The ride out of Chaves Saturday started with a stop at the SuperMercado where we picked up provisions for Saturday and Sunday – the week before, we found out the hard way that stores are mostly closed on Sundays. The line of ladies with arms the size of hams waiting at the meat and olive counter was too long and intimidating for me to request my small scoop of olives, so we left without them. We had decided on a route connecting the smallest roads on our Michelin map, and in tiny type, at the very edge of the tourist city map, we found the road to Valdante. Shortly outside of town, of course we find a small, country store and the shop owner gladly sells me a small scoop of green and then black olives, then teaches us the words, writing them down on a scrap of paper for me to practice; azeitomaverde, preta. Already country life was easier.
We left through the suburbs, where one small town blended with another with growing farm space in between. Few people were out on this clear skied beautiful Saturday. We passed a family packing into their car, and the kids stared while the father gave a whoop and hello and asked what sounded like “You aren’t really going that way are you!?” I answered “Boa tarde! And you bet I’m going there and beyond!” While we didn’t understand each others words, but I’m sure we understood each others meanings.
Around the bend we found the reason for their exuberant surprise… the cobblestone road shot up abruptly and climbed out of town past the village water fonte. This was a bare down for all it’s worth steep climb as locals watched and waited for our return.
But of course there is no turning back. Up we went and climbed the hard way out of the Chaves valley. Up to heathered grasslands littered with boulders. A rock cropping served as a welcome flattish area to have a little yogurt break. Undulating up and down, but more up than down. We climbed higher and in the distance could see large swaths of charred forests. We had heard about the plight of fires from a vineyard owner, and here it was if blackened “living color”. The road climbed higher, sometimes dipping to a river and climbing again. It was a day of vistas to distant mountain ranges, hairpin turns that looked down to the patchwork quilt of farmland and villages in the valleys below.
Towards the end of day, we found ourselves once again traveling through burned forests where rock walls remained. Water stops had been scarce, so when a sign appeared for a village not marked on our maps, we took the turn up the dirt road. In our primitive Portuguese we ask for water, and a woman indicates to follow her. We enter more of a compound than a village , and the keystone arch is engraved “1786”. A gentleman steering his cow in to it’s bed for the night shows us the source of a natural spring that is enclosed and gated under a cross. Pure deliciousness. Overhead grape vines created a cool retreat and marked the entrance to narrow stone paths worn and scarred by 200 years of rustic living in the high mountains.
While we filled our bottles the man and woman disappear, and we are left to gape in awe feeling we had stepped back in time. The heavy stone walls and narrow passageways held stores we could only imagine. This very experience was worth every drop of sweat
Night was approaching and since our hosts did not reappear, we finally turned and rolled slowly down to the paved road in search of place to hide away for a night. The small paved road carried only a few vehicles an hour, so we easily found a little used access path curved away from the pavement and into the pine forest. There a soft bed of pine needles and a perfect camp site waited for us.
Salamanca, Spain is big in every way–cathedrals, plazas, universities. I was snapping photos as we walked the streets. This little guy was swallowed up by the enormity of the city. You´ll have to click on the photo to get a closer look.
On a bicycle journey of three months it’s desirable to spend an occasional night camped stealthily alone. It helps the budget, but also is a true rest from the stimulus of travel. We know our routines, rarely need to speak a word as tent is pitched, sleeping pads and bags unfurled, panniers unpacked and placed in the tent in order. By now, we have a system.
Willie is the wild camp site selector. He works it like a master, spying hills or groves, often dropping his bicycle to pursue a path on foot returning with a thumbs up or thumbs down. In western Spain the possibilities for wild camping are severely limited by the increase in fenced land. Barbed wire fences or stone walls effectively keep touring cyclists out and cattle, sheep and rocky fields in.
As the master, I rarely question his judgment so only raised an eyebrow when he opened the 10 foot tall gate and slipped inside to hike up a hill through a sparse thicket of sage brush and gnarly old oaks. He returned with a thumbs up and beaming grin, excited by the spectacular view we would have that night.
Up the rocky terrain we huffed our laden bicycles and just off the center top, we pitched the tent, unfurled the bags, unpacked the panniers, got out the stove, kitchen kit and makings for dinner. Clothes were changed and we settled in for a slight rest noticing the tiny tinkle of far-off bells.
Each slow breath seemed to bring that tinkle a little closer. Imagination? Then a motorcycle swooped back and forth, back and forth in perplexing rhythm. Hoping it would just leave, the noise finally trailed away, and only the tinkle of sheep bells remained. Growing louder. Growing louder still. Growing loud enough to make us sit up and scan our hilltop and see the first puffs of white crest. More followed and sheep streamed by the far edge of the clearing, rambling down the hill from which we came. A few shakes of a shirt startled any sheep willful enough to look away from the flock and in our direction. Soon enough they were gone.
Time to start making dinner, light the stove, boil the water. When the tinkle and baaaying of sheep grew stronger again. Scanning the hill top, this time not one or two or twenty, but two or three hundred sheep poured over the top and charged directly towards us. Leaders formed a semi circle around us, while those further back raised their head and jostled their neighbor hoping to see. Sweet tinkling of bells was replaced by bellowing and braying. The boldest sheep would start towards the tent bag or towel or pannier strewn about our camp site. Waving of arms shooed them back, but only to the edge of their semi circle. They cried and balked and made terrible noise. Then stopped. Dead silent, but all 600 black beady eyes saying the same thing. “Get off my hill!” Then on cue, they start the baaying sounds again.
Times like these, I feel like such city kids. Willie thinks the sheep will just go to sleep. I think he’s crazy, but truthfully, I don’t know if sheep sleep. I do know that we are the most interesting thing they’ve ever seen on their hill. He thinks it will take too much time to pack our bags and move, I think we have no choice but to move. The sun has already set and dusk is giving way to dark and minutes of indecision are stolen from our light. As a big sheep in front makes for the tent fly flapping in the slight breeze, I declare emphatically we can not stay here and at last we agree.. Willie’s job becomes the defender of camp while I scrunch and shove all our belongings into a bag, any bag, and undo our campsite in minutes which normally takes an hour. We take turns defending our ground and attaching our panniers to our bicycles readying for a hasty retreat. As we push off, walking our bicycles quickly down a path more perceived than actually seen, the sheep turn away and comfortably munch their hilltop. Victorious.
It’s a scramble for us in near darkness. Thankful sheep dogs were not with the flock that night, we breathe a sigh or releif. We found a gate, not the same gate since we are turned around in the darkness, but outside is a road and our bicycles know they belong.
Nearby we found an opening to a stone walled field of hay stubble. Bristly and uneven, but it was out of sight, tucked low from the close-by road. We cooked our simple supper under moonlight and clear skies and went to sleep counting our lucky stars.
Racers in the Tour de Spain fly by on the streets of Salamanca
Thirty seconds max. That’s all it took from the time we saw the peloton approaching till the time it had whizzed by.
We found a room in a hostal in Salamanca, Spain. After we hauled our bikes and gear upstairs, the woman behind the checkout desk excitedly explained to us that a bike race was coming through town … in 90 minutes.
Further discussion in broken Spanish led us to discover that we had happened upon this insanely gorgeous city on the same day that a stage of the Tour de Spain was passing though, just five blocks away.
We gathered with a thousand spectators. The police were busy closing down and diverting traffic while also trying to keep the eager onlookers from pushing beyond the yellow tape. Fans gathered with signs, kids squirmed their way to the front of the line, photographers trampled flowers surrounding a fountain.
A crowd gathers to catch a glimpse of the Tour de Spain
Everyone one waited with anticipation. The police barked at locals who tried crossing the street that was closed off. A series of civil guard and police vehicles came screaming past. Then more motorcycles and some team vehicles. All eyes searched for a glimpse of the first bicycle.
The leaders, a small pack of six or seven riders, became visible and the crowd lurched forward. There was barely time for me to raise my camera … and they were gone, taking the corner faster than I’d imagined was possible.
Then 90 seconds later a large mass of muscles and bicycles appeared. The peloton. What an experience. Like watching a swarm of bees go by.
As a touring cyclist who has never raced, never even considered racing, I was in awe of the grace and speed. From someone who is traveling on a loaded touring bike whose weight tops 100 pounds–it was the lumbering elephant watching the gazelles.
Mark Cavendish won the stage. As traveler’s, we felt like we’d won the lottery.
Bicycling is marvelous journey, a “pinch me” kind of way to experience a place intimately, until that pinch becomes a pinch in the knee. The mild twinge on the first day of pedaling, was still present on day two and growing stronger. The rolling hills dotted with pines, junipers, and roadside hazelnut trees took my mind off the knee, until the midday sun intensified everything. I reached a boiling point 3 or 4 kilometers outside of Las Navas, a small village 35 k outside of our destination for the night. After a water break, the push on the pedal and a shooting pain went from knee to belly. It shot again, and again, and again. Every revolution of the pedal was a hot flash of pain igniting fear.
Slowly I pedaled looking for different muscles to use until eventually the best solution seemed to be letting my left leg do all the work. The right leg went around and a pinch of pain with each deep bend. Eventually I pedaled to Willie where he waited at a cross roads, and I imagine it was just a look on my face that told him the story.
On every journey, something goes wrong. Someone gets sick, a back seizes up, knees give out. These are not our proudest times, but integral to the story of real life on the road. When things go wrong are perhaps the most emotionally challenging times. But for things to go wrong on day two!!
It was clear after a rest and ibuprofen that continuing to Avila, our destination for the night, would risk much more serious injury. As luck would have it, we were near a gas station, which was near the small village. Our minds went into overdrive as we explored our options until each one hit a dead end. The dam inside holding back tears that the trip might be over just as it begins, crumbles just a little and I step outside the gas station for a moment alone. Sensing the need for help, the station attendant mentions we could take “el tren”. Really? Could I take my bicycle? Was the station far? Yes, yes, and 2 kilometers down hill. We coasted to a small station, found only the bar open but, yes indeed the train comes in half an hour, you can take your bicycles, so now enjoy a refreshing beer. Smile a little to ease the worried eyes.
The train was a three-car commuter train from Madrid to Avila and points beyond. Fortunate for us, we were there in the middle of the afternoon. We hurriedly boarded our bicycles followed by the 7 bags of luggage. Smoothly sailing as the conductor came by to issue our ticket for 2 people, 2 bikes and a mountain of baggage for 5euro. A half an hour in air-conditioned bliss we watched the scenery pass by. The land of spaghetti-westerns– barren, dry, beautiful in it’s starkness. And just like that, we arrived in Avila. An historic town with a world-heritage center and just one room left at the only hostal we could afford.
Deposited on the bed to rest, Willie went in search of a magic cure. He came home with a topical tube of ibuprofen gel, ice, and Johnnie Walker. The first two did wonders in relieving the pain, the third did wonders in lifting the spirits as we sat on our balcony watching life go by.
That evening we strolled through 12th century streets and embraced our good fortune for all we can do.
Today, I continue with the ice and ointment and the pain of bending the knee this morning has all but disappeared by dinner time. We stroll the walled city and lively town, refresh our provisions, and fingers-crossed, we pedal out of town in the morning on the next stage of our trip.
After three days in Madrid, it was finally time to get on the bikes. It is hard to sleep the night before new beginnings … new school, new job, new adventure. So much emotionally is riding on that first day.
We got lost within the first 10 minutes trying to find our way out of the city. Too many turns. My eyes now need reading classes to read a map.
Then Kat’s back rack comes loose and rocks back toward the street. Obviously her mechanics fault (that’s me). Forgot to tighten those bolts.
We pedal along a large park and it is obvious that we are not going to be able to follow the directions we have.
Pedro comes to the rescue. He’s out on his Sunday bike ride and offers to guide us through the maze of turns.
We are now out to the highway and lost again. Some young men on racing bikes give us directions through a neighborhood near the college. It is a group of mountain bikers next, sending us in the right direction.
We pedal into our first town, Boadilla del Monte, the entrance road is paved in brick and lined with a quarter mile of lavender. Will every town be this beautiful?
Less than 15 kilometers later we run into a festival in Brunete. It is the running of the bulls–the kids version. The town square is filed with families. The bulls are built around a water barrel on a bicycle wheel, covered with hide and a fake bulls head. Real horns though, but they are covered with black tennis balls.
Young men push these bulls around to the delight and horror of the kids in the square. Each bull is equipped with water jets, and no one escapes the spray of bulls. A band plays all the while the kids run laughing and screaming.
In the town of Valldemorrio, a young man named Jason approaches us. He’s bicycle toured before and wants to know our story. We are invited to join his family for a drink at one of the outdoor restaurants. His parents run a language school which account for his perfect English. We laugh and chat and are introduced to Spanish hard cider.
We are less than 60 kilometers into our journey and already Spain has given us a warm embrace.
Less than a week before lift-off and the list of errands to run and things to do grows each day. Waking to cold rain, I thought today was the day to play the “get out of jail free” card and borrow my neighbor’s car. I’ve had her keys for a week while she is out of town and not even tempted to drive when I could instead get in a 25 mile ride while picking up necessary odds and ends all over town. Today was the day though, that I had much to do, little time and car keys in my pocket.
You’d think I’d be happy.
I was happy (perhaps even a sense of guilty-pleasure not wanting to tell Willie that I was, um, cheating), then I merged onto I-5. Bumper to bumper and lane-crossing crazies. Off the ramp on the north side of town and I find myself heading east when I needed to go west, and turning around meant going blocks out of my way thanks to multiple one-way streets. Finally heading in the right direction meant once again sitting in traffic–thinking all the while that something a cyclist never does is sit in traffic!
Errands uptown finished, I headed downtown and found the parking lot to my bank closed and searching for street parking for a momentary trip to test my ATM card ready for travel. On my bike I would have pulled right up to the ATM, put in my card and been on my way. Instead, found a 3 minute loading zone and ran. But dang! My card no longer worked and I needed to go inside and get it straightened out…. which meant moving the car and paying for parking. Paying for parking might be one of those costs of life that is built into the driver psyche, but to me it was as foreign as a VAT tax. I’ll think of that next time lock my bike to a pole or rack and be thankful I don’t have to pay for the privilege.
Back in the Subaru, it was fast approaching rush hour and I found myself seeking alternate routes back home that would take me on back roads also known as “cut-throughs” by people who don’t appreciate motorists passing through their quiet neighborhood street. I realized I was driving like a cyclist seeking the roads less trafficked.
By the time I got home, I was relieved to hang up those keys. Rather than enjoying the drive as a treat, it was all work and no play.