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Monegros, The Living Desert of Europe

Dirt tracks, blue sky, wild areas, extreme weather, and endless adventures. We discover three desert areas in Spain through a series of articles written by cycling enthusiasts. These avid explorers show us their favorite routes through their local desert.

A collaboration between Volata and Strava.

Desert Stories, part 1 : Los Monegros

Los Monegros is the most extensive desert area in the Iberian Peninsula and has a unique biological diversity within the European continent. It covers 2,750 square kilometers and has a population density lower than that of the Arctic Circle. When we think of Los Monegros, what first comes to mind is an eclectic collection of cultral references; the Monegros Desert Festival, a famous electronic music rave that takes place in the sparse desert environment; the romantic comedy "Jamón, Jamón" directed by Bigas Luna and starred by Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, or the myth of the Invincible Armada ships made of holm oak and sabine wood, trees that covered this land 500 years ago.

What can we discover when cycling through a place like this? If you mix the solitude and narrow dirt roads and tracks with the contemporary history of a land stigmatized by the Civil War, extreme weather, agriculture, irrigation, colonized towns, and traditions... the result is a unique cycling experience that transcends the physical movement of cycling to become a true journey through one of the most unique places in Aragón.

The circular route we're sharing has as its starting and finishing point the municipality of Sariñena, capital of the region of Los Monegros. Sariñena boasts has its own oasis in the desert: the Sariñena lagoon which is home to more than 200 species of birds including egrets, cranes and cormorants. Depending on the time of year, you attempt the route, you might be lucky enough to see some of them. We set out as a group of four – Laura, Cristina, Borxa and Quico. The trip would take two days and we had one common goal: to discover the highlands of Los Monegros on our gravel bikes. The route would combine fine dirt tracks with paved agricultural trails and some unavoidable sections of local roads. Tomás would also join us with his camera.

Day 1: among sand and stone sculptures

We decide to leave early in order to avoid the high summer temperatures in the desert. By the time we get the bikes out of our cars, the sun has already been shining for an hour. Laura goes to the bird observatory to see if she can spot a lagoon eaglet red-handed eating its breakfast while the rest of us lather ourselves in sunblock. The weather forecast says it will be sunny all the way.

Our cavalry is made up of three steel mounts and one made of aluminum. It looks like iron is back for good! Borxa, another touring cyclist with many miles in his legs and an expert bike polo player, finishes putting the rear wheel on his Croix de Fer. In the meantime, I upload the route track from Strava to the GPS. This is essential not to get lost in the crossroads ahead of us. We also expect to use the Route Suggestions from the Strava app in case we decide to improvise during the route. It is always fun to let yourself get carried away by any surprise the road might offer.

We start the day bordering the Sariñena lagoon. Before entering the town, we turn north to cross the train tracks in the neighborhood of the station. We cross the town of Capdesaso riding on good tracks and paved roads, and we head in the direction of San Lorenzo del Rio Flumen. Both villages have less than two hundred inhabitants. Those first miles make us realize two things. One, that we will be able to refill the water bottles in each town (there will be one every ten kilometers at most). And two, that we will not find a single open bar, so we should carry our lunch in the pockets of our jerseys, as well as the sunscreen.

As the morning goes on, we spot in the distance some strange giant obelisks that look menacing. They are the so-called Torrollones de La Gabarda, sandstone towers isolated by erosion, which serve as a reference to guess where our route will go. Behind them is the Mobache (or Mogache) hill, a 531-meter mountain that is not on our route, but can be climbed by a gravel track. It is an interesting option if you feel like improvising on the way. Laura is glad she doesn't have to go up there since I had promised her a route without much climbing.

The road takes us to Alberuela de Tubo, where we turn west and run into the Flumen canal. This river will have a leading role from now until the end of our adventure. The canal has a paved road on its right and a dirt track on its left, so we get to choose. Cris insists on taking the dirt track. "We brought the gravel bike for a reason!" We go alongside the canal to the Torrollón reservoir, where we stop to eat something. After cycling for a while, this is a well-deserved recess to see how the locals fish.

We follow the canal to Tramaced, a town that served as rearguard during the Spanish Civil War. We decide to go in and fill up the water bottles at the fountain next to the old air-raid shelters. After drinking plenty of water and learning a bit of history, we leave the village. I suggest going up to the hermitage of Tramaced (at 532m of altitude). The panoramic view is breathtaking from up there.

Upon arriving in the town of Piracés, we get goosebumps when we see the contemporary sculptural work of Fernando Casás. "Árboles como Arqueología", "Trees as Archeology", combines art and nature in a series of granite monoliths. We also take the time to look at Peña Mediodía”, named after the sunlight that falls on the rock at midday (“mediodía” means midday in Spanish), which is a sandstone formation 80 meters long and 25 meters high. An Arab fortress was carved into the giant rock in the 9th and 10th centuries. Within such a short distance, we can find very special and rarely visited places.

After a break in Piracés, we take several fast tracks downhill that lead us to Callén and Almuniente. Then, we change to a second class road that takes us deep into the pine forests surrounding Frula, our finish line for the first day. In the middle of the 20th century, some of these territories were repopulated with trees, colonized by foreigners, and began to be irrigated with water from the canals. When we see the first houses of Frula, Borxa speeds up with a subtle sprint as he shouts, "I’ll get ahead and I’ll order a round of drinks at the bar." The day has been more special than expected. No scares or breakdowns. And, as if that weren’t enough, we still have a nice afternoon ahead of us to relax by the pool and have a well-deserved rest at the municipal hostel.

Day 2: a visit to Orwell's trenches

The sun rises somewhat differently in Monegros. The tires have hardly lost any pressure, but the chains are starting to creak. Since it rains very little in this area, the soil of the tracks produces dust that sticks to the bike. During breakfast, we imagine how hard it must be to endure the dust in some of the touring cyclists events and bike sport competitions organized in this area, such as the Orbea Monegros (a an event for mountain bikers that has been running for 20 years), or La Monegrina (a classic cycling experience that has already taken place for three years).

After breakfast, the first stop of the day is the Aragonese Interpretation Center of the Civil War, in Robres, about 6 km from Frula. It opens at 11 AM. But since we got up early to avoid the heat, we leave that behind and continue uphill, where we find the impressive trenches of Ruta de las tres huegas (Route of the three borders), in the Alcubierre mountain range. Ten kilometers of constant uphill to a point at 597 meters of altitude. From this position, the British writer George Orwell and his comrades of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) stood up to Franco's army. This is one of many vestiges of the Civil War that can be visited throughout Monegros. The almost 6 kilometer-long descent to the village of Alcubierre allows us to appreciate from a distance the places we cycled the day before, as well as the majestic Pyrenees, which remind us how insignificant we are on our bikes.

As we enter Alcubierre, Borxa tells us the village bar is open, so we decide to take a little break and enjoy a few cold drinks. There, a group from the Club Ciclista Oscense proves there are cyclists out and about, although we haven't seen any on our route. We head in the direction of Cantalobos, another colonized village, alongside agricultural ways more characteristic of Tuscany than of this barren region. We forgot to drink water, so Laura suggests entering the town to fill up our bottles.

The track of Cantalobos gives way to the road to Orillena, where we fix Cris’ flat tire. After that, we continue pedaling alongside agricultural pathways that cross streams and irrigation canals. We see farmers collecting onions as we go uphill using the large chainring. There seems to be a slight northwest wind, very usual in this region, that gently pushes us to the meadows of the Flumen river. Time and distance have passed in the blink of an eye.

After crossing the bridge over the Flumen, we still have a small slope of 1 km at 3% before we reach the Sariñena lagoon again and finish our adventure. As we look at this 206-hectare lake, we reminisce about the unexplored and beautiful places we have discovered. The four of us feel confident we will soon be cycling again through Monegros, the living desert of Europe where there is still much to discover.

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