December 2001: Spain (and Gibraltar)
Note: Click on the images to see a larger version.
It has been about 3 weeks since we've arrived in Spain. We have enjoyed some great weather and cycling, visiting small towns and mountainous regions throughout the south of Spain in the region of Andalucia.
We started from Madrid in late November, jumping on a bus for a ride down to Cordoba, the start of our cycling here. The busses have been excellent in Spain - cheap, on-time, clean, comfortable, and (perhaps most important of all) they allow us to take our bikes and trailers on them, just sliding them in the huge luggage compartments under the bus. Greyhound in the USA has a lot of learning to do, where (it seems) only freaks and the destitute would consider to take the bus for any distance.
The bus was actually a happy accident. We had planned to go on the (faster) train between Madrid and Cordoba, and even confirmed at the airport's train station that it would be OK to take our bikes on the train. We then assembled the bikes and trailers (they were in boxes for the air travel across the Atlantic) and rode to the station in the center of Madrid. No, it turns out, they in fact won't take bikes unless they're still in the boxes! Oops. Fortunately, the bus station was nearby, and we salvaged the day.
We spent a few days in Cordoba, exploring the small streets (hint: most American cars would *not* fit down them - perhaps some *Americans* wouldn't fit down them!), the fascinating Mezquita (Mosque transformed into a Cathedral), and eating *way* too much food at the good local restaurants.
Spain's history is at a completely different plane than that of the USA, Canada, or Australia, our other main locations for cycling during this Plan B trip. Spain had a very strong Islamic influence from the 700's until around 1490 - about 800 years of rule. The later stages of Spain's history starts before the Americas were even discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Many of the cathedrals are built on (or adapted from) great mosques from the Islamic period, yielding an interesting merging of the Islamic and Christian faiths.
We left Cordoba for the towns of Porcuna, Jaen, Baeza, and Ubeda, all east. Riding was through rolling hills completely covered with olive trees.
It is said that the province of Jaen (like a county in the USA) produces 10% of the world's olive oil. As a result, most food is prepared in some way with olive oil. One of our favorite breakfasts is "tostada con tomate y aceite" - a toasted roll with olive oil and crushed tomato spread on top, served with a cup of very strong coffee mixed with hot milk. It gives us a good start to the day. The other favorite breakfast is "churros y chocolate" - basically a big stack of long stick-shaped fried donuts served with very thick hot chocolate for dipping. It's too sinful to have very often, though, no matter how far we are cycling during the day.
Another feature of many towns throughout southern Spain is the presence of orange trees all over town, usually up and down the boulevards of the city. They are filled with beautiful oranges - but nobody seems to pick them. I asked one man (with my fragmented Spanish skills) why they aren't picked, and he told me that they were "green" and rather sour, only used for lotions or hair treatments. One of these days, when nobody is looking, I'm going to jump up and grab one, just to check for myself.
From Ubeda we cycled down south to Granada, enjoying some of the best views of our trip along the way through some rather rugged terrain. We spent a few days exploring this larger city, especially the Alhambra, one of the Islamic castles converted to Christian uses over the years.
We actually found a vegetarian, non-smoking, no-alcohol restaurant in Granada, perhaps one of the only places of this type in all of Spain. In Spain, it seems like if you're not eating a chunk of meat drenched in olive oil, smoking a cigarette and drinking some wine all at the same time, you're immediately pegged as a tourist.
We left Granada and headed west towards Ronda, reputed to be a beautiful city in the mountains. It was, but at the same time it had quite a few tourists, and it seemed that virtually everyone "behind the counter" could speak English. We actually enjoyed the smaller villages of Antequerra and El Burgo more (we even stayed in the hotel "Casa Grande de El Burgo", so of course we liked it). Plus, it just sounds cool to say "El Burgo". Sounds like a super-hero. 'Don't worry, El Burgo will save us!'
In the small town of Alora we met our first Americans in nearly 3 weeks, Al and Julia Anne from Asheville, North Carolina. We latched on to them and spoke "American" for a while - I don't know if they knew what hit them. It's kind of like sharing a secret handshake, and made us feel a little closer to home.
Finally, we headed south towards Gibraltar, a small slice of the UK down in sunny Spain. It seems that prices are imported from the UK as well (where is my cheap "Cafe y Tostada?"), although it gave us a chance to pick up some English-language books. Gibraltar felt a little like Hong Kong to us. A rugged mountain poking up out of the water, with clusters of buildings at hanging on to the shoreline. British, yet not British. People speaking English (yet not English).
To get into Gibraltar, you pass through immigration on the Spain side in the town of La Linea (a cursory wave), then actually cross *over* the airport runway and into Gibraltar, and immediately it feels "different".
Gibraltar's history was given to us as follows: In 711, the Muslims took Gibraltar. 1462, the Spanish took it from the Muslims. 1704, the British took it from the Spanish. It's been British ever since.
Dug into "The Rock" are a series of tunnels - miles of them - dug high in the rock for defensive positions. During the Great Siege of 1779-1783 the Spanish (along with help from the French) tried to take it back. Shooting cannon from high up The Rock down at the ships was easy - especially since the cannon of the day couldn't reach back up the mountain to hit the positions behind the caves.
Also famous in Gibraltar are the Apes (actually Barbary macaques, I'm told) that inhabit the Upper Rock. It is said that when the Apes leave, so will the British. The Apes seem to be well-fed by the tourists, however, so it doesn't look like they'll be leaving any time soon.
We left Gibraltar (again crossing over the runway on our way out), then caught a bus up to Cadiz on the Atlantic coast. All along the highway were huge windfarms (windmills for electricity generation) - not a great sign for a cyclist if the winds are in your face. In fact, the winds took a different toll - our bus! When passing another bus coming the opposite way, our windshield flexed, cracked, and eventually fell out right on the highway. Driving slowly to the next town in our almost-convertible bus, we picked up another bus for the rest of the trip. (This after we praised the bus service, too.)
We're now in Sevilla, about to head west to cross over into Portugal. We'll spend a few days here, exploring the city (it is probably one of our favorite large cities in Spain so far). The cathedral is fantastic, and even holds the remains of Christopher Columbus in a huge tomb.
We expect to spend about 2-3 weeks in Portugal before heading back into Spain, finally up to Madrid, where we'll jump on the plane and fly down to Hong Kong for a reunion with some friends in our last home city before heading to New Zealand.
Steve thanks Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Hartshorn, his junior-high and high-school Spanish teachers, almost every day. Although not up to a long conversation, his Spanish skills are good enough for getting a room, meal, and directions, and asking simple questions (while hoping for a simple answer). Portugal may be interesting, as our Portuguese isn't up to speed. We're hoping that with enough knowledge of Spanish (with a little French, Italian, and perhaps sign language thrown in) we'll get by.
A typical village lane in Spain
December 2001: Spain (and Gibraltar)