Cycling In Spain: Sant Mateu to Alcover - 176 kilometres

 A deserted Sant Mateu Square; early morning.
Bleary eyed, I headed off early next morning on what would be another long day’s ride. Some of the townsfolk were already on their second or third-storey balconies hanging out their washing in the early morning sunshine. Unenthused about having to leave so soon, I offered a rather halfhearted wave as I cycled by, only to receive a warm “buenos días” in return. It was an ironic reminder that we were due to fly home from Barcelona in just two days time. We would have loved to have stayed in Sant Mateu for at least another night or two, if only to sample some of the wild walking trails in the wider Maestrazgo region. Like many of the places we’d visited thus far, there was so much more to see and do. Not even having skimmed the surface, we left with wonderful memories and with the hope that one day we would return.

A village in Portugal's Algarve.
Today was the first time in weeks that there was at least a threat of rain. The morning sunshine had long since disappeared, replaced by grey cloud. Not since the torrential downpour atop of Andorra’s Alto de la Rabassa, did I concern myself with anything other than thirst, potential sunburn and pestering insects that thrive in the heat. Acclimatised by the incessant high temperatures of Portugal’s Algarve and Spain’s Andalusia, no less the stark, semi-desert of Almería, I’d almost forgotten that I was once again approaching the country’s North; hot, yes, but considerably less predictable.

It was a welcome change to be riding with no wind, and with no burning sun hovering above; just a blanket of grey cloud and the humidity trapped within.  Even more surprising, I was barely perspiring. Renowned for having to replace headstems more often than a punctured tyre, I’d been dripping like a leaking tap ever since crossing the border into Portugal’s Alentejo region.  

Clinging to the CV-11 like a new best friend, I travelled steadily downhill towards Tortosa. Nestled on the Río Ebro, just 12 metres above sea level, the town was once the front line of a Christian conquest that ended 400 years of Muslim rule. Not surprisingly, the then-city, and the territory that surrounded it, was divided between the victors; foreign crusaders on their way to the Holy Land, amongst them, Normans, French, Germans, Flemish and Dutch, and of course, the church.

Now gently climbing, the near-empty road followed the Ebro for another 40 kilometres. Rising near the town of Reinosa in the Cantabrian Mountains, the river was once the dividing line between Roman and Carthaginian territories at the end of the First Punic War, in 241 BC. Just two decades later, Hannibal’s capture of the coastal town of Saguntum, provided the catalyst for the Second Punic War. This marked the beginning of the great Cathaginian General’s historic trek through Spain and Gaul before marching his near-50,000 strong army and 37 war elephants across the Alps into Italy.

Spain’s longest and largest river, the Ebro travels more than 900 kilometres along the southern Pyrenean foothills before discharging its waters into the Mediterranean Sea. Receiving water from more than 200 tributaries, a series of large dams built along its course produce a significant portion of the country’s hydroelectric power.

Spreading out at the mouth of the Mediterranean is the Delta de Ebro, regarded as one of the most valuable wetlands in Europe. Covering 320 square kilometres, it is home to more than 300 varieties of bird species as well as protected river flora and fauna. While a natural phenomenon, upstream deforestation and overgrazing in the river’s catchment areas, have, over time, been contributing factors to the delta’s size and shape.

The Ebro still moves more water than any other of the country’s rivers, but its annual flow has significantly decreased over the last century. Lower rainfall, the construction of dams and an increasing demand for irrigation have not only reduced its output by almost 30 percent but impeded the movement of sediment downstream.  As a consequence, the delta has gradually diminished in size over recent years. The widely predicted rise in sea levels, as soon as this century, is also likely to gnaw away at its vulnerability. In existence since the end of the ice age, one hopes that it doesn’t turn into another Atlantis and become swallowed up by the sea.


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