Home, James

Andalusia (Spain), Part 2

the endurance challenges of Granada
Eating out Iberian style
Coke cans and the art of bicycle repair
the skirt of the mountains (the Alpujarra road)
the cycle tourist as caveman
A ride on the highest hard top road in Europe.
Followed by a visit to the most famous palace in Spain.
I get a lesson in bicycle repair.
Cycling along the Southern Edge of the Sierra Nevada is a high point

the endurance challenges of Granada

Granada takes up much space in travel books about Spain. Take away Granada, Sevilla and Cordova from these books, and all that's left is advertising and a few pages that slip through your fingers. In spite of this preoccupation with large cities, none of the books talk much about what to me is the most interesting aspect of this city. It has more to do more with its location than anything else. It sits on the foot of the Sierra Nevada.

Granada is "the large city at the foot of the large mountains" on the Iberian Peninsula. From here you have an extensive road and trail network, from which to explore the mountains; not only mountains, plains too, even dessert scenery, not to mention the city itself. No matter what you like, you can get there from here, very quickly.

The second highest peak in the Iberian Peninsula, Pico Veleta, can be reached by bicycle on a long dayride from Granada. The highest peak in the range is just a short walk across a gentle ridge away from Veleta. The road to Pico Veleta is also the highest road in all of Europe. My long time home, Denver, plays that same role in the US. It also is "the large city at the foot of the large mountains". Here the mountains are the Rockies. There is even a comparable dayride, the ride to Mt Evans, advertised as the highest hard topped road in the US. So how could I possibly resist an attempt to ride up to Pico Veleta in a day from Granada ? I had another goal in Granada. This one was identical to that of any other tourist who comes to this city, to visit the Alhambra, the most famous moorish palace built in Spain.

But first things first, before I could get out of Granada to find the road to Pico Veleta, I had to get into Granada. As cities go, this one was a joy to ride into. My route was a sideroad through Casanueava. For one thing it didn't rain. For another, the roads were empty. Racing cyclists were numerous. But that's to be expected on the weekend. After consulting Micheline and Fidelsur maps, I was now using Andalusia tourist bureau maps. But it won't come as a surprise, that my route included roads that aren't on any of them. Orientation was made easier, thanks to the presence of a large mountain range. All I had to do was ride towards it. For lunch I was already in a central Granada park, amidst fountains and discarded beer bottles, getting ready for the quarto search, with help of bread and Mortadella con aceitunas. But the worries, that Sevilla had instilled in me, turned out to be groundless. Rectangular blocks on at least one side of Gran Via made orientation an easy process. There was also a large selection of rooms. I got a spacious quarto for 15E. - More about it later.

Since the weather was predicted to deteriorate later,  the first priority was the ride to Pico Veleta. With all these similarities to my own home, I forgot one critical thing. This is not my home. I really didn't know my way around Granada. At 9 am I was still riding in circles over various hills with scenic views of Granada, but not the high alpine peaks of the Sierra Nevada. But the day still had many daylight hours. Each one could be put to excellent use. Step Number One was to ride to the suburban resort - yes there is such a thing - of Pinos Genil. - Done. - A mysterious haze covered the adjacent mountains, making any judgment of distance and height a guessing game. From here a small road starts its alluring meanders up the mountain. But a few alluring kms up the mountain it delivered me back to a busy highway. Confused by the absence of signs, I flagged down a car for directions. Inside was a slightly frightened couple. The were English and had all the implements of information that tourists carry with them, autoclub guides, detailed maps, enough material that would have filled my panniers several times over. I was still on the route right towards the summit of Veleta. The suspicion was confirmed by the presence of a large National Park visitor center after a number of kilometers. Now things started to look up, and pretty good too. From here you have a choice of two routes. The right fork is more direct, further down in the valley and has more traffic. The left fork has all the things that the right fork doesn't. Which one would you take ? I took the same, left.  To add beauty to peace, the sun came out and peered through the haze like a flashlight in the night. My own personalized patch of blue sky was pointing the way up a gentle sloping  mountain, crowned by a hint of cliff in the distance. It really was difficult not to feel at home here. Even the mountains resembled the Front Range of Colorado. Then the road entered a sparse needle forest. But it only lasted a few miles. Once above treeline again, the mountains were shaped like gentle sleeping pachoderms. Large expansive views swept over huge, patchy white breadloafs. The steepest, most eroded scenery was down in the canyons. It was like working your way up a gigantic football.

After a couple of hours of paradisical riding, the reason for the excellent road came into view - a large factory town with row houses for the thousands of workers. Well, no - that can't be - It just looks like one. Really it's a ski resort. Further up, a few makeshift stands sell hamburguesas and postcards. And beyond that, a roadblock keeps cars from going further, but not bicycles of course. After another 300m or so (about 2800m) snowdirfts started making my progress more and more difficult. My personal patch of blue sky shone on somebody else, somewhere else. Clouds made the scenery and the road disappear. Also there isn't just one road up here, but a network of them. People who live here are lucky enough to be able to explore them all. I turned around for a long decent.

This ride took place on May 5. During this particular year that was still too early to ride all the way to the top. But it was a snowy spring in the Sierras. A German cycling book I found later recommends this ride from July through October.

I can't give you the foot by foot sadistics on the total altitude gain. My altimeter broke during the rainstorms in Portugal.  But the big picture looks like this. Granada is roughly at 700 meters. That makes a climb to Veleta  2700 meters ( about 8500 feet ) higher. So, even in terms of altitude difference, this climb is comparable to the 9000 foot ride from Denver to Mount Evans. The ride in the Sierras however is much shorter. Even including the mileage of circling around Granada lost for an hour, it's still less than 60 miles. Compare that to the roughly 100 miles, you have to ride to get from Denver itself to Mount Evans (and back). Later in the year it is possible not only to ride to the top of the Sierra Nevada, but to cross over the top. The route descends to the Alpujarra villages on the south side of the Sierras on dirt tracks. My plan was to go around the mountains instead.

On to the second objective, the Alhambra palace. I suspected that this would take a good deal more endurance than the previous event. I already knew about the tickets to the coveted Nasirin moorish palace. Imprinted on them was a half hour time slot, during which one had admission to the palace. Tourists in the palace are kept moving. They have to make room for the next battalion.

The event that requires the real stamina comes first. It is getting the tickets in the first place. The scene was similar to a bus terminal in the US or a modern train terminal in Europe : queues. I arrived at the ticketline around 8.30am. A friendly young woman made her way down the line and explained the ticket situation. 700 tickets would be sold for morning admission - no more. She could smile in at least 4 languages. I thought I had picked excellent weather conditions for this challenging endurance task. It was about to rain. Dark clouds on the horizon would scare away ticket competitors. Stories circulated in the crowd how sometimes signs are put up in the queue "waiting time from this point, about 1 hour". Competition to see the Alhambra is fierce. Jealous glances are cast at little schoolchildren. Entire school classes just walk up to the window saying "prebooked reservations", and presto, in they go.

As luck had it , the 4 men next to me in the line, probably in their 60s,  turned out to be on a bicycle tour. I told them I didn't know if I had what it took, to make it to the front of the line. They had dressed up in regular street clothing. They were committed to wait till they got in, no matter how long it takes. "Well, the Alhambra, it really is an obligatory exercise to visit it, once you're here" they told me. I suppose in a way it is. I have noncycling relatives wo would forgive for not visiting the Franciscan monastery in Ronda. They would scoff at me for not shelling out 7E to visit the Alcazaba and its exotic gardens in Sevilla. But they would never forgive me for not standing in line for at least 1.5 hours and paying 8 euros to tour the Alhambra. Still, I wasn't convinced.  I was standing there in cleats and bikeshorts. If my endurance would give out, I could always bail out and go on a bike ride. But the first hour passed quickly telling biking stories. The four cycling men were on a roundtrip through Malaga, Granada and Antequerra and Almeria. This seems to be a popular, scenic two week circuit with vacation cyclists. Before I knew it I had the hot large ticket in my hands.

I was inside. Now the thing to do was to selectively pick between the many guided tours that were happening simultaneously. This way I could enrich the visual experience with some actual knowledge. For me this meant a tour groups lecturing in German, English, and few, short stopovers at Spanish tour groups. The only tour groups I passed by completely were the French ones, which surprisingly were the most common. As a result of this educational experience, I know now that the moors had more advanced toilets that the Christians at the time. A sophisticated water network was actually used for flushing toilets in the palace. More than that, they had vent windows too.

Granada was the last stronghold of the moors. For 700 years they had ruled form the mighty medieval castle, that makes a corner of this complex. Then the Christians reconquered Andalusia under Charles V. It won't come as a surprise that all the mosques were torn down and replaced with churches and cathedrals. But the Spanish rulers didn't order the Alhambra destroyed, lock stock and barrel. Ferdinand and Isabella preserved the palace. But the next ruler, Charles V, "christianized" it. The Alhambra received a new centerpiece, a round Renaissance complex, that at the time must have looked like a football stadium in a china shop. But yesteryear's architectural plunder is today's historical attraction. Today it's hailed as one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Spain. Today it also serves as main gathering point for huge tourgroups. They collect around guides holding aloft umbrellas of different designs to gather the flocks of various language tourists around them. If I lost a tour group I could always return to Charles V palace. There I could wait for another man to raise his umbrella high up in the air. A flock of visiting knowledge thirsty tourists would gather around him, with me amongst them, and we were off on another tour.

As the tour guide with the umbrella already pointed out, the first royal Spanish couple, Ferdinand and Isabel, didn't destroy their moslem opponent's palace. They didn't burn it down and they didn't blow it up with cruise missiles, as Dubiyah Bush would have done. They preserved it. As a result, today Spain has it as its most popular tourist attraction. Boy - talk about foresight ! A medieval king of the 14th century came to the conclusion that it was better not to destroy something that took skilled artists hundreds of years to build. What an insight ! The Nasirin palace fascinates with its incredibly complex geometric designs to this very day. People stare at them for minutes at a time just to figure out what the symmetry or almost symmetry behind them is. The studious quiet tour group I had selected was rubbing shoulders with a Spanish schoolgroup. The Spanish teacher preferred a more hands on approach. He had his pupils fold up paper in intricate ways, and then cut out patterns. Then they could see the multiple symmetries after you unfold it. This may seem a little unworthy of the artistic treasures before them. But then again, those Spanish children were lucky enough to be able to come back whenever they wanted.

But let me go back one more time to the man with the umbrella, the man with all the answers, the tourguide waiting in the Renaissance palace. Other luxurious moorish palaces have been preserved. But this is the most famous example. At least part of the reason is its modern history. In the 19th century the Alhambra made the transition to a public gathering ground. Composers like de Falla, and famous artists were celebrated and exhibited. All the while the grounds were further modified to fit the new peaceful use. What started out as a walled city became a place for celebrations. But it took a long time. The Alhambra made its way into every travel book of the region for the last century, and that's why it has become an obligatory exercise. So I'm glad I had the endurance to visit it. This feeling is even stronger than the felling of having given in to something that the whole world seems to think is obligatory.

The islamic religion prohibited (and still does) the portrayal of bodies and physical likenesses. So they poured their creative talent into geometrical designs. By this time it was pouring cold and hard outside too. all the bus tourists were lamenting their bad luck. On the 2 mile long walk back to the entrance, they shivered and complained. "Every vacation has to have one bad day" one said as we passed through arcades of trees, every 10 yards a new wondrous view opening up on arches of stone or hedges, complementing and contrasting each other with styles that sometimes harmonized, and sometimes, contrasted like 2 pieces of music from a different eras. By this time I felt bad that it was raining too. But given that it rained it was the best of all possible raindays I ever had on a biketour.

After all this, you have to to ask yourself. But where are the moors now ? For 700 years they ruled and conquered. Andalusia hails their influence on their art and culture. Today busloads of tourists come and look at the palaces they left.  On a different cultural level, couples can have their faces photographed and receive a full color picture of themselves as Sultan and harem lady lounging in palatial surroundings. Poor taste knows no boundaries. But that's about as modern islamic as it gets around here. No moors, no moslems, no sheiks. All the moors went back to where they came from, to the other side of the end of the world, past Gibraltar and Cabo Sao Vincent, to Africa.

Now, that I had seen the Alhambra, I suddenly saw my hostal in a new light too. Yes, as much as I hate to admit it, these guided tours can sharpen your powers of observation. My wonderfully funky 15 euro room was historic student housing at the edge of the university area. But I could have deduced that without the help of the Alhambra. After all, there were students studying just 10 feet away from me, in the building across the street.

In my hostal, numerous proverbs were displayed on hanging plates in the courtyard. They praised God and knowledge. One said something to the effect : bread to eat, wine to drink and to study in residencia Pedrolino, what more could a person possibly want out of life ? A person who studied here did have the use of two courtyards filled with tile paintings depicting more courtyards, the Alhambra and various valiant battle scenes. Now I also recognized the similarities with the old moorish palace. Some tiles in the residencia courtyard featured arabic writing, saying "Only Alah Wins", just like in the Alhambra. It seems to be the only Moorish writing deemed worthy as decoration. As you decent from your room, you walk through an arabic arch that could be a copy of one in the Nasirin palace. With so much detail in the design you'd have to put one next to the other, and walk back and forth with a magnifying glass a hundred times, just to figure out if they're identical. Other tiles featured a kind of 3 dimensional polygonal snake design, also a popular Nasirin theme. What space was left on the court yard walls was filled with reproductions of Bruegel paintings, depicting scenes form around Europe. Living in a place like this, during the past century, certainly would make you curious about the world around you.

This little courtyard in the residencia was quite a world onto itself. With 10 square yards of sky above, you could see sky. But the sun never directly peered into it. A life sized crucifix adorned one wall of the court yard. At the center was a fountain not fountaining any more, everything laced together by pot plants creeping up the columns and onto the cast-iron benches.  A blue script read "comedor" (eating room) above one of the rooms. It wasn't in service any more.

As you walked through the short, tunnel like entry from the street into the courtyard, you had to get past a small cast-iron ornamented window. It was like the windows in the Nasirin palace. Women of the harem could look out into the courtyard in the palace, without being seen themselves. In the residencia, the window served a different purpose, not surprisingly. In this case, it was the residencia proprietor who could watch from his office without being seen. He could peer through a richly ornamented cast iron door at anybody who entered  his residencia.

The place was remarkably quiet too - except when somebody flushed a toilet, which sounded like a thundering flash flood inundating a major landform. This quietness was probably due to the fact that it was filled mostly with quiet older bus tourists from Northern countries. This hostal was the most interesting courtyard hotel I stayed in yet. It was like the places I peered in from the outside in Sevilla. But there they were all completo (full). No, this one was better.

Leaving Granada, my route took me south around the edge of the Sierra Nevadas. It's the same route that the moors took when they fled Granada. The villages they fled to were my next major goal, the Alpujarra villages halfway up the Southern slopes of the Sierras.

The ride there took one day, half a day of digging oneself out of the suburbs, half a day being teased with views into the mountains. The road becomes very interesting at Lancharon, where small serpentines follow each and every fold of the mountains. Here the road starts to carve itself upwards That first day I saw relatively little of the spectacular beauty of Alpujarra Pass and Poquiera gorge. It was snowing or raining again. I called it a day in Boubion. That evening I took a look at the bottom bracket and discovered that the small chainring is almost rubbing on the frame. This was apparently due to the fact that the spindle, I had installed in La Linea, was shorter than the original. Something else to worry about. More about it later.

Eating out Iberian Style

May 8th was the day I learned how to eat out on the Iberian peninsula. For me that was quite a breakthrough. What better way to show just how large a breakthrough this is, than to tell the list of failures that led up to it ?

I already told you about the first unsuccessful venture, when I tried to eat out in Lisbon. Undeterred by this initial setback, it only took a week until I would try again. The town was Sagres, Portugal. Surfers from around the world come here to sample the waves. Surely surfers get very hungry and want to eat something substantial before the night falls. "Surfer's special, Vegetable Pie, all you can eat 5 Euros" read the sign. - Just exactly what I had been looking for. "It'll be ready in 10 minutes" promised the waiter in English as I sat down. 45 minutes later, around 7 o'clock, there still was no sign of anything eatable in the entire place. This time the response was "I'll call over to the kitchen ... it may be 10 minutes, it may be longer". I never did get anything to eat at that "all you can eat" restaurant. The truth of the matter is, Spaniards and Portuguese eat out much later than I was used to. By the time they served actual food, I was usually asleep. Tourists are expected to behave the same way.

So, the key to actually getting something to eat, was to find a place that catered exclusively to tourists. With the help of the "Let's go Portugal" guide book, I hunted down Casa Rosa in Lagos. "Huge plates for next to nothing" promised my book in glowing terms. It was run by the British for the British, in Portugal. This was my chance of getting something to eat before 9pm, I thought. I was the only patron, but at least the kitchen  was open. And more important they were willing to prepare a meal at such an odd hour. Well, 2 meals, to be exact. It seems "huge plates" has a different meaning for cyclists than for let's go guidebook authors. The plates were microscopic. They contained just as much food as your stomach can take after a hangover. What did I expect ? This was a bar.

I thought I would make one more final try. A week later in Granada the time came. I located a Chinese restaurant. Chinese restaurants have never failed me anywhere in the world. They always provide great tasty meals and a generous amount of food. This one even had "menu del dia". They were open at 5 o'clock.  "Se sirve todo el dia ?" I asked, not really expecting a good answer: "Si, todo el dia" came the answer. There was nothing to stop me now. I would finally get a great early meal, with plenty of time to relax afterwards and get ready for the next day's ride.  I just went back to my room to drop off some bags. When I returned 10 minutes later, it was shuttered closed, as if a war was about to start.

It's just not socially acceptable to eat prior to 8 or 9 pm around here. It doesn't matter if you're a tourist or the king of China, and it doesn't matter if the restaurant is Chinese or caters to hungry surfers from around the world. If you want to eat before 8 pm, you eat bread, or you must cook.

As I already mentioned in the beginning, May 8 was the magic date. I finally learned how to eat out Iberian style. It was a rainday. I was stuck in my hotel. This hostal in Bubion was nothing like the other Spanish hostals, I stayed in earlier. It was more like a mountain lodge somewhere in Bavaria. Guests lounged around the fireplace in the common room. The building had solid clean walls of a single color, adorned by photos and paintings of the area. A sign on the wall read "silencio, por favor". This would have been a scandalous outrage in the lowlands. Silence ? Who needs silence ? In silence, one could read for example. A large amount of reading material was provided, in case of rain. So apparently it rained quite a bit here.

There in the quiet common room, I got in a conversation with Hugo, a retired draftsman from Edinburgh. Others were following the psychological hangups of an American couple on the TV - it was an American movie. Hugo was reading a carefully bound book, and writing on an artistic postcard. He had a gentle mannerism and was careful not to talk too loud. That might disturb the unfolding psychological hangups of the TV couple. It turned out he had been visiting Bubion for 17 years. He knew the mayor as well as the town-character, and many other local characters and peculiarities. His room was the best room in the house. It was the only one equipped with kitchen, even though he really didn't need it. But that's what he got without ever asking for it, and it's certainly no reason to complain.

It took a while. But now we will get to the point.With Hugo's help I learned to eat out Iberian style. The secret is you have to drink out. At a local bar we ordered small beers. For this we received "tapas". These are small dishes of complimentary food. Not everywhere are they complimentary. As a matter of fact, the fact if they are free or not, can be used to define the touristyness of a spot. If you are asked to pay for your tapas, then you are in place catering to tourists. If small dishes of "patas a la pobre" appear unasked next to you , then you are in a place catering to locals. Next thing you know you are dining on slices of bread with ham or meatballs. Small plates with pieces of liver and lung or guts appear seemingly out of nowhere next to your beer, accompanied by complimentary smile of the bar keep. In the bar that Hugo took me to, the main activity of the locals was playing cards. It was a place where the tapas were free and plentiful, and where local hams hung over the bar to cure. Now I also understood why they call them smoke cured.

The size of the beer you ordered didn't matter. You could order the larger "tubo" or the smaller beer. What really mattered was the series of tapas that came with the beer. Consequently everybody was drinking loads and loads of small beers, beers about the size of a coffee cup. Small empty beerglasses were so plentiful, they numbered 6 to 7 for every person in the bar.

Since tapas were free here, they could be used to signal other things. They could be utilized in the competition with the mayor's bar across the street. They could be used to induce a customer to come back. "What a super tapa your mother made" said Hugo to the barkeep with a deeply felt look of appreciation on his face. The mother of the house was responsible for the kitchen in the back. I ate very well that evening. And I drank well too. When I had drunk, eaten and talked all I could, I was ready to go to sleep. But Hugo was just starting his rounds.

I had finally learned how to to eat out in Iberia. Still, this method of nourishment can't really be used after a long hard ride in the late afternoon when you have to eat or die, before you drink something alcoholic. This  is really too bad. Subsequently I continued my old habits of very carefully heating up water on my camping gaz stove on the balcony. Then I could drop in some Maggie soup, pasta, veges and meat or cheese, and have a nutritious meal, while the rest of Spain was on siesta.

Coke cans and the art of bicycle repair

The next morning was cloudless. I could finally see the magnificent landscape I was in. This side of the Sierra Nevada is very different than the north facing side near Granada. Over a distance of about 50 km, as the crow flies, the snowcapped 3000 meter Sierra ridge descends all the way to the Mediterranean south of here. Large canyons carve through multiple ecozones. Bubion is located on the side of one of these canyons, at half height, but within 15 km of the Sierra ridgeline (again in air distance). It is one of three villages, all within a couple of kms of one another in Poquira Gorge. The highest of these villages is advertised as the highest village in Spain. Apparently ski resorts don't count, because the megadevelopment on the Mulhacen road is a lot higher. Capileira, the highest village in Poquira Gorge is just about at treeline.

Bubion and Capileira clutch to the hillside above steep canyons. The bicycle climb up here over Alpujarra pass passed through stark mountains vegetated with cactuses. Yet up here lush, leafy vegetation swallows the roads. It ends again a few kilometers up the road. The first superficial impression is that of a Nepali foothill village, because of the way the towns cling to green hillside and terraced landscape. The terraces were first built by the moors, who oved to these villages after they were expelled from Granada. It was their last hiding place.  Here they resisted forced conversion to catholicism until 1568, when one final revolt led to the expulsion of all moors from Spain. When christian families were forcibly relocated to repopulate these villages, one or two moorish families were kept behind, in order to teach the newcomers how to operate the moorish terraced irrigation system. The terraced landscape must also have evoked some feelings of home in the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Dalai Lama. High on a flank of Poquiera Gorge stands a buddhist monastery. The Dalai Lama recognized his successor in a place not far from here, Granada.

You remember quickly you are not in Nepal. The houses are clustered together in medieval fashion. The whitewashed low flat topped houses have two foot thick walls and are topped off by large majestic moorish chimneys. The insides contain every european modern appliance, and the two small stores in town sell pastries, cheeses and breads just like 1500 m below.

The day was perfect for magnificent dayride up to the snowline. I thought my biggest worry was that I might get carried away taking too many pictures of the landscape. For half an hour I rode towards the 3000 meter high, white wall shining in the sunlight. But it's easy to get the mountain weather wrong. An hour later and 500 m higher , I was in clouds as thick as peasoup again. There were tempting glimpses of Mulhacen, enough to get a hint of the spectacular size of the landscape.

For today that was the end of the show. The curtains had come down. There was still hope for a short encore, maybe a glimpse of a peak, as a whisp of cloud shortly lifted its vail. But it wasn't happening. Time to go home. When I finally rolled back down I met another cyclist coming up. He looked like somebody who was out on a short ride to pick up a loaf of bread maybe. But up here, there was no bakery. He didn't have any of the paraphanalia we cyclists like to advertise our identity with. He wore jeans instead of cycle shorts. Cyclists like to wear jerseys with free advertisement for corporations. We like to display logos for races that we think we could have won in another life. This fellow wore none of that. A solid colored bicycle, a solid colored dress shirt, blue jeans and a cap type hat of sorts. Ah - but he did have panniers, and they looked like they had seen some miles. You have to look a little closer sometimes.

Anton had been on the road for three weeks. He was on a vacation ride rom Barcelona to Granada. Vacation for him had a special definition. If you are exposed to US television long enough, you get the idea that vacation means booking a room in a four star hotel over expedia.com. You get the idea that every detail of your life has to be prearranged. Anton's vacation was not prearranged in every last detail. Vacation for him meant sleeping under bleachers in town sports stadiums, in empty construction sights, in town parks and in the forest only if it's dry. So far no internet sight is dedicated to finding accommodations of this sort. He carried a sleeping bag, but no tent. He relied on other structures to stay dry at night. He carried no stove. He ate exclusively supermarket food or pizza. You may be tempted to think that this style of bicycle touring comes from a shortage of funds, combined with a strong desire to see the world. Why else would you shun modern civil comforts ? Why else would you refuse to do what expedia.com tells you to do ? But you would be wrong, at least in this case, just as I was wrong. Anton was on a three week vacation from his job as machinist.

We had a great talk. There was a lot to talk about. He had a keen interest of observing things along the road, very specialized things, bridges, abandoned railroad stations, civil construction methods, things that actually tied in with his professional abilities. Photographing abandoned, as well as functioning railroad stations always has been one of my weaknesses too. There was no reason to hurry. He too had planned to cross the mighty Sierra ridge here. But it really wasn't realistic. It didn't look all that enticing with all the clouds sucking up the landscape. It was best to just stay and talk awhile.

We did ride up again a ways just in case it would clear. But it didn't. When I turned around to ride back down, I noticed my small chainring rubbing on the frame. Apparently something had worn on the spindle, so that the chainrings were moving ever closer to the frame. This was a major problem. I would have to take off the inner chainring, and get by with two of them, in the mountains. I think I already mentioned that Anton was trained machinist. Anton carried his job with him.

The problem of the chainring getting ever closer to the frame was caused by wear. But you don't need to 10 years of experience as a tour de France mechanic to know that. I knew that too. But - it was the crankset that was wearing, not the spindle. I didn't know that. The crankset is made from softer metal. Consequently if the two parts (crankset and bottom bracket spindle) don't fit exactly or if dirt gets in, the crankset fitting wears down, and moves ever closer to the frame. The La Linea Spindle didn't fit this crankset, the crankset was wearing, or both. I needed to replace the crankset in addition to the spindle.

But there was a way to fix this temporarily. You had to find an old coke can on the side of the road somewhere. Then you had to cut several small metal strips from it. These could be inserted between the two fittings, and the crankset would have a respectable distance from the frame again. I never thought I would say this. But discarded coke cans were in short supply, up here on the wild upper slopes of the Sierra Nevada. As a matter of fact, there're weren't any at all. - Not to worry, a tobacco tin could also be used, Anton told me. He had one. He used it as a tool container for the smaller devices, such as the crank remover. But he also carried larger devices, for example a foot long clampwrench, used to disassemble the bike, whenever he wanted to take it on an international train as luggage. The larger pieces were folded up into a 3 by 3 foot heavy canvas tool bag. The tools he had, you would expect your local handyman to pull out of a van, but not a cycle tourist out of his pannier bag.

He had everything that you needed to do what he suggested. And he wanted to show me what he suggested. So we operated on my by bicycle with his Swiss army knife, and a host of other tools. He was the chief surgeon.- "Hand me the tobacco tin please". The operation was apparently successful. Although it may not last very long, he cautioned me.

So this wasn't just another day on another bike tour. Much happened. I had gotten a hand on demonstration on the art of bicycle repair, just at the precise moment I needed it most. I owe him one. It was a case in point for carrying more tools and wearing fewer victory jerseys. After that Anton still wanted to ride up further into the Sierras to see if he could get across. I rode back down to Boubion with plans of finding a bike store somewhere, to get the problem fixed permanently.

the skirt of the mountains (the Alpujarra road)

But first there was another evening in Boubion. I was anxious to apply what I had learned in the eating out department. The tapas appeared like mana from heaven and the beer flowed freely, that evening under the smoked hams. Connor the Irish hiking guide drew a me map, detailing the route to a bikestore in Orgiva. Next day, I would roll down to bikerepair in Orgiva, at 900 meters, and planned to return for more tapas and beer at 1750 meters. The problem with this plan became evident at 900 meters. There was  no bikestore in Orgiva. Since it was Saturday, there were cyclists, but no stores for cyclists. The squadrons of brightly dressed men on their Colnago frames were out on their weekend rides. They had amazing equipment, like wheels with just enough spokes that were physically able to support a bicycle hub in the middle of it. If you ride in a bike club, I'm sure you've seen them. They knew where to get the latest greatest and lightest, and they knew where I could get a new crankset. They assured me the closest crankset for me was somewhere in Granada. With a feeling of defeat I climbed back up to my baggage in Boubion at 1750 meter. The truth was, I really had no idea how long this crank repair would last, 10 miles, 100 miles or a 1000 miles. I've ridden on broken axles, broken frames, broken rims and spokes. But this was a new case. When I reached my bags back at 1750 meters, the crankset was still tight. I packed up and left on my originally planned route along the Alpujarras.

But not before one last lunch with Hugo. Francisco, the owner of the hostal donated a bunch of fresh beans to our lunch. Hugo was telling me about his last visits with the locals, about the beauty of the farms he had visited, the taste of their homemade wines and cognacs, about their collections of exotic birds and their wonderful lifestyle. In contrast, I was complaining about Gibraltar bottom brackets. "Well at least I've convinced you about the tapas, have I ?" Hugo smiled. "Yes, you certainly did". He reminded me in mannerism and appearance of an old English friend to a degree which was downright uncanny. "I never met anybody who likes to bike as much as you", he observed as I left.

Bubion was my favorite town in the Alpujarras. It's on a the last kilometers of hardtop, before the road turns to dirt, before it frays out into paths above the Sierra treeline.  It's not the first stop along this road. That's where all the people stop who want to have a quick look before continuing onwards in their cars. It's not the last stop, where all the people stay who want to drive as far as possible, before they treck into the mountains. It's in between the two. Boubion is a place where adventurous Frenchmen come to hangglide somewhere between the peaks and the valleys. It's a place where Australian women with strong hands and a name like Dallas Love, can make an adventurous living as a horseguide, a place where the music in the only hostal in town is new age flamenco downloaded from the internet, music that would make Ottmar Liebert jealous. In retrospect, the ride up to through Boubion, Capileira and beyond was the most spectacular road on the Iberian Peninsula for me.

The route onwards through the Alpujarras traverses roughly along half height of the Sierras. It is very spectacular. It meanders left and right to pick up villages along the route. But it never reaches the valley and it never reaches the ridgeline. One one side there's a mountain, on the other there is not. Traversing the Alpujarras eastwards, they become drier. The Himalaya foothill like beauty is replaced with a a drier badlands beauty. Trevelez is the next town with businesses. "The hams of Trevelez enjoy the utmost prestige" my spanish Alpujarra pamphlet informed me. Instead I asked for a bike "taller" (shop) just out of habit. I didn't hold out much hope. - No taller for bikes nor cars, even though both could do good business, informed me the storekeeper, just hams. A good 2 dozen hung above him like stalagmites in a cave. It's the prettiest situated ham factory I've ever seen . But where are the cattle form which these selected body parts are derived ? It's too high up here for mooing critters. Pondering questions like these I rode on. That is, when not worrying about my crankset - or peering up the uniform green slopes to spot a high, white breadloaf  mountain in the sky - or gazing down into the craggy steep valley, wondering about all the biking that could be done to these remote villages; or waving to a friendly, fashionable Citroen Cabriolet 2CV, that gave short blows of the horn after they had passed. They passed very slowly,  leaving lots of room.

The Citroen 2CV stopped around the next turn in front of me. A couple got out. For those who don't know Citroen 2CVs : They are shaped like an old VW bug, just more so. They have an even more semi global shape. Their unique suspension makes them bounce down the road like a pogo stick. Driving a 2CV signals that you really don't care how fast you go. It shows you have other things on your mind than the latest car commercials.

The couple from the Citroen offered me a coke. Off course I refused - until they offered it 5 more times, when of course I accepted. Before too long I was having a luxurious meal on the side of the road. It consisted of Cordova specialties, quiche like pie and a tomato cheese dip, for lack of knowing the real names. Half the couple was from Granada, and the other half from Cordoba, Apparently they were in love with each other and the word. Both of them were nurses. I told them that I too was the proud owner of a "relicto" as they called their 2CV. My relicto is the VW.

They caught me just when it was my usual dinner time, but all the stores were still closed. In retrospect I am a little embarrassed of my voracious hunger I couldn't help but develop, when presented with such superb delicacies. I remember something slightly similar happening many many years ago. It was my very first long bicycle tour, 30 years ago. Bicycle touring was still a very exotic thing to do, and I was teenager looking like I was in desperate need of some calories. There were occasions when I was offered a drink or a refreshment, a time or two. Nothing similar ever happened since then, until now. Can this really be the same biketour where three weeks ago I couldn't hear myself think because of all the cars that had to get past me as quickly as possible ?

East of Yegens the main road finally descends into the valley.  I spent one last evening high up on la falda, the skirt of the Sierras, with  a sunset view on the badlands topography. This was the part of the Alpujarras less popular with foreigners. The bar girl who had rented me the room still had a heavy English accent, and told me the owner was an Irish woman. You can contiune cyling furhter allong the Alpujarra skirt, meandering up and down the slope, so that all the major villages are strung up on the road, like white pearls on a necklace. But my route finally turned North. It climbed to 2000 meters, for a good workout over the "puerto de las Raguas". The topography is backwards of what you might expect from a pass in the alps or the Rockies. The switchbacks and steep slopes are on the bottom of the pass. Near the top of the pass, a thick needle forest envelops the road. As you climb upwards, the road straightens out, and the slope becomes gentler. This is in harmony with picturing the Sierras as one great big giant breadloaf. The view stretches over several ranges receding further and further into thicker and thicker coastal haze.Once across the straight top, the forest disappears again, and now the view sweeps over a dry high plateau punctuated by a few distant ranges. Looking back at the Sierras from the north side, they look like a range with all the edges filed off and any dangerous cliffs removed. What can I say, but breadloaf.

the cycle tourist as caveman

Even though I had left Granada about 200 miles and five days ago, I was again within 50 km of it. This was territory, again easily accessible from Granada on weekends. But one part Guadix was just about as unsuburban as you can get. Guadix has a cave quarter, where people have been living underground for thousands of years. Lately many of them are foreigners. So it shouldn't come as a surprise, that the first woman I asked for hostales, even during the sleepy deserted fiesta time of day, showed me a lovely cave including kitchen and choice of 4 rooms to sleep in, all for 15E a night. Or maybe this was just my lucky day, considering the 2CV incident and all. I asked if I could buy groceries anywhere on this Sunday. She drove me off in a big rusty van to a tienda a few blocks away, an tried to wake up Miranda by pounding on the door and screaming her name in various melodic intonations that could make blood curdle. No, this wasn't just luck. I had met a very friendly accommodating woman. The screams didn't help. Siesta is Siesta. But I could return a little later and buy milk beer, bananas and beans. Along the way I got a short tour of the cave quarter along with directions to a mirador, where I could return later and smoke my pipe, studying all the chimneys looming up out of the soft badlands sculptured rocks.

So what's it like to live in a cave in Guadix ? It's very nice and tranquilo. Maybe that explains why this option is so popular in ruidoso Espana. The rooms inside are all roughly 10 x 15 feet, and strung together by 5 foot long corridors. They probably started with digging one room. New rooms were carved out later, and deeper into the rock during the spare time. The walls are rough white caulking, and the floors are precision tiled like all the other Spanish quartos. The walls are about 8 foot high. Above that the rooms rise another 2 feet into a tent shape. The electric line is run under the caulking along the edges of the room The only window in the 5 room complex is a small closable vent in the bathroom. This particular cave also featured all the trimmings of home, an old radio from the 50's, a collection of ancient keys hanging on the wall, a large propane tank for cooking, plates on the wall, written on them were sayings I don't understand, and a fireplace. The woman insisted that I pay next morning, when I wanted to give her to money that afternoon. She lives 2 blocks down the street. So she must not have made any bad experiences with foreigners. Let's hope it stays that way, and this friendly atmosphere remains. But then again, maybe this was just my lucky day. After all, it didn't rain either . And the crankset only needed a few degrees of tightening too. Let's hope it lasts a while.


It was time to once again to congratulate myself on the excellent choice of a lunch spot, or on my excellent luck anyway. It was so quiet and peaceful - no traffic - almost no people - not even the two o'clock Vespa frenzy - when everybody who is anybody just has to hop on his or her Vespa and go see their favorite somebody. From my bench on a balcony like bluff in Alicun de Ortega, my view stretched for miles and miles over colorful bandland hills. Badland Hills ? Yes ! Crumbly elephant skin rocks, vermilion ocher semidessert, landscape with stripes like a fudge cookie, the kind of landscape I always thought Southern Utah had patented. I was very surprised to find it here in Andalusia, still within a what is a couple of hours drive of Granada. It again underlined the quality of life of that city in my mind. A look on the map helped rationalize this unlikely panorama. The big white breadloafs to the South, the Sierra Nevada, shield moisture from the Mediterranean. Not only that, there were mountains in all directions, gnarled lumpy limestone ridges, sweeping grass inclines leading up to them, dotted with olive trees. It was my favorite kind of landscape - semiarid. It's the semi in the semiarid that makes it what it is. It's not a forest. It's not a sand dessert. It's always one or the other or something in between. To see just what exactly it is at any given location, depends on the topography. You just have to look for yourself to see exactly what it is.

All that peace and quiet in Alicun de Ortega did have an explanation. I was once again at a dead end. My multitude of maps, prepared by a consortium of private companies and government agencies, showed several roads. But this end was just as dead as all the other dead ends I encountered so far, and all the others were very dead. However, in talking to a schoolteacher in town, I learned that there is a kernel of truth in these maps. There is a trail, but not a road, that continues directly North towards Pozo Alcon and the Sierra Castril from here. Really it had all the sounds of a great mountain bike ride. But I had to leave that for the lucky mountain bikers of Granada. On my detour west towards Huelma, I can't imagine that I covered anything less beautiful - and I stayed on a narrow, deserted, beautiful, patched strip of hardtop all the way to Guadahortula.

From Granada to this patch of badlands covered about 230 miles in about 11 days, including 3 days in Granada and 3 days in Bubion. When you added the days I had to stay somewhere because of problems, to the days I wanted to stay somewhere because it was too darn beautiful to leave, you came up with a lot of days. After 1650 miles and one month of bicycling, I was still no closer to my destination in Germany than when I started. Maybe I would never get there. From here on I took a more direct route heading North and east. The next three days covered about as many miles as the previous 11. I was in Andalusia only two and a half more days. During that time, my route led me through the mountains west and north west of these badlands. First came the Sierra Magna, semiarid mountains with pine forests on top. After half a day of modern smooth asphalt shoulder, I turned off it in favor of an elongated series of potholes towards Cazorla.

Cazorla, glued to the mountainside, has been watching over a border of some sort since at least a 1000 years. First were the Romans, then the Iberians, and then the conflict that left all those architectural signs we see today, in this case a moorish watchtower.  The town is in all the major guidebooks. So you see hearty old north european men with skipoles for walking sticks trotting up to the castle. A short detour to La Ioula yields views of remnants of a castle tower perched on a cliff that makes you wonder just how to get they got the rocks up there.

North of Cazorla it's time to say adios to Andalusia. After that you still have another day to get used to the fact that you are finally leaving this fascinating bicycle area. The goodbye comes in stages. But the last day in Andalusia is very different from what it was. The long climb northwest of Cazorla was the real Good Bye to Andalusia. It leads over another "Puerto de las Palomas" (pass of the doves), a name that seems to be reserved for the highest most splendid Spanish passes. Say goodbye to the grid fruit tree plantations stretching out to the horizon. This is the end of the mathematical grid landscape of precision spaced orchard trees strung over the hills. From this pass you can see the last of what has become the quintessential Andalusia for the cycling tourist. From up here, it looks like a splined computer representation of a map. The trees stand on  sandy soil, its light color contrasting with the grid point, the tree. It's a mathematical landscape made by man, thirsty for water, producing fruit for Europe and beyond.

On the other side of the pass the surroundings are completely changed. Deep shady needle forest dominates the Sierra Cazorla and its valleys. In two days of bicycling I had reached the opposite to the Alcun de Ortega badlands. This is where the precipitation from the North is wrung out of the clouds. However, at one time much of Spain was forested. Most of the otherwise bare Andalusia fruit tree landscape we see today is due to man's influence. The north end of Sierra Segura (which is what the Sierra Cazorla is called on the west side of the road) contains another hilltop village surprise, Hornos. The next day I was ready for another major climb of dove (paloma) magnitude, over the puerta las Seguras. However, this puerta was no puerto.  I have to pay closer attention to the gender of nouns. Puerto means pass. Puerta means door or gap, and the puerta de las Seguras is actually a town in a wide gap in the mountains. It was downhill all the way. The Sierra Segura apparently holds other splendors of mountain villages and deserted sideroads. But I headed North, out of Andalusia on a main N road. In spite of that it was a great low traffic ride, with magnificent railroad stone aqueducts and several abandoned railroad stations on the plane stretching out to the next low mountain range to the west.

Home, James

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