The sea again

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Boabdil glanced back as he entered it, and I took one last look as I left it. The Sierra Nevada was behind me, resplendent with its top dressing of snow, but I shall be back. All the cafe owners will wonder where I’ve disappeared to.

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The ride to Almeria proved harder than anticipated given the long descents and a tail wind, but I had been off the bike for a few weeks and this soon begins to tell. The sole sustenance on this trip was a can of coke and a packet of crisps taken hastily at a filling station, which for a rider of my bulk and appetite is nowhere near enough. The legs go first, feeling like jelly with no power, and then the mind starts playing tricks. Roadside animals take on a whole new appearance.

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Probably best just to keep eating and drinking, little and often, but I’ll make the same mistake again.
This area is the Cabo de Gata National Park, one of the many in Spain, and the run down to the picturesque bay at San Jose is through impressive hill country with low vegetation and little habitation.

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I have stayed in San Jose before, so I knew it was well worth a second visit. A former fishing village turned tourist destination, at this time of year it has few visitors. The many fish restaurants are open and this bowl of seafood soup had me salivating not long after the bike had stopped rolling.

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To add to the surreal day, a flock of day-glow pigeons fly around here. This is apparently a Spanish pigeon-fanciers habit and becomes very competitive. When you first see them they take you by surprise, circling the bay, all the colours under the sun.
I like San Jose, and may well spend two nights here to explore the coast on foot, then it’s north to Mojacar and on to Cartegena, which promises much by way of ancient buildings. Meanwhile, there’s more soup to eat.

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Three Kings

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Just when you thought it was all over, in Spain it isn’t. In fact this is the main event. The Spanish pay lip-service to Christmas, especially in the more rural areas, and New Year is just one very long night of socialising. Three Kings however is when the children receive their presents.
The day begins with pyrotechnics and continues in much the same vein, the sound echoing in the surrounding hills. The Spanish are very keen on noise and any excuse to use exploding devices is gleefully taken.

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Around the country, the Three Kings arrive in communities by a host of means. Watching TV the other evening they were actually in an aquarium tank, but the intention is the same ultimately, to distribute sweets and presents to the children. In Cadiar they come on more traditional horses and mules down the steep hill at the end of town, slowly progressing around the narrow streets to the church square. It’s quite easy to get drawn into the sense of occasion, and the youngsters love it. Noise, flames, fireworks and on top of it all, presents, although they may only receive one or two. I saw a lad staring at his toy lorry in disbelief; less is often much, much more.

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The whole event made me feel about 5 years old again, which is more than can be said for the heavily commercialised Christmas back home, and that can’t be a bad thing.
Three Kings brought with it a change in the weather. For two days dramatic cloud formations spoke of something different. High winds and a temperature drop were the result, with the snow-line creeping down the hill-sides. It’s time for me to move on, and Friday sees the trusty steed heading back down to the coast, warmer days, and the road to Alicante.

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Wheels in the hills

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It would be remiss of me not to mention my friends’ cycling operation here in the Sierra Nevada, as it was through them that I was introduced to this beautiful area of Southern Spain. I came to Vamos Cycling several years ago with no idea what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised. It was a tough baptism though.

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Sarah and Gary run their business from a traditional Alpujarran house, renovated for all comforts, yet retaining many of the local building features that make this area so appealing. From the roof terrace, views open up to the hills, and in fine weather meals taken outside after a long ride are especially memorable.

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A visit is to be immersed in the culture of road cycling, enjoying superb food prepared by Sarah, and inevitably the convivial company of fellow travellers and friendly locals. The riding takes you on traffic-free roads which are surfaced perfectly for the bike, a cyclist’s Heaven.

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Gary is an accomplished cyclist, and his knowledge of the routes encyclopedic. Vamos caters for all, although a degree of fitness is required to manage the climbs and distances. Descents are thrilling, some taking you from the high country to sea level with hardly a need to turn the cranks.
As a novice I have learnt much, serious athletes benefit greatly from the challenging terrain.

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If you are a dog lover, the icing on the cake are the two canines at Vamos, Chica and Pincho. If you are not, you will be before you leave. They are the most likeable of creatures, adding that perfect dimension to your holiday.

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So this is Vamos, and if you fancy a truly inspiring cycling trip to Spain you can find all the details on the website at www. vamoscycling.com
Gary and Sarah will make you most welcome. You will not be disappointed.

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Longest walk, shortest day

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I always feel I should mark the solstice in some way, when the sun is at it’s lowest in the southern sky. It must be the pagan in me. Ironically this year feels more like mid summer out here and the odd reference to Christmas seems strangely mis-placed.

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Anyway, I decided on a good walk to celebrate it, so off I went up into the hills. There was not the merest breath of wind to stir even the lightest of vegetation, and the heat hung heavy as it does in these conditions. At times the silence was complete, and after a while even that has a noise of its own, a background hum. Strange.

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This landscape is deceptive, and continues to deceive the longer I stay. From afar it seems a solid mass, but as as you delve deeper on foot or by bicycle it rears up, the Hors d’oeuvres suddenly blocking your view of the entree, dwarfing all beyond. The main course is miles off, far beyond your concept of the horizon, and hours of exhausting climbing. You suddenly feel very small. Glancing up, I saw my first Golden Eagle of the trip as it disappeared behind a hilltop, appearing minutes later as a pair. What a treat. I watched them circle upwards, pinioned wings taking them beyond human vision.

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After lunch with a view to die for, I headed on and up, watched at one point by young Ibex standing on the very edge of a long drop. Inquisitive creatures , with a great head for heights.

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I was finally on the top road looking far down into the valley. Tiny villages picked out against the brown landscape. Even at this altitude there are Almond trees in blossom this year, an indication of the exceptional weather we have been enjoying. Butterflies are on the wing in great numbers.

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The Alpujarras have an irrigation system that carries water for miles along the hillsides, sometimes cut into the living rock or running in man-made channels. This saves the farmers in times of exceptional aridity.

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I was on the final leg downhill, following the GR7 footpath whose use goes back into antiquity. Some of the infrastructure would never pass scrutiny in the UK, but that’s Europe for you. Take responsibility for your own stupidity. Amen to that.

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I was home, from the most perfect shortest day I have ever experienced. I felt like celebrating, so that’s what I’m doing.

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Picture perfect palace

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The Alhambra makes you work for its delights. If you walk from the city there is a good climb uphill, and once there the way in is slightly confusing, or it was to me. As a visitor attraction it brings in the tourists, the most popular in Spain apparently. What surprises me is how little wanton destruction there has been over the centuries, (although the French did have a go at some of the entrance gates at one point). Presumably all the inhabitants subsequent to the Moors recognised the beauty of the work and let it be. Just as well for us that they did.

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The quality and intricacy of the plasterwork is simply stunning, making you wonder how human beings are capable of such delicacy. Some of the rooms look more organic than man-made, resembling stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

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A team of conservators are constantly at work cleaning and repairing to combat the ravages of time. Patient work. A colony of Swifts have caused problems with their nesting habits and plans are afoot to encourage them elsewhere on the site, because they do take huge numbers of insects potentially injurious to the fabric of the building.

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Imagine if you will, strolling these cool rooms in the height of summer’s heat, running water calming the mind, incense perfuming the air, and gazing through open windows into courtyard gardens as you sipped chilled fruit juices and nibbled on dates. The views from the terrace aren’t too shabby either.

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This must be one of the most photographed buildings in Europe, and what follows is a strict edit of those taken yesterday, but the beauty of the place makes it irresistible. Anybody interested in surface design would be in Heaven.

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Outside the walls lie the gardens, quaintly called General Life ( it sounds more like insurance to me). Their position high above the city give them a most tranquil feel, and although many of the flowering plants were missing at this time of year, you can imagine the riot of colour in the Summer.

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I think of Boabdil wandering these rooms and gardens in his finery, picking at pomegranates with a silver pin and gazing on his domain with pleasure.
Small wonder he turned and sighed at the pass, leaving all this for an uncertain future in the hills beyond. He must have been devastated.

Granada

This is a big city, with its fair share of industrial zones,ring roads, large housing estates, beggars and even a touch of smog as I entered on the bus this morning. The last time I came was by bicycle so the route in was less congested. The old town is by comparison much easier on the eye, which is why I find myself seated in a sunny square drinking very good coffee with a background of subdued conversation. I have enjoyed this pleasure the length of Europe, and there is no finer way to orientate yourself in an unfamiliar place. Warm sunshine is a bonus.

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Granada has a fascinating past. From pre history there has been a settlement here, the fertile plain watered by the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. It was the last city occupied by the Moors in Spain, and they left a magical palace still in evidence today. It dominates the city, and walking beneath its ramparts leaves you in awe at the extent of it.

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Katherine of Aragon spent much of her later childhood here, her mother Isabella being pregnant when she campaigned to oust the Moors.
Much of the old town remains close to the Alhambra with it’s winding street system and protected courtyards.

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Elsewhere is a bustling modern city, but quiet corners can be found and street stalls sell everything from salt fish to candied fruits, herbs spices and fresh vegetables. Plus the usual tourist fare of course. I haven’t felt inclined to buy anything but I do have a ticket for the big Christmas lottery draw and 57073 sounds like a very lucky number to me. Stranger things have happened.

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As I munch my first tapa of the evening in a bar which looks more like a kindergarten, I mull over tomorrow’s plan, the long climb up to the Alhambra for my second visit. Not so leg-sapping as the ride up Pico Veleta which sits behind it though, the highest paved road in Europe. Two visits there will be enough for me.

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More locals and a forced move

Walking the high road east today I was treated to a feast of birdlife. One minute the sky was empty and the next full of Griffon Vultures, circling high above me into the intense blue. Within five minutes they were lost from view over the first ridge, but the brevity and surprise is the treat to be savoured. Still mulling this over, around the next bend a Hen Harrier flew upslope and past me, lingering long enough for the best of views, it’s languid flight a joy to watch. Beautiful birds. The picture is once again courtesy of someone else.

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Cadiar has it’s characters. This chap and his menagerie live opposite the bakers, and there is a daily parade up the street to meet others near the bus stop. The man, the dog and the cat. I never tire of watching this procession, there’s something so satisfying about it.

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Animals form a large part of any rural community, and here there is little of the sentimentality that we may attach to them. Having said that, most seem to be reasonably cared for, with the odd exception. This character was doing his best to hide with no great success.

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The tilting Earth has upset the morning coffee routine. My seat no longer basks in sunshine at the time I like to visit, so it’s up-sticks and down the road to the Cadi Bar, where the church wall still catches it, hopefully lasting until the shortest day. Life throws up the odd difficulty.

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