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Pedaling Pensioners ride through Green Spain and on to the Olive Desert

It took us two tries to finally leave the big city of Valencia. We were not allowed to board the train to Albacete with our bikes even after we had tickets and were on the platform-the first time that has happened in all of our travels through Europe. We were able to regroup and get on the bus the next day, but in the meantime we had our helmets, a multi tool and a bike computer stolen out of the bikes in the hotel courtyard. It was definitely a hassle, but we were able to get replacement items after visiting 3 bike shops in Albacete. We finally were on the road in Albacete and headed for the Via Verde when the clouds opened up and we took shelter in a local bar to wait out the rain. After a very Spanish midday meal of various meats and patatas we rolled out under sunny skies to the Ruta de Don Quixote. Our first impression was that the Man of La Mancha could only go in a straight line across a featureless plain. It was pretty boring but we had a wild boar with 3 babies sighting to enliven the day and eventually camped outside the town of Balazote, where we found water and a quiet spot in the trees.

After all the excitement of flamenco, paella, the amazing architecture and food of Valencia, the crowds on the street, having some gear stolen, train and travel difficulties and the sensory input from our days in the city and the hassles of getting on the trail again, it actually felt really good to settle into the tent and hear the distant barking of dogs that we seemed to hear from every campsite.

It is truly a great thing for us Pensioners to find ourselves hoisting a glass of Sangria or a beer with some tapas in the afternoon in Spain. After a while it seems normal to have a big meal in the middle of the day and drink and dine into the late night hours. After all, many Spanish folks start their day with coffee and a cervesa. But for us, it is also nice to wild camp and get back to our own rhythm and maybe drink a little less. But the food is certainly not as good.

We rolled on through some great tunnels and gravel on the next days ride, but Don Quixote’s Via Verde ended rather abruptly with a hot road climb through Alcaraz. Following the path of the European Divide Trail, we found ourselves camping in a magic little canyon.

By the next day we were running out of food and needed to get to a town. Still following the European Divide, we climbed hundreds of meters on some really nice gravel roads to a high point. Suddenly the GPS track showed us veering off road and straight up a steep embankment. It was a beautiful area of rocky peaks and trees beginning to turn into their fall colors. After some fuming and discussion we opted not to go for the 2.5 kilometer and 450 meters of climbing hike a bike and made a longer dirt descent back to pavement. From there we had a steep road climb and descent into Riopar, which turned out to have a great little hotel and lots of shops. I always like towns that welcome you with signs in 3 languages, because that means that they have services.

This is where the GPS showed our route going

View of the ED route from a distance. The track goes across the peak below the cliff area.

Once again we were suffering from disillusionment with following the European Divide Trail. Although it led us to some beautiful and amazing places, we simply couldn’t face the prospect of surprise hike a bikes or more sufferfests.

Our German hotel keeper in Riopar turned out to be very helpful in making our next route decision. As she carefully explained in precise English, we were currently riding through Green Spain and getting to the edge of Brown Spain. We could opt to ride more through Green Spain by going through the Natural Park or go on to Brown Spain. We took her advice to go through the Parque Natural de las Sierra de Cazorla. It was 3 days of road riding, some of it along the shore of a rapidly shrinking reservoir…another sign of climate change. At times it was stressful with cars on the road, but drivers have been very respectful of us for virtually our whole ride across Spain. We even met two other bikepackers who were very happy to chat with us for awhile. We have not seen many other cyclists. Along the way a very enthusiastic hiker gave me directions to a great campsite complete with a spring and picnic table-both are rare and appreciated amenities.

On the descent into Cazorla we looked out over the hills to what our friendly hotel keeper called Brown Spain. It was actually completely covered with olive trees stretching to the far horizon.

Cazorla is a lovely town perched on the edge of Andalusia. We took a rest day to walk the twisting streets and get ready for the ride to Córdoba. An early morning bus ride left us in the noisy city of Jaen, where we rode off into the olive groves. We had seen a lot of olive groves before but the sheer scale of this industrial forest was daunting as we pedaled by the same landscape over and over again. The weather turned very hot and we were really suffering as the day wore on and we tried to find a place to camp. The trees stretched on forever and the plowed dirt and rocks underneath them did not look like great places to sleep.

Just as we reached peak afternoon sufferfest and thought we would blow up and crash we rolled into the small town of Santiago de Calatrava. It seemed to have a small park so I asked some locals if we could camp there. The second person I asked told me about a Casa Rural right up the street. Suddenly we were sitting in the shade of an umbrella at Alberto’s bar and drinking beer as Alberto helped us arrange a place to stay. The contrast was stunning- from the edge of heatstroke and exhaustion to civilized Europe. We met Samantha and Pawel and their 4 kids while we waited for the place to be ready. They had left England for a better life in Spain two years ago and had chosen this little village in Andalusia over all the other possible options. Samantha called it the Olive Desert and that name seems exactly right. It was pretty fantastic to hear from them about life in Spain and how it compared to England. It turned out that they were our neighbors for the night as we stayed in the Mayor’s palatial guest house, a beautiful 5 bedroom home with a pool. Where we expected hardship and difficulties, instead we had a warm welcome and one of the best places we stayed on the entire tour.

Karen and Samantha

In the morning we bid farewell to our new friends with 75 kilometers between us and Córdoba. We had every intention of riding all the way and made great progress through the cool morning hours. But as the temperature spiked into the 90‘s and we climbed the same 50 meter size hills over and over again, we began to wear down for the day. Did I mention that Spain has a lot of hills? Maybe we should try this again in Denmark.

We finally gave it up right where the olive desert ended and we had some shade. After a hot and bug bitten last night of camping we rolled into Córdoba for a celebratory cerveza and a big steak dinner.

We have decided to end the tour here in this ancient city. We have about a week to play tourist and relax until we need to be in Lisbon for the flight home.

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