The days of our first week or so in Spain have been almost uniformly hot and of the ‘blue sky’ variety. Clear nights have been just above freezing and of dizzying head spinning clarity. Camping, far from stray light, the night sky is a significant part of life. Two planets have been with us, sitting a hands width apart in the west. They have been there from the start in Portugal and we look for them every evening.
Twinkle, twinkle little star goes the rhyme, and that bit of advice is exactly what you need to know. Planets do not twinkle. Venus and Jupiter are separated by millions of kilometers, but sit just 5cm apart, viewed from just about anywhere on earth at the moment. This would have marked a significant moment in people’s lives in this area from neolithic times onwards.
Sanlucar la Mayor was a good place to rest for a day, and catch the train into Sevilla for a bit of culture and eating of cakes. Quiet Sunday roads, and the A-472 in particular took us close to Sevilla and an appointment with yet more culture. The vast Roman ruins of Italica.
We have a bit of a dispute with the man on the gate, so have to leave the bikes outside. But what really annoys, is that I catch myself walking like HRH Prince Phillip. I do this every time we have something cultural to walk around, and I have vowed to stop doing it. Here it is again, triggered by the slow contemplative pace, hands clasped behind, and a slow awkward gate. It is deeply ‘un cool’ and I will stop from now onwards!
The road here is relatively flat for Spain and we make good progress on rested legs despite the heat. Every dusty little village has a handful of ‘street dogs’ that are obliged to check out passing cyclists. Already that day we have seen three, dead by the roadside. Mostly harmless, these dogs have seen things that no dog should ever see. Filled with sadness, we have taken to passing out the dodgy ‘out of best before’ food from our bags.
We sit in a bar drinking coffee and get a glimpse that the rural lives of people here are not much better. The tv is showing a local stations take on that loathsome ‘you’ve been framed’. Much of the home video here features what we would call ‘agricultural accidents’. It is violent, stomach churning stuff and horrible to watch.
We are moving well, covering distance east. Clouds have started building, and in a moment of recognition we realize that they are the very clouds from the opening credits of ‘The Simpsons’.
We have done a good day and pull off the road to camp. We know from the gps that just to our right there is a river and we cut across fields towards it. We search for the best pitch up and down the river bank. I have disturbed a herd of goats being moved up the river and the farmers dog checks me out. Always, it is Alsatians that we see used for moving goats. The farmer waves and we feel safe to pitch our tent.
It is a great wild camp next to the River Guadalquivir which will soon pass through the centre of Sevilla with grander things on its banks than our tent and goats.
A strange thing happens the next morning. In the minutes from removing the first peg, to stuffing the tent away it goes from breathless still calm to gale. Never seen anything like it and to make matters much worse, it is a headwind. Bugger!
Spain has two major signifiers, for us. First is the ‘folk tradition’ of stealing toilet seats and the second is ‘roadside litter’. Everyone that travels by bike through Spain comments on the litter. Today it is being propelled towards us at high speed. We watch two men working. They are filling a skip with plastic sheeting slightly slower than the wind is emptying it.
A day riding into the wind on the A-431 has robed us of any freshness of limb. We pull into Palma del Rio just to get something to eat but like it that much that we take a room in the ‘Hostal las Palmeras’. You should not judge a book by its cover, and the little hostal is to be recommended.
Again it is windy. Even stronger and right in our faces. We are on remote back roads heading appallingly slowly towards Cordoba and moral is at rock bottom. We can not talk to each other or hear cars from behind with the wind roaring in our ears. It is not much fun at all judged from the Brooks saddle of a heavy touring bike.
We pull into a remote petrol station. It is still in business, which is not the case in the UK and it has a top of the range coffee machine which has never been thus in the UK. The culture of rural Spain has many fine things and we are overjoyed that this is one.
I have not bothered to do any research on wind directions for this trip and these two days are worrying. “Does the wind always blow so strong and from this direction here?”. The nice man behind the counter blinks slowly and composes his words with care. We have just murdered his beautiful mother tongue with reference to a small dictionary we have stored on our Kindle. He looks as if he is trying to find the best way of breaking bad news to us. He starts to form a sentence, stops, then starts again.
“No”. Well that is a relief. We struggle on towards Cordoba, arriving at the outskirts just in time for it to start to rain. We are using the gps to take us to a hotel. The poor thing is struggling to get a signal in the narrow streets and the cobbles are wet for the first time in weeks and like glass. This is a testing and to a testing day.
We find the hotel (a gps system is a great idea in Europe ), and go in search of cheap calories. Straight away we are stunned by Cordoba. Every turn, every narrow street has history and a cultural gem. We have seen nothing like it before. It is Europe’s 2nd largest ‘old town’ and absolutely blows us away. I am not even going to try to describe it, but you must promise me just one thing, ‘you must visit here one day soon’. There we are, we have a binding contract and you will not be disappointed at all, and may even thank me.
We end our time in the city in a small bar drinking wine of uncertain vintage but unquestionable strength. Body, lean from the road, the stuff goes straight to our nervous system. Half way down the glass two more are put in front of us “Compliments of the nice man at the bar”. Oh my goodness.
We leave the city on busy roads. This is ‘school run time’ and all of the mums here are driving in 3″ heels and applying makeup. We are heading for the only quiet route away from the city and it is challenging in the extreme.
We find the road and for the first 5k it is upwards and down through the gears. The surface gets bad, then worse and finally much worse. The landscape becomes much more open. It is a sudden change that starts the moment you leave the city. The field are now vast, the scale now huge. It takes some coming to terms with. Skylarks are doing there best to cheer the spirits, but this is hard.
The road improves, and then for no reason becomes all crap again. The Co-3204 is playing ‘mind games’ and winning. We stop for food at Castro del Rio and then the road really gets lumpy. The landscape changes abruptly to one of Olive trees to a far horizon. Unaware, we have entered the ‘olive tree sea’, and will see little else for days.
We pull off and pitch a wild camp. For the first time in our lives we sleep under Olive trees. The wind drops completely and we settle down to strange nocturnal sounds. There are at least ten different animals and birds competing to be the noisiest. Assuming non of them are monkeys, I have no better clue what any of them may be and only general knowledge to indicate that none are going to do us harm. I would be rubbish in a jungle.
Early morning traffic and the sounds of chainsaws. Workers are busy trimming Olive trees in this valley, the next and the one after that. We are carrying about 3kg of porridge oats. It is such an important part of life on the road that we panic if we can not find it. It is the highlight of the day as far as the search for calories is concerned.
Smoke hangs in every valley and curls up from dozens of fires as we climb, descend and climb again. This is hard cycling and we are looking forward to coffee in Dona Mencia. “Hi, I am Paco, it is great to see people visiting on bikes”. Paco is a nurse doing his home visits and he tells us to go in the cafe. “It is the best, I will be back in 10 minutes”.
Thanks to Paco, we ride out of the village on an old rail track. It is part of the Via Verde, the route of a trains that once took the million or so ton of Olive Oil produced here every year, to the coast. It is a monumental construction in such a hilly area. Bridges are iron and designed in France, by associates of Eifel. It must have cost a fortune to build and is now used by walkers and cyclists.
I hear my first Cuckoo. A bit of a cheat, but my earliest ever. We end the day near Zuheros, again camping under Olive trees. Porridge, and then we are off in the morning. It is 21’c before my arm warmers are taken off. This is warmer than we have our flat back in Scotland and a sure sign that we are acclimatizing.
This bike path is worth a trip, Olives dominate the landscape with uninterrupted mar de olivas, or sea of olives – some 60 million groves – flowing over the horizon in every direction. Which according to The Guardian newspaper and now us, is worth a visit.
Somehow we manage to climb to our highest point of the journey. Over 700 meters – who would have guessed that on a railway. It is breathtaking stuff. We end the day with a nerve-wracking pedal around Jaén. We are making very slow progress across the map. With so much to see now that Spain has turned all ‘nice’ on us. We are going to take a straighter route to Barcelona than we had planned, if that is possible. ( I still have not been bitten or stung by anything on this trip – we will see how that goes).