Extremadura via Ávila and Madrid

From Avila, great cycling on the northern slopes of the Sierra de Gredos leads into the dramatic north east corner of Extremadura via Candelario.   Good climbs over the Puerto de Honduras and through Piornal follow before travelling southwards towards the beautiful town of Trujillo.   East over the hills to Guadalupe completes a rich Extremaduran experience followed by an interesting return to Madrid that includes a trip along the via Verde de la Jara.

An account of a cycle tour in May 2005

going south-west from  Ávila to Trujillo

Day 1 Avila to Navarredonda de Gredos (84km)

In Avila, we stayed at the friendly Hostal del Rastro, built into the ancient walls of the city. We'd arrived in Avila in good time to have a look around this interesting town. We'd also managed to purchase an Amena pay-as-you-go card for our 'phone. The previous evening we had enjoyed some great local cusine at the hostal's good value restaurant. The AV900 led us southwards and upwards towards the Puerto de Navalmoral (1514m) from where there were superb views of the Sierra de Gredos and the route ahead After a great descent into Navalmoral, we didn't want to lose unnecessary height by dropping further into Burgohondo, so turned right onto the C500 at Navalmoral.

Immediately after the junction to Navalacruz the road was closed. Really closed, with big red signs and serious looking barriers. According to the signs, the road was being improved for the next 26km. About 100m into the closed road we could see men working on a road drain so asked them if bikes would be able to get through the road improvements. 'Yes' was their answer. As far as we could see, the surface was a mixture of old narrow road and new compacted surface awaiting tarmac to form the new wider road. Off we set, grinding uphill on the mixed surface in very hot weather. A few construction vehicles passed us coming downhill. We gave a casual wave to each vehicle, somehow seeking to reinforce the legitimacy of our incursion. This tactic was working well until the final vehicle in a mini convoy screeched to a halt. The uniforms gave them away but 'Guardia Civil' emblazoned on the vehicle confirmed that a casual wave might no longer do the business. I gained a temporary respite with my reasonably proficient 'No hablo español' and an indication that the cyclist still approaching from below did speak Spanish. In truth, I had fully understood the dramatic arm gestures indicating that we must turn around. Also, I doubt that there are many ways that the policeman could have pronounced 'dinamita' that I couldn't have made a good guess at his main point.

An interesting conversation then followed with lots of anguished looks from our direction. When we told them where we were heading, the mood seemed to change. They could see we had a problem and solved it for us by driving away. We carried on elated. The Guardia Civil returned about 10 minutes later, blocked the road and sounded their siren. Elation turned to despair in an instant. Assuming our escape was at an end we turned to approach them only to be waved on our way. Elated again we continued, our regard for the Guardia Civil increasing with each turn of the pedals. We celebrated with a brief stop in the shade - it was unseasonably hot. The explosion and cloud of dust from about 300m down the road we had just come up encouraged us to get going again. Fortunately, the road works were largely confined to 6km rather than the anticipated 26km. We cycled on through Navalosa and Hoyocasero, enjoying the quiet roads and great views. The road on the northern side of the Sierra de Gredos is much higher and quieter than the road to the south and is a great way to approach Extremadura. We were heading for San Martin del Pimpollar where we believed there was a hostal, only to discover that we'd passed it some 4km back at the junction at Venta de Rasquilla. This being 4km that we had climbed we carried on to Navaredonda de Gredos and the pleasant Hostal Almanzor, a short distance past the Parador de Gredos.

Day 2 Navarredonda de Gredos to Candelario (71km)

Starting early as usual, first stop was a panderia. After a short climb the route to El Barco de Avila was all downhill. This is a pleasant small town with an interesting range of shops. Beans are a speciality and the town square boasts two specialist retailers with all the beans you might want. We stocked up on sun cream - the hot weather was continuing.

Pleasant cycling was marred by a headwind on the C500 towards Bejar. We were also gradually climbing before the road descended from La Hoya. Candelario was our destination and just beyond La Hoya we took the small road through Navacarros. Numerous circular stone constructions can be seen in the pastures adjoining the road - the traditional crop storage facilities looking like circular sheep pens but with no entrance. The road brings you into the highest point in Candelario and we walked our bikes down through the steep narrow streets to the main square. The cobbled streets are made even narrower by the water channels on either side, which in early May were mini torrents. At the welcoming Hostal Cristi we were in time to join the families and others taking lunch. Perfect, with wonderful local specialities. This was a good time to be visiting Candelario. It probably gets very busy in the main tourist season, but even though it was Saturday, it was fairly quiet.

Day 3 Candelario to Jerte via Puerto de Honduras (60km)

A beautiful quiet road led us from Candelario through coppiced woodlands eventually climbing to alpine like meadow above La Garganta with views down to Hervas. A short distance into the descent and we came across an information board by the road that describes the adjacent snow well (pozo de nieve). Don't miss it! There's no business like snow business! In function, similar to the ice houses of British stately homes, their origin is somewhat different. From the seventeenth century, a business in the storage and supply of snow developed throughout Spain, although the simple storage and subsequent use of snow is a much older tradition. In this area, the snows of Candelario, Hervás, Garganta and Piornal were supplied to convents, hospitals and individuals throughout a large part of Extremadura. With the invention of the first ice producing machines around 1870, the industry declined. There were snow warehouses in most of the towns of more than 2,000 inhabitants and the snow industry provided work for many. To help preserve the vulnerable cargo, the snow was transported at night in pitchers and protected by mud and straw insulation. The well was filled in winter with successive layers of snow that were first compressed before separating from the next layer by a bed of straw. Further information is available at http://www.piornal.net/cajondesastre/pozonieve.htm and La asociación por la Arquitectura Rural Tradicional de Extremadura (ARTE).

We thought of continuing to Hervás on the single track road just above La Garganta. A brief conversation with someone at the junction about the state of the road, combined with the attractions of the newly surfaced road to Baños de Montemayor changed our minds. Hervás is famous for the well preserved architecture of its Jewish quarter and is certainly worth a visit. Even more memorable though, was the bakery in the shopping street leading off the old small square. Sweet or savoury toothed, none could be disappointed! We stocked up for the climb to Puerto de Honduras. The climb was pleasant with good gradients, much of the lower part being in the welcome shade of the trees. Higher up, no shade but good views. Once over the top there were good gradients for the descent. At the top we'd met a man who'd been sounding a bell - we never did work out what that was about - but he did warn us to watch out for animals on the descent. He was right - we encountered cattle, a goat heard and a collection of horses on our way to lunch at the Hotel Los Arennales, just south of Jerte. Another great lunch and fine hotel. The boring façade of the main road through Jerte hides an attractive old village.

Day 4 Jerte to Monfragüe (95km)

A fast run down the Jerte valley soon brought us to the turn off for Valdastillas and Piornal. The valley is famous for its cherries. As we climbed, cherry trees were everywhere. On the slopes people were picking them and in the villages women were sorting them. We opted for buying and eating them.

Eventually cherry trees gave ways to oak and Piornal appeared. Perhaps we didn't find the old centre but it was disappointing considering its elevated location. Outside the village, the Hostal La Serrana looked well situated. A fast descent to the ancient village of Garganta La Olla followed and then to Jaraiz. We had some tricky decisions to make about our route from here. The basic aim was to minimise the length of the next days ride to Trujillo, but we still had some way to go. The choice came down to cycling along the EX203 towards Malpartida de Placencia or heading south to Monfragüe. We chose the latter and were saved from total exhaustion by a hotel we hadn't known about at the eastern entrance to the Parque natural de Monfragüe - we had been heading for the accommodation within the park at Villareal de San Carlos. From Jaraiz we descended the EX392 south, turning right along the small road that runs along the north side of the Rio Tiétar. On paper this looked like a good plan. In the event, the road surface was generally very poor and there was a strong headwind. For most of the way, a kite led the way in the sky above us, obviously enjoying the wind much more than we were. Major roadworks around the Tiétar river crossing meant that we had to walk the bikes across a field before joining the CC911 towards the Estacion de la Bazagona. Then we came across the Hotel Puerta de Monfragüe and a tiring ride came to an end.

Day 5 Monfrague to Trujillo (68km)

Cycling through the park towards Villareal de San Carlos another kite appeared and soon we were seeing eagles hovering above the rocky outcrops. Eagles were to be a permanent feature of the next couple of days riding. Monfragüe also had quite a few humans with binoculars permanently pointing skywards. Taking the concept of a natural park to an extreme, it also had wooden faced crash barriers and road signs fixed to timber rather than metal poles. At Torrejón el Rubio we had breakfast at the hotel and stocked up from the panaderia. We knew that the road to Trujillo was likely to be somewhat less than interesting and we resigned ourselves to over 40km of relative tedium. The wind at best was a firm cross-wind, sometimes a tiresome headwind. We met two Dutch cyclists heading in the opposite direction. They'd been cycling 5 days with the wind since arriving in Sevilla and were feeling pleased. The journey may have been tedious but the destination was tremendous. 

Trujillo is reputedly the most attractive town in Extremadura and the old centre appears almost untouched by development. The region is the birth place of the conquistadors, the conquerors of the Americas, and Trujillo is the birth place of the cruel Pizarro. Its location, standing above a desert like plane, the architecture and the typically Extremaduran features such as storks' nests, create a unique and memorable experience.  After checking into the centrally located Hostal La Cadena, we went next door to the renowned Meson Troya for lunch.   An amazing experience - but not a place for vegetarians.  Guide to lunching at Meson Troya: some sizeable hor d'ouvres will appear - salad, frittata, ham - on no account eat too much of them as you haven't reached the first course (primero) yet; pace yourself on the wine and bread as there's a long way to go; there's a good chance that what you order for the first course would normally be more than sufficient as a main course (segundo); if you finish any course, more is certain to appear so don't clear your plate; pork dishes are the house speciality and are easily selected by looking around the room at what the locals are eating. Finally, try to leave yourself in a fit state for a walk up into the old walled town above the main square. There are interesting buildings and great views to the surrounding countryside.

returning east from  Trujillo to Chinchon and Madrid

Day 6 Trujillo to Guadalupe (82km)

A short ride on the busy EX208 as far as the turn off for Madroñera confirmed the soundness of the advice we'd been given - not to follow the main road route through Zorita. In contrast, the rural route via Madroñera, Garciaz and Berzocana to Cañamero was great cycling on very quiet roads. (The road from Madroñera to Garciaz is not marked on the 1:200000 map but is shown on the Michelin map.) The road seems to seek out the highest point en route to Garciaz, with the downhill gradients much better than some of the steep sections on the ascent. As we approached Berzocana about 20 eagles circled overhead against the dramatic backdrop of the Sierra de Sancho.

From Cañamero, the main road to Guadalupe was quiet. We arrived in time for a late lunch at the Hostal Cerezo and then explored the town. It had been busy when we arrived but now the tour buses had departed and the numerous shops selling religious memorabilia were empty. We took a tour of the monastery and its multiple museums - Goya, El Greco, Rubens,…,ancient manuscripts, incredible embroidery and the ornate monastery interior. You have to take a guided tour and the dialogue is in Spanish - we got the gist of the 10 minute introduction which was 'don't take any photographs or something dreadful will happen.' After that we were content to examine the labels on the exhibits. For those wanting to soak up the atmosphere of the monastery, the adjacent Hospederia would be a good place to stay. It is difficult to say what will remain in the memory longer - the impressive treasures of the monastery or the overwhelming tourist tat of the trinket shops. Behind the main tourist areas, Guadalupe has some charming streets.

Day 7 Guadalupe to La Nava de Ricomalillo (56km)

This was a good ride with almost no traffic through the dramatic scenery of Villuercas and on to Puerto de San Vicente, where we would leave Extremadura for Castilla la Mancha. Even our only encounter with rain could not spoil it. Thankfully the heavy rain lasted only until late morning. As we climbed towards Puerto de San Vicente we passed the remains of a railway tunnel on the line we would follow the next day on the via Verde de la Jara. The climb was frustrating, with the gentle gradient of the old road visible from the steep incline of the new road. Behind us we could see the dramatic scenery of the Villuercas. Once over the top the gentle slopes led quickly to La Nava de Ricomalillo. There are two hostals and we checked into the Hostal Villa Maria. Good food can be had at the restaurant opposite.

Day 8 La Nava de Ricomalillo to Talavera (56km) 

We retraced our route for 4km southwards to join the via Verde de la Jara. We had deliberately planned a fairly easy day as we didn't know what sort of condition the track would be in. What we found was that the surface was good - generally as good as many of the roads we had been on, although only about two thirds the width of the original track ballast surface. Some of the tunnels had lights powered from solar panels but not all were working so a torch is useful. From the point at which we joined the via verde to the viaduct over the Azutan was particularly impressive, with a real sense of remoteness. Deer grazed close to the track and there was abundant birdlife.

The railway line was originally part of an ambitious and unfinished project intended to shorten the route between Madrid and Badajoz in southern Extremadura. Work on the section that includes what is now the via verde commenced in 1930 and extended from near Calera y Chozas to Puerto de San Vicente. The via Verde incorporates most of what remains, including 50kms of well surfaced track, 6 viaducts, 18 tunnels and various derelict station buildings. A second section of the route was to run from Puerto de San Vicente to Logrosán via Guadalupe and a final third section from Logrosán to Villanueva de la Serena, east of Badajoz. Work on all three sections was under way around 1930. Major problems, including the intervention of the civil war and landslips around Guadalupe, meant that only the final section was ever completed. The construction of viaducts, tunnels and stations was undertaken on all sections but in 1962, a ministerial order declared the project abandoned. The third section ran for a short while until 1964 and the track was dismantled in the mid 1990's.  There are over 7000km of disused railway lines being converted for recreational use and many of them are in remote areas. Information on all of the via Verdes can be found at http://www.viasverdes.com

At the CM4101 we headed for Talavera, a town that seems to be struggling to regain its heritage from the effects of twentieth century over-development. We stayed at the Hotel Ebora and ate at a nearby sea food bar/restaurant.

Day 9 Talavera to Illescas (by train) then Chinchon (61km)

We'd read about Chinchon and thought it would be an interesting place to visit for our final night before returning to Madrid. We started with a ride to Talavera station and caught the 0900 Regionale train to Illescas. Although there was a bike sign on the final carriage it was just a normal compartment and there was only room for two bikes. From Illescas we headed for Esquivias, getting off the busy CM4010 as soon as possible. Then south along a quiet road to Borox and then west along the CM4001. The ferry over the river Tajo is reached via a rough track immediately after the right hand bend that follows the 31km road sign. After the noise and bustle of Talavera, Illescas, Esquivias and Borox all looked like pleasant places to stay.

We cycled through Aranjuez, busy with weekend visitors and a large market, following the tree-lined avenue that starts the M305 to Chinchon. (A useful short-cut would have been to simply walk/ride to the other side of the Royal Palace rather than follow the roads.) Although not too busy, the ride to Chinchon was tiring in the heat and gradually uphill all the way. We checked in to the Hotel La Cerca, which sits in the area above the main square. The Plaza Major and the rest of the old town are well preserved and Chinchon was also busy with weekend visitors and a wedding party. From our vantage point on one of the many restaurant balconies overlooking the square, we had a leisurely late lunch and watched events unfold. The 'square' is round and constructed to convert readily to a bull ring. No bulls but there were several donkeys giving rides and a Superpooperscooperman who followed on behind. A good lunch ended with a complimentary glass of anise, the local spirit. Chinchon has a definite charm. Although busy and touristed, it provided a very pleasant way to spend a warm weekend afternoon.

Day 10 Chinchon to Arunjuez (23km) and Madrid

Next day we had the benefit of the downhill ride to Aranjuez from where we again enjoyed a problem-free experience of Cercanias train to Madrid and then Metro to Barajas and the airport.