|Alhambra tile work, Granada, Spain|
From Gibraltar we turned East towards Granada leaving behind the cooler, coastal climate for the stifling, dry air of the Sierra Nevada mountains. What looked like a beautiful, winding coastal road on the map, from La Linea to Malaga, turned out to be an overdeveloped strip of endless resorts with countless billboards promising to fulfill our every desire. After living in California for so long we consider ourselves immune to this type of marketing so after a lunch of thirst quenching Coca Cola and a delicious, juicy Big Mac, we turned inland onto one of the most spectacular roads we’ve ridden to date. The SO2, climbing steeply out of Almunecar pierces the Southern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains quickly gaining altitude with each hairpin bend, a well maintained surface and little other traffic had us utilizing every inch of tarmac, leaning the bikes into turns pushing them to the very limits of their intended use. Sparks flew from the underside of Beth’s bike as she tested her nerve and ability, I rode behind balancing equal measures of fear and admiration.
Within the Alhambra complex the ancient castles of the Nasrid dynasty overlook the city of Granada, so plain on the outside they reveal an exquisite interior of remarkable beauty and intricate detail. Every carved tile has a story, combined they form a poetry, exalting the achievements of a long dead empire. Intended to represent an image of paradise, the palace blends running water, sunlight, open air and subtle symmetry to create a peaceful oasis while concealing a past tainted with intrigue and bloodshed. We spent a long, hot day exploring the site before returning to the Albayzin district as night fell to enjoy cold beer and tasty tapas. The following day saw us back in the saddle, moving North through the Sierra de Segura mountains and lakes before pulling over at Alcazar for the evening’s camp and the best paella we’ve ever tasted.
|Riding into Andorra|
Torn between the mountains and the ocean we moved towards Andorra, at times hugging the coast before seeking the cooler inland air of the higher elevations. Campsites are more common the closer you get to the Mediterranean Sea but they start to resemble large scale holiday resorts with scheduled events for the whole family to enjoy, we pulled up at one site and asked for their cheapest site only to be told it would cost us 60 euros for a 12 by 12 foot piece of dirt and a tepid shower. I enquired why it was so expensive and was assured it was because this was ‘high’ season, when I asked the receptionist if she was high the irony was, fortunately, lost in translation. Turning our bikes around we discovered a perfect ‘wild’ camp nearby and wandered back later to use their facilities. Sadly, this stretch of Spanish coastline felt, at times, over developed and at others totally abandoned. Prostitutes became a common site every few miles along the roadside, sitting quietly under red umbrellas, wearing silk and lace over tired bodies.
Another tip from a fellow traveller took us inland towards the paragliding mecca of Ager in the Southern Pyrenees, as we neared the area, countless colorful wings gently soared on the last of the days thermals before drifting down towards a field behind our campsite. Later that evening many eager pilots studied weather charts for the following day while sipping beer at the local bar. At exactly midnight, the town of Ager, which looked as though it couldn’t have been home to more than 2000 people erupted in a festival of dance and music which continued until 6 in the morning, clearly they had heard Beth and I were passing through their community and they wanted us to feel as welcome as possible.
Leaving Ager we took a spectacular road Northeast into the tiny principality of Andorra, a unique nation famous for it’s skiing and shopping. With its twisting mountain roads and extensive ski resorts it felt as though we were back in Switzerland and we couldn’t resist parking the bikes for a couple of days and exploring the area. Andorra has only three major roads so it took less than a day to ride them all. A vague network of hiking trails allow access to some of the most spectacular scenery in the Pyrenees mountains and before long we were puffing and panting our way up into deserted valleys towards exposed summits of loose rock and chilling winds. Towards the top we noticed a large bird soaring above taking a particular interest in our every step, we had heard stories of the Lammergeier Vulture, a native to this region, knocking inattentive shepherds off the edges of steep gullies so as to feast on the tenderized carcass after the fall. Whether we were just too sure footed or the odor of several months on the road was not very appetizing the vulture let us pass unhindered.
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|Quiet town of Tende, French Italian border|
|Leaning bikes in Pisa|
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better we arrived in “The Eternal City” of Rome, a place so unlike anything we have ever experienced. Every turn reveals a glimpse of an impressive history spanning over 2500 years. Monuments abound, some in ruins, some restored each one with its own fascinating story. We would often eavesdrop on the guided tours and pick up snippets of captivating detail. We spent only three days in the historical city, reminded yet again that our allotted time for this journey will never be enough. We arrived on a Sunday and made our way towards St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City as, literally, thousands of people where slowly leaving the area. As it turned out we had just missed the celebration of Sunday Mass, old habits die hard I guess. The scale of the event and its location is hard to fathom, all the places of worship we’ve seen up to now were dwarfed by the locale, the very heart of the Catholic church. It was also a little unsettling, we could only wonder at what a difference such exorbitance would make to the lives of so many in much greater need. Wandering the floors of the Vatican museum with its overwhelming display of antiquities and masterpieces from throughout the ages and gift shops at every turn left us questioning how the church reconciles this hoarding of priceless treasures with the teachings of its founders.
|Michelangelo Park, Rome|
Our whirlwind tour of Rome took us to countless wonderful sites and, no doubt, we blindly strolled past many more. What little preparation we had made before our visit was never going to be enough, Rome would take a lifetime to explore and fully appreciate but we both tossed a coin over our shoulders into the Trevi Fountain hoping to ensure our safe return as the custom dictates.
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