ADMITTEDLY, aspiring to cycle over the Sierra Nevada on a bike with heavy pannier bags and only seven gears had seemed ambitious from the outset, writes Chris Atkin.
My book, (Just As Well) It’s Not About The Bike, is as much about Spain’s history and culture as it is the 1,300km route from Valencia to Gibraltar.
Several readers have commented that I must be ‘bonkers’ to have embarked on the journey. However, it was the best thing I have ever done. The bike, which I bought for less than €200 at the start of the trip, enabled me to travel to parts of Spain the vast majority of tourists have never even heard of.
I hugged the coast for much of the adventure, but I was unable to resist the lure of the Alhambra and took a detour inland to visit the tourist mecca of Granada. While the city is undeniably impressive, it was the ride to get there that will linger longest in the memory.
Turning my back on the Mediterranean Sea, I ascended away from the holiday makers settling in for a day at the beach. I’d spent the previous day alongside them and I felt a pang of jealousy as I strained every sinew climbing to nearly 1km in altitude. I stopped for lunch at Almócita, a beautiful, unassuming village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
The only sounds came from the crickets in the bushes and the gentle trickle of the water fountain in the square.
The few residents that I saw were by the village’s solitary restaurant, seated in the shade in contented silence.
Away from the beach bars, sound systems and T-shirt sellers on the coast, the pace of life here was palpably different.
I stayed the night nearby and ate breakfast in Ohanes, where the village’s attractive white buildings and historic stone church cling to the mountainside.
As I approached the summit, I looked back towards Almería.
The Sierra Nevada is one of the few places in Europe where you can ski in sight of the sea, which shimmered tantalisingly in the early morning sun.
From the peak, the 400m descent towards Abla was worthy of a car advert and should be on the wishlist of all adrenaline junkie cyclists.
Upon reaching the valley floor, I headed north-east towards Guadix.
If the grind of the hard yards ever began to wear me down, I reminded myself that there always seemed to be something unusual just around the corner.
For example, shortly after departing Cartagena, I stumbled upon the Enchanted City of Bolnuevo.
My willpower to resist stopping for a break at one of the pristine empty beaches next to the road had been diminishing with each passing kilometre, and it disappeared entirely when I saw the collection of 30-metre high giant fungi-like shapes of sandstone rock.
Their bizarre appearance is the consequence of thousands of years of wind and water erosion and I had the landmark all to myself.
On another occasion, I was rewarded with an unexpected view of the village of Benaoján. I had been lamenting the need to depart Ronda when I began a gruelling – and frankly unwelcome – ascent.
At the top of the hill I glanced over my shoulder to see that the towering, jagged peaks surrounding the village’s Andalusian buildings gave it the appearance of a modern-day Machu Picchu.
While travelling from Abla to Granada my surprise was a sighting of Calahorra Castle.
It looked incongruous, like something from the dunes of Tatooine in Star Wars. Although it is now rarely visited, the early 16th century fort was one of the first Italian Renaissance castles to be built outside of Italy.
Before I planned my trip, I’d never heard of Guadix and I regarded the city as merely a convenient pit-stop.
A visit to the Guadix’s two most famous landmarks quickly highlighted the fallacy of this perception.
The city’s baroque cathedral dominates the skyline, yet it’s the underground cave dwellings that are the city’s calling card.
Visiting the location early in the morning, it seemed I had walked onto a Hollywood film set that had been abandoned before it could be dismantled.
Nonetheless, this is no quaint regional quirk and consists of the largest number of cave dwellings in Europe.
In total 6,000 troglodytes live here, with their homes fitted with all the modern conveniences one could desire. Some even have swimming pools installed.
I always attempted to start cycling early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day. In spite of my good intentions, I rarely made it very far as I invariably became distracted by my surroundings.
This was the case on my journey from Guadix to Granada. I blame the friendly manager of the cave museum in nearby Purullena. Entering the cave revealed how deceptive appearances can be. Inside, it was enormous and I quickly lost my bearings as to where I was relative to the outside world.
The trip had been years in the planning and I’d long been excited by the opportunity to cycle along one of the world’s most famous coastlines. The beaches certainly didn’t disappoint. But there were also many aspects that were completely unexpected.
I knew nothing about Altea for example, which I now consider to be the most beautiful old town in Spain.
Equally, I didn’t expect to find my cycling nirvana in Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park.
Things didn’t always go to plan (sometimes disastrously so) while I was in Spain, yet I relished learning about the country.
For instance, I was astonished to discover that four hydrogen bombs fell over Spain in 1966.
Travel restrictions will hopefully be lifted soon. For those lucky enough to live in Spain though, my book can hopefully serve as a reminder to encourage everyone to visit some of the incredible places on their doorstep.
- SADDLE UP: cycling, culture and cuisine in Ronda
- ON YOUR BIKE: Why you should discover the White Villages of Andalucia by bike