Today is a rest day in Valencia so I decided to do a short walking tour down towards the waterfront. Valencia was once plagued by the annual flooding of the Turia River. As the city grew to over 2 million people and became the third largest in Spain, this flooding became such a problem that the Turia was dammed and diverted around the city. Today the former river bed is a long, serpentine park that winds through the city to a spectacular terminus at the City of Arts and Sciences. This ultra modern testament to architectural design is home to museums, a science center, a large theater as well as an expansive plaza with reflective pools. It is truly worth the time to walk and absorb the beauty of man made design
As this park flows along the course of the old river bed, it passes under bridges and offers places for children to play. People practice yoga here, jog, ride their bikes as well as other recreations. It is also popular for concerts, weddings and social gatherings. This is a great use for the old river bed and it appears to be the center for active lifestyles with people in motion everywhere.
Valencia, like most European cities, has its older sections with wide plazas and narrow side streets. In the city center these areas seem dominated by restaurants and the usual assortment of stores from company owned brand name outlets to small mom and pop operations. McDonalds and Burger King always seem to have a prominent spot but I can not understand why. Of course there is the required large and elaborate fountain to serve as a focal point. These areas are almost always busy and pan handlers, buskers and the occasional pickpocket can be experienced here. Guard your purse or wallet while you enjoy the sights, the tapas and your choice of beer or wine.
Once again we are skirting the coast on our way to Valencia. Today we are staying away from the shore but can occasionally glimpse it in the distance. We are traveling through orange and olive groves with other fruits and vegetables thrown in from time to time for flavor. Sometimes we go through an industrial area and the towns along the way vary in focus from industry to agriculture with agriculture being predominant. Today it was mostly agriculture with a whiff of hog that fortunately came before lunch. The oranges are mostly ripe and everything seems to be nearly ready to harvest. Rogue oranges that have fallen to the ground and rest along side of the road can be rescued from their rotten fate and turned into useful food by the industrious cyclists.
Castles and fortresses seem commonplace along our route and most of us ride right by these days without stopping to notice. I still find them interesting. All along the coast they show up, usually on a high hilltop in various states of preservation. There are usually a few lookout towers placed strategically beyond the walled fortifications. Some have become tourist attractions and some just remain, high on their summits, as a reminder of violent times in the past.
In the previous town someone told me that the area is known for its anchovy farms and that I should be able to see some of the trees where they grow. While I looked carefully for the anchovy tress, I was never able to spot one. I have never liked anchovies on my pizza and really don’t know what they look like so maybe I saw them without recognizing them. The people here are very honest and seem to have no sense of humor yet for some reason I hear them laughing at something as I ride away.
Our ride today was one of the shortest and easiest in recent memory: A mere 75 kilometers with hardly a climb worth mentioning. There were dedicated bicycle paths for much of the trip. After a day of rest in Valencia we will have six days straight of longer rides with a lot more ups and downs before we have another day off. By now all of us should be in great shape for the challenge. We shall see if I am as well.
Our days are starting later now that we are well into mid October. There is no sense in riding before the sun is up. We left Tarragona, a pretty seaside town at around nine a.m. And started to head southwest along the Spanish coast to out next stop in Banicarlo. It was a long ride at 134 kilometers but the terrain was mostly flat. Unfortunately there would be a headwind but there always seems to be a headwind when you are on a bicycle.
Our route took us on a zig-zag course that would put us along the coast for a bit and then up into the more rural farm lands of the countryside. It would be like this all the way to Valencia. On one of the coastal legs, I managed to glimpse a guy walking two Irish Setters, one about the size of my current male Rascal and the other a female about the size of my previous setter, Blaze. It was a homesick moment.
Away from the coast we were into orange and olive country with black olives and Valencia oranges growing almost everywhere. If you get one of those wooden crates of oranges for Christmas this year, I likely rode right past your fruit. Most of the oranges were still green but some were getting ripe and there were harvesting operations underway during both day’s rides.
The ride from Bencarlo to Castello was much like that of the day before only shorter at 87 kilometers. The scenery was similar and we still alternated between coast and farmlands as we followed the route of Spain’s high speed rail line between the mountains and the coast. Our route followed some old farming roads when it left the coast and we entered some rural villages where farm operations seemed to predominate. As we approached one over this rough, rural road the spires of a large cathedral appeared as if on a hill as we rounded a bend. It reminded me of something and for a moment I thought I saw skywriting spelling out, “Surrender Dorothy.” As it turned out, it was just a large church in a small town and even though I was not in Kansas, I was also not in OZ.
Leaving a large city always requires a lot of caution. In the case of Barcelona that attention to the traffic is a job that never seems to end. Barcelona is big with over a million and a half people and those people all have to get somewhere and by some means. Riding out of it seemed to be a never ending journey that sometimes appeared to be coming to an end only to come upon another traffic circle and another swarm of commuters on various conveyances. There was even a woman taking her dog somewhere on the back of her bicycle.
For most of the journey there were clearly defined bicycle lanes and even traffic lights at bicycle eye level. Occasionally we had to merge into traffic but in Spain, as in the rest of Europe, the drivers respect the bicyclist’s right to use the same road as they do. We were given ample safe distance by the passing vehicles and they even slowed and rode behind us until the oncoming lane was open enough for them to get by. This rarely happens on the North American roads that I frequently travel.
These bikeways and other structures such as the long, curving bridge in the photograph, allow muscle powered transportation to commute safely without encumbering motorists. Infrastructure built with all users in mind tends to solve a lot of problems.
From Barcelona we generally went from one urban area to another with little or no rural landscapes in between. There were occasional stretches along the cost to offer some scenic breaks but little else to make this route more than a 100 kilometer long grind. At least the climbs were few and gentle and we did get to see some
motorized hang gliders hitting the thermals along the coast for a few minutes. I think the high point of the day was our roadside lunch. Our stop for today is in Tarragona, a pretty little seaside town that also has a UNESCO World Heritage Site somewhere nearby. Unfortunately, unless we ride by on the way out tomorrow, there will not be enough time for me to visit it.
As I have been riding across Europe it seems that nearly every large town or city has been infected with a plague of graffiti. Maybe coming fresh from the Picasso Museum made me hyper-sensitive to bad art but I felt the need to write a few words on the subject. Cities in the USA and Canada have similar infections but it just seems to hit me harder to see buildings that are ancient by my standards defaced with some of the nastiest stuff to ever leave the nozzle of a spray can. I understand that some consider it an art form but given the quality of some of the work, it is clear that the artists need a hell of lot more practice before exposing their incompetence to the public. Even impromptu art that has a degree of artistic merit gets covered in crude tags that destroy whatever the original artist intended. At times I would like to see the vandal skinned with a dull potato peeler.
Some cities are worse that others but every city, even Venice has some. Barcelona seems especially bad with spray bombers willing to paint nearly anything that stands still for long enough, even the trains.
This is not to say that every form of graffiti is bad. Temporary construction barriers and boarded up windows are fair game but maybe the street artists could get together and jury the installations. You could start by just painting your bedroom wall until judged good enough to try the front door of where you live. From there you may be allowed to progress to boarded up windows and finally to construction barriers. Your crowning glory could be to be given a commission to do an actual wall mural.
Until such a graffiti bureaucracy is established, maybe cities the world over should invest in some power washers and blast the stuff off as soon as it is painted. There is no glory in graffiti that is unseen and the real city that lies underneath can be both ancient and beautiful without additional decoration.
Barcelona has so much to see you can wear yourself out trying to see it all. Since we were here for two “rest days” before another four days of riding, I decided to be selective and not wear myself down. Top of my list was the Picasso Museum. Picasso spent his early years growing up and learning the basis of his artistic skills in Barcelona before hitting the avant garde of the art world. The museum features a large collection of his earliest work as well as significant pieces from throughout his life. Of course there are gaps, as you might expect for an artist as prominent and highly collected as Picasso is by museums throughout the world. Still, the museum does a good job of giving you a solid overview of his life’s work.
The audio guide that you are encouraged to buy is well done but poorly handled. You must bring along a smart phone with active data in order to use it effectively and you need to activate the guide at an area well beyond the entry area. There is no signage to direct you. The result is that you stand in line waiting to enter and as you get to the front someone directs to the another part of the building where you must go to scan a QR code to
activate the guide. If you don’t bring your own headphones and try to listen with your phone to your ear a guard may bring you a set of headphones if he or she thinks you might disturb others. There is nothing on the museum website that tells you any of this. Additionally, the information on the guide is not arranged in the same order as you are directed to travel through the museum. You may eventually figure it out but it would be a more enjoyable experience if they gave you a few hints at the beginning.
Once I got over being peeved about the audio guide I really enjoyed the museum and saw a side of Picasso that I never realized existed. I should have guessed that he would have been trained in classical techniques but for whatever reason it never registered in my mind. It was interesting to see his progress from the classical styles of the past to the groundbreaking work of his maturity.
Both before and after visiting the Picasso Museum I spent some time walking around the old section of Barcelona. This is home of narrow streets and small shops typical of many European cities. It being a holiday these narrow streets and wide plazas were crowded with both locals and tourists out for a day in the city. Street musicians and buskers were also out trying to earn a few Euros and providing a lot of local sounds and color. Just walking around, watching and listening was an interesting way of experiencing this ancient city. There are a variety of dining experiences to try as well a wine shops and minor attractions such as the Museum of Erotica. I did not bother to go in. A couple going there would seem campy and fun but a guy by himself would just look creepy. However, there was a sex shop nearby with an interesting window display but I am not sophisticated enough to understand what a guy, looking like Salvador Dali and riding a rhino is doing in their window display.
As rides go it was not the most scenic. We started out, as usual, with a fairly long climb to get over the hills from Tossa de Mar. From there our route zigzagged through some coastal towns and always seeming to find the steepest hill just around a blind corner. Steep hills can be managed if you shift into a lower gear ahead of the climb; however, if you try to shift while your chain and derailleur are under stress it does not go well. A few of us had to circle a bit to get into the correct gear before continuing.
town had something going on. One had a bit of a traffic jam caused by vehicles getting into a parking lot for what looked like a large flea market. The roads also appeared busier than I would have expected for a more typical Sunday in October.
Recreational bicyclists were just about everywhere in ones, twos and even a group of 20 or so weekend road warriors that I let go by me through a narrow construction zone on a busy highway. From the honking horns that sounded as they crowded the cars also trying to get through, I would say the motorists were finding their normally obliging attitude towards cyclists being tested. I waited for them to pass through before going through myself and experienced no hoking or expletives hurled my way.
On one quite, rural stretch I passed an interesting church which upon closer inspection had a historical information plaque posted outside. The church was built sometime in the 11th century and is known as Sant Vicene de Tordera. The sign did not say much about the church other than when it was built and that it is now privately owned. There was a photo of the interior which I have copied and posted.
The most interesting town we rode through this day had to be Torre de Arara . It is another ancient walled city guarded by a castle on a hill within its walls. The castle, Castell d’ Hostalrich, is open to the public but as there are plenty of castles to see across Spain and I had a two day rest coming up I decided to pass on by. However, it is interesting to note that the hill the castle sits upon is cone of a dormant volcano. It is possible that the builders strategized that if attacked they would surrender the castle and pray for a miracle to smite their enemy.
We left Porto Cristo at sea level for another climb into the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. It was a challenging start to our day with zero warm up time before hitting the steep, eight kilometer climb to around 800 meters (app 2500 feet) above sea level. Along the way was a monastery that appeared to still be active. I met another cyclist who offered a description of what the brothers were up to.
He said the monastery was known as El Mondesto de Crispo and it was in charge of Friar Patata. He went on to explain that they were famous across Europe for their ultra thin and salty potato crisps that the brothers produce and sell across the continent. In fact, they are know across Europe as the Fritas Monje. I asked him what that was in English and he grinned and said, Chip Monks. As he rode away I hit him in the head with a large rock. He made a spectacular sight as he tumbled down the mountainside.
Coming down out of the foothills we entered a wide valley where at first, I thought they were growing more grapes. However, upon closer inspection they were apple orchards grown in vine like fashion and heavy with fruit ripe to pick. After the previous paragraph you may not accept my word for this but take a close look at the photograph. They are indeed apples and it seems to be a very efficient way to grow and harvest them. There is also a system of aqueducts that run along the roadway to irrigate the farmland in this area. They appear to be made of concrete and they were not made recently. Never the less, they function well and the farm lands serviced by they seem quite productive.
Our day finished with a scenic cliff side ride along the coast that required numerous climbs and glides. Fortunately, the climbs, while numerous, were gradual and easily managed by our well tuned climbing muscles. The views were great and even though we had seen similar views before, it was candy to our eyes and it made the task of getting over the hills far more pleasant.
You might wonder how we could climb over 2000 meters (6000 feet) on our way from coastal France to coastal Spain but we found a way to do it. We started and ended our day at sea level but in between we saw some hills. Specifically, the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains that run all the way to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in this area. Our first 40 kilometers were fairly level following the sandy coast of France and taking the occasional route along a canal to avoid the busier roads. Aside from other bicyclists, walking tourists and the occasional fisherman, the traffic was light.
However, as we traveled along the coast, the mountains drew closer and our road began to climb. Had we stayed on the main route there were some long tunnels that cut through the mountains but most of us decided to follow the far more difficult and possibly safer route up into the foothills. This required us to do some serious climbing with our first assent being nearly 1000 meters (3000 feet) rising from the sea and an optional, additional climb to a medieval watchtower that was now re-purposed as an antenna farm. A hardy few of us elected to make this quite steep, optional climb and the view and bragging rights from the top were worth it, even if my legs regretted it by the end of the ride.
From the watchtower you can see the entire countryside for hundreds of miles. Along the way to the top it appears every hillside, no matter how steep, that has enough soil to support vineyards apparently has them. Every turn brought another breathtaking vista making the work of getting there seem less difficult. The ride down was fast and our brakes screamed at us as we hit them hard coming into the hairpin turns.
After another great TdA supplied lunch it was back into our saddles for more climbs and falls as we worked our way over the ridges along the coast and entering Spain. There was no one to check us at the border and from the graffiti painted all over the border crossing stations it appeared no one had bothered to check anyone in years. A few more ups and down brought us to Porto Cristo in the Catalonia region of Spain and a comfortable hotel for the evening.
The ever present wind prevailed at gale force as we left the seaside town of Valras Plage. For the most part they were crosswinds but for a few grueling stretches they were headwinds that would almost stop you cold in your tracks if you did not pedal constantly. The mix of seaside resort tacky and natural seaside beauty more than compensated for the inconvenient wind.
Our route occasionally took us inland to go around the large estuaries and wetlands along the coast. Gunshots from hunters of feral pigs and waterfowl punctuated the howling wind in places. Once we turned out of the wind we were treated to an easy glide along a canal towpath that has been re-purposed into a spectacularly beautiful bicycle route. At one point only the narrow path itself separated the Mediterranean from the canal. This section of France seems to have been a transportation network of canals that are still used today for mainly recreational or tourism travel.
The towpath was somewhat rough but no problem for our mix of road and gravel tires. However, near the end of the canal there was pavement that seemed to be where the commune stockpiled all of their potholes for convenient access. I think it was somewhere along this stretch that my flashing headlight decided it wanted take up residence. At least it seemed the most likely place given the bone jarring quality of the roadway.
After lunch it was mostly tailwinds all the way to the next village where there were extensive oyster farms and a series of establishments serving the salty produce in all its wonderful forms. My riding partner, Lee and I elected to sample a plate of the raw variety along with a cold glass of white wine to accent the flavor. Having grown up on the Chesapeake Bay and eaten raw oysters all my life I have high standards for the salty bivalves. My rating for this southern French product: Five out of five stars.
A few more wind assisted kilometers took us to the end of this second easy day in a row and to a nice room and a cold beer. Tomorrow it is back into the heavy duty climbs as we hit the hills.