Distance 38 miles (61 km)
Time spent in the saddle: 3 hours 45 mins
Elevation gained: 4,047 feet
Maximum Speed: 35.4 miles per hour
Average speed: 10.1 miles per hour
Total distance now covered: 677 miles (1090 km)
Today I have enjoyed an exhilarating, if extremely exhausting, ride up – and I mean UP - to the town of Morella, which must be the highest place that I have stayed at on this trip, and the prettiest; an ancient walled city located on a hill-top in the province of Castellon (the same province that is home to Benicassim). As I type this blog in my loft room, on the 4th story of Habitacions l’Espigoladora (Calle Zaporta, 15, Morella, 12300, Spain), I am a little apprehensive about tomorrow’s ride: It is a long one, my joints are very sore, I am tired, and I fear that the terrain might be like today’s; but as Madness once sang, “Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day)” … so let’s wait and see what it brings, if indeed it arrives at all.
Raul, the guy who met me at my Alcorisa digs yesterday, was there this morning to serve me breakfast. I commented yesterday in the blog about on how my bedroom felt like it had been decorated and interiorly designed, by Julie. Well, she could also just as well have designed the kitchen where I enjoyed breakfast this morning. There was blue ‘Dorothy Gale’ style gingham everywhere(*): the tablecloth, the padded seat cushions, the curtains, the pelmet over the windows. There were also two ‘old-fashioned’ wooden radios on top of an ‘old-fashioned’ wooden sideboard. Yes, Julie would have loved it. I enjoyed some cereal and a croissant and then retired to the balcony while I ate a piece of toast, and watched Alcorisa come to life. A road sweeper (van) went past, and then a road sweeper (man); the bars in the small square that the balcony overlooks were beginning to bustle with early morning coffee drinkers; and the corner shop was open and being treated to what seemed like a comedy double act. Two men were stood in the doorway of the shop, talking to each other very loudly and intermittently laughing at even greater volume. Their show came to an end after about 5 minutes when the man in a blue t-shirt patted the man in a red vest on the back, and went on his way, still chuckling heartily to himself. The man in red went inside the shop and I can only hope that after all that frivolity, he remembered what he going in for. A woman then came shuffling along the street with bags that were full, so it turned out, of plastic bottles. She threw the bottles into the recycling bins and then she too headed to the corner shop. All very mundane I know; but it was simply lovely just watching a small and ordinary Spanish town come to life in an ordinary Spanish way, at the beginning of an ordinary Spanish day. (* A special mention in tomorrow’s blog for the first person to email or text me saying who Dorothy Gale is/was! And try not to ‘Google’ it!)
I set off on my 37-mile ride to Morella at 10.15am, beginning with the obligatory photographs outside last night’s accommodation. I was pleased that Raul agreed to join me in one of these. My altitude at the beginning of the ride was 2000 feet and I knew that I would be ending the day at over 3200 feet; so it was going to be quite tough. I could also see on my route planner that there was going to be a short climb out of Alcorisa, right at the beginning of the ride. It may have be short, at just under a mile, but during that mile, I climbed over 400 feet and found myself feeling exhausted before the ride had barely begun. “This doesn’t bode well,” I thought, calculating that at the end of the day’s riding, I would be a further 800 feet above sea level!
I have not been conscious of becoming any sadder as I get closer to Benicassim, Julie’s beach, and the end of my ride, but something must be creeping up on me. Because during the past couple of the days, teardrops have filled my eyes - and at times I have had a good old cry – on more than a few occasions when I have been riding along. Each time, the upset has been sparked by a thought process that has ended with some sad thought or other about Julie – or a particular image - and before I know it, salt water has been rolling down my cheeks or I have been bawling out loud like Andy Murray when he has just won Wimbledon(**). It happened three times today and the worst was when, for some reason (and it could have been because I’d heard “The first picture of you” by The Lotus Eaters on our 2014 Spain playlist a little bit earlier) I began thinking about one of the last photos that I ever took of Julie in Wirral Hospice. It was two days before she died and Julie couldn’t lift herself up from a horizontal position on the bed. But she wanted me to take a photo of her with a bear and a dolphin – presents that a good friend and work colleague had sent to Julie in the hospice and that she had called ‘Kelly’ and ‘Dave’, after her sister and our brother-in-law. I had to arrange ‘Kelly’ and ‘Dave’ accordingly and then had the honour of taking a picture of them and a beautiful, smiling, woman; a woman who was desperately thin, whose complexion was showing the effects of a life limiting disease, poor nutrition, and lack of fresh air and sunlight; a woman who was in severe pain; a woman who knew she was going to die very soon; but, as I say, a woman who was still smiling. Only immediate members of Julie’s family, and myself, have ever seen that photo and I don’t expect that anyone else will ever see it: Not because I don't want it to be seen but because I didn't get Julie's permission to share it with anyone other than her immediate family. I am proud of the photograph and would share it with the world; I believe that it stands as a testament to the strength, courage and beauty of Julie Marie Mountford; but I won't share it. When I thought about it today, I just cried and cried for about 2 miles of my ride. (** hope you like the contemporary reference there!)
I was still crying as I reached the outskirts of Mas de las Matas, so thought I’d best stop and compose myself. I was soon back in my protective ‘cycling bubble’ – the one which I expect will burst with a huge bang when I return home, if not before – and able to admire the beauty of the town, and take a couple of pictures, as I rode through. As I left Mas de las Matas behind me, I crossed a bridge over the Rio Guadalupe. I don't know whether it was just a trick of the light but the water in the river was the greenest river water that I have ever seen. My route then took me into a valley through which the Rio Bergantes flows; and what a valley it was. The scenery was simply spectacular and I found myself stopping every few minutes to admire the view (and take the odd photo). It would have been lovely to have driven today’s route but to have ridden it on a pushbike – my bike, the one I have ridden from Wirral Hospice St John’s in Julie’s honour – was an absolute privilege. I wish that Julie had been there with me; I wish that she had been telling me when to stop and directing when and where I should be taking photos, as she often did; but even in her tragic absence, I am still very grateful to have been afforded such a beautiful experience. I can only wish that Julie, as I ask God each day, continues to live on through me on this earth, and so, was able to see, and feel, what I saw and felt in the Rio Bergantes valley today.
The road eventually left the valley and I could soon see up ahead, that it would climb steeply once again. The last few miles of the ride were going to be quite a challenge and so it was a very welcome distraction when I saw a garage, with a café/bar attached to it. I enjoyed a coffee and an agua con gas, while a repeat of ‘The Simpsons’, complete with Spanish ‘dubbing’, tried to disturb the calm that I was trying to experience, before the storm of the remaining miles. The climb to my eventual altitude of 3200 feet began when I left the café; and it lasted for the remaining 10 miles of the ride. It was continual and, in my view, very steep; though I suspect that a ‘proper’ cyclist would wonder why I am making such a fuss about it. I was hopeful of respite at some stage; yesterday, the last 2 miles into Alcorisa ended up being downhill. But the closer I got to Morella, the steeper the gradient seemed to become and things got worse when I saw a sign telling me that town was 2 kilometres to the east, off the main road. I looked across - and up - and could see Morella sitting right at the top of the hillside. I shook my head and braced myself. I climbed about 250 meters in the next mile and a half, stopping for breath every few hundred yards. My altitude, as I write this in my digs, is 974meters; or 3195 feet. No wonder I feel completely shattered and my joints are aching!
The owner of the accommodation emailed me a couple of days ago to ask what time I planned to arrive in Morella. I didn’t have a clue - I am cycling after all, and much depends on the weather each day, and the terrain – but replied, “approximately 5pm”. As it was, I rode through the main gate to Morella – one of seven entrance gates that ‘break’ the city walls – at precisely 4pm. So I headed to a local cafe and only then to my accommodation at 5pm, to be met by the owner’s brother, Christian, and his wife Raquel. The couple showed me up three flights of stairs (as if I wasn’t tired enough!) and into a loft room from which I could look, through the one square window, over the terracotta rooftops of the surrounding properties. I am meant to be sharing the bathroom and kitchen with people in the other rooms in the building but fortunately for me, there are no other occupants tonight; so I have effectively got a whole four storey home to myself, for the princely sum of €28.
I dropped my bags in the room, got showered and changed, and was ready to walk to a local restaurant for the evening, when I heard a clap of thunder and soon after, the sound of heavy rain on the roof. The rain was still belting down when I left and so I had to do something that I didn’t think I would have to do again until at least 23rd July; reach into my bag and put on my ‘pac-a-mac’. It did the trick – keeping me dry until the rain subsided – and I was able to have a wander around Morella, taking a few photos and saying “Hola” to everyone I met. I eventually settled at the Restaurant Casa Pere and enjoyed some chips and a mixed salad. While I was enjoying a glass of beer, I found myself tuning into the conversation of the couple at the next table, and soon realised that this was because they were speaking English. I decided to say ‘Hello” to the couple who, it transpired, were Maria and Shaun, who are from Leeds and both work for the NHS – in a cancer unit, as it happens. We got talking about Julie and my bike ride (I had one of my ‘Julie’ t-shirts on!), and I showed them pictures of Julie on our charity’s website. They were both very friendly, empathetic, and positive about my achievement in riding this far in Julie’s honour and told me that they have attended the Benicassim festival for the past three years. I’m not quite sure why they aren’t going this year but they’re not. Instead, they have spent a few days in Valencia, and plan to stay for three nights in Morella, before returning to Valencia for the remainder of their holiday. After 20 minutes or so, I left Shaun and Maria to carry on with their evening. Another half an hour or so after that, the couple headed back to their accommodation for the night but not until after they had come over to my table to say ‘adios’ and placed €20 in my hand, along with a lovely note saying that they wished they’d had the pleasure of meeting Julie. They’d have loved her of course; and she them, I have no doubt.
Until tomorrow …