Getting To Know the Rock

October 28, 2021

Africa in the mists

With my bike boxed and ready for the flight back to Canada and a day to wait before taking that flight, there was some time to get to know The Rock. After a farewell dinner last night our group began to break apart, some to home, some to new adventures and some to reunite with loved ones who came to Gibraltar for the finale. A few of us had an extra day or two before our flights and three of us decided to do a hike through Gibraltar’s nature preserve.

The hike takes you either up a roadway to the top or along a rugged path that follows the contour of land as it climbs and dips along the steep limestone sides of the terrain. We chose the rugged path with its many rock steps and outstanding views of the Mediterranean sea and the continent of Africa just fifteen miles across the straits of Gibraltar. The path leads you past the fortified gun placements, many from World War Two but some from the long history of this British fortress. We climbed our way to the top where the big nine inch guns commanded the straits and could reach out and touch any who should not be allowed to pass. Under the highest battery is a museum display preserving the look of the extensive works required to command these weapons of destruction.

Gibraltar is also home to a troop of Macaques, a cousin of ours from Northern Africa. One local legend says that they came to Gibraltar through a network of caverns that extend under the straits to Morocco. If so, no one has ever found any such a subterranean connection despite determined efforts to do so. It is far more likely that the monkeys arrived on some ship long forgotten in the mists of time. Today they are both an attraction and a pest. They are quite tame and will pose for any number of photographs but watch out if you have anything that looks like food.

I was attached by a fairly large one simply because I had an unopened bag of chips in my hand. I was standing just inside the open doorway of the little restaurant and store at the exit from St. Michael’s Cave when the aggressive little cuss jumped at me, clawing my side and trying to knock the chip bag from my hand. This is not at all an unusual experience. One of the TdA staff who was using his days off to explore Gibraltar with his family had a bag of expensive chocolates stolen right out of his hand by one of the critters. They may be cute but their cuteness comes with a price. Feeding them carries a 4,000 GBP fine but I assume neither Macaques or victims are charged for thefts.

St. Michael’s cave is well worth the visit with some of the most beautiful examples of flow-stone that I have ever seen. While the public portion of the cave is fairly small, the lighting effects and light show really highlight these wonderful limestone formations. There is a good deal of the cave that is not open to the public and there is still exploration of the cave network that undermines Gibraltar. Evidence of Neanderthal occupation from around 40,000 years ago has recently been found in one location. In addition to the caves, there are many miles of military tunnels from Gibraltar’s long history as a fortress. Today it still serves as Britain’s watch-post on the Mediterranean and a projection of England’s military prowess. Spain would like to have it back but that does not appear to be in the cards.

More than a tourist attraction Gibraltar is still a busy port with dry docks and facilities for shipbuilding. Still, tourism is the fuel for its economic engine and that fuel seems to be taking over more and more of the Rock’s real estate. The place is already crowded with steep curving streets, fast moving vehicles and pedestrians who must feel like targets in some road warrior video game. I loved my short visit but would have ulcers if I had to live with this traffic every day.

Tomorrow I head home. It has been a long but epic journey and everything I hoped it would be. I’ll have a few things to add about my fellow riders and the TdA staff in my epilogue.

Grinding Through the Mountains to the Rock

October 27, 2021

We left the charming town of Ronda this morning eager for the last leg of our our trip. All excepting me. I needed a Covid test and I needed to have the sample taken this morning in order to have the results in time for my flight two days from now. Canada seems to be one of the last places to not accept a rapid Covid test for fully vaccinated travelers. Instead, Canada insists upon a more expensive and longer to process PCR test for everyone entering the country. Most nations consider this overkill but Canada seems to want to continue to make travel as difficult as possible for its residents.

The result found me in a small clinic trying to explain to the Spanish only staff using Google Translate why I need a test that morning. It did not matter to them that I had researched this ahead of time, contacted their lab and confirmed every detail. Another rider even stopped by the clinic the night before to confirm that both the test he and I needed could have their samples taken the next morning.

We showed up half and hour before they opened to make sure we were at the head of the line only to be told that everything we had been told was wrong. My friend could not get his test at all and it took a lot of pleading and sorrowful looks to get my sample taken. To complicate this I did not know my European cell phone number and had to go back to the hotel to get because the online service to provide the number was down. Another trip back down the street was required to get the cash the technician demanded even though all the information we were given said they would take debit cards. About an hour after everyone else was on their way, I finally got onto my bike to begin the last 100 kilometers of my journey.

The ride was beautiful through the mountains with steep climbs and headwinds that were made more pleasant by the spectacular scenery. My reward for all the climbing was a 10 kilometer downhill run from the top and onto the moderately hilly coastal plain towards Gibraltar.

The last few kilometers passed through the industrial port city of Algeciras, Spain with its refineries and chemical plants. If I did not know better I could imagine that I was in New Jersey.

Eventually the chemical plants gave way to scenes of The Rock in all its limestone glory. A quick pass through customs and a ride across the airport runway put me into the city itself with its hectic traffic, hilly streets and death defying drivers zipping by at expressway speeds. One last uphill grind delivered me to the end of my 3000 kilometer journey and a glass of champagne with my fellow riders. One more epic bicycle trip finished and I am proud to say that I was able to ride it EFI! (Every Fabulous Inch)

Nearing the End: Ronda

October 26, 2021

Our next to the last day of riding turned out to be more of a challenge than we anticipated. We had assumed that from Granada it would be mostly downhill to Gibraltar but it was not to be. First we had to spend our last Spanish night in the city of Ronda and Ronda sits high above a deep gorge. To get to Ronda we passed through the usual olive groves and into some foothills with steep climbs along rural back roads. Instead of be more downs than ups we had to climb a total of 1325 meters (4300 feet) and most of that during the second 45 kilometers of our 90 kilometer ride. While we have done longer rides with more climbing, today just seemed especially hard. Maybe it was because our expectations did not match reality. In any event, after a ride through some beautiful countryside we finally arrived in Ronda and our last night in Spain.

Ronda is an interesting town and quite a tourism destination. It sits high above a deep and narrow gorge and offer some fantastic views and even some cliff side dining if you like. The town is also known for it bullfighting museum and well preserved bullfighting arena. Is is also known for being the final resting place for the ashes of Orson Welles.



                                                               Welles, like Hemingway before him       was fascinated by the Spanish bullfighting culture and even took part in a few amateur bullfights as a teenager. Like Hemingway he sided with the republican side during the Spanish Civil War using his vocal talents on his radio program to influence the intellectual community to support their cause. He and Hemingway eventually met during the production of Hemingway’s movie, The Spanish Earth, which Welles narrated.

Welles strongest connection with Spain was through the Spanish actress, Margarita Carmen Cansino, who he eventually married. You may know her better by her working name, Rita Hayworth. Welles dies in 1985 and two years later his ashes were sprinkled into a well on the rural estate of a longtime friend, bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez. A plaque to Welles’ memory can be seen near the bullfighting ring in Ronda.

Under Smoky Andalusian Skies

October 25, 2021

As the sun is rising ever later in the day so too are our daily journeys beginning later. We left Granada at a leisurely 9:30 for a 110 kilometer ride to our next overnight stay in the town of Antequera. Leaving the city we were quickly back into the olive plantations that seem to dominate this part of Spain. They truly are everywhere extending far up mountainsides wherever there is land that can sustain them. Irrigation networks throughout the region move the water through what is essentially a fairly dry landscape. As with many things in Spain, even the aqueducts are built with an architectural flair.

Along the way we passed through many small towns carved into the landscape. Often they have unusual artworks decorating their traffic circles and even some that are hard to understand as in the two examples I have shown.



The skies have had a smoky quality ever since we entered into any orchard farming region and this is especially true of the Andalusian region in the south of Spain. Orchards require pruning to keep the trees productive and this is especially true of olive trees. The fall seems to be the best time to do this and the result is a fog like layer of smoke that fills the horizon. Every orchard seems to have plumes of smoke rising from multiple points. Some are small fires and some like then one in the photo are the result of larger pruning activities. Riding through these, especially when going uphill can result in some unpleasant breathing but thankfully, such episodes are short. in duration.


Granada, Washington Irving and Alhambra

October 24, 2021

Granada is a busy place. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon to find the center of the town crowded with people eating, drinking and some even protesting something or another. Is it always this busy, we asked at the third sold out restaurant of the evening? Yes, we were told, all the time, every season and every day. I’ll take them at their word even though I suspect there has to be some day or season when things let up a little bit. Despite the crowds, we were able to find a good meal at a reasonable price with our fourth try.

Granada’s big attraction is Alhumbra. This is a magnificent fortress topping a high hill above the city that has been lovingly restored after a long and violent past. It was built over the remains of an old Roman fortress that was abandoned and allowed to fall into ruins, a fate that has happened to this location more than once over the centuries.

The location was claimed by the Berber king Badis ibn Habus in the 11th century. He rebuild much of the Roman ruins into a stronghold that was added to and improved by Arab rulers over the next few centuries. In 1333, Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada made further renovations and additions as he converted it into his royal palace. During this period Granada was home to Muslims, Christians and Jews who all were reported to have the freedom to follow their faith without interference. One wonders what happened to that concept.

With the completion of the Christian Reconquista in 1492 the Sultan was tossed out and the palace became the royal court of Ferdinand and Isabella where Columbus received his royal endorsement for his chance encounter with America. Fred and Issy were buried there for awhile until the rent increases made relocation to a state sponsored location more affordable.

Afterwards, various Muslim emirs made the place their home with the usual murders and assassinations that seem to go along with that style of governance. Charles the Fifth took a brief interest in the location and started to build a lavish palace until a lack of interest or funds forced him to stop, leaving that last edifice an unfinished vanity home. After that things went downhill with squatters and gypsies making a home in the once grand and glorious rooms until the French came along during the Napoleonic Wars and blew up a good bit of the place. Then things took an odd turn for the better.

American author and diplomat, Washington Irving (of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip van Winkle and other well known works) came to stay for awhile in one of less ruined portions of the Alhambra. Here, among the graffiti covered walls and ruined grandeur, he talked with the gypsies, squatters and other residents of Granada to build a collection of tales that were published as. Tales of the Alhambra. The book was wildly successful and sparked a renewed interest in the site that eventually led to the city of Granada and the nation of Spain taking a greater interest in restoring the site. This is an oversimplification and likely an overstatement of Irving’s importance but like his writing, it is a good tale. There is a monument to him on the grounds and at least one hotel named for him and maybe a few restaurants and souvenir stands as well.

Regardless of what prompted the restoration, Alhambra today is magnificant. The gardens, fountains and restored palaces are well worth the time spent to see how this World Heritage Site must have looked in its glorious past. If you come, don’t just walk around, take a guided tour. The information they provide is well worth the additional cost. Be sure to bring your passport as identification is checked many times throughout a visit due to the large business in counterfeit admission tickets. As for anything else I have to say, I’ll let some pictures speak a thousand words.

Through the Mountains to Granada

October 23, 2021

Today was to be one of longest with a lot of elevation ups and downs. We would start to climb right from the start only to come down out of the hills for a stretch and later, go right back up again. Most of us were up to the task and we were counting on a hardy breakfast to fuel the trip. Disappointment reigned at the breakfast table with the skimpiest breakfast yet offered on this trip. Nonetheless we were off to an early start hoping to complete this more difficult day at a reasonable hour.

Since Spain had upgraded what would have been a decent bicycle route into a superhighway we had to find some roads less traveled. Some of these roads were not much more than rough farm roads where the potholes crowded out the pavement. Some were worse. Still, the scenery was top shelf and we enjoyed this ride through the mountains and farmlands with plenty to see and even a mobile herd of lambs to share the road with.

The road up
The road down

Out last climb was the longest but also the most scenic going through sandstone canyons to the summit and following an almost entirely downhill route for thirty kilometers into Granada. Our totals on the day were 133 kilometers of cycling and nearly 2000 meters of uphill leg work. Overall a good day and a nice ride through some first class cycling country.

Troglodytes in Spain

October 22, 2021

Holding back the morning rain

We left the beautiful town of Valez Blanco to finish the last four kilometers of the climb up the mountain we began yesterday. The weather called for a bit of rain and indeed the sky looked threatening. However, the front was coming in from the coast and that hill that was so hard to climb helped us by holding back the rain clouds until we had passed dryly into the wide valley below the sierra.

Abandoned dwellings still punctuated the landscape reminding us of the small, family run but marginal agricultural operations that have now been overtaken by agro-biz throughout this region. An entire way of life that underwent a sea-change in a matter of a few decades

An abandoned cliffside dwelling
Still doing the troglodyte thing today

Part of journey took us through a narrow valley carved through soft limestone cliffs. Here Spanish residents in both the past and present have gone troglodyte, carving well insulated homes into the sides of the cliffs. There were many such dwellings and they reminded me of the pueblos of the American southwest. There is a tradition of this sort of dwelling in southern Spain with entire towns nestled into the hillsides especially in the southern province of Cadiz. In a few days we will pass near one such town, Setenil, as we make our way to Ronda.

Today was what someone called a “rolling rest day” with only 85 kilometers of riding and just over 700 meters of climbing. While it was definitely easier than the previous day and far easier than tomorrow, it was hardly a day out of the saddle. Maybe after tomorrow’s grind we will reflect on it with loving fondness. It certainly was an interesting and beautiful day to be touring on a bicycle.

They remind me of the pueblos of New Mexico

Mountains, Valleys and Moor

October 21, 2021

First, my title is not a typo or an example of my poor spelling habits. We are now riding through that portion of Spain that was invaded and occupied around 700 AD by the Moors. The invasion took less than ten years to complete and the occupation was not ended until 1492. Many of the castles that we have seen were either built upon old Moorish forts or after the reclamation as a defense against another invasion. Many were built by wealthy Spaniards newly rich from the easy gold harvested from the Americas by the Conquistadors.

Today these castles are sometimes maintained as a local tourist attraction or allowed to fall into ruin if located too far from a town or sizable village. Some are hard to spot if you are not looking carefully.

Industrial Farming

Our ride was a fairly short one but with two big climbs separated by a wide valley and a route that offered a long downhill glide for around ten kilometers. This glide passed through some industrial agricultural lands with large operations raising chickens and hogs and apparently doing so with little human labor.

The toughest part of the day came at the end when the temperature was the highest and we faced a seven and a half kilometer climb of around 700 meters (2,300 feet). Our destination was a stylish, boutique hotel just below the castle in the photo. The entire place had a charm that reflected the style of an old hacienda but with modern conveniences. Our dinner was a lavish nine course marathon of cuisine that seemed to never end. It is good that we burn so many calories with our rides as we appear to be eating our way through Spain.

The Ghost City of La Mancha

October 20, 2021

We spent this day is mostly rural surroundings leaving behind us the orange and mango groves for some marginal olive orchards and some rugged hill country. There were a lot of climbs, some of them steep as we wheeled our 95 kilometers through over 1100 meters (nearly 4000 feet) of uphill to our destination in the town of Caravaca De La Crux where it is said a relic from the original cross is enshrined.

Along the way we passed another relic, this one of the financial collapse in 2008. In that year Spain’s hot housing market collapsed as did many other around the world. Near the region of La Mancha (as in Don Quixote) is a failed development of epic proportion. The story we were told was that there was a rich mining development that was to become the center of an entire region bringing in thousands of workers and high paying jobs. An ambitious city was developed with many homes and buildings fully completed and many more in various stages of construction just when the boom went bust. What remains is a ghost city of epic size that could be yours for the right price. I have posted a photo of the contact information if you are interested.

There are also plenty of other abandoned opportunities nearby such as this attractive, handy man’s special amusement park. With either of the above you too can be a modern Don Quixote and tilt at some seriously big economic windmills. Finding your own Dulcinea may be an additional adventure.

The town of Caravaca de la Cruz is another ancient Spanish town with narrow streets, a huge cathedral and of course a Holy Relic. It is the fifth Holy City of the Catholic faith and is the sanctuary for a miraculous cross. This cross was brought by two angles who flew in through a window delivering the cross to allow a captured missionary priest to celebrate a mass before the Muslim king who ruled the area. During the mass the wine and bread are transformed into the body and blood of Christ but their appearance stays the same. However, this time the king saw the baby Jesus instead of the host. The king was overwhelmed by these miracles and immediately asked to be baptized into the Christian faith. The cross is also believed to contain a relic of the original cross of Christ’s crucifixion. The town has welcomed pilgrims and tourists of all faiths ever since.

Santuario de la Vera Cruz

The Six Day Grind: Day 2

Abandoned Castles and Other Things

October 19, 2021

Harvesting olives in a traffic circle
On the road through rural Spain

Our second day of our six day grind to Granada began with a climb. It was uphill all the way from breakfast but the road was well paved and the slopes mostly gradual. There were a number of castles along our way and some were rumored to be open. Unfortunately the rumor was false unless the day was a Saturday. I had the good fortune to encounter two faster riders coming back down from their climbs to the castle to let me know that my effort would not bare fruit. I was able to turn around without making the full climb to the disappointing castle gates.

A Medieval castle along our route
A Medieval aqueduct just below the castle

We traveled mostly through farmland today with the landscape being rugged and rural. The orange and mango groves disappeared to be replaced with the ever present olive orchards. Most of the land appeared to be dry hardscrabble with olive groves of various ages in various states of growth. Once in awhile there would be a some grape arbors that appeared to be past the harvest.

A relic of a lifestyle long gone
Dozens of abandoned structures along our valley route

There were a large number of abandoned residences along our route that all seemed to be of similar construction and vintage. All had terracotta roofs over a thatching of wood and fibers. The walls appeared to be adobe brick and if I had to guess, I would put construction sometime during the late 19th or early 20th century. I asked about their abandonment and it seems as though most of our group thinks that modern, mechanized farming methods and the resulting farm consolidations ended the economic vitality of these smaller, family farms resulting in sell outs or foreclosures that forced the former occupants from their homes. These home gradually have given in to the relentless processes of wear and weather to decay into the relics that were sprinkled along our route.

It is sad in a way to witness this change and I wonder what these communities would have looked like in the years long gone by. It reminded me of the abandoned school houses, log buildings and other empty and discarded structures that I see as I cycle at home in the Ottawa Valley. A lifestyle lost in the currents of time only to live in our imaginations.