SUV behind the bus, he pulled a Smart, a car that will fit in some parking spots that a motorcycle doesn't even fit into. It's about half the size of an old VW bug. The image of the motorhome pulling the Smart is similar to a bird sitting on the rump of a rhinoceros. The Smart could easily have fitted inside the huge motorhome, if there was large enough door. The Smart was the only logical thing about this vehicle train.

The un-Sevillianized side of the mountains (The Eastern Pueblos Blancos)

Seen as a whole, the route I followed on this tour headed South, North, East and West. Gibraltar was a junction point, because from now on I had eliminated at least one of the major directions, South. It was a junction point in other ways too. I said goodbye to the Mediterranean coast and its mad traffic. I would only get close to it one other time, several thousand miles down the road. About 20 miles Northwest of Gibraltar and Algeciras, I rode the 1000th mile, and the bicycling improved drastically once again. My route headed back north, but now on the eastern side of the Sierra Grazalema. Gone were the last vestiges of big box commerce. If you want to hypershop, you go to the coast. If you want to ride a bike, you are better off inland. The western pueblo blancos are still very close to Sevilla. The box architecture of  dozens of garage type businesses, find their way into the scenes of  otherwise medieval villages.  Over here, on the "non Sevillanized" side of the mountains, the hilltowns could still star in pictures, where you don't have to frame them so that you cut off all the building cranes and parking lots.

The area surrounding the Grazalema Range is the wettest part of Andalusia. During the climb up to "puerto de Espigas", between Gibraltar and Ronda, this became very apparent. The route climbed in dense needle forest to the first 300m pass. But it was just a puerto to another puerto. The mountains become higher, more rugged and lush as a carpet. The villages glued to the hillsides look like blistered splashes of white paint. The mountains become to high for actual "hill top villages". Instead Gaucin and others surrounding it, are draped across lower ridges, or nestled up on a hillside halfways up the mountain. By the time I got to puerto No 2, puerto de las encimas borrachos, the forest had give way to gently curving fractured faces of gray limestone. From there the pass descends into another dry bare plateau, with the town of Ronda at its cultural and touristic center. This ride contained so much variety in natural surroundings as well as types of human habitat, it was hard to believe that it was all in a single day's ride and only 64 miles. The sky was a Utah blue and I was on a biking high.

Lunch was kind of special too. I had a 3 sandwich conversation with Gary,  bicycling home from a 3 month ride through Morocco. Funny how bikers always end up standing in the same lines in markets. We're always queuing up, waiting to buy tomatoes, bananas or cheese. Gary was a tall Dutchman, probably somewhere  around 30. The first thing that caught one's attention was the curious handlebar on his bicycle. It had both curved road and mountain bar ends, making it look curiously torro-like, like it would be capable of spearing up objects around it with its multitude of sharp forward ends. But Gary really wasn't interested in talking about the equipment of his bicycle. To him it was just a bike he had bought used in the 90s sometime. He was more interested in cultural things, and he was at least as interested in the views of others, as he was in propagating his own views. This is a very rare thing. By the end of this hour long lunch, we knew where the other one stood on a host of issues, starting in Iraq and Bush, covering gun control, social and cultural differences between a host of countries,  just to mention a few topics. So when he asked me . "Isn't that pack around your waist heavy ?" and I answered " No, I keep my camera and lenses in it, so I have it ready whenever I need it"  and he quipped  "Just like some Americans always like to keep their guns ready", he knew that I wasn't offended one bit by his observation.  "Yes exactly, you hit it right on the nose". We were of one opinion. I have some relatives who don't know me that well after 40some years. Correspondingly I don't know them any better either. It just goes to show that bicycle tourists develop often a similar view of the world, in some respects. Or maybe people with a certain view of the world engage in bicycle touring. But before I'll start talking about what came first the chicken or the egg. I'll stop. In any case, after this talk it seemed we tend to have a lot of agreeing opinions.

Actually there is something else about Gary's equipment, more worthwhile pointing out than his unusual torro handlebars. It's something mounted on top of it. Protruding on top of the handlebar was a large desklike plate. It was the closest thing to a school desk mounted on a handle bar. The desktop was screwed onto an old handlebar bag mounting device, turned upward This plate contained a list all the Spanish words Gary needed - really a good and simple ideas. But that's what good ideas usually are, perplexingly simple.  The microscopically written list was attached to the plate with a removable clamp. This way the list could be put into action and used in real life situations away from the bike, such as the market we just came out from. The words were methodically and hierarchically arranged and organized into situations in which he might need them. Understandably, the largest "functional group" was the foods he likes to heat, starting with banana and ending with tomato. It would be correct to say that Gary didn't speak Spanish. But it would be completely  incorrect to say that he didn't speak a word of Spanish. He spoke many of them, all the ones he needed. It's simple, yet ingenious pieces of equipment like this that are important for a bicycle tourer - not the titanium seat post.

On a utilitarian note, we also compared his respected Michelin against my rather looked down upon Spanish Lidelsur map. We found that they had strong resemblance, but that was about it. My map had solid lines where I knew dead ends existed, west of Gibraltar for example. His Michelin map had no markings where there were roads I rode, specifically the route between Bosque and Alcala de los Gazules. Later during the tour, I carried three maps of the same area. This way I would have a map that could cast the deciding vote in case of a discrepancy between the first two. The Michelin map had another redeeming feature that was instrumental for Gary. It showed all - well - at least some to most, government sponsored free campgrounds.

But, let me return to the route description. I think we got as far as Ronda. Entering Ronda from the "puerto de encimas borrachos" is the only direction from which it looks like a regular modern town. From all other sides it looks more interesting. From all other sides it looks like it was built on a cork that is just poking out of the earth far enough, so that it is about to pop with a bang, like opening a bottle of champagne. The El Tajo Gorge surrounds the town on 3 sides with 130 meters of a slightly overhanging cliffs. This wine cork shaped landform with its clear line of sight to the Grazalema Range as well as the valley floor has been a strategic location for a very long time. The motley group of rulers includes, but is not limited to, Celts, Phoenicans, Romans, Moors and Spaniards. But I'm sure I left out somebody. For one, I left out Tarokamans. Until 1485,  Ronda was the capitol of an independently ruled moorish kingdom, Tarokama.

Ronda has a whole series of buildings and monuments that can keep the history tourist occupied for a long time. But my first priority was different. The two Spanish bike touring couples I had met in Vejer had told me, in no uncertain terms, that the area around Grazalema and "Puerto de las Palomas" is the most beautiful area in all of Andalusia. This is an ideal day ride from Ronda. Today I was going to put myself in a position to put my 2 cents worth in. - Yes, it definitely is -.When approaching the "puerto de las Palomas" from below Grazalema, one is seduced up the pass, first by climbing up to the village of Grazalema. It hangs in a limestone bowl between 3 jagged peeks. During flat light, from a side road across the valley, it looks like somebody threw some white pudding from the sky. Some of the pudding  got stuck along the precipe on the way down. That's Grazalema, in the Sierra Grazalema. The town square is alive with boys and girls kicking around a half deflated soccer ball. Space between 2 cast iron benches, is utilized as goal space by the under age soccer fans. Cyclists who have lunch on these benches, get pelted by soccer balls from these ruthless 6 year old hoodlums in training. - Just kidding - One does get pelted though.

As I was saying, one is seduced up the pass by climbing to the village of Grazalema. Once enough energy is digested during the inevitable rest in this town, the climb onwards becomes irresistible. Once it reaches treeline, the road looks out over a wedged rock topography that displays tilted limestone mountains. But save enough time for the other side.- Oh- the other side ! A salad of switchbacks opens up from 1700m. When looking down on them to see what's in store for you and your rolling racing bicycle, you see scores of stretches of asphalt curves disappearing behind gray limestone. But they are such a jumble that it's impossible to tell which one of the cut off pieces of road you are going to be propelled down on first. But propelled down them you are. Once it's all over and you look at the same scene, now from below,  you see faces that look horizontal. The foreshortening illusion here is extreme,  especially when you are here in flat light. The pass sig sags to the top of an apparent face, in the persistent fashion of several large Zs.

Along the way I passed more pueblos blancos. Now I even had an official  government sponsored pueblo blanco map.  It turns out that some of the towns I have held in high veneration so far, apparently aren't blanco enough to make the official government pueblo blanco list.. They sit on hills, and are of medieval moorish character. But they don't white wash the walls often enough to make the list. No matter, they're just as beautiful. Amongst the universally recognized pueblos blancos, Montejaque and Benoaja are yet another beautiful variation on the hilltown theme. They sit nestled in the limestone  crags at about treeline, and have a much more alpine character than anything west of the Grazalemas. Scores of other eastern pueblos blancos go unmentioned. There are too many of them. But they did not go unphotographed.

I was very tempted to stay longer in Ronda. It makes the perfect starting point for scores of bike rides, pueblo blanco and not so blanco, mountain path, road, and anything in between. During the evening you can promenade along the Tajo Gorge and stare over to the Grazalemas to plan the next ride. A whole series of parks, promenades and gazebos dating back to the enlightened year of 1806,  line the edge of the cork that is Ronda, facing the Grazalemas. It's possible to just make out the "Puerto de las palomas" road cut in the distance from these promenades. The mile long display walk funnels onto an 18th century stone arch bridge. Here the cork has a crack all the way to the bottom, and people stand around it staring mesmerized into the depth.

Once you've stared long enough into the depths, and stared long enough into the distance, across to the Grazalemas to decide on a new mountain ride in them, you can watch the people. Around here they come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities and sexes, dressed up, dressed down, skating, cycling, running, walking, displaying themselves or watching back, families, couples, extended families, single people, babies and 90 year olds, exuberant women, and wildly exuberant girls.

Much too quickly, already the next morning, I headed out of Ronda.  The plan was a peaceful quiet ride with little traffic towards another pass, the "puerto del viento". I needed to get confidence back into my route planning ability. It had been under serious doubt since the ride through Albuffeira. But past the Gibraltar expressway I started to get some confidence back. Yes - I can pick light traffic routes through culturally and scenically superbly interesting areas. But then I was thinking back to yesterday's ride again. I had spared no effort to approach the southern side of Grazalema from its most scenic vantage point. But then, after I had rolled down the northern zig zags, I dragged myself back home to my comfortable room in Ronda and the dinner raw materials laying at the ready around the stove, along the shortest, most direct route. I just barely made it. I didn't have time or energy to complete the whole circle I had planned through more hilltowns, Olvera and Setenil. The spirit had been willing but the flesh wasn't able.

But now it was a new beautiful day, and the spirit was still willing. Now the flesh was able too. I was only a couple of miles out of Ronda towards the "puerto del viento". Consequently I turned around and headed for a detour through Setenil and Olvera, the 2 missing pueblos blancos. They could also be ridden as detour on my route towards Granada. My suspicion was that this route would have a little more traffic, but more interesting towns.  I can ride in peace and quiet the next time I ride across Wyoming again. At that time I'll probably be thinking back to the time I rode through the pueblos blancos. And so the route ended up with more more pueblo blanco superlatives. Olvera formed a perfect obtuse bilateral triangle crown on a hill. It was still 24 km away to the North, a record distance for the most impressive view of a town.. The view pulled me onwards like a magnet. But before I got there I had to pass through Setenil. Setenil is not a hilltop village, quite the opposite. The builders of Setenil had the opposite defensive strategy. If you can't dominate them from atop the hill, hide in the canyon. I didn't see Setenil until I was practically in its streets, and next to its houses built against or into the rock. At one point, an overhanging rock becomes a tunnel. One house is hewn  into the rock in an overhanging alcove. The house across the street is still under the alcove, and high enough that it touches the alcove above. And voila, a tunnel is the result. From here it was still a 10 mile climb to the crowing mount of Olvera . The highest point in the perfect bilateral triangle hill was crowned by an old moorish castle and a directly adjacent cathedral, two symbols that sum up the history of these towns in the shortest possible way. It was a perfectly peaceful lunch spot. But to me, Olvera looks the most impressive from 24 km away.

A large agricultural plain separated me from the next mandatory goal of the ride, Granada. A high dry dessert range, named the Tocal de Antequerra shields the high plain from mediterranean moisture. Crossing this plain involved riding on the shoulder of a large often 4 lane N prefixed road. Traffic was extremely light, the hills bare, the plain empty. It was reminiscent of riding through eastern Montana during a hazy summer day, at least superficially.  Bread loaf shaped mountains, covered by a sprinkling of Olive trees, floated by in the distant haze. I reached the overnight stop Antequerra, with the setting un. As the sun was touching the horizon, the bare mountain range opposite it was lit up like a reflector in a spot light. The multifaceted range reflected all the brilliant light of the setting sun, absorbing none. I always thought dessert sunsets are the most spectacular. This was yet another demonstration.

Next day was Saturday and the bike racing clubs were gathering outside of town. They were heading up into the Tocal, and by the looks of it, I would bet, the area hides some incredible dessert mountain routes. I got funneled by into my 4 lane highway, racing along the valley at the speed of backwind. Around noon my route turned off into the hills on the other side of the plain, in pursuit of a post cart town, Monte Frio.

I had seen a picture of Monte Frio on a post card, and subsequently placed it on the "if within 30 miles of route, go there list".  Looking at post cards in search of  interesting places to bike, is an easy and quick way to find something, especially if you tend to be more visually oriented, than - say -  speedreaders. If I describe "Monte Frio"  you have read the description already. We're talking about another town on a hill here. It involves a moorish castle and a catholic church, and in this case another improbable, towering rock outcrop with a catholic convent. Monte Frio is not described in any American travel book I have seen. As a result it had no foreign tourists.

To sum up the numbers since the last summary, Gibraltar to Granada occupied about 300 miles and 5 days. That includes one day on Gibraltar.


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