Updated: Mar 28
Malaga, Spain, to Altura, Portugal - 262 km cycling
That first sleep after a long travel day is always sweet and deep - which is why we really should have set an alarm for our 10:55am appointment at the Malaga police station to confirm our six-month residency visa and avoid being deported midway through our trip.
“I think it’s 10:30. What time was that meeting?” Joce wondered rather calmly as she nudged Ed out of the slumber of the century.
The adrenaline hit was instanteous. Ed was on his feet and dressed with 24 minutes and 15 seconds left to get his family of four, on their first day of vacation, across an entirely foreign city… in the teeming rain.
By some inexplicable miracle, two boys who typically required a quarter-hour of coaxing to open their eyes in the morning were ready at the door, armed with umbrellas, by T-minus 16 minutes. Joce had unearthed our rain jackets from the piles of exploded luggage spewn across our spacious apartment, and Ed had collected and waterproofed passports, paperwork, directions and keys.
We navigated the halls and stairways of the building we’d first entered hours earlier in the pitch dark, and sprinted through the cobblestone alleys of Malaga’s labyrinthine historic district, with no worldly clue which direction was which, in desperate search of a taxi.
Each frantically selected turn seemed to lead to a narrower street until we finally emerged into a road and commandeered the first parked we saw. Luckily, it was indeed a cab, and even better, its driver had clearly watched a few Bond-film car-chase scenes, darting brazenly through morning traffic after hearing about our breathless conundrum. At 10:56, eyes now wide open, we burst out into the rain again and charged toward the entrance to the Estacion policia - into the throngs of Spaniards waving papers behind a cordoned doorway, shouting for the attention of the lone female cop coordinating the chaos.
Turns out Ed’s months of intricate planning and e-mail exchanges with all levels of Spanish immigration bureaucracy had produced just the right document to skip the crowd and go straight inside. We then wrestled with a self-service machine for ten minutes until giving up and finding a nearby waiting area, where ticket number 48 flashed on screen. The soaked papele in our hand that we received on the way in read “47”. Mierde.
The gentleman with ticket 48 was dismayed as we convinced an officer to squeeze us in, but he smiled when he saw Sitka’s beaming 11-year-old grin under his dripping rain jacket.
Then, after hurdling every barricade in our way, we hit a five-foot, middle-aged brick wall with librarian glasses.
“No es la buena cita.”
Not the right appointment? We checked the date and time, and showed her our carefully curated documents again.
“Es el malo tipo de cita,” she elaborated, unflinching in the face of Sitka’s grin. What we were able to discern over the next several sentences of dizzyingly fast Spanish for our first day, basically amounted to a wrong click in a drop-down menu back in January in the Yukon. We had booked an appointment to pick up our TIE - foreigner identification card - rather than an appointment to apply for one.
Can we just do the right cita now, then?
She left us to confer with some colleagues. Joce and Ed exchanged knowing looks: Yes! Another win for talking our way out out of trouble.
“La proxima cita es en abril,” was the result of her meeting. April was more than two weeks away.
“No hoy?” we began pleading.
“No, el 8 de abril.”
On we valiantly went for a few more minutes as we tried every brilliant trick in our travel-problem-solving book. We knew we were done when we asked about being a special case because we were leaving on a bike trip to Norway in two days.
“No estas un caso especial. Bicicletas no es un caso especial. Infirma es un caso especial. Muerte de la familia es un caso especial. No bicicletas.”
It was the first of several dead ends that we would encounter over the first week of our Europe Epic. But we don’t discourage easily - we just keep looking for ways around. And we fill our days with awesomeness to make the hurdles worth jumping.
We found another taxi in the downpour after leaving dejected from the police station, and we took on Mission #2: getting a European Covid passport that would allow us into other EU countries without testing and quarantining. Ed had similarly plotted out a health centre and all the necessary paperwork. This time, no special cita was needed, and an hour later we had a promise of printed documents within 48 hours.
By then, the sky was blue and we set out to explore Malaga, finding the elaborate 8th-century Castillo de Gibralfaro from the first Islamic empire in Southern Europe, overlooking the city’s bullfighting stadium and our first glance at the Mediterranean Sea. On the walk home we happened upon a 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheatre, and the next day more castles and the birth home of Pablo Picasso.
Then the real fun began on our first bike day - a Day One for the ages.
It started out rainy as predicted - Malaga’s first stretch of any precipitation at all in four months - but we were decked out in our rain gear and tickled to be pedaling our fully-loaded steeds once again. We picked up our printed EU Covid passports (Spain 1, Ed and Joce 1) then found a perfect bike path along the beaches, cranked up our Spotify playlists, and ran to dip our feet into the Mediterranean to symbolically start our journey. We lost our way a few times and had to execute a long and strategic highway crossing, but soon found our way to beachside biking, a French fry shack and eventually a couple hours slaloming through crowds of vacationing retired British couples strolling hand-in-hand by the dozens on the boardwalks between restaurant meals and apparently buying knock-off high-top sneakers from 20-something African men.
As the afternoon wore on, we struggled to master our new bike-map apps (mounted proudly on our handlebars), which led us to several dead ends on path-less beach and finally along a “Calle Corrallon de Cano” that was a dirt path through killer thorn bushes and ending at a slurpy mud lagoon with no civilization in sight. By then it was 6pm and we had no choice but to brave the last 20km by highway.
Ten kilometres into our harrowing freeway dash, the light of day had faded almost entirely. Choosing safety over our AirBnB reservation, we pulled into the first available exit and saw a shining sign of hope in the now pitch-black night: Hotel los Monteros - the only building around. Turns out it was Hotel los Monteros Spa and Golf Resort, with a family suite at $500 or two adjoining rooms for $450 - leaving nothing in our budget but air for dinner for the next week or two.
Exhausted physically and mentally from the day, already at 70km of cycling, we saw no alternative to busting the bank. Ed was about to put credit card to tap machine when the light bulb appeared above Joce’s brilliant curls: ask the resort to keep our bikes, and taxi to our AirBnB for the night, then back in the morning to brave the highway in daylight. So we did: our cabbie got lost en route, and Ed got locked outside for 15 minutes with our Indian food dinner order, but we finally found rest, hoping for slightly less adventure in our near future.
The subsequent biking days featured more fun and fewer dead ends. The highway was safe and simple in broad daylight, and we improved our bike-map app-ing to find many kilometres of picturesque seaside boardwalk riding in between increasingly low-stress freeway jaunts. We dined on pasta and salad out of pots after sunset on a gorgeous rocky beach at Torreguardia, took our first full swim in the Mediterranean at La Linea de la Concepcion, and popped into the UK at Gibraltar, where we climbed the famous Mediterranean Steps, peered longingly at Morocco (still closed to ferries from Spain and thus off our route for the time being), and befriended dozens of chilled-out macaques - one of whom cozied up to Sitka, then proceeded to unzip his backpack and pull out a sandwich container before we could react to the lightning-quick, brazen inter-primate thievery.
We also got left behind with our bikes on a train platform in San Roque, and at a ferry dock in Ayamonte within view of the Portuguese border. But those are stories for our next book. We have now reserved the correct tipo de cita back in Malaga on April 11th, and the transportation to get there.
And we will most certainly be setting our alarm.
We cannot end our first-week story without a shout-out to the remarkable Ramon, our Malaga host who was endlessly generous with his time during the months before and the days after our arrival in Spain. Ramon investigated all of our visa questions and found critical answers, stood by his phone for an hour in January to help book our fateful police citas, ordered camp fuel from Germany on Amazon because Spain’s stores were out of stock, and printed all of our documents for our next cita in April. Every time we said Gracias he replied “No thanks needed.” Unfortunately, Ramon had us believing that every Spaniard we would meet would be as fantastically friendly (and very many, it must be said, came close), so we may have felt a little let down after such an extraordinary reception.