A life-long friend joins Charlie Walker as he cycles through Spain ... and ever closer to home.
Gibraltar is an odd place. The road signs are British but people drive on the right. The people are British but most speak with soft Spanish lisps. I had a pint of tepid Old Speckled Hen in The Lord Nelson on the afternoon I arrived.
I was killing time, waiting for my friend Jamie's flight to get in. As is happened, a thick fog shrouded Gibraltar rock that evening and the plane was redirected to Malaga. I heard staff in the airport making jovial banter about the "pea-souper" that had fallen.
Jamie's bus connection arrived at 11.30pm and we went for some drinks in the market square. The pre-drunk, underage teenagers loitering outside the pubs were a strangely nostalgic sight. We sat with pints and bad burgers watching the people for a couple of hours before retiring to a hotel room kindly provided for us by a friend of a friend.
The road very soon swept us up into the hills. It was late October but the weather was still hot in Andalucia. The climbs were steep and exhaustive but the descents were life-affirming. We passed through Ronda where Spain's first "plaza de toros" (bull-fighting ring) still stands.
Hemmingway's ashes were scattered on the nearby estate of famed matador Antonia Ordoez. The 120m-deep gorge that cuts through the picturesque town, and the elegant stone bridge that spans it, are two of my abiding memories from the only previous time I'd visited Spain as a thirteen-year-old boy.
We slept outside each evening under twisting, ancient olive trees planted geometrically in groves that spread across the ruptured landscape as far as the eyes could see. The combination of European supermarkets and having a friend to cook with resulted in cheap but more elaborate meals than I'd prepared for a long time. Paella, Chinese dumplings, bolognaise and risotto, washed down with sangria, beer, white wine or whisky. Fire-cooked toast with marmalade and real butter for breakfast was an absurdly pleasing treat for me.
The towns were all pretty. And all perched high on steep-sided hills; a defensive legacy of the Berber conquests. In the morning the narrow cobbled streets would be busy with old women walking back and forth to market. However, from lunch until 6pm, every town would be silent. It was unusual to see anyone moving anywhere. We would look for benches or shaded grass to rest on and while away the afternoon heat as the Spanish do.
We spent a couple of nights in Madrid with hosts found on a cycling internet forum. The city surprised me with its mono-culture. I think it's the whitest capital city I've ever visited. The grandeur and pomp of every third building was impressive though.
North of Madrid, the approach of Autumn caught up with us. The days grew rapidly shorter as we progressed rapidly further north. We began to sleep in the tent and had frost when camping over 1,000m. The trees were ablaze with the fiery colours of decay. One night our campfire was spotted in the woods and reported to the police who found us and informed us that wild camping is illegal in Spain.
Not since an unpleasant debacle in a Congolese village had I been told I couldn't camp somewhere. We pleaded with the police officer who saw we were no harm and conspiratorially said we could stay if we didn't relight the fire and were gone by sunrise. We complied and pushed onto Pamplona where the rain began and accompanied us throughout the whole descent off the central Spanish plateau, down to the coast and into France.
Jamie flew home from Biarritz. Our fortnight crossing Spain had served as the perfect decompression for me after a protracted period of struggle and over-inflection in Africa. I was now happily pursuing the final 1,000 miles of my journey and finding myself able to relish so many things that I'd begun to endure rather than enjoy at various points over the years: watching traffic pass while resting on the roadside, solitude, exhaustion after a hard day, snatches of acquaintance, being lost and asking for directions, the bemusement of strangers upon seeing me, silence, room for thought, and miming when I don't know a word in a foreign language.
Two or three days of rain and even hailstones led me to a charity shop where I bought a pair of trousers, some canvas shoes and a hat for four euros. I was dressed absurdly but didn't care in the least. I locked myself into a surprisingly clean and warm public toilet for a night in a town called Bellac. I traced the Loire on a cycle path for hours. I rested in Paris for a day with a kind man who invited me through my blog and who'd grown up in DRC.
I was nearly home.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who has just finished a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.