Saturday, June 28, 2008


As we travelled across northern Spain I read Laurie Lee´s Red Sky at Sunrise (Penguin, 1993). This is a trilogy omnibus of Cider With Rosie (Hogarth Press, 1959), As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (André Deutsh, 1969) and A Moment of War (Viking, 1991). Each story was a recollection of events, as they we all set in the 1930s.

I struggled with Cider With Rosie. In fact, in a rare action for me, I didn't finish it. The story of his early life in the Cotswolds was all too flowery for me, too Darling Buds of May. However, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning was where I wanted to be. It was the story of his leaving home at age 19 and walking to London, then on to walk the length of Spain. Spain was in a real state: it was the depression years, Spain was in not much more than a fuedal state and on the brink of Civil War, which breaks out when he is in Almuñécar. In fact he was rescued from the beach by a British navy destroyer sent from Gibraltar to pick up Brits along the coast, caught out by the war. Almuñécar was called the pseudonym Castillon in early editions published up to the death of Franco.

In the third book, A Moment of War it re-tells his return to Spain in 1937 to volunteer (like George Orwell and many of the Bloomsbury group types. Hemmingway wrote of the war but didn't go), in what I believe was a futile experience, for the International Brigade in the war against Franco. I understand fighting Franco, but the foreigners volunteering was a naive and idealistic notion.

He repays a visit to Almuñécar post civil war in a Rose for Winter, which I will catch up with at some point in the future.

We got back to Antequera after our northern Spain trip on a Friday evening, and I wasn't expecting delivery of the new bike until Tuesday. So we figured, why not a couple of days on the beach. And with Laurie Lee's exploits freshly in mind, why not Almuñécar? It's on the Costa Tropical, in Granada province. Easy to get to: bus to Málaga, another to Almuñecar.

For this part of Spain, it's rather laid back, much more so than the neighbouring Costa del Sol - coastal development is much more subdued. First development here was, believe it, in 8th century BC, by the Phoenicians who called it Sexi - giving today's crop of tourism marketers unlimited opportunities.

A pebbly, grey beach is still quite attractive. It's Spain so there is a castle, built on top of the Moor's alcazar, on top of the Roman's fort, on the Carthagenians' ... the Phoenicians' .... The town has a really neat little Museo Arqueológico.

Ironically, a Christian cross marks the rocky outcrop from which the last of the Moors, lead by the weeping - so they say - Boabdil, said farewell to Al Andalus as they sailed away having suffered defeat at the hands of the Christian reconquista.

There's quite a sad little plaque dedicated to Laurie Lee, acknowledging his visit and books, in a park on the beach front.

Nip into a casco viejo backstreet bar, speak Spanish, and you get dos cervezas y dos tapas for €2.20. A coffee in the tourist preferred plaza centro will set you back €2.50 each.

Caught Arsenal on the tele in a bar Saturday night. A hotel room off the rooftop garden. All pretty easy, but it's off season. Almuñecar is a very popular Spanish destination, not just the Brits and Germans. Back home Monday. Nice little mini-break.

aka Max

I Get a New Bike

On the way home from northern Spain we stopped off in Madrid and caught up with bro y la familia

I thought I'd take the opportunity to look at some bike shops. BOK recommended a large store close to Atocha station, one from which he had bought bikes for the boys.

Straight away things looked good! They were having an end of model sale on Orbea bikes. A Spanish brand I had harboured a mild lust for (I think Deb suspects the theft was a set-up!).

Bike talk I know, but I could save 800 €uros on the 2007 price of an Opal by accepting Shimano Ultegra levers and rear derailleur instead of DuraAce as offered on the new 2008 models, which are more expensive again. My stolen Avanti had Ultegra throughout and it worked just fine. It also meant I had to take a black with blue trim bike, when I would have prefered the red trim. Ah well. 800 €uros plus is stack of Kiwi pesos.

This is a total carbon fibre construction, the frame made in Spain.

If interested, you can check it out (just click the Opal option) at:

One day the Orca perhaps????

I bought the bike Friday morning before going home and was promised delivery in Antequera next Tuesday. In that peculiar Spanish way, this turned out to be late Thursday. And then, the wrong size was delivered - one too small! Some interesesting Spanish telephone conversation followed. I made the decision to deal with the situation cara a cara, that is - face to face, and jumped the train back to Madrid on Monday. I switched the bike for one my size without any problems - and scored a red trim bike, don't ask me! - and caught a train back home same day. Fast trains, great,

And you have to say it matches the RoostersRacing cycling outfit fantasticaly. Yeah?

So with the trip north and bike replacement it was five weeks before I got back out on a bike. I could get stuck into training for the L'Etape. Except we were going on a trip to Malta in a week and a half time. But, I was able to squeeze in the club trip to Granada and the ride up to the ski fields of the Sierra Nevada. Only 40km in length, but climbing 1,700 meters once the hill kicked in out of town. Pehaps I was just fresh, but ripped up no problems.

I look forward to putting some kilometers away on this new baby.

aka Max

Monday, June 23, 2008

Northern Spain.

It's nice to still be able to be surprised.

And northern Spain has done it.

It would have to be amongst the prettiest places there could be. Mountains, snow, coast, beaches, surf, green rolling hills, plenty of trees, ferns, castles, churches, slate-roofed cottages, stone bridges, and fantastic infrastructure - super highways and rail system.

And it felt good being back 'on the road'.

Our trip was to be from Santiago de Compostela, in the Spanish north west, across to San Sebastian, close to the French border, with a weekend at the end zipping across to Biarritz and sun, surf, and sand.

A second big surprise was to be our mode of transport. It was for most of the way on the quaint FEVE rail system. Pretty much a two carriage rail car. It wove its way around hills, over streams, through tunnels, brushed aginst cuttings, through the gorgeous counryside. Travel at its best.

And the third surprise was not that we would encounter two new languages: Gallego and Euskera, but how clearly, slowly, and perfectly the locals, and speakers of these other native tongues, spoke Castillian Spanish compared to our crazy andalus neighbours. I love it when you scratch the surface and open up some good old prejudices. The 'northern' Spanish believe that the southern andalus speak such terrible Spanish because, of course, they have Moor blood in them! However, I could understand, and speak and be understood with no problems. It seriously made us consider that when we come back for our second stint in Spain, we should look to live somewhere where Castilian is spoke like the King. But ... Antequera does have such appeal.

Santiago de Compostela is most famous for its cathedral which houses relics of the Apostle Saint James, and is the finishing point of the 800 km long pilgrimage known as 'Camino de Santiago' (the walk of Saint James).

The scallop shell is the symbol of the walk and tiles mark the route. Walkers most often carry a scallop shell on their packs, identifying themselves. The usual routine has been to walk to the Cathedral and touch a pillar inside. Hundreds of years of being touched has resulted in a hand print worn into the stone. Now, authorities have fenced off the pillar in an act of preservation. We witnessed a couple of pilgrims arrive (it was off season), and saw their bottom lips drop when they realised they could not complete their final act of their pilgrimage.

The walk takes about 30-33 days. Young backpackers turn up and do small sections of it, experiencing more of a 'Camino de Vino'. Mountain biking it has now become popular - and that's got me thinking.

The Alameda is a central town park, great for a run, with a real Wellington Botanical Gardens feel. You need to run narrow, crooked, Baroque streets to get there. Wonderful.

A standard Spanish RENFE train takes us to A Coruña. What a fantastic place. Built on a narrow isthmus which links a very large headland to the mainland, it has an ocean front and a harbour behind. The city on the lovely, sandy, surfing beach reminds you a little of Bondi, Sydney. Its geography makes the place a runners dream.

On the headland, laced with kilometres of walkways, and some Stonehenge-like sculptures is the Torre de Hércules lighthouse. This is the site of the world's oldest lighthouse. The current version was a 1790 renovation, by Italians. Legend has it that Hercules erected a fire tower here, on the site where he slayed his enemy, Geryon.

The city is a picture with sun reflecting off tightly packed, glass windowed, fronts of buildings, shimmering across harbour water.

A bus takes us to Ferrol. It is known for being the birthplace of El Caudillo, Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teódulo Franco y Bahamonde, more commonly known as General Franco, the dictator leader of Spain 1936-1975, but not much else.

We walk the 150 meters to the train station and take the first of our lovely FEVE trips to Luarca. A drop dead gorgeous fishing port, locked between towering cliffs that border the river that opens to the sea. The weather was stunning, but you sensed that potentially wild looking Atlantic Ocean beaches, reminescent of many Noo Zillan coastlines. Travelling off season, means the locals don't mind talking to us in bars and cafes. And speaking Spanish goes a long way! And we stay at some charming places at off-season rates.

We skip through Oviedo, missing the larger city, and onto Cangas de Onis. There is no shortage of these lovely places, with a lovely feel. It is a bit of an adventure playground centre. It serves as a base for the Parque Nacional de Covadonga, and the Picos de Europa mountain range. Mileage is marked out on a road bordering a lovely stream, indicated the local half marathon distances. A nice run. There is a beaut Roman built bridge in town.

Cangas is in Asturia province which is well known for its cidra (cider). But partaking of cider in these parts is an art form. Holding your glass in your left hand, as low as you can by your side, you then pour to your glass from the bottle held in your right hand held as high as possible outstretched to the right. Barmen do it everywhere, people at tables serve themselves this way. Nobody gets at all excited about the spills onto the tiles. And, you drink your glass in one hit, any cidar losing it's effervescence is tossed to the floor.

A bus took us to Covadonga, in the Picos, from where we hitch-hiked up to Lagos de Covadonga (The Lakes). We spent most of the day walking trails. Simply superb. We had it pretty much to ourselves. The Spaniards stop at the lakes, and partake in some vino y tapas at a delightful little cafe in a slate-roofed stone cottage. The pictures tell the story.

A stop off at Covadonga on the way back down was a treat. It has history: "This mountain will be the salvation of Spain", Don Pelayo, first King of Asturias, prophesised to his Christian army in AD 718, gesturing at the rocky promontory above what is now Covadonga. The mountain soon became the site of the first successful battle in the Reconquista. (Let's Go: Spain & Portugal 2007).
But there is, of course, a good old Spanish Catholic legend that claims it was not the geography but the intervention of the Virgin Mary that made victory over the Moors possible. Now in a grotto is a 16th century image of the Virgin and remains of the King. Nearby, stands a statue of Don Pelayo.

FEVE dropped us at Pesués. A roadside bar in the middle of nowhere is all there was. A quick cafe, followed by a slower cerveza and the owner calls a cab
from the 10km away San Vincente de la Barquera. When we arrive it is right in the middle of festivities of fiesta de la flota (fishing fleet). All of the port's fishing boats are flag emblazoned, and down town there is drinking, eating, musica y bailando (music and dancing) all on. A bus to Comillas doesn't leave for three and a half hours, so there is nothing else to do but get stuck in. Rude not to really.

Comillas, with a nearby lovely sweep of beach has great views from a bordering headland. A sunflower decorated Gaudi designed house is a feature of Comillas.

Casco viejo (old town centre) is a maze of narrow higgledy-piggledy streets. In one, is Mister Kiwi Bar, but was closed so we don't know what that was about.

Bilbao, is the end of FEVE line, and as you are aware, home of the Guggenheim where we spent a day. This is the territory of País Vasco (the Castillian for Basque Country) but Euskadi to the locals who call themselves Euskaldinuak: 'speakers of Euskera', and the heartland of Basque separatism. A bomb rocked a police station only two days after we left.

The Bilbo (as called in Euskera) City Hall was ticked off a week or two before we arrived for not flying the Spanish national flag atop town hall. They have responded, and continued the fracas, by flying a red and yellow striped flag with no centre royal crest. Then, on the flagpole in the centre of the roundabout in front of town hall they have hoisted the largest Bilbao city flag you are ever likely to see.
One night, when there, streets became jammed as a large separationist movement protest march took place. Many houses in Euskadi carry protest banners.

If you have a large scale map you might find Mundaka. I was just entertaining one of my fancies. This dead quiet, small and quaint fishing village is also home to one of the rounds of the World Surfing Championships.

It has a famous, world's longest breaking, left hander point break, on which surfers pass two magnificent stone churches on the sea edge. They were still abuzz about the storm that passed through only weeks earlier, at Easter, causing havoc along the whole north coast. Mundaka waves broke 10 metres for a week.

Check this out (there is more at the site):

It's funny. There is one surf shop, and one bar has photos on the wall, but apart from that there is none of the usual surf culture associated with such big surf spots. Locals just get on with life in their narrow little streets, and go fishing. Our hotel, the smaller three storey white building, is centre pictured. Tough spot.The surf breaks past the wall where I have taken the photo, and the family fishes.

We now travel the quite smart EuskoTran, which has become more of a commuter train, and off to San Sebastian. Smartly European; flash shops and a whole different feel. But a nice spot with a big bay and sandy beach, framed by two high lookout hills either end (great run locations). A feature of this trip (isn't all of Spain?) was the food. They don't have tapas here, but pintxos Bigger servings, and all lined up on the counter tops ready for your selection. A big feature, particularly back in Asturia, was the pulpo, the yummy octopus.

We went out to the small town, Orio, where we could watch the final stage of the Vuelta al País Vasco cycle race. A good spot: It was the finish of the 5 day tour race, and the race came into town, did a loop back into the near countryside, and finished on the straight between town and the beach. (This picture was in the local El Diario Vasco newspaper, and I copied from the Reuters site - I just like it.)

During the loop out of town the cyclists go up a short but very steep hill section (called Aia).
So steep, the crowd helps push the support motor bikes up, assists the cyclist racers - but many have to get off and push! - these are the top names of world cycling!
Anyway, at the finish, I got to say "G'day" to Cadel Evans (just watch that Aussie go in this year's Tour de France) and check out his bike in the park at the end.

Second on the day was Alberto Cantador, race winner overall, (last year's TdF winner - but that's another story).
As we found our way from one viewing spot to another at the Vuelta, we came across a pair of rather unusual spectators.
Onto France, and Biarritz. Another of those old surf dreams from way back.
Not only armed with pretty good English, a great understanding of Castillian Spanish, but Deb also won her college prizes for French and Japanese. (Well, I can speak Australian as well, you know.) A few years back now for her admittedly, but still pretty handy.
Crickey it was expensive. I had to eat less so I could have a few more bierres. It was sunny, the surf was pumping; all very good.

Back to España, and onto Pamplona. Running of the bulls, el encierro, has always fascinated me. But the pictures you see now, and the stories you hear, it seems like it has turned into hell on earth. Shame.

Good old Ernest Hemingway took 'running of the bulls' to the outside world's attention in his The Sun Also Rises and he is still immortalised with a bust at the entrance to the bull ring.

And a notice on the back of our hotel door states the accommodation rate during encierro is six times that of mid-season. Restaurants have different menus during the event, five or six times more expensive. The whole event is part of the fiesta de San Fermin, a black saint whose image resides at Iglesia de San Lorenzo - and quite pretty too. I understand it is paraded through the streets of Pamplona during el encierro.

I did go for a run taking in the course of the running of the bulls, imagining los toros chasing me.
Probably as close as I will get. These days there is less running and more huddling in large groups of tourists, hoping to get in the middle so they don't get picked off the outside by an errant bull. Nasty accidents do happen - yeah you've all seen the photos that circulate the web.

Back onto RENFE, fast trains, and back to Madrid, staying with the bro. Always nice. We met some of their amigos madrileños (Madrid friends). They asked how we can possibly understand the andalus Spanish. They tell us that when people from Andalucía are interviewed on TV, they often run sub-titles across bottom of screen to help people (other Spaniards) understand. What chance do we have?

And then, across the plains of La Mancha and back to Antequera. Fantastic couple of weeks.

'ta luego
aka Max

A 5km run, and some success.

With my bike stolen the day before, I had to flag the club ride on Sunday morning. There was, however, a 5km road race (running) on that day.

The local Ayuntamiento (town council) here is amazing with its event management, for all kinds of events. But at the drop of a hat, they will close all the roads for an event, provide staffing, provide post-event food and drinks, trophies and prize monies. And there is never any entry fees. There are stacks of other non-sports events organised without entry fees also.

Anyway, the 5km run. Having ridden 134km the day before, and 500+ kms that week I wasn't at my running sharpest. I had done little running recently, concentrating more on the biking. I entered with little expectations.

They gave away trophies for 1st to 3rd, and medals 4th-6th. Again I picked up a medal, the same three guys beating me as in the Street Mile back in December. That was in the over 45 age group. All placegetters in my age group except one, were over 50. The first four of us could have won the 40-45 age group. The winner in my age group, the bearded Liam O'Hare (from Ireland. No!), is sixty and still runs 1hr 20mn half marathons. He won the Berlin half Marathon, age group. We've been on a few runs together. And murdered a few Cruzcampo on ocassions.

Deb again won her age group, winning a trophy. Another women beat her by two strides, and was 10 years younger. Deb also won second place local Antequera woman, and 45 €uros for her efforts! The other woman was first Antequerana. Deb also got some press time, with a photo in the local Sol de Antequera titled 'The Antequera Queens of the Town Race'. The paper refers to her as británica (a pom) which helps keep our heads down, Spanish-ifies her second name (you have to give all your names in Spanish - they just don't understand why she doesn't use her mother's father's surname as well!), and calls her O'Kone. Ah well.

Not a bad day. And then after the race there was, of course, the molletes, aceite, jamon, y cafe to get stuck into.

aka Max

My bike is stolen

I had been able to get some decent riding in leading up to last Christmas, with the L'Etape de Tour de France in the back of my mind.

January and February and training was interrupted with travel. Got back from London, after NZ, and came down with a really shitty cold that hung around for nearly three weeks. I got out for a couple of rides but really struggled. Anyway that went and in the last week of March I actually got a good, big, week under the belt (just over 500kms). I wanted this as we were heading off for a couple of weeks travelling across northern Spain onto Biarittz, France.

Anyway, then my bike got pinched two days before we left. I had just completed a 134km ride. It's funny how in hindsight you realise how a series of events change history, any one of which could have easily been different.

I finished off this ride with a coffee at Shithole Arriba, aka Bar La Socorrilla. Deb met me there. We finished up and as I was about to hop on the bike and roll down the hill to home, Deb comes out from paying as says "Max. Arsenal is playing on the TV." With that we went inside and had a beer. I placed my bike where I could keep an eye on it. Almost at game end and a large group of German tourists all gathered around at the tables outside. A couple of their kids were rarking around close to my bike so I moved it slightly, losing direct sight line.

Next thing, a couple of the Germans burst in and shout that two little shits are taking off with my bike. Gone. One tourist shows me a digital photo of a rear distant shot. But enough for me to believe I recognise two little shits we've seen causing 'strife' at times. Not Spanish, but from a neighbouring country across the ditch in North Africa.

One of the locals from the bar says to jump in his car and he drives me around the usual hangouts of local teenage ratbags (his inside information?). No luck.

The local police have aleady been called by the bar owner. He and the patrons are horrified by all this. We complete reporting , but also have to go to Policia Nacional HQ next morning.

But I just know I'm not going to see the Avanti Corsa again. Of course, this is a really unique bike in these parts. It will just get trashed, or dumped at a pawn shop in Málaga. It was just true opportunism. As a postscript, I haven't seen the two 'little shits' again either. They are pretty itinerate.

Next day, when I tell guys from the club they are beside themselves. All their predujices come out when I hint at who I believe nicked it.

I could have easily gone straight home for a feed after the biggish ride; Arsenal could just have easily not been the game on TV; .... whatever!

aka Max

Goodbye Old Mate

One of the hardest things about leaving Wellington, March 2007, was saying goodbye to our old mate Mr. Wilson.

We'd been together just shy of eight years. He was a true joy. Throughout our travels in Africa we often wondered how he was.

He'd gone to Deb's brother's home. Which meant regular visits from his old cobbers Ing and Pete. And regular email updates for us.

As the photos show, he was a real 'action man'. But when I visited Wellington a year later I saw him and he'd aged (he was then coming up to 18 years.) He'd lost some of his spark. That 'Mr. Wilson'-ism.

Not long back in Antequera and the news came through. His time was up.

So long old buddy. You were a beaut. A real mate. Some might say "he was just a cat.". They didn't know.

He was the Mr. Wilson.

aka Max