Mountain Biking the Camino de Mozarabe Day Four - Villaharta to Monterrubio
"The best days mountain biking...ever". It could only go downhill from here!
After breaking our fast at Santa Elisa, the climb out of Villaharta was a bit leaden; its a short, steep tarmac ascent, that opens up to a grand vista across the Sierra Morena mountains. We´d crossed the wide, rolling plains of the Guadalquivir and climbed the escarpment from Cordoba that demarcates its northern watershed, and now we headed once more through the mountains. The Sierra Morena´s, like most Spanish mountain ranges, run east-west, which makes travelling south-north a quest for the shortest, shallowest, least strenuous route. The camino snakes through valleys, fords streams and crests summits, taking you ever closer to the high plateau of the "Meseta Central" of Spain. These ranges are not high, but they are rugged and challenging, and the first 30k or so is perfect mountain biking terrain; sweeping descents, perfect cambered corners, technical climbing, changing ground conditions. The air was fresh, with a little dew on the grass, and the sun was starting to burn away the few lingering clouds; it was a beautiful morning.
As we journeyed deeper into the hinterland of the Morenas, there was a growing feeling of isolation and wilderness. Unlike the plains south of Cordoba, where the expanse is vast and empty, there the emptiness is a construction that is man made. Here the terrain was untouched, filled with gorse, and shrubs, and encinas, a barren scrub land where life had to eek an existence from the meagre nutrients that persisted in the thin layer of top soils. A few pockets of greenery and lush grasses existed in the valleys and depressions, where ancient waters had washed the rich loams, and small subsistence holdings exploited these oases of fecundity. As we exited the Morenas we stopped for a short while atop a plateau to soak in the tranquility and expanse of nothingness surrounding us. A natural quiet fell upon us, as if walking into a church: a few moments passed where not a word was exchanged, no sound from spinning wheels or slapping chains or squealing brakes. Not a sound. A profound reverential moment.
The route is well marked with stone pillars engraved with a scallop and painted a bright yellow. These are new adornments, and obviously signify an investment to increase camino traffic and bring tourist money to these remote areas. Not having to stop and confirm our route was a freedom to just ride with a sense of familiarity. The kilometres passed with an ease and enjoyment that was liberating. The day was heating up and the terrain had changed to the fertile agricultural fields of the Meseta. The tapas at "La Plaza" in Alcaracejos, the first population centre since leaving Villaharta, 40k behind us, was, as usual simple, but their Tortilla was delicious, highly reccomended. We got chatting with some old chap who had a vintage bicycle, but in great condition. We´d rolled in with our high-tech carbon frames and hydraulic disc brakes, and he sat there very proud of his heavy steel bike with stirrup brakes that his grandfather had bought him when he was a kid. It was refreshing to see that it was still in such good condition, still being used daily, and a complete disinterest in a throwaway, consumptive society.
Fuelled up, we headed out across the plains for our overnight, Monterrubio del la Serena. Rolling through the high, arid plains, along wide sandy lanes was a stark contrast to the last 40k of rugged, alluvial debris. We passed through numerous small white towns, sleepy and deserted, (siestas are still widely observed), and it was hot, so most shelter from the midday sun..."only mad dogs and Englishmen..." . It´s fascinating to observe how as the geography changes, so too do the people, their habitats, and that of the flora and fauna. The landscape is defined by small, dense populations of people living very closely together, but these centres are separated by miles of emptiness. The towns are shared with that icon of Extremadura, the White Stork. These large birds dominate every high point, nesting on pylons and church steeples..anything with a vantage point. We rested in Hinojosa del Duque and the square was ringed with Storks, clacking their bills, and swooping in and out of their perches. Their presence is welcomed, and almost every perch has a large iron basket to encourage roosting. The landscape becomes less arable and more meadow and pasture for grazing, the land dotted with the trees that are so important to this area, the Encina. This landscape is the "dehesa", characterised by differing varieties of oak trees, lush grazing land, and black Iberian pigs. The pasture land is essential for the production of certified Iberian ham, and the pastures are grazed by huge black pigs that eat the acorns. Like fine wines, Iberian ham is valued on its quality and purity, and stock that consumes a higher percentage of acorns in its diet, demands a higher price.
We headed on, through the dehesa and toward Monterrubio...although something wasnt quite right. My ride had become suddenly more...wobbly. Stopping to check for punctures (unlikely, we all rans Stans), I was greeted with a tear in the carbon fibre seat post. Bad, very bad, although it could have been worse. A snapped stem inside the seat tube would have been disastrous, as it was, it could be removed for a replacement. Only, we didnt have a replacement, did we. Its only when something like this happens, that the distances from "help" become very real.
We had 30k to go, it was still siesta, so everywhere back in Hinojosa del Duque would still be shut, even if they had a bike shop, which was doubtful. After much deliberation, "Dripping" handed me his steed and opted for the luxury of the Land Rover, citing "I'm knackered anyway..." as the root cause of his gallantry. Either way, it was very much appreciated and I owe him one... The roll into Monterrubio was a little deflated, we´d lost a member of our party, and I was feeling a touch guility for taking his ride. Added to that was fatigue. This was our fourth day of riding over challenging terrain, in hot weather, and the route, which according to the guide was 80k was now nearing 90 and the group rolled into town exhausted, mentally and physically.
Sadly there was no rest as the bike needed to be fettled. Bewildered looks greeted us when we asked where the nearest bike shop was...there wasnt one. The nearest was Don Benito, some 75k away, although there was a "ferreteria" (iron mongers come DIY store that sell most everything) in Castuera some 25k from Monterrubio. Jumping in the Land Rover, we set off in search of what we hoped would be a saviour. It very nearly was. This small hardware shop had a selection of seat stems for kids bikes..no idea why it would, but thankful it did. Trouble was, it was a touch too small in the diameter, but it was all we had, so it would have to do. "Burgers" managed to kludge some solution using a Fanta tin and gaffer tape, and fingers were crossed that we'd make it to Don Benito on the morrow. We had no idea how much we were going to get to know this work-a-day town in the middle of nowhere.
We stayed at: Hotel Coto de la Serena not bad, just dont get the managers sister serving you..right miserable she was..
Distance: 91.89km Ascent: 1,574m.
More Photos at Flickr