Snow and paella

Day 10 – Monday 6th April – Sierra Nevada (82km) – [MAP]

Sierra Nevada is the second higher range of mountains in Western Europe, only surpassed in height (by quite a lot, granted) by the Alps. It is quite an interesting fact when you consider its location, by the sea, in the south of Spain, quite close to Northern Africa. It leaves the Pyrenees in 3rd place by a meagre 78 metres, the 3,482m of Mulhacen against 3,404m of Aneto, the highest peak in the range that separates Spain from France. Being a mountaineer I find this fact a tad annoying, since it was possible to almost drive to the top of Mulhacen until 1994, when the road was closed to preserve the area, and still today its ascension has little to no difficulty, while the climb to Aneto is a long and technical affair requiring experience and physical preparation.

On the other hand, this meant that on this particular occasion, being on holiday as a biker and not as a climber, the range offered the opportunity to go from the warm and sunny bar terraces in Granada to the point where the road was closed, well above the snow line, in a less than an hour ride on a road that the Top Gear guys ranked along the Transfagarasan road and the Stelvio pass as one of the absolute best in Europe despite the fact that it led nowhere.

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The main road leads to Sierra Nevada ski slopes, which were still open at that time of year, and just before reaching the town of the same name at the foot of the slopes, a smaller road starts to the left, next to a car park for one of the ski lifts, which winds up the mountain to reach a Guardia Civil mountain station, where a boom across the road prevents unauthorised traffic to go any further. At this height, even if the boom had been lifted it would have been impossible to ride any further, as the road had not been cleared past that point and was covered in snow.

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We stopped there and walked up a bit further on the snow to see the sights of the ski slopes to one side and a breathtaking landscape on the other, stretching north as far as the eye could see.

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After taking some pictures we hopped on the bike again and rode back down to Granada to find the motorbike shop that worked with the transport company that was going to take our bike back to Barcelona. I tapped the address into the GPS and an hour later we stopped at their door, the temperature much higher than in the mountains.

The place was called JMoto, and it was a Triumph dealer. Javi, the guy who ran the place, was really nice, and he let us get changed in the shop, as the plan was to send the riding suits, boots and helmets in the motorbike, take our luggage and fly home in civilian clothes. Imagine trying to board a plane in riding gear while carrying a helmet! I had to remove the sun visor from my new helmet and take it with me in my suitcase, but in the end everything fit in the top case and panniers. We signed some papers, gave Javi the keys, thanked him and said goodbye to our bike. It was now time to take a bus to the centre and find a good place to have that paella I had promised Nat.

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The good thing about a city like Granada is that, unlike Barcelona, it is quite difficult to go wrong when it comes to eating out. Make a mistake in Barcelona and you can easily end up in one of the many tourist traps that offer crap food at outrageous prices, but here everything was so good and so cheap, that any place seemed to be a safe bet. We found a nice restaurant with a terrace by the river, from which we had a nice view of the Alhambra while we ate, and spent most of the afternoon there.

After lunch we killed some time walking around the old town one last time and then headed to the centre to taste one last thing before heading to the airport: the local sweet specialty, a cake called Pionono.

While having cakes and tea I took the opportunity to bring my writing up to date – I had been writing very little in the previous days – and also to find out how to get to the airport. The taxis were bound to be expensive, and we discovered there was a shuttle service with a stop quite near where we were, so it was settled. We took the bus and 40 minutes later it dropped us at the airport.

The flight back to Barcelona was fast and uneventful, and the only thing I regret is that by the time we took off it was 10 pm and it was already dark, so I could not get one last look at Granada from the air. It had been 10 days on the road this time, I had seen some new places I knew little about, and in one way or another, each one of them given me great memories.

See you all on the road.

Hangover, tea houses and tapas

Day 9 – Sunday 5th April – Granada (0km)

The plan for Sunday was to get up early, take the motorbike and head up Sierra Nevada, see the sights from the mountains where the highest peak in the Iberian Peninsula is, then ride down to other side to the Almeria region, visit that and head back to Granada for the evening on some other mountain road, because on Monday I was dropping the bike at a bike shop from which I had arranged transport back to Barcelona and we would take that day to visit the city on foot. The problem, however, was that after the “one last beer” the previous night we had a tremendous hangover and we got up quite late… Not only that, after 9 days on the road I also fancied a couple of quiet day off the bike, much to Nat’s delight, so we decided to take it easy and just wander around the city.

A lot of people had told me about Granada and how much they had liked it, and I can tell that it more than met my expectations. It is a vibrant city with a lot to offer – there is a very active student life and night life, fascinating history, extensive cultural and architectural heritage, excellent food and atmosphere, inviting tea shops, quaint backstreets and alleys in the old town, and a general laid-back attitude that invites the visitor to take things easy.

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We spent the day walking around the narrow streets of the old town, went up the San Nicolás viewpoint high on the Albaicín quarter from which spent a good while gazing at the unforgettable view of the Alhambra, stopped here and there for a drink and some tapas, the afternoon turned into the evening and the endless string of tapas turned uninterrupted from lunch to dinner.

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We retired to the hotel relatively early, at least compared to the previous night, as we had decided to get up to an early start the following day and ride up to Sierra Nevada before taking the bike to the shop.

Marbella Vice

Day 8 – Saturday 4th April – Ronda to Granada (276km) – [MAP]

Another early rise, another proper breakfast, and since I was not going to be able to ride until we had had breakfast, I was determined to make a proper job of it this. We sat at a terrace in one of the pedestrians only streets in the centre of Ronda and I ordered a full breakfast that included two big loaves of the local artisan bread, one with lettuce and tomato, the other one with bacon and a fried egg, coffee and freshly made orange juice.

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With our stomachs full we went to see the sights we had seen the night before, but this time in daylight, so we could fully appreciate how deep the gorge that the Puente Nuevo span was. The views from the middle of the bridge, looking down at the ravine more than a 100 metres below are impressive. Even though most of the pictures of the city that can be found on the Internet show the view of the bridge at a distance from below, when one approaches it from any of the main roads it is not visible at all, contrary to my expectations of turning out of a corner coming down from a mountain road and seeing the bridge suddenly come into view in front of me, but looking down from the top we saw a small country lane that went down to the point where the gully opened, so we decided we had to find a way to take it and see the most famous view of the bridge.

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It was not that hard, out of one of the gates in the old wall there is a small street that starts off the right, called Calle de los Molinos. It is a narrow cobbled street, and we had to be careful as it was quite steep and slippery. Near the bottom there is a small space where we could park the bike and take a walk up the gully to admire the bridge from below, which is maybe an even more imposing view, as it can be appreciated in all its imposing size. Back on the car park we saw a couple of friends who had just parked and were changing into climbing equipment, and they told us that there is a via ferrata under the bridge, and many more in the region. I took good note of that for a future visit.

The road only led to some fields and the old mills that gave it its name, so we had to ride it back up again, and this time the difficulty were the cars and pedestrians that were coming down the other way, the sun already high encouraging people to come out and visit.

We had reached Ronda the previous day via the A-369, a great road, and the plan today was to take the other main road to the south of the city, the A-397 to Marbella. It was marked as a more important road on the map, and I was not expecting much, but it turned out to be absolutely marvellous, an opinion easily confirmed by the many bikers coming up the road we met. Luckily it seemed that most people were coming up in the morning either to visit Ronda or to ride the road and the traffic would be denser on the way down in the afternoon, so we were glad to find virtually nobody on our side of the road.

I was not keen at all to visit Marbella, a place famous for appearing on the news perpetually on stories related to political corruption, and a refuge for the most tacky, shady, decadent kind of wealth in the country, but Nat accused me of being prejudiced and said that I could not judge a place without seeing it. Fair enough. We rode into Marbella, parked the bike and went for a walk. It was exactly what I had thought it would be. “I told you so” and a wasted hour later, we were back on the road heading for Malaga.

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We took the coast road in order to enjoy some views, but out of everything I had seen so far, this is the one place I will never ever set foot on again. The landscape (it does not even deserve that name) was something like this: housing estate, housing estate, housing estate, industrial estate, housing estate, campsite, housing estate, golf course, housing estate, campsite, golf course, housing estate, industrial estate, campsite, industrial estate, golf course, shopping centre, housing estate, campsite, shopping centre, housing estate, industrial estate, shopping centre, golf course… I guess the coast must have been a beautiful place at some point, but easy money in the development business and a complete disregard for nature had destroyed it long ago.

We got to Malaga by lunchtime and stopped at the first place we saw, called “La casita de la patata”. It had a terrace and I could park the bike in front of it, so I thought it would do. They served a sandwich that is typical from the city, called “campero”, made with a special kind of bread that has the same name. I order a meat one, and Nat ordered a vegetarian “individual” pizza. She also wanted some side snack, so she ordered what she thought were “patatas bravas”. A moment later I was served a huge sandwich, she got a pizza that could easily feed two people and the potatoes turned out to be one massive baked potato open and stuffed with meat, salad and sauce. So much for a light meal before hitting the road again… We tried our best to finish it all, but it was impossible, and those who know me can bear witness to how much I can eat. This was just too much. Needless to say, we had to drag ourselves across the road and lie down at a park overlooking the marina for at least an hour, Nat fast asleep and me reading my book.

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Once were able to ride again we left Malaga still following the coast road, but things were much better here. Old fishing towns had not been ruthlessly replaced by tall apartment buildings and the sea was visible from the road. It is true that it was not as beautiful as other parts of the coast, but it was a welcome improvement after Marbella. Our next and final destination, however, was Granada, which was inland, but I did not want to go all the way to Motril and take the motorway from there, so when we got to Nerja we turned off the coast road and headed up one of the small roads that crossed the natural reserve of the Sierra de Tejeda mountains.

These are quite tall mountains despite their proximity to the sea, and the road leading to the top is very narrow and windy, following the shape of each drop, shoulder and gully of the rocky terrain. It was a fascinating landscape, especially once we reached the top of the pass and saw the other side. The contrast between the south and the north face of the mountains was as stark as sudden, the south face almost bare of vegetation, hard and aggressive, with sharp rock formations, the north face a series of gentle slopes covered in lush grass, clumps of trees here and there growing denser as we rode down towards Granada.

The mountain road joined the main motorway right in the outskirts of the city, so we were there in a matter of minutes, and got quite far into the centre before finding the streets cut to traffic again because of the processions and learning that our hotel was right in the middle of it. We took a side street, parked the bike about five streets from the hotel, and took a walk. Luckily, things were better organised than in Jerez and there were crossing points regulated by the local police to help people get across the street without disturbing the procession.

It was already quite late, so we only had time to have a good shower and put on some nicer clothes before leaving for a visit of the city’s main tourist attraction – the Alhambra. We had been warned about the number of tourists there and told to book our tickets in advance, but even so we had only managed to find tickets for a night visit to the gardens, not the whole place. Still, it was better than not being able to visit it at all and it would be quite a romantic thing to do at night.

We did not have time to walk up to the entrance, which is a nice but long stroll uphill from the centre, and were told at the hotel that because of the processions it would be impossible to catch a bus, so our only bet was to take a cab. The driver also warned us that he could do no better than the bus across the city centre, and that he would have to drive out of the city, take a bit of motorway and approach the city from the other side. In the end it was only a 12€ fare and we got to the entrance 10 minutes before the visit, so it was not bad at all.

The world is a small place, and a friend of ours from Barcelona was visiting an old friend from high school in Granada those days and had booked the same visit at the same time, so we met him, his friend and her boyfriend, and they gave us some valuable local insight during the visit.

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The gardens were a deeply relaxing place to see at night, softly lit, the sound of water running from the many fountains in the gardens, the city lights at our feet.

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Once the visit was over, and without any hurry now, we walked down back leisurely to the city centre in search of a good place to enjoy the famous city tapas. Local advice was invaluable again, and they took us to their favourite places, away from the tourist path where we experienced firsthand what we had always heard – you can live in Granada without ever paying for dinner; you simply need to order a drink and you are served a generous and usually quite elaborate tapa for free, which means that you can just go out late afternoon or early evening with a bunch of friends, have a few drinks and go back home with a full stomach.

Our friend’s friend was pregnant and they were getting up early to go to the beach the following morning, so they headed home, but he stayed with us for one last beer. And as it is usually the case when the sentences “one last beer”, “I’m taking it easy tonight” or “I’m not drinking tonight”, we lost count of the beers we had, which later turned into gin and tonics, and we spent the whole night dancing and drinking. By the time we got back to our hotel it was almost daylight and we felt as if had already been in the city for a week.