Saturday, 4 September 2010

Stage 1 - Brunete

Today was always going to be a marathon: get to Gatwick by public transport for a
9:30 am flight to Barajas Airport in Madrid, then once through passports/customs/baggage assemble my bike - assuming it doesn't get damaged - and cycle the 30 or so miles to Brunete before dark.

I had to arrive at Gatwick at least two hours before departure because I had the bike box, so the alarm was set for 4am. I was awake anyway. It's always the way when I'm travelling the next day, and have an early start... I can never get to sleep straight away and, when I do manage to nod off, I keep waking up at regular intervals. I had a shower and got dressed, then drove my car to the local station. My luggage comprised my mountain bike in a cardboard bike box (given to me by my local bike shop, the kind used to ship new bikes); a 65 litre backpack containing two panniers and a handlebar bag; and a small backpack as my hand luggage for the flight. I got the train OK, and it was surprisingly busy for that time of the morning. The Circle Line was closed for engineering works, so I changed at Stratford and got the Central Line to Oxford Circus, then the Victoria Line to Victoria. I lugged my bike up onto the main concourse and across to the Gatwick Express. The bike box was quite heavy, and awkward to manoevre, so I had to stop a couple of times. When we arrived at Gatwick, I couldn't see any trolleys so carried my gear over to the desk and checked in.

I booked the flight with Easyjet, as the cost of transporting the bike was less than £40 return, very reasonable. There was the usual scrum for seats, and I just missed out on one of the emergency exit seats with the extra leg room. The flight was pretty boring, and I spent the two hours just reading the paper and a magazine. At Barajas I grabbed a trolley and waited for my bike box to come through. As I expected, it came through last and, quite worryingly had been knocked about a bit, with a bit of a hole in one side.

There's a left luggage office outside Terminal 1 at Barajas, so I pushed the trolley round the back, where it was shady, and began setting up my bike. Nothing appeared to be damaged, though one of the bolts holding the rear mech in place wouldn't tighten. I swapped the bolts over, and the problem was definitely the thread on the frame. I didn't have much option other than to screw it in as best I could and hope for the best; the back wheel sits on top of the bolts, so that will hopefully hold them in place. Once my bike was fully assembled, I checked the bike box containing the pipe lagging and bubble wrap used to protect my bike, plus the empty backpacks and my jeans. At about 3:30, and after taking a few photos, I set off.

My directions for getting out of the airport were spot-on, courtesy of Google Maps. I hadn't eaten any lunch so stopped at the petrol station just outside the airport and bought a couple of Mars bars, and before I knew it I was cycling down Calle de Alcalá, which would take me right through to the Madrid city centre. It was boiling hot - 30° according to one of those digital displays you see on top of big buildings - so I decided to stop and get some water and some bananas, as it was going to be important to keep eating and drinking throughout my ride. I found a small supermarket and stopped outside on the pavement locking my bike to a lamp post. I bought a big bottle of water and a bunch of bananas, then filled my bottles and tied the carrier bag with the bananas in to the pannier rack, before continuing on my way. At the bottom of the hill was the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, Madrid's bullring. I don't personally agree with bullfighting, but the Madrid bullring is a spectacular building, its architecture heavily influenced by the Moors .

I pulled off the main road and cycled onto the concourse, and went to get my camera out of my bar bag. To my horror, I'd left the bar bag either in the supermarket, or worse, on the pavement outside. Besides the camera, my bar bag contained all my money and cards, my passport, my phone and all the directions for the trip. I immediately turned my bike round and headed up the hill as quickly as I could back to the supermarket. I couldn't see the bar bag outside so went inside. The cashier I had seen wasn't serving anyone and smiled when she saw me, pulling out my bar bag from under the counter. Phew! Was I relieved! "Gracias, te quiero!"I told her "Thanks, I love you!". I had a chat with the security guard outside, and he told me that he was a cyclist himself. He asked me where I was going, so I told him the route. I couldn't quite make out whether he was pretty impressed, or whether he thought I was completely insane.

I went off back down the hill to the bull ring, took some photos, and then carried ongoing... along Gran Vía (centenary this year), left at Plaza de Espana, across to the River Manzanares and then through the Casa de Campo. I know my way through the Madrid city centre, so didn't need to look at my directions. The traffic was quiter that I'd expected, though on reflection this was siesta time on a Saturday. Casa de Campo is like a bigger version of London's Hyde Park, complete with lake, zoo and funfair. It has a number of roads going through it, many of which are closed to traffic, so great for cycling along. It's also an obvious pick-up point for prostitutes, and one did shout after me, but I just smiled to myself and kept going.

Once through Casa de Campo, I had no choice but to cycle along a couple of busy main roads to get out of Madrid. The roads were indeed fast dual carriageways, with a small hard shoulder to cycle along. As I was pulling off the roundabout, I accelerated quite hard to change lanes. At first I thought my chain had come off, but my heart sank when I looked down to see that it had snapped.

I pulled off to the side of the roundabout, took off my panniers and went to fix my chain. I'd only bought it a few months ago and had probably only done three or four hundred miles on it. Fortunately, I'd bought a spare 'Quick Link' for it and so was able to fix it quite easily. However, I'd only brought the one spare link with me, so if the chain broke again before I made it to a bike shop and bought a new chain, then I'd be buggered; I knew there were no bike shops until Ávila, so I would have to chance it, and try to avoid any more sharp accelerations. I resumed my journey, and before long I was in Brunete. The main roundabout as you approach has Brunete spelt out in the style of Hollywood (and unfortunately Basildon!).

I had booked a series of hostals - privately run hotels which typically cost 30€ to 35€ per night for a single room with an en-suite. I found the hostal and went inside. The woman seemed surprised that I was on my own, telling me that I had reserved a 'doble' at 70€ for the night and not the single room for 35€. I know that my Spanish isn't that great, but there's no way that I had asked for a double room. She went and got somebody else and they insisted that I'd booked the double room. We haggled, and agreed on me having the room for 45€. The room was in a building just around the corner. The guy took me first to the patio, away from the road, where I locked up my bike, and then showed me to my room, which wasn't at all bad.

I showered, washed my kit, and then popped over the road to the supermarket to buy some water and cereal bars for the next morning, as I knew that the Spanish don't really do breakfast, and also that not many places would be open the following day.

By now it was getting dark, so I wandered off into the town centre. Most Spanish towns have a main square, or Plaza Mayor, where people gather at fiesta time. Tonight, Brunete was having a mediaeval evening in the Plaza Mayor, with a market and people dressed in costume. The restaurants I went to were all busy, with no spare tables on the pavement. The atmosphere was wonderful: there were groups of young kids playing nicely together, with the older kids keeping an eye on them; small groups of teenagers were wandering around, chattering away; the parents and grandparents were sat around the tables talking very loudly as the Spanish do, and so quickly that I had no chance of having the first clue what they were talking about!

A table became available, so I sat myself down and a waiter came cleared the table and took my order of chuletas de cordero, or lamb cutlets and a beer. One thing I love about eating out in Spain is that the waiter will often give you a tapa, or small portion of food, whilst you are waiting. Tonight the waiter brought me a smallish plate of calamari, which were gratefully received and quickly eaten, as I was absolutely starving. Then my chuletas arrived - about a dozen of them with some chips - and they were absolutely gorgeous, so succulent! Once I'd finished, I headed back to the hostal to get some sleep ahead of tomorrow's ride.

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