A great day in the saddle for Adventurous Cyclists.
What with one thing or another it has been a long while since I last had time to sit down and write a blog – you know how it is. However, here I am, once again. Today I thought I would take you for a good long ride along some country lanes, farm tracks and drovers roads in the middle of the campiña, that’s to say, in the middle of nowhere. Whilst we´re here I´ll take you past a few hidden places.
The campiña of the Los Alcores is this huge area of flatlands to the south east of Sevilla, which eventually opens out onto the northern edge of the Serrania de Ronda.
This is a good day-long ride with some 80kms of off-road riding, a route which is really great for gravel bikes, mtb or touring bikes. The route includes long sections of unmarked cross country tracks, where good 1,250,000 maps come in handy. It also uses stretches of signed-posted drovers roads, and a short length of an old railway line. There is no climbing to be had, this is the campiña after all, but there is a job-lot of good fast off road riding. Every now and again there are slightly more taxing sections of overgrown and rutted tracks which can get very boggy in the winter, but this all adds to the fun.
I have ridden the basic route in various ways, chopping and changing on each outing, riding it in each direction and taking time to leave the main track and get lost before returning once again. The town of Utrera, which is both the starting and finishing point, has good rail connections from Sevilla, making it a great day out from the capital. In the middle of this route I will be taking you past an old abandoned hamlet with its old church, castle and coaching inn.
Download the route here for free.
In this particular version of the ride, which I am publishing here, I have gone for a figure of eight route, which starts and finishes at the railway station at Utrera. As the 80 kms of this ride are all off-road and the figure of eight does not pass any town or village there are few opportunities to stop and top up unless you take your own food with you. There are only three opportunities to stop & eat at a bar en route and they are marked on the map and GPS track. Each of these three tucker stops are all a few kms away from the marked route so you will have to go off track and ride out to them, however, you will have no other opportunities to eat & refresh if you don’t choose one or more of these three places.
This route is published at https://www.outdooractive.com . If you click on the link below you get access to the GPS track and map there is also a short 3D birds eye view video. If you click on the box with the three points you can download the route as a GPX/KML or FIT. There is no charge.
The waypoints mentioned in the text below reference to the GPS track in the link above.
The Route: the campiña of Los Alcores & a hidden surprise …
You’ll begin to turn the pedals and leave the ornate railway station of Utrera behind. After 80 kms you´ll return back here. You’ll note as you begin the first turns of the cranks that there are quite a few bars near the station: keep that in mind for those tired legs later on. A slow gentle start on the cobbled streets and tha asphalt gets the caddence going. I hope you have had a coffee or two before starting.
First-off you will ride through the market town of Utrera passing a varied assortment of old Andalusian buildings and architecture, with the town’s old castle crowning the hill (1). Utrera is small so you are soon past the old town and also past waypoint B which marks the start of the main route.
Waypoint C, `Colada de Piedra´, is the place where you start to go off road. The whole day’s ride will remain off road until you arrive back at Utrera. This country track will take you for the first 16km east-north-east. It is rutted, and in parts slightly overgrown, but you have come here to enjoy a bit of gravel riding, so on you go. This is your first introduction to the vast open flatness of the campiña. Only the mountains far away, over your right hand shoulder, show any elevation, whilst everything else in sight is on an even plain.
At waypoint F you will turn north-east onto the `Vereda de Martinazo´. This vereda is part of the greenway which goes south-east from Alcala de Guadaira to Morón de la Frontera. This is a drovers road and it is well conditioned for walkers and cyclists, but it is still in use so you may well come across a shepherd and their herd.
This is good fast riding now, clicking into the small gears with a nice longish pedal cadence and down on to the drops. You will notice the fertile land that surrounds you, a mixture of olive groves, fruit orchards, a lot of grain, and of course`ganado bravo´. Here there is this lovely portion of this vereda which I always look forward to. The hedges on either side of the track are high and wild. It forms this lovely tunnel topped off by the sky, where small birds dart in and out before you as you ride. When the hedges are in blossom it is all the better as it is a corridor full of colour. As long as this long tunnel of hedgerow is, and whilst you’re riding fast and all smiley & happy, this moment passes too quickly.
You´ll pass by the Torre de la Membrilla (waypoint H), the first castellated tower of the day (2). You ´ll continue at this fastish pace as the vereda undulates until waypoint J when you turn due north on to the Vereda de la Camorra. You are now back onto old rutted country tracks again, so you will drop into a smaller crank maybe, or you´ll certainly climb onto a bigger cassette. It’s downhill for a brief run, fingers loose on the drops, your pedals at the nine and three o’clock position.
You´ll soon arrive at the ruins of the San Pedro water mill on the Río Guadaira, and then in quick succession the old bridge of Gandul built in the 17th c. (3) . Riding north along the Cordel de la Camorra for a couple of kilometres you will have before you the escarpment of Los Alcores. This is the highest section of the day at an incredible 100m above sea level. It is also practically the only `climb´ of the day. At waypoint N turn west and on to the old railway line that went from Alcala de Guadaira to Carmona. This is the Vía Verde de los Alcores which is popular with mountain bikers, walkers and horse riders.
(Waypoint N, as well as waypoints T & V are important to note because they are the three places at which you can choose to go off track to find something to eat. Do keep this in mind.)
Here the escarpment affords great views across the campiña spreading out to the south. The via verde is pleasant riding, wooded in places with pine and eucalyptus and it is very sandy all year round, except, except if it has rained hard recently. Then the resulting sodden silt will grab at your wheels making for heavy pedalling.
Waypoint P. At approximately half way through the day’s ride you will happen upon Gandul. This whole route has been designed to bring you here. It is the raison d’être of the day.
The hidden Hamlet of Gandul
Calle Real, Gandul. By Mercedes Peña.
Riding from the north east along the abandoned trackbed and past a ruined railway halt, you arrive at the old hamlet of Gandul. Of the hidden places near Sevilla, Gandul is my favourite, (although I hope there are more hidden places I have yet to discover). For such a small hamlet, long since depopulated, there is a wealth of documented history and literary references to this tiny corner between the Cerro del Toruño and the Cerros de San Juan on this escarpment.
A couple of old buildings & some ruins still survive along its main street, Calle Real. Calle Real sounds far too imposing and sumptuous for what is a very narrow country lane cut deep into the rock, and which is overgrown by trees and giant cactus bushes.
The old posada at Gandul. Where Washington Irving took repose. By Mercedes Peña.
Watercolour paintings of Gandul are by the Sevillian artist Mercedes Peña. You can see more examples of her work at http://mercedespe.blogspot.com
The hamlet of Gandul used to sit on the old road between Sevilla and Antiquerra, which from there continued on to Granada and Málaga. Gandul was a staging post along this road and therefore it boasted a posada, or coaching inn, on Calle Real. This posada is famously described for prosperity by Washington Irving in the first chapter of his book ´The Alhambra`, published in 1851. Irving set out on horseback from Sevilla to Granada in may of 1829. The description gives a vivid image of this place, almost two hundred years ago.
“Our next halting-place was at Gandul, where were the remains of another Moorish castle, with its ruined tower, a nestling-place for storks, and commanding a view over a vast campiña or fertile plain, with the mountains of Ronda in the distance. (…)
At Gandul we found a tolerable posada; the good folks could not tell us what time of day it was, the clock only struck once in the day, two hours after noon; until that time it was guesswork. We guessed it was full time to eat; so, alighting, we ordered a repast. (…) By the time the laconic clock of the castle had struck two we had finished our dinner. So, taking leave of our Seville friends, and leaving the millers still under the hands of the barber, we set off on our ride across the campiña.”
Today what remains of the posada and its auxiliary buildings is limited. It too has been a victim of illegal demolitions (4). Anyone who has read this blog before will know something of these sad illegal demolitions . ( https://andaluciacycling.com/blog/a-short-local-news-article/https://andaluciacycling.com/blog/a-short-local-news-article/)
After a few metres of scrambling further down Calle Real you will come across the parish church of San Juan Evangelista. It is a seventeenth century building in the mudéjar style, and has long since closed its doors to regular services (5). You can walk up the stepped path way to the main door of this small country parish church.
Opposite the church, sitting on a crag high up over Calle Real, is without doubt my favourite building. It was the municipal building for Gandul, where the public scribe could be found, a place where the comunal grain was stored, and where there was a dungeon for those local transgressors and other temporary prisoners in transit along this long road. Built in the early eighteenth century, it is of a very common and unadorned architecture of its era and of this part of Andalucia, and apart from the sundial over the main doorway, and of course it’s dungeon, it has little of any particular note about it.
However I personally find it to be a very appealing and delightful building which I always look forward to seeing on my rides out this way. I have guided a good few groups of cyclists to this building, en route to somewhere else. I always look forward to introducing this building to a new cyclist because inevitably the reaction is always the same, a happy smile of realisation at something unexpected, small, hidden and charming.
You can book this guided or self-guided e-mtb route from Seville to Carmona with Elecmove, Sevilla.
Once as I was riding back, heading home from Carmona, and as I scrambled down Calle Real I was unexpectedly stopped by a mute person with headphones and a walkie talkie, his index finger to mouth signifying silence. After a second I realised they were shooting a film, a historical piece, and I saw two actors in period dress come out of the front door of the building. It made my day ! It was the closest I have gotten to time travelling, of seeing the ghosts of people from back in the day doing their thing, at this, my favourite building. I have no idea what film they were shooting, but if you know, drop me a line.
At the end of Calle Real is the castle tower, the palace, and the cortijo (home farm) and the remains of one of the three water mills which Gandul had. The base of the tower is a construction from the almohade era. The upper parts of the castle tower were constructed in the seventeenth century, as was the palace of the marquis of Gandul which sits down hill from the tower. The palace was described by Irving so;
“ … we visited the palace once the residence of the Marquis of Gandul. All was gone to decay; there were but two or three rooms habitable, and very poorly furnished. Yet here were the remains of grandeur: a terrace, where fair dames and gentle cavaliers may once have walked; a fish-pond and ruined garden, with grape-vines and date-bearing palm-trees. Here we were joined by a fat curate, who gathered a bouquet of roses, and presented it, very gallantly, to the lady who accompanied us.”
It seems that at least the curate of Gandul was well fed , if no one else was.
“Below the palace was the mill, with orange-trees and aloes in front, and a pretty stream of pure water. We took a seat in the shade; and the millers, all leaving their work, sat down and smoked with us; for the Andalusians are always ready for a gossip. They were waiting for the regular visit of the barber, who came once a week to put all their chins in order. He arrived shortly afterwards: a lad of seventeen, mounted on a donkey, eager to display his new alforjas or saddle-bags, just bought at a fair; price one dollar, to be paid on St. John’s day (in June), by which time he trusted to have mown beards enough to put him in funds.”
I will leave you here a short video. where local men, all now long retired, remember life in Gandul. They all started to work in the surrounding countryside at the ages of twelve or fourteen and all had received little formal education, but they remember the day to day life in this forgotten hamlet before it was abandoned. It is in Spanish and was filmed in the early 2000s.
Leaving Gandul behind, just as Washington Irving did two hundred years ago, it is time to get back on track. You will drop down from the escarpment and you are now returning to the campiña, the great flat plains. The horizons here are open and wide. The riding here is fast and easy. Not too distant from the Gandul and atop a short climb is the Castillo de Marchenilla, waypoint T .
This is your proper classic castle, the one you drew as a child with your crayons. It is small, but it has all the obligatory features; a gateway, castilations, a tower, a courtyard, little windows encrusted in strong walls. It is actually a private home and farmstead now, but if you organise yourself well you can visit it on Saturday mornings (6).
Marchenillla was built as part of an outlying defensive line of small castles and towers to the south east of Sevilla, as was the Torre de Membilla which you have already passed. They marked the border between Christain kingdom of the conquered Sevilla and the Islamic kingdom of Ronda and Malaga and Granada.
“These castles were strongholds to protect the plains from the talas or forays to which they were subject, when the fields of corn would be laid waste, the flocks and herds swept from the vast pastures, and, together with captive peasantry, hurried off in long cavalgadas across the borders.”
The incursions, when they came, came from the Serrania de Ronda and that is the direction you are about to take now as you start to ride the return leg towards Utrera.
About 4 km on from waypoint W on the Vereda de Benagila you will find yourself returned to a crossroads which you have already seen. This crossroads is the knot in the figure of eight which you are riding. The first time you came to these crossroads from the south east before you turned north towards the escarpment. This time you have been riding from the west and you are about to turn south at waypoint X. From this point on until you arrive in Ultera, for the last 20 odd km you will be riding unconditioned veredas, unmarked caminos and country tracks, all off piste. Keep a good eye on the GPS !
Returning to Utrera you have also returned to the same campiña, the open flatlands, the same landscape from where you started your ride. These wide open spaces of this part of Andalucía were described thus by Irving.
“ (…) we set off on our ride across the campiña. It was one of those vast plains, common in Spain, where for miles and miles there is neither house nor tree. Unlucky the traveller who has to traverse it, exposed as we were to heavy and repeated showers of rain. There is no escape nor shelter. Our only protection was our Spanish cloaks, which nearly covered man and horse, but grew heavier every mile. By the time we had lived through one shower we would see another slowly but inevitably approaching; fortunately in the interval there would be an outbreak of bright, warm, Andalusian sunshine, which would make our cloaks send up wreaths of steam, but which partially dried them before the next drenching.”
But you never know do you ? You may also get a bright sunny day with a cooling breeze, and somehow, someway, a trailing wind which is always behind you whichever direction you turn ! As you rest lightly on the tops of your bars, sitting back in your saddle, you can take in all this landscape as you enjoy the last leg back to the station.
Back at the station, and at the end of the route, you will suddenly remember those bars near the station. So it is time to prop your bike against a wall, hobble on those cleated shoes, sit down at a table and enjoy a well earned beer or two whilst you wait for the train.
I hope some of you will give this route a go, let me know if you do. I have enjoyed riding it myself many times, and I hope my enthusiasm is shared by other adventure cyclists from Andalucia and those adventurous cyclists who are here visiting us in Andalucia. Enjoy the ride !
All quotes from The Tales of the Alhambra taken from https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/49947/pg49947-images.html