The Spanish Interior – From Leon to Cordoba
Homeless in Leon
The rest day in Leon was spent in a bit of a stupor having had far too little sleep the night before. By the afternoon, having been turfed out of the hostel, I was capable of little more than lying on the grass in the shade of a tree in the park, along with several other unshaven and shabby, homeless chaps with their dogs. I suspect I didn’t look very out of place, for there was no way for the casual passer-by to know I was using my laptop as a pillow.
With nothing now keeping us in Leon, we decided to cycle out a short distance to find a nice, secluded place to camp. Thirty miles later, we stocked up on dinner supplies in a little town, Valencia de Don Juan and took a path along the river.
No sooner were we out of town than the path turned into a dusty track and gradually became narrower until it disappeared into an overgrown, entangled mass of shrub and dry grass – just over to the right however, there was enough flat, thicket-free space for a tent. It seemed unlikely anyone else would bother coming down this path, so we set up camp. It appeared the ideal place until I stood still for long enough for the biting insects to discover me and begin feasting. So with the tent quickly erected, mesh inner only as it was plenty warm enough, dinner was eaten inside with the sun setting behind us. And as the first stars began to reveal themselves in the darkening sky, it was time to lay back and drift off into slumber. Idyllic; except that we were camped not far from an industrial plant which ran it’s processors throughout the night with a dull rumble and it’s floodlight shone like a permanent second moon low on the horizon until sunrise. I was hot and tired though and these were only temporary distractions in the moments before drifting off into a deep, dark, dreamless sleep and when slowly rousing, dreary-eyed in the morning.
A full day’s cycling brought us to Zamora, having interchanged periodically between the smooth main road where the miles just fly by and the pilgrim’s Via de la Plata route which is off-road and therefore bumpy, dusty and slow.
Plans for a siesta by a lake in the afternoon were somewhat scuppered when what was a lake on the map was in reality a dry, cracked-earth expanse and the only shade under a single tree also happened to be a haven for ants!
Having looked around Zamora we headed to a campsite just on the outskirts. From there we arrived in Salamanca for lunch the following day having taken a quieter, more scenic, secondary roads route.
Tapas like the locals in Salamanca
While staying in Salamanca we met up with some language students who showed us the place to go for tapas and beers, of which copious quantities were consumed until the early hours of the morning. We did make it to bed before sunrise though! The following evening we headed out of town to Henar’s place, who had kindly offered us beds for the night.
Despite a fairly early start, we didn’t reach our destination, Bejar, until late in the day. The main reason being Darryl’s bike getting 3 three punctures; changing and repairing them being a bit time consuming and tiring, especially in the heat of the afternoon.
It’s hot, but it’s not Africa
For me however, it was a lovely day’s cycle – easy, flat terrain in the morning along a straight road through fields of bare earth except for a scattering of dispersed trees which seem to be the only thing around here adept at surviving in the scorching sun.
It was only on a second look that I realised the fields weren’t bare at all, but were in fact home to many little pigs, whose skins were so totally covered in the dusty earth that it was almost impossible to differentiate them from the ground, until something startled them and they scattered in every direction. One dusty, rusty-earth field also contained a large watering-hole, together with the dried grass and odd tree, I could almost be mistaken for thinking I was already in the African savannah… if it wasn’t for the little pigs that is.
The afternoon brought with it hills; hot, hard up-hills and fun, fast down-hills. Surprisingly, I’m really starting to relish them – it’s interesting how the body and mind is so quick to forget pain – and I don’t mind slogging uphill because I always know that on the other side is going to be a great stretch of free-wheeling, speeding, cooling wind blowing through the hair, twisting and turning, leaning hard left and then right, downhills to enjoy.
Bejar, although pretty from a distance, perched on the the hillside with the river running through the gulley below, is not quite so attractive on the inside and I wasn’t too upset to be leaving early the next morning. Bejar on the other hand, didn’t seem to want us to leave… trying to navigate off the hillside and across the river was one challenge, which was promptly met with another when the small road we were following ended in a wasteland and wire fence. The road we really wanted was just on the other side!
With a team effort of unloading, passing over the panniers, hauling the bikes and finally me clambering inelegantly over the fence using my bike as a ladder and Darryl for support we made it over, everything… except a water bottle. The water bottle was left behind for Bejar. If it had been my Leatherman, I may have made the effort to reclaim it!
Having escaped Bejar, it was a speedy downhill getaway and we were making good progress towards Plasencia when two speedier (luggage-free) cyclists came upon us. Spanish Manuelo (I hope I’ve spelt his name right) and English Mike (hard to misspell!) were out for a morning ride and suggested we go back to their village for a swim. We declined a swim since the pool didn’t open until the afternoon and we wanted to get to Plasencia before it was too hot. A detour for breakfast however sounded like a great idea (I may have suggested that one). It was great being in a friendly, family home albeit briefly. And the breakfast of cereals with milk and tea was delicious – it was only the day before I’d been saying I would just love these things and here they were being served up. Brilliant (Thanks Mike and family if you’re reading this).
Onwards to Plasencia, with a stop at the market to well and truly stock up on fresh fruit – every spare inch of pannier and top rack space was filled with melon, nectarines, plums, grapes, bananas and figs – and then we went and brought bread, ham, cheese and tomatoes, biscuits and yoghurts.
All this would have been fine, if only we hadn’t had to cycle uphill 10km in the hottest part of the day to the campsite. So as Darryl cruised up the hill with the bread and the figs jumping out of the box one by one as he hit a pothole, I struggled and swore my way up with the rest! With an ice-cold beer making a refreshing change from the inevitably warm water from my drinks bottles I’d been drinking all day, I feasted well that evening. Darryl on the other hand was still suffering with bad guts, didn’t have much to eat or drink and had a relatively early night.
The next day we were up (with the help of an alarm) before dawn, to be off as it got light. Generally our experiences of cycling in the afternoon as we’ve journeyed south haven’t been too pleasant; with the sun almost insufferable when climbing slowly in the hot, oppressive, still air. We were rewarded with a lovely, cool morning ride through the Monfrague National Park, shaded by the rocky outcrops which the road wound round. The wildlife too was up and about. We startled several deer grazing in the bushes by the roadside as we pedalled past. The vultures, circling above the granite cliffs and the eagle soaring in a thermal searching for prey were unperturbed however.
We made it to Trujillo, for lunch and spent the afternoon lazing there in the old Plaza Mayor, waiting for it to cool again before continuing on the bikes. We cycled until it was almost dark, when the insects were becoming too numerous to avoid swallowing the odd one. Pitching the tent between rows of olive trees in an orchard, I slept well under the stars until it was cool enough to warrant me getting up to dig out my sleeping bag.
It’s all about the siesta
Another before-light start, we made good progress in the morning and stopped again for the afternoon. Settling into the Spanish daily routine of having a siesta has been easy, necessary and rather enjoyable. It’s easy to go a long way in one day when it’s split into two halves, separated by a six hour break of eating primarily but also sleeping, sight-seeing, photographing and reading. So cycling again that evening, we found a spot to camp, having cycled nearly 90 miles that day, under a tree by a field of horses in Belmez with the illuminated castle on the hill as a backdrop.
One final early start was rewarded with another beautiful sunrise, against which were silhouetted storks standing in their nests atop numerous telegraph poles, lining the horizon like guardsmen on the early morning watch.
By lunchtime we were in Cordoba, where I’ve been for the last three days, sleeping in a bed, near the impressive Mezquita cathedral which was once a mosque.
Darryl’s returned to England so I’m back by myself again. The company since Pamplona has been great, but I have to say I’m rather enjoying a bit of time to myself just now. I think it’ll be hard to leave this evening and get back on the bike though. I still haven’t decided quite which way to go yet, so I suppose I’d better get out the map and ponder over a coffee!