After the Pyrenees, I followed my previous route for a day, and then moved on towards Zaragoza. Zaragoza is a really old Roman town that Noelle likes quite a bit, but I didn't even go into it as I had to turn south just before I got there. From there, I couldn't take the most direct route to Madrid because it was an auto-via, which is the same thing as an expressway in Europe or a freeway in America... in other words, not the kind of place you really want to ride.
Between Zaragoza and Madrid, and afterwards between Madrid and Portugal, I finally tackled my irrational fear of solo camping by the simple expedient of just doing it. Like most things, it gets easer over time and isn't anywhere near as hard to do once you actually get on with doing it as it would seem.
At first I spent a lot of effort making sure I was way out of site from anyone and everyone, completely hidden by trees or something. After a while I quit being afraid of my own shadow and relented a bit. There really isn't a whole lot of chance of any mischief as long as I'm out of sight of cars. I did find that I spent quite a bit of time looking for just the right campsite, with just the right amount of cover and all that. After a while it got easier because I got less picky about where I was willing to sleep, and a little bit better at spotting the kind of places that would work. In the beginning, I was looking for spots that were completely hidden by trees and well off the road. After a couple of weeks I was sleeping in abandoned buildings, wheat fields and the like.
The spot above was my favorite campsite of the trip. It had a nice little creek that I could wash in (using biodegradable soap that I carry all the time), and a pear tree that had one of my favorites... pears green and hard as a rock. I won't pick fruit from a tree that belongs to someone and is in a proper orchard, but I don't have any qualms about picking fruit from a tree that's at the side of the road and obviously not being harvested or cared for.
I also quit setting up the tent on nights when the insects weren't bad and there was no chance of rain. Once I got on the track of camping, I found it produced a lot of freedom. When I felt constrained to have somewhere to sleep every night, that limited where and how far I could ride. Even though I had the tent and sleeping bag with me all the time for the last few thousand miles, the fact that I didn't really want to use it kind of limited where I went. Once I decided I was just going to sleep in the tent, I had no more restrictions on time and distance. I always carry enough food for a couple of meals, and I can ride where and when I like. After a while, I also got so I was less picky about the campsite, so now I can simply ride as long as I want without even looking at the map to pick where I'm going to end up. I can stop for a couple of hours if I like with complete confidence that I'll be able to sleep reasonably comfortably in the tent.
The only night that I regretted the camping decision came a couple of days before Madrid. I was cycling through a natural park and looking for a good spot to camp... preferably somewhere that wasn't close to the large and prominent No Camping signs. I got out of the park just about dark and rode another half-hour looking for a spot. When I finally found a spot and dismounted, I found I was in Insectopia. There were so many insects I thought they were going to pick up the bike and carry it away. I really wasn't in the mood for getting back on the bike as campsites were few and far between, so I finally just got out the tent and climbed in. I still got eaten half to death.
What shall I say about Madrid? Weeellllll, I met my wife there, and can't really think of anything else important that happened there so why bother. If I were a real swell guy, I'd give you all the details of our romance. Unfortunately, I'm not a real swell guy.
Maybe, that's a narrow-minded attitude and I should relent a little. We met in Madrid and went out a few times. Later on, we agreed to meet again in Portugal, and long story short I ended up back in Madrid for a few months. When I wrote this page, we had been together for five months, and traveling through the Middle East for the 2 months. Now while I'm doing the final draft sitting in a hotel in Canada, we've been married for 2 months and cycling together for 2000 miles.
Madrid isn't a bad city and aside from meeting Amalia I neither particularly liked it nor hated it. As with most of Spain, the tourist attractions are mostly religious shrines, churches and the like, and I didn't really get out to see most of them. I did manage to get to a couple of the museums when I returned a couple months later, and would highly recommend the Prado and the Thyssen Bornemisza. The Prado joins the Louvre in France and the Hermitage in Russia as one of the premier art museums of the world, and if you're at all interested in art you should make a trip there at some point in your life. I have a few photos from the Prado in the photo gallery.
For good or ill, my status as an ignorant savage with respect to the art world is being slowly eroded. I still don't claim to know much about art or art history, but Amalia does and she has taken on the task of educating me at least a little bit. Amalia is an art and literature professional, with a Bachelor's Degree in Art History and a PhD in Music. She was a professional flutist, but has moved onto other pursuits. She has the most popular literature radio program in Spain, and she broadcasts two shows per week. She's also a journalist, and writes for various newspapers and magazines. Her most common venue is the Sunday supplement for El Mundo (The World), which is a popular Spanish newspaper. She's read a lot of books, with very little intersection between the set of books she's read and the set I've read. Naturally, I'll talk more about her as the narrative progresses.
Madrid is a pretty dry city, with just one pathetic little river that I call the Madrid Ditch. I find it endlessly amusing to tease Amalia about the water situation in Spain, and thought I'd just extend it to this page. When I'm feeling particularly feisty I'll tell her I've noticed that Castilian Spanish uses different words than I expect. For example, the word Rio in Mexican Spanish means River, but in Spain it means Something like a river but much more pathetic.
Now that I'm warmed up, I guess I can say a few more words about Madrid since I've lived there for a year. You'll notice the red-brick look from this skyline photo. Most of the cities of central Spain have a sort of mono-color look. This doesn't mean that they're all boring looking or all the buildings are the same. It just that they seem to pick one building material and use it enough to give an overall look with that color. Even though there are lots of other colors, the overall view gives a consistent impression. Most views of Madrid look sort of red-brick to me, and other towns in Spain may be red, or white or brown in the overall color scheme.
While living in Madrid, I relearned how to drive a car. Spanish drivers are pretty aggressive in cars... much more so than I would have thought from what I saw from the bike. They're not unfriendly though... just aggressive. If there's a spot on a road where a car can go, they will put the car there. They're fairly lenient about whether to stop on red lights or not, and in general they really like to push things with the cars. It makes driving there a bit hairy, but not as bad as other places I've seen.
For reasons that will become apparent later, I decided to ride down to Southern Spain instead of heading due east to Portugal as I had originally planned. This added some good destinations to the trip that I would otherwise have missed. Amalia and I went out a few times in Madrid, but at the end of a week she had plans to go on holiday in in Costa Brava with a friend. She went north, and I headed south.
... don't seem to exist. Nah! That don't rhyme :(
Let me clarify. The descriptions of Madrid amount to it being stuck in the middle of a big waterless plain. When I think of a plain, I think of something like the American Midwest, or maybe Oz or Russia. A cyclist might define it as:
Plain: n A large flat area that lacks climbing opportunities. Suitable for cycling newbies and fat old computer geeks.
Now based on that description, I didn't ride through anything I would remotely consider a plain anywhere in Spain. Basically, from the minute I crossed the border into Spain until I left it, every day could be pretty much defined by the following algorithm:
Based on elevation gained and lost, my easiest day in most of Spain was harder than my hardest day in Oz or Russia, and roughly equal to a fairly typical day while riding the more mountainous parts of South Africa. This is good if you're a climbing boy, but if you're a newbie cyclist looking for an easy place to warm up, Spain isn't it.
Now the odd thing about this, is that I learned some things as definite rules of cycling that I started to put together in SA but didn't really make as rules of life. One is that on the days when I'm burned out and don't really feel like cranking; climbing hills is paradoxically easier than flat ground. This is of course an entirely psychological phenomena, as it's obviously not true in a physical sense, but effort is mostly subjective anyway. When I'm climbing a hill, I have two basic choices:
A quick survey of the two will clearly show that choice A is generally preferable, or at least less embarrassing. No matter how tired I am (or think I am... they're not the same thing), I can always climb one more hill. It's simply a matter of starting up the Climbing Machine and letting it go to work. I've had days where I'm feeling pretty wiped out, but I can almost always do one more hill, and if there's one more after that I can usually do it too. I don't set any land speed records going up those hills, but I keep moving. Now if we take the case of a day when I'm feeling burned out and low on energy, when I come to a hill I can't whinge about it. The hill is there, and I have to climb it; end of story. So I climb it, and sooner or later the Climbing Machine gets into gear and I forget about the effort. Then at the top, I have some downhills which I can relax and enjoy, and then the cycle repeats.
On the other hand, when I get on flat ground one of two things happens:
I know this doesn't make any sense at all, but who says everything has to make sense? In a lot of Spain, that was how my days went. I didn't really get into solid physical condition until about Granada; but I'm getting ahead of myself.
As soon as I started south from Madrid, I ran into what turned out to be the easiest riding in Spain. There were quite a lot of wheat fields, and the ground was more-or-less flat for a couple of days. I'd ride along in country that looks like this and expect it to stay flat like it would in Oz or Russia.
I had a tough time staying on back roads for the first few days out of Madrid because of a funny bit of planning. When I went to London before coming here I bought the best road maps I could find. Michelin makes a set of maps that break tiny little Spain up into 5 maps, so the level of detail was pretty good. Unfortunately, they were out of stock on one particular map in the bookstore I went to, but since it covered an area I wasn't planning to ride anyway I didn't worry about it and forgot the whole thing. I didn't figure out that I was going to run out of map until after I had left Madrid. It wasn't a huge deal, but it was kind of annoying and I ended up with a few miles on a freeway to pay for my ignorance.
The first town outside of Madrid was Toledo. It was a nice town to go through, and I even had a local television camera film me riding around for a while. I assume I was famous yet again, but I never actually saw whatever they did if anything. I kind of liked Toledo but was once again in a riding mood, so I just rode around it for a couple of hours and moved on.
Next - Andalucia