Route type: Coast to coast, south to north
Route: Faro – Seville – Merida – Cáceres – Salamanca – Zamora – Astorga – León – Oviado – Gijon
Date: 25th March to 30th April 2018 (35 days)
Distance: 807 miles 1299 kilometres
This was a fairly long trip that involved us riding six distinct off-road paths to take us from the south to the north of the Iberian peninsula. I have split our account of this journey into five separate sections as this will be easier for anyone wanting to try a shorter section of the route.
You can read it as one continuous story simply continuing below or use this links list to jump to a section that is more relevant to you.
Part 1: Faro to Seville – 272km – 5 days – Ecovia (Portugal) and ViaVerde (Spain) (see below)
Part 1: Faro to Seville – 272km – 5 days – Ecovia path (Portugal) and ViaVerde route (Spain)
In late March 2018 we began our attempt to cross Spain off road from coast-to-coast, south to north by flying to the nearest available budget airport – Faro in Portugal. Having flown into this airport a year before we knew what to expect – a well-equipped bike assembly area and a nearby beach for wild camping. Unlike the previous year I opted to forego the bike boxes and wrap our bikes in plastic bags instead. All that it was necessary was turn the handlebars, remove the pedals, lower the saddle and let the tyres down a bit. While this might look like a cavalier approach to the safe transportation of our precious bikes, I had been assured that doing so would make them less likely to suffer damage from airport handling. When a bike is in a box it tends to be placed flat on a luggage trolley with all the other heavy luggage piled on top. This runs the risk of damage to the frame, derailleur, drop-out and more, whereas when bikes are in bags they are an awkward shape for the baggage handlers to deal with and so are carried more carefully and placed on top of all the cases.
We arrived into Faro airport late at night in the middle of a fierce gale and cross-wind that provided the roughest landing I have ever known. As we slammed onto the tarmac most of the children started wailing and quite a few adults too – the rest were gasping and looking around with panicked expressions on their faces. I thought we had blown a tyre, but the cabin crew were quite relaxed about it all – just a very rough landing. We got our bikes assembled fairly quickly and headed to the coast. Pitching a tent on loose sand in a gale at 2am proved an interesting experience, one that Joe will hopefully be able to draw upon in later life if he is ever in need of evidence that things could be worse. Still, waking up by the sea the next morning made it all worth it. After a long, harsh Scottish winter we were immensely relieved to have found some warmth and sunshine and so delayed the start of our cycle to spend the day and another night at the beach soaking up the rays.
Heading off in an easterly direction the next day we hoped to pick up the Ecovia cycle path, (part of Eurovelo 1) running east-west across the Algarve. We had cycled some of this path the previous year when we had turned westward from Faro towards Cabo de Sao Vicente. We found this impossible to identify until we were well clear of Faro, which meant we only rode a short distance that day, most of which was on stressfully busy roads.
As evening fell we had some difficulty finding a wild camping spot due to the abundance of barky dogs that were tied up outside Portuguese houses. Just about every house has one, and if you camp too close to one they will, (as well as giving the game away as to your presence) literally bark all night long, ensuring that you get no sleep at all. It was dark by the time we found somewhere – in slight desperation we put up our tent on a field access track, only to find next morning that it led to an idyllic glade that seemed to function as a sort of community campground with fire pit, seats so on that would have made an ideal spot for us. The best wild-camping spot is always 50m further on than the one you settle for when you are tired late at night.
Where we camped…..
Where we should have camped……
On the second day we found the Ecovia path which took us across the coastal salt pans and made good progress towards Spain in spite of 25c temperatures. I got eaten alive by mosquitoes – even in the middle of the day, but they seemed not to like Joe as much.
We stopped to admire a wonderful old German campervan from 1964.
Joe had fun filling our water bottles from this irrigation pump. The water was very slightly salty but it kept us going til we reached fresher water.
Joe discovered how wonderful raw salt tastes …….
There are a lot of campervans in the Algarve at this time of the year and we later found a friendly bunch to camp amongst for the night. They gave us some water and charged my phone for me, which helped us a great deal. If you are in a campervan and see touring cyclists please see if you can offer them some help like this. It is usually easily given and can make a great deal of difference to cyclists making their way with basic facilities.
The signs on the Ecovia path are interestingly low-key.
Often they are just a small yellow arrow sticker placed on bins and other street furniture. You need to keep your wits about you to make sure you stay on the route.
On the third day we reached the Guadiana river which forms the border between Spain and Portugal. We were taken on the short journey across the border by this little ferry.
Our goal once in Spain was to get to Seville as quickly as possible from where we could pick up the Ruta via del Plata which would take us much of the way north to the coast. Fortunately one of Spain’s ViaVerde or green routes seemed to offer us the perfect off-road path directly there. It all started out very well………..
But it quickly became sandy….
…..and then completely flooded. The path had an air of neglect about it – there were no signs at all and the flooding appeared to have come from irrigation run-off from the surrounding greenhouses which made me think it would be like that for much of the year. Large sections were completely overgrown with brambles and nettles and our path was frequently blocked by rubbish and other obstacles.
We abandoned the path and took to the road instead. Thankfully it was quiet, with a wide hard shoulder we could ride on.
We found some interesting road-kill along the way – a bit of Googling provided the answer that this was a mongoose.
We passed the walled city of Niebla…
….and stumbled across the Easter parade at La Palma de Condado. After being one of many tourists in the Algarve, it was nice to find ourselves the only non-locals at the event. Joe asked lots of questions about religion and Catholicism, so I marked that down as a successful home-ed RE lesson.
The downside to seeing the ‘real’ Spain as we moved away from the coast was that we had to adhere to the strict rules regarding the serving of hot food – this is available at only two times a day – from 12-2 in the afternoon and from 9pm to 11pm in the evening. Between these hours everywhere including the supermarkets shut down for a long siesta, so we found ourselves frequently hungry and frustrated at not being able to eat to refuel ourselves. It’s hard to time your arrival at towns along the way to coincide with opening hours. Being starving and empty at 6pm and being told that we would have to wait til 9pm for even a burger and chips was tough to deal with. Our luggage set-up is such that we can’t carry a large amount of food and so we often ran out – a large meal at lunchtime didn’t really sit well with cycling all afternoon. 9pm was too late for us to be eating as it was getting dark then – that was the time we should have been setting up our tent somewhere away from town, having eaten well in a town beforehand. I would love to say that we found a solution to this, but it was a problem that dogged us all the way across Spain and was one of the major challenges of the journey.
On this occasion Joe was so hungry at lunchtime having not eaten much the night before that he went back for seconds. Teenage boys need a lot of fuel. It slowed him down a bit in the afternoon. Food in Spain was pretty cheap and whenever possible we took advantage of the Menu del Dia which at 8-10 Euro for a three-course set meal was enough food to feed two people.
Rush hour traffic on the dusty back roads.
It’s hard to explain, but making your way to the river’s edge under your own steam then waiting on the riverbank for the ferryman to take you safely across so that you can continue your journey the other side is somehow rich in the romance of travel. People have been doing this for millennia. We take these little ferries wherever possible and they usually only cost a couple of Euro. I absolutely love them. This is the ferry at Coria del Rio.
After giving up on the ViaVerde path I told Google maps to show us a route to Seville that didn’t involve motorways and the like. This involved going across country on an endless sequence of dusty back roads, most of which had frequent sandy sections that we had to push the bikes through. While beautiful in places, it was frustratingly slow and quite tough going, but we still managed to put 80km under our wheels to make it to a campsite just outside Seville before nightfall on the fifth day.