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Monday, June 04, 2007

Castles and Towers in the Community of Valencia

Castillo de Sagunt with the Mediterranean in the background.

Castles and Towers in the Community of Valencia

Sometimes our expectations get the better of us, especially if you suffer from an overly-romanticized idea of how some things, like life, should be. It’s kind of like cooking a dish that doesn’t turn out too well. I have had plenty days when I went out in search of some idea that I had in my head, only to find everything from minor disappointment to full-blown disasters. Today was one of those days that went much better than the idea I had in my head. I suppose that when you go out in search of Spanish castles you just may over-shoot the mark of what you had anticipated.

I found a book in my apartment called Castillos, Torres y Fortalezas de la Comunidad Valencia that lists all of the major and minor fortifications in the Valencia province, or community as it is called here. Some of them date back to the pre-roman, bronze age but most are from the bellicose era when Christians and Moors were battling for this part of Spain. I love the book and I want to see as many of these places as possible but a lot of the sites seemed a little too distant to reach on a day trip from Valencia on a bicycle. I haven’t really pushed my limits so far on bike rides; my longest rides are about two hours out before I turn around. In the next couple of weeks I plan on getting new street tires for my cycle-cross bike that will make it a lot quicker which means I can cover more ground in a day.

The directions to the various fortifications, in all states of repair and disrepair, are extremely vague in the book so I had little hope of actually being able to track down very many of these historic landmarks. I had an even vaguer plan when I rode away from my building in the heart of Valencia this morning at 10 a.m. I had a lot of water, a bit of money, and my camera, as I skirted my way out of town to the north. I haven’t done a lot of exploring out this way and had been thwarted on a previous excursion when I couldn’t find a way around the autovĂ­a that runs to Barcelona. I was able to dodge the traffic and pick my way to the next little city outside of Valencia. I didn’t have a destination in mind when I left but I was hoping to accidentally run into an old fortification or two at some point on my ride.

As I coasted down a quiet street in this quiet town I saw the spire of an old cathedral in front of me. I figure that if something is old enough I should probably stop in for a visit. As I approached I could hear little kids romping around and screaming. I pulled into the square in front of the cathedral and saw the kids running around in church clothes chasing a soccer ball. Just another joyous Sunday morning in a small Spanish town. At least that’s what I thought until I saw that there was a funeral in progress. Kids really don’t know shit about appropriate behavior at funerals. I felt a little guilty taking a picture but I thought that tourism can’t be put on hold just because someone decides to check out. If it means anything to the deceased, I didn’t get a very good picture.

My next landmark was a mountain farther north. As a former resident of Washington State, I miss the mountains. I haven’t climbed a hill, a real hill, since I got here in Spain. With just a big pile of rocks to guide me I was able to run into a few bike trails out this way. I later discovered that the network of trails is fairly extensive and I can’t wait learn this area as well as I know the southern flank of Valencia. I found a trail on my return trip that takes me from these outer regions to within four or five blocks from my house, and I saw new trails being built all over. Valencia is completely committed to bike trails. It can’t cost much to build bike trails and once they are in place the upkeep is next to nothing. Wherever you live, you should demand that they build bike trails.

I was just getting my legs warmed up when I spotted my first tower. I was riding out of a little hamlet when I noticed the small structure on a lonely hilltop. These little towers were a defensive structure for local residents if they were attacked. This tower has a commanding view of the entire countryside for miles around. I couldn’t find a way to get close to the tower because there was a fence around it for some sort of construction company. Usually .I wouldn’t let a fence stop me but there were people working inside. Who works on Sunday in Spain? I think this tower is called Torre de Puzol and is of Muslim origin. This was a modest discovery for the day and I would have been happy with this one find.

I continued north from here along a quiet road past old country estates and through vast expanses of orange groves. I crested a small hill and I could see the vague outline of a huge fort on top of a mountaintop farther to the north. I had already been riding for over an hour and the fort looked to be at least six miles away. It was only 11:20 a.m. and I knew that I had another ten hours of daylight to make it back to Valencia. If I could find a way to this castle I was going to ride there today.

It turns out that the path there was very self-explanatory and a beautiful piece of road. Not a single car passed me on this stretch except a guy driving slowly while his dog got a workout along side and a support car for a bike club. Damn, I need to find a bike club that has a support car. That’s what I call living.

On the way I passed a beautiful old country estate called Hort el Rabosero. I think that I need to live there some day. This old country mansion has a commanding view of the Mediterranean as well as the castle I was on my way to visit. I don’t have an odometer on my bike; I have a watch and I was under two hours out on this excursion. In the past few weeks I have ridden five hours or more in a day so I wasn’t worried about dragging my ass back home—at least not yet.

I didn’t even know where I was going until I got there today. It turns out it was Sagunt: a destination I thought was too far for a day trip. I guess that it’s time for me to revise my estimates for day trips. Now that I was beneath the castle I needed to find how I was supposed to ride up into it. They built this thing to be impregnable so I wasn’t about to scale the walls on a bicycle. I needed to find a way up so I rode through the city. By chance I found the tourism office and was given directions and a map to the fortress entrance.

As I pedaled up the miserably steep approach to the castle, I got a lot of looks from other tourists on foot probably thinking, “I can’t believe you are riding a bike up this hill. I can barely walk up it.” I wanted to shout out, “I’m from Seattle. I used to ride up Queen Anne hill to go to my piano lessons. I used to ride 18 miles up Mount Rainer just for fun! This little bump isn’t shit.” The road really is incredibly steep, and although I was handling it well, my bike, which I have dubbed Rocinante, was groaning under the pressure. Rocinante needs some spokes tightened; I was doing just fine in the driver’s seat.

I left my bike with the curator at the museum in what is called the Plaza de Armas. of the castle. I walked around a bit before I eavesdropped on a group of locals speaking in Valenciano (although it may have been Catalan—I can’t tell the difference) who were admiring the view from the top. You can look down towards Valencia and see the major landmarks there like the Ciudad de las Ciencias. The view from up there just about takes the air out of your lungs if the ride up didn’t do that already.

Riding back down the hill to the city of Sagunt I could hardly believe the steepness of the grade. I was burning my brakes going down and I had ridden up this monster just a half hour ago. Now I knew why people were looking at me funny. There is a lot of other things to see in Sagunt. I’ll have to visit the Roman amphitheater on my next trip out this way.

This was one of the best bike rides I have ever had, and that is saying a lot. I have memories of riding the coast road from Athens to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion; humping from Monterrey to Big Sur and back on a Saturday afternoon; grinding through North Cascades National Park; speeding along the Florida coast; winding through gorgeous southern Indiana farm country; exploring Venetian fortresses in the Peloponnesus; I’ve had my share of great cycling destinations. Today certainly rates up there with the best of them. I’ll need a lot more days like today if I am going to make it to all of the sites in the book.

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