Cordoba and Seville provided my first real taster of Andalusia. Moorish architecture and style with partial christian transformations hinted at the complex history of the region. Andalusia is also the birthplace of Flamenco and there is no shortage of shows and kitsch shops selling polka-dotted dresses and cheap fans. The region is also famed for it’s horses, known by the same name, and I spent one enjoyable evening watching an equestrian show, which displayed the best of the breed and the performances were excellent.

Once I left Seville however, I saw another side of Andalusia – less architectural grandeur, but great natural beauty nonetheless.

Get me out of here

Leaving Seville was difficult; not so much that I was having a great time there (I was though), but that I couldn’t find a road that wasn’t the motorway (and thereby out of bounds to slow-moving cyclists). I amused one lady waiting at the bus stop by cycling past her no less than five times in trying to find the right road. The problem arose again when several kilometres out of Dos Hermanas the small road I was on joined the forbidden motorway and left me a little bewildered as to where to go. Rather than turn around, I decided to cut through the countryside, figuring that the farms dotted about must have access roads they use.

Near collision on the railway

So off the tarmac I went and rode along the unpaved tracks running alongside the motorway, crossing from one side to the other through a small tunnel, the purpose of which I’m not entirely sure but was just large enough for me with my loaded bike. With helpful directing at one point from a lycra-clad cyclist (lycra being the clothing of choice for Spanish cyclists) out on a training ride, I was soon in the proximity of Utrera, where I wanted to be.

Utrera church
Utrera church

Unfortunately however, I found myself following a railway track that seemed to be heading away from the town. Not wanting to turn around, I decided to take an even more direct route and just head directly south into Utrera, regardless of obstacles. The first obstacle being the railway track itself, I dismounted and mustered up the strength to haul my bike up the loose, stone embankment. Just as I was about to push with all my might, I thought it best to look up and check there were no trains coming. Needless to say, I was rather surprised when rather than a train, I saw a guy on a horse crossing the tracks and heading straight down in my direction. Fortunately he saw me at the same time and being similarly surprised but rather more maneuverable than myself, was able to dodge me and the bike at the last moment. Collision averted, I struggled up and over the railtracks and onto the other side. From there, through an industrial estate, I was soon in Utrera admiring the church that was glowing a golden colour in the evening sun.

A mesmerising sunset

After a short break in town to buy supplies and have a cold coke, I continued on my way as the sun hid itself beyond the horizon and the night slowly drew in, in it’s place. The road was fairly straight and flat with very little traffic and I found myself not looking where I was going, but across my right shoulder, west towards the horizon. Like the flickering flames of a fire I was mesmerized by the sky; my eyes transfixed. It seemed that every time I looked away, distracted momentarily by the lights of a passing vehicle, and back again the colour of the sky had changed. Strangely though, staring at it unwavering, I felt I could have been looking at a painting or photograph, for the transition from day to night, light to dark, sun to stars, was so gradual I could not detect it. It’s like a child growing; those who see the child every day barely notice the changes, but the distant relative who see that child only occasionally, instantly notice how much they have grown, albeit only an inch or two.

Another mesmerising sunset
Another mesmerising sunset

So I stared at the horizon and the golden sands in the sky. I felt like I alone was in an hourglass and the whole world I saw could be turned upon itself, where the stars are but the glistening reflections of the moon on the crest of each rippled wave on the sea and I would be gliding along in the wind high above in the pitch black night, so smooth was the road I travelled and how free I felt, the only person around to be gazing at this desert in the sky.
So I stared at the horizon and the fiery orange blaze in the sky. I felt like I was on the edge of two worlds, a starlit heavenly world above and a hellfire underworld where fierce flames were trying to force their way out, but the night sky was too heavy and gradually weighed down to smother and put the fire out.
So I stared at the horizon and the bleeding red sky. I felt like I was watching the slow death of one day, with it’s blood staining the purple-veined horizon, but in a few hours the sun would rise again and breathe new life into another day.

A Bright Light

Before I knew it I was cycling by moonlight, or half-moon-light to be precise, and I thought it best to stop looking over my shoulder and start looking for somewhere to sleep. Fortunately I soon passed field of unfenced olive trees and figured that would be as good a place to camp as any. I pulled off the road, pushed the bike over the verge and wheeled it between the rows, far enough from the road but not too close to the farm at the opposite side to attract unwanted attention. More than once while putting up the tent, I thought I’d been caught, but my shadow was created by the intensely bright moon and not a farmer’s flashlight as I had thought.

I settled down to sleep, but was not feeling tired. I hadn’t cycled far that day, having only set off in the evening and my body-clock was still on city-time and going to bed at 1am, not 10pm. After eating yet more food and my stomach finally feeling satisfied, I eventually drifted off while dreamily watching the stars through my tent. I was rudely awoken in the early hours however when a stream of lorries began roaring up and down the road perpetually until it was time for me to join them.

Pueblos Blancos

The road that morning I nicknamed ‘Death Bunny Alley’ due to the huge number of rabbits I saw darting and scampering about in the dry-grass verges and not quite so large (but still plentiful) number of dead rabbits, that wouldn’t be darting or scampering anywhere again.

Narrow streets of Arcos de la Frontera
Narrow streets of Arcos de la Frontera

By the time the dead bunny count reached 26, I had reached Arcos de la Frontera, one of the pretty pueblos blacnos,  ‘white villages’, that are synonymous with the region and overlook the surrounding countryide from their advantagous hilltop positions. I whiled away the hottest hours of the day, firstly wandering round the narrow streets of this town perched on the hillside and once tired out, by eating and drinking more or less continuously until the evening.

From Arcos I headed east for the hills of the Natural Park of Sierra de Grazalema. Stopping for food supplies in El Bosque and feeling really shattered, I decided to go no further and spend the night at the campsite just up the road. The idea of a chilled-out, relaxing evening and a shower was somewhat different to the reality, which came at an extortionate price too. That was rather a disappointment.

To the hills of Grazalema Natural Park
To the hills of Grazalema Natural Park

So even though I was still tired when the rooster’s call woke me in the morning, I was none too glad to be leaving. A tough uphill got the adrenalin going and I was happily distracted by the views, which changed with every bend and the occasional passing cyclist. The lycra-clad men who had passed me on the way up were still at the top of the 1109m pass and gave me a cheer when I slowly trundled to meet them.

Rapidly downhill through another pretty white village, Grazalema, and on towards Ronda. This was much harder than the free-wheeling I’d expected and hoped for but again the scenery was beautiful and more than compensated for the effort. Resting in Ronda for the afternoon it was a struggle to leave that evening but I’m glad I did. The sun was on my back and a cooling wind blowing down the valley. After an hour uphill, as I rounded yet another bend the road flattened out onto a barren plateau.

Lunar landscape
Lunar landscape

I felt like the only person around for miles, with just a few goats under a wind-swept tree here and there on this open, rocky expanse.

From here I enjoyed another long downhill swerving round the increasingly narrow bends into El Burgo, from where I could hear lively music resounding round the valley long before I reached the town. The streets were lined with burger vans, temporary bars with guys on horseback chatting to girls in short skirts, small stalls selling leather handbags, cowboy hats, glittering belts, bandanas of every conceivable colour (each with the distinctive, identical print) and cheap plastic toys that young children plead for only to be discarded shortly afterwards when something else attracts their attention. All this closely observed by the line of old men sitting afar on the stone wall from beyond the roundabout; watching, talking, pointing.

Lost in translation

It was still early, by Spanish time, and the fiesta was only just beginning. I decided against finding a place in town to stay and joining in the festivities since it seemed a very local affair and I suspected my Spanish wouldn’t quite be up to the standard of conversing over and above the general noise. This suspicion was confirmed when I tried and failed to order a beer from the beer bar and a burger from the burger van; neither of which should have required much proficiency in the language. I gave up, when in response to ‘una cerveza, por favor’, I was asked if I wanted milk with it. Now, surely the only reason I’d want milk would be if I’d asked for an espresso. I didn’t even get a response when I asked for ‘una hamburguesa’ and after the third attempt the waitress just gave up and moved on to the next customer. She was only selling hamburgers and baguettes so she had a 50 percent chance of getting it right and I was so hungry I’d have happily eaten either anyway.

I cycled a kilometre out of town and pitched the tent just off the roadside under a tree and had what was probably my worst night’s sleep yet. The brightness of the moon kept me awake until about midnight when it finally dipped below the hill behind me. Later I was awoken by two cars pulling into the lay-by close to me and several drunk young men spending what seemed a very long time making a lot of noise. I’ve no idea what they were doing (I didn’t feel brave enough to go investigate) and I’ve no idea what time it was (as I didn’t really want to turn my torch on to check). Later still, by which time it was nearly morning, I was disturbed by two men on horseback, most likely the same guys who were at the bar in El Burgo. They stopped to talk, inebriated, just metres from me but seemed unaware of me lying low in the tent. After saying their goodbyes they went on their way, straight down the track that ran past my tent. Blurry-eyed, they failed to see me. Once they had left, I decided I may as well get up and get going – if people were leaving the party, it was probably going to be light soon. Indeed it was.

The cycle up to the next pass was easy enough and I got plenty of vocal encouragement from passing car-loads of happy people waving out of the windows returning from the fiesta. I don’t think I was the only person going to be tired later that day. Stopping at the top of the pass for a nutritious breakfast of banana and cookies, I sat and watched the sun rise over the valley and the shade recede. Like the raising of the curtains on opening night at the theatre, the line marking shadow from sunlight raced towards me along the hillside until the whole valley was revealed, reflected in warm amber hues.

Apart from running out of road in Coin and a steep hill into Alhaurin el Grande, the cycle to Mijas, just a few kilometres from the coast was uneventful, but pleasant enough.

Time out

I’ve now been in Mijas over a week, lazing about by the pool at a friends’ villa. It’s been the perfect, relaxing end to a fantastic few weeks in France and Spain. I’ve even managed to fit into my tight schedule of eating, reading, sleeping, eating, floating on a lilo in the pool, eating more, listening to music and drinking beer, some of the things I’ve been meaning to do but never get round to. I now have a ‘wardrobe’ of machine-clean clothes, a clean tent and even a clean bike with chain devoid of oil excesses. I’m even managing to listen to my ‘learn french’ files and slowly, word-by-word, am building up a small repertoire of arabic phrases. My maps and books on Africa have now arrived and I’ve been happily perusing these too; wondering, imagining, what’s in store for me round the next bend, on the road ahead.

‘Bring on Morocco’ is all I can say.