From Seville it was south, through the official Pueblos Blancos, to the coast. Luis had originally put me in touch with his friend, but then in the afternoon his friend let me know that he’d been called to work and so wouldn’t be able to host me. A quick look at a map changed my route and so instead of climbing to Grazalema, the wettest place in Spain, it was instead along the Via Verde (much prettier than the one near Córdoba) and through Los Pueblos Blancos. The highlight of the Via Verde was the 30 tunnels that I passed through in 34km on the way from Puerto Serrano to Olvera.

As well as the Via Verde, the reason I had chosen this route was because there was a fire station in Olvera, and as I hoped I was warmly welcomed in. The station is small, basically a few rooms around the area that the trucks are parked in, but they had grass to camp on and I was happy. There were only two firemen on duty that evening, and while there was a Champions League game on between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid they didn’t care. They were both cyclists and were much more interested in my bike, and especially my saddle. We chatted a fair while, and they invited me to share their dinner which we didn’t end up eating until midnight – my record for a late dinner!

In the morning after giving me some bread to eat, neither they, nor their colleagues from the next shift, minded me leaving my things at the station while I went off for a brief wander around town. When I got back from it, I was given some coffee and more bread to share before setting off on the way to Ronda – the most famous of Los Pueblos Blancos. You can see the reason for its fame in the pictures, the gorge and the ‘new’ bridge that goes over it. Honestly, the rest of the town is quite similar to the others and I spent an inordinate amount of time in McDonalds where not only did I meet Altaf, a fellow Brit who upon seeing my bicycle bought me lunch which we shared with his family as we spoke about bikes as he was about to do his own trip, but also got to use the Wi-Fi to catch up with friends.

There was another fire station in Ronda, but I wasn’t too optimistic about being let in. It was on the edge of the town, but there was no obvious place for camping but once again I was lucky. I waited until around sunset before going, and was met by a fireman eager to practice English warmly welcoming me in. His boss wasn’t there, but I was free to take a shower until he arrived. By the time I was showered, his boss had come and made a phone call to his superior officer that said it was no problem. I was shown the bed that I could sleep in, before they suggested that I go and visit the gorge. I took them up on the offer, as it definitely looks pretty at night, and when I returned just after 10pm I had two dinners waiting for me! A burger, that the men had cooked, and some pork chops and salad that the female firefighter had made for me. A couple of hours of nattering later, and I was off to bed.

My Ortlieb panniers were meant to arrive in San Roque a couple of days later, so even though I’d have been able to make it there I had another slow day going through the national park that the road was curving through, and at the end of the day it was another dinner at a fire station. 3 consecutive nights matches my record from my last few days in Brazil and just confirms my belief that the firemen are the best. This time it was time to learn more about the firemen, and how to become one in Spain. They explained the physical tests that they had to pass, and of the 8 I could pass one. As well as this, there is a very challenging theory test that they have to do which takes years of studying to pass. 2 of the 3 firemen there that night were in some grey zone before becoming an official fireman, as because of the economic crisis in Spain there have been no full-time firemen hired for years, but they still studied and did their best to become firemen despite the crazy challenge.

In San Roque, I finally picked up my new panniers! I made the most of the situation by preparing a parcel to post back to the UK, and tried to post it from San Roque. I got it all ready and went to the post office who told me that the cheapest option was 80 euros – a madness. Thankfully with Gibraltar so near I dropped down and went to the post office there. The lady was much less friendly than the Spanish lady, and I got to go bin diving to get a box to pack my things in, but it was less than half the price (€36).

Honestly Gibraltar didn’t impress upon me hugely. The main street seemed rather similar to any number of British town centres that I’ve been to on my quick visit and outside of the rock there didn’t seem to be any huge appeal. My definite highlight was meeting a guy called Ricky, who said something about my saddle when I was cycling past the petrol station that he worked at. I turned back to speak to him and he turned out to be a cyclist himself. His Gibraltarian accent seemed kind of South African to me, and while we stood there chatting he kept asking me if I was hungry or thirsty and then passing me random snacks from his fridge, including a mostly drunk bottle of some sports drink and a tin of pineapple slices, all of which I of course gladly accepted.

Anything I learnt about Gibraltar, other than the fact it has a giant rock on it (apparently upside-down with the oldest part being at the top) which you can see from a fair way away and definitely is striking considering how flat the rest of that part of the coast is, was from John. He was my Couchsurfing host, and a Gibraltarian (not Gibraltan as I was repeatedly corrected) although he lived in Spain due to property prices in Gib (as locals call it) being comparable to London. As he’s a freelance journalist, specialising in a territory with a minute population that just wouldn’t be affordable.

While I did see some graffiti suggesting that Gibraltar was most definitely Spanish, the Spanish locals that I spoke to didn’t seem to mind too much. It provides a large number of jobs, and the city of La Linea is heavily populated by people who work in Gib. It also provides a big boost to the local economy, and if Gib were Spanish then there’d be many fewer tourists and the positive influence that the contraband brought in through Gib would surely be hit too. Having said that, the town of San Roque has a sign outside saying that it’s where the true Gibraltarians live, a reference to the fact that it is where the Spanish moved at the start of the 18th century when British rule of Gib started.

Given its location and history, those in Gib are both English and Spanish speakers and most definitely mix the two up to say things like “Do you want to tomar una cerveza?”. It lead to large confusion when those who could only speak English turned up and couldn’t understand what was going on and thus the term gibberish was coined.

My final package, one from the UK, had been sent the Monday before and would apparently arrive in 4 days so off to Algeciras it was. I arrived on the Sunday and was a bit disheartened to see that the tracking number still suggested it was on its way to Madrid and had been since the Tuesday. Thankfully it was being sent to a supremely warm and understanding host, Jorge. He is from Mexico and is in Spain as an exchange student. He shares his flat with a pair of other students, one from Mexico (Edgar) and Luis from northern France.