Las Vías Verdes is a network of Greenways that spreads all across the Iberian Peninsula. Since 1993 more than 3000 km of Spain’s abandoned train lines have been converted into these bicycle and pedestrian routes, as part of the European Greenway system. They can be used free of charge by cyclists, walkers, wheelchair users and horseback riders. My husband and I set out to try one of the 120 Spanish greenways.
Andalucía offers many exciting activities, but if you are looking for something suitable for the whole family, try a bike ride along one of the territory’s abandoned train lines. Due to the railway’s standard width, wide-angle turns and limited gradient, the route meanders in a leisurely manner across the undulating landscape without steep ascents or descents. The Vías are user-friendly and it is practically impossible to get lost. The signage is impeccable and includes the distance to the next station, traffic signs when you cross an occasional farm road, and signs pointing out upcoming sights. We also pass warning signs for the legendary Spanish Toros Bravos, but these imposing animals are thankfully behind fences.
Visitors can also find water, toilets and places to eat at some of the former stations along the way, as well as information panels, picnic areas and observation platforms. The goal of the Vías Verdes is to improve the range of non-motorized tourism, promote nature knowledge and healthier life styles, and contribute to district development and local employment.
Bike rental with full service
We have chosen the Vía Verde de la Sierra between Olvera and Puerto de Serrano in the province of Cádiz. On a sunny fall day, we drive to Olvera’s old train station to pick up our rental bikes. While the country’s shortest Vías are only a couple of kilometres long, the longest are well over 100 km and include overnight lodgings options. Our route is a perfect compromise at 36.5 km or a 73 km round trip. It is part of the southern Camino de Santiago de la Plata, and is said to be one of the prettiest and most awarded greenways in all of Europe.
According to its website, the bike rental office is open from 09.00 until 18.00. One obviously has to take this with a pinch of Spanish salt, as not a soul is around when we arrive. While waiting, we decide to grab a coffee at the station cafe, where they just have started bringing out the first tables. No rush, we have the day before us.
The young man who serves us says that the station never actually opened as such, or trains ever used the line. The construction of the railway that was to connect the villages between Jerez de la Frontera and Almargen began in the 1920s, but the economic depression and the subsequent Spanish Civil War stopped the project before it opened – until now.
A couple of minutes later the fellow who rents the bikes is ready for business. The company has everything from terrain and tandem bikes, to bike seats and trailers for kids, and even a pedal powered 4-seater rickshaw. In addition, they also provide electrical bikes, but we feel that is a bit like cheating, particularly as in the morning we are still fresh and energetic. We have reserved a couple of terrain bikes online, that we get adjusted to our size. The bikes have decent disc brakes and disc gear and seem perfectly all right, except perhaps that the seat is a tad too hard for my behind. The renter assures us that we are in safe hands. If any problems should occur, we can call a number and they will come rushing with a spare tire or whatever might be needed. In a worst-case scenario, if we cannot handle biking any longer, they will probably even give us a ride back. He shows us a map of the route, highlighting that most bikers turn around half way, since the entire route takes well over 3.5 hours one way and much longer to return. As the route inclines slightly towards Puerto de Serrano, we will have more hills to climb on the way back, he explains, unfortunately to partially deaf ears.
The hour is nearly 10 by the time we set off, which means we have 8 hours before we have to return the bikes. Piffle, 73 km, of course we can manage that, I think. And this would not have been a problem had we been seasoned bikers, but the fact was that we had not sat on a bicycle since we left Canada almost 8 years ago…
On two wheels in La Sierra
“Ohhhh, how fabulous it is to be on a bike again!” I call out as soon as we set off. Everything goes smoothly and the road seems great. The first couple of kilometres are even paved, but after that it is primarily gravel and sand. We pedal along, me with a perma-grin from ear to ear, past a rolling landscape of farmer’s fields and olive groves, and I insist that we stop to take photos every few hundred yards. We arrive at the first of many tunnels and its perfect opera house echo prompts me to sing out loud. This is going like a dream!
After about 5 km, we zoom by the first abandoned station, waving to someone resting in the shade of the ruined building. The road leads on into a Mediterranean forest with gnarly oaks, tall poplars, pink oleander and wild olive trees. There are relatively few people on the road today. Most of the ones we meet are older Spanish men who judging by their appearance must have partaken in many national bike races in their younger days. Since this is the day before a long weekend, we also meet a few families with children, and even an entire primary school class with their teacher.
At about the 16 km point, our surroundings change again, this time to barren rock. We are approaching the nature reserve by Zaframagón. The station here is now used as an information centre for the local vulture colony and there is also a feeding station nearby. As exciting as this sounds, we decide to move on and catch it on the way back.
Otherwise there are no lack of sights en route, and we cross four spectacular viaducts. These are bridges composed of arches that would have taken railways across valleys and riverbeds, with inclines which would otherwise have been too steep for locomotives to navigate.
In the following section, we bike through some of the route’s most impressive tunnels before arriving at the station near the village of Coripe. This is clearly the central hub of this Vía. People from nearby villages park their cars here and wander or bike a shorter route before enjoying a longer lunch at the station restaurant. It is almost crowded, so it is probably wise to avoid long weekends or puentes in Spanish.
Coripe is also the turnaround point for most of the cyclists who come from Olvera. Only the pros, the unknowing and those like us, the particularly stubborn, bike the whole way. But we have come this far, what is another 14.5 km? We take another slug from our water bottles and jump onto the bikes again.
Beautiful, mystical, dark tunnels
The most memorable and unique feature of the Vía Verde de la Sierra, at least for me, are the tunnels. This particular route has 30 of them – everything from elongated bridges to mountain passes that extend for more than a kilometre, where I get to test the echo with a selection of Edith Piaf and mock operas. The tunnels are also beautiful aesthetically speaking, with a classic 1920s hand chiselled look and archways that are repeated at regular intervals. Since no train has chugged through them, the walls aren’t covered in soot either. In addition, they are nice and cool on a sweltering day.
The first tunnels we go through are short enough for the daylight to more or less shine through. Later we come to longer tunnels, with are illuminated automatically as you enter, some fuelled by solar power, others by regular electricity. It is a tough adjustment on the eyes to come from the bright daylight into a relatively dark tunnel, lit or not. Luckily my sunglasses have a string around my neck so I can pop them off without having to get off the bike. My husband, who uses glasses, wishes he had one of those sunglass attachments that you can just flip up and down. Otherwise, contact lenses would probably be complicated, especially if the tunnels have a lot of dust in the air. And rest assured, this will happen.
In spite of the roads being closed off to vehicular traffic, you will always meet a couple of maintenance vehicles or a pickup from a nearby farm during a day on the Vía Verdes. Speaking from my own experience, this is guaranteed to happen when you are inside a tunnel. The good news is that you can see the car’s headlights from far away, and that vehicles according to the signs are only supposed to drive at a max 10 km/h. Since we do not know if the driver has indulged in an Anís or two for breakfast, we still stop and glue ourselves to the tunnel wall while waiting for the car to pass and the cloud of dust to dissipate.
It can however, get quite dark in between the lights in the tunnels. Light bulbs don’t last forever and not all are changed as soon as they expire. Neither Jaime nor myself thought about checking for lights and reflectors before leaving the station, something we now realise would have been a wise move. The road surface inside the tunnels is uneven at best. Some have a strip of asphalt, which may end at any point without warning. These can actually be more challenging than a gravel road, as you cannot always see the edge of the many potholes.
After a couple of precarious, half-blind tunnel crossings, I recall that I have a head lantern at the bottom of my pack. I fasten it around my upper arm, holding it in such a manner that the dancing beam occasionally hits the ground. It is not flood lighting, but at least it helps us see the largest holes before we hit them. And in such a way we manage to get safely through tunnel after tunnel.
Only lunch guests
The road continues along the beautiful riverbeds of the Guadalete and Guadalporcún and continues into rural farming districts with sheep and cattle, where we meet a couple of local gents who are enjoying the road on horseback.
Since the last tunnel is closed, we have to take a detour and are relieved when we roll in at the end station. It is just past one o’clock, so it has taken us just over three hours, in spite of my endless photo stops. We peak around the station building, which is supposed to be a restaurant, but see no other diners. A man comes outside and confirms that they are open. Could they bring a table outside and serve us some lunch, we ask, and even if the place seems rather abandoned, the dishes are brought out on the double. We enjoy a tasty meal including an entire grilled octopus leg, beautiful tapas dishes of baked eggplant and venison stew, plus a couple of bowls of their local olives, cured by the owner’s mother. The entire meal including beverages comes to just over 20 €. How can you beat that! I would have loved to bring back a large glass jar of the home-cured olives, but with the ride back in mind, I manage to restrain myself. For the same reason we do not order wine with the meal and decide to enjoy a dessert later en route.
By the time the meal is done and paid for, it is two o’clock. Have we already been here an hour? We only have four hours left now before the bike rental closes. Perhaps this is why we were recommended to turn back after half way? I remember the golden mountain rule from my youth in the Norwegian woods: There is no shame in turning back! We don’t recognise the truth in this saying until we plop our sore behinds back on the bicycle seats and start pedalling. Ouch!
All those jolly little hills that I sang myself down on the way here, we now have to bike up. Thankfully, the road surface is as mentioned fairy flat, but even the gravel feels heavier to pedal through now in the afternoon. The Andalucian heat is also something one always should be aware of, even on a late fall day. When we took off it was a comfortable 13 degrees, but now the temperature has gradually crept up to close to 28 degrees in the sun. We begin to long for the balmy tunnels.
I have always been the first to preach about how important it is to bring enough water on nature excursions. Usually we bring a couple of litres each, plus a bottle of Aquarius with electrolytes as extra provision. This time we only brought our small water bottles, partly because we had read that one could buy water at several places along the way. Think again! Here we are far away from stores and restaurants with only measly mouthfulls of lukewarm water between us.
One ought to take certain precautions on the Vía Verde, as with any other Andalusian nature trip. Sufficient liquids are vital. Always bring more water than you believe you will need. You cannot plan to buy it on the way, as one never knows what one will encounter, and when and if places are open when they are supposed to be. Likewise, sun protection is a MUST all year – sunglasses, sunscreen and sunhat, unless you are wearing a bike helmet, which I would whole-heartedly recommend. If you use your own bike, remember your repair kit and make sure you have proper lights on your bike and even an extra flashlight.
Sheep, sheepdogs, but where is the shepherd?
After a while we get back into the rhythm of it and the kilometres fly by. We zoom through another tunnel and are back at the riverbed. There is a flock of sheep on the hillside. I am just about to stop and snap a picture, but get wary when I notice that some of the moving dots have rather long snouts. Then I hear the first barks. At this point I should add that I have an irrational fear of ownerless dogs off leash, ever since a German Shepherd attacked my stroller when I was a baby. Our local shepherd’s loyal sheepdog take care of over 100 sheep without uttering as much as a tiny woof, but these beasts are quite different.
As we get closer (there is no other way but forward…) I discover that there are more of them than I originally thought. I count four, eight, no, at least twelve big hounds, looking like crosses between all the scary guard dogs I have ever met. Some growl and one starts running after me, as if he can smell my fear. “Jaime!”, I squeak while wobbling on the cycle, the beast hot on my heels. “They aren’t dangerous. Just go on”, he calls out. Easy for him to say, as he is behind me… The mongrel is only interested in snapping at my foot, regardless of how much my husband whistles and yells. The tunnel ahead doesn’t seem to get any closer. Where is the darn shepherd?
I have more or less come to terms with sacrificing my left foot, but am not as keen on inheriting the rabies that I in my overdeveloped imagination seem to detect frothing at the mouth of the snarling beast.
“Just step on it, we will soon be in the tunnel,” encourages Jaime. I weaver along towards the opening with a palpitating heart, while the angry hound hisses at my front tire. Jaime uses all his canine discipline tricks to no avail, while the shepherd is likely to be found at the closest bar. If I just had a pepper spray, I think, not that I can stop and get it out of my backpack anyhow. Just as I am about to give up all hope, another dog comes to my rescue. When the nasty mongrel tries to bite my leg off, the other dog jumps in and tries to pull the snarling dog away. Phew! Finally, we enter the safe darkness of the tunnel. Thank goodness, I didn’t become lunch for a pack of mad dogs today, after all…
The drama is over, but we still have 25 km left to ride. My hands are aching after having been clamped onto the handlebars, but they are nothing compared to my butt. Even if one never forgets how to ride a bicycle, the gluteal muscles will. As I can no longer manage to sit without being in total agony, I stand and pedal for the remaining kilometres, while occasionally resting my extended lateral rump on the seat when I can just cruise along.
Don’t misunderstand me. It is a stunning bike route, just that after 60 km with a ball breaking seat, direct sunlight and limited water, I begin to think like Ferdinand the bull, and look for a nice olive tree where we can lay down and take a long siesta. Or call the bike rental agency. That is just a thought of course, because upon my life, we will not give up. We pass the nature reserve with the vultures again that, not unexpectedly, is now closed. No water for sale either and the next station is a ruin.
Just half a dozen tunnels and a few more hills and we will be there. We see the old fort over the village of Pruna, and at long last roll in at the Olvera station. It is now 5 pm, so we made it in record time, certainly for us who haven’t ridden for nearly a decade. We return the bikes, ready to collapse in a chair at the station restaurant and order copious amounts of liquids and food to follow. But that is not possible. They close at 17.00. After a bit of friendly negotiating, they reluctantly agree to let us have a couple of bottles of water and sit at the last remaining table that they still have not stored away.
Happily home, a couple of days later we again manage to sit on our tender rears and only remember the jolly part of the ride on the Vías Verdes.
For more information: Via Verdes