David Baxter tries out a new long-distance trail from Cantabria to the Med
Vultures hovered above the towering cliffs. We joked about them picking off any stragglers in our cycling group though, even for a novice like me, the going was not tough. We were in the green hills of Cantabria, north-east Spain, following the river Ebro from its source through a series of spectacular gorges, the Canyons of the Ebro. At one point we rode (or pushed) our bikes up to the plateau, to be rewarded by giddying views of the turquoise river on its sinuous course.
I decided to follow the Ebro - the longest river that's wholly in Spain - from its source near the Atlantic to its delta in the Mediterranean, some 570 miles. I allowed three weeks and armed myself with a lavishly illustrated guide to the GR99, a new long- distance trail. As it turned out, I rarely used the trail, but I found its frequent information boards strangely comforting.
For the first part of the trip I joined a tour organised by Iberocycle, run by a genial ex-pat Lancastrian, Simon Proffitt. With our bags forwarded daily to the next small but comfortable rural inn, and Simon on hand with support, we could concentrate on covering modest daily distances and enjoying the scenery, tiny somnolent villages and ancient churches.
We passed through historic hilltop towns such as Frias and Oa, then through the last canyon-mouth into the rolling countryside of La Rioja, where we pedalled through vineyards past little domed stone shelters and spectacular modern bodegas. We spent a night in unaccustomed luxury in Haro, the wine-centre of Rioja, before ending our tour in the medieval walled town of Laguardia.
Bikeless now, I switched to buses and trains. At Logroo I shared tapas bars with wine buffs and Camino pilgrims. From here, the Ebro flows on, screened by tall trees, its broad fertile valley increasingly busy with roads and commerce. For centuries the river was the main transport route in the region, fought over by Celtiberians, Romans, Visigoths, Muslims and others. Later it became a key battleground in the Spanish civil war. Nowadays, it provides half Spain's hydroelectricity and enables arable farming to flourish in an otherwise dry …