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Deep down, every cyclist must have a memorable ride etched in their brain. For me, it has to be a trip to Spain in 2014, visiting the scenes of Wellington’s victories at Ciudad Rodrigo, Almeida and Salamanca. It is special not only because it provided the inspiration for Bicilet Bike Rental – more of that another time – but because it was a perfect blend of cycling and history. I would do it again and again – and again.
An ex-Army officer, and Regimental historian for the 9th/12th Royal Lancers, I am fascinated by Wellington's Peninsular campagin. In particular, by the role played by the two antecedent regiments (the 9th and 12th Light Dragoons). I had always been jealous of colleagues who had done battlefield tours to the area courtesy of the Army and, having left the Forces, had a germ of an idea to go it alone.
My ideal route was to follow Wellington’s path from Portugal to France via Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca, Vitoria, Burgos and across the Bidassoa. I discounted the horse as a means of transport, and the internal combustion engine too undemanding. A bike seemed the perfect way to do it (isn’t it always sunny in Spain?) and, when a mate suggested he might like to join me, we had the beginnings of a plan. A few pints later we had refined our thoughts and our route. With constaints on time, we chose to limit our trip to Almeida, Ciudad Rodrigo and Salamanca, and go in May when it would not be too hot.
While the logistics of getting bikes proved sufficiently difficult to justify founding Bicilet Bike Rental, the trip itself more than made up for it. Everywhere we cycled the roads were empty, in good condition and easy to get around. We cycled through cork forests, wild meadows of rosemary, and more conventional agriculture. Always with very few others present. The villages were few and far between but always welcoming (although with English little spoken).
The terrain was undulating but never too demanding for an semi-fit cyclist. While bus services between the larger towns were happy to take the bikes when needed. We hired touring bikes, but road bikes would have managed all but some parts of the Salamanca battlefield where we went off piste. One tip – the prevailing wind seemed to come from the South West and was consistently helpful – or not!
Turning to the battlefields themselves. The Spanish have a justifiable interest and pride in the Peninsular War (their war of liberation from the French). The towns and battlefields are well-signed, and a lack of development makes it possible to relate to the ground in the modern era. The battlefield at Salamanca is particularly unspoilt. Well researched signboards highlight key points, such as Wellington’s command post.
We collected our bikes from Salamanca, and rode five hours to Ciudad. Immediately the impressive ramparts caught our attention. Very accessible and free from health and safety concerns, they were stunning. The inside of the ancient town was wonderfully preserved and the signs of the breach and shelling still evident. Typically, a fascinating museum dedicated to the war was closed on the day we arrived. So we just had to make do with sun-downers in the wonderful main square...
The next day, we headed west towards Portugal and Almeida, via the Royal Fortress of the Conception (Real Fuerte de la Concepción). The latter was worth the journey in its own right. Constructed in 1663/4, it guarded the route between Spain and Portugal. Consistent demolition and reconstruction rendered the fort undefendable in 1810. So, after a long period in partial ruins, it was converted into a very comfortable looking hotel in 2012. The Vaubanesque style seems to lend itself to the current use, and there is no problem wandering around all over it. Once again, nobody seemed to be about.
In to Portugal and on to Almeida, a tourist attraction due to its beautiful old streets and houses. Once again it is a fortified town whose ramparts are largely intact. The main citadel, almost completely destroyed in a magazine explosion in 1810, bears testimony to the importance of its location. Before we headed back to Ciudad we discovered what looked like the ‘railway hotel’ (except there is no railway). Our steely cycling resolve dissolved in the face of a fantastic fish stew and a carafe of house white... With the wind behind us, our return journey via Fuentes de Onoro sped by until a missed turning added a few extra miles to the trip. Fuentes de Onoro was the only disappointment of the trip. The battlefield (much of it centred on fighting in the village in 1811) has mostly disappeared under tarmac and housing.
On our final day, we toured the Salamanca Battlefield, a short ride from the city. Although the Museum in the village was closed (permanently?) it was easy to find our way around using a series of signboards (in English) following the course of the battle. With no motorways obscuring the action, it is easy to imagine the key moment when Wellington decided to attack and destroy the French army. The touring bikes were an ideal way to get around the tracks that cross the battlefield, and could be safely ditched to climb the Grand Arapile.
We spent our final night in Salamanca itself. A beautiful city full of students and life and a fitting end to this great trip. The joy of hiring our bicycles, as opposed to bringing them with us, was now even more evident. We had the bikes delivered and collected from the hotel we would finish at. So it was a simple case of leaving them with a return address sticker, and the man in a van would collect them. No bundling on to trains, getting them to an airport and then wrapping them in cardboard or a bike box. We returned with our single pannier as our ‘one item of cabin baggage’, a dodgy cycle tan and a head full of memories.
Planning your next Battlefield tour, or simply want to cycle in this stunning area of Spain?
Richard: 28th Jun 2017 15:09:00