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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Paella in Monserrat and Tower in Montroy

When some friends invited me to a festival in Monserrat outside of Valencia my first question was, “How far is it from home?” 25-30 kilometers depending on the route was the answer. It sounded like a good bike ride. The problem isn’t the distance—any cyclist can manage a 50 kilometer day standing on their heads. The problem is always finding your way out of Valencia to these outlying areas. This area to the southwest is a bit foreign to me so I decided to take the metro out of town and then wing it from there. A handlebar GPS would be a great present if anyone is having trouble deciding on a gift for me. I couldn’t convince anyone else to ride with me so I headed out along at about noon on Saturday—yet another holiday in Spain (Day of the Worker).

I hopped on the metro at the Bailén station and got off at Torrent. I had a vague idea of how to get to Monserrat from Torrent, or at least I knew which direction. As I cruised through the town I came upon the Plaça Mayor (town square) with an impressive defensive tower that was once part of a much larger fortress built by the Moors. At 22 meters it is the highest structure of its type in the Valencia Community. Not a bad start for my ride. I ambled around a bit before asking directions which put me on the road to Monserrat. The traffic was rather busy because of the holiday but I felt comfort in the fact that there were literally thousands of other cyclists on the road as it seemed that every local bike club (called peñas in Spanish) was out for a ride.

I had lost my bottle a few days previous and I didn’t feel like hauling my camelback so I was without water on this ride. I had also left the house with just my Levante football jersey. I wasn’t three minutes away from the apartment when it began to cloud up and the temperature dropped a bit. I called for someone driving to bring a long sleeve cycling jersey for me just in case it got any cooler on the ride home. There is a slight elevation gain along the way of perhaps 300 meters or so. I don’t mind the hills. In fact I miss riding up mountains so this ride was pure pleasure. About eight kilometers outside of Monserrat some friends spotted me and pulled over to give a little moral support. I tanked up on some water they had and then sprinted the rest of the way into the village.

My Levante UD jersey attracted a lot of attention along my route as they would be playing a key match the next day against 2nd League rival Hércules (Levante won!) as they try to fight their way back into the 1st league in Spanish football, or La Liga as it is called. I heard a few dozen car horns in support.

There was a street in the village set up with tables and chairs for the afternoon affair along with a canopy to block out the afternoon sun. About a block from this square at an empty lot people were cooking paellas on wood fires—the most traditional way to cook this dish. I would be sharing a paella with about ten other people and the cooking was in the hands of a very able local cook. I wanted to stick around to see the paella being made but I had something I wanted to check out on my bicycle.

On the way into Monserrat I saw that a few kilometers further along the road at Montroy there was an imposing defensive tower sitting on a lonely hilltop. I couldn’t come out this far and not take a look at this Moorish ruin. Montroy is only a couple of kilometers down the road from Monserrat but getting up to the tower would prove to be a lot of work. First of all I made the mistake of asking directions from a little kid and then I was stupid enough to follow them. I humped up a narrow and very steep trail only to come to a dead end a few hundred meters up the mountain. I suppose this could be the right way if you were a mountain goat (or a twelve year old kid). I would have given that kid a beating but when I got back down I couldn’t find her.

I backtracked and then headed around the other side of the mountain and picked my way up a few gravel roads until I found the way to the tower. It was built sometime in the 13th century during the Nasri Dynasty which was the last Muslim dynasty in Spain (بنو نصر‎ ‎). The fortress is all but inaccessible from every side but one and that side can hardly be called accessible. I had to ditch my bike about a hundred meters from the summit and walk up, or scramble up to the top. The 12 meter tower has a commanding view over an area of hundreds of square kilometers.

I got back just as the paella was finishing. It was taken off the fire, covered for a few minutes, and then carried back to the table in the town square. I noticed our cook had browned the meat much more thoroughly than I usually do. She also added a few shredded tomatoes just after the meat was cooked. The end result was the best paella I have had in over three years in Valencia. I wish that I had stuck around and filmed the whole process. I should have known the paella would be excellent because she had also brought along a tortilla de patatas which was superb. Just as we were being served dessert and coffee it started to rain. We had a few false starts with the rain earlier but this proved to be the real deal. The canopy overheard was fine for blocking out the sun but was no match for the cloud burst. Everyone ran for shelter. A party pooper in Spanish is called agua fiestas, a wet party.

Someone offered to haul me and my bike back home but I preferred to ride. As soon as the rain stopped I saddled up and headed out. I should have waited a bit for the roads to dry out but I didn’t want to risk more rain. The first few kilometers back to Valencia were pretty sloppy but because it was still dinner time (1400-1800 for holidays) the roads were all but abandoned. The sun returned and dried everything out pretty thoroughly making the ride back a joy. I picked up the bike trail just outside of Torrent and followed it all the way back into Valencia. I was able to keep on the bike trail all the way back to within a block from my front door.

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