Tuesday, May 13, 2014

And so the tour ends

The Statistics:
                Miles cycled: 354.99
                Total climbing: 27,855 feet (per Strava)
                Time on the bike: 31.5 hours
                Nights sleeping in caves: 1
                Olives eaten: ~654

In a fitting and rewarding manner, our 2014 Tour of Andalusia came to a conclusion this morning with a guided tour of the Alhambra. Ignacio, our guide met us at the entrance (after our long uphill walk) and gave us an overview before we entered.
Construction of the Alhambra began in the year 1237. It remained the site of the palaces of the Nasarid dynasty (Muslim) until it was surrendered to the Catholic monarchs in 1492, following which it was expanded as more palaces and gardens were built. Much of the original Moorish architecture remains, however, and the splendor is awe-inspiring.

I had not realized that Washington Irving was in residence at the Alhambra for a while. I am now adding his “Tales of the Alhambra” to my reading list.

Before the Alhambra visit, we had breakfast together and began our process of saying goodbye. Rick was the first to leave – he is driving the bikes back to ExperiencePlus headquarters in Italy. Kathleen and Manfred made complex arrangements to have their luggage picked up at the hotel and for the driver to meet them at the conclusion of the Alhambra visit. They will be back in New York this evening. Jane and Charlie are taking a train to Madrid tonight before flying on from there. Susan, Ron and I will fly from Granada to Madrid tomorrow (different flights) and on to San Francisco (again, different flights), arriving in the Bay area Wednesday evening. Philipp is reuniting with his family here in Granada before moving on to his next assignment. I had the  pleasure of meeting his wife and two year old daughter yesterday afternoon.

We were fortunate to have had good weather, although on the hot side, for the entire tour. The great company made it an especially fine tour – Thank you Philipp, Rick, Kathleen and Manfred, Jane and Charlie, Susan and Ron. I hope to ride with all of you again.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Last Day of Riding – Into Granada

I have pretty much run out of superlatives as I have described the cycling and the food on this trip. So I will summarize today’s ride as “perfect.”
We awoke from a peaceful night in our caves, with several people remarking about how quiet it was. (For me, every night is quiet since I simply take out my hearing aids.) Cave dwelling is quite common in this region, in large part because the caves maintain a constant temperature of about 62 degrees, eliminating the need for air-conditioning, although some heating is required in the winter.  Some of the caves have elaborate facades on the outside, so that they look like standard homes, and as you cycle through the region, you see television antennas on top of all the mounds in which the caves are located.

After a good breakfast, we set out on a short ride with some climbing before lunch, and a nice descent to Granada after a wonderful picnic. The climbing was easy, made more enjoyable by the constantly changing scenery and the cool temperatures – and real trees that provided shade. Just after cresting the hill we some professional Spanish cyclists (team Lotto Belisol) training for the upcoming season.
Right after seeing these riders, we regrouped for our picnic. Philipp and Rick had put out a really great spread with enough food for twice as many people as we actually had. We all ate our fill at a leisurely pace and then continued the descent for the remaining 10 miles or so into Granada. City traffic was a bit hectic, but we all made it into the hotel with ease.
Before I had a chance to complete this blog post, we all got together for the festivities of our final evening. We started off with a visit to a small shop and had a tasting of two hams – a serrano, and a top quality Iberico. We all agreed that the Iberico was far superior
We then walked, mostly uphill, through the old quarters of the city with Philipp providing expert commentary. From our high vantage point, we had an excellent view of the Alhambra, which we will visit tomorrow. We had the usual, lengthy, dinner at Mirador de Morayma, a large restaurant with many indoor and outdoor seating areas. We ate outdoors, with great views of the Alhambra as the sun set over it.

As the day draws to a close, I will post this, and then tomorrow afternoon after my sightseeing, I will do a wrap up post on this year’s cycling/dining/sightseeing experience in Andalucia, Spain. By the way, today's pictures are from the iPhone, since the camera that fell in the water is still drying out.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Ubeda to Benalua de Gaudix

Read on to find out why I am sleeping in a cave tonight.

But first, a few words about last night's supper. I joined Ron and Susan, Kathleen and Manfred for a light supper of shared dishes at an outdoor cafe. At 8 pm, we were the first ones there, but it filled up rather quickly and we shared several excellent plates, including a complimentary starter of a tortilla wrapped egg and potato salad, a green salad with duck ham, some fish that we don't remember ordering, and a paella-type "arroz con mariscos." We stopped for frozen yogurt as we walked back to the hotel.

A little stop along the way
We left Ubeda this morning for what I think was the most pleasant day of riding this trip. It was long -- about 65 miles -- and it had a lot of climbing -- more than 5000 feet -- but the weather was perfect, the roads were good, the traffic very light, the hills weren't steep, and we finally left the olive trees behind!. Olive trees aren't that bad, but you do get tired of seeing nothing but olive trees, day after day.

We stopped for a light lunch about 12:30, and I took  half my sandwich with me  to finish after ending the ride. It was about eighty degrees at that time, and we had a slight breeze.

Ron had been feeling sick for a couple of days, but was able to ride some today. Unfortunately, Kathleen seems to have come down with the same bug, so she was on the sidelines today.

Our lodgings tonight are inside caves -- literally. But they are superb! Starting from the far reaches of my cave, there is the bathroom, then the bedroom, then a living room and kitchenette, and finally a patio of my own, complete with table and chairs.Each unit is really a nice suite, with excellent WiFi right in the room.
Our hotel, Cuevas la Granja
My cave bedroom
My cave sitting room
There is a pool; which I will remember forever. After arrival, I immediately headed for the pool and had a very refreshing dip. After a few more minutes of sun, I headed back to my cave. Almost there, I realized that I had lost my key. So, I returned to the pool and while looking for the key, dropped my camera in the pool (now you know why I will remember it forever). I quickly retrieved the camera, removed battery and memory card and, with the help of always-at-the-ready Rick and Phillipp, put the camera in a bag of rice to dry out. It may well be a lost cause, but fortunately I haven't lost any pictures from this trip because they have all been transferred to the laptop (and the memory card, at least, still works). I have my iPhone to use for pictures for the remaining part of the trip, although I will give the camera a try before we head for the Alhambra on Tuesday. That, of course, will be one of the highlights of the trip. (By the way, I did find the key.)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Rest day in Ubeda

Today was a relaxing visit to the UNESCO sites of Renaissance Architecture of Úbeda. We started with a group visit to the “sinagoga del agua,” mentioned briefly in the previous post. It consists of the remains of what is believed to have been an ancient Jewish Synagogue. Several remains of the ancient synagogue have been discovered, such as the entrance door, some stone works, and other religious symbols, and, most importantly, seven interconnected wells and the ritual bath.

Next was a fascinating visit to the workshops of a famous ceramicist/artist ,”Tito,” (Juan Martinez Villacañas). The artist himself, an extremely personable man, conducted the first part of the visit. (Rick did the translating.) Then his son, who is following the family tradition, did some demonstrations of producing various objects on the wheel, before taking us through the remaining parts of the workshop. A huge variety of handmade ceramic objects are on display, available for purchase (except for the antique, museum quality, of which there are many.)

A particularly unique piece was the “birthing stool,” once commonly used and now making a comeback with the vogue of natural birth methods.

We were on our own for the rest of the day. This weekend, Úbeda is celebrating “the crosses of May,” a fiesta which was celebrated throughout most of Spain, last Monday, but which is being celebrated here for three days this weekend. It is a particularly quiet fiesta, but there are eight different sites around town where local parishes/neighborhoods have erected crosses (mostly made of flowers) and set up booths where food, beer and other beverages are sold. (When I woke at two this morning and looked out the window, the fiesta immediately below was still in full swing, but very quiet.)

Speaking of fiestas, the lobby of our hotel has been taken over today for the celebration of the first communion of “Pedro.” It is as elaborate as a wedding reception back home. Which reminds me of a sign that a saw yesterday.  Strung across the main street of a small village that we cycled through was a banner which read, “Por fin, la boda de Alfonzo y Alfonza.”  This morning, I verified the accuracy of my translation – the sign said “Finally, the wedding of Alfonzo and Alfonza.”  Apparently, they took a very long time deciding to tie the knot! Felicitaciones!

For lunch today, I stopped in one of the many cafes in town and decided to order from the “menu del dia.” Feeling brave, I ordered as my first course “Andrajos” Úbeda style, even though I had no idea what it was, except that the menu said it was a typical dish of the region. It was a seafood based broth with lots of vegetables, and a main ingredient that I couldn’t place, except that it seemed bread-like. It turns out that is exactly what it was – bread dough cooked in the broth. It was quite flavorful.

The second course was “albondigas” (meatballs), probably of veal, with a Roquefort based sauce and some very good potatoes. I topped it all off with more “natillas,” this time an orange flavored version of this custard dish.

After lunch, I walked around the small center of the ancient city, and then returned to the hotel to take a short siesta, getting away from the evening heat. We will have a group meeting this evening, to discuss tomorrow’s ride, and then be on our own for dinner. 

Jaen to Ubida

Saturday, morning, sitting on the pavement by last night's restaurant, where I can access the WiFi :)

It is five o’clock on Friday afternoon in Úbeda, and I am unable to post this to my blog immediately because I am having trouble connecting the laptop to the internet. I am puzzled about this, since the phone connects perfectly. It turns out that others are having the same problem – some devices connect and others won’t.
After posting yesterday’s entry, I took a tour of the ancient castle located at the end of our Parador. I only had thirty minutes for this very interesting self-guided tour, because Phillipp had scheduled a “sherry tasting” for our group. Actually, the wines presented were not Sherries, but “Montillas,” another type of fortified wine from Spain. Phillipp did the presentation, and was a fountain of information – as he is on just about every subject that comes up on our tours (All seven of us have been with Phillipp on the Camino de Sanitago, as well as this tour).
Following this, we adjourned to dinner in the dining room of the Parador. The first course was ajo blanco, the white garlic soup that we had tried previously. Having had an olive tasting a few days ago, we applied our expertise to judging the two olive oils on the table to accompany the bread.
The next course was a choice of confit of duck (which I had, and which was excellent), and a presentation of cod.  Dessert was a flan, with an accompaniment of lemon ice – an unusual pairing, but it worked well.
This morning, we had breakfast in the Parador and were on the road by 9:30. The first part of the trip was the steep downhill that was yesterday’s final climb. (Look back in the photo taken from outside the city, and you can see what that climb was really like.) Then we had to negotiate rush hour traffic in Jaen which was not the most pleasant riding, but not difficult. Then we had the first of two long climbs today. The payoff was worth it, with an easy descent that went on for miles and miles through the olive groves with nary a car to be seen.

Finally, another climb up to our destination, the monumental city of Úbeda. Toward the end, we had some rough road, followed by cobblestone paving in the town. After dropping off my bike at the hotel, I headed off for lunch with Manfred and had a deliciously cold gazpacho, followed by grilled tuna topped with some grilled sweet onions.

We are on our own until dinner this evening. We will be in Úbeda two days, with tomorrow being a rest day. We have some scheduled sightseeing, including a visit to the workshop of a celebrated ceramic artist, and a stop at the “Sinagoga de aguas,” the site of what could be an ancient Jewish synagogue and its ritual bath (“mikvah”). After that, we will be on our own.

Saturday morning – still no WiFi access.at the hotel.

Friday night’s dinner was elaborate and excellent. As usual, we opened the restaurant at 8:30 pm. First, were the platters of finger food to be shared. I can’t remember all, but they included a sheep’s cheese, salsichon (a cured dried salami-type sausage), chorizo, and Iberian ham. Then came a pate of sea scorpion accompanied by a creamy sauce of sea urchin roe, followed by some delicious grilled white and green asaparagus. There were four options for the main course: baked hake, seared tuna, entrecote, or “caudillo” (pork elbow). Manfred and I had the tuna (for the second time in one day). Unfortunately, it was way too salty for our taste. I tasted Phillipp’s caudillo, and it was excellent. Dessert was a small piece of flan accompanied by a wonderful raspberry sherbert (that unusual pairing, again.)

Breakfast was supposed to start at 7:30. I was the first one down, and they weren’t really ready until about 8. Although I wasn’t very hungry, I enjoyed the attentive service and took my time. No need to worry about getting ready for a day of cycling.

Friday, May 9, 2014

WiFi problems today

I can't connect my computer to the Wi-Fi today, so I am doing this brief post by email. Today was somewhat similar to yesterday, with pleasant long down hills, some steep climbs, about 50 miles total distance.
We are now in the town of Ubeda, and will stay here for two days.

I will type up a more detailed posting, and put it on the blog when I have an available Wi-Fi connection.

After arrival here, I had a great lunch of chilled gazpacho soup and grilled tuna. It hit the spot after the long ride.

Sent from my iPhone 5
Guy Cunningham

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Zuheros to Jaen

Today was another great day of and for cycling. The weather was pleasantly cool at the outset (mid-sixties), and even when the sun came out, it wasn't as hot as it has been. Of course, we did have sun when we finished today's ride with the steepest climb of the trip so far. Total climbing today was nearly 5000 feet.

Endless olive groves

From last night's hotel, we immediately got on the "greenway" -- a "rails to trails" multipurpose path for walkers and cyclists, that was reasonably level. That led to a nice long descent -- not very steep or technical, but just pleasant coasting.

Of course, what goes down, must go up, and we had our share of climbs as well. I stopped for coffee about an hour into the ride, and was joined by our guide Rick, while several other cyclists in the group pedaled on by. We joined them in the next town, and I stopped for a diet Coke (why do stick to that, when I am eating these huge meals?). Refreshed, we headed on down the road with a relatively short climb and then another long descent.

We convened for lunch at a pleasant cafe about six or seven miles from the end of the ride. I ordered the fixed price menu again, starting off with an excellent green salad. Like most of the green salads I have seen on this trip, this one had some tuna and some hard-boiled eggs. It was dressed with a balsamic reduction. The next course was a stew of pork in a  tomato broth. It was good,, but I didn't need that much heavy food, so I only sampled it, saving room for dessert. This was a fig flan -- I never heard of this before, but it was really tasty. It was almost like a mousse, rather than a custard, but there were lots of figs in it.

We didn't have much further to go, but had been warned that the finale would be a steep climb, and that the shuttle was available for those who didn't wish to tackle the hill in the heat after a nice lunch.  Who would admit to that? Although it was push, it wasn't that difficult, except for the last 50 meters (a lot like the final push on Mt. Diablo, for those of you familiar with that ride).

Anyway, it was worth it, because our lodging tonight is in the Parador Santa Catalina -- a genuine old castle that has been turned into an inn.  Paradors in Spain are cultural/architectural treasures that would probably go  to ruin for want of financial support, had the government not stepped in and turned them into first class hotels. We stayed in a few on the Camino trip two years ago.
Approaching Parador Santa Catalina
View from my room

My room

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Cordoba to Zuheros -- the hills of Andalucia

There are nearly 200 million olive trees in Spain. I though that I had seen all but a dozen or so today, but it turns out that there will be even more tomorrow. This is the heart of the olive growing region in Spain, the world's largest producer of olive oil.

To start at the end, tonight we are staying in a delightful place outside the town of Zuheros that has been converted from an old olive mill. We will have an olive oil tasting this evening.

Zuheros is a center of olive oil production, and has its own "determination of origin" meaning that all of the olive oil coming from the area must meet specific and rigorous requirements for both cultivation of the olive and its processing




into oil.

Because the only feasible bike route out of Cordoba is in very bad shape, we shuttled out the first 20 kilometers or so, before getting on the bikes. The first 30 kilometers, in the cool of the morning, was quite flat. The wheat and barley fields gradually gave way to olive groves until we could see nothing but olive trees. From the town where we started, it was a full 30 km to the next town, with only a half dozen farm buildings in between.

The next 30 kilometers was the same, except that it was almost all uphill, and the temperature had climbed into the nineties. And, of course, there was no shade. I drank lots and lots of water.

We hit a small town and a lunch stop about a mile from this evening's destination. There are seven cyclists on this trip (plus two guides). Except for Charlie, who had ridden ahead, the rest of us stopped with Phillip for a long leisurely outdoor lunch. We were under a roof, so we cooled off nicely. Most of us ordered "the menu," with a choice of one of four first courses and one of four main plates, plus dessert and beverage. I started with a refreshingly cool seafood salad, followed by a grilled pork chop (excellent), with ice cream for dessert. Including an extra diet coke, the bill was less than 10 Euros!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Tuesday in Cordoba

Susan, Ron, Kathleen and Manfred
It turns out that no one opted for the optional bike ride today. In fact, when asked, Philipp told me that no one ever opts for the bike ride on the "rest day" in Cordoba. There is just so much to see and do in this city of so many contrasts.

Calle de Las Fflores
We met in the lobby of the hotel at 9 am with our guide for the morning, Isabel.  She was fantastic -- a knowledgeable and personable expert in her city, with a passion for sharing. Our hotel is in the Juderia district, the old Jewish Quarter of Cordoba. We started with a brief visit to the ancient Sinagoga, and proceeded through the narrow twisting streets of the quarter toward the Mezquita. Along the way, we stopped at Calles de Las Flores, a street with even more flowers than most of the streets we pass through.

The Mezquita (the Spanish word for mosque) is also referred to as the Cathedral (which occupies the central portion). One's perspective influences which name you choose to give it. The site was originally a Visigoth church, and later (sixth century), the San Vicente Basilica. Following the Islamic invasion of Cordoba, construction of the mosque began in the year 785. The mosque was (and still is) so huge, that at could accommodate 18,000 people at one time.

Following the Christian reconquest of Cordoba, the present Cathedral was built in the very center of the Mosque. 

After this visit was concluded, we were on our own for the rest of the day. Since this is the festival of the patios, I visited several of the homes with patios open to visitors. They are generally small, perhaps 30 or 40 feet on a side, but filled with immense quantities of beautifully arranged flowering plants. There are six different routes to follow to visit all of the open patios. I visited several on three of the different itineraries, wandering through the city.

After the patios closed for the afternoon siesta, I had a light lunch of chilled tomato gazpacho and a Flamenqin (ham and pork tightly rolled, breaded, and deep fried). Delicious, and not quite as light as I anticipated, so I took a 45 minute siesta myself and then visited the beautiful gardens of the Alcazar (another of Spain's royal palaces).

After a brief meeting to discuss tomorrow's ride, I resume the patio crawl. I happened to come across a religious procession, which appeared to be a celebration of the first communion of several students. The procession was quite large, with the whole school participating.

I was still not terribly hungry, but I waited until 8:30 for El Churrasco, a recommended restaurant,

o open. I was the first patron, but with ten minutes, there were several others who also wished to dine "early." This restaurant is known for its generous servings of meat and fish, but I opted for a selection of three different tapas. The first was deep fried green chiles (similar to serrano peppers); the second was ham croquettes, and the third was a small portion of Hungarian goulash which was nicely seasoned. I finished with a typical Cordoban pastry and an espresso.