Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Days 44 and 45: Lisbon

Me being me, I felt it necessary to complete preparations for the trip home, even though I had a couple days to do so.  I had managed to store the bike and most of my baggage last night at the airport, so I wouldn't, have to schlep it back to the airport (the bus station being near the airport but 5 km from downtown), which did involve me unpacking it, riding it from the station with all the gear, only to have to repack it to store it when at the airport for the same idiotic rule the bus company has. 

  So I headed out first thing in the morning with the empty bike box (retrieved from the wonderful hostel) literally in tow, rumbling over the cobblestone streets for about a mile to the subway, then through the subway (drawing the by-now familiar raised eyebrows and clucking tongues of the elderly), and to the airport.  Actually, this went smoother than I expected, and before too long, i  had the bike all packed and stowed for the flight home, and stored at the airport so I didn't have to think about how astoundingly and unnecessarily difficult the US and Europe make it to transport a damned bicycle. 

Anyway, out near the airport was a genuine Lisbon attraction- the fairgrounds of the '98 Expo (World's Fair).   In some ways, this is a little depressing, in that the 15 years have taken a bit of a toll on all the sweeping modern architecture, futuristic fountains, and rows of flags from every nation.  Certainly the flashiness and optimism stands in stark contrast to the post-austerity grittiness of the rest of Lisbon.  Or perhaps it just had the same problem seemingly every former World's Fair ground has had in every city- where no one seems to have put much thought into what to do with it once the fair is over. 

Be this as it may, one legacy that remains is a truly excellent aquarium, and I have always been a sucker for them.  So despite it being a bit expensive, I very happily whiled away a few hours there, and then walked around the pleasant gardens and marina in the area.  By that time it was getting into the afternoon, and I made my way back into town to relax a bit at the hostel.

With all my baggage squared away and ready for travel, and a full day left, I had no reason not to accept an invitation, then, for a night on the town.  I think I have mentioned this is a night owl culture, and generally people go out around 11, after eating the only substantial meal of the day around 9. People stay out until 4 or later as a matter of course, and heretofore that has not worked well with my bike touring schedule.

This is a particularly well-run hostel, and a satellite group of semi-employees is generally always around to offer guests lots of activities, so long as none of them are early.  Tonight's offering was to go see fado music at a tiny bar that is a local favorite, and, having not seen this in person yet, I was very excited to do so.  I was not at all disappointed, as we arrived right on time, and miraculously had a table reserved for us in the very limited space.  Sipping small glasses of port, we enjoyed a series of singers, some apparently professionals and some talented amateurs.  They were accompanied by a guitar and something somewhat like a mandolin, and the music lived up to its richly haunting and melancholy reputation.  It seems to be roughly equivalent to the blues in America, and apparently was the de facto soundtrack to decades of dictatorship and poverty.
It seemed to me hardly a dead medium though, as people around us would often sing along, apparently very familiar with most of the songs. 

Portugal is unfortunately bereft of a tradition of late night munchies, though we did find a place known only as "the illegal bakery" where you put a couple euros through a window and they give you a shifty glance and chocolate filled crossaint. 

Woke up relatively late the next day and a little groggy, and frankly a bit tired by now of all the constant need to make every minute count, but the excellent breakfasts this hostel makes (soooo welcome after more than a month straight of little more than toast and perhaps cereal for breakfast, but usually only toast), a rallied and got on the move. 

I returned to the Belem area, which I felt I gave short shrift at the beginning of the trip.  Particularly the fantastic maritime museum, which needs a few hours to appreciate, as opposed to the paltry half hour or so I gave it near closing time last time.  So I did that, then went to the adjoining and mildly interesting Archeological Museum next door (it's disappointingly small, very little is in English, and I am pretty burnt out on Archeological Museums at this point).  I then went to the Famous Place You Have To Go To, which every city seems to have( for example Cafe DuMond in New Orleans) , in this case the Pastelrilla De Belem, for the little custard tarts and coffee.  Like all such attractions, it's good, sure, but you can get equal quality at much lower price and no line at the other place two doors down. 

Last stop was the wonderful (and free!) Museum of Electricity, which is housed in an early 20th century coal-fired power plant.  If you ever wondered EXACTLY how a power plant worked in the heyday of coal, this is the place to go, with lots of high-tech displays explaining the fine detail of centrifugal gas-excluding water pumps, the merits of various types of coal dust recycler systems, and the history of closed-sysem coolant arrays.  There are also fun interactive exhibits bout electricity in general, and of course you can climb up in the huge cool  machinery and pretend you are in the final setpiece of Terminator 2.

Since I had to leave for the airport at an ungodly early hour the next morning, I took it a lot easier than last night, but it still was pleasant, since the hostel staff was throwing a Christmas potluck.  The addition of sangria to Christmas seems in general a positive one, and all were happy and festive. 

The escape from Lisbon was similarly stressful and trying as the one from Seville, and I wish in retrospect I had showed up even earlier than that nearly 2 hours I had allotted before checkout.  The most challenging moment arose from a difference in the rules about how much the bike box can weigh from the 100 lbs (around 45 kg) on the way out to 32 kg now on the way back.  I had 10 minutes to frantically tear apart the carefully packed box and shove everything  not a bike into my big pack (thank goodness I brought it- it just stayed stored in the hostel all trip) and a rear-pannier-cum-carryon bag.  But I freaking did it, and that's why Americans are awesome. 

I write this now from a connection layover in Zurich, which has an airport that is a cartoon parody of you would imagine a Swiss airport to be: spotless,  efficient, sleek, expensive, and kind of terrifying because it's like walking around in a dystopian future world- where maybe all of the beautiful employees there are robot clones or the building is heated with puppy blood or something. 

And that's about it, blog fans.  I may post a few musings later, but next stop is San Francisco and then home home home!  I hope everyone has enjoyed my adventure with me, and thank you all so much for all of you kind comments. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Days 43 and 44: Cordoba and The Great Escape Therefrom

Day 43: Cordoba

Yesterday's clouds and rains completely fled, and today dawned bright, clear, and sunny, as things should be in a city that is one of Europe's very sunniest.  Cordoba was also quite welcoming in its people, with very friendly hostel hosts, and nice people everywhere I went.  They say the most beautiful women in Spain are in Cordoba, and though I don't really know about that, people were typically laid back and Andalucian as any I had seen so far.  In Granada, I learned a new verb: "tapiar"- which apparently is "to eat tapas". Here, that transformation of noun into verb entirely makes sense. 

Anyway, I tried to squeak in some logistics before a walking tour I wanted to take by going to the bus station and getting tickets and unfortunately was kind of rebuffed at the bus station and train station, who seemed to have either a ban on transporting bikes (the latter) or lots of weird restrictions that my high schoolSpanish was not up to comprehending in the time I had.  

So I shelved that for the day, and took a very informative walking tour of the historic district that laid a good background of the city's rich history and pointedout several sites I wanted to see later.  The main tour was in Spanish, but a new tour guide in training was nice enough to do an English version for me and a Dutch fellow who was staying at my hostel.  

We got along well, this fellow and I, and had much the same feelings about maximizing our sightseeing for the afternoon, so we saw the Alcazar castle, made a point to have lunch at the famous "tortilla" place ( which here means a gigantic potato quiche-like dish, except you wash it down with beer), and of course toured the wonderful Mesquita mosque.  

This complex is especially excellent because you can plainly see the various additions and alterations various successive conquerers made to it.  Glass panels in the floor reveal mosiacs from the Roman basilica that used to stand here, and the columns of the place were apparently borrowed from both the Romans and the later Visigoths.  The bulk of the vast building (and mp by most accounts, the best), is the work of the Moors, who constructed the distinctive double arches made of alternating brick and stone that make the interior so striking, not to mention some exquisite carved wood ceilings. Though the Catholics who reconquered the area in the 1300's restrained themselves friom major renovations for a few centuries, they eventually could not resist building a very flashy rennessance cathedral smack in the middle of the mosque, a move even King Phillip later regarded as a mistake.  Be that as it may, this arecetectual hodge-podge makes for fascinating visiting, and I think might be my favorite of the major monuments I saw in Andalucia.  We saw a couple other notable churches after that, just to slam dunk the sightseeing day, and then relaxed over some wine and tapas.  

Before dinner, I tried again at the bus station, but most of the windows were closed, and my bright idea to rent a car instead was shot down because you can't drop a car in a different country than you rented it, apparently.  I bowed to fate, and went with some hostel people to grab a couple drinks and food, which was pleasant, though I was a little worried about how the heck I was going to get out of town with my time running out.  Got to bed at a relatively recently hour, and enjoyed my de facto private room. 


Day 44: The Great Escape (from Cordoba).

Imagine, if you will, my mental state via a via travel logistics yesterday as Bill Paxton's character from "Aliens"- you know, the guy who fell to pieces when things looked grim, shouting "Game over, man"?  Well, after my Plan D fell through last night, I am happy to say I felt an unconscious mental shift this morning to a different set of movie military characters.  I visualized them as a group of WWII-era British POWs in my brain, casually brushing aside the panicked space marine and calmly but firmly taking charge.

(Cue theme from The Great Escape)

"So this is a spot of bother, then.  There seems no way to exit bloody Cordoba."
"Oh dear.  Well, chaps, let us think.  Wait just a moment, didn't that woman at the hostel tell us we should seek advice from that chap at the bicycle store?"
"Capital thinking, Lt. Memory!  Let's go!"
"Bloody hell. This fellow only speaks Spanish.  Corporal High School Spanish, give it a go.  There's a good chap."
"Yes sir.  Hmm... I can't make out all of it sir, but it seems we need this scrap cardboard he is giving us, plus a lot of celo wrap and gaffer tape!"
"So it wasn't a box we needed at all!  Great Scott, we've cracked the code!  Where can we get such things on a Sunday?"
"He's drawing us a map, sir.  It's close."
"Excellent, now that we have the supplies, it's back to the bus station.  Corporal, we need you again, I'm afraid."
"Right-o, sir.  Well, they seem satisfied with our large supply of cello wrap.  Again, they are giving me a lot of instructions I don't understand, but they are printing out tickets...."
"Fine work, Corporal.  Blast! This bus leaves in an hour and our bags are back in the hostel!  Can we ride there and back, disassemble and pack the bicycle in that time?"
"Sure we can."
"Why it's Captain Legs!  The plucky American they could never break!"
"The very same.  You know, I've been pretty hard after it for the last six weeks and I reckon I can just pull it off."
"Top drawer, Captain!  You HAVE pulled it off!  Privates Gitter and Dunn!  Dismantle this bike and cover it with cardboard, wrap, and tape!  Quick's the word and sharp's the action!  You have fifteen minutes!"
"It won't be pretty, sir, but we can manage it."
"Ye gads! that is horrific, but it will serve, now to get it past the surly driver..."
"Sir!  We've done it!  We're on the bus and leaving Cordoba!"
"Of course we are, lads.  Never doubted it for a moment." 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Days 41 and 42: The Road to Cordoba

Day 41: Granada to Priego De Cordoba (85 km)
Weather: Overcast in morning, clearing and warming to partly cloudy in afternoon.  Mid 30s in morning, warming to high 50s
Roads: Moderate traffic on major road out of town, reduced to very light once I hit smaller roads
Bike: Brakes and shifting slightly improved, but good enough

I am not sure why I tempt fate by writing things like in the last entry about how flat this section would be.  I will grant that it was flat-er, for the first 25 km on say 41 and the home stretch on day 42.  But the rest was pretty darn hilly, and longer than I anticipated, which made the plan to do this in 2 days kind of a stretch.  I am starting to run short of time, though, and to allow for other potential unforseen snafus getting back to Lisbon, I'd love to have that extra day. 

Anyway, now that I have that complaining out of the way, I will say that once I cleared the kind of grimy outskirts of Granada (fairly easily because as I mentioned it is flat), I once again found myself in a now familiar world of Spanish villages and windy mountain roads.  It's late fall here and much of the landscape is a tableau of browns and dark greens, and most of the rolling hills are taken up with orderly rows of love trees.

For most of these farms, it's harvest season, which seems to be done as it has been for centuries- with guys setting a tarp under a tree and beating it with poles until the olives fall onto the tarp.  When I would go through towns, the next stage of the process was evident- the olives arrive by truck to collection areas, which have machines to desperate out the leaves, and then they are salted, crushed, and pressed, to remove every last bit of oil out of them.  It seems staggering to believe there could be demand for this much olive oil, though I imagine it has to be one of Spain's significant exports. 

Anyway, I just plain ran out of daylight around km 85, even though I wanted to go farther to make the next day easier.  The good news is that a great dispersed campsite showed up just at the right time.  Perched on a clifftop overlooking a scenic gorge and slopes of olive trees, it offered a very pleasant place to lay my head for the evening. 

Day 42: Priego De Cordoba to Cordoba (120 km)
Weather: overcast most of day, spitting rain toward end of day, high 30's in the morning, warming to upper 50's. 
Roads: very light traffic most of day, a little heavier when on more major road through park. 
Bike: same could use a tune, but all systems nominal. 

Though this was a long day and no mistake, at least I knew that going into it, so I could prepare mentally and physically.  When I am camping, there is generally little to do after sundown at 6:30 or so, so after reading for a while, I am generally asleep by 8 or 9.  Even making up for hostel nights, I don't need more than 8 hours, so it's not difficult to be up and at 'em at the crack of dawn (which is 8). So, making the most of the daylight, I was on the road early and chugging up the mildly sloped 1000 vertical foot pass through Sierra Subbeticas National Park.  Shortly beyond this, I was able once again to take pleasant small roads through olive grove  farmland and a few villages, this time trading elevation not in the thousands of vertical feet as I had been doing since Ronda, but in a few hundred at a time.  I was feeling strong for most of the day, but 120 km is a long way, and I do admit to uttering a bit of profanity when the last 20 km of road turned really bumpy and a fiendish set of hills, and a drizzly rain right at km 110 made the home stretch a struggle. 

But gritting my teeth and gutting through it, I was soon crossing the famous Roman Bridge, passing the exquisite Mesquita mosque, and checking into a very pleasant hostel in the hear of town where a couple Euros extra got me a private room to snore my heart away in.  The showers were surprisingly functional (not sure why Europe seems to struggle so with this technology) and above all hot, and  I bought myself a congratulatory dinner.   Hit the sack early, due to being totally exhausted, but pretty darn satisfied with myself for completing the bike tour leg of the trip.

The plan now is to bus it back to Lisbon, and figure out how to do the bike box shuffle once I am there, hopefully avoiding getting totally ripped off getting my bike in its box from town to the airport, as I was the other way around.  I have heard mixed things about how easy it is to transport bikes around Spain, but I guess I will find out tomorrow.  It's a little sad that the bike, so long a liberating asset to me, is now transforming back into the albatross it was starting the trip...

Also I am sure I will put in an entry summing up my thoughts about the bike trip in general, but having just completed it, my main feelings are overwhelmingly positive.  It's a very different way to see a country, to be sure, but has some huge advantages, and I can't say that I have any significant regrets.  But I ramble. Tomorrow, the lovely sights of legendary Cordoba!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Days 39 and 40: Granada

Day 39: Granada

It's been a pretty constant theme that between my broken Spanish and the shaky English directed toward me, combined with genuine cultural differences, that I am gererally operation this about 50% certainly about what is going on.  I still am baffled about store hours, how you are supposed to get your check gracefully at a restaurant, and, in this specific case, what the deal really is when you want a ticket to the Alhambra.  Somehow, I got it in my head you could only by tickets between 8-9 am and around 2, and, eager to see what had been billed as one of the top sights in Europe, there I was, huffing up the hill in the frosty morning to the ticket office. 

While I don't think that was necessary, there were still signicant crowds even early on- a phenomenon more or less unheard-of for me this trip.  And of course I soon found out why.  The Alhambra is a triple whammy: a huge ruined Moorish castle, a magnificently restored Moorish official palace complex, and a similarly sublime residence from about the same period.  Oh, and add to that a 16th century Spanish palace and beautiful gardens between everything, and there you have it: one of Europe's greatest attractions.  Of course, it is also on a ridgetop overlooking the city, and has the backdrop of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada in the background.  Who am I to argue?  It is amazing, what can I say that Washington Irving hasn't? 

After wandering dazed out of there, I kept walking up through the traditionally Muslim quarter, which is built on a steep hillside and after the Medina style of tight, mazelike streets.  At the top of the hill, the hill gets steep enough that the houses are just extensions of the caves that honeycombed the slope.  Apparently this section is still home to many musicians and artist types who don't mind the lack of morning sunlight.   I wandered until I found a courtyard near a church that claims (justly) to have one of the best views of the Alhambra and city beneath it.  Handily, there was a tapas bar with outside a eating just there, and street musicians playing flamenco music to those there.  I figured, "hard to top this" and spent the rest of the afternoon sipping cerveca and munching tapas while listening to the music and watching the sun set on the Alhambra. 

Quick note on tapas in Spain: there seem to be widely different rules about them, such as whether they come automatically with a drink order or not.  Granada has so far been the most generous- elsewhere you just get some olives or bread, but here you get real food, though you have no idea what it might be, and it can be pretty much anything.    Over the course of one afternoon and evening, I got fish in sauce, fried eggplant, pate on toast, fried sardines, blood sausage with potato chips, and quiche with tomato wheels. 

A final note today was a very fun bit of serendipity: while sightseeing at the Alhambra, I bumped into some old work colleagues Su Theida and Mike Stronger, which seemed so incredibly unlikely, but there it was.  We had dinner together and caught up, and since they were going to many of the places I had been, I was able to give some sage advice.  All in all, a really fun day. 

Day  40: Granada Too

An easier start this morning, where I woke up to a pleasant breakfast  and made a to do list of many of the trip logistics I had outstanding and plowed through most of them.  This made me feel less stressed, and happy to spend the rest of the day seeing some of the lesser known sights, but still interesting. The tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella rounded out my Columbus theme nicely, and I enjoyed the park dedicated to the apparently famous poet Garcia Lorca. 

Later in the afternoon, I was very pleased to visit the "Parque De Cincias", which was a cluster of museums in a very showy complex of modern buildings.  There was a really excellent exhibit on the scientific contributions of the  Moorish Iberians, and another on the the private collection of some rich guy who was fond of large nineteenth century clockwork contraptions, a nice raptor exhibit, and then some kind of goofy (and preachy! ) ones about proper nutrition and the importance of home and worksite safety.   Also the old standbys of such museums such as the miracles of biology (where they had a whale heart the size of a couch on display) and some fun physics exhibits.  Though the museum was legitimately good, it was mostly exciting because it wasn't more cherubs and elaborately martyred saints.

Not much after that, just a quiet dinner and then bed, which is just as well considering the long ride in store tomorrow.  It should be more relaxing for all my efforts today, and (knock on wood), the road looks considerably less hilly on the way for the home stretch. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Daya 37 and 38: The Road to Granada

Day 37:  Malaga to Periana (60 km)

Roads: Very light traffic almost the whole day, and happily there was very little city/country transition today due to me going straight into thew mountains from town. 

Bike: No serious issues.  Could use so,e more brake pads soon, and shifting could use attention, but everything is functional for now.

Weather: Mostly sunny, but definitely cooler at altitude.  Low 60s/ High 50s mosst of day. 

Sunday mornings are quiet join Spain, and aside from having to negociate my exit from town through a marathon that was going on that morning, it was remarkable easy and pleasant to exit Malaga to the North.  While the city sort of sprawls to the flatland to the west, it's butted right up against steep foothills to the north, and it was right into the teeth of that climb I hurled myself straight off the bat. 

I could tell yesterday from my view from the ramparts of the castle I was due for a climb, but I did not quite anticipate it would be 3200 feet!  It did have some mercy in the grade however, and by distracting myself with podcasts on my headphones (most of the trip I had done without as to absorb the countryside better), I was on top of the ridge in 20 km.  Rewarding myself with a little ubiquitous cafe con leche and strange Spanish donut at the top, I contined, soaking in the outstanding views of the national park to my left (west) and the sparkling Mediterranean sweeping off behind and now far below me (south). 

The road maintained elevation more or less for a while as I completed the next 20 km leg up the east side of Montes de Malaga national park, and then down through some charming villages.  Then, going up and down through fields of neatly-tended olive groves and dramatically jutting mountains,always conserving at least 1500 feet, I got to a point near Periana around 4:30 where it made sense to stop.  Granada was within fairly easy reach, the elevation was relatively low, and I knew I had a big climb directly ahead and was getting tired.  Besides, I had a sweeping view of a large lake beneath and to the south of me and a dramatic mountain park to the east.  Discreetly finding an out of the way spot in an olive grove, I made camp and cooked dinner in the beautiful sunset.  Again, need ending to catch upon sleep from another noisy hostel stay, I slept soundly and long (having gone to bed at dark ), waking refreshed for the long day of riding coming up.

Day 38: Periana to Granada (90 km)
Weather: sunny, clear, cold.  Around freezing first thing, rising to high 40s mid day. 
Bike: no change from yesterday.  Some work on the brakes yielded more power, but it's temporary.  Will need pads in Granada, and probably both rotors replaced at home, as they are both getting warped. 
Roads- pretty quiet all day with slight but predictable build up when entering Granada.  Hilly but very quiet. 

Since I got nearly 12 hours of sleep, it wasn't too hard to get up first thing, pack up camp, and hit the road.  A huge climb awaited me of course first thing, though I knew that.  It was scenic, however, and once I got to about 2500 feet, I didn't go much below that for most of the rest of the day.  I did battle with a 1000 vertical feet I kept gaining and losing, but the scenery was so nice it was hard to stay mad at this lack of altitude discipline. 

With the change of elevation, I have changed seasons.   In Malaga, it was sunshine, palm trees, and people sitting on the beach, and up here it's bare trees and frost hang in around in the shadows all day.  For the first time this trip, I had my long biking pants on all day.  But fortunately I was geared for cold weather, and it just made for a change of pace as I wheeled through more pleasant villages, a very nice reservoir flanked by mountains, and of course my approach to the Sierra Nevada. 

Granada is up on the shoulder of that range, but for once it had only a mildly heartbreaking climb toward the end, and actually that was 10 km out.  The day was a little longer, and definitely hillier, than I had suspected,  but I was still feeling pretty solid on the way into town, even after all that elevation gain and distance.  

I haven't mentioned this because I have mixed feelings about it, but credit where credit is due; thank you, Mc Donalds, for having free WiFi. Multiple times now I have entered a city, and you are there very handily allowing me to zero in my GPS on the location of the lodging, effectively leading me right to it with no fuss.  I feel a little bad from not buying anything, except for one moment of extreme weakness in Ronda when I was falling-down tired and ravenously hungry. 

Anyway, found my way to the very nice hostel and had a great dinner in the the walk-around time, when I got the impression that all Granadans ate was churros, since that was all anyone was eating at 7:30 pm.  Predictably in bed pretty early in anticipation of some high quality sight seeing tomorrow. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Days 35 and 36: The Road to Malaga and Malaga

Day 34: Ronda to Malaga (100 km)

Weather: Just splendid.  People here consider it arctic, but to a North American it would be a crisp fall day.  Frost on the ground in the morning, but warming to low 60's by midday. 

Roads: low to no traffic most of the day, moderate as I got into Malaga.  Roads smooth and small for most of day, two big climbs, but relatively gradual.

Bike: running well, but showing signs of having been ridden more or less constantly for well over 1000 miles.  Will need an overhaul once I get home, poor sweet thing. 

Feeling much better this morning, I hit the road as early as I could, knowing I had significant distance and elevation to make today.  The weather could not have been more cooperative; the crispness early just gave me an excuse to actually wear some of the cold weather gear I had been schlepping around the whole trip.  Besides, the brilliant sunshine warmed me right up, as well as the 1000 vertical Foot climb pretty much right off the bat. 

Since Ronda is already pretty high, climbing from there got me up to the treeline, and yielded fantastic views back toward the national park near Ronda and eastward to the rest of the day's riding.  I passed through a few of the picturesque "white villages" of the region: whitewashed, red tiled villages generally perched magestically on hilltops or mountainsides.  The farmland between was idyllic olive groves and vineyards, and with the trees along the way showing fall color and the golden low angle sunlight beaming down it all, it was sublime.  What little traffic there was was slowed by the curves or uneven pavement, essentially making the vast majority of the day a cruise on a de facto bike path.

The road leveled considerably on the approach to Malaga, and began to avoid mountains instead of humping straight over them as had been the case for most of the last two weeks of riding.  So, while the last 20 km into Malaga was not as pleasant as the rest, it at least was flat or slightly downhill, and went by pretty fast, for end of the day riding.  I located the hostel wish little difficulty (though I did have to fight through the large pedestrianized downtown that was full of people enjoying the Christmas lights that had been recently set up). Though Malaga doesn't have quite as much to offer as some other places, I figure it's worth a sightseeing day tomorrow, since it is a large city boasting a number of archeological and cultural sights. 

A quick note on the Spanish schedule.  Though everybody knows about the siesta (which is a real thing- and even though I am aware of it, I still find it annoying that I can't buy, say alcohol for my camp stove at 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon.), a lesser-known phenomenon is the pleasant period starting around sundown and lasting until around 9 or 10 in the evening.  Everyone emerges from their houses and strolls around, generally pausing to get a coffee or a drink, or dinner, or just meet friends in the street.  Occasionally, there is music, but generally you just hear people laughing and chatting.   I think there is a term for it, but I can't remember it, but it wouldn.'t really translate because the US lacks the concept as well as the word for it.  Anyway, it's a really charming feature of traveling in Latin America. 

Day 35: Malaga

I had wondered if Malaga was worththe layover day, since my guide was kind of lukewarm about it.  However, the schedule allowed for it, it was nice to help fully recover from being ill, it was a gorgeous day, and I figured in such a large city, there had to be something worth seeing.  

And there was.  Malaga is a little unappealing riding into it, I'll admit.  The easy to find bike lanes are absent, and there's a large ring of down at the heel neighborhoods surrounding it.  But the interior, where the hostel was, is fully pedestrianized and a pretty ritzy shopping area (the GUTTERS are marble). It's getting close to Christmas, so this whole zone is decked out with poinsettias and impressive light displays, but apparently Santa is not a thing here, and is conspicuously absent.  

Malaga has also been actively working on improving its image, and has obviously invested heavily in redoing its waterfront, which is now a very pleasant peninsula with the port and marina on one side and a much more low-key beach area on the other side.  

They have also made the most of the fact that this is the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, and even though he left when he was 10, they still have a very impressive museum in his honor, that houses a large exhibit of his lesser known work along with many of his contemporaries, in a beautifully restored mansion.  

But besides all that, it was worth the day's stay for the magnificently restored complex of Moorish castles that overlook the town.  Heretofore, the castles of that era required a certain amount of imagination to visualize their former glory, but these were so well preserved, down to the working fountains in the beautiful gardens within, that it was like walking onto a movie set.  Certainly an excellent side benefit is that walking the ramparts of the castles gives you a sweeping view of the surrounding city and countryside- especially useful and interesting to me because I can see where I came from and (sigh) the big climb I have tomorrow.  

There was also the requisite grand cathedral downtown, which was of interest to Americans, because its unfinished tower is so because the local bishop redirected the construction funds to help bankroll the American Revolution.  So now it's lopsided and we are free from onorous beverage taxes!  Thanks, Malaga!

A change today was also I finally hit a town not in the dead season.  Though the downside is of course not having all of the sights to myself and dealing with a crowded hostel as opposed to having a dorm room to myself.  On the up side, it's not a ghost town and everything is open, and the streets/are vibrant and exciting.  

The weather here at sea level was predictably warmer than Ronda, and as I saw the sights, I was comfortably in short sleeves most of the day. This was also conducive to eating some tapas and shipping cerveca on the beach.  Good to soak that up, because next stop is Grenada, up on the shoulder of the snowy Sierra Nevada.  

So certainly not sorry for the day spent here, and excited and well rested for big climbs ahead.  Thankfully, I'm not stretching for distance this leg (it being too far for 1 day, but shortish for 2, so I can actually moderate the distance in respect of the elevation gained!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Days 33 and 34- Ronda

Well, if I had to get stuck somewhere, I couldn't ask for a nicer spot. 

As I mentioned in my last post, I kind of staggered into Ronda after dark, exhausted, and suffering from an intestinal complaint.  Though a night's sleep took care of most of this, the intestinal thing persisted, and worsened rather acutely the next night, so I woke up the next morning hardly on a state for a long push over the mountains to Malaga.  Now those of you who know me would know that I am far above toilet humor, and would never, on this trip, or any other, make up humorous names for such a condition like "the Moroccan Thunder crap" or "The Strains of Gibraltar."  That would be childish. 

But as it was, I ended up with two days in Ronda instead of the scheduled one.  This turned out not really to be a bad thing at all (well, besides the reason for it).

In any event, Ronda is a small city built on a mesa that is split in two by a several hundred foot deep gorge.  The two halves of the city are connected by what has to be the most spectacular bridge I have ever seen: the so called "New Bridge" (built in the late 1700's). As opposed to the much smaller "old bridge", which the Moors built in the 1300,s on top of a Roman aquaduct.  Apparently, if Hemmingway can be believed, prisoners were hurled from this bridge in the Spanish civil war. 

There is plenty more to see as well, such as the best bre served hammam (Turkish bath) on the Iberian Peninsula, built in the 1300's, several interesting museums (like one on the bandeleros, who were sort of like Old West desperados, except with blunderbusses and giant pocketknives instead of six-shooters, and bullfighter-looking  outfits instead of dusters and Stetsons.   Fascinating though how both cultures in the 19th and 20th centuries romanticized these bloodthirsty criminals in remarkably parallel fashion.  I also really like the Museo Lara, which was a totally eclectic collection of a dead millionaire, and his taste and interests were the only thread holding the collection together.  Fortunately, it was all stuff I thought was interesting as well from 19th century science equipment, to really weird guns, to nautical instruments, to a bizzare exhibit on the Inquisition.)  Of course, the town itself is just a treat to stroll around in, with the characteristic whitewashed, red-tile-roofed houses perched up on the edge of either side of the gorge.  Apparently this is also the bitrthplace of bullfighting as we know it today, and apparently both Picasso and Hemingway spent a lot of time in the impressive bullfighting ring in the middle of town.  And let's not forget the wine museum, that has faucets of local wines in the walls you can try, apparently to your heart's content.  This perhaps was the cruelest blow of this stomach condition yet!

The second day was even better weather than the first, and it pained me to not be able to take advantage of the opportunity to use it to get to Malaga.  But, feeling better by midday, I took my unloaded bike out to the fantastic surrounding countryside, which is made up largely of vineyards and bodegas (which seems to mean "winery" here instead of "cramped New York City convenience store.") all on rolling hills right out of a Renaissance painting.  My destination was yet another Roman ruin, this one called "Uncompounded", which was less impressive overall than Voibolus in Morocco, but did have an am having theater, where the seating (for several thousand) had been carved out of the bedrock, and the 60-foot-tall stage had been reconstructed.  Add to this that the site was on a long sloped mesa with a commanding view of the vineyards around it and the craggy peaks of the national park beyond, and the result was spectacular.  It was also nice to ride an unladen bike for a change through the ride was 20 km each way with significant elevation gained and lost both coming and going, it felt like appropriately moderate exercise to help me kick this stomach bug. 

So a standing ovation for Ronda, and do be sure to put it on your itinerary if ever you go to southern Spain.  I hope tonight will bring much more rest and far less thoracic turmoil and I can get an early start for my quest for Malaga.