One of the many pleasures of travelling slowly by bicycle is crossing a border from one country to another. Whilst there may be no change in the landscape, everything about the people feels completely different.
Spain felt like Portugal on steroids … it was bigger, grander, louder.
Where Portugal has small orange groves and olive farms, Spain has endless plantations.
Where Portugal has plazas filled with blue and white azulejos, the tiles decorating the squares in Spain are a riot of colour.
When those plazas are full of people eating and drinking, there is a low hum of conversation in Portugal. In Spain people are practically shouting at each other, such is their excitement.
Even cycling in Spain takes on a grander scale. We found ourselves riding longer distances, climbing more hills and looking out at wider horizons and bigger skies.
Our plan was to cycle to Seville, Cordoba and Granada, the three great cities that form the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Andalucia, pedalling for three days to reach each one.
These cities were first shaped by the Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus …which lasted for nearly eight centuries and extended at it’s peak to most of Spain, Portugal and even a bit of France. Then by Isabella and Ferdinand, the great ‘Catholic Monarchs’, who began the unification of Spain through their marriage and completed the Christian Reconquista of the peninsula when they captured Granada in 1492.
As the last Moorish ruler reluctantly left Granada, Isabella immediately agreed to sponsor Christopher Columbus for his voyage across the Atlantic. He was seeking a new trading route to India but instead discovered the Americas and with it untold riches for the Spanish royals, ushering in the Spanish Golden Age of Exploration.
Much of this wealth was spent on huge cathedrals, built over mosques to establish the dominance of the Catholic faith. As the architects of Seville cathedral said at the time …
“Let us build such a church, that those who come after us shall take us for madmen!”
It is both awesome and awful.
Awesome as a staggeringly beautiful building. Among many treasures, it has the world’s largest altarpiece … 45 scenes from the life of Christ carved in wood and covered by an extraordinary amount of gold.
Awful as a symbol of religious power that was enforced by the Spanish Inquisition, set up by Ferdinand and Isabella at the same time.
This reign of terror, based on local informants, torture and ritualistic executions lasted for 350 years. The Spanish Inquisition drove out all other religions (Jews, Muslims, Protestants etc.) and gradually extended their remit to a wide variety of other ‘crimes’.
Having made all this wealth possible, Columbus is rightly honoured with an enormous tomb in the centre of the cathedral, held aloft by four kings no less, representing each region of Spain.
Cycling from Seville to Cordoba we followed the River Guadalquivir through endless orange plantations, interspersed with pomegranate, walnut and almond trees.
We enjoyed staying in small hostales, simple 2-star family run hotels that usually included a breakfast of crusty toast topped with tomato paste and olive oil.
A noticeable feature of these small Andulician towns is the large number of churches, each with a bell tower that rings out the time.
They’re charming during the day but not so endearing at night!
Whilst most churches stop ringing their bells at 10pm, some are less polite. One culprit was right next to our hotel. Clanging every half hour, it was so loud that we thought the bells must be in our bathroom!
Yes … we accuse you … the Inglesia de Santa Maria in Carmona … for keeping us awake all night! Luckily for you, we are not the Spanish Inquisition … so we can only name and shame.
Cordoba was our favourite of the three cities. It’s famous for the Mezquita, a huge 9th century mosque that extends out in all directions through a series of striped arches. In the 16th century, a Cathedral was plonked right in the middle of it. This has created a unique ‘Cathedral Mosque’ that shows off the contrast between the simple, geometric designs of Islam and the more decorative Catholic style.
An important part of Andalusian culture is flamenco music and dance. We took in a show at El Cardenal in Cordoba where prize winning artists have been strutting their stuff for over 25 years.
To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect. But it was astonishing … from the virtuosity of the guitar playing, to the rhythm and colour of the dancers and the serious, passionate expressions on their faces. Standing ovations all round!
From Cordoba to Granada the nature of the cycling changed. It was mainly uphill!
We climbed more than 1000m a day, often riding up through groves of olives trees to stunning white villages that are nestled on the hill tops and are always protected by an old Moorish castle.
Spain produces about a third of the world’s olive oil (more than any other country) and most of it comes from Andulucia. It shows … every day we rode through an ocean of olive trees, lined up across the hillside like legions of Roman soldiers. They call it the worlds largest human made forest.
It was noticeably cooler when we arrived in Granada ready to explore the jewel in the crown of the Golden Triangle, the Alhambra. This towering Moorish citadel is set against a backdrop of the brooding Sierra Nevada mountains and contains some of the finest Islamic architecture in Europe. As one of the most visited attractions in Spain, you need to buy a ticket several weeks in advance.
But it’s worth it … it genuinely takes your breath away!
Granada is one of the last places in the country to continue the highly civilised tradition of serving a free small plate of tapas with every drink. Each time you order a small beer or a glass of wine, a plate of deliciousness will magically arrive. Another drink, another different tapas.
One tapas we were not so sure about was Salmorejo, a local Cordoba delicacy. It’s a thick soup made from tomatoes, bread, olive oil and garlic, served cold and topped with crumbs of Iberian ham and hard boiled eggs. Delicious at first, we thought there was a hint of baby food after a few mouthfuls.
So, where next?
Our immediate plan is to cycle east into the Badlands of Baza and then onto the Mediterranean coast at Cartegena. We promise to be good while we’re there!
Over the last few weeks a thought of where we might end up has been stirring in both our minds. Here’s a hint, from a picture that was taken in the Plaza de España in Seville (where Spanish tourists traditionally pose for a picture in front of a fresco of their home province).
It may not be our golden age of exploration but if we get there … it will be our longest bike ride so far!
Clare and Andy
Stats to Granada:
1,778 kilometres pedalled
16,613 metres climbed
120 hours in the saddle