Saturday, October 24 Sarinena-Monzon
The sun does not rise until after 7 a.m. and the weather has been quite cool to cold so we have been starting our rides after 10 a.m. and this morning was no exception. We are in big farm country in the north of Spain headed further north today. The Pyrenees Mountains were always in view although the sky was a bit hazy from moisture and fall burning by farmers. Pig farms were very much in evidence. We saw many barns and frequently experienced the accompanying odor.
In this area it is the smell of money. Spain must eat a huge amount of pig products based on the number of pieces and part we have seen in bars, grocery stores, butcher shops and grocery stores. Although there are some fields in other crops in this area, most are feed and bedding for the pigs.
Much of the terrain we saw today is very similar to that in and around the Grand Valley and the Bookcliffs.
For the second day in a row we had no wind. We stopped for lunch in a tiny village at what we thought was a bar, only to find out that it was actually a community center disguised as a bar. There were no bars or cafes in the village. The difference we surmise is that bars must serve food and do not permit smoking. Community centers apparently do not have to offer food and do permit smoking. The cokes we had still cost the same whether community center or bar. The locals were very nice and had a good laugh with us about our mistaken belief that we had stopped in a bar. They did offer us coffee or tea which we think would have been on the house since we were in a community center. Now we know!
As we approached Monzon we could see a large structure on the hill above the town.
From the distance we could not tell whether it was a church, castle or convent/monastery. It was obvious when we got into town that it was a castle which was in remarkably good condition for its age. After finding our hotel and unpacking the bikes we tried to rent a car on line for tomorrow or Monday in order to drive further north into the Pyrenees high above Santa Cruz and tour two of the great monasteries of northern Spain. We could not find any car rental companies in Monzon. We went to the front desk and confirmed that there was no place to rent a car. As we were standing at the desk a local came up to pay for his coffee. He overheard the desk person telling us that there was no car rental agency in town. The man said something is Spanish and got on his cell phone and rented a car for us for tomorrow. The “agency” which is apparently an individual was doing business from another, much smaller town about 10 miles away, but will bring the car to the hotel and be here at 9 a.m. The monastery is a 2 hour drive north west of here so we will have a long day, but hopefully the 2 monasteries and the interpretive center will be worth it.
Ed rode up to the castle above Monzon and took a tour via audio guide. Maggie had had enough climbing for the day and did some extensive sink work since we are going to be here for at least 2 days and things should dry in that time. After returning from the castle, Ed did the same. Washing clothes, especially bike clothing, is a daily, quite necessary occurrence.
Sunday, October 25
Awoke to Daylight Savings Time in Spain, which is one week or more earlier than in the U.S. The car rental people arrived and gave us a lesson in operating the Nissan which has many bells and whistles including a GPS so the trip to Monasterio San Juan de la Pena, about 150 k from Monzon was pretty easy with only one short wrong turn and quick recovery.
The Pyrenees begin only about 20 k. north of Monzon. Our drive took us to the point that we were only about 15 miles from France. The weather was misty and the sun was filtered by whispy clouds. The fall leaves had passed their prime, but the hillsides, especially with the Pyrenees as a back drop were quite spectacular.
The mountains themselves are also spectacular as they rise from the farmlands.
Some of the drive was on super highways and some on narrow windy roads up the side of a mountain. The first monastery we reached, built into the side of a rock wall, was San Juan de la Pena (the Old Monastery) which was originally built in the 10th century.
The English explanations that were on the handout given to us were very easy to follow and quite informative. The structure was originally built as the result in appreciation of a “miracle” that occurred to the benefactor who was saved from a fall off a cliff by praying to St. John. Based on his good fortune, he and his brother abandoned all of their worldly possessions and started the monastery. The monastery is said to be the finest example of Romanesque architecture in the region of Aragon. It has many examples of fine craftsmanship on the stone work and incorporating the rock wall.
After the third fire in 400 years destroyed it in the early part of the 16th century, the decision was made to build the New Monastery on a plateau further up the mountain and out of the forest. While the old monastery was quite small, the New Monastery was the opposite. It has, in its turn, been destroyed as the result mostly of the first Spanish civil war in the early 1800’s. It ceased to exist as a monastery in the 1830’s with all of the monks expelled. From that time on it was allowed to deteriorate to the point that all that remained were the footprints of the many buildings and rooms that were once inhabited by the monks. The job of rehabilitating the area was monumental. The site is presented in a unique way. The buildings have not been recreated, but rather the structure that covers them was rehabed and the footprints revived and are visible from the viewing platform which is actually a glass floor.
here are plaster models of the monks in their various activities and a few of the furnishings have been recreated. The audio guide was excellent in presenting the history of the Old and New monasteries as well as explaining the history of the monastic order, the rules that applied to the monks, of that order the history of the Holy Grail and the daily life of the monks. We also learned that the Holy Grail (the urn that the blood of Christ was saved in when he was crusified and buried), rests in the Cathedral in Valencia since it was moved from here in the 1300s. It’s a really big deal in Christendom.
In addition to taking some pictures of the foliage on the way down from the mountain,
we stopped at the third jewel in this crown, the church which is also Romanesque and was built in the 12th Century.
The outside, except for the entryway is plain as is most of the inside except for the carving in the stone walls. Once again photographs were not allowed… .
(We feel terrible about these occurrences, but hope that our contrition will absolve us as none of the confessionals have been staffed during any of our visits.)
The drive back to Monzon was every bit as beautiful as the drive up. As we approached Monzon we witnessed a wonderful, one day shy of a full moon rise and some color from the sun setting behind us.
It was a very good day. The people who rented the car to us came to our hotel and retrieved it the same evening. What a stroke of luck to have a guy paying for his coffee at the right time to over hear our inquiry about renting a car.
Monday, October 26 Monzon
We had decided to stay in Monzon a third day as the town of Fraga, which was our next port-of-call listed no points of interest on its web site, and following Fraga, we had already planned to spend 2 nights in Lleida which is a not a powerhouse of tourist attractions either but where we were catching the train to Barcelona.
It was another beautiful day. We rode to the small town of Benifer about 20 k from Fraga where the man who rented the car to us had his business. On the way we stopped at a couple of tiny villages looking for coffee/bar places but found that these villages had no services at all. When we got to Benifer, we located the address we had for the man, but it was shuttered and there was a”For Sale” sign on the door. On our ride back to Monzon via a different route, we stopped at one village that had a sign for an ancient church. The village was so small that we had no trouble finding the church, but it was closed. A couple of locals who were conversing across from the church ignored us, which seems to be the Spanish way. The rest of the ride back to Monzon was uneventrul except for some beautiful foliage
and the numerous pig farms.
Tuesday, October 27 Monzon-Fraga
Another wonderful sunny day for a 62 Km ride along the Cinca river from village to village to Fraga a slightly bigger village. A couple of climbs and at least one town big enough to have coffee. The fruit and nut trees all along the way were beautiful shades of green, orange, red, and yellow. We arrived in Fraga by mid afternoon and went “sightseeing.” All of the sites were closed and in dis-repair except for the new statue of the woman carrying water which was in front of the Town hall the significance of which shall remain a mystery.
but interesting outside stone work.
Wednesday, October 28 Fraga-Lleida
The ride to Lleida was mostly undulating downhill. There was a soft tail wind. We continue to be in the midst of fall foliage which is irresistible. What a wonderful way to finish this journey!
As usual, we stopped for cafe con laiche along the way. This cafe had a woman behind the counter and about a dozen women together at a table in side and 3 sitting outside. No men in sight…..unusual. Everything was tidy as a pin….also a little unusual. The men of the village must gather at one of the regular bars in the square.
We were surprised at how big Lleida is, as it is the same size print on the Michelin map as the town of Fraga. It sits in a valley with a big Cathedral and Castle on the very high point in the center of the city between the old and the new parts of town.
Our hotel is located a couple of blocks from the old town but very close to the train station. We got a passerby to take our picture jn front of the hotel marking the end of our long distance trek by bike.
We covered somewhere in the vicinity of 4500 kilometers with only 1 flat tire each (on successive days), only minor repairs/ servicing required,and no injuries or saddle sores.
We got settled in our hotel and walked up to the Cathedral/Castle to check it out. It was too late to visit either of them. It was a beautiful, clear day so we stayed up by the cathedral and waited for the sunset, which did not disappoint.
Then took 2 elevators down into town and the search for a restaurant that opened before 8 p.m. to no avail.
Lleida is our first town that is in Catalunya, the region of Spain which includes Barcelona and part of the Pyrenees that has voted to be separated from Spain. Catalan flags are hung everywhere in demonstration of the support for separation. The local vote is the first step. As we understand it there will be a vote of Spain’s legislature on the 20th of December that will have some bearing on how the issue of separation is handled. What will happen after December is anyone’s guess. Hopefully not another civil was. The last one, from 1936-1939 when Franco came to power, was devastating. The ones before were similar.
Thursday, October 29 Lleida
Hiked up to the Palace/Cathedral and took the self-guided tour. Both are hulks of their former selves. The Cathedral was abandoned in 1708 after the war of Spanish Succession and then was occupied as a military facility until the 1940’s. What is left is outstanding and has largely been restored, but not as an active church.
The palace is quite uninteresting. The only room that has been restored is the great hall which has been turned into a very cursory museum of sorts. We spent a couple of hours in the cathedral including the hike up the bell tower which gave us a commanding view of the land surrounding Lleida. Unfortunately the horizon was full of dust and smoke from the agricultural fires, so not great pictures. We spent about 10 minutes in the palace.
The weather was beautiful again today so we took a casual bike ride around the areas of Lleida in part in search of the brand of peanut butter we had been eating for lunch and which we got in an Arab market in Monzon. We like it very much and could not find it in any of the big markets at which we had stopped since then. On our third try and after about 10 k of riding around following Muslim women carrying grocery shopping bags we were successful. The market was again an Arab mkt. and just around the corner from our hotel.
We are gluttons for punishment so after the success of finding the peanut butter (almost the Holy Grail for us) we again went in search of a restaurant that opened before 9 pm. Zilch. Need we say more.
Friday, October 30 Lleida-Barcelona
We awoke to a beautiful sun rise
and a warmer day than it has been for a while. We packed up and walked to the train station where we reconnoitered around looking for elevators to get our bikes and gear to the correct platform. This station was built in the 1920’s, but completely redone in the last few years to accommodate the high speed trains and thus has elevators and escalators though many of the entrances and exits are closed now for better security. Fortunately our route through the train station was serviced by elevators so we did not have to lug the bikes and gear up or down stairs.
We returned to our hotel and loaded the panniers on our bikes and took a short bike ride near the river since we had a bunch of time before our train.
We have been in Spain for slightly more than 2 months. In that time we have seen hundreds of very large bird’s nests on the tops of roofs, church bell towers , and on special platforms put up by utility companies and municipal governments and in all for the purpose of courting storks to nest on these structures. From our travels in Europe we knew that these were storks nests, but in all the time we have been in Spain, we have not seen any storks. We assumed that they had returned to Africa where they winter. Europeans think that storks bring good luck and hence the reason for these platforms. Today, as we were taking our last bike ride in the Spanish countryside we spied about 10 storks flying high overhead. We also saw one at the top of one of the bridges in a nest
and on a light pole.
What a good feeling they brought.
Our train to Barcelona is a “Regional” train which means that it makes many stops, unlike the express and high speed trains. Some of the “Regional” trains take bikes that do not fold or go in bags while some do not. There is no consistency from area to area and no way to know which Regional trains take bikes without being at one of the stations of that train line and inquiring. While the fast train takes about an hour and a half and an express train a bit longer, the Regional train takes close to 3 hours to get from Llieda to Barcelona.
The train we are on consists of 3 cars. The last 2 cars have bike symbols on the sides that point to the front of the train and the very first passenger door has a bike symbol, indicating it is the bike door. There is no special set up for bikes. By which we mean there are no special storage places, no hooks and no room for bikes that does not impede passengers from entering or leaving the train. In the words of the king of Siam, “It is a puzzlement.”
The conductor, who was very nice, sort of shook his head when he saw us and our 2 bikes. He had us move the bikes to the second car into the area marked off for and which would accommodate a wheelchair.
So much for Spanish trains that allow bikes. There is no charge in Spain for this “service.”
Our arrival in Barcelona was, mercifully, uneventful. We had programmed the route to the apartment we had rented on the Garmin GPS and aside from the fact that we had consistently picked as our route, one way streets going the wrong way, we found the place without any trouble., went to the grocery across the street and purchased provisions and had dinner in the apartment.
We are anxiously awaiting the arrival tomorrow of our daughter Kate who will join us for a week of play time in beautiful Barcelona.