Wednesday, 12 October 2016. The dark clouds that had been gathering all morning turned to rain as we left the ferry landing in Ayamonte, Spain. We rode to the bus station, where we hoped to make up lost time by taking the bus at least to Huelva, the next big town. Lucky for us, it turned out that it was a national holiday in Spain, so there were few passengers, no competing luggage, and light traffic. The DAMAS driver let us put our bikes in the bus and took us all the way to Seville. We also outran the rain.
Accommodations in Seville proved problematic at first. We arrived at night to the place we had booked, the Santa Marta in the historic quarter. The receptionist would not allow us to bring in our bikes, and we could not leave them in the square. The young man was desolate, but phoning his boss brought a quick rebuke and a repeated refusal. We quickly booked an apartment at the Metropolis, but it turned out not to be near the city centre as we thought. It was after ten when we finally found the place, in a seedy neighborhood, not even close to a grocery store or an asphalt road. We stayed that night, but I cancelled the booking to free the room up for the next two nights. Then I applied for a waiver of the room charges for the two extra nights.
Thursday, 13 November. The owner of the Metropolis immediately charged my card for all three nights, and turned down my request to waive fees. Nevetheless, we left the next morning for the Casas y Apartamentos in Triana, which proved quite satisfactory. The manager even offered to do our laundry. Cheryl had stayed in Triana when she rode the Via de la Plata in 2013. I liked Triana. It was where the real Sevillanos live, a very different place from the tourist mecca across the river.
We checked in and proceeded on foot into town. We pounded the pavement through the old city, which has been the market (Souq) since Moorish times and never lost its flavour. Part of it was also the old Jewish Quarter. We had lunch in one of the many beautiful gardens. We visited the Cathedral (another credencial stamp), and climbed the tower of the Giralda, which afforded a fantastic view out to the Andalusian countryside in four directions. The line to see the Real Alcantar palace and its gardens was so long that we knew that we would not get in before closing. Instead, we walked up to the Museum of Fine Arts, picked up groceries at El Cortes Ingles and walked back to Triana to fix dinner in the flat.
Friday, 14 October 2016. In the morning, we walked to the main post office in downtown Seville to ship some gifts and send home maps that we no longer needed. Then we walked over to the Real Alcantara. This is still a working Royal Palace, and a major tourist attraction. The pictures that I took do not do justice to the beauty of the architecture, the decoration, and the magnificent gardens. After lunch, we wandered the Barrio Santa Cruz, and visited the amazing Pilate’s House. Then we walked back north of the Cathedral to complete our odyssey through the barrio. Back at the apartment, we fixed dinner, and laid out a rough plan for the trip through the Pueblos Blancos (white towns) of Andalusia, a bucket-list item for Cheryl.
Saturday, 15 October. From what Cheryl told me, and my reconnaissance from the top of the Giralda Tower, the suburbs south of Seville had little to recommend them. We rode to the train station and caught a Cercanias train out to the city of Utrera. We picked our way past worn-out buildings and followed broken city streets to where the open countryside picked up. Our road ended abruptly at the wrong side of a guard rail where the new highway turned in front of us. After heaving the bicycles over the berm and the guard rail, we set out south on the A376. We passed through rolling, treeless hills that reminded me of the landscapes in the spaghetti westerns. In all my years in Europe, I have never found a place where I could look out and see not a single sign of human habitation. Here, only the road itself hinted of our species. I fully expected a cloud of dust to announce a posse of horsemen over the next hill.
After riding 70 km, we found ourselves in Vilamartin, on the northern edge of the Pueblos Blancos area. It was not much to look at, and we were very early, so we decided to press on towards Arcos de la Frontera, which was at the western end. Cheryl booked a room in the Finca Cortijo Barranco outside town. We did not expect the five-kilometre, 10% climb that awaited us at the end of a very long day in the saddle. But it was worth it. The place sat atop a mountain with a breathtaking view of the jagged mountains of the Sierra de Grazalema. With its stone courtyard, and stone and adobe construction, I expected Zorro to ride up for supper.
Sunday, 16 October. The blistering downhill ride back to the A372 led us to Arcos de la Frontera. Perched on a ridge in the bright morning sunshine, Arcos gave meaning to Pueblos Blancos. We locked our bicycles to a railing below the town, and hiked up into the medieval quarter. The Cathedral square gave us a lovely view of what used to be the frontier to Moorish Spain and is now a broad agricultural plain leading to the Atlantic, home to the famous sherries and brandies of Jerez de la Frontera. After taking some pictures, we made our way back to our bicycles. By now the town was filling up with tourists. We headed east on the A372 to the cluster of white villages on the slopes of the Grazalema. I don’t remember who pulled ahead of whom, but we got separated about 15 km along. Cheryl took the more difficult route through the pueblo blanco of Prado del Rey, whilst I continued on the main road. We met in Zahara de la Sierra, the scenic village where Cheryl had booked us for the night. The Al Lago hotel and restaurant had everything we needed to recover from a long day in the hills, including a view of the reservoir lake below.
Monday, 17 October. We set out from Zahara down to the road that curled around the lake. On the way down, my rear tyre went flat. On examination, I determined that the damage inflicted by the pothole back in Portugal had worsened, and that sharp little bits of the Kevlar belt were puncturing the inner tube. To protect the new tube, I folded a one-dollar bill between the inner tube and the damaged Kevlar. American currency is not made of paper; it is a very tough fabric, capable of plugging a hole in a high-pressure tire. My little bicycle pump was useless, but Cheryl’s Master Blaster from Topeak Road allowed me to pump up to full pressure. In 20 minutes, we were back on our way.
The road took us over the Montejaque Pass (702 m) into the hills of the Serrania de Ronda. Joining the A374, we made our way to Ronda, the easternmost pueblo blanco. It is the capital of the area, a full-sized city, with modern industrial suburbs, a vibrant downtown with upscale shopping, and a historic center separated from the main town by a dizzying gulch. While Cheryl toured the historic center with her camera, I set out to find a bicycle shop that could sell me a new tyre. The third one had a Specialized belted touring tyre that would work. It measured a heavy 38 mm, but at least it fit my rim. I backed off the mudguard to make room. Riding back to meet Cheryl, I reveled in the ride with no thump-thump. This would get me back to Formia, where I could buy a new Schwalbe Marathoner Plus 32-mm tyre.
We set out for the hotel that Cheryl chose. The description of the Finca Los Pastores was misleading, so we were not ready for an extra four kilometres uphill in the gathering darkness at the end of a very strenuous day. What was worse, the restaurant was closed on Mondays in the off-season, and the location was too remote to ride for dinner or groceries. The Danish night clerk made us a complimentary dinner of light fare and settled us into a quaint stone bungalow. The main activity of the Finca was horses: breeding, training, and riding. Beautiful horses (and peacocks) roamed the grounds. The place was full, but with private cottages, it felt very private and quiet. Sleep came easily.
Tuesday, 18 October. One of the main attractions of the area, besides the medieval city of Ronda itself, are the prehistoric caves dotting the hills around the city. We had heard of one of them, a three-star attraction called the Cueva de la Pileta. It would have taken all day to ride there and back, because the roads do not go over the ridges south of Ronda. Instead, the desk clerk called a taxi for us. It was a 2 km walk into the cave and back out again. Pileta is trying to avoid the damage that caused Altamira to be closed, by limiting visits to groups of 25, spaced an hour and a half apart. I was surprised to see that the older drawings (more than 30,000 years old) were actually more realistic and perhaps “artistic” than the later drawings (15,000 years old). That seemed counter-intuitive, until we considered that the later drawings, which looked like stick figures, could have been the beginning of writing and numbers. They certainly did look like they were headed towards the cuneiform writing of 3000-5000 BC. And the repetition of certain figures made me think of counting or inventories.
After the cave, we walked 3 km down the road to Benaojón to catch the train to Ronda. We had to run the last 100 metres, but the conductor saw us coming. In Ronda, we walked back through the downtown and the historic town, including the Cathedral and the Moorish baths, which were similar to Roman baths. There was an ingenious water-lifting system that brought water in buckets up from the river far below, pouring it into the aqueduct that supplied the baths. A donkey walking in a circular track powered the whole thing. The Cathedral of Santa Maria Mayor was built over the Mosque, and the beautiful architectural carvings of the older building were almost completely covered over (but not destroyed).
From Ronda, we took a taxi back to the Finca Los Pastores. After an excellent dinner, we finished examining our options for the rest of the trip. We had only 12 days left, so we decided not to try to go to Malaga, but to head to Valencia via Granada. We figured out that by switching trains three times, we could get to Granada in one day. We fell asleep not knowing that more obstacles awaited us trying to leave the Pueblos Blancos.
Until next week
Smooth roads and tailwinds,