On a Wednesday in mid-October, the sky was turning from black to indigo then to blue. We got up too early for the hotel breakfast, and rode into Ronda. By now the train station in the capital of the Pueblos Blancos was familiar, but the day was not off to a good start. The ticket agent, backed by the various personnel in the station, did not want us to take the train to Granada. It turned out that the train station in Granada was being renovated, and that there was a substitute bus service for the last three stops on the line. They insisted that the buses would not take bicycles.
We bought tickets anyway, and wolfed down brunch whilst awaiting the train. The conductor on the train was also pessimistic about our being able to get on the bus, but the train had excellent facilities for bicycles. Despite all the finger wagging getting there, the stationmaster in Antequera overruled the bus driver to let us on board. The station in Granada was indeed all torn up; the construction zone extended far out of sight along the wide gash where the track had been. We had made it to Granada in one day, and there was still daylight.
A winding ride to the old city over back streets and cobblestones took us to the Cathedral and the old Moorish market in the historic center. It still looked more like a Middle Eastern souk than a European market. The Palacio de los Navas was ready for the bikes and had a comfortable room waiting. After settling in, we walked back to the Cathedral (another stamp in the credencial) then hiked towards the old city of El Albacete. Cheryl said that the good places for dinner would be that way. Indeed, after checking menus all the way to where the park by the river ended, we walked back to the Alhamar Hotel, which had a delightful restaurant hidden downstairs behind the lobby.
We had already been warned from several sources about the difficulty of obtaining tickets to see the Alhambra, and that the lines were over a mile long. We devised a strategy for the morning and turned in early.
On Thursday in the darkness of the morning watch, we rose and got ready. In the lobby, we found another American couple who were planning to do the same thing we were. We shared a taxi to the top of the hill from which the Alhambra dominated the city. By dawn, we were standing in the lines at the ticket stations. There were two lines: one for cash sales and another for credit cards. At 07:30, one hour before the ticket gates would officially open, Cheryl queued up in the cash line, while I joined the credit card line.The line for credit cards was only about 100 m long. Cheryl’s line snaked up the hill out of sight. We expected to see scalpers standing in line, to buy the maximum 10 tickets allowed per person, but this was Spain, a law-abiding country, and we did not see that sort of behavior at all. By 09:00, I had our tickets and was phoning Cheryl to break line to join me.
The Alhambra is not just one place. It is a vast complex of palaces, castles, gardens, and upscale residences. The different eras and the different architectures and even the types of buildings reflect Spain’s checkered history from Roman times to the present. In terms of beauty, architecture and stunning scenery, it is everything the tourist brochures say it is. We stayed for as long as we could, then walked back down to our hotel to collect our loaded bicycles.
We rode to the bus station on the west end of town, 3.5 km past the train station. I was prepared to fight for our rights at the bus station, because after our experience at Oviedo, the statewide bus company, ALSA, had been clearly publicizing the company policy welcoming bicycles on all its buses. In fact, everything went very smoothly, and we caught the last bus to Jaen without a hitch.
On the way to Jaen, olive trees stretched as far as the eye could see. Jaen produces 10% of the world’s olive oil, and clearly, the little green fruit is the foundation of the local prosperity.
The bus station was deep downtown. The Hostal de la Juventud sat on the side of a steep hill on the edge of a residential neighbourhood some 4 km away. It was clean and modern, more like a conference center than a hostel. The pool, gym, restaurant and other luxuries were closed for the off-season, so we went looking for dinner as the sun set. A hike to the historic center took us past the closed Cathedral and several mésones with enticing menus. After a reconnaissance of the available offerings, we ate al fresco on the sidewalk not far from the Cathedral.
On Friday, we merged with the morning traffic on the main north-south traffic artery to make our way to the train station on the north end of Jaen. The research using the European Rail Timetable and the RENFE (State railway) websites paid off, with amazing connections to Valencia. A layover to change trains in Albacete allowed us to pick up a picnic lunch to enjoy on a bench. Albacete turned out to be a big city with a very modern train station. Riding around during the layover, I thought that it would have been worth a full day stop, had we had the time.
The River Hostel in Valencia was easy to find. Cheryl had stayed here when it was brand new only three years before. It sits on the bank of the Guadalquivir River, which is not really a river in downtown Valencia, but a broad, beautifully landscaped park with bike paths and walkways running on either side of the occasional stream in the middle of the park. As easy as the day was, it was a long one. We slept well.
Valencia is a magical city, every bit as beautiful as the tourist magazines report. It is the third-largest city in Spain, after Madrid and Barcelona. Saturday, we visited the Cathedral, where I stood behind two German tourists trying to purchase souvenirs. The elderly nun running the Cathedral store probably needed to retire a few years back. She spoke no language besides Spanish and her dialect, so I acted as interpreter, even though Spanish was not one of my working languages. That got me access to the nun when they finished, and another stamp in the credencial. Cheryl noted how the reredos mounted behind the altars in the chapels didn’t fit. They were so large that they blocked the reliefs on the walls and the stained glass windows. Hypothesis: given that they had all been crafted at different times, had they each taken a turn at the main altar, only to be relocated when the next decorating project came along?
After the Cathedral, we walked past the various gates in the city wall along the river. By the end of the day, the threatened rain finally arrived as we returned to the hostel.
The ferry did not leave until 22:00. Cheryl had made reservations at a nice restaurant on the Avenida del Port, which was on the way to the ferry station. We picked up our bicycles and panniers to head out. As I was loading my bike, someone stole my headlight in the time it took me to put on one pannier and go get the other. Our route to the port followed one of Valencia’s many protected bicycle paths off the street, so I felt relatively safe. Suddenly, an upscale bicycle shop appeared, so I was able to stop and buy a new headlight less than an hour after losing the old one.
La Truncha seafood restaurant provided us with a delicious meal served impeccably with pleasant surroundings. While we ate, another shower passed, so that we made our way to the port having successfully avoided getting rained on.
I had been unable to book a two-person cabin, but there was no one else in the four-person cabin that we were assigned. We slept soundly as the ferry crossed the Balearic Sea in the night.
The ferry docked in Palma de Mallorca at 07:00 on a clean, fresh morning. The passenger terminal lay near the west end of town, just east of the long pier where I used to go ashore during many port visits in the sixties and seventies. For me, it was a visit to a world much changed in four decades. For Cheryl, it was a visit to a new island, a place that she had known about forever, but never had a chance to visit. We both would see many things that we had not seen before.
We quickly found the protected bike lane that looped around the harbour to the historic centre. Leaving our panniers at the hotel, we rode to the extreme eastern end of the bike path to Sa Arenal. The sun was still rising ahead of us. Riding through the beach-town suburbs east of Palma felt like rolling through different countries. Each seemed favoured by a particular class or country: working class, upscale, German, English, and near the end, villas of the well-to-do where the urban architecture ended.
When we returned from our 50-km trip, we checked in, stowed the bikes, and began walking around town. We assisted at Mass in the Cathedral, which was closed for tourists during the service. The play of the light from the stained glass windows cast wonderful effects on the interior of the church. The Church of Santa Eulalia and the palace of the Almudain were near the Cathedral, The Almudain palace reminded me of the Reggia di Caserta and the Palace of Pena, because it was the home of a single royal family, with furniture and paintings as they were when the families were in residence.
The afternoon was spent in more mundane pursuits: we located a coin-operated laundromat and did the laundry. That night, we dined at a wonderful restaurant, La Paloma, just down the street from our hotel. The hotel, Palau Sa Font, was in a 16th-Century palace. We had what felt like our own apartment on the top floor past the pool. Very private and very quiet, which was good when the crowds in the narrow streets became boisterous.
On Monday, we rode west to Peguera, coddled by bright sunshine, temperate air and gentle breezes. We thought to ride to the Sierra de la Tramuntana, the range on the west coast. However, it was farther than we expected. As it was, Peguera boasted some beautiful beaches and we enjoyed a separate bike path through woods and quiet suburbs the entire way there. Before turning around, we rode out to the park past Cala Fornells, a subdivision at the end of the point west of Peguera. We locked our bikes to the gate and walked into the pine woods. A pristine beach lay deep in the woods, wrapped around the Calò de Monjo, an inlet approachable only by foot or by boat. By late October, the air and the water were too cold for a swim, but it was an invigorating walk.
In both directions, we stopped in Portals Nous, a tiny hamlet at the top of a long hill. On the way out, we had enjoyed lunch at a pub run by two English women. On the way back, we bought some fresh-squeezed orange juice from the small supermarket across the street from the pub. The orange juice machines are ubiquitous in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Keep the basket on top filled with oranges, put your bottle under the spout, and hit the button. The machine does all the work, even slicing the oranges and kicking the spent rinds out.
“I have to have one of those,” said Cheryl, more than once on this trip. “There have to be home models.”
“Maybe a little one. I’ll check Amazon later.”
That night, we dined at Il Ribello, an Italian restaurant that matched the La Paloma for quality and service. We felt very lucky to have so many top-notch eateries within two blocks of our hotel.
Tuesday, we rose to thick overcast with a threat of rain. A good day for a train ride. We walked to the Soller Railway train station, which was next to the regular station. Built between 1893 and 1911 to unite the prosperous town of Soller on the north coast with the prosperous capital, it runs under the once nearly impregnable barrier of the Tramuntana mountain range. It was electrified in 1928 with Siemens engines that are still running today, pulling the original wooden carriages. It has hauled tourists since 1930, and thus survived the motorization of the island and the construction of the highways. Today, the train ride to Soller and back sells out every day, even in the off-season.
Even the clouds and occasional rain bursts could not dampen our pleasure of viewing the scenery of the western coast and the towns of Soller and Port de Soller.
Back in Palma, we dined at Koa, also near the hotel.
It would be impossible to ride the Sierra de Tramuntana on our last day. I rented a car, so that we could see Alcúdia on the north coast, and as much of the Sierra as possible. It also gave me a chance to drive a new Fiat 500. Alcúdia proved to be a charming medieval town, surrounded by most of its original wall. We drove to the lighthouse at Cap Formentor at the extreme north end of the island. With the mists and the stark, forbidding granite cliffs, it felt like a ride to the end of the earth. No surprise that the drive attracts local and foreign tourists in all kinds of weather. The coast road down the western slopes of the Tramuntana was challenging for me as the driver, but rewarded us with its scenery. We were running out of time, so we could not stop in Valldemossa, a very cute town perched on its rock about halfway down the coast. I returned the car the same day. After showering and changing, we decided to try the other two properties of the firm that operates Koa. We had supper at the Font Sant Joan and dessert at Ombu. Three very different restaurants, but equally good.
Thursday started with more excitement than we wanted. We rode out to the passenger terminal to find out that the Thursday ferry would sail from the cargo terminals at the opposite end of the harbour, four kilometres away. We bought our tickets and sprinted down the bike path past millions of dollars worth of leisure shipping, to the eastern terminal complex. I outran Cheryl (to my surprise) and arrived at the ferry Tenacia (registered in Palermo) as the trucks were being loaded. That explained the different departure pier. Almost the entire load was heavy trucks. One of the loadmaster’s people said that I could wait by the bollard holding the stern line. Cheryl rode up with the cars a half-hour later.
Tenacia did not offer the level of amenities of other high seas ferries. But the weather was good, and the passage was uneventful. We walked around and sat in the loungers, watching the truckers play cards and drink beer.
That evening we pulled into Barcelona, the last city of our trip. Cheryl had booked the Hotel Exe Rambla Boqueria, on Barcelona’s premier paseo, Las Ramblas. It was also next to the City’s most photogenic market. Strolling couples and tired tourists moved in a sinuous flow below the window of our room. The pleasant receptionist recommended a tapa bar a few blocks away, and we arrived in time to close the place with the Spanish diners.
Barcelona is blessed with large city markets in each major neighbourhood. They are a favourite target for Cheryl’s camera, especially in the morning, when the fish are plentiful and the produce is fresh. On Friday morning, she raced downstairs to photograph the Boqueria market behind our hotel, while I drafted the next blog post.
After she returned, we walked up to Carter d’Aragon, where we found a laundromat and an alteration service. We both needed new trousers hemmed, which the alteration service had ready that same day. We also located the train station that I would need on Sunday, and the hostel that Cheryl would move to after I left. At the main tourist office, we bought ArtTickets, but it was too late to visit any of the wonderful museums that day. We snacked in the room and fell asleep.
Saturday was Museum Day for us. First the Cathedral, where we admired both the architecture and the art. Barcelona was one of the originating cities for the Camino de Santiago, so it seemed appropriate to get my final stamp at that Cathedral.
We could visit a half-dozen museums on our ArtTickets, so we walked first to the Picasso Museum, which was having a special exhibit. It felt different to view a Picasso retrospective having visited the exhibit about the women in his life and their impact on his work (“Picasso: The Artist and His Muses”) at the Vancouver Art Gallery back in August.
The Antonio Tapiés museum was overbilled. Tapiés was an important anti-Franco activist, but the “museum” to memorialize him was not ready to open, in my humble opinion. After visiting it, we walked past La Pedrera, Antoni Gaudí’s famous house, and through the residential neighbourhoods of El Raval, Sant Antoni and Poble Sec. A climb to the ridge of the Montjuïc Park took us to the Joan Miró Foundation. I liked this place, not only for the art work by Miró (I recognized some of the prints my mother used to sell in Honolulu), but the work by friends and acquaintances of the artist. including a Calder mobile made for the museum itself. The view of the city was exceptional, too. Lacking time to visit the last place (the nearby Catalan National Museum of Art), we took the cable car back to sea level and the metro to the hotel. Cheryl would visit the National Museum of Art the next day.
On Sunday, Europe fell back to standard time. We rose early and checked out. First, we rode to the hostel, where Cheryl left her panniers, then to the train station at Passeig de Gracia. Twenty minutes later, the train emptied at Terminal 2 of the Barcelona Lo Prat airport. The crowd headed for the free shuttle bus, but I was unwilling to risk another Spanish bus ride, especially when most passengers would have luggage. We switched to the metro for a one-stop ride from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1. Cheryl checked her bike at the storage service, so she would not have to deal with it early Tuesday morning. I helped her prep it for the flight. We kissed goodbye. She returned to the metro, and I headed for hell at the Vueling Air counters.
I reported to the check-in counter two hours early, because I wanted to make sure the bike got on OK. The agent refused to check my bags or my bike, even though I had paid more for the bike than my own ticket. She insisted that I have it shrink-wrapped, but the shrink wrappers said it was impossible. I showed them how to do it. They charged me for three wrappings. When I went back to the counter, the agent sent me to the oversize check-in (which she could have told me about in the first place), in the next concourse of check-in booths. When I arrived there, the agent argued that my tyres were not flat enough. He obviously had never encountered the heavy-duty tyres of touring bikes, which keep their shape when deflated – until you mount the bike. After I finally convinced him to let me check the bike, he went to his computer and informed me that the flight had closed, and that I could neither board nor check my bags. He sent me to the ticket office, to book a flight that night to Rome. I spent all day in the airport, knowing at least that my panniers and the bicycle were checked through.
The 18:30 flight to Rome was uneventful, but I was lucky to catch the last train to Formia. I arrived home at midnight instead of late morning. Happy ending: the troublesome lock on the door to my apartment opened on the first try, and soon the bicycle was leaning against the wall for a well-deserved rest.
I had been gone just one day less than six months. The year before, Cheryl told me that six months was about the limit for a sustained tour if you have a home to go back to. She was right. I was home, and it felt good.
Next week, a sea story about my one experience road racing on the author blog, then back here for a new series on the Freewheeling Freelancer.
Travel is still restricted for the pandemic, so I may continue to publish travelogues from past years. If you have questions or suggestions for this blog, please comment here, use contact form below, or email me at email@example.com.
Smooth roads and tailwinds,