EXCLUSIVE! The 35 Degrees: The Fifth Degree

It tends to go a bit quiet here on as I’m writing the books but this should keep you occupied for a few minutes; the first exclusive(!) extract from the upcoming book, The 35 Degrees: Tarifa to Nordkapp on a Bike Called Reggie which will hit the shelves later this year. The extract is, of course, subject to change (and has already been updated below!) but it hopefully gives you a flavour of things to come. As the title suggests, I have split the journey up into the 35 degrees of latitude from Tarifa at 36° to Nordkapp at 71°. The chapter below recounts the journey from 40° to 41°, just north of Salamanca… (For the purposes of clarity, God is referred to at the end of the fourth degree…)

The Fifth Degree

Friday 17th – Monday 20th April 2015

With the existence (or not) of God on my mind, I cycled through the southern suburbs of Plasencia, past the optimistically named ‘FunExpress’ funeral parlour and into the centre of the old town where, somewhat to my surprise, I met Jesus. Kind of.

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The Albergue Santa Ana

I had reserved a room at the Albergue Santa Ana which I found quite easily just a short walk from the main square. As I pushed Reggie up and along the narrow street linking the square to the hostel I was looking forward to meeting, perhaps, a few other travellers – religiously motivated or not – in an environment that was a world away from the large youth hostel back in Jerez. The two-storey albergue looked promising. It was a professionally run establishment – that was clear from the website – rather than a minimalistic-bare-floor-no-heating-converted-barn place that I assumed ‘real’ pilgrims would use. It did, however, appear to be closed. The door was locked and there was no sign outside indicating that this might be just a temporary situation. That said, behind heavy metal bars, one window was open. It was dark inside and there was clearly no activity, but the open window did suggest that the albergue was only shut until someone returned to reopen it rather than until the summer. I waited, stretching out on a concrete bench conveniently located outside the door.

After perhaps ten minutes of dozing, I noticed that a young man had appeared. He too was on a bike albeit one that had seen better days, probably in the mid-to-late 1980s. He had a large rolled-up sleeping bag on the back of the bike along with a couple of well-worn pannier bags. I leaned forward from my horizontal position at which point he turned to face me. His clothes were as tatty as his panniers, his skin was of reddening mahogany and his scruffy beard was only outdone by his unkempt hair. “Jesus” I thought, unsure as to whether to add an exclamation or question mark. Whatever the real ‘look’ of the son of God, the man in front of me could have easily passed for a young, hirsute Robert Powell in his Nazareth days.

When he spoke, his voice was soft. It turned out that he was from South America rather than the Middle East and his name was Marcos. (Just a disciple then?) Conversation wasn’t easy as his English and my Spanish matched each other in their functional nature; anything remotely more subjective (or interesting) would have been lost in misunderstanding. Unlike me, Marcos hadn’t given in for the day when it came to cycling and wasn’t willing to wait to see if anyone turned up to open the albergue so after a few minutes he was off. He mentioned meeting up with a friend further north and seemed confident of finding alternative accommodation before darkness fell. I returned to my horizontal resting position, not quite convinced that I hadn’t just experienced the second coming.

I was reluctant to make alternative provision for the night as I had already paid my €17 to the hostel online and my patience did eventually pay off. A rather apologetic man arrived in a car, opened up and gave me instructions. Despite my high hopes of sharing bread and fish soup with some other travellers along the Vía de la Plata, I would have the place to myself. Even the guy with the key wouldn’t be spending the night at the albergue. He left me, a little dejected, to choose my own bed in the twelve-bunk dormitory (more difficult than you might imagine) and fend for myself.

The ride to Salamanca would be a long one so I was up early creeping around the hostel almost as if, during the night, the light-sleeping society of Spain had arrived for the annual conference. Needless to say, they hadn’t, but I crept around anyway. I estimated that the cycling day would be at least 130 km, eclipsing the 102 km between Seville and Monesterio by quite some margin. What’s more, the route profile on the Vía de la Plata website suggested that there was some serious climbing to be done. I didn’t delve into the detail of just how significant this climbing would be but after only a kilometre it was made more than apparent. I paused for a few moments to look across the valley that had opened up beneath me. Sandwiched between a cloudless deep blue sky and the green of the trees that blanketed the wide plain was the thin slither of a distant range of mountains.

What I could see was the southern flank of the Sistema Central, the rather prosaically named swathe of mountains that mark a 500 km line across the Iberian peninsula where the south east stops and the north west begins. Crucially for me was that, in order to get to Salamanca, I would have to climb them.

The sky must have been clear throughout the night as, once again, it was turning out to be a cold day. Having consulted the forecast before leaving Plasencia I was wrapped up, as were the many other cyclists who had hit the N-630 that Saturday morning. Most exchanged a cheery ‘hola’ or even ‘buen camino’ as they passed me, at speed. Unlike me, they were not carrying any weight on their bicycles and in the case of most of them, not much on their bodies either. Near a small town called Hervás, just as I was beginning to feel the vertical effects of the Sistema Central, I paused for a drink and was joined by one of the SMAMILs (a Spanish middle-aged man in Lycra…) who had previously been cycling past my left shoulder at speed. A torrent of Spanish resulted in me raising my hands in submission after which point the man slowed his speech to a crawl. General chit-chat in Spanglish with Jesus/Marco the previous evening had not been easy but here the topic of conversation was topography, a subject in which low-level hybrid Spanish and English thrived due to the ability to supplement any description of height with one’s hands and a fair amount of incredulous intonation.

As our voices repeatedly raised and lowered in tone and our hands etched out the contours of the land, it was clear that the period of significant climbing was about to start. My fellow cyclist, glancing down at the four panniers (and no doubt remarking secretly to himself about the spare tyre around my waist) was full of admiration for what I was about to attempt. When I mentioned that I intended continuing as far as Salamanca, the level of adulation went up a notch. Was I about to bite off more than I could chew?

It wouldn’t be the first time I’d done that. Two years earlier I had inadvertently omitted to research the physical significance of the Peloponnese mountains in Greece. At the end of that particular cycling day I crawled into a remote village and cleared the place of calorific value. Further north in Albania, I was actually very happy that, prior to setting off, I had never discovered just how steep some of the mountainous roads would be. Had I done so, I would probably still be standing in Heathrow Terminal 5 to this day.

My newly acquired fan wished me luck and sped off up the road. I set off myself at a rather more sedate pace edging forward both vertically and horizontally. My slow progress did, at least, afford me the opportunity of admiring the view which was changing gradually back into that of winter. The trees were now predominantly bare of leaves and snow still capped some of the higher peaks. Altitude was clearly the major factor in the changes that I could see around me but latitude also had a role to play. I was now moving well away from Andalucía and its gentle maritime climate of spring. Indeed it struck me that although I may not have been as speedy as most of the other cyclists on the road, I was still progressing more quickly than the season was was travelling north across Europe. That, at least, put a smile on my face.

The walled settlement of Béjar, coming as it did after a climb to 950 metres followed by an immediate and rather cruel decent back down to 850 metres, with its breezeblock tourist office on the outskirts of the town, didn’t shout ‘stop here for an hour or so for a rest and a bit of lunch’, so I carried on pedalling. I knew from my hybrid Spanish-English-hand gesture conversation with the SMAMIL earlier that I hadn’t yet reached the peak so I just plodded on.

Towards the end of the long climb, the wind picked up considerably but at least it was heading in the same general direction as me and the bike. It only became inconvenient at the point where I decided that an arty photograph was required. The image would need to include the wide expanse of the mountain and the valley and the bike perching by the road. As I stepped back into the non-existent traffic (this was, remember, still the N-630) to fit everything in, a gust of wind shunted poor Reggie into a ditch with an alarming clatter. Fortunately, no damage was done but it did require not an insignificant amount of hauling to drag him from his muddy resting place.

The summit – the Puerto de Vallejera – was announced with a sign telling us that we had climbed to 1,202 metres. Although this was good news, we were still only halfway to Salamanca and from what I could see ahead of me, I doubted that it would be downhill all the way; it most certainly wasn’t. What followed was a succession of long downhill rides punctuated by sharp climbs. In my mind, the climbing had been completed at the Puerto de Vallejera and it was at that point that my body began to relax. The reality was very much different and each of the shorter climbs seemed excessively long and strenuous for a cycle that had reached its peak after 65 km.

Earlier in the day I had crossed the border from Extremadura and entered the new region of Castilla y León. Say what you like about Extremadura (and, personally, I have good memories of the place), but it has a deep respect for the N-630 road along which I was cycling in almost solitary isolation. That couldn’t quite be said for Castilla y León which appeared to have a love-hate relationship with the N-630. Gone were the fabulously regular signs telling me exactly where I was at any one point and, for long stretches, gone were the N-630 signs themselves! This had become a mere ‘Vía de Servicio’ for the A-66 autovía. The indignity…

On a less emotional level and a more practical one, the sporadic apparent disappearance of the N-630 simply had me feeling decidedly lost. I had been following the road since leaving Seville almost a week earlier and no longer to have it there was disconcerting to say the least. Gone were my elongated and carefree periods of time simply gazing at the Spanish countryside; I was once again required to think about where I was going.

The pig-dominated town of Guijuelo gave the N-630 a good excuse to extract itself from the shoulder of its big brother the A-66 and for the region of Castilla y León to start using the N-630 signs again. And when I say ‘pig-dominated’, I mean just that. Almost without exception, the businesses along the N-630 in and around Guijuelo seemed to have some kind of porcine connection either rearing, slaughtering or selling pigs. Even those that didn’t were keen to associate themselves somehow with their four-trotted friend by incorporating into their name or logo something linking them to a not-so-humble pig. They all had their, well, snouts in the trough. On the northern side of the town, distressed squeals could be heard over all other noises. They were emanating from a large concrete building to the right of the road and I sensed that a few more Iberian pork joints were about to start the ageing process.  

My eventful day of cycling was not yet at an end. Following a final climb back up to nearly 1,000 metres, the remaining 25 km of the ride to Salamanca was predominantly downhill. The deep blue and cloudless sky of the morning and early afternoon had now been replaced by a rather foreboding bank of black cloud to the north. I had noticed a few strikes of forked lightning linking the land to the clouds but was not overly concerned as the wind was still pushing me, and by corollary the clouds, further north. Then, rather abruptly, the direction of the wind changed and within minutes the storm was no longer a distant thing to admire, it was overhead and I was beginning to fear it. Cycling in the rain can be tolerated, dare I say even enjoyed. Cycling through a storm of forked lightning is not so enjoyable but with my destination so relatively close I was reluctant to stop cycling.

I paused to put on my waterproof (alas not lightning proof) jacket and headed into the depths of the storm. The open countryside offered little protection should I have chosen to stop; surely it was safer on the open road being supported by rubber tyres (especially Schwalbe ones – they probably were lightening proof come to think of it) than under a tree. My childhood had taught me that, along with accepting sweets from strange men (although not refusing to be escorted across the road by a strange man with a green cross on his chest and the same gait as Darth Vader), standing under a tree in a storm was to be avoided at all costs. Better off on a bike with Schwalbe tyres. Perhaps.

The rain was now horizontal, as was most of my body as I ploughed through the wall of water. It was also cold. Not the crisp, breathe-in-and-fill-your-lungs-with-gallons-of-freshness cold but the painful, numbing cold formed when excessive water and lack of heat combine. Not nice. A further combination of late afternoon and black clouds above my head made it sufficiently dark for me to reach for my bike lights and switch them on for the first time since leaving Tarifa. For the next 20 km I pedalled, without stopping, until I reached the very centre of Salamanca.

The magnificent Plaza Mayor, the hub of Salamancan life, didn’t look so magnificent through the prism of a dark, rainy evening. Even less so from the perspective of a cold, wet cyclist who just needed to stand under a hot shower for an elongated period of time. Finding a hotel wasn’t a problem and within 15 minutes of arrival in the city I had (brace yourself for this) stripped naked and was standing in a bath waiting to be drenched in a good way.

A further 5 minutes later I was standing (fully clothed) back at the reception desk;

I’m sorry sir but we don’t have any other rooms. The shower will be repaired in the morning.

Fortunately my second choice of hotel, the Estrella Albatros, did have vacant rooms and showers that functioned. Finally, I was able to stand naked under hot water and thaw.

The magnificent Plaza Mayor, the hub of Salamancan life, did look much more magnificent through the prism of a bright Sunday morning. Even more so from the perspective of a cyclist who had benefitted from a good night’s sleep. I found a bar in one corner of the plaza and filled in my diary. This included noting down the statistics of the previous day’s cycling. With the shower shenanigans, I had abandoned all forms of administration but now I was catching up. The cycle from Plasencia to Salamanca had been 133 km bringing the total for the ten days of cycling from Tarifa to Salamanca to 754 km, or an average 75.4 km per day. My late afternoon of toil and suffering had been worth it; I was now hitting my target daily distance and the chances of making it as far as Nordkapp in 100 days seemed a little more attainable. I deserved a day off and with great serendipity, I was about to benefit from one.

Frogs. No, I haven’t jumped to the France section; Salamanca was full of them. Handbags, t-shirts, postcards, mugs, paperweights… Anything that your average tourist was capable of buying appeared to be embellished with one. The street vendors were selling plastic ones with remarkably authentic croaks for only €2. Bargain! But why? Walk down the calle Liberos along one edge of the main building of the Universidad de Salamanca until you get to two red doors and you might find out the answer. Top tip: bring your binoculars.

The entrance and the intricate facade above it is known as La Puerta de Salamanca, or the door of Salamanca. Admittedly it sounds better in Spanish so let’s stick to that. If you stand in front of la puerta and can find the tiny frog amongst the mass of masonry swirls, seashells, bearded men, crests, flowers, birds etc… it will, allegedly, bring you good luck. Even if you have remembered your binoculars, you’d be hard-pressed to find the little blighter. He sits on top of a skull on the right-hand side of the 400 year-old facade more than a little worn down by 400 years of weather. Top tip: if you can’t find it (very likely), Google it. That’s what everyone else does. The origins of the frog are a little ambiguous and the three possible theories resemble a round of Call My Bluff. Was it… put there for students to find and give them good luck in their exams? A symbol of sexual temptation to warn the then all-male cohort of students away from disease-ridden prostitutes? Or a certain Doctor Parra who failed to save the life of Prince Juan – represented by the skull – who died in 1497 at the tender age of just 19? Where are Robert Robinson and Frank Muir when you need them?

Leaving the Salamancan set of a 1970s panel game, I chose to get my dose of culture at the other university, the Universidad Pontificia, and was duly escorted around the building with a group of Spaniards. I nodded when they nodded so as not to let on that I didn’t really have a clue as to what was being said. Fortunately I could fill in the rather wide gaps in my knowledge with the information contained in an English-language leaflet. I was required to persist with the tour of all things Baroque in order to access the tower. It had appeared from the street below that it would offer good views over the city and I wasn’t disappointed. Looking south, beyond the fat layer of the red tiles of the old city of Salamanca and a thinner band of modern suburbia I could clearly see the mountains that I had climbed on the previous day. Turning to the north I saw no mountains, just a distant patchwork of hazy green, yellow and brown fields. My onward journey looked as though it would be a little less strenuous, at least for one day.

Returning to street level and the constant croaking of plastic frogs I did what should be done in all old towns and cities; I went for a wander in the hope of getting lost. I wasn’t totally successful in that after only a few minutes my attention was drawn by a banner hanging from a first floor window of the Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica. Below an old black and white photograph of a soldier wearing a thick overcoat and a tin hat, a rifle slung over his right shoulder and a wicker basket of food in his left hand it said:

Documentos de una guerra: España 1936-1939

When I was in my mid teens, the first travelogue that I ever read was Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, the sequel to Cider with Rosie which, like many people, I had studied at school. It sets out Lee’s journey from his home in the Cotswolds to London and then, in the summer of 1935, to Spain. He started his own journey across Spain in the Galician port of Vigo before heading east via Zamora – my next stop en route to Nordkapp – and then Valladolid to Madrid. Playing his violin to earn a little money, he continued south to Seville and then the sea at Cádiz. He wasn’t a great fan of the place:

I’d been travelling through Spain in a romantic haze… Cádiz at that time was nothing but a rotting hulk on the edge of a disease-ridden tropic sea; its people dismayed, half-mad, consoled only by vicious humour, prisoners rather than citizens.

It’s good to note that things have improved since. He then traveled, in the opposite direction to me, to Tarifa although he makes no mention as to whether he ventured as far as the ‘real’ southernmost point on the Isla de las Palomas… choosing to reflect upon drinking whiskey with fishermen and a ‘mysterious dandy’ from Cuba. Now it’s just blond surfers and healthy breakfasts.

He stayed for most of the winter in Almuñécar, east of Malaga, where once again he spent many evenings boozing with the locals in the lead up to the start of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. He was ‘rescued’, reluctantly, by a British destroyer in Gibraltar but returned to Spain the following year to fight with one of the volunteer Brigadas Internacionales. That episode of his life was the subject of the final book in the trilogy, A Moment of War.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning has always been my primary source of information about Spain in the 1930s but it’s a romanticised version of reality, especially from the distance of over 80 years. There is a small part of me which wants to rediscover that seedy Cádiz of 1935 and meet its ‘dismayed, half-mad’ population but I know that the stark contrast between life then and life now would have me scuttling back to 21st Century Spain more quickly than an EasyJet flight to Malaga.

The exhibition of civil war documents in Salamanca – propaganda posters, photographs, paintings… – emphasised in a remarkably balanced way just how divisive the fight between Franco’s Nationalists and the Republicans had been. The split in Spanish society between those who supported Franco and those that didn’t remains a part of modern life albeit not an obvious one to a casually traveller such as myself. As I wandered around the sections of the exhibition – ‘political ideas’, ‘republican propaganda’, repression’, ‘exile’… – it was difficult not to wonder what was going through the minds of the other visitors, especially through the minds of those who had lived a significant part of their lives under the rule of dictator Franco. I sensed that their own view of the 1930s and what followed was significantly less romanticised than that of Laurie Lee and, as someone who as a teenager loved every word of his book, me.

I did finally manage to lose myself in the pedestrianised streets of Salamanca turning this way and that as I noticed things that might interest me and those that probably wouldn’t. I even stumbled upon a town centre bike shop which, despite it being Sunday, was open. I arranged for Reggie to be checked over the following morning and, after a second night in my hotel, returned with the bike for them to do just that. Marcos, the Jesus lookalike, had, however, beaten me to it. His bike needed repairing whereas mine didn’t so I was happy for the shop’s only mechanic to prioritise Marcos’ job over mine. It also gave me a little extra time to plan ahead for the second half of the journey through Spain, a journey that would soon have to turn due east in the direction of Pamplona, the Pyrenees and France. And, err… More frogs.

© Andrew P. Sykes (Apart from the Laurie Lee bit…)

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