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Pueblos de España Mini Blog 3: Medinaceli, Soria

The province of Soria is the most sparsely populated in the whole country, where a village with more than 500 people is actually not common, and important to the region. Medinaceli is one of them, putting it in the top 20 most populated municipalities in the province, and one of the most beautiful. Listed as a ‘Pueblo Más Bonito de España’, and one that is completely surrounded by views, It should be on anyone’s list if they feel adventurous to check out this lonely part of the country.

Medinaceli is about 80km south of Soria, the provincial capital and nearest major city. Madrid is about double the distance and is easily connected by the A-2, the principal motorway that connects the Capital with Zaragoza and Barcelona. The Car is the only easy way to get there, but you can get buses from Madrid, Almansa, Soria and Logroño to the service part of the village in the Jalón valley, or Estación de Medinaceli, and then a taxi to the old village itself. Trains from the Estación are also available twice a day connecting to Madrid, Guadalajara, Calatayud and Zaragoza with one of the them continuing to Lleida, and the other to Tarragona and Barcelona as well as all the villages in between.

Located on a hill overlooking the Río Jalón, the village is completely surrounded by views of the Sistema Ibérica, Sistema Central, and the Meseta central, which become even more noticeable during the colder months when the mountains are often snow-capped. Moncayo, one of the most prominent mountains in the country, visible from Soria and Zaragoza, is usually visible from this point as well.

With it’s location on the Meseta and over 1200m up, Medinaceli is pretty fresh most of the year round, and a jacket is advisory, potentially even in summer during the night. Snow does fall every year and not exclusively just in winter, and it is also quite a windy place at times, due to it being completely exposed. Summers would typically be drier and around 25 degrees during the day and 12 at night. Pack as you would normally for a place with 4 seasons.

The village itself has an itinerary from the tourist office, directly opposite the car park, and would take about an hour to complete at a relaxed pace. the most notable sights would be the Castillo which is now used as a cemetery, The Arco Romano which you see as you reach the village, and the Plaza Mayor, Which has underpasses lined with old wooden beams, and is typical in many villages in Castilla y León. La Colegiata de la Señora de Asunción is the main church in the area, a stone’s throw away from the Plaza Mayor, but to the north, a couple of other notable religious sites are also worth seeing. Pretty much every street is picturesque in itself, with the beautiful stone houses and stony streets, difficult to get lost at the very least. El Camino del Cid, a popular trail, passes through Medinaceli.

Both the service area and the old village have places to stay and eat to offer any visitor, the cheaper of which would be in the service area. However, some of the best rated restaurants are actually in the old village itself, with a more authentic aspect coming to play, though there are only about 3- 4 bars/ restaurants to choose from, all offering typical hearty dishes from Castilla Y León. Dry cured pork products are produced in the region, with the Chorizo often a mixture of pork and beef in this province. Chanfaina, a stewed lamb dish is often found in this area as well as roasted quail, whereas fish is not a typical thing around there. Las paciencias de Almazán is a dry biscuit can be found here, as well as other typical products from Soria in the only grocery store you can find in the old village.

Lastly, the accommodation is very easy to find especially if you have quite a high budget, with many places being casa rurales, though you can find a good place for about 60€ a night for 2 people, going up to 150€. Again, the service area has some hostels offering private rooms on Booking for 55€ a night, and other’s may have to be privately enquired. There is very little difference in prices throughout the year, and I cannot recommend any place, as I was there just for half a day.

So there you have it, Medinaceli, a pueblo más bonito de España, a place where a view is close by. So much history, and so much to enjoy in such a small place, and don’t forget to stop by if travelling on the A-2. Don’t forget to bring a jacket as you may need it to enjoy this Experience.

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Renting a flat in Spain: Do’s and Don’ts

Being a foreigner living in Spain, finding a place to live is understandably quite an ordeal, especially when all the agreements are in a language that isn’t your first. It’s very easy to be discriminated against, or taken advantage of, and unfortunately, there are more than your fair share of dodgy landlords/landladies in Spain. Just like a tourist trap, a foreign worker or student is an easy target, but even Spanish people moving into the area can fall victim to the same things. No tip I am providing is totally full proof, but I have had some of the best and worst landlords/ landladies since moving here, and I want to share the experience so you have an idea about what you’re looking for.

Location Location Location?

First of all, you need to consider the area and price. Almost everyone when they move into a new city, wants to live somewhere in and around the centre. If you’re in a bigger city, that option could be too expensive for you. Smaller cities in most areas are a lot more affordable. But just how much more are you prepared to spend if there are notably cheaper options just 10 minutes walk away? in Major cities like Madrid and Barcelona, you’re likely to pay minimum 500€ a month to get near the centre. whereas other cities like Zaragoza and Toledo are more like 300€. True, these prices are a steal compared to England, but you are probably earning less, so you do the math.

Do some research about the neighbourhoods so that you know that you are in a comfortable and safe environment. The difference between these areas can be really drastic in the space of a couple of blocks. I live in Córdoba, and in a respectable neighbourhood which is easily affordable, but just 10- 15 minutes walk away are some real dives. I’m pretty sure you won’t have moved all the way here to be the Spanish equivalent of Hackney or Southwark, have you?

If you find a place that is in the city centre and is notably cheaper than other properties, there’re probably is a catch. Your room is probably a box, has no balcony, no air conditioning, is in a bad state, and so on. The number of potential flaws are endless. I would check it out first, and I would be careful if you see a place that’s notably marked up and the owner says it’s a really good deal for this neighbourhood. It usually isn’t, so see what you get for yourself.

Estate Agent, or App?

I’ve done both during my time here, and there are reasons to choose and not to choose each option. The estate agents are usually very professional and very helpful with your search. It’s also very unlikely that there is any illegal business taking place, and that it’s all by the books. The downsides are that the flats are almost certainly rented as a complete package, and not per room. There’s also an agency fee you would have to pay if a sale is agreed, usually equivalent of one month’s rent. Lastly, you are not guaranteed to have the flat furnished, so make sure you know what you are getting. If you are a group and are looking for a whole place to share , this isn’t a bad option.

Apps are usually cheaper, and you get so many more options at the tip of your finger, but the risks are tenfold. The most common apps I used were Badi, Idealista, and Fotocasa. I ditched Milanuncios when I was looking for my latest home, though there are some good places on that site, there were also a load of rubbish and unreliable ones. Badi is used almost entirely for flat sharing and It is really popular for students, and you’ll find most of the available rooms in neighbourhoods where students tend to prefer to live (Ciudad Jardín in Córdoba, Cappont in Lleida, and San Mamés in León are good examples.).

The other two are on par with each other, and I actually got my latest home via Fotocasa (which works better on a computer by the way). You need to be aware that many of flats will be advertised on more than one app and you might get a feeling of Deja Vu. You will also notice that a lot of the properties will have some sort of advertisement with another estate agent’s logo. I would avoid them unless you don’t mind paying for agency fees. The most frustrating thing about the apps is that you might express interest, but the room or flat is taken and they have forgotten to take the advert down. That happened to me so many times. The other downside is that many landlords may take advantage of you, and the legal disputes come in. The same places appear online year after year for a reason.

There are some surprising difficulties for you if you are looking to share a flat and you are a man and a worker like me. There were so many places that froze me out straight away for not being a student, and some that only wanted women to stay. It may be that male workers in Spain have more of a reputation of being more likely to be unreliable or difficult to work with, but it was rather frustrating trying to find somewhere. There are some places for that profile though, you are just more limited for choices, and couples looking to flat share have it even harder still. If you’re renting a flat outright for yourself, the gender gap closes dramatically and you are way more likely to find the ideal place, especially if you are a couple. Both estate agents and apps are usually very clear, and the Coronavirus crisis has forced many owners to not be so picky with who rent’s their property.

Read the contract carefully!

If you are completely new to a city, you might just accept the first place that looks semi- decent, but do you understand all their terms? or did you sign without even looking at it? You need to know every detail of the place before signing anything here in Spain, and Landlords show themselves in the worst light over things like this. I have experienced a lot of things, and it’s never too late to back out of an agreement if their tone is suspicious. The chances are your level of Spanish isn’t high enough to completely understand, so it’s very advisable to have someone who can help you out in that situation.

Two experiences spring to mind, the first in León when the landlady refused to give us our deposit back over non-existent damage, then proceeded to knock a wall through and take all our things to the free flat below, which had no hot water or a working kitchen. The second was in Lleida, when the landlady continually entered our place without warning and removed the internet after a few months into our stay claiming it was never part of the agreement and that it was our responsibility, then refused to return the deposit despite giving the required notice. Be careful.

Other things that some crooked landlords do, is charge different rates for rent depending on the person, or just before the agreement is made, so make sure you know that figure above everything else. You also need to be aware what is included in the rent. Is gas and electricity included? Internet? Water? Comunidad (council tax)? you need to know these things, then you’ll know if you’re being ripped off or not. Just remember, you might be a student or immigrant, but you have legal rights like everyone else, just make sure you have the evidence before taking it further if it’s worth it.

The Legal Technicalities

Just like in England, Spain has a number of rules in place to protect both parties involved. Many are the same, but there are some things you need to know:

In Spain, it is very rare for the tenant to be required to provide a guarantor in order to rent a property (even the estate agents), and I have never been asked to provide one.

In England, it’s normal to pay one month’s rent as a deposit, whereas in Spain, it can be two months. My current place costs 500€ a month in rent, but I had to pay a 1000€ deposit or fianza.

In Spain, the Landlord/landlady cannot enter your property under any circumstances unless permitted by a tenant. Even if they want to show someone a free room they can’t unless the tenants have been informed and asked permission. It’s not quite the same in England.

In Spain, the tenant may change the lock without reason, but it’s common courtesy to tell the owner and provide him/ her with a key, and the tenant must return all keys at the end of their contract or face prosecution. In England, the laws favour the landlord in this position, and unless there are special circumstances, tenants can’t do it.

In Spain, any modifications to the property, including having fibre optic internet installed, needs to be approved by the president of the building/ community as well as the landlord/ landlady. In England this responsibility is more often or not down to the owner and the legal entities of the council.

Things landlords/ landladies are really good at here in Spain.

While you might be thinking ‘This guy doesn’t like property owners at all does he?!’, There are some really amazing things the owners may do to make a tenant feel at home here in Spain. They can be very helpful and often leave a lot of things in the property for maintenance, including cleaning products for when you start out. Many will also help you out with some basic information to help you start your life here, such as giving you some local advice. My current Landlady has offered us her support for anything we need and it is reassuring. I know that some owners have even provided homecooked meals on the odd occasion for some of my friends here.

One thing for sure is that your landlord/ landlady usually lives locally and will usually resolve any issue with the property fairly swiftly or give you the number to resolve it yourself while they foot the bill. They usually respect your privacy on the same level as England, despite the odd exception of course. All that’s necessary is that anything that breaks and that isn’t your fault is well documented and that you are protected for that sort of thing. The last thing you want to be doing is fighting to get your deposit back.

Your guide about renting a flat as a summary:

Sharing a flat in good areas in most cities will set you back around 200-250€ rent for a good deal per month. in bigger cities or more expensive areas, expect to pay quite a bit more.

Ibiza, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Barcelona and Madrid are the most expensive places to rent in the country, just be aware of that.

Renting a flat for yourself will generally cost more, so maybe consider sharing before moving into a place of your own, get some perspective. In the aforementioned areas, you may find yourself paying way too much.

Read your contract carefully, and make sure you know what you are paying for and make sure the owner is legit.

Lastly, know your rights. It’s very easy to just abandon certain issues with owners because it’s not worth it. But sometimes you need to show them that you cannot be taken advantage of.

If you follow those tips, you’re a lot more likely to stay out of trouble and build the Spanish dream the way you want to. Happy hunting!

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Camino de Santiago Day 3: Villafranca- La Laguna 39km

Day 3 of the Camino de Santiago was the day where it all went wrong. Me and my Brazilian friend Rafael had a rough night in the hostel we were in, because of the heavy rain making a load of noise for most of the night. This place offered a good breakfast to start us off, and we were keen to get information about conditions. We got chatting to another pilgrim, called Anders a Dutchman who expressed similar concerns. Together we checked the news on TV, and there was some rain forecast, but intermittent showers. One thing you need to know when doing the Camino, is that Galicia is the wettest part of Spain, and April is one of the wettest months.

We set off at around 9 in the morning this time, knowing that we had another day of climbing looming over us. The first leg is a descent through the Village of Villafranca del Bierzo itself where Camino then splits into two directions. From there, it is very important to know the differences between the 2 ways, and it is not clear when you get to the junction if you’re a cyclist. The route on the left, takes you along the river and for a bike, is a lot easier, whereas the route on the right, takes you up the mountain, is hard for cyclists and walkers alike. Unknowingly, we took the harder option, and immediately, I felt that the information I was armed with, was actually not accurate.

We soldiered on, hoping that the route would get easier at some point, and from a cycling point of view, there are parts where you need to dismount and just walk. We were rewarded by some spectacular views of the mountains again, and it looked rather endless, but since we’re crossing one the largest mountain chains in the country, that hardly seemed surprising. The weather was also threatening to rain at times, then cleared away and was a feature of this particular stretch. After about 7km of climbing, the path levels out for a while, but any descent with the bike is risky especially after any rain.

Pradela is a small village that greets you at the highest point and is purely an option for any pilgrim that passes through this way, and there is a hostel there in case you want to stay the night. The path reaches a junction which has tarmac, and you turn right for the village, but left to rejoin the main Camino. This for us is where it all went wrong. The descent is steep, with a few hairpin bends, and my bike had serious issues stopping. My friend was shouting at me, telling me to stop, and when I eventually did, I realised the back wheel was broken. The brake pads somehow broke through the metal frame of the wheel and clogged up the inner tube. The next town, Trabadelo, was at the bottom of this road.

Trabadelo was a village which we felt was slim pickings if we were going to find someone who could help us fix the bike. We checked out a couple of places for information, including a hostel and the local mini market. They both indicated that there was a service station and hotel further along the Camino that could have helped us. The problem was, with a bike that can’t move properly, 4km is quite far. Rafael came up with an idea to straddle a long piece of wood between us and carry the bike, while taking it in turns to wheel his bike along the ground. The wood did eventually snap, but it carried us most of the distance. After that, we just took it in turns to wheel the broken bike through the soft earth. One positive about this part of the Camino, was that was at least relatively flat.

The service station was in a place called La Portela del Valcarce, and they had a garage there, and a hotel, which gave us more disappointing news. There was nothing they could do to fix the bike there, and this dampened my belief that I would be able to continue. I was left with just 2 options; take a taxi to Sarria further along the camino, or take a taxi back to Villafranca. I chose the latter, and it was this service station where Rafael wanted to continue solo for which I didn’t blame him as I didn’t know if my trip was going to continue. We said our goodbyes believing we would probably see each other in León. This wait for the taxi gave me time to reflect on what had happened and to work out the next plan of attack.

The station also had a nice shop full of local produce and trinkets for the Camino de Santiago. Since I didn’t have anything of the iconic shell, I bought a necklace with one on. The most common reason for the shell people told me during my time on the road was that it represented good luck, though it bears other meanings too. At this point, the Taxi arrived, to take me back to Villafranca, and together we discussed the possible ways of getting back on track. This driver was super helpful, taking me straight to the workshop and made sure they were able to fix it before he left to pick up another customer. I was lucky enough that they were able to fix it, but I had to wait 2 hours until the shop reopened again at 5.

This gave me time to chill out and check out the rest of Villafranca and in all honesty, get a bit bored. None of the major sights to this village were open, and even the tourist office, being a Monday, was closed for the whole day. I was able to check out the Iglesia de San Francisco which was a little higher up compared to the rest of the village, had some of the best views of town and surrounding mountains. The Plaza Mayor was where I spent most of my time though, sheltering from the odd sharp shower that headed my way. Some bars remain open, but in reality, you are rather alone in this village during the late afternoon.

The bike was finally ready and I was charged more than I originally paid for the bike, but at least I had a new wheel with a good tread on my tyre and new brakes, but they did warn me about avoiding sharp descents (like I know when I’m going to come across one of them). 5:30, and time to go, this time via the valley floor. This route is the one that most of the guides lead you to, and you can see why. The main road had the camino to the side of it, and the climbs are very minimal as you’re following the Río Valcarce. Pereje is the first village you come across just 4km in, and is a potential stop for Pilgrims as there is a bar and a Hostel. As a cyclist, you also avoid the busier N-VI for about 1km. It took me just 15 minutes to reach Trabadelo from Pereje, which again, is rather flat, and there I decided to get my booklet stamped.

Trabadelo has notably more hostels and things for the pilgrim compared to Pereje, with a couple of shops for groceries, and the valley opens up a little more, allowing you to see more mountains. A word of warning though, most of the hostels are at the start of the village, and after the ayuntamiento, there’s very little on offer. I continued along the camino, rejoined the main road, rather than taking the camino and another 20 minutes or so, I had passed the service station where Rafael and I parted ways, some 4 hours before. It took barely an hour to get from Villafranca to this spot, compared to the 3 1/2 hours via Pradela. Just how adventurous are you feeling?

I had an idea in my head, that if I just continued on the N-VI towards Lugo, that would be easier, and I would avoid the mountains, I was just so nervous of the bike breaking down on me and having a serious accident because of the brakes. I decided to stick to the main route, given that I knew there would be more support along the way. Plus if you’re going to do something, do it right. The next town is Albamestas and this is important for many pilgrims as there are quite a few Hostels there, and is for many, where some people from Villafranca, stop for a rest. It’s also where I bumped into the same Taxi driver who helped me before, small world eh?

The road then stays by the river as you cycle just 1km to Vega del Valcarce which is the last major village before you start climbing the mountains. This place is worth staying for a little while as there are plenty of places to wind down, but it’s worth noting that progress on the bike started to slow down at times, as the road is slowly climbing. You rejoin the N-VI at Ruitelán, a much smaller village, which I literally just passed through, and rest points became more limited. The last village before the climb up the mountain, is a little confusing, because on some charts they call it Hospital, which is a neighbourhood of a village called Las Herrerías, so don’t expect to see Hospital on many signs. and I didn’t see any shop to stock up on, but there are a couple of bars and hostels so you won’t go hungry.

This is the part where it gets really tricky, I felt like I needed to push for progress up the mountain before I could rest for the night, but time was slipping away, by this point it was 7, and I just wanted to make the next village. By this point, the rain was becoming a bit more persistent and colder, and the climb was becoming a bit of a struggle. some of the mountains had snow on them and clouds were constantly dark and I was starting to hit another low point in the journey. I had no idea how far away the next village was or where it would be and I missed a turn to it which was La Faba, and I was questioning why I was putting myself through this, I was just desperate to get to somewhere warm and dry. I was by this point too tired to cycle up the road and was walking up instead. I saw a couple of houses in the distance, and then a sign spray-painted on the floor, Albergue 1km, and then another for 500m and that extra energy pushed me there.

Thankfully the place was open and to my luck it was also a bar which had food. it was 8pm by that point, and I was super relieved. La Laguna was the hamlet I ended up staying at, and the hostel, Albergue La Escuela, was the only business there, and cost me 8€ at the time for the night. This particular place is on booking.com and it looks like the price has gone up, but it’s still really great value. I happened to be the only person in the entire hostel that was staying there the night, and It was extremely comfortable. I tried to get as many things as dry as possible, and had another 3- course meal, which again was amazing, and even managed to try tarta de Santiago for the first time.

By the time I got myself ready for bed, Rafael had messaged me, warning me about the following conditions, he had no idea where I was, nor did he know about what had happened. I couldn’t message him, because I had no signal whatsoever on both my phones, but his message warned me of difficulties of snow on the Camino. Given that I hadn’t made it to the top of the mountain yet, I had an interesting day ahead of me…

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Murciano: Is this the hardest Spanish accent on the peninsula?

If you go for a holiday on the Spanish Mediterranean coast, you would probably overlook the Costa Cálida, in the southeast of Spain. Alicante is nearby, so most Brits prefer to go there, so I can understand why it’s not so well-known. But this coastline is part of the Region de Murcia, and when you meet the people there, you are in for quite a difficult time. Are they unfriendly? Not at all. I didn’t feel like an alien in that regard, but my years of learning Spanish were heavily put to the test once a local opened their mouth and started talking (though some parts of Huelva and Sevilla are a close 2nd and 3rd).

My experience with the accent started when I checked into my hostel in Murcia capital. I was a little taken aback by the difference in the receptionist’s accent, but I powered through and got everything sorted. I was unsure as to whether that was a one-off, but I went into various bars for some tapas and the experience was of a similar degree. By the end of my stay, I certainly felt like I had had an intensive Spanish listening exam.

But what makes this accent so difficult?

  1. Murcians speak really quickly, or at least quicker than many other Spanish speakers around the country in my experience. Seriously, I would never get into an argument with someone from there as it would just get messy and I’d probably lose even if I’m 100% right.
  2. /s/ are extremely soft. Plural words will lose the /s/ dos turns to do. It is used at the start of the word at least, and a ‘c’ might sound like an /s/ but that’s generally a southern thing anyway. /x/ might sound like an /s/.
  3. Hard consonants are very relaxed which makes the words sound quicker, because there’s no semi pause for pronunciation for example: Iglesia may sound like Ilesia. They do this with so many letters where syllables are cut short.
  4. facial expressions when you pay attention to somebody don’t give that much away either, so any lipreading skills you have, may be futile.

Murcia’s accent is sometimes displayed in Spanish popular culture, with various films making fun of it and allowing the region to be the butt of all jokes. It reminds me of the Geordie accent in English culture (I’m a southerner, don’t hate). So many Spanish people that I know will make fun of Murcia because of the accent, but most of them make good humour of it.

The big questions are: can you get used to it? And does everybody speak like this? If you live in Murcia, you most certainly can get used to it, but it will take a lot longer, especially if you don’t have a high level to begin with. I was only there for 2 days and I survived ok, but was still rather shocked by the differences. And of course, not everybody speaks like this, but the vast majority do, as well as in surrounding provinces of Albacete, Almería and Alicante. Even people who work in public places may be difficult to understand. I went to the tourist office in Murcia and they were clearer than most people, but still quite a challenge to understand everything.

So there you have it, Murciano. Not a language in it’s own right, but some people might say differently when they experience hearing it. I think while it’s an obstacle that doesn’t make much sense, It shouldn’t put you off from checking this region out. If anything, this is one of the biggest learning curves you could experience if Spanish isn’t your first language. Expect a conversation that has a mumbling and lack of hard consonant element to it and see how far you can go. The further you go, the better the experience and the more likely you are of discovering some hidden gems. Good luck!

Sidra Asturiana: Be Accurate or Be Thirsty

Cider. Such a household classic drink in the UK, and who would blame them? Sweet, fizzy and widely available in every pub around, this alcoholic delight is sorely missed by many when they travel to Spain, and I distinctly remember having to research bars in the places I was visiting with my one of my best friends. While the type we are familiar with in the UK is starting to become more available across the country in recent years, in the north of Spain, where the grass is just as green as it is back home, has had cider in it’s blood for hundreds of years. However, You will be in for a shock as to how different it is.

While there are some regions in the north, like the Basque Country and Navarre have some sort of sidra culture, Asturias is the place that takes massive pride in it, and I would say it would be on the same level of popularity as beer, possibly even more so. It’s very common to find sidrerías (cider houses) in every town there, and most of the country’s producers are based there. But what is so different about it compared to the UK stuff?

First of all, it’s corked and always found in a glass bottle or in a wooden barrel. The reason being that it is cloudy and for the most part, flat, more similar to that of cloudy scrumpy cider, only not as bad. The way you pour it and drink it is what makes this such a cultural affair as there’s an art and science attached to it. You have to pour it from above your head, to a tilted glass at the waist, or below, known as escanciar la sidra. The idea is to generate bubbles to enhance the flavour, which is why the tumbling effect from the pour is so important.

Other important factors to take into account when you pour the sidra, is to fill the glass only about 1/4- 1/3 full, because you are going to down all of it except the very last dreg or culín. That part at the bottom of the glass is typically used to wash the glass, ready for the next pour. Sidrerías will have buckets or sinks in place for the almost inevitable misses, or alternatively just let you have a go on the terrace and let the cider run off onto the square or street. Other places will not allow you to pour for yourself, instead barmen or waiters will do it for you, which in that case, you are pretty much guaranteed a perfect pour. You might also see machines or pumps set up as a sure way of getting 100% out of your bottle, or cut corks to help control the flow out of the bottle.

Most importantly though, What is the taste like compared to British cider? I’m not an expert, but I would say the apple flavour hits you a little harder in sidra asturiana, like you’ve just pressed an apple but then you get the fermented alcohol aftertaste. despite the efforts, the level of fizz is much higher in English ciders, which also naturally slows your drinking pace down (or at least should). Sidra asturiana also packs more of a punch, being at least 6% alcohol, but I’ve seen some over 7% and given a bottle is almost as big as a standard bottle of wine (0.7l), you are getting a lot.

Another adjective I would use to describe sidra: CHEAP. Bottles will cost about 2.50€ possibly less. In the supermarkets I got one for 2€. It must be noted though, that outside Asturias, the price is likely to go up, and bars may offer you a bargain at first, but only one serving of sidra in a glass, and that accumulates. If you compare prices with beer, it would be similarly priced but usually cheaper to get sidra. Variants may also pop up, though difficult to find in a bar, even a sidrería, for example, sidra de pera (pear) and corked fizzy cider, the closest thing to a British cider available, and they come in a glass bottle, corked and opened like a bottle of champagne, and again just a couple of euros. Sidra is also used in cooking, so don’t be confused if you see it on your lunch menu, it’s pretty normal to see.

That pretty much covers it for sidra asturiana, the only cider in Spain with protective origin status. A must try whether you are a cider drinker or not, and happen to be in Asturias, or other neighbouring regions of Green Spain. Don’t be offended if someone tries to teach you how to escanciar, it really does make a difference and it’s fun to do it even if half of it ends up on the floor. The best piece of advice, enjoy trying or get yourself a beer next time.

City Guide: Valencia

There’s no denying it, Everyone has at least heard of Valencia, in it’s various forms, whether it be their football team, festivals or paella. But I would guarantee, that those same people would also know of Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga, and visited all those cities, but many would not have gone to Valencia. Strange that may be, it’s still very much a popular city to visit, and after spending my first day there, I totally understood why. Welcome to the 3rd largest city in the country.

Valencia is located practically in the middle part of the Spanish Mediterranean coast, in the centre of the Comunidad Valenciana autonomous region of which is the capital, and that makes it a very easily accessible city for most travelers. It is connected to Madrid via AVE, and via Barcelona via both Regional Exprés and Intercity services. Most other major cities such as Sevilla, Gijón and Valladolid may only have 1 or 2 direct connections to the city. To make things confusing, Valencia has 2 main stations, Nord ( Valenciano for North, but confusingly located in the southernmost part of the city centre) and Joaquín Sorolla, 800m to the south. Loosely connected to each other by metro stations Bailen and Jesús respectively, These stations share a lot of the same destinations, so it is paramount that you check your tickets.

What’s the main difference between the two? La estación de Joaquín Sorolla is the AVE station, whereas Nord is principally the local hub. The cercanías lines all terminate here (line 4 has no services as of 2020), and the Media Distancia / Regional services all stop/ terminate here. However, you can still travel to cities like Madrid, Sevilla and Barcelona via slower services. If that isn’t enough, Valencia also has a bust station which can connect you to almost every town in the comunidad, as well as around the whole country, either directly, or with a connection. Night services are more common, and I have frequented through Valencia in the early hours by bus to reach Catalonia or Andalusia on many occasions. Alsa is the main company that operates here, thought there are some important connections with Hife.

The airport is one of the weaker aspects of travel compared to other cities on the Mediterranean coast. The airports of Malaga, Alicante and Barcelona are notably bigger. However there are still regular connections with other parts of Spain, particularly the west and Baleares, and to the UK. British airways, Easy Jet, and Ryanair all fly to the UK with multiple flights daily. Ferries also operate to the Baleares daily to all 3 of the main islands, though it usually takes longer than if you were going via Barcelona.

Lastly, local transport is a little hit and miss. Valencia has a metro and 9 lines operate from it (a 10th is under construction as of 2021) 6 underground, and 3 trams. Most of the metro was formally part of the old FEVE rail network and subsequently more stops were added and lines created, but it misses a lot of key parts of the city, such as Plaza de Reina, the northern part of the old quarter, the Ciutat de les Ciencies i Artes, the Bioparc and the F1 track are all at least 10-15 minutes from the nearest Metro station, usually more.

The most useful stations are Turia, Xativa, Jesus, Bailen, Colon, Alameda, Marina Reial (tranvia) and Aeroport, and that is because they are either near the beach, nearest to the city centre, or a key station. The Metro also extends way out as far as towns like Torrent, Lliria, Rafelbunyol and Villanueva de Castellón, the latter of which is over 50km away! Local buses are so extensive that they will connect all the places the metro does not.

Accommodation is abundant across the whole city with the most expensive places usually being around the city centre and Ciutat de Artes y Ciencies, but you can get a bargain if you are looking for a cheap hostel with a shared room, you can find places for about 20-35€ a night, though the weekends are notably more. My experience of hostels of Valencia have been mostly positive, but one part where they let you down is the massive price hike during the Falles festival. Book well in advance if you happen to go in March and Easter weekend. You may get away with a good deal around Christmas time on the flip side, and I’ve managed to get deals worth 15€ a night in the centre for being on the site at the right time.

But the most important question still stands, what can you actually see there barring the obvious? Compared to other major cities of Spain like Barcelona or Sevilla, it is less, but you still a lot of wow factors that make this place unique. La Lonja/ Llotja de la Seda is one such place in the city centre that I found myself coming back to regularly. La Plaza de Reina with the Cathedral in the backdrop is also impressive, with the opportunity to actually climb to the top of the tower for uninterrupted Panoramic views of the city, better than anywhere else. It cost 2€ (back in 2015) to do that, and that was well and truly value for money.

The biggest attraction by a country mile is the Ciutat de las Ciencies i Artes, a series of white and blue futuristic buildings finished in the late- 2000’s at the cost of an eye watering 150 billion pesetas or 900,000,000€. Home to an opera house, events centre, I MAX, planetarium, garden, and L’Oceanogràfic, the largest aquarium in Europe. Just visiting the buildings themselves from the outside is something surreal, and a complete contrast to what it’s like in the city centre. While it is a bit of a faff getting there, it is worth it. The Platja de la Malvarrosa, the main beach of Valencia, is about 40 minutes walking via this location, and is a change of pace compared to further inland, and not particularly full of tourists either, which makes a change.

I also must tell you about Valencia’s rich culture, and there’s nothing better to showcase that, than Falles. Though I will write a full blog about it another time, It’s important to know just how different the city is when this festival is on, and it is one of the best ‘fiesta mayores’ I have been to. In fact I went 3 times, and it didn’t get old at all, and you end up in other neighbourhoods, that you otherwise wouldn’t have visited.

You find sculptures on every crossroad and plaza imaginable, all with various designs not always suitable for youngsters. But kids have a lot of fun throwing petardos (bangers) everywhere for the main week. The ‘Mascleta’ occurs earlier at 2pm every day. The most impressive thing would be the final day when all the sculptures are burned and a final Mascleta occurs in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. This paragraph does not do this festival enough justice. The 19th of March is the big day for this. Other notable festivals you should consider are the Fiestas de San Vicente Ferrer, an extension to the traditional Easter celebrations, La Geperudeta in May, Corpus Cristi among others.

The final cultural aspect that cannot be ignored, is the Valenciano’s adoration for it’s local gastronomy, and yes I have to mention Paella! For you brits, this may be one of the only places where it is acceptable to eat it everyday while on holiday, and it will be the real deal here. remember that it typically takes about 20 minutes for them to make an authentic paella by scratch, and it’s rare to find a bad place.

Arroz del horno/ arròs del forn, Almejas, Fideua, figatells and all-i-pebre among other things here. Churros/xurros, Buñuelos/bunyols (churro batter donut) and fartons (between a croissant and an ensaimada) are very commonplace here, and what better to wash it down with than Horchata/orxata a cold drink mistaken for milk, but is actually made with chufa or tiger nuts. Aigua de Valencia is a common deceptively strong cocktail found widely around here.

Lastly, the language here occasionally brings debate regarding it’s status, Valenciano. The Apitxat variant of it is principally spoken in the city, though it is known as a occidental Catalan dialect. I can speak Catalan and could communicate with locals pretty effectively barring the very occasional word that is typically from the region. But in the city centre I didn’t hear much of it spoken, nor it plastered on all the shop windows like you see in Neighbouring Catalan cities. Castilian Spanish is more than ok for everybody here to speak with you while visiting, and English can be understood in many establishments in the city centre too, but don’t expect it, and try and make an effort.

Being a big city, Valencia has that vibe of minding their own business for the most part, but go to the right places and the friendliness will emerge in a similar way to Barcelona and Madrid. Again, if you are not in a touristic bar, You probably won’t meet many locals, but people are friendlier if you respect them and make the effort to try a more local popular spot. Renowned areas for going out are around La Ruzafa area as well as the part of the Ciutat Vella north of La Lonja and east of the Torres de Quart, but there are a number of other spots in other neighbourhoods that have some highly rated clubs, I’m just going by my local friends and where they took me.

So that pretty much covers it, a brief, but useful guide of a huge, underrated city. Valencia retains most of it’s heritage, takes a lot of pride in the things they are good at, and offers something for everyone almost all year round. I have been there several times, and would definitely visit again, and recommend you spend a long weekend there at the very least, and why not get carried away with one of their festivals? Decide what experience you’re looking for and plan accordingly. Bon viatge!

The Mediterranean Tour: Valencia- Xabia/ Javea, 117km

Day 4 was fairly early start from Valencia, and different day compared to day 3 for many reasons. The road follows the Costa Blanca almost all the way to my next bed, Xabia/ Javea in the Alacant/Alicante province. A mostly flat affair, this day will be remembered for the many timeshares and forests obstructing my views of the scenery. This time there were no dangerous roads to navigate, but some fairly long stretches between towns. There’s no explanation needed for how awesome Valencia is (city guide coming soon), and an added bonus is that the route takes you straight past the Ciutat de les Arts y les Ciencies, right alongside the Alameda. Following that, you cross the actual Rio Turia and towards the Poblados del Sur part of the metropolitan area.

The first major town of the day is Cullera, 45km south of Valencia, but before that, the Parque Natural de Albufera, where one of the largest lakes/ lagoons of the whole country is located, stood in my way. The CV-500 is the road that passes through the area, and does take you to the edge of the lagoon briefly, but doesn’t feature along the beach much at all. Though the scenery of the forest was beautiful, and a new experience of the trip, it was a little frustrating not being able to see the sea very often. The more impressive parts were the bridges connecting the lagoon from the sea, and Mareny de Barraquetes was the town that kept to traditions a lot more, and had a more rustic and farmers town feel to it.

By this point, I knew that Cullera was close, The road was getting smoother, and eventually there’s a junction taking you inland to the town, or to the Faro de Cullera, and I chose the latter. The best choice I made that day, You have a minor climb, but are rewarded with beautiful scenes of the Albufera beaches, and shortly after Cullera and the coast extending all the way to the Macizo de Montgó, a mountain which is about 60km away on the other side of the bay. Of course, being the beautiful sunny day that it was, I had to head to the Playa de San Antonio and enjoy a well earned rest there.

Cullera is very well-known as a popular destination for the people of Valencia city as well as internationally, but this is more of a local’s getaway spot. If you have time, the Castillo and Murallas are definitely the stand out places to visit, but the Plaça de Llibertat at the foot of the hill is also a pleasant place to visit and chill. The beach was a my favourite part overall. Unfortunately there is no coastal road that will go on for very long, as you actually end up at the estuary of the Río Júcar and have to cross the bridge and take the CV-605 south.

The next town may be familiar to you, especially if you watch Reality TV shows like Jersey Shore, because the Spanish equivalent is called Gandia Shore, and that is the next town on this trip! There are several caminos I could had occasionally taken for brief spells, but ultimately, they all join the CV-605, so I decided not to complicate things. The problem with the other routes is that it gets difficult when you reach a river crossing or estuary, and you’re not really not benefitting anymore from the views. The Estany de Cullera has some really photogenic scenery, as well as various parts of Xeraco further south. These 27km were mostly calm and not particularly demanding. The coastal mountains took the scenery to a new level, though I didn’t see the sea until Grao de Gandia.

Gandia is split into two parts, the Grao, which is newer and more of a resort town, and is the setting for Gandia shore. Trust me, after passing the rather depressing attraction park called Gandialand, I was in no mood to check anymore of the place out, though the beach is huge. The main town of Gandia itself is inland and the best way was via Avenida de Grau, and I found myself checking the old part of town, largely pedestrianised with a lot of nice shopping streets and walks along the Río Serpis, usually dry. The Plaça de Vila and the Passeig de Germanies were my favourite parts especially to rest. being around 2 O’clock, and having been on the road for nearly 4 hours, lunch was a good call. The biggest attraction might be the Palau Ducal de los Borja, which is right on the river bank.

Via Avenida de Alacant, then the N-332, I headed out of town, passed Bellreguart, Palmera and Alquería de la Condesa and decided to stop in Oliva, The last town in Valencia province. Oliva was actually one of my favourite towns not only of this day, but the entire trip, and was a big surprise to me. Just head right from the main road, and the buildings get older, and the streets narrower. The highlights were the Parroquía de Santa Maria, The Plaza san Roque as well as exploring the cobbled streets with old white buildings, a very cool experience. Better still, I didn’t have time to visit the castle on top of the hill, so I have another excuse to go back and visit.

unfortunately, it was nearing 4pm, and I had to leave via the same road, the N-332 and my next stop was to be Denia, principally it’s port. It was 10km from Gandia and Oliva (I discovered after this trip there is a cycle lane via the poligono industrial 9km long between these two places), 24km to Denia from Oliva, pushing me to the 100km mark for the day, and I was breaking my record for longest trip to date. Again, the road was pleasant and smooth, and one thing I started noticing, were a lot of street vendors and call girls hanging around some of the laybys, though harmless, I would not stop near them otherwise they might stop for a chat. not long before the turning to Denia, I was greeted with the sign crossing into the Provincia de Alicante/Alacant.

I turned off at Deveses, hoping at least some of the 12km road to Denia would be rewarded with some good coastal roads. I was wrong. The whole road was marred by timeshares and holiday complexes that barely gave me any respite to the sea. I would say this was one of the most disappointing roads of the trip, and the only thing that was a plus, was that it was relatively flat, right up to the port of Denia. I didn’t have that much time to stop in the city centre, so I enjoyed the sights of the port, and Montgó by this point was towering over me. 11km to Xabia/ Javea, and the final push of the day was looming.

The CV 736 was one of the highlights of the day, and the most picturesque and difficult road, with a windy mountain segment rising to over 200m. Given that I had already done more that 100km by this point, it felt a lot harder than it otherwise would have been, an excellent leg breaker to finish the day. When I got to the top, Xabia/ Javea was in sight as well as the bay. The descent was a lot of fun, and the old quarter of the town was reached really quickly, and was a real treat. My Hostel was located on Calle Principe de Asturias, The Youth Hostel Javea, which was extremely comfortable and modern, on the ring road of the old quarter, so I was in the thick of it. How close you want to be by the sea is down to you.

That marked the end of Day 4, and I had plenty of time in the evening to do a bit of exploring, and enjoy some good food in one of the local restaurants just round the corner, and I would say Javea, though small, is a really nice place to visit, chill and was the perfect stop to recharge my batteries and get myself ready for the next leg of the journey, to Alicante.

The Mediterranean Tour, Day 3 Castellón de la Plana- Valencia

Day 3 of the tour was actually the shortest ride of the whole trip, giving me an opportunity to actually slow down a little and enjoy any town for a bit longer than before. Valencia was the next bed for the night, and getting there meant crossing The extensive fields of orange trees, as well as some very busy roads. But first, I wanted to see more of Castellón, which as it turned out did not take very long. The main attractions of the centre were mostly centered around the Plaza Mayor (go figure) but what impressed me was the Concatedral de Santa Maria and the tower (El Fadrí) disconnected from each other, which I found quite bizarre at the time. The city centre certainly has less historical aspects than other major cities on the Mediterranean coast, and I would not come here if you are looking for stunning architecture. But Castellón is a great stop over for any occasion, and by 11am I was ready to go.

Villareal was the first stop of the day, 8km away, and there is very little to talk about between these two towns, though there is a possible detour to Almanzora and then to Burriana, two distinct towns a little closer to the coast. However, traffic makes both of the routes quite dangerous, so I stuck with the most direct. Villareal itself was a pleasant surprise as everyone knows the town for it’s football club. The city centre has some notable sights such as the Plaça de la Vila, and the Basilica de San Pascual, and I must say I liked this place a little more than Castellón. It’s extremely bicycle friendly there, and very easy to leave. The N-340 beckoned my journey once again to Nules.

12km of open road through the orange fields was the main experience I was drawing from this stretch of road. Again, very easy going and flat, Alquerias del Niño Perdido is not worth visiting unless you have issues with supplies. The scenery does slowly change, and you start to edge a little to the coastal range, but again for any cyclist, this is a very straightforward stretch of road and within 40 minutes of leaving Villareal, I had arrived in Nules, Though I highly recommend you detour to Mascarell, a small village surrounded by a Moorish wall, and well worth a look.

I decided to have a major break in Nules, and took advantage of enjoying the sights from the Plaza Mayor, Where you will see the ayuntamiento and the Iglesia Archiprestal de San Bartholomé, a very impressive church with a blue dome, and the main attraction. The town itself is pleasant enough, but you don’t need much time to see what there is, and half an hour later, the N-340 was beckoning once again, and the next stop, would be Xilxes/ Chiches. Just 9km separating the two towns and again, a very pleasant experience and not too much traffic on this section. Xilxes is not the most accessible town having to cross the trainline, however, you are not missing much, and I didn’t even stop to check it out.

The village of La Llosa and Almenara are next on the journey, and just off the side of the main road is the Castle which blends in with the hill. Both towns other than that are very much residential with not much going on, the same level as Xilxes. Nevertheless, they can provide you with anything you need provision-wise. This 6km stretch of road is the only one of the day that provides any sort of resistance over the course of the whole day. These are also the last towns of the Castellón province before entering Valencia, and one of the biggest highlights of the day, Sagunto was the next stop.

Crossing the border into Valencia province, the sign fittingly surrounded by oranges, the Castillo de Sagunto can be seen in the distance after a few kilometers from Almenara. 11km separated the two towns, and the heat was starting to build a little getting to around lunchtime, knocking on the door of 30 degrees. Again, there is very little challenge for any cyclist on this stretch of road, but I was still notably sore after my mammoth previous day. 40 minutes from Almenara, and it was a certain rest stop in sagunto.

This city was the highlight of the day, with the impressive castle overlooking everything with added bonus views of the sea which was only 5km away. Like castellón and Xilxes, Sagunto also has extended all the way to the beach and essentially has two city centres, but it’s the one inland which is more impressive in my opinion, and the old quarter was brimming with people, with the Glorieta opening the way to explore, and climb toward the Castle. Other attractions include the Juderia, and the modernised Teatro Romano. I wanted to lose myself in these beautiful narrow streets forever, but I still had 30km of cycling to do.

The next stretch of road is one of the most, if not, the most dangerous of the whole 6 day trip. Sagunto is at a bust junction which connects Valencia and Zaragoza via Teruel, So the autopistas and autovias all connect forcing you onto one of them for a very brief period before turning you onto a service road. I however accidentally missed that turning and ended on the V-23 all the way to Puçol which I was not allowed to do, but got away with it. What’s also confusing is that you don’t see the no entry signs from when the N-340 merges. Another alternative route is the Camí de Gausa which will take you to the outskirts of the town. most of this 9km stretch was not particularly enjoyable, so blaze through this as quick as you can.

Puçol/ Puzol is the next town, where directions to the town centre require you to cross the dry river bed, where you are greeted with the Plaza Iglesia and the ayuntamiento after a series of relatively narrow and kinda charming cobbled streets. This is also the last town before you start entering the metropolitan area of Valencia, and now the land is becoming almost flat as a pancake, so you start believing you are on the home straight. The CV 306 is the main road, but there’s also a Via Verde cycling route barely 100m to the left via Calle Mercé de Rodoreda that takes you almost directly to Rafelbunyol, the next town, something I discovered after the trip.

Though there is virtually nothing to see in Rafelbunyol/ Rafelbuñol, seeing the metro station gave me a lot of motivation despite still being about 15km away from Valencia. You immediately follow either the CV 300, or the Avenida Mayor through to the centre of La Pobla de Farnals which is what I did, and I have no idea which one is quicker. The road starts off as Carretera de Barcelona, but the reality is, just go straight on and you’ll slowly get there. It’s almost a continuous chain of towns to Valencia from this point, and I continued up through La Pobla, then Massamagrell, Museros, Emperador, Albalat dels Sorells, Foios, Meliana, Almassora and Tabernas Blanques. Most of which I just blazed through. Traffic gets heavier the closer you get to the 3rd largest city in Spain.

Just before crossing the Avenida dels Germans Machado, There is a monastery that is not well known to tourists, The Monesteri de Sant Miquel de Reis that would be worth a look. Unfortunately for me, it was closed When I passed it, but I wasn’t too bothered as I was now entering Valencia, and I had to be careful on these roads. The north of the city has a few tramlines connecting the Estadio de Levante to the beach, But you start to get excited once you reach the dry riverbed of the Turia, and within 10 minutes, I had reached my hostel, just off the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

73km, The shortest day of the 6 was now complete, and I arrived at around 4pm, with plenty of time to rest and enjoy the city, though one night is nowhere near enough time. Nevertheless, I knew I had complete freedom and the chance to do some walking for a change, and visit places like the Plaza de la Reina, the Mercado central, La Ciutat de las Ciencies, and the beach, and have a well earned ice cream or buñuelo. The following day was another slog,117km to Xabia/ Javea in the Province of Alacant/Alicante.

The Mediterranean tour Day 2: Xerta- Castelló/ Castellón de la Plana 147km

Day 2 of 6 on this cycling tour was going to be the biggest challenge I had faced so far, almost doubling the distance from day 1. However I was super excited about reaching the coast and enjoying the seaside towns all along it, which was the main point of the whole trip. Setting off from Xerta at around 9 gave me about 12 hours of daylight to get there as well as the opportunity to enjoy any stops along the way. The wind compared to yesterday had notably died down, and was a comfortable 23 degrees and partly cloudy for most of the day, almost perfect conditions.

A light breakfast in Xerta and I set off along the C-12 straight towards Tortosa, the biggest Catalan town on the Ebro, 13km away. Aldover is a small village on the way, but very little to write about, so I bypassed it and stuck to the main road, which is almost completely flat and straightforward until you reach the town. The only downside is that there is quite a lot of traffic the nearer you get to Tortosa, but I have gone through way worse. At this point, the older part of the town is actually on the other side of the river, so you will have to cross it to enjoy the best sights.

Tortosa was often given a mediocre review by most of my friends, stating that it isn’t really worth visiting, but I wouldn’t agree with that. The city itself has a lot of history and has plenty of attractions for anyone stopping by. The biggest selling point for me was walking along the river to the cathedral and the castell de la Suda. The hills on the east bank of the Ebro also have various turrets and fortifications which now offer unique vantage points of the city and the now very wide Ebro valley. The first worthy stop for the day for sure.

Reconnecting to the C-12 out of town, gave me 3 options, continue to the delta, cut through to Vinaroz, or along the edge of Els ports away from the sea. I chose to cut through to Vinaroz where I connected to the T-331, a notably quieter road and and agricultural area of Catalonia. From this road you approach the mountains in the form of the Sierra de Montsia which is one of the most prominent peaks on the coast. Els ports is being left behind as you pass Santa Barbara and push up to a small pass just over 100m high at the Creu del Termini del Coll and enter the valley with the Sierra de Godall to your right and Ulldecona, the last town of Catalonia, straight ahead.

If you have time (which I didn’t for this trip) the Ermita de las Pietat on the Sierra de Godall would be a worthy detour of the bike, as the tarmac road takes you directly to the top, and boast views of the valley and if you were to climb to the top, the sea as well. Passing Ulldecona means connecting to the T-332 and over the dry river Cenia which means officially you have left Catalonia, and are in the Castelló province of the Comunidad Valenciana! Vinaroz was now just 7km away and I was finally going to unite with the sea for the first time on this trip and take a rest in this town. 45km separates Tortosa from Vinaroz, and the last stretch is a gentle downhill slope along the N-238, and before I knew it, I was following the signs to the nearest and main beach, the Platja del fortí.

After more than days ride, I was finally united with the sea where I would be alongside on and off for the next 4 days. Vinaroz is the first of 3 towns on the first bay the Costa Azahar, alongside Benicarló and Peñíscola, and the heart of the city of 20000+ people had a lot of activity and lovely ambience dominated by the Plaça de sant Augustí and Plaça de Sant Andoni, just a stones throw away from the promenade. It had a vibe similar to that of the port of Cambrils 100km further north, only with less of a gastronomic scene. I Enjoyed the short break I gave myself and set off again to Benicarló along the sea front.

The coastal road was exciting and had views of the village of Peñíscola jutting out in the distance, but the road became a little complicated and forced me back onto the N-340 just 3km from the next town, though I later discovered a series of residential streets did connect to the same area, but wasn’t worth it. A busy road, I wanted to be on it as little as possible and the first opportunity to get off it was immediately taken. You follow through a principal, and fairly run down street to reach the centre of Benicarló, just 8km or so from Vinaroz, where I was presented with one of the more impressive churches of the whole trip, on the Plaça de Bartomeu. Other than that, Benicarló is definitely the newer of the 3 towns on the bay, a highly commercial orientated city centre, certainly not so much to see. But it does connect with the start of a long and beautiful beachside road that’s not blemished by buildings in the way.

8km of this coastline road takes you up to Peñíscola, a Pueblo Más Bonito de España where if I had more time, I would’ve spent more time enjoying the while narrow streets and impressive views from the top of the rock. If it’s good enough for Game of Thrones it’s definitely good enough to go back. And I did just that several times. The idyllic scenery and mountainous backdrop from the the fortifications followed by narrow medieval streets make Peñíscola the most beautiful town on the Costa Azahar. Flanked by two beaches and a small marina, I decided to take a short break on the smaller Platja de Migjorn and followed what I believed to be the coastal road out of town.

Wrong. Calle Irta takes you to the Parque Natural Sierra de Irta, which is not recommended for roadbikes, even the coastal trail, which I also accidentally missed. Road cyclists would have to divert back to the N-340 to Santa Magdalena de Pulpis and then Alcalá de Xivert, before connecting back on the coast at Alcossebre. 21km of Natural park ended up being a very rewarding experience, enjoying the mountains and practically untouched coastline, but was slow going at times and I just followed the trails that I hoped didn’t kill the bike. The Camí de Ribamar thankfully got more bike friendly the closer I got, and after about an hour and a half of this off-road detour, the practically empty town of Alcossebre was finally reached.

Despite it being Easter when I did this, I was surprised to see few people around what seemed like an extended residential area, with resorts yet to fully open, and many places shut down, but I didn’t care much for that, as the Coastal road from the Passeig Maritim all the way to the Platja de Serradal 6km of some of the best coastal roads of the day. unfortunately On the outskirts of Torrenostra, the road will not connect directly to the beach again until Oropesa de Mar, 42km to go until Castellón by this point.

If I thought Alcossebre was practically empty, Torrenostra was completely empty, And I didn’t even want to stop by the many half finished apartments and timeshares that just blotted the landscape and waste my time there. The beach front may be nice, but the place spells resort to me, and Torreblanca a few kilometres up the road was a more viable place to rest. Finally, locals, more history! The main street brushes the Plaza Mayor with the Iglesia de San Bartolome dominating the scene, and narrow pedestrianised streets, so much better than what I had encountered 15 mins previously. The road takes you a few kilometres away from the coastline overlooking it and onto the N-340 once again.

Long, extensive grasslands occupied the left of me while heading south to Oropesa de Mar, leaving the Cuartell de Vell beach practically untouched. Unfortunately, for any cyclist, you’re more than kilometer inland, following a straight road. By this point I was starting to flag a little bit, taking more breaks and feeling the burn, and I was a little demoralized by the small hill I had to climb after passing Oropesa. I would never normally be phased by this, but I was getting to the point where I just wanted to get to Castellón while it was still light outside. It may had been that the coastal road that headed to Benicassim would be the better option in hindsight for the views, but my legs weren’t having it, and I pushed on the N-340 to the top of the climb which was only 100m or so. 7km to Benicassim.

If you do have the time to visit Oropesa, I would recommend it, as I did return in less tiring circumstances, as the Torre de Rey dominates the coastline in the town. The N-340 just 3km from Benicassim opens up and you can see Castellón for the first time in the distance which would give anyone motivation to keep pressing forward. Nevertheless I took a break in the town famous for its music festival celebrated in the summer, the Rototom Sunsplash. I would say this town had a lot more life in it than some of the more resort-looking towns on the Costa Azahar so far, but not much to see really other than enjoy the seaside, which I could not. Last town of the day.

14km or so separated me from Castellón and thankfully the road took me down from the hill and had no nasty surprises, just more cars. The N-340a takes you into the centre of town where I turned off to pass the Estadio Nou Castalia, Home of Castelló football club and headed straight towards the Mercado Central near my bed for the night. By this point, It had got almost completely dark, and I decided to check out a bar for some well- deserved dinner somewhere near the Plaza Tetuan, a popular area to eat from what I was told, and explored the commercial centre of town.

Day 2 was done, the longest and most challenging day of the trip so far. Being united with the coast and being to stop at some of the best seaside towns the Costa de Azahar had to offer was worth the pain I was feeling that night. What’s more I was in the provincial capital, giving me a chance to explore this relatively unknown city. Whether there was anything worth seeing or not, it did not matter, and tomorrow Valencia was to be my next destination.

Pueblos de España, Mini blogs vol 2: Laguardia, Alava

If there’s one thing you think about when you say Basque country, the word would be green. In Laguardia however, you couldn’t be more wrong, as you could easily mistake it for being somewhere around the corner from the Mediterranean sea. For me, it was totally different from what I was expecting, especially as I had just come from the capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz just 45km away. It is the only village in the Basque Country that has been incorporated into the Asociación de los Pueblos Más Bonitos de España as of 2021 and when you enter through the old walls, you can see why.

Laguardia is in the region of Rioja Alavesa just 7km from the River Ebro, and 18km from Logroño, capital of La Rioja. To the north, and south the village has mountains to enjoy, the Sierra Cantabria to the north and the Sistema Iberico to the south the latter of which are snow-capped for more than 6 months a year. The village has no train station, but is well- connected with buses from Vitoria and Logroño and fairly well with Haro, all via Alava bus, making it a perfect stopover for the day, or overnight.

For 7 months of the year, Laguardia has mild to cool weather which will require a layer or two, especially at night, ranging from about 9 degrees in January during the day, to a few degrees above freezing at night, similar to Logroño. During the summer it gets hot, but rarely too uncomfortable and compared to the rest of the Basque Country, it is very dry, where by comparison, Vitoria-Gasteiz gets at least double the rainfall, and Bilbao, almost triple. I went at the start of May a few years ago, and jeans, a T-shirt and a jumper was perfect for me.

Depending on what you want to do there, the village will accommodate you with plenty of places to stay, but not many options are available for the solo traveler unfortunately, with almost everywhere offering just double rooms and virtually nothing for a youth hostel setup. Laguardia offers accommodation at around 60€ a night or 30€ per person if you are travelling with someone else, so a little more expensive compared to some of the cities around, but I think it’s still well worth it.

The old town is on top of a small hill with quite a few narrow sandstone buildings crammed together to form a number of romantic and charming streets, leading up to the plaza de los Gaiteros where the main church, The Iglesia de Santa Maria and it’s tower, the Torre Abacial is the biggest attraction of the village, giving you 360 views of the countryside as well as the whole of Laguardia itself. Some of the oldest known ruins in the world, dating as far back as the Bronze age, the Dolmen de San Martín can be visited nearby, though there are many more in the municipal area.

The main reason why people visit might not be exclusively the sights, but the gastronomy, principally, the famous Rioja Alavesa wine. Bodegas and vineyards are dotted all over the place with the typical tasting sessions available in almost all of them. The most famous vineyard is actually out of the centre, known as the Bodega Ysios, with its impressive architecture. Sadly, I didn’t have enough time to go visit it, but at least I got to taste the wine which was pretty special. By no means am I a connoisseur, but it is up there with some of the best red wine I have ever had, and the best thing is you are going to find it everywhere in the village.

Like the rest of the Basque Country, pintxos are quite a common occurrence in the bars, but will have a lot more similarities with that of the gastronomy of La Rioja. Tortilla, hotpot or cazuela style dishes are super common there. As with the whole of the Basque country and La Rioja, you will eat very well in Laguardia, and though I just enjoyed a couple of pintxos as I was saving myself for my visit to Logroño, I enjoyed every bite.

So that’s it about Laguardia, a Pueblo Mas Bonita de España that is easily accessible and a unique taste Rioja that is actually Basque. I would happily go back, and whether you have half a day, or want to spend the night, check it out, you won’t be disappointed.

Settling COVID-19 fines issued by the Junta

The years 2020 and 2021 have been crazy to say the least, and almost everyone across Spain (myself included) have been the receiving end of some very strict and complicated rules put into place since the 1st official state of emergency declared in March 2020. With all the free time I now had, I still wasn’t completely as well-read as I am now about my rights, and what I could do in case something was to happen related to being fined. Unfortunately, I was one of many people hard-done by police very happy to stamp their authority and slap me with a fine for breaking COVID protocols.

What happened to me?

Basically it was the 21st of May. Córdoba was on Phase 1, about to transition to Phase 2 of the relaxation of confinement. Phase 1 was probably the most controversial of the 4 phases that the government introduced. Adults, elderly and children still had specific times on when they were allowed out for exercise, but at any time of the day could go out for lunch or a beer at any bar with a terrace, or go shopping for non- essential items, which is where the shadiness of most of the fines occurred. As a 30-year-old adult, I was only allowed out between 6-10am and 8-11pm. I was walking back home from doing some exercise and lost track of time, and was just 10 minutes from home, when the police stopped me, it was 10:10, my details were logged. They understood my confusion and I thought that was the end of it.

WRONG. A year later and I sign for a letter and couldn’t believe it when I saw it, those officers rolled us over and slapped us with 2 fines of 601€. The legal questions were flooding my brain for several days trying to work out if we could get out of paying this. Here’s what I discovered:

  1. The fine could be cut by half (300.50€) if paid within 15 days of signing for it, and this applies to almost all the fines issued by the Junta.
  2. It could be paid almost anywhere, certain government buildings, any public bank, online via the Agencia Tributaria or other permitted organisation online as stated on the document.
  3. You have a year to pay the full fine should you decide to pay after the original 15 days. This does depend on how much you have to pay though.
  4. You can present a case to the Subdelegación to prove that you are unable to pay the fine in one go, and arrange with the Hacienda (tax office) to make monthly payments.
  5. Most importantly, if you know that this is a mistake of some kind, you might be able to get the fine overturned (recurrido), so it’s worth checking with a solicitor before paying it.

I decided to seek legal advice over this, If you work in Spain, it’s good to check with your employer’s legal representative to start with and offer any suggestion as to how to recurrir it. if you have any evidence to show that you hadn’t committed the crime and it was a mistake, the solicitor will draft a letter to be presented to the Fiscalia to show that it should be recurrido.

In my case we found issues with the dates of the incident and when they issued it to us. By law, the subdelegación has to send all fines within a year of the incident and processed paperwork. if they issue a fine a year and a day after the incident, it is officially null and void. If you physically receive the paperwork after that year, but the document is dated within a year of the incident, the odds are in your favour though it is harder to win that case, but I know people who have appealed and won, so it might be worth a shot.

The big problem with anything being issued in 2020-2021, is the state of emergency (Estado de Alarma) that was implemented twice over that time. Basically the government have leeway into issuing fines on time, and subsequently apply to the first day after the end of the Estado de Alarma. it means if you committed a crime during the first Estado de Alarma between the 14th of March and 1st of June 2020, you can only overturn the fine if you receive the document after the 1st. Technically you still have to pay if the incident took place on the 20th May 2020 and the dreaded letter goes through your door on the 31st of May 2021, which was what happened to me.

Another thing to note, if you pay the fine but want to contest it, you won’t be able to, because that suggests that you have accepted the charge. Also if you lose the case of overturning the fine, you would pay the full amount of the fine, and possible additional fees depending on the case. In the end after thoroughly exhausting my options, I ended up paying the 300€ at my local bank. And the ordeal was over.

All I can say is I hope you never have to go through this, and that police in Spain like to pick on easy targets and you just might be incredibly unlucky. I for example have never been stopped by them for not wearing my facemask while doing exercise outdoors (I’m federado so I can legally do that.), and I have heard lots of stories of people being stopped and punished. I for one can’t wait for the restrictions to end completely. So take care and be keep your eyes peeled for them.

Pueblos de España, Mini Blogs Vol 1: Xerta, Tarragona

Having decided that city guides are not the ideal home for my adventures into smaller picturesque towns and villages of Spain, I decided to make a new place for them. Many of them will be on the list of Pueblos Más Bonitos de España, or Most beautiful villages of Spain, Xerta is not one of them, but worth writing about.

Xerta (Cherta in Spanish) is a Catalan village that lies on the banks of the river Ebro, and is locally popular for stopovers before reaching the major town, Tortosa, or as a gateway to some locally picturesque scenery. The only way to get there is by bus, by car or by bicycle (more on that later) and most of the roads in the centre are very narrow and pedestrianised but the main square is easily accessible, and is where most of the activity comes from. there are several guest houses and hotels dotted around the village as well as a hostel for those with a budget, where I stayed, and is a pleasant experience. Prices start from about 15€ per person, per night.

The most common monuments are orientated around the Plaça Major, where the church also shows a scale depicting historical flood levels of Xerta, some of them going over my head to my amazement, and given how flat this place is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole village had been affected over the years. Other notable sights are the Capella de Sant Zeno, the Capella de Sant Domenec and a couple of kilometres away the Assaut de Xerta, an old mill which has subsequently lost a lot of its beauty now a hydroelectric station was built in the area, but is still of local importance and interest.

The Natural sights may be the most important as Xerta is most popular for its sporting activities and being on the banks of the Ebro, popular for some potential water sports as well. The Via Verde del Ebro, a cycle path converted from an old train, track passes through the village and is the main reason people stop by here. Hiking routes from this village are also possible along the river, as well as being very close to the mountain range of Els Ports.

There’s not much home to write home about in the food section, except that there are some dishes heavily influenced by the surrounding regions. The most typical dishes here, are arros de plana, similar to a paella, and coca de mançana, a cake with roasted apples. The most famous pastry for the region, the pastisset of casquet is a filled, short crust pasty most commonly with pumpkin, and are covered in sugar, a perfect snack for being out and about.

That’s it from me about Xerta, I had a lovely experience there, and almost completely unknown to any foreign traveler. Its a perfect rest stop for anyone doing any cycling or hiking in the area, and though it won’t blow you away compared to other picturesque villages, you will hold this one in high regard.

The Valencian coastal tour, Day 1/6 Reus- Xerta 81km

This cycling trip is one of the longest I have done to date (and when COVID-19 no longer poses too many obstacles, I will make sure to go way further), starting from Reus in the Catalan province of Tarragona and finishing in Murcia about 580km away. This plan developed upon setting up my new life in Catalonia, where I would spend the next 5 years, and using a new bike, a hybrid from Decathlon, which allowing me to go off road on occasions if I needed to. It was Easter week, so I had time to go far, and get stuck into this new challenge set across multiple regions of Spain.

One thing you learn from previous trips is you try to use your free space as well as possible, and I experimented by removing any excess weight off my back, so the bike got loaded with bags on the pannier, a large compartment on the front, and attempted to set up a camera with my phone to record things hooked along a selfie stick. Not terrible ideas, but I didn’t know what I know now, and you will too if you don’t already.

The plan was as follows:

  • Reus- Xerta 81km
  • Xerta- Castelló (Castellón) de la Plana 147km
  • Castellón- Valencia 73km
  • Valencia- Javea (Xabia) 117km
  • Javea- Alicante 97km
  • Alicante- Murcia 82km, total 597km

The main reason I chose this route was to explore as much of the Costas as much as I could, with some key places I knew little about at the time. Some of this route was also via some caminos, or tracks where only one part I would say was unsuitable for road bikes, all of which were on the first day. The cost of the hostels were about 170€ for the 6 nights and of various levels of comfort, but all that info to come later, for now let’s start the journey…

The starting point was Reus, and you immediately follow a Camino called Molins Nous, which will take you straight to Riudoms, the first town of the journey. Just 6km separates you from Reus and the Camino is pleasant and mostly smooth all the way as you cross the Riera de Maspujols and enter the village of about 6000 people. The Plaça de l’Eglesia is the highlight of any passer by, and the narrow streets have a similarity to Reus, minus the people. You exit via the TV-3103 and can take sign posts to the Next village, Montbrio del Camp can be followed by signposts, or via the Cami dels Cerdans, I chose the main road as it’s actually quicker this time. Another 5km and you’re motoring along.

The best way to enter this village is via the Cami de Vinyols where you will join up alongside the dry riverside and get some impressive views of the architecture of the Parroquia de Sant Pere and The Ajuntament. This village is also a great place to stop for something as there are a few reliable cafés just before you enter the old centre. Montbrio is a bit of a crossroads between the coast and the mountains, so you are more likely to see activity here, than Riudoms. North towards the mountains is Riudecanyes where there is some impressive hiking trails, while south is Cambrils, a foodie hotspot on the coast. But I was heading to Mont-roig, via the Carrer major and this time I chose the Cami de Vilanova, Which is 50:50 for road bikes.

Mont-roig Can be accessed alternatively via the T-310 which will be important later, as it’s the road you take to leave the town. The generally flat experience that had dominated the first 12km is looking ominous to end as the mountains by this point are at the doorstep of this village. It’s still a very straightforward 6km and the old part of town stands out ahead of the other places so far. Though the 900- year history of Mont-Roig del Camp isn’t so telling, There’s enough to see to impress you such as the Eglesia vella de Sant Miquel d’Arcangel, and it’s newer church on the Plaça de Mossen Gaieta Ivern. It’s worth having a short walk around the narrow rustic streets of the Nucli Antic before continuing out of town.

The major mountain stage was coming up next, where you briefly rejoin the T-310 along the edge of the mountains with occasional impressive views of the sea, Which by this point are only about 5km away. For me, the major issue was the wind, which was quite strong along this stretch, and the challenge starts as you turn off onto the C-44 to where it’s signposted Mora and Vandellos. This route is quite busy at times, so be careful, and immediately you are climbing past the neighbourhood of Masriudoms and then to Masboqueira which has a very charming little old quarter, but very to offer any passer by in case you need supplies. by this point you will have cycled 14km from Mont-Roig and climbed about 150m.

Vandellos is just 2km from Masboqueira and notably bigger with more things you may need, but there isn’t much to see here. The bigger attraction of this town would be the numerous hiking routes that exist around here. The road does get notably steeper here as well, so there’s a push to the top of the pass. The Coll de Fatxes is the highest point of the whole trip at 507m high, and its a good challenge for any cyclist to reach the top some 5km or so from Vandellos. The views were also pretty spectacular as you leave the comarca of the Baix Camp and enter the Ribera del Ebre, and on top of that, you get to enjoy a nice descent all the way to the main road that follows the course of the River Ebro, the longest river wholly in Spain.

Before the junction however, you might be interested enough to stop off in Tivissa, Where the main square lies on the edge of a rocky outcrop alongside the church, giving you some really nice views of the surrounding area, and there’s also some castle ruins, Castellet de Banyoles on a hill just before the junction at the river that listed as a cultural heritage site. Only if you have time, as there’s still 38km to go from the village. Just short of the River Ebro, I reached the junction that directed me to Mora or Tortosa, The later took me south towards the sea and my bed for the night.

Not long after the junction, The small village of Ginestar is a possible diversion which I subsequently did not take. From what I was told about it, I don’t think I missed much, but you might be curious enough to check it out and let me know in the comments. It isn’t really out of the way, so it would be easy to keep to the itinerary. A few kilometres later you finally run alongside the famous Ebro river, where you will on the hill on the other side the Castillo de Miravet. There’s a small ferry that can take you to the other side just before the road goes away from the river and starts climbing rather unexpectedly towards another village called Rasquera, which was an unwelcome slog which gifted some of the most spectacular views of the river and surrounding mountains.

At the highest point, you are over 100m higher than the river and there’s even a viewpoint called the mirador de Benifallet, which is also the next village on this journey. The mountain scene made up for this leg burner and it also left an amazing descent to a bridge that I had to cross. This is crucial as there is not another bridge that crosses the Ebro until Tortosa, so stay on the C-12 all the way. Xerta by this point is a gentle push downstream and barely 10km away. The valley meanders until you reach the village, where the valley starts to open up a little, and there it is, my bed for the night.

I stayed in the Alberg Xerta, commonly used for travellers due to numerous walking and cycling routes, and was very good price for the night, just 15€ at the time. They even gave me preferential treatment due to my room being shared with a group of kid scouts, and sent me to an empty apartment which I ended up having for myself at no extra cost to my shock. It looked as though they had done this for other guests before, but under no circumstances can I guarantee that will happen to you whatsoever, just hope your trip coincides with a group of kids and you might strike gold.

Xerta itself was a pleasant village with some history to keep you interested, and it’s main square encourages you to enjoy it peacefully and enjoy the life of the locals for an evening. I only wondered around for a short amount of time, and while there are no museums, there is enough there to make it a great stopover. I enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere of the place and was able to prepare myself and rest well for the following day, which would be the longest of the trip so far. Day 1 complete, a perfect distance to warm the legs up.