Spain: Off-road from Hondarribia to Cartagena

dscf0858PART 2: Castilla-La Mancha and Murcia

After leaving Jaraba, I entered Castilla-La Mancha region, the Spanish hearth land.

The weather was fine, blue skies, 25 °C, autumn colors.   I was riding through fantastic scenery in the canyon carved by the Rio Mesa.

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In Villel de Mesa, I took a little gravel road that mounts into the hills.  Between Amayas and Anchulea del Campo, I found another fantastic spot to pitch the tent at 1300 meters.

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Molina de Aragon (which is not situated in Aragon) is the regional centre.  A nice little town with a castle and, most important, shops to buy food.  I was running pretty low on that.

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From Molina, I entered the ‘Parqua Natural del Alto Tajo’, the birthplace of another major Spanish river.  I followed the Rio Gallo towards Santuario de la Virgen de la Hoz which is impressively built under the rocks.

From the santuario, I rode a quiet paved rode for a few kilometers before turning off to another dirt road and finding yet another great spot for the night along the borders of the river.  I was just in time for a quick wash of the body and the clothes before the sun went down behind the hills.  Temperatures drop quickly this time of the year.

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For a few kilometer, I hit the tarmac again on the little CM2015 road.  Only a few meters after I turned left on the next dirt road, there was a majestic view of the Tajo river below in the valley.  It reminded me of views in the Rocky Mountains.  Unfortunately the sky was a bit white, so pictures don’t do it any justice.

The track followed the still narrow Tajo river upstream through the natural park.  Brilliant cycling here.

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After a late lunch in the Casas Del Salto, a steep climb follows.  Over the pass, a huge mining area is a sour for the eye after all the beauty of the last days.

It was 2 days since I left Molina De Aragon and again I was running low on fuel.  I passed a couple of small villages, Masegosa, Lagunaseca,  Santa Maria Del Val, but it was only in Vega del Codorno I finally found a small village store.  It was exactly 14:00 hrs and I shouldn’t have been a minute later, or I would have to wail it out till the end of the siesta 3 hrs later.

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Human greed.
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The first shop in days in Vega del Codorno.
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I pitched the tent in this shelter near the spring of the Rio Jucar.

I’m now crossing the Serrania De Cuenca mountain range, heading towards the spring of the Rio Jucar.

From the village of Tragacete (with a shop !), I follow a paved road down to Una and La Ciudad Encantade.  The latter is a tourist thing with a big parking spot and an entrance boot for lazy tourists.. Here you can see some rock formations and stuff you can see everywhere around here, if you’d make the effort to leave your car and walk or bike a bit into the nature.

Luckily for me, most people don’t, so the car park is busy, my trails are empty 🙂

Leaving asphalt roads and dirt roads behind, I’m back on the trails, in the Sierra de Valdecabras now.

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Just north of Cuenca, I meet the Rio Juncar again.  Following the river downstream, I’m riding on the left side over the very quiet paved road.   There is however a walking path, also on the left side.  From the top of a hill, I can see it would be a good option to follow that one into Cuenca.

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dscf1280Cuenca is a great provincial town.  Not too big, loads of historical buildings, a nice Cathedral, plenty of restaurants.  And I was double lucky, because there was a combined exhibition in the cathedral: “Informalistas”, La Poetica de la Libertad.  It’s about Ai Wei Wei’s time in a Chinese jail and about Miguel de Cervantes’ book Don Quijote, of which the part II was published 400 years ago.  All that stuff in a very beautiful cathedral and some buildings belonging to it.

I took the next morning off to visit it.

I first visited the Convento de las Esclavas in the evening.  Some people I met outside Cuenca gave me the tip.  You have to go there around 19:00 hrs, when the nuns are sitting there, all dressed up singing and chanting away.

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Plenty of lubugrious statues and carvings in the cathedral.
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The ceilings were very beautiful.

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It was raining when I left Cuenca, but I was happy, because I was on a little dirt road, away from any traffic that would spray me with water.  But soon I hit this typical mud here in Spain.  It’s red and it’s hard as concrete.  It clogs up your wheels, your gear everything and it’s almost impossible to remove it.  I had to drag the bike, but the mud clenches to your feet, centimeters thick until it’s almost impossible to lift your feed from the ground.

It took me an hour to cover a kilometer or so to the first possible exit to the main road N320.

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No way I was going to cycle that busy road so I backtracked towards Cuenca and took the small paved road towards Valeria.

After Valeria, the Rio Gritos carved a pretty canyon in the landscape.

The weather remained dodgy, which means it’s no fun to ride dirt roads, nor to ride between cars on paved roads.  But again I was lucky, because I could cycle along ‘Trasvase Tajo – Segura’, a small canal which I guess is used for the water supply and or irrigation of this environment.  There’s a car free track along the canal, which leads me all the way down towards El Cuartico, where I join the via verde de la Sierra de Alcaraz.

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The nice paved track along the ‘Trasvase Tajo – Segura’.
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And no, riding along canals doesn’t always mean it’s going to be flat.
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The flat lands of Castilla-La Mancha.

It was some really hard work over steep ascents, and descents, to cross the Sierra de Alcaraz.

Some muddy sections again.

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Next, I was heading for the ‘Parque Natural de las Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y las Villas’.  This is Andalucia region.

I cycled already through the southern part of this park back in 2012, riding a big part of the Transandalus and it was a major highlight of that trip.

So is this northern section, especially the part in the valley of the Rio Madeira, which joins the Rio Segura.  another great camping spot next to the Segura river and between impressive mountains.

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Somebody needs attention here 🙂

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More spectacular rock formations  as I cycled via La Graya and Nerpio to yet another province; Murcia.

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“La Borriqueta” viewpoint with views to the top of ‘El Cerro de las Mentiras’ (Mountain of Lies), with 1.898 meter the third highest peak in the region.
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Nice camping spot, but two hunters woke me at 01:30 am, checking what I was doing there.

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A very steep, rocky track brought me over the Sierra de La Muela down in the valley of the Rio Benamor.  I followed the river, with on my right hand side the steep cliffs it carved out of the Sierra de Los Alamos.  Climbing over this sierra, I descended towards Moratalla where I arrived again within minutes before the siesta closing time.

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Some pushing sections.
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Spectacular !
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The roof tops of Moratalla.

Between Cehegin and Bullas, I can follow the Via Verde del Noroeste, another railway line turned into cycling path before I turn right in Bullas to climb into the Sierra Cambron.

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At Alcantarilla, I meet up again with the Segura river.  All along the river there’s a bike path, through Murcia town, further downstream towards Orihuella.

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Bike path along the Segura river.

I was heading for the coast at Playa Flamenca.

You can follow a narrow track almost all along this part of the Costa Blanca.

There was some nice beach riding to be done at the salt lake of Mar Menor.

From the light house at Cabo the Palos, I took a hiking trail carved in the rocks along the coast.  Narrow and steep, but it led me down to a secluded beach where I could pitch the tent for the night and take a swim before riding into Cartagena.

Feliz Navidad ! 🙂

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Colorfull coast of the Costa Blanca.

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At the M’Mar Menor’.
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‘Mar Menor’.

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The light house at ‘Cabo de Palos’.
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My own little private beach. Spot the tent.

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Old mining site just before Cartagena.

And the route….
Total distance: 1590 km
Elevation: 23.682 meter
Average km per cycling day: 56,78 km

Nights slept inside: 5 (Hondarribia, Pamplona, Calatayud, Cuenca, Playa Flamenca)
Nights slept outside: 23 (all wild camping)
Flat tires: 2

(The route can be downloaded from wikiloc)

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Spain: Off-road through the land of Don Quixote

PART 1:  Basque Country (Euskadi), Navarra and Aragon regions.

During the winter and next spring, I plan to ride some trails on the Iberian Peninsula and in France. I’ll leave the touring bike behind for a little while and take my mountain bike. The whole set-up and what I take with me is described here.
The touring bike with all it’s bags is so heavy, it can hardly be lifted from the ground. The mountain bike with all it’s luggage weighs only 25 kg, and on top of that I carry a small backpack of about 6 kg.
This means I leave the Hilleberg mansion behind and swap it for a small Decathlon tent I still had laying around, I’ll carry a much lighter sleeping bag, lighter rain gear, less clothes, no stove or cooking pots, smaller camera,… only the hardcore essentials.

As I didn’t want to race against the seasons, I took a train down to Hendaye, the most southern place at the French Atlantic coast. It’s only a 6 hour ride with the tgv from Paris.
I arrived in Hendaye around 18:00 hrs and instantly crossed the border into Spain to spent the night in Hondarribia. This is the same village where I finished the ‘Transpirenées’ in 2012 and ‘Transpirenaica’ in 2014, 2 brilliant off-road routes, one on the French and the other the Spanish side of the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast.
The clouds I saw in the mountains when I arrived by train where gone the next day.

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The Atlantic coast at Hondarribia

dscf0149Before I start I have to give credit to Toffel, a Belgian biker who shared his ‘Transspain’ route, and Zinaztli, a Spanish biker for a lot of routes he shared. I combined their routes, and added a bit of my own.
My first day, I rode the last part of the Transpirenaica route in reverse direction, upto the ‘Pitara’ pass, a low crossing of the Pyrenees, but with very nice wild camping possibilities. It felt so good to be on the bike again.
The second day, at the Collade de Ibardin, I went from the French Basque country into the Spanish Basque country, down to the valley of the Rio Bidasoa, in Navarra province.

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On the climb to Pitara pass.
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At the Pitara pass.
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First camp site just above Pitara.

Day nbr 3 proved to be the hardest of the whole stretch between Hondarribia and Cartagena.
I had to climb out of the valley of the Rio Espelura via a hiking trail to Txaruta mountain, the highest peak of the Montes de Bidasoa range. The first 3,5 km I pushed the bike from 250 meters to 900 meter. Very, very hard labour, some parts almost impossible. Once I was up at the flank of the mountain, the track continued climbing a bit more and stayed high for a while. After less then 11 km, exhausted, I searched for a new camping spot.

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The steep push up Txaruta.
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And some don’t seem to make it.
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Shelter near the top of Txaruta.

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Which way should I go ?  Oh yeah, the steep one…

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dscf0182From to the top of Ezkaba, a hill of 895 m just north of Pamplona you have an excellent view of the city. There’s an old fort at the top, ‘Fuerte de Alfonso XII’.
I stayed one night in Pamplona to have some time to visit the city. There’s a nice cathedral, a nice square and on Thursday nights, coincidently the night I was there, they have their famous “El Juevintxo”. That’s ‘pintxos’ (= tapas) on Thursday, where you get a small beer or wine and a tapa for 2 Euro’s in many of the town’s café’s.

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Fuerte de Alfonso XII
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Pamplona Cathedral

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Leaving Pamplona, I passed the citadel, a walled fortification, built between 1571 and 1645 under the orders of King Felipe II of Spain. A very sophisticated defensive system was devised, following the model of the fortress at Antwerp, a regular pentagon with five bastions at the corner.
It is regarded as the finest example of military architecture from the Spanish renaissance.

dscf0348Continuing south, I crossed the Sierra de Izco towards the tiny village Leoz. It’s here I had my first flat tyre of this year. These nobby mountainbike tires are much lighter and much less robust as the Schwalbe Marathon’s on my touring bike. I repaired the tyre, but it was flat again after 2 km.
I couldn’t find where it leaked, but saw that my rim tape was partly moved to the side walls of the rim. It’s glued in the rim, so you can’t put it back. To solve the problem and protect the tube a bit from the spokes I tore a piece of 15 cm from a bread bag, folded it double and laid it between the tube and the rim. Then used my only spare tube. Fingers crossed this works out.

A bit later, beyond the village of Uzquita, I spend the night in my tent at the top of the mountain range, under some wind mills, feeling like a modern Don Quixote 😉

dscf0362From the historical village Ujué, I descended to the Barranco Aliaga, following the stream on dirt roads till it’s confluence with the Rio Aragon, near the small town of Carcastillo.

It being a Sunday, much hunters were out. In Catholic Spain, God’s day of rest is used by a big proportion of the population to hunt down and kill animals. Not sure if that was his intention. The bullets are literally flying around your ears.

But it were not only hunters bothering me today. Carcastillo has it’s own plaza de toros (bullring), and today was the annual fiesta. This bothered me twice. First, that meant all shops were closed and I badly needed food, and second, the whole town was fenced of with wooden fences so the bulls could be released and chased down the streets. The ‘festivities’ were gonna start between 5 & 6 pm. I considered for a second whether I had to take this ‘opportunity’ to experience some Spanish tradition, but decided against it. I ‘d want to save the bull, which would surely create problems for me.

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You can see the wooden fences at the corner, to protect people and houses once the bulls will be released.

Eventually, I could buy some bread in a small cafeteria, took some water at the village fountain and continued cycling.  What followed later this afternoon and the next day was some first class, and little known, spectacular scenery.  ‘Las Bardenas Reales’, a big, desert  / moon like area with sandy hills, spectacularly shaped by water and wind.   I was so glad I hadn’t taken a room back in Carcastillo, but instead could pitch my tent and sleep in this wonderful environment.

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Northern entrance of Las Bardenas Reales.

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At the southern end of Las Bardenas Reales, I cross the Rio Ebro, one of Spain’s major rivers, and ride into Aragon, the third Spanish province of this trip.

In Borja, a charming little town along the N122, I found a neat little bike shop to buy 2 new spare tubes and a rim tape (I could ride another 500 km or so before I had my next flat and replaced the bread bag in my rim).
South from Borja, I crossed the Sierra de Nava Alta before pitching my tent for the night in a deserted valley north of Illueca.

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Ridiculously red sand on a mining road north of Illueca.

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Illueca is a small town, the capital of the Region of Aranda. Raised on a hill is the castle of Papa Luna palace. The building is the birthplace of Pedro Martinez de Luna (1328 – 1423), for a while pope Benedict XIII and also know as ‘Papa Luna’.

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After breaking camp in the morning, this is where I was coming from the previous day…
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… and this is where I was going. Sure enjoying my days here.
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The Palace of ‘Papa Luna’.

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After crossing the Sierra de la Virgen, I entered the town of Calatayud over an old railway turned into cycle path.

From Calatayud I rode upstream in the valley of the Rio Jalon to Ateca. The next days were going to be very spectacular.
First I rode up to the ‘Embalse de la Tranquera’ reservoir.

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The square in Calatayud.

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‘Embalse de la Tranquera’

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My last night in Aragon, I camped along a little dirt road between Ibed and Jaraba.

To be continued….