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Archive for September, 2019

The morning of day six we did a loop from the hotel to the center of Archidona and back, about 30 km, the last 300 meters or so down a steep slope, in morning traffic, on cobblestones. Not my favorite. The ride back, on different roads, seemed to be uphill the whole way. After the ride was finished, we had time for a shower and to pack for the bus ride to Granada. Had a big delayed breakfast (brunch) then everyone gathered to say goodbye to our leaders and climb into the bus that dropped us off in the center of town.

The photo is of our 3 team leaders giving us their interpretation of a bull fight before the last ride. This was a fun group. 

I caught a cab to the hotel I had reserved for 2 nights in Granada. They were full and had no record of my reservation. I pulled out my computer and showed the desk clerk (owner it turned out) my confirmation. He was very apologetic and got on the phone with Expedia (apparently they handle reservations for Hotels.com) to find me another room at the same price. I decided to leave my luggage with the guy and go to the train station to sort out train travel logistics.

Lots of drama about train reservations. It turns out that a first class Eurail pass does NOT get you a seat on a train. You must make a reservation for your seat and they charge extra for each train and reservation. That ignorance on my part led to the overnight tourist class ride from hell on the night train from Lisbon to Madrid. I made the reservation for the Madrid to Seville train, another 29 euros, but was unable to secure a reservation for the Granada to Barcelona leg. Backrounds.com says they are happy to assist with travel arrangements, so I asked our logistics guy, Gonzalo, to help me getting reservations for the Granada to Barcelona, Barcelona to Cordoba legs of the journey. Turns out nothing is simple. I sat next to him 2 days later while he was on the phone for a long time with Eurail trying to set everything up. The normal Granada to Barcelona route was not available, it was never clear why. He finally got me reservations, but I had to go to Madrid then transfer to Barcelona. They were supposed to e-mail me electronic tickets for these two trips and took my credit card info, but no e-tickets ever arrived. So off to the train station to get the tickets. I did have location numbers for the Granada-Madrid and Madrid-Barcelona trips (Good for Gonzalo). The first person I talked to at the Granada train station couldn’t find any record of my reservations. She finally told me to take a number and stand in a long line for her colleague to help me. Finally got to him and he was able to use the locator numbers Gonzalo got for me and print out separate tickets for Grenada-Madrid, Madrid-Barcelona and Barcelona-Cordoba. Each ticket was a separate transaction with the credit card and the long line behind me was getting very anxious. After the Barcelona-Cordoba transaction was finally completed I took pity on the line and decided to wait until I got to Barcelona to take care of my remaining travels. 

I returned to my hotel, where the owner was guarding my bag, to find he hadn’t found anything, mostly because he was trying to find a hotel that would only charge what I had reserved from Hotels.com. Plus, the town was full of tourists and most of the hotels were booked.  By this time, I was exhausted, not the least from my bike ride that morning. I went into my computer and found a place, the 4-star Hotel Washington Irving, across the street from the Alhambra, at twice the cost of the dump I was supposed to stay in, supposedly a 3-star. The owner insisted on calling the Washington Irving and did manage to get me a discount. He also paid the cab driver to bring me there. The Washington Irving is legitimate 4-star hotel. 

The next day I showed up at the time for my self-guided tour of the Alhambra, unable to accomplish on my previous visit to Granada. I spent the following 1 1/2 hours trying to dodge the masses of tour groups blocking the way. I managed to see all I wanted to see, but it required a lot of flagstone stairway climbing, up and down. After I was done with the Alhambra, I took a taxi to El Centro and walked around another 1 1/2 hours before sitting down at a sidewalk cafe to order a beer and some duck pate’. The waiter brought the beer along with a slice of bread with a tomato slice covered with a thin slice of duck breast fried but cold. “Well”, I thought, “This is a different duck pate.” The dish was listed on their menus for 8 1/2 euros. Disgusted, I was about to signal for the bill when he showed up again this time with my order, a basket of toasted bread, 2 thick slices of very tasty pate’, some fruit and nuts. The first offering was just a free appetizer to go with my beer. I had to order another beer to finish the pate, but I powered through.

There is more to the train saga. I decided I would not do another 11+ hour trip from Madrid to Lisbon, and certainly no more night trains. Not for this old man. I studied the maps and saw the distance from Huelva to Lisbon significantly shorter than going through Madrid again. But there is no train service. There was no train service to anyplace in Portugal from Huelva. However, I could get a bus from Huelva for an hour’s ride to Faro, a town in southern Portugal that has rail service to Lisbon. OK, that’s a deal. Not so fast, I couldn’t find a bus to get me to that train. So, I looked up buses from Huelva to Lisbon, a six-hour ride, with first class seats available. Reserved them for less than 20 euros, cheaper than getting another train reservation. 

I will write a long post about the many other disadvantages of a Eurail pass to travel in Spain and Portugal.

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These are some cork oaks that have had the bark harvested. They remove all the bark from a little above the ground up about 5 feet. They are able to re-harvest about every 9 years, according to our leader Alejo. We rode through this forest.
This is our leader David with some bike safety tips before we set out in the am. The objects on the ground show the various elevations to be encountered that day. They do NOT represent how steep, long, or difficult the climbs are. That was probably best.
Kate did not have an electric assist on her bike but her husband had a hand on her back pushing her up all the most difficult hills. Leader David is capturing the image.

I have to say that watching this husband and wife team interact with each other and with the other people in the group, especially me, made my eyes flow with tears thinking about Rosalie, my wife of almost 53 years. I don’t think she would have done the biking but she would have loved the people. This adventure, and it was that, ranks among the best so far.

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I just completed a most interesting, challenging, and fun bike tour from Seville to Granada through the countryside of Southern Spain known as Andalusia. The trip was organized by the company Backroads.com and I can highly recommend their service. They supplied our group of four couples and myself with bikes (I wisely choose one with an electric assist motor to give me a boost up the many hills), helmets, and a GPS device that was loaded with our route each day.  To usher us through the experience we had two group leaders and a support person who managed the logistics for the trip. The group leaders made certain any need we had was taken care of. They also took turns riding with us each day making certain we were doing OK and helping with any mechanical problems. The leader not riding with us drove a van and the support person another. They took turns leapfrogging ahead to setup our rest stop or staying behind us with repair parts, spare wheels, etc. At each stop for the night we arrived pre-registered with our luggage waiting in our rooms. When we checked out the luggage was collected and taken to the next stop.

During each day’s rides, morning and afternoon, one of the vans was waiting every 10 km, or so, with ice water, soft drinks, electrolyte replacers, juice and a huge assortment of snacks including fresh fruit. When we arrived at the carefully chosen reserved spot for lunch the leaders knew everything about the owners of the place and were obviously welcomed guests. The same reception awaited us at each hotel we were booked into by the company, all first- class establishments. The lunches were uniformly spectacular, in spectacular locations, and with panoramic views of the country we had just traversed. It was impossible for me to eat even a taste of everything that was prepared for us even though it was uniformly delicious. Then we were off again for our afternoon ride, again with rest stops. 

Each day there were several choices that one could make about how far and how much elevation gain you felt you wanted to ride. I think the longest day I had was about 80 km, but with a couple of thousand feet of elevation gain. We usually finished the day of riding about 4 or 5 pm. Those of us who opted for a shorter day were given a ride in one of the vans to that night’s hotel. Others could extend their day with an extra loop and/or ride all the way to the hotel. After a nice hot shower and, for me, a generous slathering with topical analgesic pain relief cream, we had the choice of a dip in the swimming pool or a (paid separately) massage. We would gather again about 6:30 pm for drinks and then some sort of cultural/educational event. We had tours of an olive oil plant, another most interesting lecture with sampling of wines and highest quality extra virgin olive oils from the region we were in, and a walking tour of Rhonda with lots of history. There was also a nature walk through a national park on top of a mountain where we started our day of riding with a long descent. One of the choices for the more experienced (gung-ho) riders was to ride up that mountain in an attempt to break the existing speed record for participants in these tours. I did NOT participate but one of our two experts managed it in just a little over an hour. The record is 55 + minutes. On our last night we were treated to a rousing performance by an accomplished guitarist, two flamenco singers and an elegant and beautiful flamenco dancer. The performance was interrupted by two standing ovations from the 12 of us. 

Our dinners were, as well, uniformly well planned and of outstanding quality. Nobody could go hungry on one of these trips or complain about the chow. 

The routes we took were almost all on low traffic back roads, carefully managed to keep us off major roads except for short stretches needed to get us to another back road. My concerns about having to ride on narrow roads with heavy car, bus and truck traffic were unwarranted. Perhaps surprisingly my 83-year-old knees handled the bike riding just fine. The same cannot be said for managing up and down stairs particularly ones of flagstone with no handrails. There seem to be a lot of those in this part of the world.

A close up of a hillside

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On day 2 I was the first in to the rest stop at the top of this long hill, thanks to my electric assist motor. No way was that going to happen without that motor. That’s Rhonda in the distance, where we started. If you zoom in on that last curve you will see two of our group rounding the curve and heading up to us.

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Two days ago, I was sitting on a slatted wood bench in the Santa Polomia train station in Lisbon waiting for the night train to Madrid. The well-worn often varnished oak slats were bolted on either end to two identical molded cast iron supports incorporating two feet and a back. It is a familiar design of unknown origin and age but found almost any place in the world.

I am convinced train passengers, at least here in Portugal and Spain, are less stressed and more acceptable to their situation than passengers in airports anywhere I have been. Airport passengers seem to wear worried frowns and obvious apprehension about the status of their fight, weather conditions, and a multitude of other potential problems that could have an effect on their flight being on time. Trains here seem to leave on time with little mystery or uncertainty for the passengers, who even running to catch their train before it pulls out are smiling, save those few dragging children.

While I sat people watching, one of my favorite pastimes as an octogenarian, at least 85% of those passing by had smiles. I can’t recall seeing that in any airport in recent years. Santa Polonia was a great place for people watching. I arrived about 6 hours early, tired of walking the neighborhood of my hotel. The building and facilities of the station are as worn as the bench I was on but there were several people cleaning so, although not spotless, the place was as clean as any of the airports I have been stuck in lately.

Another advantage is no standing in a long line to be X-rayed, or scanned, or groped. At the largest train station in Madrid, Atochoa, where I had to transfer on my way to Seville, my luggage did have to go through a machine, but I didn’t have to take my computer out of my backpack, or empty my pockets, or take off my belt. As an old guy I haven’t had to take off my shoes for the past 8 years. Eventually I tired of people watching in Lisbon, put my luggage in a locker, cost 6 Euros, left the station, wandered the neighborhood, found a nice little restaurant and had a nice meal and a couple of glasses of a very nice red wine. Then wandered back into the station to gather my luggage and board my train about 15 minutes before it left.

I word of caution. A first-class Euro rail ticket doesn’t provide a 1stclass seat or berth on any train. You have to make a reservation ahead of time. Something I tried to do from the states but was unable to navigate their computer system to get it done. There were no 1st class berths available for the night train and I still had to pay 29 euros for the required reservation in tourist class. Almost 12 hours in a lurching, often stopping, 6 X 5 cell with two bunks and 3 strangers. I was not able to stretch out in the bunk, my feet and head were jammed into the walls. I should have opted for a seat in tourist class since I didn’t get any sleep in the birth. I was assigned a top bunk, impossible for me, but the guy assigned the bottom bunk was a graduate student from Mozambique. He switched with me and I took him to the bar car for some beers. A very affable young man. The first class accommodations appeared significantly better, but the bunks were about the same size. In Madrid I paid another 29 euros for a 1st class seat. 

Tomorrow I embark on the bike tour I booked for 6 days and 5 nights riding from Seville to Granada. Should be a blast.

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