A bike ride of 436 kilometres is a long way to go for a dinner date!
Weeks ago, our daughter Sarah told us she was coming to Barcelona for a short break with some friends. If we could somehow get there by Saturday 20th November, she could meet us for dinner and we could spend Sunday together.
At the time we were vaguely thinking of flying home from Valencia. But this was quite an incentive … it would make for a very happy ending!
So we studied the map, worked out the distance, checked the kilometres per day, looked at the terrain and found that it fitted together perfectly … as long as our legs held up. If we kept pedalling up the Costa Dorada (Golden Coast), we could make it to Barcelona in time.
We did make it … and it was worth it! A lovely weekend together.
The journey itself was was very pleasant. The Costa Dorada is known for its flat golden beaches and calm shallow waters, punctuated by craggy hills that fall down to the sea in a series of steep turquoise bays.
For the cyclist this means being gently lulled into long periods of cruising … only to be rudely awoken by some short, sharp exercise.
Huge numbers of Spanish people have an apartment by the sea. For most of the year they live in busy cities but they all decamp to the beach as soon as the kids break up for their summer holidays, only going back when it’s time to shop for new school shoes.
From June to September the beaches, bars and playgrounds must be alive with the happy laughter of both children and adults. But by November they are ghost towns, in hibernation, all wrapped up for the coming winter.
For mile after mile we were able to ride on the paved promenades that line each beach, the gentle waves of the Mediterranean lapping the shore to our right, the sun on our backs. We could ignore the ‘no cycling’ signs as there were so few pedestrians to disturb.
A few of the more popular towns still had some life about them … Benicàssim, Cambrils, Sitges … all very pleasant for an overnight stay.
We especially enjoyed the tiny peninsula of Peniscola where we celebrated the end of a particularly brutal 15km section of ripio (gravel track) … gazing out to sea in a bar that served relaxing tunes along with the beer and the snacks.
It wasn’t sunny every day … winter was coming and sometimes we had to wrap up warm in almost all the clothes we had. The darker evenings rushed towards us as we rode north, only arriving at our destination as the sun was setting.
The big highlight of the week came late one afternoon about half way between Valencia and Barcelona, when we peddled slowly across the Delta de l’Ebro (the Ebro river delta).
For centuries the silt flowing down the longest river in Spain has created a wetland that bulges out into the Mediterranean, perfect for growing paella rice and a haven for migrating birds. Over 300 species live or pass through there each year – including grey herons, great egrets and thousands of starlings that were calling out to each other to get ready for the evening murmation.
It was a Sunday which meant that most restaurants were closed for dinner. So we stopped for a Menu del Dia (menu of the day) fish lunch and a complementary bottle of crisp white wine.
When we climbed unsteadily back onto our bikes to ride across the delta, Clare idly mentioned that we were lucky not to have lost anything or had any accidents on this trip. Unfortunately she spoke too soon!
Andy was so taken by the birds, by the open blue sky, by the watery light reflected in the sodden fields, that he unclipped his phone to take a few shots of Clare from his moving bicycle. Something he has managed to do many times before.
However, this time the phone slipped out of his fingers and with just one bounce it plopped into a ditch at the side of the road and sank into the water, leaving a few bubbles to mark the spot.
Without thinking, he immediately jumped off his bike and lay down on the verge to try and fish it out, his hands stretching further and further out into the muddy silt until his whole arm disappeared. Just as he was about to give up, his fingers wrapped themselves around a familiar smooth and solid shape.
Triumphantly he pulled out his phone, shouting with joy … only to find himself staring into the dark eyes of a very worried Spanish man.
“Mierda … pensé que estabas muerto!”
(Expletive … I thought you were dead!)
Hearing a commotion behind her, Clare had turned around and was amazed to find herself gazing at her husband lying face down in a ditch, the wheel of his abandoned bike slowly spinning beside him. She flagged down the first passing car and seeing her obvious alarm, they immediately leapt out to help.
Several more cars rolled up … it quickly turned into a small rescue party.
Which was just as well as it wasn’t at all easy to get out of that ditch. It was very slippery. Many hands were needed to pull Andy out.
Many apologies were needed to restore what was left of his dignity.
Predictably it was the phone that died. A black screen was soon staring forlornly back at us.
But this is a story with a happy ending.
After several days of tender loving care to dry it out, the phone came back to life … just for a few minutes. The next day it worked for about an hour. But the day after that it pronounced itself fully recovered and has been working perfectly ever since.
So the visit to the waters of the Ebro river delta was worth it after all! Together with Clare’s cycling tops and Andy’s cycling shorts, this phone is an old friend … they have all been on every one of our bicycle tours.
But we have made a few changes to our bikes this trip:
1. Bike stands: Incredibly useful for quick stops, picnic lunches and in crowded garages, they are well worth the extra half kilo in weight. We wish we’d attached them years ago.
2. New tyres: Continental Grand Prix 4 Season have replaced our trusty Schwable Marathon Plus. They’re more comfortable on smooth surfaces, not quite as grippy on gravel.
3. Mirrors: Kept on from Vietnam, they’re great for keeping track of each other and for spotting big trucks rumbling up behind.
As for mechanicals, we’ve only had two punctures … both to Andy’s back wheel, which is not surprising as it takes the heaviest weight (him, not the panniers!)
More seriously the shifter for Clare’s front derailleur broke back in Lisbon. When she shifted into a lower (easier) gear, the chain leapt over the middle chainring and landed on the smallest ‘granny gear’ … a dramatic change in power. Fortunately, she could get it back into the middle ring by shifting up again.
We checked it out with two bike shops in Portugal. Both rubbed their chins, declared it broken, told us the parts were impossible to get in these strange times and shrugged apologetically.
This means she’s been ‘double de-clutching’ (as she calls it) for over 2000 kilometres.
This journey around Portugal and Spain has easily been our longest bicycle tour so far:
2915 km pedalled
22,880m climbed (2.6 Everests)
193 hours in the saddle
It’s also been our favourite.
Which has been something of a surprise … as it was only a late substitute for the ride we’d originally planned down America’s east coast.
Delightful late summer and autumn weather have certainly helped …. we’ve enjoyed endless blue skies, warmth and no rain since the 4th day of cycling! When the wind did blow, it was even-handed, dividing itself equally into headwinds and tailwinds.
Apart from a couple of small ferry river crossings, we’ve completed the whole journey on our bikes, pedalling for miles on well-maintained cycle paths and quiet backroads, with relatively small sections of busy main road or the dreaded ripio. Passing cars and trucks have been very courteous, especially in Spain.
We visited eight magnificent cities … Porto, Coimbra, Lisbon, Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Valencia, Barcelona … all rich in history and culture.
Between those cities, the iMax view from our handlebars has created a new story at every corner … from the sand dunes of the Alentejo beside the wild Atlantic … to the orange plantations of Valencia beside the gentle Mediterranean.
The covid pandemic hasn’t affected us as much as we expected it to. A bicycle journey keeps you outdoors and away from other people most of the time. Both Portugal and Spain have both felt very safe, with relatively low case numbers and some of the highest vaccination rates in Europe. Everyone automatically pops on a mask when they go anywhere indoors.
Time will tell if we were lucky … as we write, travel bans are making a fresh comeback as the world becomes worried about the new Omicron variant.
Staying in apartments was also safer during a pandemic. It meant we could cook for ourselves more often (especially vegetables!) and indulge in the washing machines. But we’ve also enjoyed learning about the food of both Portugal and Spain … a bit rich and meaty at first, we found that it gets better the more you understand it, helped greatly by Clare’s ever improving Spanish.
Lots of people have been asking us which parts of the journey we enjoyed most?
The answer is … all of it! But for those of you that love a list, here’s our league table:
- The Golden Triangle … from Tavira to Seville, Cordoba and Granada (589km)
- The Silver Coast … from Porto to Lisbon (639km)
- The Way of El Cid … from Cartagena to Valencia (342km)
- Crossing the Badlands … from Granada to Cartagena (346km)
- The Golden Coast … from Valencia to Barcelona (450km)
- The Alentejo and Algarve … from Lisbon to Tavira (549km)
There were plenty of mixed feelings as we eventually rolled down Avenue Diagonal into Barcelona, the same road we’d used to enter the city five years ago on our first cycling tour.
Excitement at seeing Sarah. Looking forward to going home. Sadness that this surprisingly good bike tour was ending. Relief that our legs could have a rest.
Once again we posed for pictures at the Sagrada Familia (Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece) and by the sea at Barceloneta.
See if you can spot the difference …
Next Autumn we still hope to pedal down the east coast of America … world events permitting. It will need to be very, very good to match the supersub that was Portugal and Spain.
Thanks for following us on this journey. Until next year … muchas gracias … muito obrigado!
Clare and Andy