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The Wonderful Rail Trails of Spain

Story and Photos by Theresa Russell

Note: A seasoned cycling travel writer, Ms. Russell co-authored the guidebook, Bed, Breakfast & Bike Midwest. (This book was reviewed in our Spring '01 Feature Articles.) She is currently working on a cycling guide to the Yucatan Peninsula.

My ignorant American mind, befuddled and elated at the concept of deserted rail lines in Spain used as greenways prompted me to further investigate the idea of examining these trails by bicycle. Gosh, I thought it was only in the USA that we had abandoned our rail lines and converted them to multi-use pathways to promote recreation for the masses.

I quickly looked over the scant details on the website and decided that this, in fact, looked like a great way to visit Spain , especially considering that the group organizers chose to start the exploration of these Vias Verdes, as they are called, in a mostly descending direction.  The number of the paths throughout the various regions of Spain intrigued me, so I signed on to the trip.

A very diverse group of mostly Europeans, (only two of us were from North America ) mingled in the lobby of our hotel in Madrid .  We scrutinized each other, only later in the journey to find out that we were all pre-occupied with one thing: Who would intimidate us by wearing a fancy Lycra get-up?  Our brief tour of the railway museum, required by the hosts of the trip, the Ferrocariles Españoles (who wanted to promote themselves and the Vias Verdes), proved to be an interesting look into the railways of Spain .  Our brief tour of retired carriages continued with a briefing of the Vias Verdes and a short video highlighting the project.

Continuing on to dinner, we enjoyed tapas, before our table was ready at the restaurant next door.  After all, we had arrived well before the usual 10 p.m. dinner hour.  Other late arrivals joined us at the table and we all chatted into the wee hours of the night although we had an early start the next day.  It had already been an incredibly long day for me, but I did have a few hours before dinner to nap and fend off jet lag.

The next morning, we again gathered in the lobby and closely examined the garb of our fellow riders.  We seemed to have jointly sighed relief to see that nobody dressed in coordinated Lycra garb.  That, and the fact that most of us were middle aged, eased our competitive fears.  We walked over to the nearby station and waited on the platform for our train.  Just as the scenery from the window passed by in a blur, so did many events of the trip.  We found ourselves at dinner wondering where and what we had eaten two days ago.  One day flowed into the next.  We continued with the late night events and early departures.  Some people took some days off throughout the trip as the pace fatigued them.  The tour showcased a variety of regions of Spain , including Granada , Barcelona , Seville , Bilbao and so many other areas that are off-the-beaten track.  We covered many different trails with a variety of surfaces.  One day it rained and, as luck would have it, we were on the least developed of all the vias verdes of the trip.  My white socks turned a murky brown and my shoes sloshed as I walked and never dried for the rest of the trip.  I bid them farewell somewhere along the way.  Fortunately, the October weather cooperated with ideal temperatures for cycling.

Lunchtime sometimes involved picnics provided by the local communities and set up under a large tree or tents.  Other times we ate great local foods at typical restaurants and then toured the towns to walk off the big lunch--not that we wouldn’t use the calories cycling, but we really needed to move around as a lunchtime nap was often very tempting.

Our accommodations were always clean and comfortable, ranging from rather simple to very nice.  A bus transported us and our luggage between the different vias verdes.  The vias verdes cover much of Spain , but they are not necessarily contiguous; so, we often had to travel either by train or bus to reach our next trailhead.  Because of this, doing this trip without professional services would take some real planning.  We did see some cycling groups who had support vehicles, which they took turns driving during the day; and that would be one way of doing the trails independently.  I highly recommend going with the Vias Verdes organization as they have all the details worked out to perfection.  English is the official language of the tour and it is a delight to mingle with Europeans.  The trip will be offered again this October with a less demanding schedule, but still covering the same general geographic areas.

If you are looking for a different type of tour that also offers great value and cultural immersion, be sure to check out http://www.ffe.es/viasverdes/viasverdes.htm. 

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