Andalusia's best cycling and area guide
20 min read by Laura Fletcher
Andalusia is a true gem of southern Spain. Culture, flavour, and incredible routes to ride.
As we drove south, the weather turned colder. No, sadly this isn’t a story of a daring trip across South Africa or New Zealand, but a brave visit to Andalusia in an unexpected cold snap. We left the sunny pleasant shores of the Murcian coastline behind us this January as we turned inland to discover what Spain’s southernmost region had to offer bike wise. A very uncommon severe cold weather front was coming in (that which resulted in 3 days of snow in Madrid) and challenged our notions of a warm getaway for January training. But we were determined and a low reading of the mercury wasn’t enough to stop us…
Shortly after crossing into the vast area in the south of Spain, the natural park of Sierra Nevada rose out in front of us.
Beckoning us in, peak after peak, topped with glistening snow in the late afternoon sunshine.
The cold air started to make sense as the road climbed before us. The low slung olive groves giving way for pines and firs, an unexpected Alpine scene surrounding us.
The Sierra Nevada’s have long been hallowed roads for cyclists in Spain, not only because of their location but also because altitude training is possible here year round. Many a team have spent a block of time staying at the sports centre, sleeping at altitude and it’s never surprising to pass them when out on the roads here.
This is what cycling in Andalusia is all about.
RIDE the 100k ALBACENA LOOP
The training options are endless, but one of the best ways to experience the Sierra Nevada National Park to start with is from the foothills.
It’s a great warm up ride to tackle the bigger climbs later on in your cycling holiday. Our favourite loop is one that starts from Albacena, a 101 k loop that starts with a gradual climb, but only 700 metres elevation before dipping down. This loop starts with the hardest climb in the first part of it, making it a great snap in the legs before a more relaxed and up and down landscape come in. As the first climb rises we watched the trees change again, more sparse and heartier to the elements, leaves giving way to needles as we rose and rose.
After 26 kilometres we reached the top and started the long switchback-ey descent, which takes us down to 200 metres – 1300 metres down over 35 kilometres. The road is smooth and forgiving, yet the winds can be a bit intense so make sure you have gloves and a jacket all times of year. The tightest switchbacks kicked in around 40 k into the overall ride, halfway down the hill, and our senses were awakened again with the technical section. We rode into the lush green temperate beauty of the warm region as we continued down, chasing that more forgiving air.
And then again, after the descent, we turned back towards our starting point. With a gradual slow uphill then flat, a little down, up again style road, we had 40k to do about 450 metres vertical and as expected it was a challenge, but nowhere near where the day had started. After 100 k altogether we were back at our starting point in Albacena, richly rewarded with mountain, valley and all in between.
Andalusian culture begins with your postcard perfect “Spanish” Culture.
Think, long flowing flamenco skirts...
With the clacking of the heels, the castanets clapping and the wine flowing at a late-night basement bar or tucked away plaza. The region is also known for its bullfighting, but ethically the author refuses to celebrate such a barbaric act. Stick with the flamenco shows…
Architecture is a big draw to the area. The stand out cities of Seville and Cordoba as must stops, for the unique buildings, and sun drenched skies, all over the best tapas on offer. Always go with the olives at a tapas bar, especially in Andalusia.
A visit to Andalusia isn’t complete without a trip to the Alhambra Palace. Rising up over the city of Granada, the 12th century palace (although quite busy as a tourist destination) is worth every moment to see the best example of Moorish (Arabic) architecture in Europe. Each room we went to we were more stunned by the intricacies of the carvings on the wall, the tile work and the sheer scale and craftsmanship. The grounds of the garden, soaking up the sun as well are a great day to pass an easy rest day in the area. The Alhambra, like any good fortress, should be, is up at the top of a mighty hill, looking down at its’ city below.
Our top tip for cycling holidays in Andalusia? Take in both the sightseeing and the ride up the hill in a day. Time yourself and check the Strava records for a good quick challenge.
RIDE GRANADA TO SIERRA NEVADA
We spent the night in Granada and set out the next day on a climbing challenge, heading back up to Sierra Nevada from the city.
A straight shot climb of 30 km, it was a day to test the legs after our relaxing day at the Alhambra the day before. The climb is part of the Cordilleras Beticas range, and it is the main “Sierra Nevada” mountain that the range is commonly known by. We were prepared, food and drinks on board to make our way up. The majority of the climb is 6-7%, with a few 3-4% sections mixed in for a bit of relief, and only a few 8% max gradients to add an extra challenge. As we rose higher the trees melted away and the air became thin. As we reached the top of the climb the wind picked up as well, a little extra challenge to make up for the views we were seeing, across the range and what felt like to the end of the earth. To be expected with a gain of 1743 metres! We started at 700 though in Granada, so do be prepared for the cold air of 2500 metres elevation at the top. We slipped on our jackets and turned to go back down, ready for a warm dinner back in the protected city centre.
Andalusia is known for its’ sherry. Little known fact, sherry, despite its rather English sounding name, is actually just an Anglicisation of the town name Jerez de la Frontera, where the sweetened fortified wine is from. Personally, I didn’t realise how nice Sherry could be until after a climb up the Sierra Nevada! It was all starting to make sense…
As we journeyed deeper into Andalusia, we caught out of the corner of our eye small white dwellings carved into the sides of the hills. The closer we got to the small city of Guadix the more we saw of these druids like dwellings, a moments pause left us wondering whether we had stumbled onto a Tattooine set for the latest Star Wars film.
Built in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Muslim communities to avoid persecution, the caves have become a homage to a simple way of life. Andalusia was of course, once under Islamic rule. Hence the Alhambra Palace and the original name “Al Andalus”. For a period of about 500 years, from 711 to 1212, the Umayyad conquest of Hispania was focused in this region, giving way to the spectacular architecture of Cordoba, and later Seville and Granada when the empire began to fall from the reconquering by Castille. Granada was the last to hold out, until 1248, which sent the Muslim communities across the region into slow and eventual persecution.
What we see now is a modern marvel of adaption and perseverance. As their way of life and religion was threatened the now minority Islamic communities fled deep into the hills of Andalusia, carving deep cave dwellings into the side of the mountainous region, keeping themselves safe from the hostile rulers. Now many of them are open to visit, or staying in, a truly unique overnight experience.
Andalusia is a big region and to take it all in on bike we recommend either touring or having a few different bases for a trip there. The Guadix cave dwellings are a must stay for a sense of true adventure.
We pulled into Ronda as the sun was setting.
The roads became dark.
Visibility was low as a light fog settled in and we carefully steered the car through unknown cobbled lanes looking for our hotel, tucked away in the old city. “Head across the bridge for a good dinner,” the hotelier told us. So we bundled up on a chilly night and headed out. This was a town of ghosts. We could feel it in the mist around every corner. In the way, you could still hear the hooves of horses on the old cobbled streets. How you can still see out of the corner of your eye, the lone soldier dashing off in the distance, a taste of revolution on his lips.
“He smelled the odor of the pine boughs under him, the piney smell of the crushed needles and the sharper odor of the resinous sap from the cut limbs. … This is the smell I love. This and fresh-cut clover, the crushed sage as you ride after cattle, wood-smoke and the burning leaves of autumn. That must be the odor of nostalgia, the smell of the smoke from the piles of raked leaves burning in the streets in the fall in Missoula. Which would you rather smell? Sweet grass the Indians used in their baskets? Smoked leather? The odor of the ground in the spring after rain? The smell of the sea as you walk through the gorse on a headland in Galicia? Or the wind from the land as you come in toward Cuba in the dark?”
– Ernest Hemmingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ronda sits at 700 metres altitude. So even when sun-drenched Andalusia stays mild all year, the hills and area around this city, where Hemingway wrote, tend to get a bite in the air. Especially in the colder months. As we turned the corner we were met by “THE BRIDGE.” Of postcard fame. Well, postcards and Instagrams don’t do this bridge any justice. It must truly be seen to be believed, to feel your heart drop off under your feet from the dizzying height of the chasm, and to feel that inspiration that Hemingway must have when writing For Whom The Bell Tolls. His epic book on war, written from his rooms in this hide-away city.
Andalusia has a sad history, as it was one of the worst affected regions of Spain by Franco’s campaign during and after the Spanish Civil War. Although the biggest cities saw the largest casualty rates, Ronda, and its bridge, high above the gorges were often battle point – a chilling memory on a chilly night. But the peace that now envelops the tucked away enclave, its true natural beauty yet cosmopolitan charms make it a must-visit place, on and off the bike.
Just west of Ronda the mighty Grazalema national park awaits and the next morning we braved the cold and headed out for a day of climbing through the lush green park.
Descend from Ronda, after winding through the city.
Start the route over the iconic bridge, looking to the cliffs is a pretty unparalleled beginning to any big day of riding. After a fast and flowing downhill from the city, we turned left off the main road to detour towards Benaojan. The road was surprisingly quiet, with epic views over the farm fields. There were points where we questioned whether we were in southern Spain, the green lush landscape seeming to err on the Scottish side. The road pitched up through Montejaque and then undulated with sharp boulders cutting into the vistas. A quick stint back on the main road and another left turn and we entered Grazalema National Park to start the big climb of the day.
At first, the gradient by looks did not seem steep. But combined with the grippy roads, it was quite an enveloping climb. Cork trees line the lower slopes, always a subtly jarring yet beautiful site. The ever-giving trees shelled of their protective layer – we were happy to have our protective rain jackets on as the mist turned to precipitation. Through the rain, the climb continued, not super easy but never too hard to appreciate the natural beauty. Eventually, the town of Grazalema greeted us in the distance. After 800 metres climbing, the town beckoned. Its’ white buildings reminding us of a tyrolean ski wonderland, yet again somehow so magically transported from southern Spain. We stopped for a warm coffee in the main square of the small hamlet before carrying on… Up and up…
As we turned right, heading along the Ridgeline, wild deer darted in the corner of our eyes and up ahead. These deer clearly had climbing legs as well! The climb peaks around 1400 metres, a chilly wind greeted us as we got ready for the long downhill.
And what a downhill that was! This descent is not for the faint of heart and we do recommend taking it easy. The corners come fast and sharp, with long drops to the valley below. But the scenery is stunning and worth taking slowly.
If you want the views but are wary of the danger, simply, reverse the loop!
As we neared the bottom the spectacular views of the lake below (Embalse de Zahara-el Gastor) came into sight. If your cycling holiday is in summer, stop for a swim at this stunning bit of nature and soak up the afternoon sunshine, before heading back in along the main road to do the last final climb again into Ronda.
The White Villages
If Grazalema seems like your cup of tea and you are enchanted by its mystique, then Andalusia’s famous White Villages will blow you away. These Moorish hilltop towns are known for their whitewashed buildings, the Pueblos Blancos. Check out Zahara de Sierra, Vejer de la Frontera or Medina Sidonia for some true Andalusian charm.
If you want to head to the seaside, but keep it cultural, try Salobreña just two kilometres from the expansive Mediterranean beaches.
Tucked away on a quiet road off the highway to Granada sits a small grove of olive trees.
Andalusia is steeped in history, and unlike the manmade wonder of the Alhambra palace, we were keen to take a look at the natural ancient wonders of the area as well.
Amongst this unassuming field, signposted with only a makeshift homemade notation arrow, sits the Millennium Olive tree – over 1000 years old and still producing. This is the area for olives in Spain, and as you drive the groves, the orchards extend as far as the eye can see. Makes sense why the tapas bar Olivas are always perfect.
This tree is an allegory for the mightly Andalusia. Give it rain, snow, wind. Give it invaders from the Continent and the heart of the Spanish Civil war. People in caves, whilst others sit beachside in Marbella. But this little tree just won’t stop fighting. It will fiercely hold its little piece of earth.
If the coastline is of more interest to you, the famous beach area of Malaga is the best for cycling. From Malaga, try any of the inland roads that kick up straight out to challenge the legs and return home on a downhill trajectory, leaving all worries behind on the Costa del Sol.
Andalusia Cycling Practical Information
Andalusia is a great cycling destination for a wide variety of abilities with a huge range of roads on offer. The best times of year to visit are Autumn and Spring. (September-November, March-May) The area has a variety of airports: Seville, Almeria, Jerez. Granda (Jaen) Cadiz, and Malaga. The road system is well maintained and there are no toll roads.
Recommended Andalusia Cycling Accommodation
Sierra Nevadas: Hotel El Guerra
Granada: Hospes Palacio de los Patos
Guadix: Cave Hotel
Ronda: Hotel Soho Boutique Palacio San Gabriel
(a historical stately building tucked into the old town, chock full of Andalusian charm)
By Laura Fletcher
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