Fergal MacErlean

HAVING packed The Time Machine by HG Wells for some holiday reading it seemed apt that we were about to pedal through the past by bike. Our two wheeled machines were poised to journey through south-western Andalucia on an old railway track.

The cyclepath of the Via Verde de la Sierra runs from the former Moorish outpost of Olvera, in the province of Cadiz, and was to carry us some 22 miles on a slow and engaging trip through Mediterranean scrub, and olive groves peppered with goats and above, circling vultures.

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Across Spain there are 100 Via Verdes, Green Ways, pronounced Beea Berdays, covering 7,600 kilometres (4,700 miles) on disused railway lines. My partner and I had purposefully chosen a short route so we could spend time lazing around in the hoped-for-sunshine. If we had energy left the plan was to see some of the cultural and historic sites en route.

Like most cycle trips all the stress of planning, finding the start point of the cyclepath and arguing about directions and such like melted away within minutes of getting in the saddle.

The glorious winter sunshine helped put a smile on our faces as we pulled away from the old station building below whitewashed Olvera. I relished the moment as our bikes crunched over the gritty trackbed. On paper the route looks like it drops downhill to its end point at a town called Puerto Serrano. But there was the odd little hill here and there so you had to keep pedaling to keep a steady head of steam.

Soon we passed through a series of tunnels. Built to accommodate trains that were to run east from the sherry town Jerez de la Frontera for 119 kilometres (74 miles) this was a highly ambitious project when it was conceived at the turn of the 20th century. Isolated villages would have benefitted immeasurably and excitement would have been in the air as work began in 1927. But with the outbreak of the civil war construction halted and in the austere

post-conflict years there was no progress. Finally, in the mid-sixties, the line was abandoned. All the stations, tunnels, and viaducts had been constructed but no tracks had ever been laid, excepting a short western stretch to a sugar plant.

We had the line to ourselves. It was January and out of season; the few locals wore gloves and face-covering buffs. We were told there had been heavy rain the day before and consequently the traction was poor but riding the route at this time of year was ideal compared to the oppressive heat that buckles this landscape and all within it from mid-May to mid-September.

We passed a lonely ghost station and pedalled on towards a long viaduct. A wheeling bird caught my eye but it was high in the sky and disappeared. Another blemish flitted in on my left and circled ever so slowly on thermals above a large wooded crag. The vultures had found us. Jackie refused to believe me when I told her what the birds were. Weighing up to 11 kilos these huge birds formed part of the Peñón de Zaframagón Griffon vulture colony,

one of the largest in Spain. Almost directly overhead three different groups were now sizing us up.

I could see Jackie was visibly worried so started to tell her the gruesome tale of the fate of a fifty-something woman who went hiking in the Pyrenees in May 2013. She was unlucky enough to fall to her death after plunging down a 1,000ft slope after taking a short cut while walking with friends. A helicopter search by the French emergency services noticed the air was filled with the same Griffon vultures. On closer inspection they found remnants of the

victim’s bones, shoes and clothes. Her body had been consumed with forty to fifty minutes they said. Jackie’s pace picked up and she left me behind on the viaduct.

From my vantage point I could look out to a canyon known with pools and waterfalls formed by the Guadalporcún River that flows by the vulture stronghold. Designated a Special Protection Area for its birdlife it also has holm oaks and wild olive trees that cover the lower areas, and rarer plants that cling to the canyon walls and steep sides of the crag. Juniper and the ever present aromatic rosemary could be seen closer to the cyclepath. There were

wafts of scent from the rosemary bushes as the sun warmed the damp earth.

Close by, in the old station at Zaframagón, there is an interpretation centre and vulture observatory with a webcam by nests. Apparently. It was closed for siesta. That reminded me it was the all important “hora de comer”, or lunchtime, so I followed in Jackie’s wake to arrive at the halfway point of Coripe.

Andalucians’ respect for the “hora de comer” verges on the obsessional. Tools are downed, children shepherded to the table, and the daily feast begins. Though there are moves afoot, principally in Madrid, to bring Spanish working hours into line with the rest of Europe there is strong resistance in southern Spain where a slower pace of life predominates. Derided as

being backward and lazy, by those in northern Spain, the Andalucians remain loyally Spanish and are in fact endlessly hard-working and fun-loving alike.

At the old station of Coripe we shared a plate of tangy marinated and battered dogfish, cazón en adobo, and a super fresh house salad. Washed down with a couple of small beers the total came to just over £12.

Feeling a little lazy we decided to skip seeing the village of Coripe which lay somewhere at the top of a formidable looking road and plonked on staying faithful to the Via Verde. More idyllic cycling and countryside followed. We crossed viaducts and stopped to take photos of the sun-kissed landscape and an attractive distant ranch full of cleanly painted white arches.

Later, ramshackle buildings marked the outskirts of Puento Serrano. Our home for the night was at a friendly, family run, hotel in the old station building. We took a trip into the small unpretentious farming town where we were, judging by the curious stares, some of the few foreigners to visit at this time of year.

The morning dawned bright and beautiful as we set out to retrace our easy route. A guidebook we had picked up suggested we divert a little before Coripe for the signed Chaparro de la Vega. Leaving our bikes we walked down a track towards the musical sound of bells to find a really idyllic setting. An old kermes oak tree dominated the clearing which was filled with bell-toting sheep and goats; a chapel stood to one side where pilgrims congregate in May. Docile mastiffs kept a loose watch on the herd that, consciously or not, made remarkably mellifluous music. To us the scene was like something from Biblical times.

This felt pretty close to time travel.

Next on our agenda was a five thousand year old megalith. Leaving our bikes again, after the Zamarra tunnel, we hiked up a forestry track enjoying views over the large valley we had cycled down the day before. Walking downhill we came across the clean stone monolith.

Spirals had been carved into its face many moons ago. Close by was a water trough where Romans once camped and who had built an aqueduct that remains to this day. A tourist brochure claims different civilizations were attracted to this area, including the Moors, by an unqualified quasi-magnetic effect of the Peñón de Zaframagón crag.

Back on the bikes we greeted other cyclists with cries of “hola”, and also somewhat nervously in the dimly-lit tunnels. The vultures were still circling as we passed close to their majestic crag. We kept cycling and after a break reached the terminus by Olvera.

Situated on a rock outcrop high above the surrounding landscape and crowned with an impressive castle this town is a photographer’s paradise. We wandered through its maze of streets, past impressively ornate doors which would have held intricate courtyards, and reached the 12th-century Muslim fortress with its still heavily solid walls, towers and keep.

The views were stunning and you had to admire the Moors’ location, from where they communicated with other sites by flashing mirrors.

I felt we had truly felt the past on the trip but, alas, our time was up.

TRAVEL NOTES

EasyJet has return flights from Glasgow to Malaga from £93 return. Visit easyjet.com.

Europcar has two-day hire car from Malaga airport from £120. Visit europcar.es.

Sesca rents bikes in Olvera for £10 a day. Visit sesca.es.

Where to stay

Hotel restaurante Puerta de la Sierra, Via Verde de la Sierra, Puerto Serrano has double rooms from £34. Call +34 659019347 or visit booking.com