Confusion and cold – Bicycle touring in Spain

Cycling rural Castilla la Mancha

There were several villages where we didn’t see a single person. Then again, if I lived there and I had an oven I wouldn’t leave the house either.

Confusion and cold – Bicycle touring in Spain
: Spain
From Madrid to Barcelona
Lesson learned: A warm meal can change everything
Most wonderful miracle: The firefighters from Molinas de Aragón
Animals we saw: earthworms and ravens
Days on the bike: 6
Kilometers cycled: 382
Average kilometers per day: 63.66
Total kilometers cycled: 30.666

Missed the last entry? Here it comes: Analyzing my own Culture – three weeks in familiar unfamiliar Germany
Blog auf Deutsch: Wintereinbruch und Verwirrung – Mit dem Rad durch Spanien

Bicycle touring in Spain

Spain had presented itself terribly confusing to be. First of all many things are called differently here than in Mexico. Camarónes (shrimps) are now Gambas, a porción (portion) is now a ración, a sandwich (baguette filled with ham or cheese) is now a bocadillo. At least cervercería instead of cantina makes more sense for a corner bar. Anyways my Spanish was fluent and yet I failed to understand.

Spanish Jamón Cerrano

Spanish Jamón Cerrano

You wouldn’t order your large or small beer here. Instead you’d go for a “tercio”) third of a liter), a quinto (fifth of a liter) or a Caña (translates as tube and means also fifth of a liter but draft beer). Or you go for a “jarra” (a mug, sometimes 0.3, sometimes 0.5 of a liter). In some places you’d just get a little snack or tapas with your drinks order so you’ll be full before your food order even gets to the table, other times you’d wait just for nothing.

You can see how much Spanish culture has been adopted in Mexico until today but there are several things that stayed in Spain. My first impression of the Spanish people was that they talked loud, laughed even louder, appeared sometimes harsh, but were very heartfelt. And that they talked extremely fast.

Museo del Jamón

I’m still not quite sure but I believe this is a “Tercio” that Roberto is drinking

It took days and days until we were finally ready to get going. One of the reasons for the delay was the route. It seemed impossible to find a bicycle friendly route from Madrid to Barcelona! As the person responsible for route finding and maps I spent days in front of the laptop checking maps, forums and blogs and yet did not come to a conclusion. There were only big highways and a confusing net of secondary streets and no bike routes longer than a few kilometers and even those would have meant a large detour.

Those of you who would like to read a short summary about the highly confusing Spanish road system, just keep on reading. Everybody else just skip the following paragraph.

The A2 is also known as E90,as well as 40 (no letter needed for some reason).

So all roads have a letter and at least one number. A stands for Autovía and AP for Autopista. These two are basically the same thing, except that cyclists are allowed on Autovías; at least that was what I read online. Local however told us that there was no way we could ride on an Autovía. Same counts for the R-roads that lead out of Madrid to all directions. The only A-roads we were allowed on were the ones in the state of Aragón, where the A didn’t stand for Autovía but for Aragón and the signs were orange or green instead of blue and they had a four-digit number. They were interurban roads and were called differently in every state (CM in Castilla la Mancha, M in Madrid and A in Aragón for example). Aragón also had the Autovía-A-roads though. Some Autovías were Europe-roads at the same time and they therefore had two names: The A-name plus an E-name for Europe-road. Often there was an N-road parallel to the A/E-road. That was a national road that had been built before the A/E. We were allowed on them but unfortunately only fragments of them still existed so that was no option really. So we had to stick to the GU-roads (not a clue what that even stands for), the AB (same) and whenever there was one, the N-roads, as well as the local interurban roads with the ever-changing names. In the first three states the interurban roads would be the CM, the M (but only the minor M`s, nit the large ones that led right out of Madrid) and the Aragón-A that wasn’t the Autovía. To make the confusion complete there were two types of N roads, one with Arabic numbers and one with Roman numbers. So the NII looked just like the N11. So I guess you can imagine how the trip-planning just felt like the final thesis of my route-making experience. After a couple of days I sighed, closed the laptop and decided to simply follow whatever Google maps would tell us to do.

Confusing Highway Numbers in Spain

How many different road name-number-combinations can you find?

At first we crossed several parks and followed the city ring. Eventually we left the city behind and it got more complicated. Google maps never led us along the same road for more than some 500 meters so I had to check the phone constantly. It had been about a year since we got ourselves a smartphone and today I had no idea how we had ever managed to find our way without it. We crossed a couple of pretty old and neat little towns but since finding our way was such a difficult task, we decided to skip the old town and better make some kilometers. The only place we stopped for a stroll was Alcalá de Henarez, where the famous Miguel de Cervantes was born. His most-known book was Don Quijote.

In Alcalá de Henarez sitzt Roberto auf Cervantes' Bank.

In Alcalá de Henarez on Cervantes’ bench.

Fow a while we biked parallel to the Autovía, then the road took a right and we biked up into the mountains. It was about to get dark when we stopped in the village of Chiloeches, where we visited the only little shop, fixed Roberto’s front rack and finally had some food. Chiloeches and the surrounding villages counted a total of 3000 habitants, so in this quiet area it was no problem to find a spot on a field for the tent.

Chiloeches, Spain

Drinking fountain in Chiloeches

We began the next day with some more climbing. The paved roads were far away and while the nightly rain hadn’t mattered to us inside the tent, the drizzly morning with wet paths did. The earthy walkway had turned into a long mudhole and instead of biking we spent the morning pushing the bikes and poking the mud out of the brakes with sticks. I bet this would have been fun to cycle if only it had stayed dry.

Annika pushes her bicycle through the mud in Spain

It was best to push the bikes

All four wheels completely blocked from time to time and our mood went below freezing point in no time. By afternoon the drizzle turned into a proper rain and when we finally pitched the still wet tent next to the Autovía, it was raining heavily. We opened a pack of muesli and a liter of milk. There were 11 portions in each pack. We finished both, the milk and the 11 portions of muesli. It had been an exhausting day.

Muddy travel bike

It really wasn’t that much fun after all

The rain continued all night and the entire following day. I thought of one of these hot chocolate ads. There is the mother in a warm woolen sweater. She sits on the couch when the little boy comes in. He wears his fluffy pajamas. His big sister follows him with a large blanket for all of them. While they get cozy on the couch, the father enters the room with a Christmas sweater and warm house slippers. He carries a tray full of steaming mugs of hot chocolate. Everybody grabs a mug and they look out of the window into the grey, windy, muddy, cold and sad landscape where only a few ravens walk through the wet and empty fields.

Annika is fed up with the sticky mud

At least it was dry

Then on the horizon two cyclists appear. It has been their second day in the rain, they were cold, muddy, bad-tempered and wet. With their rain gear all soaked they pushed their bikes through the fields. Their shoes weighed double of the usual weight and their toes were all shriveled. Snot came running out their noses but they had stopped caring hours ago. That was us.

Muddy travel bike wheel

Roberto broke a screw, so he had to continue with all his front weight on one side.

Sometimes I wondered whether I was really ready to finish this trip and to actually settle down, but today I would have done anything for my own dry and warm shelter.

We stopped at a gas station and then at a rest area next to the same Autovía. Food or drinks were very expensive, so we just got a hot coffee as an excuse to enter the gas station. The phone signal was mostly gone and nobody really knew any paved roads that would lead us straight east without crossing the highest mountains, pushing the bikes through mud and clay or making a big detour. Whoever stopped here was on their way on the Autovía – just passing through. When even master google let us down we decided that this road was as good as any.


Some days later in Daroca

We were hungry and therefore decided to simply follow any paved road going wherever until we reached a village that sold food. Until then we would not worry about the route. And we were in luck. Aldeanueva de Guadalajara was home to 84 people and while it was too small for a shop, they still had a Cervecería called “Bar El Horno” (the stove). I left my muddy boots at the door and walked in in socks. We ordered Bocadillo con Chorizo, a huge baguette with sausage. No butter, no mayonnaise, no lettuce, only bread and meat. Since we had also ordered two beers, we were given a plate of olives as free Tapas. I garnished my baguette with some of the olives and a few slices of the last tomato that we had brought. I had eaten the other one like an apple for breakfast.

Roberto im Matsch

Enough was enough

I wish I had a mountain bike.

Our situation reminded me too much of the three-day-mud challenge in Sumatra, Indonesia.

The bar tender and two of his other customers didn’t see travelers coming through all that often. They were pretty interested and very helpful. Together we figured out a route and although my google maps mas had given up on me, I think we left the bar quite motivated and better-tempered. Sometimes all you need is some food in your stomach and a place to dry your socks and some other people to talk to and the world around you turns from grey to colorful.

We continued the ride through the rain and after a while we reached Torija, being situated exactly where they had explained it to us. We stopped outside an impressive 12th century castle that we surely would have entered and taken pictures of, hadn’t it been such a cold and wet day. Instead we finished the route planning. Instead of google maps for bicycle we searched for a car route without mayor highways. That meant that we had no idea about the route’s elevation, that we rode long zigzags and that we had longer and hillier ways, but it also meant that chances of google leading us through mud and clay were far smaller. From now on there was no more pushing the bikes. That’s a good start.

Bakery in Alcolea del Pinar.

Bakery in Alcolea del Pinarwhere we bought our daily motivation in form of bread, rolls and cake.

It was still pouring rain when we reached a village with a small guesthouse at 4.30 pm and we decided that enough was enough. We got a room, turned on all the heaters, expanded our bungee cords throughout the entire room and bathroom and hung all of our clothes there to dry. What a difference!

Pension Casa Juanis in Torremocho del Campo, Spain

In the Pension Casa Juanis in Torremocho del Campo we dried all our stuff and got to know the owner and house keeper.

The next morning was far colder that the days before, but it was dry. Nearly all our things had dried too! We spent the morning foxing Roberto’s brakes and cleaning the wheels, chains, brakes and mudguards from the worst of mud. In between we chatted with the other customers and the staff and we were even invited for a coffee by the pension’s owner.

Auf der Ruta Don Quijote

Following the Ruta Don Quijote

It was a very hilly ride. In between little mostly beige villages we cycled through windy fields, saw windmills, old churches, and ruins of what must have been small castles. There was hardly any traffic and I really enjoyed the ride through the villages and farms.

Historisches Steinhaus in Alcolea del Pinar

Historic stone house in Alcolea del Pinar

We crossed Alcolea del Pinar, a relatively large village with its 250 habitants, then we faced a long climb. For quite some hours we biked on about 1300 meters above sea level, where the winds were even faster and he air even colder. At least it stayed dry all day long. The highlands reminded me of a wild-western prairie landscape.

Roberto cycles to a Castle in Castilla-la-Mancha, Spain

After the wet days it was a thrill to be riding on try and paved roads

I turned around to see how Roberto was doing and all I could see was a narrow slot for his eyes. He had covered the rest of his face with sweater, scarf and beanie. We didn’t stop for many breaks today, it was just too cold to be standing around in the wind without moving. Even when the sun came out, the thermometer didn’t raise above zero.

Nice local in Spain

A nice man whom we had met in the guesthouse, showed us the way

After a couple of villages that appeared ghost towns, we decided to leave the main road and ride through one of the few village roads and – voila – there was a Cervecería with four more or less drunk men inside.

Cycling rural Castilla la Mancha

There were several villages where we didn’t see a single person. Then again, if I lived there and I had an oven I wouldn’t leave the house either.

One of them sent us up the hill where we found a little shop and another three habitants. There lived people in this part of the country after all!

Interesting architecture in Spain

A little village near Molinas de Aragón with ten stone houses and one rather unusual building

Just before sunset we reached the fire department of Molina de Aragón. Since the fire fighters usually were the ones who knew the area best, we decided to ask whether they knew a place where we could pitch the tent. We were in big luck and the night crew invited us to spend the night in the fitness room.

Hilly landscape in Aragón

Hilly landscape between Castilla-La-Mancha and Aragón

We left our stuff there and went into the kitchen where the team cooked their dinner. Iñaki and Alejandro were passionate fire fighters. Alex enjoyed the low season. He had two little kids at home and was happy he could spend a relaxed evening at work.

Bomberos de Molinas de Aragón

The night team left and the day team arrived at the Molinas de Aragón fire department

It was all cooking, chatting, eating and sleeping. But every now and then work could turn into a life-threatening matter. It wasn’t a job for just anybody.

We spent the night in the fire fighter's fitness room

It was a pretty cozy night at the fire department

Temperatures were quite stable between +1°C and -1°C. I had not expected to be wearing all m winter gear in Spain already. It was a hilly ride and we began to sweat but fortunately the onion layers of Merino wool, fleece and GoreTex worked like a blast.

Annika at the Castillo de Molina de Aragón, Guadalajara, Aragón, Spain

The castle Castillo de Molina de Aragón looks like a larger version of the Zafra Castle (24 Kilometers east), for Game of Thrones fans known as the Tower of Joy.

Merely the shoes still hadn’t dried all the way from the rainy days. We pitched the tent outside a little village and woke up with ice cubes in our water bottles. After a short time riding, the road led us some 700 meters deeper down into the valley.

Alte Brücke in Castilien-La-Mancha oder Aragonien

This was where the old road used to be. The new one passed right by the old bridge.

From beige-brown empty fields we biked through wine fields, larger towns and villages as well as warmer air. And finally we met some other cyclists. There were surprisingly many road bikers out on a Wednesday morning.

Die Burg von Molina de Aragón

The castle of Molina de Aragón

Usually we spoiled ourselves with one Cervecería visit a day to get a coffee and warm up the frozen bones. Most Cervezerías were just as depressing as any corner bar elsewhere in the world, with little light and drunk men occupying the bar chairs by 10 am.

Camping near Zaragoza, Spain

The last night before Zaragoza

The ambience wasn’t the nicest, the coffee was far from the best and in my humble opinion it was still too expensive, but there was a heater and walls and that was all we needed. A hot drink in a Café would have cost yet easily double.

Annika and Roberto in Zaragoza


By noon we had biked 80 kilometers into Zaragoza, where – after a short round through the old town – we headed straight towards the bus station. Yes, you read right. Roberto’s friend Benja and his newlywed wife Ursula were on their way to Barcelona, his ex-colleage Rebekkah from New Zealand had already arrived and his ex-flatmate and friend Justin would be on his way to Mexico in a few days. If we wanted to see them we would have to speed things up.

Spanish landscape in winter

Rolling down into warmer areas.

After the purchase of two gigantic bicycle bags we headed towards Barcelona in no time. From here on our little 2-person- team would grow into three. But we’ll talk more about that in the next blog.


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  1. Moshe says:

    What an adventure! Sorry about the rain and cold. I still enjoyed reading your account.
    Thinking of bike touring in spain in winter…think i better leave it to spring

    • Hi Moshe, yeah I guess next time we’ll go in spring too. Or summer or fall, as long as it’s not winter anything should be fine 😀 In the end we had a great time anyways and it was a rather unique experience!

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