“from the mountains to the sea, across all the sierra, and then, some more …”
Adventure Cycling in Andalucia. In the couple of blogs I have managed to write so far I have repeatedly alluded to byways and lanes, trails and tracks, country roads and back roads, and saturating along the way all the synonyms for “off the beaten track”. All this has been quite purposeful because I feel it represents well what a touring cyclist can experience here in Andalucia, or what Andalucia is so well placed to offer to the adventurous cyclist.
Off the beaten track, or as I have tried to phrase it poetically, “from the mountains to the sea, across all the sierra, and then, some more …”, has been my personal experience through the years that I have been turning the cranks here in the south. For all those byways and back roads that I have stumbled upon whilst on my peregrinations, I know that they are just one ´tenth-of-a-part of what is out there criss-crossing the landscapes of Andalucia.
So I’m going to write a little bit about the history of these byways and back roads in this blog.
Drove roads, roman roads & royal roads: the briefest of outlines (I promise).
The need to move livestock from winter cover to summer pasture, and from pasture to market is ancient. The moving of flocks and herds over large distances over a network of drove roads was a fundamental part of any economy. When the Romans arrived to the Iberian peninsula they superimposed their military and colonial needs upon parts of these preexisting networks of drovers tracks.
The answer to “What have the Romans ever done for us !?” matileised in a formalised network of roads, especially in the area of south west Andalucia where I am based. There still remain a number of roman bridges here in Andalucia, proof of the roman civil engineering, and they are by no means just monuments, as some remained in use until relatively recently.
The three principal routes in south west Andalucía where the; Via August from Gades to Hispalis and Corduba (Cadiz, Sevilla and Córdoba), the famous Via de la Plata (named for the colour of the road surface rather than any meteorological association), and the Camino Anibal which followed the natural course of the Guadalquiver valley until it crossed over the mountain passes and on through to the Meseta that is the central plain of Spain, where the rain mainly falls.
The middle ages,
The Roman empire slowly ground to a halt and then eventually retreated. Their Visigoth retainers & inheritors formized new legislation regarding the drove roads within the Fuero Juzgo. They regulated the movement of livestock and how the network of drovers tracks could be used.
During the early middle ages of the Al-Ándalus there was some limited investment and expansion of the road network as testified in the book El Libro de Rutas y Reinos (The book of Routes and Kingdoms, or, Kitāb al-Masālik wa’l-Mamālik) by Abu Abdullah al-Bakri, written between 1067-1068. In the Castilian high medieval era there was further legal formalistion of the network and the “Real sociedad de ganaderos de la Mesta”, a species of guild for farmers and drovers, was created by Alfonso X el Sabio in 1273.
However the whole of the middle ages can generally be said to be an era without investment, renovation or modernisation of its roads, a state of affairs which lasted well into the early modern era.
The Enlightenment of the late 18th century (which arrived late to Spain, maybe because of the state of the roads) brought with it an impetus for a new planned network of engineered roads, known as the Caminos Reales (Royal Roads). The Itinerario Español (Spanish Itinerary) published in the late 18th century by Matias Escribano puts the total network of roads in Andalucia as some 7445 km of which 41% was apt for carriages (Caminos Reales). The other 59% of the roads were known as carreteros or herradura, only passable by carters and pack horses.
The network of old drovers roads in Spain is known as the Red de Vias Pecuarias. Of the 124,000km of vía pecuarias in Spain almost 25% are in Andalucía, some 30.000km plus. The vias themselves are divided into cañadas which are 75 meters wide, cordeles with a width of 37’5 meters and veredas of 20 meters width. This is the backbone of a peninsular wide network, and it is not only the vias themselves which count but also the adjoining infrastructure for the herdsmen, the drinking troughs, shepherds huts, sheepfolds, hermitages, bridges and cairns, which are an integral part of this network.
This public patrimony became protected by law during the 90´s, a legal protection that was long outstanding. In Andalucia it has been estimated that up to 75% of these byways have been lost, in part due to urban sprawl and modern road building, but mostly this loss has been due to unscruplious private landowners illegally occupying this public network to increase their own private landholdings.
The new legal protections provide for the possibility of recouperting much of this lost patrimony. The economic impulse provided by turismo ecológico (ecological tourism) and of rural sports, recreation & activities provides an impetus towards a change in direction and a new attitude (political will providing).
However, and far more importantly, the vias pecuarias retain their working function as networks for shepherds. Shepherds keep alive the old rights and traditions of the right of way and of common grazing with their flocks of sheep and goats, and cattle can still be herded along these tracks.
The vias pecuarias also offer protection to local ecologies and biodiversity, especially when they join up protected areas such as National Parks and Natural Parks. They provide safe haven and safe conduct for all types of wild animals as they navigate through the modern world, and in the droppings of these animals plant seeds are disseminated further afield.
As already mentioned, these common rights have had to be fought-for, in the defense of a public patrimony against private interest. Many groups, such as Ecologistas en Acción or Caminos Libres, have brought the issue to the forefront as have many individuals such as the pioneering Manuel Gómez of Cadiz. During the 80´s, Manual Gómez, a shepherd, took direct action to revindicate the public use of these vias pecuarias .
I recommend this short t.v. documentary about Manual Gómez,
…and then, what for the humble adventure cyclist ?
Well, just as in the case of the animals, the vias pecuarias provide a safer and quieter conduit for the cyclist. Again, as in the case of the drovers, ancient or contemporary, the network of byways also provides for the cyclist an alternative way with which to navigate through the landscape. We cyclists can also enjoy free-pass thanks to the groups and individuals who have moved to keep the via pecuarias public, in fact some via pecuarias remain in use because of the cyclists and hikers. The via pecuarias remain a common public space for work and play.
I am an advocate for road cycling, a lot of my experience has been on road which I enjoy greatly, but when I discovered this alternative network of via pecuarias I realised that mixing and matching road and off-road could take you further in a far more varied way. It opened up to me new adventurous possibilities and experiences that were very different.
Often when riding a route on road you will studiously keep to secondary roads, for a more ´rural´ experience, and even then you´ll never be far away from a road sign marking the way forward for you. This can be reassuring when you’re in unknown territory.
However the experience of that very same route is vastly different if made alternatively on via pecuarias. You´ll realise that you’re on your own and that the landscape is all enveloping. If you ride without modern aids, then you´ll need to navigate using your own internal compass, common sense and observation – now that’s great fun !
One habitual ride for the club was from Sevilla to Carmona and back on a series of well known secondary roads. The route was so well internalised that the distance, time and effort required was a no thinker for us. Then one Sunday we decided that Sevilla to Carmona could be done by going cross country using the tracks that we found on the way. We were out of our comfort zone. The distance felt as if it had suddenly doubled and we navigated by using landmarks and horizons. We knew that we were riding east if we kept the shadow of Sierra Norte to our left hand shoulder, and that if we navigated towards a high cortijo tower or a big tree that we had happened to have spotted on the horizon then we had a waypoint, and from there we could re-evaluate and continue.
During this ride I realised how it must have felt to be a traveller or drover in times past. I also realised that the landscape was much much larger than I might have imagined from the comfort of the road. Distances were no longer conveniently measured out and the general feeling was slightly less than certain. This type of experience is very attractive to my romantic-self, as these are the feelings of the wandering traveller in a strange panorama.
Andalucia has been a mecca for centuries for people looking for such experiences. To be inside the landscape, is to be an active part of the landscape, is part of a cyclist´s philosophy.
Information available online
I can highly recommend the web page http://www.caminosvivos.com , a website built by my friend and cycling buddy Jose Antonio. Jose Antonio was a loyal customer to my workshop in my days as a bicycle mechanic and we have also got in a good few kms of riding together.
He is also an authority of the theme of Vias Pecuarias and Caminos Reales therefore his website www.caminovivos.com brings this authority together with great maps and a catalogue of monuments and natural places with which you can plot future adventures in the Province of Sevilla.
There are many useful websites and databases on the theme, especially those published by the Junta de Andalucia.
This rather imposing link below (1) takes you to the Junta de Andalucia´s inventory of via pecuarias in Andalucia. It is a good resource listing and naming all the vias pecuarias here in Andalucia, but if you are unfamiliar with the region it works best in conjunction with a good map to compare against such as those in the Instituto Georgráfico Nacional, https://www.ign.es/web/ign/portal/cbg-area-cartografia.
A good historical introduction to the theme is Atlas de la Historia del Territorio de Andalucía, from where I gleaned a lot of information for this blog.
A very recommendable campaign website is https://caminoslibres.es/