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Sunday, 24 October 2010

Cycling (and not) in La Rioja, Northern Spain

Written by Dale Fehringer
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Seeing a new part of the world on a bicycle is one of my favorite experiences. But it’s even better if you are fully prepared. This is what I recently discovered when I fell off my bike in the middle of a week-long cycling tour of northern Spain.

Following the Ebro River

We chose this particular cycling tour (La Rioja – The Descent of the Ebro River) because it offered an opportunity to visit a part of Spain few tourists get to see. It was organized by Iberocycle (www.iberocycle.com), a small family-owned tour company headquartered in Santander, Spain. Simon Proffitt, the owner, and Ignacio Silva, our guide, planned it for us and all we had to do was cycle, follow instructions, and enjoy this amazing part of the world.

Map Of Spain

To get there we flew to Madrid and then took a bus to Bilbao where we spent a couple of days exploring the Guggenheim Museum, dining on tapas and paella, and trying to improve our limited Spanish. Simon and Ignacio picked us up at our hotel in Bilbao and drove us along the north coast of Spain and south over the Cordillera Cantábrica Mountains. The countryside was lush green from winter rains, the weather was sunny and mild, and we enjoyed views of the Ebro Valley and nearby snow-peaked mountains. We wound up at a small, cozy inn in a village near the source of the Ebro River. Simon and Ignacio fitted us with our bicycles, described the week ahead, and bought a round of welcome drinks.

The next morning we started cycling after breakfast, riding at a leisurely pace and stopping frequently for coffee, food, and water. It was the last week of May and the cool, cloudy weather was ideal for cycling. We rolled along quiet asphalt roads beside the river and relished the panorama of jagged canyons, ancient villages, and tumbling waterfalls.

River Ebro

A “Hybrid” Bicycle Tour

This was a “hybrid” bike tour, with elements of a fully-supported tour (cycling with guides) and self-guided (cycling on your own). Iberocycle supplied the bikes, accommodations, maps, and instructions and they moved our luggage each day to the next inn. They also provided a support van which was always nearby to help with flat tires, equipment problems, or tired riders. We cycled around 40 miles a day, starting when we wanted and stopping whenever we chose. It worked great for us because we enjoyed having other cyclists to ride with and share experiences, and we appreciated the ability to cycle at our own pace.

There were 11 of us, ranging in age from 22 to 67. Everyone was in good cycling shape, but we rode at different speeds. There were seven from the U.S. (a family of four and Patty, her cousin Tom, and me), David and Eva from Australia, and Dermod and Helen from Ireland.

Our guide was relatively new to Iberocycle and loved his job. Each day, he outlined the route and pointed out highlights, areas of danger, and good places to eat. After we took off, he loaded our luggage, drove it to our next inn, and then spent the rest of the day driving the route, making sure we were OK and offering advice and encouragement. At night, Ignacio recommended a restaurant and went there with those who wanted to join him, entertaining us with stories about this part of Spain.

Ignacio Instructs


 

 

Oops…

I had just started cycling up a hill after a break when I heard my wife ask me to come back for a photo. I turned around – too sharply – and tipped over. I hit the road with my left hand and left foot, rolled onto my back, and wound up on the road with sharp pain in my left ankle. My wife, Patty, picked up my bike, rolled it off the road, and helped me to my feet. I hobbled across the road and sat on a nearby bench.

The pain was so intense I was sure I’d sprained my ankle. When I lowered my sock, I found a golf ball-sized bruise on the outside of my foot, just below my anklebone. While I waited for the pain to subside, I held my water bottle on my ankle and thought about how we had gotten here.

After sitting for awhile, the pain subsided enough to allow me to take stock of my situation. I found I could bend my ankle and even put limited weight on my foot. Walking was painful, though, so Patty brought my bike to me and I gingerly climbed aboard. I was able to get my badly swollen left foot in the toe clip, and I could press on the left pedal with minimal pain. So I got on and started cycling – very slowly – up the hill. I could continue, but not quickly. Somehow I managed to finish the remaining six miles.

At the end of day’s ride I got ice from the hotel’s front desk, limped to our room, and elevated my foot. I called Jack, a member of our tour group who is also a physician, and asked him to come to our room and examine my foot. After a suitable amount of poking and prodding, he diagognized my injury as a partially torn ligament and prescribed ice, elevation, and rest.

After an uncomfortable night my foot was nearly twice its normal size. I stretched a cycling sock over it (which acted as a wrap), loosely tied my shoes, and stood up. I could put weight on my foot and could walk (with some pain), so I limped down to the lobby.

After breakfast, I climbed aboard my bike, expecting the worst. To my surprise, I found I could put pressure on the foot and pedal, although I definitely favored my right side. I started the day’s route with cell phone handy, in case I needed to have Ignacio rescue me. The foot limbered up so I kept riding, and finished the day’s route. I was glad, because it was one of our best days.

Poppies, Wildflowers, and Sweet Peas

It was spring and the countryside was in full bloom. We cycled past fields of red-orange poppies, yellow wildflowers, and sweet peas with tiny white blossoms. The villages had white stone houses and well-groomed vegetable gardens and we stopped to smell lilacs and roses, watch storks tend their nests, and listen to cuckoo birds along the river.

Poppies And Wildflowers

Cycling with “Lazy” Cuckoo Birds

The sound of cuckoo birds accompanied us each day as we cycled along the river. We listened for their “coo-coo” calls, which sound just like the birds in the clocks. Ignacio called them “lazy,” and described their habit of laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. This unusual characteristic means that many species of cuckoo rely on “host” birds to raise their young. Cuckoo egg shells are very thick, which prevents them from cracking when they are dropped in the host nest, and cuckoo eggs hatch earlier than the host's. The cuckoo chicks grow very fast, and often throw out eggs of the host species. The host feeds the cuckoo chick (thinking it is its own) until the cuckoo is old enough to leave the nest.

Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Some of the locals didn’t speak English, but when we asked questions in our broken Spanish they tried to help, or they found someone who could.


 

 

Comfort Food and Comfy Inns

This is a region of fresh and hearty food that includes tapas, paella, cheese, and seafood. There are several Michelin-rated restaurants in the area and a well-established base of first-rate local eating establishments. Our meals were well-prepared, tasty, and inexpensive; our favorite foods were tortillas (potato omelets), white asparagus, black pudding (pork blood), tear peas (tiny, tear-shaped spring peas), and patatas bravas (fried potatoes in spicy sauce).

Rio Ebro

The last couple of days we cycled through Rioja, which is one of the oldest and largest wine producing regions in Spain. The rolling hills and sweeping views of vineyards and wineries make this a great place to cycle. Rioja wines are flavorful and inexpensive and feature vanilla overtones from oak aging. Local winemakers have used oak barrels for hundreds of years – originally French oak, but now primarily American oak. During a winery tour we saw oak barrels being made by hand – a rare sight indeed!

We stayed in a variety of small, comfortable inns staffed by friendly and gracious hosts. Two of our favorites were a flour mill that has been converted into a charming B&B, and an overnight in Frias where our hostess offered to do our laundry (!) and brought in neighbors to serve us a homemade seven-course feast.

Inn

Location

Highlights

Casona de Naveda

Naveda

Charming country inn with rural views

Posada El Cazador

Villanueva de la Nia

Rustic hunting lodge

Posada Molina del Canto

Valle de Zamanzas

Converted flour mill with comfortable two-story rooms

Hotel La Alhama

Medina de Pomar

Within walking distance of the old town of Medina de Pomar and leather factory

Poza de la Torca

Frias

Nicely decorated rooms, great views, excellent meals, gracious hostess

Hotel Luz

Haro

Modern hotel within walking distance of tapas bars, shopping

Hotel Villa de Laguardia

Laguardia

Comfortable rooms, excellent meals, great place to end our tour

Lucky in So Many Ways

I was incredibly lucky in so many ways. This was a spectacular cycling tour and despite my accident I was able to enjoy it all. But I might not be so lucky the next time, so from now on I plan to be completely prepared. Before I start riding, I will become familiar with my bike by thoroughly testing the brakes, gears, and turning radius. From now on I will carry a first aid kit that includes bandages, ointments, and instant ice packs. And I will make sure I always have a cell phone, so I can quickly summon help in case of an accident.

These small adjustments will help ensure that we will be able to thoroughly enjoy the wonder of seeing a new part of the world by bicycle.

Resources:

Casona de Naveda (www.casonadenaveda.com/inicio.htm)

Hotel La Alhama (www.hotelrestaurantealhama.com)

Hotel Luz (www.luzhotel.com)

Hotel Villa de Laguardia (http://www.jpmoser.com/villadelaguardia.html)

Iberocycle (www.iberocycle.com)

Iberia Airlines (http://www.iberia.com)

Miro Hotel (Bilbao) (www.mirohotelbilbao.com)

Posada El Cazador (www.posadaelcazador.com)

Posada Molina del Canto (www.molinodelcanto.com)

Poza de la Torca (www.pozadelatorca.es)

©Dale Fehringer

About the author: Dale Fehringer is a freelance writer and editor in San Francisco. He is a columnist for Competitive Intelligence Magazine and writes for inTravel Magazine
(
www.intravelmag.com) and Writer’s Showcase (www.storyhouse.org). He shares office space with his wife, Patty, and cats, George and Gracie. He can be reached at (415) 602-6116 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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