8: Spain, Cycling with my parents in Andalusia

The bus we caught from Merida to Seville was a nice and quick one.  We got off the bus at a reasonable time to quickly put the bikes together again, and bike out of the bus only exit since we couldn’t figure out a better way to get out.  It was 8:30 at night , dark and the city was bustling.  My parents still hadn’t landed yet so Heidi and I headed towards the air bnb, which would be our home base for the next several days, and then immediately sought out a tapas bar to grab a drink and chill.  The skies were clear, the weather felt warm and we were getting excited to have my parents visiting and for hopefully better weather!  

After several drinks and tapas we met up with my parents to welcome them to Spain!  The next several days of being in Seville involved wandering around to the sights, allowing my parents to get over the jet lag, get comfortable with the language barrier and get acclimatized to an Andalusian city.  I loved the bustle at night and the old quarters of the city were fun with their winding streets and street lights.  Stumbling across street musicians playing classical Spanish guitar and finding free flamenco shows was a fun routine plus we were enjoying the best weather we had enjoyed since France.  It was also my moms birthday for one of our days in Seville and we all enjoyed a good dinner and I was very happy to have her with me in Spain to celebrate along with me on the road.  The Plaza de Espana was pretty cool and finding fig trees from the Amazon was an interesting discovery in the parks nearby.  The architecture seemed different as well and some of the buildings with some Islamic influence stood out after the weeks cycling in other parts of Spain.  Maybe giving us tastes of what is to come in Morocco. 

After three wonderful rest days in Seville we all got our bikes together and ready to bike three days towards Cordoba.  My mom was a bit nervous being the only one in the group who hadn’t done any serious bike touring in the recent months but heading out of the city was rather simple following bike paths most of the way.  Our first hiccup was when our route lead us right into a fence blocking us from a train track line.  We were able to re route through a new development and followed a local cyclist who went through an open pedestrian gate and pushed our bikes through a woody area to get back onto our track.  

The first town outside of Seville which we arrived in quickly threw a challenging push at us up a rocky hill with no less than a mule tied up and standing in the middle of the path.  We got to the top, walking around the mule and continued on climbing upwards towards the more scenic parts of the town.  After a lunch break in the town square and a conversation with a British english teacher who happened to be there we continued on.  The route took us past a penitentiary and then onto a very sandy track with big mud puddles interspersed and with Cactus lining the side of the road.  The environment was very different from the other parts of Spain we had seen before.  

I noticed some serious chain sag and decided it was time to swap out my bike chain with the spare I had been lugging around.  The second I got the new chain on there I began to have chain slip.  I hadn’t swapped my parts out fast enough and my chain rings were totally worn.  No surprise after many days of cycling on the flat terrain in France and the Netherlands in the exact same gear the entire time.  Keeping in my small chain ring I was able to avoid further slip but it hampered our progress.  My mom was getting tired after a difficult but stereotypical first day of Spanish cycle touring and the sun was quickly setting.  

After getting water from a friendly and very drunk group of Spaniards at a bar we went off into the countryside and asked a group of farm workers where we could camp.  They recommended we camp next to a big hacienda compound which kept us relatively out of the way.  It was a very exposed spot but having asked for permission we felt comfortable just throwing up our tents.  A police officer came by to ask about what we were doing and seemed impressed we wanted to camp outside for the “cold” night.  The next day we were met by a caravan of people with racing and show horses heading down the rugged dirt track right next to our campground.  The cars didn’t stop and dozens must have gone by.  We watched them pass as we made breakfast and they stared at us giving anything from a thumbs up and a laugh to a confused look as they trundled by heading off into the countryside to whatever horse show they were attending.  

With that interesting exchange we continued down the track and got to some very muddy spots that we had to push around to avoid.  This was some deep, stinky mud but it was nothing compared to what we would deal with in a weeks time.  Having gotten thoroughly dirty we headed straight into a town so I could find a bike shop and get some replacement parts.  The cousins that ran the bike shop which I found were fantastic and super helpful!  The name of the shop was Bicicletas Blanco Carmona and when I told them I just wanted the parts so I could save money on my tight budget to install them myself they quickly insisted they would do it free of charge!  I had a good time chatting with them while my family got coffees and tried to de-mud their bikes and adjust some things on my moms bike to make it more comfortable.  

After the new chain, rear cluster and middle chain ring it felt like a new bike!  We continued out of town on a country highway road which was just busy enough to not be too enjoyable but quiet enough to not feel in danger.  We failed a bit in finding a wild camping spot where we were hoping to stop and after asking  a man in a small community, we camped in the community public park.  It is always interesting to stop in these sleepy little places that never see tourists and to hear a little of the lives of those living there.  The man had been married in the park where we camped and there was a river near there where we observed some fishermen bushwhacking to a good spot on the banks of the river to cast.

We were woken by an early morning rain spatter so we immediately got up and rushed in packing up.  We decided to just have a quick snack and get going before the rain got worse to stop in a Cafe later to have a proper breakfast and coffee.  The second the sun rose and we entered another town the rain hit and we entered the nearest cafe on the edge of a park.  We had an awesome standard local breakfast of cured ham on toast with sliced tomatoes, salt and olive oil which with six coffees was still less than 15 euro.  The rain let up for just a bit as we left but hit hard again while we were riding. 

The 30 km ride into Cordoba was the wettest one to date.  Dumping rain, busy traffic and a confusing bike network entering the city made for a wet and uncomfortable bunch.  Everything was soaked and if there was even the slightest gap in our pannier bags water got in.  No real damage was done and we were met by our host at the air bnb for our next three day break.  It was a really interesting building being part of a large plaza that historically people would bull fight and show off bulls in.  It was pretty cool staying right in the middle of the town in a historic building.  The wooden beams in the building were larger than any of the trees I had seen so far in Europe, speaking to the age of the building and how much deforestation has occurred in this part of the world.  

We spent our days in Cordoba drying out our things, wandering around the Jewish quarter of the city, getting a free walk around inside the Mezquita, a Mosque/Cathedral, and going to a classical guitar show in the historic local Synagogue.  Cordoba was a relaxing city compared to Seville with everything close together and a beautiful river going right through the middle of town.  The rain came and went during our stay and we nervously looked at the forecast realizing it was not going anywhere.

Our first day out of Cordoba was with decent weather, and was according to the forecast the only day of decent weather for the next four days.  We had decided to follow another camino from Cordoba to Granada, the Camino Mozarabe and it started out well.  We even met some Italian Pilgrims right on the outskirts of the city.  They stated that the track was muddy in some areas but should be good for us to a town where we can get onto a paved road.  We continued on happily enjoying the quiet and beautiful countryside and skirting around the few mud puddles in our way.  We passed several locals in vehicles who warned us to head back, that the mud was dangerous and we wouldn’t be able to make it.  There were no side roads to go out on and the only option was to head back the 15 km of dirt riding we had already come so we decided to keep going despite their warnings.  Everything was fine until we came around a bend and onto the exit track of about 5 km.  This track was all mud, and the terrain on either side was just mud with grass on it.  This mud was all clay and we quickly, and painfully learned that this stuff was on a whole other level of madness.  It sticks on immediately and ads to itself like a rolling snowball.  Within just a few meters the tires would be so clogged they wouldn’t turn and you would be slipping around in the mud trying to push and watching your shoes get covered in mud the entire time.  We spent an hour struggling up one hill side of about 200 meters, helping each other push, hacking away at the clay building up and repeating this process over and over again every few meters.  I scrambled up to the top of the hill to see what the next 4 kilometers would look like and just saw more of the same off into the distance, this insane muddy road and muddy farms.  The locals had been right, this was impossible.  We might have been able to do it we had all day and then the rain started again.  We quickly decided to admit defeat and relegate ourselves to cycling the 18 km of dirt tracks back to Cordoba.  With the new rain the dirt track we had come in on began to transform, it turned into the same horrid muddy clay cake mix we had been fighting. 

Lucky for us there were other workers driving big vehicles around and two guys who had just unloaded a load at a local farm allowed us to throw our bikes onto the back to get us out of that hell of our own making.  We all dejectedly stood on the back holding onto the bikes watching the countryside go by, the same countryside we had been cycling past all morning.  This was the first time conditions had forced us to go back and we were just shocked at how quickly the track had gotten so bad.  We had all dealt with mud and rain but not mud like that.  

Back in Cordoba we awkwardly went around searching for accommodations feeling defeated in being back in the place we had started early that morning.  One place was full and they sent us to what we thought was an Albergue.  As we were searching around on the street where it was supposed to be a nice local guy came by and when we told him we were looking for the albergue he quickly told us it wasn’t the kind of place we wanted to stay.  It was apparently and albergue homeless shelter….  With that we messaged our old air bnb host and he was nice enough to meet us while he was eating dinner to give us the keys to the air bnb and let us stay there one more night.  That night we all ate dinner and brainstormed the best way to get from Cordoba to Granada with one less day available to us due to the mud and with only high way options to leave the city.  We eventually all agreed the only way to proceed was to take the busy highway out of town into the mountains until we got to a place where we could find paved side roads to get onto.  

We also went to a car wash to blast off the mud from our bikes that was drying like pottery clay onto everything.  

The start to our next attempt at escaping Cordoba was as expected, busy with intermittent rain.  We were all ok with this though because there was no other alternative with the dirt roads being a no go and the only other paved roads adding far too many kilometers considering our three day window.  This was tough because the four days was designed to help my mom since we were entering hilly terrain and she was still getting used to a fully loaded bike.  My dad was also fighting a nasty cold that had developed into a hacking snot fest while still riding with us.  We all continued on knowing we didn’t have much of a choice and hoping the high way grades would be gentle enough to allow us to cover the ground we needed to get to Granada on time for our next air bnb.  After the first day we covered 65 km and 900 meters of elevation gain arriving in the town of Baena.  We decided to go for the local Albergue since it was going to be a cold and rainy night in the mountains.  The Albergue of course was at the very top of the town and added 200 meters of elevation gain to the end of our day on streets so steep we had to push and/or take allot of heavy breathing breaks.  There was no kitchen so we cooked under a bridge balcony in the cold while avoiding what rain splatter we could. 

This also happened to be American thanksgiving night… We all sat in the albergue room waiting for the heater to kick in more and trying to call our loved ones on cruddy internet to say happy thanksgiving.  It was definitely the most interesting thanksgiving I have had…

The next day started with the insanely quick decent and then climb up a very steep but quiet bike path.  We were attempting to stay on a greenway for our first 30 km but with the horribly steep grades my mom and dad opted for the highway while Heidi and I continued onward to meet in the next town.  Where we parted ways the greenway just happened to join a rail to trails line and the grades quickly improved.  We continued on and even got to a bridge where we could overlook my parents below on the highway.  They joined us again for a bit but then got back on the highway, nervous about the quality of the upcoming greenway.  Heidi and I continued over several bridges and then did a gradual climb up into Alcaudete where we found a bar to wait for my parents.  

All of these towns were very interesting since they were all on steep hills and coincided with heavy medieval fortifications.  This part of Spain was controlled by the Moors for the longest and it was due to the difficult terrain, preventing the christian kingdoms from quickly conquering the area.  Every town felt like a fort and the architecture and design of the cities felt very unique to the other towns we had seen in Spain.  

In Alcaudete, where we met my parents again they had decided to take the bus the rest of the way to Granada.  My dads cold was just getting worse and my mom was struggling on the hills.  We talke them through the process of bussing with bikes in Spain and then carried on, shooting for the top of a mountain pass to look for a camping spot before spending the night and then spending the next day cycling into Granada to rejoin my parents.  We quickly left and got onto side roads, avoiding the highway and enjoyed a beautiful sunset while going up a harsh climb in another hillside town. 

We found some good wild camping in an olive grove and woke up the next day to a very cold and dewy morning.  It was just above freezing yet everything was soaked.  A very cold way to start the day.  We flew down the pass and up the next side to a bar for coffee and breakfest to warm up again.  The rest of the ride that day was wonderful, we took a smaller side highway up and over the highest pass of that day and then enjoyed a lovely ride on a side road down a canyon into the valley where Granada lies.  The views were fantastic, the weather was great and Heidi and I were not fighting a cold for the first time in a while!  It was wonderful to rediscover our love for this mode of travel after so many weeks of struggle and harsh conditions.  

Cycling into Granada was a bit tricky as the roads were very narrow and there was not any room for cyclists.  One bike lane actually ended all of a sudden into a busy one way road going the other way.  At least there were bike lanes at all, but I felt a little betrayed by this sudden change of infrastructure and mistrusted the rest of the bike paths.  The hostel we were heading to where we were going to meet my parents was up on top of another hillside but we had some great conversations with other travelers on the way up and some lovely views of the sun setting over Granada.  Something we would enjoy many times in the beautiful, hilly city.  The hostel was a nice and social place and we enjoyed chatting with many other people into the evening there while drinking sangria and eventually making our way to a restaurant for a paella dinner as we had nothing to eat. 

We went to our first of two air bnbs we had lined up in Granada the next day.  It was in the middle of the city lower down but was in a good location for allot of tapa bars and for wandering down to the river.  We had a great walk around and up above the Alhambra, a old palace, and we enjoyed looking at the street art we could find along the way.  The area was even more beautiful at night and we walked around parks lit up by beautiful lights at the base of the palace before heading back to the city proper. 

Granada is a tapas city, which means you get free food with a purchased beverage.  This is one of the best things ever!  The free food is usually in a decent portion and is whatever the establishment has cooked up in large quantities for that hour.  Some bars even give you a Tapas menu to choose your free tapas from.  Granada has quickly become my favorite city so far in Spain.  Seeing the Sierra Nevada mountains with their snow topped peaks in the background, the free tapas, the lovely old districts of the city with their hilly and windy streets gives it a wonderful atmosphere.

On one of the days we were in the city we went to explore the Alhambra, the Islamic palace on a hilltop overlooking the city.  This was the first time since Paris that Heidi and I had paid to go see a place and it was well worth it.  It was an amazing complex with beautiful architecture and artwork and fountains galore.  We spent hours wandering around the palaces and the grounds and we left enriched by the beautiful place.  Thank you to my mom for pushing us to go see it!  

For our last two nights in Granada we have gotten another air bnb in the hilly old part of the city with an awesome social patio overlooking the Alhambra.  We have one more night with my parents here before we part ways and Heidi and I continue south and then take a ferry to Morocco.  It has been fantastic having my parents here to visit on this journey that Heidi and I are on.  It means so much to me how supportive they have been of my interest in seeing the world like this and that I could share three weeks with my mom was fantastic.  It was much harder than we anticipated and the conditions were tough yet again, a common theme in Spain, but I know we don’t regret any of it.  We now have one more night to enjoy some Tapas and wander around the Alhambra to look at the city lights.  I can’t wait till they can come out and visit us again somewhere else down the road in Africa! 

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