Between Toledo and Granada, I ran into something really cool. For well over 100 miles (160 km) I rode through one olive grove, and during that entire period I could see olive trees as far as the eye could see in all directions. Take a look at the photos here. This particular grove stretched just like you see in these photos for well over a full day's riding. I've never seen such an extensive grove of producing trees in any time or place before, and I found it quite cool. Spain produces an astounding 1/3 of the world's olive oil.
When I finally got to Granada, I engaged in yet another typical bout of bad-tourist-planning. Maybe I'll have to work on this tourist thing one of these days. The Alhambra palace is no doubt one of the most famous tourist sites in all of Spain, and I never managed to get into it. They have huge queues for getting in, which you avoid by buying a more expensive ticket for a tour by phone. Unfortunately, I waited too long to make the call and didn't get into the tour so I completely missed out on the experience. Six months later I went there again with Amalia, and again failed to get inside. Fortunately, I've seen plenty of mosques and palaces in the Middle East since then so I don't feel all that bad about it now, but at the time I was seriously annoyed with myself.
One fine day I was sitting in Madrid planning my next segment. At the time, I was planning to ride from Madrid to Iran (but that plan was nixed after I met Amalia). Since I was going to be riding through the Alps, I got on the net to look for the highest road pass so I could ride over it if it wasn't too far out of the way. While I was doing the research, I discovered that the highest road pass in Europe isn't in the Alps at all; it's in Spain. It was only about a a weeks ride away, and at 3,375 meters (11,275 feet) it it was higher than any road I've ever ridden, so I was obviously compelled to ride it. That's actually the only reason I got to Granada in the first place. My initial plan had been to ride west from Madrid straight to Porto in Portugal, but after finding about Veleta, I headed south to get there.
I started out in Granada at 700 Meters (2,333 Feet). In addition to being a lousy tourist, I also seem incapable of operating a simple alarm clock so I got up much later than I planned and I didn't leave Granada until noon. I assumed that this would mean that I would go up halfway or so, and stop for the night since a climb of 2,700 Meters (9,000 Feet) seemed unlikely to be accomplished in a day. Fortunately, by this time I had the climbing machine fully tuned, dialed in and ready to go and I managed to start up the hill and just keep on going.
I stopped for lunch at a the Sierra Nevada Ski Resort at 2,700 Meters (9,000 Feet). This was kind of cool as I was born and raised in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. The name means literally Snow Covered Mountains. It felt sort of like coming home to see the name Sierra Nevada splashed all over the place without all the bother of going back to California. When Amalia's feeling superstitious or romantic (same thing), she contends that it was fate that had me born in mountains with a Spanish name, which lead me to Spain in the first place.
When I sat down for lunch, the people at the ski resort assured me it was impossible to ride up to the top of the pass. My maps and guidebook were ambiguous. They said the road was closed for car traffic, but not whether anyone else was allowed to use it. The restaurant owners assured me it was definitely closed, so I naturally just got on the bike and kept riding. In practice, it's fairly difficult to close a road to bikes, even if someone actually wants to, which is pretty rare. Not only was the road open for bikes, but there were a few crossbar gates to shut out cars, and anytime I got near one the guard jumped out and opened it for me, thus saving me the trouble of going around it. I guess I shouldn't pick on the restaurant owners though... after all, the place in question was a whole five miles up the road.
After lunch, which actually occurred around 5:00, I decided to carry on. I was feeling my oats about my newfound skill in solo camping, and figured I'd just sleep at the top of the pass if I could, and alongside the road if I couldn't. I had my GPS with me, which I could use to gauge my progress up the hill. I had no idea how long the road was because the road on the map looked like spagetti, but I knew the elevation at the top so I could just check my elevation to see how I was doing.
I kept on cranking along, and got into a really good rhythm. It really feels kind of amazing to me to get into what I call The Machine. This is also called The Zone, or any number of other names. It's a state where my body feels like some kind of finely tuned machine that's just going "Cachung-cachung-cachung" and everything's just working perfectly. This is the kind of feeling that makes people into exercise addicts. I suspect it's related to endorphins or something, but at any rate when I'm in the machine I can just keep going for hours at a time, and a sense of well-being or euphoria makes it all seem reasonably effortless. It's impossible to describe the sheer pleasure of cranking up a hill for hours at a time to non-cyclists. I've tried, and they always look at me like I'm insane. If you're a cyclist you'll understand and if you aren't I can't explain it.
I was going up a hill that was much steeper than the pass over the Pyrenees that I spent so much time bragging about just 2 pages ago (or whining... I can't remember which), and longer to boot. I was carrying the full weight of my bike, and the full panniers (that's myself at 220 pounds (100 KG) plus the panniers at 70 pounds (30 KG). I was in the lowest gear I had, but just kept on moving. I'd pedal for an hour, stop for five minutes to take a photo, check the GPS, and start pedaling again.
I kept this pedaling up for a few more hours, and checked the GPS every half-hour or so to see how close I was to the top. It kept inching up, but as the sun started going down I started to see that I probably wasn't going to make it. I kept on stubbornly going, partly because I really wanted to get to the top in one day, and partly because I was in the middle of some really rocky ground without much in the way of good campsites. I figured worst case I could just turn around and go back down.
Finally, at the very last minute before dark, I took off on the first side road I found and started looking for a place to camp. I found one spot that would do in a pinch, but kept on to see if there were any better possibilities. I found a sign that said Refugio. I thought that sounded promising, and looked up the hill and saw this cool little refuge. I pushed the bike up the hill, and found it full of Spanish hikers. They welcomed me in, and I just barely managed to get my bags unloaded and inside before it got to be full dark.
Once I got into the refuge, an interesting reaction set in. I started shivering uncontrollably, and just couldn't get warm. I ended up dumping my cycling clothes and putting on the same clothes I wore around Murmansk in below-zero weather, and it was a good half-hour before I could stop shivering enough to get out some food and wolf it down. I felt a bit better after the chow, but I never really got warm until I'd been in my sleeping bag, with extra clothes on for a while. I suspect it was a mild case of hypothermia. That's where your body isn't generating enough heat to stay warm, so your body temperature drops. You don't feel it if you're exerting yourself, and it's easy to get into serious trouble. It's pretty much the opposite of the heat exhaustion I experienced near Figures. That gives me another thing to watch out for in the future.
Once I went to bed, I found that sharing a room with a dozen other people has one drawback. Any group that size is going to have a fair number of snorers (Connie assures me that I'm one of the worst). It sounded like a chainsaw concert when I tried to go to sleep, so it wasn't the best night's sleep I ever had, but I'm not going to complain because it was far better than I would have had in my tent, and much better than I deserved, considering how badly managed the whole operation was.
In the morning, I got out and headed out for the top. It turned out that I was only about an hour's ride from the top, so if I'd managed to drag my lazy ass out of bed on time the previous day I would have made it to the top and back down all in one day. In a fit of shameless bragging, I made this poster and had one of my friends print it out and put it up at work. I quite like the photo, and I'm now satisfied with my mountain climbing... at least until I get to the Himalayas.
You may notice that my cycling shorts are getting a bit ratty. These are the same ones I brought with me 2 years ago, so between 2 pairs I have 13,000 km (8,060 Miles). Their condition is starting to get critical, and I believe I'll replace them in another year or two. You might also be interested to see the pannier bag on the side facing the camera. Aside from the air drying system employed for drying my spare cycle shorts, note the relative lack of material in the bag. When I started on this trip, both of those big bags were stuffed clear full up to about the level of the bottom of the lunch box under my hand. I've gradually been employing my newfound minimalist philosophy to the point that now both bags are about half full. The two smaller bags used to be full of miscellaneous junk, but I gradually emptied one of them of cycling stuff and it's normally full of books now.
I've gradually improved a few other things about my cycling setup, and for any would-be touring cyclists, write to me and I'll help you out. My water system has improved considerably since the first year. For most of my cycling life, I've bought expensive water bottles, and they tasted like plastic after a month or two. I had the same problem with my Camelback I had before I left, so I adopted the system of just keeping my water in bottled water bottles. This worked out pretty well, except my water was always hot. While I was in Madrid, I let one of my cycling friends talk me into giving the Camelback another try. If you're not familiar with it, a Camelback is a plastic bladder that you fill with water, and drink out of a long hose attached to it. Normal cyclists wear it on their backs in a backpack like arrangement, which obviously won't work on a bent. I bought just the bladder for a Camelback, without the insulating backpack and stuck it into one of my pannier bags. To help keep the water cold, and to keep the bladder from sweating and getting everything in the bag wet, I wrap it in my fleece. This gives me a zero-gram insulator. The tube comes out of the top of the pannier bag, and I stick it under my seat. In hot weather, I buy ice at a petrol station to fill up the bag, and voila!! I have cold water all day long. I have to say this was the best innovation I've had yet. I've always had a problem making myself drink enough water, and having it cold and more available than my old system makes me drink more, which is really good and healthy. I carry 3 liters in the Camelback. I also carry another 3 liters in two standard 1.5 liter bottles in the bottle cages I added to the sides of my seat, and if I go anywhere like the Outback again I'll add a couple more bottles that are just stuffed down in one of the pannier bags.
After Pico Veleta, I had two choices. The best choice would be to carry on down the other side, ride the rest of the way through Parque Natural Sierra Nevada to the coast, and follow the coast around to Portugal. This unfortunately, had a couple of problems. The most serious was that I was once again running into a schedule conflict. It seems ironic that I guy with nowhere to go and no particular time to get there keeps running into schedule conflicts, but that's the way it is. In this particular case, Amalia and I had tentatively arranged to meet again in Portugal. She had a fairly narrow range of days that she could meet me, and that meant I had to get to Lisbon by a certain date. A look at the map and some calculations told me I wouldn't make it, so I reluctantly headed back down the hill to Granada, and headed off for Cordoba.
Cordoba is typically the hottest part of Spain, and it's the first part of the trip where the temperature got hot enough for me to start whingeing about it. On the last day before I got to town, I remember climbing a long hill that wasn't particularly steep but it still took me about an hour to climb it. It went by the garbage dump, which didn't have either the best smell or the friendliest flies I ever encountered. At the top of the hill, I finally took a break and checked my handy-dandy thermometer, and it was 42 C (107 F). I can ride in hotter weather than that, but I wouldn't ordinarily choose to. Anything below 36 C (96 F) is actually pretty comfortable, and I ran into a lot of that in Spain. As long as you drink enough water and wear enough sunblock, it's no problem.
Cordoba has the other distinction of being the one city where I actually got out and saw the tourist attractions.
The Alcazar de Los Reyes Catolicos is the castle where the infamous Spanish Inquisition was directed in the 15-16th centuries. The Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) was conquered by the Muslims in the 8th century, and they ruled it for 700 years. They never got over the Pyrenees, so that was the extent of the Muslim encroachment into Europe. The Christians booted the Muslims out in the 15th century, thus making it one of the very few places Muslims have conquered and then been expelled. The Christians expelled the Jews while they were at it, and that left them with the problem of having nobody left to persecute. Naturally, they decided to work on other Christians, and so for about 100 years they drug in various Christians that prayed to a different invisible man in the sky than the rulers, or maybe that prayed to the same one in a different way and set about showing them the error of their ways. This lesson was usually accomplished through the usual educational program of torture and murder and burning at the stake. Those that confessed to their sins were killed with a garrote before they were burned, and those that insisted on their innocence were burned alive. It survived as the quintessential example of intolerance and the power of a truly evil power until it was upstaged by the the European Colonizers all over the world, and ultimately reached it's peak with the Nazis and Soviets in the 20th century.
Like most historical stories though, it's not quite as simple as it sounds. I will be the first to stand up and say that this was an example of pure evil in its worst form, but Amalia told me the other side of the story. During the same period the rest of Europe went through one religious war after another after another, and oddly enough the rest of Europe lost more people to war than the Spanish lost to the Inquisition, and the ends were frequently just as brutal and unnecessary. At the end of the 16th century, Spain was solidly Catholic and this unity gave them a substantial head start on the colonization of the rest of the world that Europe embarked on during the 17th-20th centuries. The last of the Muslims were kicked out the same year Columbus set out for the Indies and "discovered" America (1492 of course).
The Mezquita (Spanish for mosque, or Muslim church) is a large mosque that was converted to a Catholic church through the simple expedient of building a 17th century cathedral inside the existing structure. The usual procedure was to tear down the mosque and build a church with the stones.
The guidebooks roundly condemned the conversion as a horrible thing from an aesthetic standpoint, but I didn't really agree. It was the first mosque that I've ever been in, and while the chapel in the middle doesn't quite fit in, I didn't find it as jarring as one would think. I kind of liked the effect myself. I find the differences between Islam and Christianity relatively minor anyway, so the religious significance doesn't affect me at all. All in all I quite liked the whole effect. The photos can't really capture a mosque very well (or a church or a mountain for that matter), but this is the best I can do.
The Mezquita is made from two different colors of stone in a pattern that was mostly unique among Spanish mosques. I've since seen a good dozen other mosques in the Middle East, and this pattern is only used in one that I've seen. It appears to have been a Spanish invention, but I'm not really sure of it. Since this is the last old mosque left intact in Spain, I didn't get a chance to see any more of them.
The construction of the mosque part of the building is just stunningly gorgeous. The Cathedral part is OK, but nothing special. All in all, I think this is a building that's well worthwhile to go out of your way to see.
The rest of Cordoba was a nice town to stay in with one exception. When I came into town, I had just done the ride up that huge hill by the garbage dump (notice how it keeps getting bigger with each telling). I specifically picked a hotel with an Air Conditioning sign to stay at. This was all well and good, until I figured out much later that the air con cooled pretty much everything except my room. I guess I need to be more specific.
All in all, of the places I've been in Spain, I'd recommend Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba, Figures and Madrid in that order. (I expect to pay for that sequence for a long time). However, if you're at all interested in art or gaining a beautiful Spanish wife, I recommend you just go to Madrid and stay there. Everything you really need is there.
After Cordoba, I headed west towards Lisbon, Portugal. Along the way, I developed an addiction to Fanta Limon, which I had at nearly every rest stop. A typical rest stop that I'd do once or twice a day consists of a bit of a snack, a Fanta Limon and a siesta, as properly documented below.
Next - Portugal