Papa's Bravas

Words: Tom Owen / Images: Matt Grayson

Inspired by Hemingway’s writing, Tom Owen and Matt Grayson went in search of the Spain he loved – wild and remote.


Papa’s bravas

Being a fan of Ernest Hemingway is not without its complications. He was, in the parlance of his era, a man’s man. Nowadays we might lean towards phrases altogether less complimentary.

There are long arguments to be had about separating the art from the artist, but perhaps this is not quite the right forum. Indeed, if any subculture understands the nuance of admiring an individual’s achievements while not condoning their actions, it is professional cycling.

Nevertheless, his writing is inspirational. To me and to lots of others.

Spain was a country in Hemingway’s good graces – he spent a lot of time there throughout his life. Long stints in Madrid, countless days spent at bullfights up and down the country and of course his time as a reporter during the civil war. The place left a significant impression on him, much as he has had a huge impact on our perceptions of the country.

In a letter written to a friend he called Spain “the last good country left.” It was this throwaway quote that formed the basis of our bikepacking trip – a route that would connect some places that loomed large in the life of Hemingway. We would begin in Madrid and ride to Pamplona – the two cities in Spain most closely connected with the author.

Our route bisected a bit of the country dubbed ‘Spanish Lapland’, an area twice the size of Belgium with the population density of the northernmost region of Finland – and it really did feel like we were crossing one of Europe’s most isolated expanses. Strange, prefabricated villages in the middle of forests, put there for the use of loggers; dusty old villages with double-digit populations; abandoned factories, the residue of industries no longer viable. The contrast between these places and the vibrant, cosmopolitan landscape of Madrid where we began, or the raucous streets of Pamplona in the grip of a festival day (festivo) at the end of our journey, was palpable.

Guerillas, monks and kings

Leaving later than planned from Madrid on a Monday morning, we struck out for the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Madrid is a high city, so the first part of our journey was downhill. An easy start. We passed over the River Guadarrama, a name we would encounter often in the first couple of days, and trundled along the plains towards El Escorial. The towering white edifice now known as the Royal Monastery has been at various times a university, a royal palace, a museum and a hospital – and it can be seen from far away down in the valley.

To Hemingway, El Escorial was a place of retreat from the bustle of Madrid – a place he described as being “like I’ve gone to heaven under the best auspices.” For us it was not much of a rest, but rather a brutally steep climb to an incredibly large building, followed by an abortive attempt at buying some food in a cafe.

We didn’t have time to hang about and breathe the ‘good air’ of Escorial for long, charging onward towards the Sierra Guadarrama, where the river we’d already crossed has its source. In the dying light we enjoyed the enchantingly desolate Navacerrada ski resort that sits atop the range of mountains where Hemingway’s band of guerrillas from For Whom The Bell Tolls spent long days and longer nights trying not to be killed by Francoists. While they didn’t spend much time in the book in ski resorts, there’s still something of the deathly and depressing about this part of the country – it is stark and empty and not very surprising that nearly every business in Navacerrada is permanently closed. I couldn’t help but think of this bit from the book as we peered into the gloom of the deeper forest back from the road.

“Spain,” the woman of Pablo said bitterly. Then turned to Robert Jordan.

“Do they have people such as this in other countries?”

“There are no other countries like Spain,” Robert Jordan said politely.

“You are right,” Fernando said. “There is no other country in the world like Spain.”

In the last dregs of the light we descended toward Rascafria. Ravenously hungry and lightly toasted from the sun, we were extremely lucky and profoundly pleased to discover a steak restaurant open for “five more minutes” in the town. We fell upon on our three terneras, cooked medium, like desperate men. The wine came by the glass and cost €1.40. Afterward we wobbled into the night in search of a field in which to bivvy. As we rolled out of town with phone lights to guide our path, an almighty clamour went up from what was – I guess – a hunting pack of dogs kept by a farmer. Oh, how they barked and howled at our approach and oh, how we bottled it and immediately turned back the way we came. It was the hardest I pedalled all that day.

We found a field we hoped would be far enough away that the dogs would pack it in, but we were to be disappointed on that score. They kept it up until about 3 in the morning. They may have kept it up yet longer, but at that point the Rioja took me into its warm embrace.

Day two began with mist and a chill in the air. We made it about 10 km before stopping for multiple coffees. A big climb through pine forests that took us an hour was followed by a descent into the sunny side of the Guadarrama range. From there the sun never left our backs and we became practised hands at applying sun cream on the go. Spain is a miraculous place – it has the feeling of total isolation until you most desperately need a drink or something to eat, at which point a Repsol petrol station or a village bakery will rise up from the horizon. This happened many times on our trip, but the first was a bakery in the town of Navafría at the bottom of that descent from the Guadarrama.

Pushing on, we managed to rack up 130 km that second day, finally flopping down under a pergola in a municipal park in El Burgo de Osma. Having raided a supermercado on the way through town and with a few minutes until nightfall we even found time to wash our Lycra in the river. We ate a picnic dinner of chorizo and cheese dropped into Uncle Ben’s instant rice, washed down with Rioja supped from torn-in-half beer cans.

Bodegas and bulls

After the second day my memory gets a bit blurry. We settled into a pattern of fitful sleep on the ground, desperate searches for an early-morning cafe, long attritional hours in the saddle in the noonday sun, menú del día, a cursory look on Google Maps for a likely sleeping spot, a mad dash to the supermarket, a grateful slump into a bivvy bag. It’s supremely easy when travelling long distances by bike to nestle into a basic level of brain function – thinking only about your stomach and where you’ll sleep. The world beyond the borders of Spain could have descended into nuclear war and we’d have been none the wiser.

I can remember the highlights, the waypoints along the route most relevant to Hemingway’s life. In Haro we cycled by a bodega which is (mildly) famous as the spot where Hemingway got very pissed and lost in the cellar. I believe this story to be apocryphal, but it fits beautifully into the Papa myth. We spun our legs through Logroño, where ‘Hem’ watched a great many bullfights and partook in more than one festivo. Most magically of all, on our penultimate day we swam in and slept by the River Irati in the farthest northern part of Spain, which has its source right up against the border with France in the Pyrenees. Hemingway loved the Irati and the village of Aribe on its bank, spending many hours fishing for trout.

But more than any one place that Hemingway definitely went, the striking power of Spain is that there is so much of it – so empty, for the most part – and this is what was easiest to associate with the author’s work. His short stories in particular deal frequently with man and nature, with the wildness of the world we no longer inhabit. The purity of feeling and sometime loneliness of being out in the open.