As promised in the previous post – Surprise Surprise! – below is the first of what will hopefully be a series of posts written by Paul Gentle who, on February 1st, set off from Tarifa in Spain (the southernmost point of the continent) with the intention of cycling to Nordkapp in Norway (the northernmost point). His journey replicates my own cycle in 2015 in its start and end points but his route between the two will be very different as he heads along the Mediterranean coast of Spain before crossing France and continuing his cycle in the direction of central, then northern Europe.
I was the most southerly person in the most southerly bar in continental Europe on the 31st of January 2020, as the sun set on Britain’s membership of the European Union. I had anticipated what this moment would feel like during the previous few weeks – sitting in Tarifa, Spain, and looking out to Tangiers in Morocco, which I could still just about make out across the Strait of Gibraltar, only 14km away. I thought that all kinds of poignant thoughts would be occupying my mind, literally being at the end of Europe, at such a significant time.
As it turned out, all I could really think about was cycling. For tomorrow, I was about to set off on a pretty big cycle tour, by my standards anyway. What had started out as a vague plan to go cycling somewhere warm during Britain’s worst months and then head north, had escalated into a full-on mission to cycle all the way to Europe’s most northerly point – Nordkapp, Norway, after I’d casually mentioned to a few people that I might even get that far if all went well, half jokingly.
My head was full of questions like “am I still capable of this type of thing?” (I’m 41 now, quite a bit older and heavier than when I last did a cycling tour 7 years ago). “Is this route going to be too hot?” (at the start) “or too cold?” (at the end). “Am I actually going to be able to cycle up those big hills with loaded up pannier bags?” (I hadn’t even cycled anywhere since October, let alone with a pannier bag).
The first 20 miles of the trip didn’t answer many of these questions, with an easy roll along the seafront out of Tarifa, and then a sharp right turn inland, into a bit of countryside, but nothing really resembling hills yet. I’d had a late start on the first day, due to going on a guided tour of the Isla de Las Palomas in Tarifa (which is where the actual most southerly point in Europe is, and somewhere that’s usually closed to the public – visiting it on a guided tour seemed like the easiest way for me to get there). After only 20 miles, it was starting to get dark, so I found a nice room to stay in, in the quiet but friendly village of Facinas.
The hills of Andalucia certainly kicked in over the next few days. A pattern emerged of cruising along what the locals described as “dirt tracks” (but were actually very cycle-able paths of compacted mud with barely any cars), and then cycling up a big hill to a village. At the top of the hills, the villages were often a stunning reward for your efforts. The “Pueblos Blancos“, or white villages, that stood out from the green hills as you approached them, were full of beautiful buildings and interesting characters. And occasionally a shop or cafe that might actually be open to provide you with some valuable liquid or nourishment. It was becoming apparent that even though the temperature often approached the mid 20 degrees, the locals still regarded this as winter. A lot of businesses were shut for the season, and several times someone would look over to me in my shorts and t-shirt and mime a shivering action, saying “frio!” (Spanish for “cold”).
Between the Pueblos Blancos that I was lucky enough to stay in, like Alcalá de los Gazules, Ubrique and the amazing village of Setenil de las Bodegas (houses actually built into a rock!), there were also some peaceful natural parks, like the Sierra de Grazalema, where the only sound I could hear were Spanish eagles gliding gracefully above me.
The picturesque Pueblos Blancos and natural parks gave way to a busier and slightly more industrial environment, as I moved further north-east, but a new type of highlight replaced them. From the town of Puente Genil, I joined my first Via Verde “greenway”, part of the Spain-wide cycle path network. The Via Verde del Aceite, named after the oil produced by the ever-present olive trees surrounding it, is one of the longest in Spain at 128km.
A little bit rough at the start, from Lucena onwards the Aceite trail becomes a joy to cycle. Smooth, flat, nice surfaces transporting you through little villages, past abandoned train stations (like many Vias Verdes, its been built on a disused railway line), and often out into complete wilderness. For long stretches I didn’t see another cyclist or walker, not at this time of year. Often the bridges that took you over the rivers and valleys, built for the trains in the 1800s, were the only visible sign of human development. Well, them and my bike and kit, with the navigation app on my phone occasionally (and fairly pointlessly) reminding me to “keep on this path for 18 kilometres“.
One of the many highlights of the Via Verde del Aceite was the village of Zuheros, sitting on a ledge high above the path. I spent the night here, after cycling/pushing my bike up its hill, and watched the sunset on the cycle path below to the right, the imposing 11th century castle to my left, and a beer on the table directly in front of me.
You can also follow Paul’s route via the website DataMinister.com.
Great article from Paul. I cycled a similar route to Paul’s in 2013 as I cycled ‘Along The Med…‘ and his photographs bring back fond memories, including this one, taken in exactly the same spot as Paul’s: