Cycling in Spain: The Calar Alto

With far fewer regrets once over the last Moorish pass than Muhammad XII, I pressed on in the unremitting heat along the A-347 towards our overnight stay in the tiny rural village of Instincion. Flanked by the northern foothills of the Sierra de Gador and the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the area around this long section of meandering road is home to more than 50 villages that became the final fragments of the Spanish Muslim dynasty. They comprised of the many who refused to convert to Christianity, choosing instead to take to the hills and settling in remote inaccessible areas.

Despite the planned resettlement amongst the villages of the region, of some 12,000 Christian families from the north of Spain, they have retained their distinctive Berber architecture of terraced white-box houses and flat, clay roofs, still synonymous with dwellings in  the mountains of Morocco.


A more intended climb and well worth experiencing was the Calar Alto, located approximately 30 kilometres from Instincion. Requiring a considerable detour, one I'd pay for much later in the day, it's located in the north-western edge of the Desierto de Tabernas, the only true semi-desert on the European continent.

The Calar Alto has been climbed in the Vuelta on three occasions, in 2004, 2006 and 2009, each time from Gergal and on each occasion finishing at the the white-domed astronomical observatory on its summit. But supposedly more  encapsulating is the mountain's western route, via the white-walled village of Aulago. A 30 kilometre climb to a height above 2,100 metres, the attraction of this side is the changing landscape-should you be patient enough to persist over its 4.7% gradient-and its sheer isolation. A world away from the crowded slopes and summits of the likes of Mont Ventoux and Passo dello Stelvio, there's more chance of meeting an observatory employee on top of the Calar Alto than another cyclist.

Steadily uphill, with just the rare short ramp to look forward to along the way, it's not the gradient that makes this climb so difficult but the searing heat (often in excess of 35 degrees) and the absence of any shade whatsoever until you're almost halfway.

Our accommodation at the
Hotel Kabila, Instincion.
Following the fatigue of almost two hours of climbing, the final seven kilometres to the summit offers some reprieve at last.  The depressingly uninterrupted views of the steepness ahead eventually give rise to more gentle twists and turns in the road, thinly lined with low pines. With the benefit of some shade and the white-domed observatory making ever-closer appearances the nearer you get to the top, you might even finally begin to feel justified that it was worth the indulgence after all.

Before heading down the mountain towards the village of Seron, and a long way beyond it, our overnight stay in Cuevas del Almonzora, I momentarily absorbed the panoramic views from the summit. Still prominent to the south-west were the peaks of the Sierra Nevada and perhaps even further, if I used my imagination, views to the north as far as Madrid.

Not surprisingly, the site of the joint German-Spanish observatory was chosen because of its near-perfect skies (on average, 200 days per year) and its location; an area with minimal human settlement.

Reluctantly drawing myself away from what could have been the quietest place on earth, I felt mildly bemused that I hadn't yet seen a solitary person or vehicle on my time on the mountain, let alone another cyclist; and nothing was about to change during the next hour of riding, virtually until I reached the comparatively busy A-334.

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