TRANS-IBERIAN EXPRESS by ANDREW WRIGHT (2008)
I don't know whether to blame or thank my good friend Wai Sing of Toronto. He had sent an email to me in October of 2007 about his sister's friend who was planning a cycling expedition called the Trans-Iberian Express Adventure. At first glance I was alarmed that he was expecting me to go cycling in the furthest reaches of Siberia. But, no, it turned out to be an initiative by Dawn *********, a 39-yr old Canadian travel writer living in Madrid. Her idea was to create, mark and navigate what she was calling Spain's first dedicated cycle tourism route linking Irun, the northernmost town in Spain with Tarifa, the southernmost town. Dawn had won the “Salomon Women Will Adventure” prize to fund her dream trip. She decided to invite cyclists from around the world to join her along the way.
It all looked a good sound idea on paper. 30 days of cycling with four rest days included. Daily distances would range between 40-90 kms for a total of 1,800 kms for five weeks. So, after being told by Wai Sing that I was the “ideal” person to go along I contacted Dawn and told her that I would be joining her for the whole ride.
On the 21st of March, I arrived with my old Galaxy and a new set of Ortlieb panniers at Biarritz Airport in the southwest corner of France. I hoped to quickly knock off the 20 km ride down the coast, cross and border into Spain and Reach the campsite at Hondarribia where I was to meet Dawn. It soon began raining and the winds steadily whipped up to gale force strength. Much too dangerous for cycling and I was forced to make a wild camp by the coast behind a dilapidated farm trailer for shelter.
Next morning, I pedalled the remaining distance to a damp Hondarribia, where in a 'Dr Livingstone I presume' moment I met Dawn for the first time. It's always interesting to meet up with new travel companions whom you've planned a trip but never met before.
Dawn was armed with 5000 marker stickers with which to mark the route that we started on the 23rd from Cape Higuer. These little red and yellow arrow sticks soon were duly attached to the legs of road signs, lamp posts and anything else that seemed appropriate.
Dawn’s planned route would use existing rail trails, green ways (known locally as via verdes), heritage trails and country roads (camino rurals). Making a twisting series of squiggles on the map, through the heart of Spain. Visiting the provinces of the Basque country, Navarra, La Rioja, Castilla-La Mancha and the promised sunny land of Andalucia.
A stiff climb up the Alto del Jazkibel col at 455 mts, the ground still flecked with remaining snow, helped to dust off any cobwebs from a winter spent without any cycling. It was cold which was a precursor for what awaited us in the days to come in the Basque country and Navarra. We took a short train ride from Lezo into San Sebastian to avoid the motorway and port complex. Here we stayed at the functional youth hostel and from the sea front promenade we were transfixed watching the seal like surfers trying to catch a wave.
Next day the weather turned bad. Freezing sleet giving us a thorough soaking by the time we reached the shivering snow bound campsite at Lekumberri. All day I had been contemplating a cold night in my tent, with wet clothes. But Dawn pulled a rabbit from her hat and revealed she had booked a cabin for us at 32 euros. We warmed ourselves over a huge open fire in the campsite bar and dried our clothes.
We soon reached Pamplona where, for the first time, we joined the famous Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James which has been a pilgrimage route since the 11th century. With the scallop shell emblem of the Camino guiding the way we gained access to the wonderful network of pilgrim refuges which line the Camino. The refuges are akin to youth hostels but with stricter rules such as lights out at 10 pm and leave by eight in the morning. The refuges are run to serve the multitudes of pilgrims who travel the Camino each year, mostly on foot. It is an inspiring sight to see the many pilgrims walking beside the road, all in splendid spirits. We stayed with the Camino to Atapeurca where we met up with an intrepid French cyclist nearing the end of an epic year long 13,000 km circuit of the whole Mediterranean basin. He was in as high a spirit as the religious pilgrims and grinned constantly.
Onwards to La Rioja province and a welcome rest day in the sleepy provincial capital of Haro set on the banks of the Rio Ebro. It is a major centre for the production of fine wines. Touring a local winery, Dawn displayed an expertise in wine tasting and proved an unending mine of information about all things Spanish. Knowledge gained from seven years touring in the country. Fluent in the language, she once worked as a cycle tour guide in the south of the country but now divides her time between writing for travel magazines and teaching English.
A 'green way', rising imperceptibly, took us over the little-visited Sierra de la Demanda mountain range, crossing the Puerto del Manquillo col and entering the town of Salas. At a height of 1400 m, this was the highest point in our trip.
At Aranjuez, south of Madrid, the expedition was joined by an American, Randy Castle. A former high school wrestler and veteran of the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, 10,000 people cycling 500 miles in a week; he'd travelled from Minnesota especially to join the Trans-Iberian Express. Randy brought his folding ‘Bike Friday’ bicycle with a rather nifty bright green Samsonite suitcase trailer. Wherever he went his rig became the star attraction, winning many enquiring glances. The suitcase trailer proved surprisingly nimble. It was sure and robust over various terrain and took everything it encountered.
After a wet dismal afternoon in the medieval city of Toledo, capital of La Mancha, we joined the marked Ruta de Don Quixote. The Ruta has been designed to become a cultural odyssey to rival the Camino de Santiago. La Mancha is the stomping ground of Cervantes creation, the romantic but hapless knight Don Quixote. It is a land of scrubby plains with vines and olive trees and odd isolated hills projecting from the flatness. Easy cycling country.
Above the quaint architecturally impressive town of Tembleque I was privileged to find a wild camping spot on a deserted hilltop surmounted by two windmills. In a dreamy moment I imagined that with a handful of soldiers at my command, my strategic perch offered a perfect vantage from which to take the town below. Tilting at windmills like the Man from La Mancha.
Andalucia meant much warmer weather and the return of hills and consequent climbing. A punishing climb of over 1.5 hrs in sweltering heat to reach the hilltop town of Sabiote saw Randy and I dripping sweat by the bucket. This made a cold beer in a town bar that much more refreshing as it went down our throats.
Further south, we entered a part of Spain that produces 10% of the world's olive oil. Seemingly endless groves of olive trees surrounded the city of Jaen. For 70 kms, from Jaen to the picturesque town of Luque, we followed an old rail line called the Via Verde de la Subbetica, which has now become a well-trafficked route by supported tour groups. Despite the lucrative tourist traffic, stretches of wet and very sticky clay mud are allowed to straddle across the trail, some patches up to 150 mts long. The only way forward was to unload the bikes of their luggage and carry everything through.
Touristy Ronda meant a rest day for sightseeing and regrouping. Ronda is a major attraction for daytrippers from the nearby Costa del Sol resorts. Randy had broken a pivotal lug on the Bike Friday by putting heavy pressure on the seat post while pushing the bike uphill. The lug needed welding back in place and he had this done at a friendly motor workshop for no charge. In Ronda, we toured the famous Plaza de Toros, oldest bullring in Spain, looked into the great 122 meter deep river chasm which splits the town and admired the views across to the surrounding hills.
The following days were good riding. At La Jimera, we stayed at an idyllic campsite where I was able to pick and eat oranges from the tree and loaf in the cool shade. One Sunday, when food options were low, we climbed up to a village to forage. Of course, like so many in Spain, it was situated on top of a hill and was all whitewashed houses and narrow lanes. Dawn was in her element as she picked and ordered a variety of dishes for us from a restaurant that happened to be open.
Near the town of Alcala de los Gazules we had some of our best riding on the trip. Up and down, the road flowed invitingly like a red carpet through scented pine and cork woods, wild flowers, babbling streams and meadows. Approaching the town, we saw a series of four rockets shoot up and explode in the sky at five minute intervals. I made a jocular comment to Randy “maybe it’s a bull running fiesta and we will be just in time to take part”. “I don’t think so” he replied.
Upon reaching the town we discovered that that was what had just happened. We had narrowly missed the spectacle of the running of the bulls through the streets. It was the town's St. George's Day fiesta. We only saw the crowds dispersing and merry revellers sporting red bandanas leaving the scene. Being something of a Hemingway romantic I've always fancied trying my hand at bull running.
The final scheduled day's cycling was a good day. We were joined by an enthusiastic American named Roman, living in Cadiz. He was for a time a minor professional cyclist. He told us a story about his being down on his luck and a chance meeting with Tour de France giant, Greg Lemond, outside a McDonald's restaurant in Barcelona. Greg invited Roman to go riding but infuriatingly he didn’t have his bike with him.
Our last stop was Tarifa which proved to be a very windy place and perfectly suited for the new sport of kite sailing. The wind was ferociously strong and in our faces the whole time we were there. Alas, it was not possible to reach the exact tip of Tarifa Point because a military installation was built on the promontory. We had to settle for triumphant photos at the iron-barred gates.
With the Route successfully navigated, Randy and I left Dawn soaking up the sunshine and basking in her achievement on the windy Tarifa beaches. We took out bikes on the bus to La Linea and it was a short cycle ride from the bus station there to our crossing the border into Gibraltar. I paid homage to the remains of the Empire by cycling up the Rock to visit the Ape colony, then, later enjoyed a well-earned and welcome British fish and chip dinner in Casement Square.
Dawn Severenuk should be commended for the work she has put into the planning of the Trans-Iberian Express cycle project. Her knowledge and attention to detail of the whole route is impressive. She still has a big task ahead to maintain and develop it. In my opinion she is a deserving winner of the Salomon Women Will Adventure grant. I was just a passenger on the Trans-Iberian Express who happened to share her journey, and have a few minor adventures of my own along the way.
My bicycle for the trip was a 24 year old Dawes Galaxy. During the ride I had to change the freewheel due to broken sprocket teeth. I also got new front chainrings and chain on a fleeting visit to Madrid. I needed two new tyres while on route which I got in shops in Haro and Alcazar .
I flew out with Ryanair from London Stansted to Biarritz and returned from Malaga to Liverpool with Easyjet. Cycle carriage by bus from Tarifa to Malaga is easy and trouble-free.
The trip took place from 21st March till 30th April 2008. Accommodation comprised of 14 wild camps, 1 campsite cabin, 11 campsite nights, 1 pension, 5 pilgrim refuges, 1 municipal albergue and 7 youth hostel nights.
Further details can be drawn from Dawn *********’s websites www.trans-iberian.anglefire.com and www.trans-iberian.blogspot.com
The Trans-Iberian express route is covered by Michelin Regional Espana maps 573, 575, 576 and 578.
Author- Andrew Wright (2008)