September 7th, 2011
The Spanish equivalent of the Tour de France, the Vuelta a España, has been attracting lots of attention recently. I’m watching it on television principally for the scenery.
Seeing fit men serves only to confirm to me how inadequate I am and does nothing for the ego. Therefore I look past the bikes and, instead, soak up the beautiful Spanish countryside.
But men in lycra riding bikes up hill and down valleys are everywhere in Spain. You can’t avoid them. Especially on a Sunday.
My mother always told me to ride single file when taking to the road. Clearly, if cyclists in Spain ever heard those words, they have long forgotten them. But here is not the place to vent a rant on behalf of the sane motorists and pedestrians of Spain.
Instead, let us take a look at Spain through the eyes of cyclist. From behind those goggles and through all those drops of sweat.
So much of it must be seen as a blur. They ride so fast. The Spanish equivlanet of the Tour de France is becoming increasingly popular and it began this year in the ever popular Spanish holiday destination of Benidorm. This startled some people who wondered if it was the best advert for Spain to begin such a high profile sporting event in the home of the great British breakfast.
But i think the organisers got it just right. The cycling race is watched via television all over the world, including in Britain and Germany. It will not have done any harm to have had viewers in those countries remember where they once spent such a warm and cost effective holiday. They are more likely to return to the Costa Blanca again for a holiday this year.
Spanish tourism needs all the help it can get in these difficult times. The high profile cycle race does just that. It promotes Spain in all its varied glory.
If you followed the long and arduous route taken by the cyclists, perhaps in the comfort of your car, you would see some of the very best locations in Spain. The coastal delights and the marvellous mountainous destinations on offer.
Benidorm became a byword for the worst of British holidaying in Spain in the nineteen seventies and eighties. But, hopefully, that reputation is history. It remains a big, busy and bustling seaside destination for holidaymakers from all over Europe.
Still a popular place for summer holidays and a magnet for pensioners from north Europe seeking to escape cold winters in their home country. In these troubled economic times it is still cheaper for the retired to spend two or three winter months in a Spanish location like Benidorm, than turn up the central heating or put more coal on the fire at home.
And Benidorm has so much else on its doorstep. More than big breakfasts, fish and chips and warm beer.
You can get a cheap bus to the city of Alicante. A smashing city that has delightful beaches, great shops and more authentic Spanish food on offer in its more established restaurants. There are two sides to Alicante. A very pleasant modern part, which is easy to stroll through, and an old quarter dating back to the days long before bingo made it to Benidorm.
From Benidorm you can take public transport, or a day trip coach, through the hills that the cyclists climb. Visit coastal resorts such as Denia, Javea or Altea.
Stage 4 of the cycle race saw the cyclists in completely different territory. They pedalled from Baza, a location near one of my favourite lakes in Spain – Negratin, to the Sierra Nevada mountains of Granada. The crowds turned out in great numbers to see all those tight thighs, muscles and bright clothing.
Pinos de Genil is a town people often pass through en route to the most southerly ski resort in Europe, Sierra Nevada. Locals had never seen so many people turn out to watch a sporting event. It is one of those locations outside of the city centre of Granada that people should visit, or use as a base to experience the area.
Add to that places such as Güéjar Sierra. This is a pleasant mountain town that is full of fresh air, fine food, wonderful walks but far fewer skis and snowboards. Those athletic people are a few minutes higher up the mountains showing off their skills on the snow that provides the stage for sporty types for half the year.
In summer, places such as Güéjar Sierra provide refreshing relief from the hot city of Granada. In winter, on sunny days, it’s a lovely place to sit with beer and tapas and sunbathe whilst wearing a fleece.
I suggest you find the hidden family run bar called Bodega Tajo Cabaniles. Owners Felipe and Maria have left so much of the stuff they have acquired in their lives right there in the bar. A Ducati scooter, a very early mobile telephone and all manner of clutter. It’s a crazy bar and Maria will serve you some fresh snacks.
If you want to eat some of the very best food in this region then don’t leave Güéjar Sierra without dining inside or, when the weather permits, outside the excellent restaurant Mesón La Hacilla.
Stage 6 of the Vuelta a España cycle race had the fit competitors race from Ubeda to Córdoba. Now most people know all about the attractions in the latter location.
But Ubeda is an unheralded gem that I enjoy visiting and walking around. The lazy option would be to jump in a horse driven carriage. It will take you for a leisurely 40 minute excursion around the cobbled streets and cost you just 5 euros.
Ubeda has a strong Castillian influence. It is visible in the granite stone buildings and squares that one is more accustomed to viewing in locations further north, in places such as Madrid or Salamanca.
The Palacio de la Cadensas (Palace of the Chains) is just one example of the multitude of stone and bronze on view in the large square, the Plaza de Vázquez de Molina.
Renaissance shows through once again in the charming patio courtyard and square belfries at the 16th century Hospital of Santiago.
The Parador in Ubeda is high on the list of those who like to stay in the notable buildings of Spain. Located within a 16th century palace, the hotel has coupled comfort with centuries of history. As with so many of the paradors, it comes at a price and there are much more cost effective ways of staying in the area.
Artisan shops abound and actually sell that rare tourist product – something you might actually want to buy!
As I write the cyclists are much further north and coming towards the end of the Vuelta a España race. They are on stage 16 which ends in the homely town of Haro in La Rioja.
A smashing place I first came across six years ago when stopping off to fill my boot full of quality Rioja wine, take a tour of one of the oldest bodegas in Spain and to meet a Chess Grandmaster.
Stuart Conquest was for many years the only ‘Brit in the village’, so to speak. Famous the world over for his chess prowess, Stuart will miss out on seeing Haro full of cyclists. In an ironic twist, he finds himself competing in the European capital of cycling, Amsterdam.
I love places in Spain that people, more often than not, drive right on by. Haro fits that bill. So much the better as those lucky enough to visit Haro, and clever enough to stay there for a little while, will have more space to themselves.
Go to the bars in the ‘horseshoe’ part of town. The wine is cheap, obviously, and the tapas every bit as good as that served as pintxos in neighbouring Basque country. In summer there are outdoor pools for one and all to enjoy.
In winter it can get very cold in Haro, but I find the place all the more atmospheric for that. After all, how many tourists get to see enormous icicles in Spain?
Stuart told me: “In the summer you will see children out in the town square until the early hours. It is a safe, friendly and homely town and that is another reason why so many people from all over Spain own a second home here.
“The tourist board are doing a great job trying to encourage more Spaniards to visit this region for the many bodegas that are based here and for the mountains. You see a few British people around town in summer but, for the rest of the year, none.”
The Vuelta a España race will then move on to in Bilbao. Not a bad place to rest your aching limbs before the final leg. The crowds in Bilbao will be vast. They love their cycling in the Basque country every bit as much, if not more, than they do further south in Spain.
The countryside outside of the city, which I feel sure the TV cameras covering the race will show in all its glory, is akin to being in deepest Switzerland or Austria.
It never ceases to amaze me how the landscape of Spain varies so very much as you travel between the south and north of the country. The Basque region is like another country. Indeed, to many locals, it is exactly that.
The famous signs that hang in many a bar: “Remember you are not in Spain. You are not in France. You ARE in Basque country,” tell their own tale. The locals are very proud people and, in my opinion, they have much to be proud about.
Bilbao not only has the famous Guggenheim Museum to attract tourists. My favourite part of the city is the Casco Viejo quarter that lies on the east bank of the river. Narrow, winding streets awash with colour and life. The area is small but it is here that the best bars are located serving perfect pintxos. I’ve enjoyed many a long lunch in Bilbao and found the city and its people to be warm and welcoming.
By the time this very special cycle race ends in the capital city of Madrid, the tired cyclists will arrive having travelled through spectacular scenery. They won’t have had the chance to take much of it in. They are concentrating too hard on the race. But maybe, just maybe, they will go back on foot and see one or two of these locations in more detail.
I suggest you do just that. But please do look out when you are crossing the road.
In my experience, in Spain, there is always a man in tight fitting, bright clothing racing down a hill towards you at great speed.
And, unlike in my day when I roamed West London on a ‘chopper’; they don’t ring bells or toot horns.
Additional photography courtesy of:- Tim Irving via http://bit.ly/9q5plU