Cycling in Spain: Arcos de la Frontera to Alcova - 154 kilometres

Finally entrenched in the south of Spain, I was looking forward, most of all, to garnering a taste of its mountain ranges and whitewashed hilltop towns. If Arcos de la Frontera was any indication, then our next overnight stay in another typical pueblo blanco, Alora, would be an unforgettable experience. As it turned out, it unmistakably was, despite Roz’s trepidation of the drive up and down the town’s steep and narrow one-way lanes. But more of that later!  As for the road ahead, Andalusia’s 75% of mountain terrain lay waiting, not least the Sierra Nevada, which contains the highest peaks in mainland Spain.
Located in the Sierra de Grazalema Nature Park, near the village of the same name, is the Puerto de el Boyar. The first significant climb since my long day’s grind through Portugal’s Serra de Montemuro, it averages 5.2% over its 16.3 kilometres. A category 2 climb, it has appeared in the Vuelta a España on three occasions, though rather ironically, only once from its steeper side.

Heading out early, along the A-372 towards the village of El Bosque, I saw scores of cyclists, most likely on their way back from the pass’s 1,103 metre summit. The first of five mid-category puertos I would roll over the top of during the day, I felt more preoccupied with the thought of just getting to Alora with plenty of time to enjoy the evening’s festivities. During the height of summer, especially on weekends, you couldn’t help but be caught up in the rhythm of each village’s blend of tradition, culture and conviviality.

Ensconced in the heart of the National Park, there were soon far better views to be had than the 300 metres of rising tarmac in front of me. Standing at the highest point of the twisted network of roads within the park’s boundaries, the ‘Puerto de las Palomas’, the magnificent vista towards the valley below was solely mine to be had. Dominated by the vast man-made lake and the pueblo blanco, Zahara, strategically perched on a mountain above, it was, on reflection, a vaguely unfulfilling experience, one I would have preferred to share with Roz. Never too far away, she was more than likely to be walking along one the steep cobbled lanes back in Arcos de la Frontera.

Following my rapid descent down the Puerto de las Palomas, I was soon gliding past the red clay rooftops of yet another of the 10 ‘white villages’ within the park. The most popular tourist destination within the sierra, Grazalema nestles at the foot of the rocky outcrop known as Peñon Grande.  Pushing 40 degrees and with a blue, cloudless sky above, it was difficult to imagine that the village receives the highest rainfall in the Iberian Peninsula. While a long way from the coast its large cluster of limestone peaks are the first high point for cold air drifting in from the Atlantic Ocean.  

Just as common as white hilltop towns inside the Nature Park are mountain passes. Another of these is the Puerto los Alamillos. The third of a trifecta of climbs along the route, the short journey up to its summit of 822 metres, which is not much higher than Grazalema itself, was hardly one of epic proportions. With most of the hard work done over the previous two climbs, it was a matter of regaining not much more than 80 metres of vertical height over the next two kilometres.

The village of Grazalema.
Far more imposing were the sweeping views on the descent down the other side. As the road gently coiled itself in the direction of Ronda, one of the largest white hilltop towns in Spain, there wasn’t another figure in sight, simply a broad, arid landscape and the vista of the Serranía de Ronda, way in the distance. For those few precious moments, until the road evened itself out, life felt as enlivening and uncomplicated as it can sometimes be.


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