For many people, Andalucia conjures images of an exotic place, of Gypsy maidens dancing the flamenco in white-washed cave taverns, bullfighters resplendent in their flamboyant regalia for the ring, lush gardens in the ruins of old forts, misty baths in ornately decorated hammams, and a healthy dose of the Moorish culture of sensory indulgence.
As a travel destination, it is easily a top pick for tourists, particularly since Spain is one of the cheaper choices in Europe.
But for cyclists, the autonomous Andalucian region is one of the jewels of southern Spain, with miles and miles of undulating terrain, stunning landscapes spread across wide vistas as far as the eye can see, exquisite food from a diverse culinary heritage developed over centuries, and wonderfully warm people. With this in mind, Eka and myself set a target to fly ourselves there with our bicycles, to see if Andalucia lives up to all the hype.
The journey to Spain from Malaysia is a long one, involving at least a 15-hour flight before a connecting domestic flight to Granada, the starting point of our tour. Madrid is a cheaper flight than Barcelona or you could opt to fly to an airport in the south, but remember that a connecting flight is faster and easier than a bus or train ride.
Travelling with sports luggage also complicates matters, since the waiting line can be longer than for those without oversized baggage. All in all, travelling took almost a full day.
Either way, Granada was the perfect start for a tour of Andalucia. There, we spent a few days wandering the cobblestone streets and alleys of the Albaicin or Arab quarter, sampling the food in the Jewish quarter Realejo, watching flamenco in the Gypsy area of Sacromonte and of course exploring the majestic Alhambra and its grounds.
All these gave a wonderful insight into the land we were about to traverse by bike, following in the footsteps of those travelling these routes many centuries ago.
Covering more than 87,000 square km, Andalucia makes up 17% of Spain, too vast for our short tour. We opted for the heritage route - a journey southwest, stopping every night in a different city or town.
With the help of a company aptly named Cycling Country, we soon began our self-guided tour of the white villages of Andalucia, one of the most gruelling rides of my life. It did not occur to me at the time, that the tour operator for La Vuelta Espana would assume a moderate level of fitness among cyclists doing their tours.
Overall, the tour took 8 days in total, with a day each for exploration or rest in Granada, Antequera and Ronda. At approximately RM3,800 per head the price for our tour may seem a bit steep, particularly since it’s also the cost of the flight from KLIA to either Barcelona, Madrid or Seville. However, it’s well worth it considering the package.
Cycling Country equipped us properly with all the details of our journey - including the full route, distance, elevation gain, historical context - interesting things to spot and good places to stop for food, in addition to handling our luggage transfer, arranging our accommodation and providing an SOS line in case of emergencies.
Stage 1 Granada - Alhama
Featuring a mostly uphill 58km route battling headwinds and climbing up 930m, this was definitely an ominous warning for the road ahead. The day began innocently enough, riding parallel to Granada’s riverside cycling lane out of town through quiet villages and olive and fruit farms of the Genil Valley.
We skirted around Santa Fe, which was the seat of power for Christian monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand until they took possession of Alhambra in 1492. Interestingly enough, the city was also where their daughter Catherine of Aragon grew up, before she was sent off to marry Henry the VIII’s brother, and later the King himself.
We reached Lake Bermajales at sundown and continued naively up to Alhama, where the highlight was a terrifying few kilometres chased and tracked by a pack of shepherd guard dogs. Somehow we managed to reach the downhill section to the foot of the market town of Alhama, where Cycling Country co-founder Geoff helped ferry us the last 1km uphill to the rustic and charming La Seguiriya.
There, our room had a terrace overlooking a beautiful gorge and the bubbling Rio Alhama - a view I only managed to enjoy the next morning after a hearty dinner and a good night’s rest. Alhama itself is easily one of the more attractive towns in the Granada Province, nestled into the hillside amid a landscape peppered with vast poppy and wheat fields.
Historically it is also significant with Neolithic finds made there, a lasting impression from the Romans and the Moors from Africa, and eventually the conquest by the Christians.
Stage 2 Alhama - Colmenar
The 2nd day was an easier one for sure, going 47km mostly downhill but with a decent 654m of elevation overall. After swapping out my foldie for a much lighter loaner carbon road bike, we got a lift up the first hillclimb and enjoyed a nice start rolling downhill through the lovely switchbacks of Sierra de Alhama to the Zafarraya plains below, where goat and sheep herds are commonplace.
In the nearby hills is the Boquete rock formation, where the best preserved remains of a Neanderthal was found in Western Europe, dating back 30,000 years. This area was an important trade route for the caravans travelling between North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula during the Moorish Nasrid area. We continued south to the Malaga Province to explore Axarquia, where a peaceful and scenic countryside belies its violent past.
The area bore witness to massacres among Christians and Muslims during fighting in the 15th century, bandit and highwaymen attacks on travellers, and more recently the deaths of thousands of refugees and soldiers during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 - 1939.
We rode through the verdant almond, olive and fruit farmlands to and through Periana, as well as through wheat and barley fields. Afterwards, we passed through the Moorish town of Rio Gordo and its 16th century remains, before climbing to the Capital of the Mountains, Colmenar.
Stage 3 Colmenar - Antequera
After waking up with the beginnings of a cold, I opted out of a hard day of climbing by riding with our luggage to our third destination. Eka soldiered on alone, sending whatsapp updates whenever the spotty connectivity improved. The journey to Antequera was merely 52km, but with an elevation gain of more than 1,300m.
The first climbs of the day involving rolling hills and a steep ride up to the quaint town of Villanueva de la Concepcion for lunch and water refills, where Eka contemplated the next challenge ahead of him.
The town first inhabited by the Romans in 200BC is located at the foot of El Torcal, and the road up to it is only a hint of what you will face heading up to the national park. For those who follow La Vuelta Espana, the journey from Colmenar to Antequera is the exact same route as Stage 12 of the 2017 edition of the race.
After a somewhat relentless uphill climb out of Villanueva de la Concepcion, there is a brief flat section at Puenta Del Torcal where you can skip the extra sufferfest and continue straight on to Antequera. Eka opted for the several miles of brutal climbing to the spectacular El Torcal Park, resplendent in its karst rock forms or limestone sculpted by the forces of nature.
After an ice cream reward at the top, it was a pure 20km downhill ride through some hairpin switchbacks, eventually arriving at Antequera, which has Europe’s most important megalithic complex, Roman and Moorish ruins, beautiful churches from different centuries, a bull ring and of course, lovely food.
If you come during the Holy Week in the Christian calendar, you’ll also be able to see religious processions whose traditions date back to medieval times.
Stage 4 Antequera - Ardales
After a day of rest and exploration around Antequera, cycling 48km didn’t sound too bad even with the nearly 900m of elevation. We cycled up out of the town, crossing the rolling plains towards Valle de Abdalajis and continued climbing through orange and lemon tree country, amid yet more gorgeous views.
But the best was yet to come, as we descended upon the Rio Guadalhorce, whose raw beauty was barely marred by the accompanying hydro-electrical projects. It was the perfect place for lunch and a sangria or two if you’re so inclined, with a cool breeze to go with the stunning views of the azure waters.
Before leaving we stopped to take in the sights at the Garganta del Chorro gorge, a cleft in the limestone walls carved over hundreds of years by the river. We had originally planned to do the Camino del Ray hike to walk the same path of Spain’s King Alfonso XIII when the dam was officially opened in 1921, but a scheduling snafu meant a raincheck was in order.
After some more spectacular scenery overlooking the Embalse del Conde de Guadalhorce lake, we reached tranquil Ardales after climbing up the Sierra de la Pizzarra, cheered on by some local villagers over the steep inclines.
Like the rest of the towns along our tour, the small hillside town has its own Iberian, Roman, Copper-aged and Neolithic remains, Baroque churches in addition to the staple Moorish alzacar or castle. It is a sight to behold as you arrive, particularly if bathed in the golden hour light when we reached the foot of the town.
Stage 5 Ardales - Ronda
The final stage of the tour was 50km with more than 1,100m of climbing, but also allowed us to immerse ourselves in peaceful countryside, much like the previous day. Apprehensive about the mountain range before the end of our route, we left bright and early to have a nice morning climbing past olive and almond groves as well as pinewood forests. The area is a nature park reserve, and the unique species of pine gives the air a truly wonderful scent.
After crossing a Puente Roman or bridge we reached the small village of El Burgo ahead of lunchtime, and had to make do with bread and cheese. A group of French travellers at the next table marvelled at our chosen route as we ate, asking us pointedly: “You are masochists, no?” I ruefully realised that they’d just come from the direction we were heading towards.
The road went through the lush Sierra de las Nieves Natural Park, home to some colourful bandoleros or bandits of the past. After a brutal climb during which I could barely enjoy the landscape of raw and jagged limestone formations, we reached the peak at Puerto del Viento (Doorway of wind).
It was then blissfully downhill almost all the way, past fields, vineyards and the remains of a 4th century Roman aqueduct, to the historic city of Ronda, our final destination. Exhausted but exhilarated, it was the perfect end to our Andalucia tour, what with breathtaking views from the old town perched at the edge of the canyon, in the middle of the Serrania de Ronda mountain range.
At this point I always ask myself would I do it again? Most definitely. After I’ve trained up a bit more though!