Hermitage of Piedrasantas, near Pedroche (province of Córdoba). We’re on our third day on the route and we are meeting Jorge and his family here. Jorge is one of the creators of Al-Ballut.
He explains that during a confinement some time ago he came across a podcast that talked about an invention called «MontañasVacías».
-«Something like this could work in Los Pedroches», he thought…
Only a few months later, his Al-Ballut project was launched.
It consists of three routes: road, gravel and MTB, linking the 17 villages in the Los Pedroches region of Cordoba (in the south of Spain, in Andalucía). The name Al-Ballut refers in Arabic to «plain of acorns», which gives us an idea of what we are going to find: pastures, here called «dehesas» that reach as far as the eye can see and that make up the largest continuous holm oak pasture in Europe.
We noticed that despite riding in Easter week, possibly the ideal time of year to visit the valley, we had the sensation of riding through a place that is not very popular among tourists, which was pleasantly surprising. This is, indeed, an area of hard-working people in which you can feel a great care in all the details, something very palpable in every ride through the dehesas.
This care in the detail reminds us at various points of the trip of what we felt a few years ago cycling through the Tuscan fields, during the TuscanyTrail. In that case it was a globally recognisable attraction, and yet I don’t see the difference so far from what is seen here, to be honest.
Cycling through these dehesas where pigs, sheep and cows graze, we observe a very different form of livestock management to what we’re used to in our areas. I don’t pretend the debate about its advantages or disadvantages, about whether it is better or worse, this is not the place for that, no matter how interesting I would find a long conversation to learn a bit more about these issues…
Despite these differences, it was very curious to find a link between the two «savoir faire» of such distant areas: at several points along the route, our GPS mapping shows us that we are crossing the «Cañada Real Soriana Oriental», a traditional cattle track used for centuries to move cattle from northern Spain to the south, in search of milder winters. It’s so familiar to me, as it also passes through Sigüenza, my home town. Imagining those transhumant realities makes us feel insignificant as travellers.
During my conversation with Jorge it didn’t take too long to emerge that this traditional route would be a very interesting way to link Al-Ballut with MV. We both started salivating over the possibility.
At first we were surprised to see that almost the entire route runs through fenced dehesas. It can be considered part of the identity of this area, with several thousand kilometres of fences in different formats. There are still many kilometres of stone walls with this function, and according to Jorge himself, a great expert in this field, each part of the valley had its own construction technique, which is a great wealth that deserves to be preserved.
In fact, the word ‘dehesa‘ comes from the Latin word ‘defensa‘, meaning ‘defence‘, and it is because in the past, these stone walls served to defend the enclosed crops from the access of the thousands of head of cattle that passed through these lands every year during the transhumance. To build these walls, they used the stones collected from cleaning their own plots every year, which was a clear example of reusing waste or leftovers, something that nowadays seems quite modern.
the new salespeople
Another day, at lunchtime, the owner of a small hostel-restaurant in one of the villages served us a plate of piglet (one of the specialities of the area, by the way). He recalls how not so long ago, salespeople and distributors visiting the valley’s farms and businesses could stay at home for up to two weeks, but that all changed, mainly because of the internet boom, reducing overnight stays almost completely.
-«Occasionally a cyclist comes through here,» he says, which leads to a good conversation about the possibilities of this kind of traveller. We told him that there are places in our area where cyclists have brought some colour back to some villages that were hopelessly losing their pulse. They will certainly not be the solution to the problem, but they can provide a little help to those who are still resisting.
Could cyclists be the new salespeople who bring a bit of life back to these places?
To sum up, it has been a real delight to feel in my own skin the enormous gratitude for the fact that someone has put an area on the map for me, altruistically, and transmitting the purest love one can imagine for the territory they belong.
May there be more and more like them!
Thousand thanks to David, Jorge, and the whole Al-Ballut team!!
-The Gravel route (there is also road and MTB) is a 50-50 between quiet roads and tracks in perfect conditions, with 100% cyclability and no technical requirements.
-As it runs through the 17 villages of the valley, and all of them have basic services, this is a handy route where there is always a village nearby.
-The route is highly modular, allowing you to adapt it to the number of days you have available, as it can be cut off at various points, due to its «lobe» typology.
-As I mentioned earlier, much of the route is fenced, but despite this, with a bit of planning and seizing opportunities, we have had no problem finding a place to pitch the tent those nights that we used it, though there are not many places to do so.
-Caution also to those uninitiated in Andalusian weather, you may see cyclists on long sleeves while you’re cooking yourself. Local acclimatization stuff…
-Getting water is not a problem either. There is no abundance of fountains, but there are plenty of bars and small shops, always handy for a stop.