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Head east, don’t die (part 2)

The Spanish Cycle: Suffer hills, heat, retreat, repeat

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By Jens Ourom

Just as our Portuguese was becoming passable, and perhaps before we were quite prepared for it, we loaded our bicycles onto a nondescript ferry for a 10-minute crossing of the Rio Guadiana that separates southern Portugal and Spain. As far as border crossings go, it was a typical no-hassle European Union affair, but also an anticlimactic end to the sentimental first leg of our journey: myself, my cohort Sean Wilkinson, and our bikes accounted for over half the ferry’s cargo.

The three other passengers, clearly undertaking a routine daily commute between twin riverside cities, made no attempts to mask their disdain at the two scruffy, sunburnt travelers and their Grinch- like loads.

However, this reception was not to be duplicated. As soon as we embarked eastward through Spain’s Andalucian province the laid-back, fiesta-driven stereotype we attach to Hispanic peoples shone true. Our first days of biking en route to Seville saw us serendipitously riding in elaborate horse-centric parades alongside sequined caballeros and their stunning señoras. Instead of being ushered off the road, as we would have been in North America, paraders waved us over, quizzed us and welcomed our comparatively unsightly addition to their festival.

This hospitable reception was to be our saving grace as our route to Seville turned inland, and gruelling.

We had tried to make the distinction early on that we were travelers, not tourists. It was during times like our ascent into Sanlucar la Mayor, that we felt this was justified.

By traveling as close to the ground as Sean and I had been, universal truths about the land we slept on, dined on, and traveled over became evident. These observations are deemed far too obvious to teach in school, and one of them became painfully apparent as we approached Sanlucar la Mayor.

Aged European cities were founded in their respective locations for different reasons than were their infantile North American counterparts. Sanlucar la Mayor was founded around the 8 th century BC, about 2,200 years before Cristobal Colombo came ashore in the Americas. In 15 th century Americas, the key to life was water. Water was key to European survival in the 8 th century BC also, but it was on par with avoiding slaughter by potential invaders. This is why Europe contains so many towns picturesquely balancing in unlikely positions atop formidable hills.

They are less picturesque when you are biking. After a 120 km-day, the 3 km hill San Lucar la Mayor teetered on right before our destination of Seville was the last thing we wanted to encounter.

Seville was the first European city that Sean and I would approach entirely by bike, so to say that we were unprepared for the gigantic freeways flowing into the city would not even remotely convey our bewilderment as we reached the freeway, stopped, and simultaneously peed our Spandex at the thought of actually piloting our bikes through the madness. As we were severely dehydrated, exhausted, delirious, we decided to go for it.

I had, and after this experience remarkably still have, one theory for navigating busy traffic. You have to go as fast as the cars. Since we had climbed 3 km only minutes earlier, the highway into Seville descended rather precipitously for approximately 3 km down to the river Guadalquivir that split Seville. You can go awfully fast on a bicycle that weighs more than you when you have 3 km to gather speed.

Our speed was 50 km/h when the always-game Sean risked a glance at his cyclometer a final time. The cars may still have been going twice as fast, but it worked. We should have died, making lane changes, merging, and having our eyes water uncontrollably. All we could make of the cars were coulourful blobs of hurtling metal death. At the bottom, just within the city limits, hearts racing, but without a scratch, we decided, we really, really didn’t want to do that again. And then we got lost.

After a brief reprieve in the labyrinth of streets known as Seville, we decided we did not want to stall our momentum, and seemingly as soon as we had unpacked, we were jamming our tent poles and stoves right back into our panniers.

We headed south briefly to the peninsular city of Cadiz, as the heat inland was becoming less and less bearable, and the road alongside the Mediterranean Sea proved much smoother. Plus, there were beach showers! The potential arrival in Cadiz of “two crazy Canadian cyclists” had been predicted by a fellow traveler we had met in Portugal, and anticipated by the hostel’s owner, an avid cyclist! It would be our first — and only — brush with celebrity.

After battling winds that made biking impossible — winds so strong they had a name, Levante in Tarifa, Spain’s southernmost tip and ocean sports capital, and being stung multiple times by a jellyfish in Málàga, we finally soured of the Mediterranean’s “advantages” and turned our handlebars inland once again, towards Granada.

The thing about Granada is… it’s beside a mountain range. Although our route from Málàga did not take us directly over the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, such as Mulhacén, Spain’s highest continental peak, when pedalling is your only transportation “foothills” are not nearly as gentle as they sound. During this ordeal, without the saving graces of beach showers, we were able to define “the two absolute stages of filth.” Stage one: you attract flies. Stage two: you don’t mind the flies.

Amazingly, aside from the tourist-trap of its Moorish palace, the Alhambra, Granda was worth the pain, worth the 13 km straight of uphill battling. An eclectic, friendly, mountain-set, manageably-sized city with gypsy homes carved into the hills was the perfect remedy for aching quads.

As is always the case when content, our departures were premature. Cartagena, Valencia, Barcelona and a veritable alphabet soup of other notable Spanish destinations would fly by… but not before encountering one more hurdle on the way out of Granada. It was time to meet the Spanish policia .

To be fair to the police, In Seville we had witnessed first-hand why Spanish highways forbid cyclists. To be fair to ourselves, on the other hand, Spain is a large country, and there was no bloody way we were going to bike through it entirely on winding, inefficient back roads.

So when we were “pulled-over” (can you be pulled-over when you are already on the shoulder?) by moped police, we played the part of the co-operative tourists. Satisfied we would simply take the next exit, they left, and we continued on our merry (high)way.

It would not be our last encounter with EU police officers, as we cycled our way north to France, along the stunning Costa Azul.

A book detailing this journey, head east, don’t die, will be published in May 2008. For more information visit jensourom.com

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