Wheel Adventures: Seven tickets to a smokin’ adventure

David Sovka

Spain is not Italy, which is my delicate way of suggesting that if you go for the food, don’t. In busy big cities and tourist zones, food is expensive and not particularly amazing. In sleepy small towns off the beaten track, food is inexpensive and not particularly amazing.

Not bad, just not amazing. There is jamón ibérico (recipe: take one black pig, feed it acorns, smoke the legs, slice thinly and serve cold). There is gazpacho (recipe: blend nasty vegetables into garlicky soup and serve cold). There is paella (recipe: simmer rice, seafood and yellow crayons for more time than anyone is willing to wait and serve cold). Lastly, there is the one-bite wonder, pionono (recipe: roll mushy pastry into cylinder, serve cold).

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On drinking and smoking

Almost every coffee stop, beer break, and meal is taken outside in the sunshine, around small tables we pull together under the welcome shade of orange and myrtle trees. It’s a very pleasant way to rest from the ride, catching up on each other’s experiences on the road: What a view! Did you see the vultures circling above us? How badly does your bum hurt? Also, did I mention the beer? Full of refreshing beery goodness, it is without doubt a cyclist’s best friend in hot climes. The more I drink, the more I am certain of it. Ryder Hesjedal be damned.

Even my wife — operating on the assumption that cycling 60 km of hills entitles her to eat and drink whatever she wants — now imbibes a twice- or thrice-daily “Cycling Shandy,” locally known as a Radler, from the fine brewers at Cruzcampo. With just 2.2 per cent alcohol, I consider it a beer for ants. My strategy is to ask for una cerveza muy grande, and wait to see what happens.

If there is a drawback to our little breaks from the cycling saddle, it has nothing to do with alcohol. It is the risk of developing lung cancer or some other gruesome pulmonary ailment. What I mean to say is, everywhere we go, people smoke, so in that roundabout second-hand way, so do we.

Perhaps not indoors (if you don’t count standing in the entranceway or working in the kitchen), but certainly — and constantly — outside.

The smoking rate in Spain is somewhere around 24 per cent, higher than the OECD average of 20.7 per cent. That quarter of the population that smokes seems determined to make up for the three-quarters who do not.

Despite all the smoking, the life expectancy at birth in Spain is 82.5 years, one of the highest among OECD countries and more than two years higher than the OECD average (80.2 years).

I don’t understand how this can be, nor do I care why; I just want to enjoy my cerveza grande outside in fresh air.

The world’s most dangerous walkway

This morning’s breakfast is disturbed by a complicated explosive sound. It is, of course, our tour guide Genci, who asks if we would mind departing from the tour’s official itinerary today. This makes me smile because, under Genci’s dubious tour-guide ethos, we depart from the official itinerary every day. Nevertheless, something remarkable has come up: seven tickets have become available for El Caminito del Rey, requiring only a small detour and several long hill climbs we will find out about later (on the hills).

Are we interested? We shrug and nod. Genci is unhappy with the lukewarm reception, and because none of us has heard of El Caminito del Rey, and he makes his displeasure known in the usual way: complicated explosive sounds.

Soon we’re in the saddle, on the road, and over the hill. The day’s ride ends with a long, lovely downhill cruise through a paraje natural, a lush natural parkland featuring towers of limestone rocks and HOOOOOOOLY CRAP!!!

At the bottom of the last turn, I brake hard on the edge of the winding arroyo to take in the disturbing new view: the sweet green valley has closed in and sheer cliffs rise 300 metres skyward above the Guadalhorce River.

Across the valley I see a distressingly thin line, 100 metres above the greenish water, transcribe the cliff face. Squinting, I can just make out tiny figures slowly, carefully making their way across the vertical rock face. That’s where we are going because — complicated explosive sound — seven tickets have become available.

El Caminito del Rey ( “the king’s little path”) used to be known as the most dangerous walkway in the world due to its shocking state of disrepair.

Up until just a few years ago, adrenalin freaks from around the planet would make their way to the narrow gorge — Desfiladero de los Gaitanes — rope up (or not) and make the testicle-clenching three kilometre walk along the cliffs in a kind of braggart’s I-didn’t-die-what-about-you? rite of passage.

Today, after extensive repairs to the slender, 112-year-old track, el Caminito is only the second- or third-most dangerous walkway in the world. I’m kidding! It just feels that way. Especially along the parts of the pathway where you can still see the original structure falling apart before your eyes. It looks almost identical to the new structure.

The pathway was built in 1905 to allow workmen access to a couple of hydroelectric power stations on the river. In 1921, Spain’s King Alfonso XIII went along the path (on his horse, according to legend) for an official opening tour of the hydro station, and the “King’s little pathway” name stuck. You don’t need to know this factoid, but it’s something to cling to other than JESUS ANY SECOND NOW I AM GOING TO DIE. I can tell you right now the part of the story with the horse is grade-A baloney.

Of course there is a glass-bottomed viewing platform on el Caminito to test the nerves and sphincters. But it isn’t really necessary. That high above the valley floor, the entire three-kilometre walkway is one long gasp-inducing thrill — no need to gild the lily and/or tempt fate even more. Eventually you get used to it, and let go of the safety wire that runs parallel to the decking. I’m not a doctor, but I think what happens is that your brain, exhausted from the constant wash of adrenalin, realizes this is more of a psychological than physical aid — at no time does it actually provide objective safety.

The three-kilometre return route is much less startling, following a wider, gentler road back to the starting point. Without any significant views, it provides each of us with 20 minutes to reflect on the stark beauty of the gorge behind us, and to consider the men who pounded the walkway into the cliffs more than a century ago. Also, for the locals, it is a time to smoke heavily.

- - -

Way, waaaaay past his prime, David Sovka is a Victoria-based writer who loves to explore the forgotten corners of the map, and to be left the hell alone.

Alas, his wife and best friend insists that he do so in sensible shoes and a crash helmet.

This winter, Sovka is writing about cycle tours to sunny, exotic places by average, middle-aged Victorians — to be precise, himself and his wife, Roseanne Sovka.

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