Top 5 Rides: Desert to Snow in Southern Spain

Difficulty: Hard – some steep climbing

Attractions: tranquil roads, amazing and varied landscapes, the highest towns in Spain, the cities of Guadix and Granada, free tapas with every beer, almond blossoms, a laidback lifestyle, and lots of characters

Best Time: Late Winter/Early Spring to catch the almond blossoms and avoid the summer inferno

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Olive Groves and Red Clay

Not far from the ornate and lavish interior of Seville, where the stylish and bohemian turn boulevards of orange trees into 24 hour catwalks, dingy apartment blocks and cheap housing sprawl through a tangle of highways. Winter is fast approaching in the south of Spain and it is set to be a cold one. Beyond the tangle we cycle east.

We are cranky for many reasons, which I will now deconstruct in convenient dot point format:

  • Subzero nighttime temperatures are making for torturous pack-ups
  • Our small dog Paco is yelping non-stop at an army of bunnies who are romping away under the olive trees in a gratuitous display of free love not seen since the 19th century social movement that was a harbinger of a new anti-authoritarian, anti-repressive pacifist sensibilities
  • My continual singing of Ice, Ice Baby is losing its humor
  • Constant rain has turned the endless olive fields into thick slurries of red clay
  • The only place to pitch our tent is in the olive fields
  • We are realising that olives taste disgusting when picked straight from the tree
  • The headwinds are so strong they blew a street sign out of its concrete footing, nearly crushing Paco in the process
  • Our clothes and sleeping bags are wet
  • A sleeping mattress is punctured
  • Snow is forecast for the next day

Now I know what you are thinking. This is supposed to be a top ride, stop whining and get to the good part! Ok, ok then… fast forward to the top of another olive field, call the cinematographer and put them on speaker phone. Our hearts flutter at the first view of the solid white peaks of Sierra Nevada, Europe’s second largest mountain range. (When I say ‘our’ I mean the human half of the team. The dogs are too busy sniffing the roadside to care about the optical delicacies we are presenting them.)

After circumnavigating the northern foothills we leave the main road behind and freewheel into cycling bliss. The snow stops, the landscape changes dramatically, and we drop down into the crevassed ochre mountains of Europe’s only desert. The walls of bare earth, sparsely covered by grasses and wild rosemary, have been sculpted into ruts and canyons by the master for millions of years. It is a primal landscape with a quiet beauty all of its own.

The only signs of human life are the narrow paved road, some lonesome bodegas, symmetrical forests of bare branched poplar trees, and horses grazing in golden fields. The first traffic in over two hours is a busload of school children who smile and wave at us. (Interesting side note: Children, we have established by this point, like us. Besides one American kid who called Jack a ‘stupid fat dog’ it is all smiles and laughs with the kids. In fact, only middle aged French and Italian women can surpass their enthusiasm.)

So where are we going? Judging by our map to the middle of nowhere: wide open spaces and lots of tiny dead end roads. For the first time in five months of cycling we camp overlooking the desert canyons without a sound. No church bells, no techno music, and no barking dogs. Not a single noise. Nada. Absolute silence.

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Christmas in a Cave

In the morning we cycle alongside the trickling Rio Gor to Gorafe, our winter hideaway. Gorafe is a town literally nestled into the landscape, with most of its 540 odd people living in cuevas (cave dwellings with bulbous white chimneys) chipped into the side of the mountain. With summer temperatures regularly climbing over 40 degrees Celsius, and sporadic snowfall in winter, caves are a natural way of regulating the temperature to around 15 degrees all year round. Only the toughest of plants can handle the extreme temperatures, with spiky aloes and barbed prickly pears being the town favourites.

Hola!! Buena dia!! We are greeted at the entrance by an old man with thick-rimmed glasses standing beside his bicycle. He understands little of our poor Spanish, and we understand even less from him. We struggle enough with regular Spanish, let alone the chopped down local dialect. This is not important though, because every sentence still ends with the old man’s infectious cackle. When he notices Paco, who is considered a ‘scruffy little hound’ by many, but is a favourite breed of hunting dog in Spain, he pulls out his wallet and offers us 20 Euro with a giant grin. Although tempting after days of listening to Paco’s incessant barking at the bunnies, we tell him maybe manana.

It didn’t take long to realise that Gorafe is not your average town. Dogs, cats, children, chickens, and sometimes donkeys roam freely among the streets. Middle aged women stroll around in their bathrobes, and nobody seems in too much of a hurry. A small museum to show off the rich history of one of the most economically depressed regions of Andalucía has become a local joke, still incomplete after 8 years of manana’s. There is no police, no post office and certainly no tourist information. Just a pharmacy, a bakery, the local store, and 4 pubs.

The original cave dwellers here were the Moors from North Africa who invaded in the 8th century, and whose caves can still be seen today (if you are brave enough to tread the precarious cliffs of crumbling clay). Caves have become a little more modern since the Moors though, and some even border on luxurious. Indeed. Some of the ‘caves on the top of the hill’ were pimped out with skylights, solar panels and stylish interior decoration.

The rough whitewashed interior and curving ceilings made for an easy transition from tent life; much more welcoming than the boxed symmetry of modern, sterile housing. Plus, there are other benefits to cave life besides insulation… want another bookcase? Easy, just carve it into the wall. Another baby on the way? Better start knocking out an extra room. Our cave was modest but romantic: a fireplace, hot shower, small kitchen and a cosy bedroom. Being the only travellers here for the winter, we enjoyed a deal which worked out to around 14 Euro per night. Christmas in a cave.

By the time we left Gorafe in February, we felt like we had really experienced an area we may have otherwise skimmed over superficially. It is easy when cycling to always be focused on what is coming up, reaching the next town, keeping the kilometres ticking by. It is easy not to take the hike through the mountains. It is easy not to sit still and do nothing, and really soak in the surroundings.

What at first glance looks like a lifeless expanse of desert mountains, is actually full of secrets. Waterfalls drop down between rocky crevices into hot thermal pools draped by ferns. Ancient prehistoric burial grounds are within walking distance of one of the oldest living aqueducts in the world. Plateaus of almond trees (with spectacular views of the peaks of Sierra Nevada, including Spain’s highest – Mulhacen at 3482m) drop away into mysterious mountains trails where remote caves and goat herders are hidden far from the maddening crowd. And if you stop walking, the only sounds that might break the silence are a wild goat nimbly navigating the folds of the mountain, the distant drone of a dirt bike, or the howl of a faraway wolf.

But the unusually cold winter of 2008/2009 (which had the Dutch ice skating for the first time in decades, and Moroccan mountains buried under heavy snowfall) was beginning to end. The forecast was for a week of fine weather, so we said adios to the locals: Jesus, the computer technician who spent most of his spare time at the bar, Rosalee the barwoman who corrected our Spanish when she wasn’t serving Jesus beer, Juan the horse riding hunter that ran the grocery store, the chirpy bus driver who drove us into the nearest city Guadix humming along to boppy Spanish pop music, the cranky old goat herder who beat his dog, Ellie and Claude the friendly French couple, and the woman who was always hanging out a fresh batch of laundry every time you walked past. Jack and Paco said goodbye to their favourites in the scruffy dog gang, and of course we all bid farewell to the cackling old man (still standing beside his bicycle even though he never travelled more than 50 metres to the nearest pub).

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Granada

Weighed down with enough olive oil to keep our chains lubed for weeks, we remounted our saddles. Well out of practice with our cumbersome loads, we struggled along a frosty mountain road, which made for the perfect back entrance to Granada, a buzzing hive of cool cats and Jewish, gypsy, Moorish and Christian cultures.

Ahh, Granada… daytimes of skiing and shopping, and nighttimes lost in the maze of cobblestone alleys and cafes. Life can be good in Granada. Unfortunately our meager budget didn’t allow for any of this. Save for a couple of beers, we watched on vaguely envious in our same old smelly clothes satisfying ourselves with the colourful street art, the intricate palaces of the Alhambra, and the vibrant atmosphere which can only be found in university cities.

Every dog has his day and Granada is a city of cats, so we headed out through the sprawl, guided by a friendly local cyclist. The traffic was busy, the weather was putting the ice back in dicey (wordplay courtesy of the Fat Cyclist), the sky was darkening, and there was nowhere obvious to camp by the side of the road. It wasn’t since France that somebody invited us into their home, I thought, starting to feel sorry for myself. It’s about time someone in Spain did.

Five minutes later a van pulled over and an unkempt organic farmer jumped out. Having cycled much of Asia himself, he took pity on us and invited us to his family farm where he spoiled us with fresh food by a warm fireplace. Like most people, he was dubious of us being able to handle the steep mountain grades ahead. “Thanks mister, but this ain’t our first rodeo” I told him in a thick Texan drawl. Not really… I nodded politely and pretended to accept it as sensible advice.

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Almond Blossoms in the Alpujarras

The traffic eased off as we entered the almond blossoms of the Alpujarras, a spectacular mountain range that enjoys the extra sunshine from being on the southern side of the Sierra Nevada, baking it in summer, but making it quite pleasant in the milder months. Historically, it was a region of isolated and inaccessible small communities. Its inhabitants were the last to submit to the Moors, and having embraced Islam, the last to accept the reconquest. It’s one of the Mediterranean’s most biologically diverse areas with many birds and butterflies, and while we cycled through it in mid-February entire hillsides were draped in the magnificent pink and white blossoms of the almond trees.

The roads of the High Alpujarras are often steep, sometimes very steep. Our big dog Jack was knackered from all of the walking, and we were slightly sozzled ourselves. But embrace the pain, talk to it, add it to your facebook account, and then backstab it afterwards, for towards Calpileira you are rewarded with some of the highest and most beautiful villages in Spain at around 1500m altitude.

White-washed, flat-roofed houses, with mushroom chimneys blend harmoniously with snowy peaks. Narrow streets and covered passages are high on romance, and at a pub in Bubion we found true tapas heaven. In other parts of Spain tiny tapas portions can be a cruel and expensive joke to hungry cyclists, but in the Granada province 1 beer = 1 free tapa. Using the fundamental tools of my schooling, I correctly calculated that 2 beers would equal 2 free tapas, and that 3 beers…. you get the picture. We slept well that night.

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What about cycling after the Alpujarras? Continue on to Cabo de Gata in south-east Spain, head south and take a ferry to Morocco, or make up your own route…

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