It felt like the last glowing embers of summer.
We were sitting by the waterfront at a small beachside cafe in San Pedro del Pinatar sipping a Cortado coffee and munching on a toasted croissant. It was 9am on a warm Thursday morning. In front of us the waters of Mar Menor, Europe’s great coastal lake, were gently rippling in the November sunshine.
When we eventually dragged ourselves away to climb on our bikes, we were so intoxicated that we decided to ride out into the lagoon past salt flats and mud baths. Blown along by a gentle breeze we kept going and going, only stopping after 7km or so.
Just one problem … it was the wrong direction!
As we turned around, the gentle breeze immediately transformed itself into a strong northerly headwind. Heads down, we battled our way back to our breakfast cafe and then onward up the coast, the wind becoming stronger and stronger as the day warmed up.
Andy admitted that he was secretly pleased to have to pedal a bit harder as he hadn’t yet lost all the weight he was hoping to shed.
“That’s OK” said Clare, quick as a flash … “You lose it and I’ll cruise it!”
She tucked herself into Andy’s not insubstantial slipstream and resolutely cruised it for the next few days. Whenever he started to flag, she joyfully repeated her words of encouragement until they become something of a catchphrase.
Our route briefly took us through part of the Spanish coast known as the Costa Blanca, much loved by Brits seeking winter sun. There were so many English voices and English signs that it sometimes felt as if we’d left Spain and arrived in a new part of Essex or Birmingham.
But as soon as we turned inland past huge cacti farms towards Elche/Elx, we were immediately back in Spain. Elche/Elx is famous for being home to over 1000 shoes factories and over 200,000 palm trees which give it the flavour of a tropical oasis.
It has two names because Elx is the Valencian spelling, the official language of the region and very similar to Catalan. Elche is the Spanish spelling, sometimes referred to as ‘Castilian’ in this part of Spain, perhaps as a hangover from the country’s feudal past.
El Cid, a legendary hero from those feudal times, rested up in Elche over the winter of 1088 during his campaign against the Almorávids from Morocco, who ruled over most of southern Spain at the time.
In the epic poem ‘El Cantar del mio Cid’ (the song of my lord) the exploits of this much celebrated medieval knight take all of 3730 verses to describe. More interestingly to us, they’re also commemorated in the ‘Way of El Cid’, a cycling route that runs from Burgos in the north (where he was born) to Alicante in the south.
We picked up his trail in Elche and followed El Cid for over 200km all the way to Valencia, the city he dreamt of wrestling away from the Almorávids and ruling as a private kingdom.
After a year long siege, he eventually succeeded in forcing them out in 1094 only to die just 5 years later when they returned and besieged him back. Valencia then remained under Muslim control for the next 139 years.
With El Cid as our guide we climbed steadily through wide, fertile valley corridors flanked by forbidding mountain ranges on either side. He took us from one fortified hilltop town to the next … Montforte del Cid, Sax, Biar, Villena.
As the biting headwind accelerated towards us, Andy called back to Clare … “I bet El Cid didn’t like this!”
“He didn’t care” she replied, “he was on a horse, not a bike!”
Eventually the wind dropped as we rode out of Villena the following morning and slowly climbed up to 800m at the head of the valley. It felt very peaceful in the stillness of the autumn sunshine, a freshness to the air and a greater intensity of colour.
Somewhat surprisingly, this 76km day with 800m of climbing turned into one of our best ever.
Partly it was the long slow descent we enjoyed once we’d reach the top of the pass.
Partly it was the beautiful old towns we passed through … from ramshackle, medieval Bocairente to bold Xàtiva with its imposing castle.
Partly it was the delicious Sunday lunch, eaten in a simple restaurant full of Spanish families and so good that it easily powered us through the three short, sharp climbs we faced to reach Xàtiva and our overnight stop.
But mainly it was the orange trees!
Now we thought we’d seen plenty of orange groves near Seville. But ohhh no …. those are poor relations when compared to the oranges of Valencia. Valencian oranges are much bigger and much juicier. They’re just … more orange.
As well as oranges there were tangerines, mandarins, clementines and smooth skinned persimmons … an ocean of ripe fruit stretching out in every direction.
The trees were literally dripping with fruit, begging to be picked. It seemed rude not try one … or maybe two … or three. Fresh from the tree they were zingy and delicious.
Valencia itself is an old city in a modern wrapping.
The old walled city is a maze of tightly packed streets that open out onto squares buzzing with cafes and end-of-summer life. There are countless churches and a large imposing cathedral built over a mosque. In a corner chapel is a chalice that many people believe to be the holy grail, the cup that Jesus sipped wine from at the last supper.
We wandered into the cathedral late in the day. It was almost empty apart from an organist practising a dramatic and somewhat haunting piece of choral music. As we stood behind the chancel letting it wash over us, we glanced down and were surprised to find ourselves gazing at a display case containing a wisened human arm!
It turned out to be the left arm of Saint Vincent, a 3rd century martyr who was rather unpleasantly tortured to death by the Romans. This saint has been following us around the Iberian peninsula … perhaps working with El Cid to help guide us on our way.
He’s the patron saint of both Lisbon and Valencia. But of more significance to us, the most south-westerly point of Europe, the ‘End of the World’ is also named after him. After his death, his body was thrown in the sea at Cape St Vincent where it was guarded carefully by ravens until it could be recovered.
So thank you Saint Vincent for the helping hand. For putting your arm around us.
It’s been finger-lickin’ good!
A white knuckle ride!
The modern wrapping of Valencia is the old riverbed of the Rio Turia. After several bad floods in the 1950’s, the river was diverted away from the city centre leaving a huge green strip full of playing fields, cycle tracks, jogging trails and gardens.
This new space also created room for the futuristic Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (the City of Arts and Sciences). Opened in 1998 it’s a series of spectacular buildings that include an opera house, a science museum, an iMax cinema and a huge aquarium.
Next door is the type of quirky museum we love to visit. This one celebrates Valencia’s famous festival which takes place each March. Las Fallas is a huge pyrotechnic party with parades, concerts, bullfights … and lots and lots of fireworks.
Overnight on March 16th, over 350 ornate structures (fallas) spring up across the city ready for the parades. Made from papier-mâché and wood, they usually consist of a central figure up to 20m high surrounded by lots of smaller life-size ninots.
Five days later every falla and ninot goes up in flames in a final blast of pyrotechnic glory. Except for one. A single ninot, pardoned by public vote, is preserved in the Faller Museum for posterity.
It’s fun to see how they’ve changed through the years. Right now, an old fashioned sentimentality is popular … children and grandparents sharing simple pleasures.
As we leave Valencia, summer is eventually turning to Autumn in this part of Spain.
Waving a fond goodbye to El Cid we’re now looking forward to exploring 400km of the Costa Dorada (the Golden Coast) heading north towards Barcelona. Let’s hope the wind changes and it can live up to its name with some golden southerlies to warm our backs.
Clare and Andy
Stats to Valencia:
163 hours in the saddle