The Wind in Spain Blows Mainly in my Face

[I’m using the (Un)Inspired Ramblings Facebook page to post some more regular updates and photos in between main blog posts here. You can find it here.]

It feels good to be back on a Camino. To be following those little yellow arrows, for a while at least. There is some reassurance that the route will be navigable and rideable to a greater degree than just the normal GR routes; something comforting about picking out the arrows on pavements, signposts, walls and rocks as I pass by. They are hand painted, without a template, but somehow all look fairly uniform, in a similar style, as if they were all painted by just one person. I know, they’re just arrows, right? But something about them makes me feel like I’m being looked after.

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The Camino Levante leaves the centre of Valencia, heading south for a while before turning towards the north west and crossing central Spain towards Santiago. On the outskirts of Valencia, it is already a dirt track, although there is more tarmac ahead. I pass through orange plantations, small towns, and make it to Xativa that night.

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The trails are lovely and dry, apart from one short section passing under a main road, via an underpass. The soils around here are very sandy, and when wet, become an incredibly gloopy mess, grasping hold of my tyres and shoes and not letting go. In just ten metres of underpass, the bike and my feet have a heavy, sticky coating that stays for the next couple of days…

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In Xativa, I cheat slightly (a lot) and, given the density of cultivated land, opt to stay at the gorgeous La Maga Rooms, run by Estella. A simple room is actually cheaper than might be expected and Estella is lovely to chat to. She makes a more hearty Spanish breakfast than I am used to (freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, cereal, bread, jam, ham, bacon, yogurt AND fruit) before I set off the next day, surrounded by her numerous cats and with a howling Beagle in her place next door. Opposite is a house covered with art, apparently painted by a relatively famous Barcelona street artist, Pez (Fish), during a drunken night with the owner…

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This may be out of a long term budget but I’d definitely stay again. I feel really run down that morning and contemplate staying and sleeping more, but this seems ridiculous after just one days riding, so I hit the road. By the end of the second day, I am just outside La Font de la Figuera. I feel really drained, as if I’m coming down with something, and its only an hour before the sun disappears below the horizon. I scout around some olive plantations and find a partially hidden spot where I could use my bivvy bag for the night. But I’m tempted to head into the town to a hotel – its feeling cold here now and I want to nip whatever it is I’m feeling in the bud. I can’t decide what to do and sit by the field for twenty minutes contemplating options. In the end I call the hotel, confirm that they have a room, and head there.

I’m not totally sure this was the right decision. I end up festering in this small town for three nights. The hotel owners are nice enough but I am the only guest and the food they serve with dinner is odd. Its a standard arrangement – €10 for a starter, main course, dessert and drink. The first night I’m offered one, two or three pork steaks, and opt for a polite two. Its served with some courgette but no carbs other than some bread. The following night, I’m served the same meal…in fact the very steak that I rejected the previous night, and again no carbs. I wolf it down and am offered more, at which point I’m dished up another pork steak and a cheap looking burger, neither of which seem to have spent enough time in the frying pan. I don’t eat them, but the owners are too nice for me to want to complain. On the third night, I am served the leftovers of a dinner that they had for a Christening that day – very nice shrimp, squid, tuna steak, but again NO CARBS! Its all a bit strange.

It must just be my perception of things when I’m feeling run down, but everything here seems frustrating. Even eating in the town seems difficult – the cafes don’t have any menus, meaning I need to reply on understanding spoken rather than written Spanish to order, which is always harder. Its get pretty cold, and on my second day the hot water in the hotel stops working. I’m not feeling right but I don’t appear to be getting any better here and decide that I need to move on so on the third day, I pack up and ride the 15 miles to Almansa. It only takes an hour or two, and it feels good to be on the bike again, but I’m cold, groggy and still aching. I end up staying in Almansa for a further few days, doing very little, dosing myself up with vitamins and sitting out a few rainy days. I feel guilty staying stationary for too long, especially when these small towns aren’t the most inspiring places, but the owners here are very nice and helpful, telling me that on a journey over such a distance, my body is bound to need some periods of rest. I obviously do need to rest, despite my little break back in London just the week before, from which I tellingly returned feeling more tired than when I had left!

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When I do eventually get moving again a few days later, it’s obvious that I’ve done very little riding in the last couple of weeks – my legs are really tired. I continue to head along the Camino Levante towards Albacete. The scenery is gorgeous. Rich browns, reds and yellows dominate the landscape.

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At some point on this day I pass the 2000-miles-ridden-since-Caen milestone. Unfortunately I don’t get a picture at exactly that point, as I’m being chased down by two angry dogs at the time. Most rural properties in Spain are fenced, and many have dogs lurking in wait for unsuspecting passers by intruders. Generally they are tied up or behind the fence, and despite their angry snarls, and keenness to hurl themselves at the fence as I pass, I’m generally not bothered by them. But as I head further south, I’m coming across more dogs who are not tied, or enclosed. And whilst they may ignore a car passing or someone on foot, the mere thought of a bicycle wheel crunching on the dirt brings out all of their pent up frustration. The two dogs I disturbed passing along the Camino through a smallholding chased me for about a mile or so before they gave up. I’ve since started carrying small rocks in one of my bags so I can throw them at any more who decide they want to do the same…

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Despite reaching this milestone, progress is slow at times. I still feel weak and appear to be riding permanently into the wind, which grows stronger over the next couple of days. As I close in on Albacete, the dry and dusty tracks are one point replaced by a quagmire of deep red, muddy tracks, surrounded by deep red muddy fields. I ignored some decent camp spots an hour or so ago, and now find myself somewhat deserted here as the sun disappears below the horizon, miles from my intended target for the day.

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There is nowhere to camp in these muddy fields, and progress along these trails is so slow and slippery that I backtrack down towards the main road and limp into Chinchilla de Monte-Aragon in the darkness, eventually finding a roadside motel for the night after riding around the town in circles for quite some time. The hotels that Google suggested exist, appear not to exist. The motel is functional, with a constant stream of truckers, locals and soldiers from a nearby base. The following day I pause for lunch in Albacete, where I watch passers by stop and look curiously at the bike leant against the wall opposite my chosen cafe, and then head out along the Via Verde towards Alcaraz.  The Via Verde is none of many similar ‘Greenways’ in Spain, following old railway lines. The surface is generally flat, and on a relatively good quality dirt/gravel surface, with some sections very straight and raised about the surrounding land.

Unfortunately, the temperature has dropped and the wind increased, and so I am riding into a cold headwind of 15-20 mph, and its brutal. I feel terrible. Everything is cold – my head, my knees. The battle with the wind is relentless, every pedal stroke feels like I’m riding through treacle. Approaching Balozete, I contemplate camping in a perfect piece of forest but decide to take a look in the town first. In a bar I’m directed to another roadside motel a few miles down the road.  With the cold wind, I can’t resist the temptation. I need to get back into my camping habit, but not tonight.

This is Natalia, the three year old daughter of the owners of the motel, who quickly comes across and stands by my table, staring at me. She seems shy at first, despite her immediate approach, but soon is sitting next to me, poking me and pulling my jacket, ignoring her father’s protestations.

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I continue along the Via Verde the following day, as it cuts its way through hillsides in a series of short and long unlit tunnels, past copses of golden leaved trees.

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A few hours later, I’m riding in a woolly hat, waterproof shell and trousers, to try to keep the wind at bay, as once again I limp into a town – this time, Alcaraz – at the southern end of the Via Verde. Three days from Almansa, riding into a cold headwind, after some time off the bike, has left me exhausted and a little emotional. I’m ready to jump on a train, except that the nearest station is two days ride back in Albacete. My motivation for carrying on, if this weather is here to stay, isn’t great. One thing I’m learning on this trip is that my tolerance for periods of hardship is pretty low. A day is fine, but give me a few days in a row with the prospect of things continuing in the same vein, and I start to crumble a little.

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I book into a hostel/cheap hotel (again) for two nights for a rest and to collect my thoughts about what happens next. The hostel owner must be able to tell that I’ve had enough today, and brings me some cakes and drinks a few minutes later…

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A look forward at the weather forecast shows that the wind should drop and temperatures rise in a couple of days, and after a day resting in Alcaraz, I feel better about the next stage.

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I’m just a short days ride down the main road from hitting the TransAndalus trail as it crosses the main road from East to West, and the first two stages of that route that I will attempt appear to be relatively short and not too difficult, although I’m sure I’ve said this before about other routes and lived to regret it. I have to move forwards or go backwards, so I continue south, crossing the border into the autonomous region of Andalucia. As I arrive in Puente de Genave for the night, its already looking beautiful.

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Posted in Bikepacking London to Seville (2014) and tagged , , .

6 Comments

  1. Hey Chris!

    Sounds like you’re having a real tough time at the moment, but its probably just Type 2 Fun. Weather in the UK is worse and the days are short. The grass isn’t greener; Stick at it mate, you’re doing a great job! Try cruising on some tarmac for easy miles / easy smiles for a little while!

    No menus in rural Spain! That drove me crazy too, but now I look back on it fondly, and wish more places in the UK were like that!

    In my experience in Spain, there are definitely more wild dogs in Andalusia. Whether it’s something to do with the temperature, I’m not sure – but when a bitch is on heat the (male) dogs go to extreme lengths to break free from their fenced surroundings and their owners never retrieve them.

    Keep up the great work. Really looking forward to seeing how you get on cycling the TransAndalus.

    Firmo

    • Cheers 🙂 I think I was just having a bad few days, not helped by physically not feeling very good for a week or so. The weather has warmed up and Andalucia is proving to be lovely. The guys who put together the TransAndalus trail guide have done a great job form what I’ve seen so far – the trails are all rideable and the distances between stages perfectly manageable. Scenery is awesome and the people really friendly. More on that soon. 🙂 From you other comment – I was told that the soils in that area are that sandy clay, that is great when its dry but turns horrible sticky and sucky when wet. I think I just hit a few stretches where the recent weather and local geography meant the trails were still wet. It wasn’t much, I just found myself stuck in it just as the sun was going down – my bad planning!

  2. The trails on the Camino Levante look pretty mean. That thick clay-mud stuff is hideous! Do you think they’re like that all the time, or is it just due to recent weather / current season?

  3. Great write-up, thanks. Some really useful beta in here about the potential range of riding conditions. A couple of us are doing a mix of Caminos I’ve strung together – the del Sureste from Alicante up to Medina del Campo (it does braid around a bit with the Levante form Albacete) then the Levante to Zamora, then the Portugues de la Via de la Plata to Verin, then the Sanabres to Santiago – wahay! About 1,200km. We’ll be bikepacking but not wild camping – have pre-emptively decided that we’ll go with hostels. Having done the Frances twice we know where we’d wild camp but this will be uncharted territory and perhaps a lot fewer options for bicigrinos. Who knows! Either way, really looking forward to it for next April 🙂 Hope your travels continue to be fun!

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