Why travel to Andalucía – is it just sun, sea and sangria? Certainly not – this region of southern Spain offers so much more, and is an ideal holiday destination for travellers looking for new ideas for their next biking or walking holiday.
Andalucía is the second-largest autonomous community of Spain, encompassing eight provinces across the whole southern part of the country. It’s most westerly coast borders the Atlantic Ocean, whilst it’s long southern coastline is washed by the warmer waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The landscape is extremely diverse, ranging from hot, dry desert in the east (Almería province) to marshland in the west (Huelva province), and from snow-capped mountains in the Sierra Nevada (Granada province) to limestone tunnels and caverns in the Sierra de Grazalema (Malaga province).
The region has a rich cultural history, having been invaded and inhabited by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Berbers, amongst others. It was known as Al-Andalus for nearly 800 years, when the Moors occupied much of modern-day Spain and Portugal, and it was the military and cultural base of their Iberian empire. Over this period, major cities developed, with Cordoba once the largest city in Europe and a prominent centre of education and learning. The Catholic Kings of Spain eventually reclaimed the territory and set to work converting or embellishing impressive Moorish structures into more Spanish-styled properties. The result is some of the most stunning and original architecture in the world, such as Granada’s Alhambra, Sevilla’s Alcazar and Cordoba’s Mesquite. As the Catholic Kings sought new territories in the New World, the city of Cadiz, on the western coast, became the departure point for intrepid explorers, who brought back serious wealth and yet more cultural diversity in terms of food, fashion and art.
Why Hike and Bike in Andalucía?
So what does this part of Spain have to offer to the cyclist or hiker?
Andalucía contains three National Parks (the most of all the regions of mainland Spain – Sierra Nevada, Doñana and Sierra de las Nieves) and twenty-four Natural Parks. These are all areas of outstanding natural beauty, recognised on a national or regional basis, and are testament to the regard in which Andalucía’s rich natural landscape is held. It means that little or no modern building and development can take place and that investment is made into protecting the environment and developing sustainable and carefully managed tourism. All the parks have numerous beautiful walking routes at different levels of difficulty and far-reaching trails that are suitable for mountain biking, often riding through remote areas that few tourists get to see.
50% of Andalucía is mountain terrain, a third of the land area is over 600 metres above sea level and the whole southern border is coastline, which means dramatic differences in geographical structure and weather conditions across the region. Centuries of earth movements have formed extensive mountain ranges, with nearly 50 peaks over 1,000 metres and the highest mountains in the Sierra Nevada over 3,400 metres. In areas such as El Torcal and the Sierra de Grazalema, weather and water erosion of the limestone ground has created extraordinary rock formations, deep river valleys and extensive cave systems. These are the high and low extremes of geological variation, but in between lies a wide variety of terrain – rolling hills, wide open spaces, ancient forests of pine, oak and chestnut, natural and man-made lakes and meandering rivers. Outside the main cities, the region is dotted with small towns and villages and the overall population density is low. Nearly half of the land is cultivated for crops, mainly olives, wheat and vines (the Mediterranean triad) and there are miles of beautiful meadows and pastures. Extensive areas are not suitable for crops or habitation and remain remote, wild and ripe for exploration. If you like biking or walking in varied and unspoiled landscapes, then inland Andalucía is the place to be.
Andalucía abounds with quiet twisting roads which connect the smaller towns and villages and are ideal for scenic leisure cycling. Pro-cyclists and keen amateur road riders regularly use Andalucía as a base for mountain training. They love the excellent quality road surfaces, the large selection of long mountain climbs and descents, the low volume of traffic and the considerate attitude of motorists to cyclists. For off-road fans, the Andalucían countryside is criss-crossed by an extensive network of tracks, trails and pathways, which are fantastic for hiking and mountain biking. Cross-country enthusiasts can follow old drovers’ routes, originally used by travelling traders and for transporting livestock from grazing grounds to the towns, and there is also a myriad of small goat-tracks, wider pathways and unsurfaced access-roads through forests and fields. For avid down-hillers, there are adrenaline-pumping rides through the mountains. For families and less energetic cyclists, there is biking or walking on Via Verdes, ‘greenway routes’ which have been converted from disused railway lines. In short, there is something to suit all abilities and preferences of cyclist or walker.
Whilst the Costa del Sol and some parts of the southern coast are often bustling with tourists, the inland areas of Andalucía are much less-known and, consequently, much less busy. You need only travel an hour inland to find yourself in wide open countryside, far from the crowds, with the trails to yourself. Even some of the coastal areas still remain virtually unknown and free of crowds.
Spain has marked walking and biking routes, such as the Caminos de Santiago and Via Verdes, but most of the best trails are hidden from view and unmarked on any maps. So if you plan to cycle or walk away from the roads, it’s best to go out with a local guide who knows the area well or can use their expert local knowledge to plan high quality self-guiding routes. Hike and Bike the Sierras are based in Ronda, in western Andalucía. They arrange guided day trips or holidays based in Ronda for mountain bikers and walkers and also offer a range of self-guided cycling tours and walking tours which explore the wider region. These include tours to Seville, Jerez, Cadiz, Tarifa and Malaga, with overnight stops along the route in small white villages. All Hike and Bike’s holidays and tours are developed and managed by locally-based cycling and walking guides who have a real love and connection with the region. Guides are fully qualified and tours are available in English or Spanish.
With so many wonderful cities and the region’s famous white villages ‘pueblos blancos’, any walking or cycling tour of Andalucía will be filled with interesting sights, fascinating history and traditional culture. Larger cities are beginning to open up cycle lanes to make life easier for the urban cyclist, and pedestrianised yet bike-friendly central plazas are common. It is possible to ride right up to many of the most famous and impressive buildings on a bike, whilst extensive ornamental gardens provide peaceful walking, away from the traffic. Out in the countryside, traditional white villages offer a wonderful glimpse into the past, with buildings and lifestyles having changed little in centuries. There is still an emphasis on small-scale farming and the continued use of many ancient techniques, particularly in the harvesting of olives and grapes and production of local meats and cheeses. Traditional ferias are celebrated with gusto throughout the region and all-important family-gatherings will regularly involve four generations, eating, drinking and relaxing together.
The weather conditions in Andalucía are the best in Europe and ideal for outdoor activity. The sun shines for 300+ days a year and the hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters mean that much of Andalucía provides an unexpectedly green and fertile landscape. Outdoor activities can be pursued all year-round and the trails are generally dry, dusty and great to ride or walk on. The best times to visit are in the spring – when the wild flowers are in full bloom and the fields are lush and green – or in the autumn – when the summer’s fierce heat has cooled a little. But winter days can often offer up blue skies and sunshine, whilst early morning activities in the summer allow travellers to make the most of the beaches, pools or shady plazas when the heat rises in the afternoons. The seasonally changing landscape is always a joy to explore.
Andalucía is a land of mouth-watering local products: jamón, cheese ‘queso’, chorizo, olives and numerous wines and sherries. Andalucía produces more olive oil that any region in the world and it is a staple product of local cuisine, used in everything from salad dressings, on vegetables, in soups (cooling gazpacho, creamy salmorejo and garlicky ajo blanco), sauces and as a simple accompaniment to tomatoes, cheese and bread. Traditional Andalucían breakfast is a slice of toast, rubbed with Extra Virgen olive oil, topped with pureed tomatoes and a little salt – a simple but hearty way to start the day. Bottles of locally produced olive oil are sold throughout the provinces, as well as many regional cheeses made from goats, sheep or cow’s milk. Jamón Ibérico is a particular speciality of the region. Provenance, breeding and nutrition are all vital parts of the production process and there are almost as many different grades and types of jamón as there are grapes and wines.
Andalucía is home to four airports, with the main airport of Malaga being the largest international airport in the whole of Spain (ahead of Madrid and Barcelona). Around 20 million passengers travel through Malaga airport each year, and air travellers can also arrive in Andalucía via Seville, Jerez and Granada airports, together with Gibraltar airport, just off the southern tip of Spain. There are also good rail links, with many high-speed trains coming via Madrid from the rest of Europe. The road network is constantly improving and, away from the busy city centres, there is still relatively little traffic on roads throughout Spain. So Andalucía is easily accessible, however you prefer to travel.
The cost of living in Spain is one of the lowest in Western Europe, even in the cities, and particularly in the rural south, so your euros, pounds or dollars will go further here than pretty much anywhere!
All-in-all, Andalucía makes a great destination for a cycling, mountain biking or walking holiday in Spain.
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