After five days of riding, I have completed the journey from Beja Portugal to Seville, Spain. The ride to Seville was wonderful. I encountered more interesting people, saw some beautiful scenery, and had the opportunity to recover more from my seizure to the point that I can now say that I am once again healthy. During the journey to Seville, I camped or otherwise stayed in the towns of Serpa, Aroche, Las Pajanosas. I also spent one night camped along the side of the road, not really close to any town in particular, before arriving in Las Pajanosas.
Serpa involved camping at the local Parque de Campismo, or essentially an RV park which also allows tent camping. I was sort of excited to try this out, because the Parque de Campismo in Serpa is located just outside of town – in other words, the only thing that separates it from an entire street full of houses, people walking around, street lights, cars driving by, etc. is a chain link fence with three rows of barbed wire on top of it. For some reason the barbed wire is overhanging inward – as though at any moment the town of Serpa may feel inclined to close the gates of the Parque de Campismo and quarantine its inhabitants – just in case. I took my chances, paid the Euro3.50 admission to get in, and pitched my tent right next to the fence so that I could say hi to pedestrians, hear people coughing in houses across the street, and otherwise enjoy an urban camping experience which is fairly rare in my travels. My tent was underneath one of two large red brick archways which sheltered it entirely from the rain which began at about 3a.m. – it sounded very faint on the bricks overhead. I felt cozy in the tent.
Aroche was the only place along the road to Seville where I did not camp. Instead, I stayed with two brothers, Celestino and Antonio, one of whom I met outside the local grocery store. Celestino was happy to offer me a place to stay in their tiny three story apartment. “Tiny” and “3 story” sound as though they are at odds with each other, but if you saw the apartment, you would understand what I mean. In Aroche, where everything is built on remarkably steep inclines, and where cobble stone streets are as steep as the most sketchy ski runs I’ve ever descended, it is not uncommon to see situations like this. People built upward rather than outward. The apartment shared by Celestino and Antonio is a humble place, just wide enough on the first floor to accommodate a queen size bed shared by the two brothers, big enough on the second floor (which has no lighting, and is completely dark at all times of day) to accommodate a dining room table, and big enough on the third floor to accommodate a tiny attic. I did not visit the attic.
My experience in Aroche was incredible. I had crossed the border into Spain earlier that day, and then taken the turn off for Aroche at around 6p.m that evening as things were getting dark. As you have probably gathered by now, Aroche is steep everywhere, and this characteristic of its nature defines existence there: it makes rooms small, engines loud, people nervous (or me at least – I think that it has an effect on everyone though). Aroche is about 2 kilometers from the main highway which connects Seville with Portugal – that’s my perspective of the world at this point anyway – so I decided to climb the 1.5Km and see what Aroche had to offer. I saw businesses tucked into little niches on these streets, a hardened populace wandering and driving around through them, and a spectacular sunset going on as I arrived. As I travel around I kind of have the continuing point of view that not many things are going to surprise me, and typically my expectation holds true even as I go to new places – people usually act as I expect them to and cities usually look as I expect them to. However, Aroche was a surprise. I couldn’t believe where I was standing as I walked its streets. 20 and perhaps 25 degree cobble stone streets that cars and pedestrians were struggling to navigate, stores with fully stocked shelves selling everything you might need to live, brightly lit bars selling beer, wine and cigarettes overflowing with people on this Friday night, filled with either laughter or hecklers depending the scene, school children walking past talking about their grades, and all of it normal in a way.
When I see a particularly unique or impressive place, it gets logged in my brain along with other unique places – among them Torres Del Paine, my home mountains, the Wind River Range – and I wonder if Aroche will be among those places? Difficult to say. But I felt some of the excitement in Aroche that I have not felt since experiencing the Winds or Torres Del Paine for the first time, which was exciting. Only time will tell how much of an impression it really left, but at the moment I arrived I saw something new and different, which was great. After a cup of coffee and a pastry with Celestino and Antonio the following morning, I was once again on my way, on the road to Seville.
The riding between the small towns along highway N-433 (I believe that is the name of the highway that runs east/west from the Portuguese border toward Seville) is wonderful. There are too many small towns to count, each with beautiful red tile roofs and great small coffee shops which double as beer parlors, and each with an abundant supply of goats, pigs, chickens, and cattle outside and within the town limits – always denoted by easy to read signs. When entering a town or a city in Portugal or Spain, there is almost always a sign, with white background and black lettering, displaying the town’s name; when leaving the town, there is a similar sign, the only difference being that there is a diagonal red line running through the name of the town, similar to a no-smoking sign.
As I neared Seville, I began to notice along the highway, in addition to the usual flow of cars, trucks, horse drawn carts, and other traffic that I had become accustomed to, a large number of motorcycles. Everything from Harley Davidsons to Ducati crotch rockets to little moped type scooters. I happened to be about 70Km from Seville on a Saturday, which put me in prime recreational motorcycle territory. I was amazed by the number of really expensive looking BMWs, and crotch rockets which were out rolling around in groups of 2, 3, 4 or more. It was particularly common to see couples in their 40s and 50s, both fully decked out in leather/plastic/graphite/plexiglass armor rolling around curves at alarming speeds (and at similarly alarming noise levels) as I was rolling around at my usual 11Mph – still haven’t converted my computer to the metric system. My bike has no engine, and it’s still running on standard measurements. Another Luddite from the USA. Common story here I suppose. So it seems that where in Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, and South Carolina, it might be common to witness couples in their retirement enjoying a leisurely cruise through the hills in an RV, it would appear that in Spain, couples retire and go for terrifying races through the mountains on fast motorcycles. Of course, I saw people of all ages out there too – but I also noticed people old enough to be retirees, which I thought was interesting. Perhaps the inclination to ride motorcycles is a result of gas prices. Perhaps Spaniards have simply realized that the highways here with their smooth pavement and rolling hills are better used as racetracks than as herd paths for RVs. My friend Isidro, who has lived in Spain his entire life, and who is putting me up for a few days in Seville, points out the proud tradition of Spanish motorcycle racing in which there have been many champions to emerge from Spain.
Whatever the reason, it was interesting for me to witness, if only for a couple of days, the culture of fast motorcycles that exists in the hills outside of Seville wherein all of these people get on their bikes, weave through the other vehicles on the road from café to café, and then, presumably, return to the city where they lead lives as bankers, doctors, contractors, shop owners, retirees or whatever else it is they do to do to afford the machines they have and the costumes they wear. My impression of crotch rocket culture in the USA is that most riders are in their early 20s or 30s, and that, if they have a girlfriend or a child, the helmet usually gets worn awkwardly by the other rider. This is not the case in Spain – here it seems that both riders get full leather costumes, helmets, boots, etc. Pretty cool. The scene has developed quite a bit more here – or perhaps it is just more high class. Enough on motorcycles though – this is a story about a bicycle, and living active lifestyles with epilepsy. Not rolling around with an engine.
Europe is becoming an exciting place to me. I have arrived in Seville, where my Uncle Paul’s Wife’s Sister Carmen’s sister Patricia and her husband Isidro have an apartment, where they live with their two children Olivia and Louis. The family lives in a beautiful neighborhood of the city called San Bernardo, and it has been fun hanging out for the past day since I arrived. Seville is a somewhat hectic city from a transportation point of view, although I only witnessed one car/motorcycle crash during my ride into town. It was a minor fender bender in which a motorcycle and a small car were both turning right, the motorcycle ran out of space, bumped into the car, both vehicles stopped, profanities were exchanged, and I kept on moving not wanting to get too involved.
There is a well-developed cycling culture in Seville which seems to center around a green bicycle path that runs along the sidewalks of various streets of the city – I say green because it is literally painted green. There are hundreds of bicycles pedaling to and fro all around the city, there are many times that number of mopeds zipping around, and a similar number of motorcycles, which all made an impression. Also worth pointing out is a system of free bicycles which the city has made available all around the city. Every half-kilometer or so, there is a bike rack with about ten bicycles on it which pedestrians can rent for free by swiping a credit card (as liability) if they feel the desire to be converted from pedestrians into cyclists. The bikes are cruisers with lights front and rear, and it is possible to rent a bike from one rack and return it to another rack. The first 30 minutes are free…don’t even know why there are still pedestrians really.
Seville has a nearly-complete array of vehicles moving around on its streets: cars, trucks, bikes, trains, motorcycles, mopeds, horse-drawn carriages, taxis, etc. Presumably as I get further East on this tour (the cities of Asia) the cities will become increasingly insane from a transportation point of view, although Seville has a satisfyingly crazy scene. Riding around town on my touring bike and cruising through the round-abouts (“Rotundas”) is excitement enough for me on pretty much any day of the week. City riding is always a refreshing change after days of steady focus and pacing on the shoulder which just involves maintaining pace and working to make it to the next destination. I was happy to ride around in Seville – here I can pretend that I am a bicycle messenger or something.
I will now be staying with my family friends, Patricia and Isidro, for the next few days until a replacement video camera arrives from the United States. I ordered a camera which was to arrive in Charleston pre-departure, but unfortunately it did not catch up with me there. Now I will be in Seville at least until the camera finds its way through customs to the apartment here. Not a bad place to be stuck! I am looking forward to seeing some of what the city has to offer. Check back often for updates.