Through La Mancha and Don Quixote territory; Granada to La Mancha

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May 4th 2019
Published: May 4th 2019
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Granada was the opportunity to reset we needed. Nacho, a teacher, had given us a generous welcome to a 600 year old town apartment, in the nick of time we got to an open supermarket, and the possibility of getting another car was presented by Enterprise. We had smiles on our dials.

Despite the location, it was surprisingly quiet for a Friday and Saturday night. Like logs we slept, waking to still air and clear skies. This morning time was ‘do anything’ time.

I was keen to bank a swim whilst here, and off I went, reliant on a Google search, and the conflicting information about opening hours with the app. Piscina Arabial just under 2km from Calle Pages had a portly older receptionist. I was passed a card itemising the rules, but señor had no change. I was let in on good faith I’d pay on my exit.

Surprisingly the pool was so quiet that I could take Google busy times with a pinch of salt. The Socorrista confirmed.

The hum never quite hit the old town on my return at 11am, until you turn into some
main thoroughfare, and then it’s Tour Group Central. Of mostly Spanish origin or speakers of European languages, the large crowds are obvious by an umbrella or flag held up at the front, and unfortunately, a number of disinterested looking people. Come on, it’s Granada!

The car rental situation took some rectifying. An hour of Granada traffic, door to door, over 3.5km, frustrated the heck out of us. We’d set out early, to our relief, and received far superior service from a lady there than that of the unhelpful emergency assistance number we were directed to prior, when out the back-of-beyond with a flat tyre. Thank goodness for instruction manuals and I can now credit tyre changing as a useful skill.

Afternoon wanderings rambled all about town, sneaking views of the Alhambra at nearly every turn, until we found what we’d set out to see; Palacio De La Madraza.

Scoped out by P2, it blew our minds with an incredibly detailed mosque, and original floor from the 14th Century. Controlled by ladies acting as guides whom oversaw the area, the protection of this space is highly valued. As another tour group entered
and were roped off, we were lucky to have a few minutes of the mosque just to ourselves. Some seek out the big tourist spots in Granada, then there’s this. Twenty years ago I saw the Alhambra, but the detail here definitely competes with that.

We’d passed the time so well that P2s lengthy locks required attention. Unfortunately peluquería research didn’t pay off this time, as all hairdressers had taken the day off. Where else to go, but a barber shop.

As soon as the hair trimmer came out, he knew he was in for a new style. Acting as translator, we determined the non English speaking barbers ‘small’ was short. I pulled out an iPhone photo from our departure day as reference. But the trimmers continued. Then came a special tool, for the sideburns, and the choice of hair to be pulled up, left or right. He was about to get a mohawk.

Hairdressers know how to chat. Repeatedly, he drilled down deeply into “where the niños were”, duration of marriage etc, and repeatedly, I told him in Spanish, the answer. It didn’t stick, but once the cut was over,
we were all good mates. A bargain cut at €10 including tips.

Deliberating on whether or not to join the queue at 8.30am Sunday morning, for a slim chance of obtaining tickets that others might not turn up for, we chose no. The likelihood that it’d be naturally inundated, and presence of other attractions, swayed us. Plus some recuperating was still in order.

The hill on which the Alhambra is on has a network of trails, some dirt and overgrown as I found, or others, dense with old town architecture, and tourists. It’s a view to behold. P2 planned a route above the city that surpassed the previous days, at San Miguel, where we ended up meeting a lovely Singaporean couple. Avoiding the true mirador area, the view developed even more as we skirted the hill, before dropping steeply down to river level through La Cuesta de Chinos, Chinese Hill.

Domingo always brings the crowds, and noticing many folks entering the various sites on the way down to river level, we steeled ourselves for the crowds of the Alhambra perimeter. Beating several slower folks trudging their way uphill, we passed the
Princess tower and Torre de Infantes, surrounded by lush foliage. And tiles were visible through the window! So that’s our ‘Alhambra experience’.

The afternoon calmed down, and one other place we’d marked was Palacio Dar Al Horta.

Discovering that Domingo allowed free entry was our blessing, and in between the waves of tourists, we started off at this exquisite old residence of the wife of Sultan Mohammed XI. Tiles, engraved stone, decorative windows, and a small museum with very old navigation and medical instruments, demonstrated their life past, and the great contributions of the Arabes to the Iberian peninsula.

Time was spare before the 5pm closure to see the Arab baths nearby. These spots are always cool, dark, tastefully designed, and on this supposedly 31C day, a respite.

Cool temperatures was what we needed, as moving on to my 7th ATM that was rejecting my plea for euros when there was money in my account, my worry worsened.

With some contact home, and a late night video call, the financial situation was revealed. Scams and skims on ATMs in Europe were on the recent rise, and I’d
been blocked. There were few ‘green sleeves’ we’d noticed on machines, and fingers crossed, security on what appear untampered ATMs gets us through the trip.

It was an excuse to launch into an audio of Green Sleeves from P2.

Granada delivered another stunner weather day on our departure, and the mercury was rising. After midday we set off on nearly 400km of driving northwards in the Volkswagen Caddy. Off to play golf, or do a mail drop.

Calling into Baños de la Encina, a tumbleweed town off the A road, we stretched the legs to the nearby embalse with views for miles of olive trees. Shade was a relief, although it was hot work.

Back in the Caddy, another 250 odd kilometres melted away at 120kph, with the odd spot of roadworks or lowered intersection speeds. Toledo loomed proudly on a steel hill just after 6pm, my eyes on the clock for cut off time to arrange our luggage transfer in person.

We offloaded everything at a local park, dropped the car off, and began walking 100s of steps to the Hotel Carlos V, with gear in
tow. Around a third of the way there, a total sweat-fest by now, we decided I’d run ahead, getting help at the reception on arrival. Unfortunately, P2 then observed what transpired as an loudly conducted phone theft, that ended just as I came running down the steps to help retrieve the rest of our gear.

So, we are near the big city. We reflected on the tripped out dude we saw in Granada walking down the street when we first arrived, hailing ‘positivo!!’. Indeed. We want that.

A light Syrian meal at La Casa de Damasco was the perfect end to this day. Genuinely good, affordable and served with a smile.

The midnight bed times are very tardily Spanish, but on the whole we are still getting rest. On our leaving Toledo, I’d been told to be available from 8am to facilitate the gear transfer with Nacex. For three times the cost of SEUR, but far better locally rated in our research, I double checked the arrangements with reception, and during breakfast, checked again. It was 10am without any sign of pick up, requested as by mid morning.

We then learned a pick up man had arrived, stayed five minutes, then left without the luggage. A long story short is after this stressful debacle, a star staff member, Gema, made right what was wrong. Two back to back national holidays would mean no luggage would arrive in Cuenca, and so it was retrieved. This was when it paid to be persistent.

The delay leaving was mentally unsettling, but surprisingly, we made good time of our ride, bound for Consuegra.

We could call the day ‘heat and animal encounter day’. First, a small furry animal akin to a mongoose ran ahead of me on the bike, a long snake (albeit dead) was on the road, there were rabbits for miles, and we spotted some rare birds that P2 frustratingly never got pictures of.

Poppies and wildflowers flourished on the roadside, making lighter work of the long straights, and easing the pain of a killer hill just out of Arisgotas on our way to Los Yebenes.

Consuegra is situated low, with obvious tendencies to being damp. We crossed a small water course to get to the upper town,
where the famous molinos de viente (windmills) are. Arriving after a decent 75km or so is always a pleasure, with washing machine, shower and water at the ready. Our host was not that familiar however with the signature washer of Spain, a front loader. After tugging unsuccessfully on the front door, it having seized mid cycle, we figured out the essential operations ourselves.

The Molinos were accessible above the apartment on Calle Urda, so we were in the thick of the individually named mills within minutes of steeply hiking uphill. The lesser publicised Consuegra castle looked majestic in the setting sun, and to slowly ramble around it was a perfect end to day one on the bikes. It was literally our own, contrasting markedly with 9am the next day, when the tour buses and crowds arrived.

We had an easier distance day planned for traveling to Campo Criptana. 50km mas o menos was ideal, and with those generous midday checkouts, we wonder how we’ll ever again enjoy NZs 10am get-out-the-door accommodation trend.

Directly east was the route best taken, and before we knew it, we were taking a break in Carmunas
and Villafranca de los Caballeros. A derelict service station, complete with smashed windows and broken signage, had the thorn free environment for bike parking we had since fixated on. I reached for the wet wipes in my front pack, and my wallet-passport pouch fell out. Mental note to self; ‘pick it up’!

We recorded the scenic stop and carried on a flat road to Herencia, then over the hill to Alcázar de San Juan. Windmills, poppies, purple wildflowers, Don Quijote and Cervantes sculptures. Just beautiful. A panadería was surely nearby, but cruising into Alcázar I reached for the wallet that along with the passport, wasn’t there.

32 thigh breaking kilometres later, praying to a higher power, and cursing at my foolishness, the wallet lay untouched at the derelict service station and was collected. P2 meanwhile kept watch on the roadside of my heavily loaded panniers that I’d dumped, advised to go as fast as lightening. I returned, giving the thumbs up as I approached from several hundred metres away, and collectively relieved the anxiety of any consequence. I’m going to get drunk tonight, I announced. Yeah right.

But there was top
shelf Jerez sherry, gifted to me by the owner of the apartment there, to finish off, and approaching nearly 130km for the day, I needed fortifying. The last ten kilometres to elevated Campo de Criptana felt like the brakes were on, but that same feeling of arrival thrills every time. There may be no washing machine, but look at that killer view! And sunset.

Festivities of a two day consecutive Labour Day holiday meant we’d need to be completely self sufficient with no shops open. ‘That’s the last time we travel during fiestas’, P2 announced, and I concurred. My heavy panniers, as the key to levelling our riding pace, are not secretly a training strategy. But, the organic wine gifted from the owner of this apartment will come to Barcelona.

With Radio tres playing low fi Latin electrónico in the background, near midnight, and drinking, by then, mint tea, the world was made right.

We willed the tired muscles to work the next morning. Campo de Criptana has developed as a tourist location with its signature hillside blue-white cave dwellings and, much like Consuegra, molinos de viento. Nobody but the odd
dog walker was about at 9am. Morning light was shining bright. Photo opportunities were plentiful.

We had the benefit of lingering if we wanted but the 80km ahead loomed. Bit by bit, we progressed to several small villages, the first and busiest being El Toboso, where a statue of a courting Don Quixote stood in the square facing his lady. Joining the N road several kilometres later, we faced a steady headwind to Mota, fortunately only 8km of it as we made right angle turns thereafter.

Belmonte, the clue in the title, sits atop a hill with a grand castle in full view. More climbing was ahead, after nearby Oso De la Vega which saw us taking a rough secondary road over the forested ranges to Fuentelespino.

By now, P2s protestations of rear soreness reached a pinnacle. We’d time unusually on our side, 16km out of Villar de Cañas, and pulled into the only bar/café combination open in this tumbleweed hollow. I entered. It stunk. I ordered the drinks asking if we’d dine outside on the broken pavement. It may have been the second day of the labour day holidays, but surprisingly, the ayuntamiento (council) were churning up the turf!

Complacently, we set off knowing it was generally downhill from there, yet some dramatic weather had built up. It left us sheltering several kilometres later under a tree from a downpour. With panadería and chocolate for company. It eased but chased us to our hostal rincón en La Mancha where we arrived wet. The welcome was very warm, our B n B host could use a lavadora for our dirty clothes, and granny was in on the cooking duties.

Like several hoteliers we’ve met, this family was ex Ávila and Madrid, seeking out country quiet. We discovered so on a pre ride walk in the village the next day, as the one and only tienda’s customers, and the owner joining in, dispensed route advice. That couldn’t be messed with too much though, as we’d studied the terrain. Only one common theme; a big hill.

We chose the slow-grind-to-the-peak option with a 3km spike in the middle. At this stage, first gear had failed for P2, accentuating his frustrations, that I insisted I manually lift it, greasily, to first gear for the stinker of a hill. 150m ascent in just under 3km from Barbalimpia to Hortizuela. Cycling Rentals needed to seriously tune the bikes.

The reward of the only remaining food we’d carried, cheese, brown bread and warm home made hummus, saw us through the last 25km to Cuenca.

Itself, set in a gorge, required one more decent climb into it. Coasting down the N420, our route set for the Parador, we got within 350m if the hotel when the first-gear issue again reared its head. Pushing up the gradient to a stunner location was made sweet by the reception and room thereafter. It may be pricey, but fitting the name, the view is estupendo.

At elevation, Cuenca was cool, even for May. On a last ride hurrah, I climbed to Buenache at 1347m. As jealous as I could make P2, I saw circling vultures, some possibly looking like eagles, and an old Roman Aquaduct in Parlomera, a village much like Cuenca encircled in a gorge.

It was time to dismantle the bikes into their respective rubbish sacks with the kit and caboodle, a team effort, before handing the transfer over to Parador staff. A hotel maintenance man walked by, surprised to see a female with a spanner in her hand.

Rental car experiences here are building up our preference for how to travel. Not only are they void of cleaning, this car, and the previous, being downright dirty, I’ll add general looseness in terms of formality. The contrast, however, between Avis in Cuenca and Enterprise is hundreds of dollars. No more internet car rental bookings outside NZ again, and quite possibly, greater scrutiny of who’s to be trusted.

We find ourselves in rural Aragon now. Leaving Cuenca was like any town, a short term stress-fest for navigation and multi exit roundabouts. Via pretty Teruel where we spotted some very old buildings and history, the scenery changed from arid to irrigated green to rolling pine forest. A police car lay to the side of the carretera into Fuentespalda, no doubt taking a rest from crime fighting.

Rural life for a few days, then to the (hopefully swimmable) Mediterranean!

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