This morning things were going relatively well. I think I’m beginning to resign myself to struggling through the first 20 to 30 kilometres of the day as my increasingly weary legs take this time in warming up. Today was no different to recent days but I persevered and after a steady climb from 400 to over 800 metres the roads began to flatten out and I could look forward with some confidence to a relatively early arrival in Albacete. My feelings about the cycling conditions are summed up in the video posted earlier (see below); it was difficult to find fault with the conditions on the road, the views I was able to gaze upon and my general state of contentment with how the day and indeed how the last week to ten days of the trip were going.
Frustrations were about to fall in an avalanche however. As I approached Albacete I started to follow the concentric circles indicating the town centre. This is an innovation (although they’ve probably been doing it for years so not that innovating perhaps) that I mentioned when cycling through Italy. The problem is that in Spain they seem to have rationed the use of these concentric circles and if you follow them you just end up somewhere near (but not quite in) the town centre. I love French towns as when you arrive, the best thing to do is to head to the main square. From there, everything is easy to find and you feel that you are at the heart of things. In Albacete as I attempted to fathom my way around I just found dull street after dull street. And then the hospital medical school. Not very useful if you just want to sit down and have a bite to eat. ‘The station!’ I thought so I followed those directions but got lost. After much cycling I eventually found a place that at least felt like it was in the town centre. I have no idea if it actually was.
In the great scheme of things this was a minor frustration. I found a bar, ordered a drink and something to eat. It was about 3pm. Even after having finished my meal there would still be plenty of time to squeeze in a bit more cycling into the day. If you remember the main reason for coming to Albacete is that it is the starting point of the first of the three Vias Verdes cycle routes that I am planning to follow. I needed however to first of all find out where the Via Verde in Albacete started and also work out the logistics of sorting some accommodation for the evening. As I munched my way through my omelette & chips I perused the website. Finding the starting point was relatively easy and the waiter kindly showed me on my map where I needed to go. It was a park in the centre of town and the instructions on the website explained that for the first six and a half kilometres of the route I would actually be following the canal – the Maria Cristina (is she the infanta or the elefanta?) Canal to be correct – after which the Via Verde would start for proper. That all sounded good. Looking at the map of the route I reckoned that in the time available to me I could at least make it to a town called Balazote some 20km to the south west of Albacete. My choice was influenced somewhat by the news that in Balazote there was an pensione (hotel) called La Paella where for the very reasonable sum of 25€ I could stay for the night. But it might be booked up… I telephoned and asked if the person – a woman – spoke English. I presumed she didn’t as she simply cut me off. I would probably do the same thing if someone rung me asking something in a foreign language that I didn’t understand, but then again I don’t run a hotel where, from time to time, people may call asking to speak in English. But, I reasoned, what are the chances of a hotel in the middle of Spanish farming country, far from the busy costas being fully booked? Not high I reckoned so I paid for my food and set off to the canal.
It took the assistance of Google Maps but I found the park and after a bit of cycling backwards & forth I found the canal. A sign announced that it was the start of the Maria Cristina Canal cycle route and there were useful symbols to follow. The route was tarmaced and for the first few kilometres I made good progress. I had to cross to the other side of the dried up canal once or twice but nothing too complicated. Then I was directed under the main road through a short tunnel. Unfortunately the tunnel had completed silted up. This is not something that had happened overnight. Clearly the canal had been like this for some time but there were no signs indicating where any passing cyclists should go. It wasn’t an option to simply cross the road as there was a fence, barriers and a central reservation blocking the direct route over the top. So, left or right? A cyclist in front of me had turned right so I followed him but there was no indication that he was heading along the canal. There were also signs for a training circuit and he could just be doing that or indeed making things up as he went along. After a few hundred metres there was no indication that this was indeed the correct direction to deviate in so I turned around and headed left instead. After perhaps 400m I came to the same conclusion so reverted back to the right hand option and continued until I got to a bridge figuring out that at least it would get me to the other side of the road where the canal continued. Fortunately it did but I was now beginning to feel just a little bit anxious that this whole Vias Verdes thing might not be the walk (or cycle) in the park that I thought it might be. I once again could start following the signs for the canal route and then, in a giant of a sign, the start of the Via Verde was announced; wonderful!
I could see the route reaching into the distance along what was once planned to be a railway track. It never was a railway track as just before it was put into operation in the early 1960s, the World Bank told the Spaniards that it would be unviable. Everything had been built apart from the signalling, even the stations, one of which I passed a few kilometres into the route. The problem was that whereas the canal track had been tarmaced, this track hadn’t. It was loose gravel and stones and not the easiest or indeed the most comfortable of surfaces to cycle upon. I thought this might just be the state of the surface for the first few kilometres but it continued and continued. Much of my time since leaving southern Greece has been spent looking at the roads of the various countries though which I have cycled. It’s a natural thing to do, looking out for objects that need to be avoided (more often than not, glass), but usually it doesn’t take up most of the time on the bike and the rest of the time can be spent gazing at the view or finding curious things upon which to ponder. I often do the latter. It was of the nice things about cycling on the long, flat and quiet roads in the morning; most of my time could be spent looking at things other than the road. So it was with a certain irony that I had now transferred to a track that had been adapted specifically for use by walkers and cyclists that I was now spending 90% of my time looking at the ground to try and avoid larger rocks rather than appreciating the countryside through which I was cycling. Very frustrating but I continued pausing from time to time to take in the curiosities that were being presented to me, such as the abandoned station that had never seen a customer in the first place. Does that mean it was never actually abandoned?
It wasn’t fun however. It was a little ridiculous that every 100m or so there were signs imploring me to stick the the speed limit of 10km/hr. I tried to do so for a few moments and it was almost impossible if not dangerous as the bike needed a certain momentum to carry itself over the rocks on the ground. The other users of the Via Verde were in no danger of being affected by my excessive speeds of 15 to 20km/hr as, err… there weren’t any other users. In the 20km that I used the Via Verde I passed no one and no one passed me. From time to time some signage explained the history of the route in Spanish (no translations into other languages) but some of these had been burnt out. To say I was disappointed with what I had found was an understatement. This is something that I had specifically changed my route to make use of and I was increasingly feeling that I would have been better off on the road, enjoying the views on a good surface & knowing exactly where I was despite the occasional lorry thundering past.
After 20km the town of Balazote was signposted. It was around 6:30pm and I now needed to sort accommodation so I turned off the route and found the main road and then the small town itself. The Pensione La Paella had been advertised as being in Balazote so I cycled around the town bit I couldn’t find it. I eventually sat in a park to consult an online map but it still wasn’t clear where exactly the hotel was so I asked three old guys who spoke no English but we managed to communicate the key bits of information; the Paella was about 5km out of town on the main road… back in the direction of Albacete. What? The hotel was advertised on the Vias Verdes website as being a suitable stopping off point in Balazote. But it wasn’t. It was 5km away! Users (if there are any apart from me) of the track are, can I remind you, walkers or cyclists. But now I’m expected to revert back to the normal roads and cycle a further 5km to find somewhere to sleep. Good job I’m not walking… Now my Spanish isn’t good but I think I can understand when someone points in the direction of Albacete and indicates 5km with his fingers and with a sweeping movement of his arm the fact that something is on the right. So I followed the road back to Albacete. 5, 6, 7, 10km, left as well as right. Nothing. Wherever it was, I couldn’t find it. By the time I got to 15km and paused for a drink in a service station it was easier just to continue heading north on the main road and back into the centre of Albacete to find a hotel. Which is what I did, arriving back here at around 8pm, frustrated and a little angry. For the first time since leaving southern Greece I had attempted to follow a purpose-adapted cycling track and not only had it turned out to be anything but amenable to cyclists, for the first time in nearly 5,000km I had to turn back and retrace my steps by some 25km.
The whole afternoon experience highlights a common problem – and I see this back in Britain as much as I have done today – that cycle facilities seem all too often to be conceived and built by people who only ever use them to fill in a few lines on their CV. The silted-up tunnel. How long had that been in that condition? There were no signs to indicate a deviation. The condition of the surface on the Via Verde. Have any of the civil servants responsible for the track every cycled upon it and experienced just how uncomfortable it can be? The information about accommodation on the website. Has the webmaster ever thought about the practicalities of what has been written.
All in all not a very good introduction to the network of Vias Verdes. I shan’t be returning to this one tomorrow – I’ll be back on the main road (the one I cycled back into Albacete upon earlier this evening) – but I will give the second Via Verde a chance. I sincerely hope that it is an improvement on this disappointing start.
Rant over, deep breaths… and relax…