June ’09
Cycling in the Sierra de Grazalema
– Parque Natural de Grazalema

Apricots, oranges, lemons and more were picked by greedy hands as we climbed under the trees between stretches of cycling in the country. Random greetings to the farmers as we passed kept us humbled to the ways of the simple life. I woke the epitome of happiness, but a tear gravitated towards my pillow as I realised life would never be this simple forever. Having spent the night out under the stars, my good friend, Rochez, and I had the best sleep in just under a week. We had been on-the-go six whole days and still had a few more ahead of us as well, and sleep had been lacking. Cycling and walking the sierras (mountain ranges) of the Spanish countryside … each day a new set of activities, each night a new quaint, white village set high in the mountains, their architecture unique to the area.
Without really planning but taking each day as it comes, we cycled and walked through and around the entire Grazalema Natural Park (Cadiz Province), as well as a bit of the Arcornales Natural Park (Malaga Province) by default when we were lost for a day. The Sierra de Grazalema is not for your novice, as we realised on entry to the village of Grazalema. Set in the heart of the park, this typical village has been built in amongst limestone and basalt rock formations which take your breath away. Open plantations of olives give way to dense stands of cork oak, all ringed of their bark for the cork trade, exposing beautiful red under layers. We took our time finding accommodation, the bikes being pushed down narrow cobbled streets lacking signs (the Spanish apparently haven’t heard of this modern-day phenomenon of sign-posting, as we discovered on several occasions while hiking, and once upon entering someone’s house to thinking it was a hostel). Padded cycling shorts (or ‘winky-shorts’ as they were dubbed, making us appear masculine in certain areas) were swopped for our walking clothes and we hit the first of the mountain trails, Penon Grande. With a 20 kilometer cycle and three hour walk behind us, we celebrated in our room with a supper of rice crackers, tomato and tinned muscles, thanks to our forward thinking of raping the kitchen before leaving.
“Dos cafe con leche, por favor.” tired eyes sipped at the milky caffeine. The night had not been good to us. Our room looked onto a church which had a clock-tour bell that selected a random number of chimes every 15 minutes or so. The Spanish are also known for being loud and, as it was a Saturday night, spirits were high until eh early hours. but tiredness gave way to excitement as the Rochez’s mountain bike and my ‘dinweel’ were mounted for a 16 kilometer cycle over the highest pass in the sierra, Puerto de las Palomas at 1357 meters above sea level. We were extremely grateful that our previous destination was already pretty high up in the mountain. After summiting after an hour of uphill granny-gears, the 12 kilometer free-wheel was bliss. Needless to say the views were breathtaking and we got sight of the first griffon vultures which were to mark every day from there on. The park hosts the largest population in Europe, magnificent birds which we saw singularly and in groups of up to 30 soaring at a time. The picturesque village of Zahara, with its turquoise lake and overlooking castle, was stop number two. The mission up and down through the winding steep streets while searching for accommodation was on a par with the 16 kilometer Walk of the Griffon Vultures we did that afternoon. A cold mountain stream after six hours of walking in the heat called for a skinny-dip. Just in time as well because not even two minutes thereafter a troop of about 50 Spaningoes (as they were now donned by us) appeared from upstream. They had been abseiling and kloofing and didn’t even know they missed out on a show from us. The millions of olive trees dotted on the hills tempted us into buying a bag which we took up to the castle for sunset and a 360 degree view of the area, including the famous pass we had cycled over earlier. With vultures overhead we said ‘buenos noches’ (good night) to another amazing day. Our Spanish was coming along nicely, but we still managed to confuse the hostel manager and waiter at breakfast (only coffee and ‘pan’, Spanish bread, included in the accommodation price) into believing we had cycled all the way from South Africa. As it was too much effort to correct them we let them think we were that hardcore – everyone in the area thought we were German anyways. Scenery opened up and then narrowed into plunging valleys again on our 30 kilometer cycle to El Bosque. With every downhill comes just as ‘nice’ an uphill and we were tired upon arrival. But having planned to walk the five kilometer trail to the next village, Benamahoma, we set out again. Unfortunately, we arrived during siesta time – between 14:00 and 18:00 nothing happens in Spain. Everything closes and only ghosts roam the streets. Life begins again as the heat dwindles into the dusk of the late night hours. But we managed to find the only place open and, after a bit of caffeine, hitched a ride back to El Bosque with a Spanish lady who, once again, thought we could understand everything she was saying. And so it was back to our room, which we got under dodgy circumstances. The lack of hot water and other people in the place made it clear that our ‘cheap’ room was defiantly handed to us by a couple with something up their sleeves. The night seemed to last forever. I didn’t sleep very well but was amused to discover that Rochez laughs in her sleep and speaks really good Spanish.
The fourth day was a long 60 kilometer cycling stretch. Once again we made our way uphill to another white village for a coffee stop, viewing the larger town of Ubrique on our bypass. Around the mountain, via the El Cintillo Pass, is the highest village in the province of Cadiz, Villaluenga del Rosario. There is a cheese factory there specialising in quesos la velada de oveja y cabra (sheep and goats cheese). The tasters were washed down with local sherry, and that sorted us for lunch. We pushed on to Ronda, a large city skirting the edges of the park, but not before an hour’s uphill cycle to get there. The shower was hot, the streets were buzzing and the first ice creams of the trip were heaven on out tongues. We splashed out that night on a meal and a bottle of local vino de tinto (red wine). Satisfied, tired bodies welcomed the soft beds, but yet again sleep didn’t feature much – must have been due to being so active non-stop. Rochez’s dad was to meet us in Benaocaz that morning to join us for a 16 kilometer hike – The Walk of the Hidden Valley. We left Ronda and it was back onto the country roads, past fields of wheat and animals, small houses and farming Spaningoes. Due to road-works we were slightly delayed but the three of us set off around midday for the mountains. The walk started and ended in Montejaque, two kilometers further up the pass from Benaocaz. The sun was beating down, but that didn’t detract from the magnificent views. We shared a melon, compliments of our guest, among Hiberian pigs (farmed for the local ‘jamon’ – curred ham). We had to scout the route a few times and bodies were getting tired. To say it was hot is an understatement. The plums picked from a tree at the end of the walk were the best I have ever had … when you are tired, hot, sunburnt, thirsty and hungry I reckon dog pooh will taste like chocolate. Our water had run out earlier so it was no surprise when the three of us headed straight into the first pub and ordered a litre and a half of cold water. Bill treated us to a few tapas (traditional bar snacks, a variety keeps one munching) – tuna and tomato pan, local cured meat known as jamon, olives, breadsticks, cheese. Tired and needing a shower, we parted with Bill to find a bed for the night. Karma was smiling on us as we landed up in a self-catering cottage kitchen area, patio with mountain-view, hot shower and beds! What more could we want? After munching leftovers, we moved our mattresses outside, falling into the best sleep yet under pinprick starts and fresh mountain air. The moon greeted us at some point, as did the peacock at first light. Life hadn’t been this simple for a long time and I wish to remember that moment forever. I don’t know which was louder at first light, the heavy machinery or the numerous peacocks competing in a screeching match. Water for our morning tea was boiled in a bright red kettle on the gas stove and frozen water packed for the day – we had taken full advantage of the kitchen. From Montejaque we continued along the mountain pass. The peaks towered above us as the heat set in. not a breath of wind resulted in comfort level decreasing dramatically. The worst hills of the journey were yet to come and as we entered Cortes de la Fronter the heat had made our energy levels dwindle. We stopped off in a grassy park for a much needed picnic lunch of ‘mini toasties- we had a good laugh as we compared the size of these dried toast-shaped biscuits to the seemingly over-sized tomatoes we had to accompany them. After dozing off in the shade while watching the vultures soar overhead, we put padded bums back onto bicycle seats and attempted yet another pass. The views continued to amaze us – through cork and pines trees, towering peaks and contrasting valleys we peddled. That day we got horribly lost, but luckily our mindset was one of an adventurous traveller. We had been pointed in the wrong direction by a local we asked in Cortes. After cycling for three hours in the complete opposite direction we consulted our map and decided to take a ‘short-cut’ on a dirt round. Well, a few hours later, having almost lost our sense of humours on the bumps, we arrived on a tar road. The three vehicles we flagged down to asked for confirmation that we were actually on the short-cut route all had Spanish men in them who spoke Spanish way too fast and were over-enthusiastic to help. They drew us maps, got out of their vehicles while talking and, not being able to comprehend that we didn’t understand them, explained in detailed Spanish what we were to do. We were relieved to get to Loma del Castilla, a land-mark on our roadmap that corresponded with the Spaningoes we had stopped (it was about the only thing we understood in our 10 minute encounter with each of them). The place we decided to head for after getting lost and re-routing our day was called El Colmenar and a long downhill finally brought us to the railway tracks of Gaucin Station. This small village is served mainly by the railway and the route we had taken to get there was one of the only two entries for vehicles. We would recommend our default route to any cycling enthusiasts – it is one of the most beautiful in the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales. Our last stretch for the day was on the train. Only a short trip but well deserved. The excitement kept us going as well as the coffee dose at one of the street cafes while we were waiting for the next train. Jimena de la Frontera was our destination, a mere 15 minute journey away. Getting the bikes on and off the train proved to be quite a task. Keeping them upright in the moving train while jumping on the seats with joy was even more of a challenge. Arriving at dusk was not ideal but we found the only accommodation in the village quicker than previous evenings. It was the most expensive night by far, so we took full advantage of the swimming pool overlooking the houses below and the towering castle above. Before a shower to wash away the dirt and sweat accumulated over the 12 hour cycle, two tinto de veranos (local red wine-based drink) were ordered and seemed to evaporate rather quickly. After a tapa or two we walked the deserted streets in search of an ice cream. The centre with its accompanying church bell was our view as we licked away happily in our own little sugary worlds. Another swim in the pool shocked our tired bodies awake to the day. The castle above and one final walk in the outskirts of Jimena was our mornings plan. Our trip was made when we found a fig tree on the walk with seven ripe fruit on it. After much planning and climbing we retrieved the deep purple sweetness. From the castle we looked back onto part of the Alcornocales Park. Men sat under one of the only trees on the hill, contemplating life and those who passed by. A strong wind was dancing up on the hill; refreshing in the sun’s heat but, as we found out once on the bikes, blowing from the direction we were heading. getting out of the town without any injuries was quite an accomplishment as the cobbled streets are the steepest I have ever seen and extremely slippery underfoot, let alone under rubber tyres. The road to San Pablo was busy, but luckily we were only on it for a few kilometers before turning off onto a smaller one. We were heading directly for the coast, and the wind, thus explaining the many wind turbines on the hills in front of us. Our last stretch ran with the bends of the valley’s river, Rio Guardiaro, contrasting with the mountainous sections we had been cycling the previous days. We passed many citrus plantations, hybrid trees with two fruits on them … combinations of lemons and sour mandarins, lemons and limes, as well as sour mandarins and limes. The tar had been lifted for a 10 kilometer stretch and dinweel had a final taste of dust. A small shaded ditch at the side of the glaringly bright road was our only stop in the heat. We had decided to push on to San Martin where our road would merge with the coastal highway. As there is nothing pleasant about cycling on a busy, polluted bit of road breathing in exhausts fumes we hopped on a bus to Estepona. We amused ourselves and the rest of the on-lookers trying to stow our bikes horizontally with the other luggage. Hot, dirty and smelling like we had been on the road for about a month, we graced the interior of the bus with our presence. The journey took us past sky-rise blocks of flats, people in their fashionable items and the general buzz of life near to the city. although the road and the open space is where we felt most comfortable, it was glorious to have a hot pressure shower, make a substantial meal in a kitchen and be in a tranquil room awaiting a good night’s sleep. The Spanish countryside had taken its toll on our bodies, but had enriched our minds to the brim.