It's the end of October and it's time to take a break. But where in Europe can one cycle around in this season without being plagued by autumn gales and drizzle? An inspection of the climate tables makes it clear that the South of Spain and Crete are the best bets. The tapas beat the mezes this time, despite reports in the papers about heavy downpours in Andalusia (Spanish: Andalucía) in the week before our departure. But when we visit the palaces and gardens of the Alcázar in Seville the morning after our arrival, the sun is shining brightly between the clouds again.
The extensive Moorish garden complex easily deserves a whole day. The gardens of the Reales Alcazares, dating from the 17th century, are a real treat, with a lush, subtopical vegetation of date palms, bougainvillea, ficus and other exotic plants. As everywhere, it is very busy with tourist groups near the entrance of the gardens, but further down it's a true oasis and teh park is an excellent place for a picnic on a bench.
Seville is a beautiful city on the banks of the Río Guadalquivir and has one of the largest historical centres of any city in Europe. Once this was the home base of the famous Spanish Treasure-Fleet that set course for the Americas from here and returned with precious metals and goods.
In the 1980's whole neighbourhoods of Seville were rather rundown, but extensive renovations have saved this city and it's definitely worth a visit nowadays. The Expo 1992 World Exhibition gave the city a big boost and a lot of money has been invested in improving the infrastructure, like the construction of the high speed train connection with Madrid (AVE).
A beautiful example of a Moorish patio is the Patio del Yeso, built in the Alcázar at the end of the 12th century.
Intriguing mudéjar motives can be admired in many patios on floors and walls. In Seville it is an old custom to leave the outer door open, so it's easy to take a look at the patio, which is closed off with a decorative fence most of the times.
Having wandered round Seville for a few days, it's time we pack our bicycles for a vuelta of two weeks through Andalusia. It is surprisingly easy to leave Sevilla on the western side; unlike in other Spanish cities cyclists aren't forced to ride on dangerous autovias or other motorways to reach the countryside (it's a different story on the eastern side, riding to or from of the airport!).
As soon as we have crossed the Rio Guadalquivir we are cycling through a landscape of freshly ploughed black fields and large areas with shrivelled cotton plants. The cotton fluffs heap up like snow on the shoulder of the road and the white threads attach like sticky glue on our clothes. After a visit to the Roman ruins of Italica, famous for the splendid mosaic floors, we cycle along a quiet road next to the Rio Guadalquivir to Villanueva del Rio y Minas, a village that was once famous for its mining activities. The shaft tower still dominates the surroundings. Bar pensión Reche has rooms for next to nothing and the wife of the manager cooks a meal at night "quando tu quieres", that's whenever you want. Villanueva has a splendid attraction in the neighbourhood if you are prepared to leave the well-trodden paths: the Roman ruins of Mulva, hardly reachable by car and by bicycle and foot only after a rough trip through the hills (anyway, this was the situation in 2001).
The path to Mulva leads through oak forests where we see lots of pigs indulging on the acorns laying on the fresh green grass, that starts to grow again after the first autumn rains. There are no signs, so we get lost a few times, but after two hours of cycling we see the ruins of something that looks like a medieval castle on a hill top in the distance, and soon after we stand before the fence that surrounds the excavations of Mulva. The entrance is closed of with a padlock. Just when we have decided to climb the fence in this deserted area -- for one reason or another we think to have the right to visit the sight after such a rough trip -- the warden appears. "It's closed on Mondays!" he shouts, but to our relief, he starts to open the fence. Muchas gracias, señor!
From the top of the hill with the remainders of Mulva we enjoy the panoramic view over the oak forests, with an isolated farm here and there. In the Roman baths of the settlement there are some fragments of fresco's and mosaics to be seen. The warden picks up small parts of iron ore from the ground; for more than 2000 years there have been mining activities in this area. We ask him if many tourists visit this site. Especially over the weekend people make the trip to Mulva, but refuses to invest more money in the excavations. Most of the budget is reserved for the much bigger site of Italica near Sevilla, he sighs. Well, on closer inspection there isn't really a lot to see in Mulva, but as is the case with most ruins, the atmosphere and the surroundings make the attraction, and they are really special up here. This is an attraction that deserves a detour, we think. The warden shows us a shorter route to Villanueva, that proves to be just as attractive as the way out, but a lot shorter, so in the afternoon we can easily cycle to the fortified city of Carmona in the Campiña Betica.
For quite a distance we climb with an hidden gradient out of the broad Guadalquivir valley, with views of Carmona on a hill in the distance. Pensión Comercio has a room available, but as our travel guide already points out with foresight, the reception her is very unfriendly . The manager asks 300 pesetas to put up a bike and starts a tirade against us when we point out this is the first time we have to pay for our bicycles. Well, goodbye to him. Bar El Potro has a lot of rooms for 4000 pts and they are adequate. And the bar on the pleasant town square serves a good tapas menu, so in the end Carmona can be recommended, also because of the panoramic view eastward to the plain of the Rio Corbones. If you want to enjoy the view from your room, you can settle in the local Parador, built on the edge of the rock.
After a good night's sleep in the white village of Osuna, where a heavy oily smell from the local olive press reminds us that it's harvesting time, we set course in a southern direction. The sky is deep blue and the scenery is getting more mountainous. The fields are bare and grey, except for the greenish olive orchards, grain and grapes have been harvested. It all looks like wintertime, but around three o'clock, the temperature has risen to almost tropical figures. That's exceptional, and the tv news even has a report about it. Though we miss the colours of the poppy's and sunflowers that thrive here in springtime, this landscape certainly has its own appeal. A dissonant are all the dead rats on the roads, killed by the traffic.
Circling high in the sky, birds of prey accompany us to Ronda, one of the big attractions of Andalusia because of the exceptional setting on both sides of a deep gorge. Throughout the day bus loads of tourists from the Costa del Sol occupy the shopping streets and view points near the bridges over the gorge, but in the evening and early in the morning Ronda still is an agreeable place where you can start the day in the churrería in the main street, which serves a delicious breakfast of churros con chocolate (fried dough strings with chocolate milk).
A beautiful quiet mountain road brings us over a pass of exactly 1000 metres (La Puerta de Encinas Borrachas) and further on along the pueblos blancos, tranquil villages consisting of white plastered houses with red roofs. It's a Sunday and there is a lot of hunting going on along the mountain slopes. The parking lots of the ventas. traditional roadside restaurants, are full of cars. It's a tradition to take lunch on Sunday in these restaurants with the whole family, grandparents included. We are approaching Gibraltar, but due to the high accommodation prices over there, we move into a hostal in La Linea, a desolate town in the shadow of the famous rock. To avoid the busy four lane autovia, we have to find our way in an industrious zone full of smelly oil refineries.
To reach the British Crown colony you have to cross the runway of the airport. There aren't that many planes arriving or departing, though. There is a fee to climb the rock, but there are many short cuts for walkers to avoid the ticket windows. We don't see that much from the summit because of a persistent thick cloud around the rock. It also gets very windy. Time for a pint in one of the may pubs in town.
Everywhere on the rock there are signs pointing out that it's forbidden to feed or touch the famous monkeys, but the Spanish guides of the many tourist groups seem to encourage their customers to feed them as many peanuts as possible. One of the monkeys is put on a man's head. The poor guy doesn't like it at all but the monkeys don't seem to mind all the mistreatment. They have been here for a long time and will definitely not leave, if it's up to the British.
We continue along the Costa de la Luz. Past Algeciras, in the direction of Tarifa, the road is rather quiet, but the wind picks up until it becomes a violent gale. In the mean time, the sun is still shining. Cycling is getting dangerous, but the storm is blowing nearly from behind, we succeed in reaching the surfing paradise Tarifa. This is the windiest place of Europe, and there's no question of denying that. Even now, early November, there are many surfers, who contribute to a lively atmosphere in town. Across the Strait of Gibraltar we can see the sparkling lights of Africa. The television news reports of exceptional heat and exceptional strong winds.
The storm keeps blowing from behind, so we're making good progress. Our next stop is the sandy, deserted village of Zahara de los Atunes, where there's is only one hotel still open this time of the year. The beach is very broad and scenic, but sunbathing is only a delight if you enjoy being sandblasted.
The beach front in Barbate has almost disappeared under the sand dunes, blown on by the howling winds. Today it's even hotter, our thermometer passes the 30 degrees mark.
On the terrace of Casa Balbino on the lively town square in Sanlúcar de Barrameda we enjoy the best Manzanilla and tapas of our trip. Sanlúcar is rightly famous for its sherry. Our plan is to cross the nature reserve of La Doñana to El Rocío and Seville, but that seems to be impossible. Entrance to the reserve is only permitted with a guide. So we decide tot take an alternative route via Jerez de la Frontera, through low hills full of bare grapevines. Near Seville we are caught in a downpour. There is no alternative to the highway to the airport, so we have to ride on the hard shoulder, which is no fun at all. Soaking wet we arrive at the check in counter. The late summer in Southern Spain has finally come to an end.