Spain is the number one ranked cycling nation in the world in the latest UCI standings. After spending five days cycling in northern Spain, it is easy to understand why this is the case. After meeting my Backroads colleagues in Barcelona, we shuttle by bus to the Cerdanya, a beautiful valley tucked in the shadow of the Pyrenees mountains just south of the French border. The valley is a haven for cyclists and skiers who flock north from Barcelona to enjoy the valley’s abundant recreational opportunities. The valley is filled with chalet-style vacation homes owned by residents of Barcelona. However, many of the homes are shuttered and many feature for sale signs–a reflection of the severe economic crisis in Spain which currently has an employment rate of 20 to 25 per cent. After a picnic lunch, we head off for a warmup ride through mountain villages and herds of cows and sheep. Several of us opt to cycle to the Masella Ski Resort which offers over 1,700 feet of climbing. After an afternoon of riding, we gather for a tasting of Cava, Spain’s well-known sparking wine. The sparkling wine flows as we enjoy our first night together and look forward to the rides which lie ahead. We spend our first of two evenings at Torre del Remei hotel, a Relais & Chateaux member designed by a disciple of Antoni Gaudi in the early 1900’s.
Day two takes us north through the Pyrenees across the French border which sits four or five miles from our hotel. The border is entirely unmarked and undefended. No “Welcome to France” signs here. After riding several miles through French territory, we pass through the Spanish enclave of LLivia which is tucked inside France. The residents speak Spanish and pay their taxes to Spain. The residents are guaranteed access to the town via a road from the Spanish border. A dispute later arose some years ago concerning the number of French drivers cutting across the access rode. This created a diplomatic crisis of sorts and the Spaniards responded by installing an overpass on the small country road to avoid the French drivers. We have lunch later that morning at a historic farm located at Sainte Leocadie and enjoy French salads, cheeses and cold cuts. After lunch, we head through the French countryside toward the Spanish border. The rural French villages are indistinguishable from their counterparts across the border. It is early afternoon and the temperatures are in the low 90’s. The streets are empty.
Our third day is easily our most challenging–more difficult than any riding I have done in Provence or Tuscany. We leave the village of Puigcerda and soon tackle the morning climb up Coll de la Creueta. The climb stretches uninterrupted for 12 miles up to 6,200 feet. We peddle up from the Cerdanya valley past the La Molina ski resort. I have learned from experience that if there is a ski resort on your bike route, you are in for a difficult ride. The climb winds though switchbacks with grades ranging from 4 to 8 per cent. However, there are other portions of the climb where the grades reach 12 to 14 per cent. As we wind slowly towards the summit, the vegetation disappears. The view from the summit is spectacular. We are told that Lance Armstrong trained here in years past to prepare for the Tour de France. After a break at the top, we swoop down for a roller-coaster like 4,000 foot descent down the twisting mountain roads. Overall, we log 47 miles and 4,650 feet of climbing.
After riding through the town of Campdevanol, the route turns south following a river gorge. We stop for lunch in the village of Ripoli, the cradle of the Catalan nation founded in 879 by the father of Catalonia, Wilfred the Hairy. Following a hastily consumed lunch of Catalan pizza, some members of our group shuttle to Figueres, the birthplace of surrealist Salvador Dali and the site of the Dali Theatre-Museum. The rest of us shuttle to our next hotel, Mas Falgarona, a 15th century farmhouse located in the relatively flat countryside between the Pyrenees and Costa Brava. Rather than heading directly to the inviting hotel pool, a few of us foolishly decide to add additional miles by riding a loop in the hills and olive groves surrounding the hotel. We soon find the hills are deceptively steep and that we are now heading into a gusty headwind. We return from our circuit an hour later a good deal worse for wear. Several hours later, we enjoy a tasting of local Catalan wines. Our spirits rebound.
On Day Four we are out of the Pyrenees and riding in the Baix Emporda, known as the “region of coves.” The early mornings in the Pyrenees were typically very cool with temperatures in the high 50’s. However, the mountains are behind us and it is evident it is going to be a hot, humid day with temperatures in the 90’s. After a brief stop in a sunflower field in the early morning, we head through the town of Pubol, the site of the Gala Dali Castle, the home artist Salvador Dali built for his wife Gala. The castle served as the last workshop for Dali and the burial place for Gala who died before construction of the castle was completed. We proceed to the tiny medieval village of Monells where we have lunch in the village square. This proves to be the most difficult day of the tour. The sun is blazing and it is impossible to stay fully hydrated. At moments like these, I begin to understand why Spaniards disappear from the streets and their places of employment during much of the afternoon. The siesta is not a myth; it is a way of life in the summer months. During the afternoon, we see very few cars in the countryside and the streets of the rural villages are silent and empty. The same is true in Barcelona where many stores close between 1 p.m. and 4:30. The siesta is obviously put to good use in Barcelona. The boulevards, cafes, bars and restaurants remain packed with locals and tourists late into the night and the following morning. The streets are still hopping at 3 a.m. throughout the week (so I am told). After our return to the hotel, we shuttle for dinner in the fortified medieval village of Peretallada which attracts European tourists to its art galleries and 11th century castle. American tourists are largely absent here at the northern end of the Costa Brava. The region is several hours north of Barcelona and too far from the French Riviera to attract American tourists. We share a dinner of Paella this evening in an outdoor cafe in Peretallada. The evening air is cool thanks to the sea breezes blowing off the Mediterranean which lies just four miles to the east.
Day five brings us to our final destination, the Costa Brava and the Mediterranean Sea of Spain’s northeast coast. The cool sea breezes make for an easy ride. We stop at a seaside bar in the town of Palamos where the snacks include anchovies, ice cream and beer. I stick with the ice cream. If I wanted anchovies, I would order a Caesar Salad. We head up the coast towards the seaside town of Palafrugell which for some reason has become a significant draw for American entertainers. Bob Dylan performed in town on July 14 and was followed this weekend by Tony Bennett. We meet our support van in town and change into our swimsuits for a quick dip.
However, we soon discover that the “beaches” here are highly inaccessible, strewn with boulders and crowded. After walking down a steep set of stone steps with no handrails, we have to wind our way around the towels and climb over the boulders to reach the water. The effort is worth it. The water is fresh, clean and refreshing. Our trip is just about over. We head for lunch in a local cafe overlooking the sea. Some members of our group take the van directly back to the hotel. The rest of us change back into our cycling trip for the remaining 20 kilometer ride back to the hotel. We hold our farewell dinner on Thursday evening and bus back to Barcelona to go our separate ways. While the trip has been well worth it, I look forward to riding the hills of Philadelphia, the Pinelands and the roads of Burlington County with the friends I know best.