Spain Travel Blog: Northern Spain on Bike
Life is like a bicycle ride; we just don’t end up using all the gears. It’s a fitting analogy to our mundane lives drowned in daily drudgery. We continue to tread along this path for much of what we do. I’ve been fortunate enough, having to change that course every once in a while. In the middle of September that happened all over again and this time, the said analogy co-incided into a singular reality. 7 days of cycling through the Spanish hills! Sounds fancy, doesn’t it? How about the fact that I paid a grand total of 0 rupees for it? Yes. For there’s only one thing better than travel; free travel! And here’s where you can apply for yours www.grabyourdream.com. A travel contest sponsored by Cox&Kings, Gadventures and Ezeego, you really don’t have to do much. Just showcase the traveler that you are and the rest is down the percentiles and a little bit of luck. So in my case, what started off as a harmless ‘why not apply for a contest on an idle tuesday’ act culminated to a glorious 200 km bike ride.
I’ve always appreciated a sense of adventure on my travels. And been chosen to travel to Spain, itself is real good start at that. So there was ecstasy and anticipation both. While cycling, at first seems like a poor cousin to some of its more illustrious cousins like skydiving, river-rafting. or trekking. But if done over a longer and larger scale, you have your hands full. Or perhaps legs. What it loses out on thrill and adrenaline, it makes up in endurance and stamina. It is fun and it’s addictive.
There’s lot to be written about my Spain excursion, as it will be. But if you got the drift as yet, this piece will leave the peripherals aside and focus only on the cycling bit. And that should be 90% of it all. The trip started in Barcelona but the one on wheels started at Rippol. Conducted by G-adventures, we set off as a team of seven plus 2 guides. 1 from the USA, 5 from Canada and myself. A short train ride from Barcelona, Rippol a medieval town, is where the bicycles awaited us. It’s an unassuming little town located in the north eastern region of Spain. That’s where we’d start out from and Catalonia is how we famously know that region.
The start always is exciting. We dumped our big backpacks in a van and only carried the essentials for the bike ride. Out came the gloves, sunscreens, spare tee’s, sunglasses, portable cameras and water bottles. All of it nicely stacked in the camel bags, which rests right above the rear wheel. Today we take the Bici Carril, a former railway line that has been transformed into a bicycle route. The trail, gently graded and easy to follow, takes us through varied rural scenery, dotted with small Catalunyan villages and sunflower fields. While the description does sound awesome, the ride perhaps was not. A 10 km of huffing and puffing up the hill is pretty much how the first leg of the journey was. But based on the simple principle of, ‘what goes up comes down’, this uphill investment was going to be worth the effort; for what followed was a 20 km, fast and furious downhill! With wind in my face but not quite my hair, we zoomed past the flaura fauna, the small villages, the farms and fields and right into the city of Olot! It had been a tiring day. We had started of on an altitude of 650 m, ascended up to 1000 m and finished at 450 m. It was time to put those legs up!
Day 2, a rest day! You’d argue it came too soon but for reasons beyond just the fatigue from the first day, Olot is so charming that it demands that one extra day! And oh boy, did we give it the attention it needs. Olot is an old historic town located within one of the most important volcanic areas in Europe, called Garrotxa. While the quaint city blocks of Olot are a delight in itself, the scenery around it is varied and often spectacular: dense oak forests, narrow valleys with bands of deep green trees clinging to the ledges. We got our bikes out early morning and decided to bike through it all. And it is a bikers paradise. The volcanic national parks are glittered with cycling and hiking trails. We picked the one, which led up to Santa Margarida; one of the volcanic craters. With a perimeter of 2 kms, the real beauty lay in the fact that they’ve built a church, smack in the middle of the crater. The ride to that point, was a phenomenal one in itself. A trail more suited to mountain bikes, it was our mini adventure on a supposed rest day! After multiple leisure halts at simple cottages and a heart content of sometimes aimless riding through the woods, we got to the crater. There were just 3 people there and it’s just the peace and privacy you so tend to miss. We headed back to the city only by dusk and it had been a long, tiring and arduous day. When your fellow rider is a 55 year old riding with the same fervour (if not energy) as you, it gives you that extra impetus!
Our foray into Olot also marked our entry into the catalan pyrenees, consisting of a mountainous strip nearly 250km long, stretching from the Val d’Aran to the Mediterranean. Day 3 at sunrise, we were all parked and waiting to be led out to the our next city, ‘Girona’. A 60 km trip southeast of Olot, we took some solace in the fact that most of it was supposed to be a flat terrain. More fields, tree lined canopies, canals, river streams, a few intersections along the way and villagers to wave out to. This was easy riding! With our calves and thighs conditioned over 2 days of peddling, perhaps this got easier. The journey as usual was lovely. Music in the ears and the GoPro firmly fitted above the helmet, this was the one to document. When you cycle long enough, beyond a point, it is more mental than physical. Large parts of it are mechanical and if you enjoy it, those mechanics do wonders for you. And this 60 km ride was just that. Conversations, humming, sightseeing, photography. We were tourists today, the ones tirelessly peddling down beside the pyrenees but without feeling any of it. Happy tourists. And just like that, before we knew it, we’d made it to Girona!
Girona you explore on foot! And I was most happy to do so! Walking is more flexible and lazier than cycling can ever be. And it comes without a helmet too 🙂 The ancient city of Girona had tons of history associated to it. Romans, Arabs, Jews, the French, the city was besieged 21 times till date. And now there was me! None the less, owing to this, the city was now a hotchpotch of architectural styles. After a quick night survey on foot, strolling by the banks of the Onyar river and eating the most delicious ice cream I’ve had for the longest time, I called it a night. Tomorrow again a rest day, was going to be a long one on foot. The culture of our cycling team meant that at least the dinners, we had together. It gave us a chance to discuss our modest achievements, the funny bloopers through the day and plan our next sunrise. Usually accompanied by a glass of fine Spanish wine, a good night’s sleep was never a worry.
It was day 4 and starting the day late, this one I decided to take solo. It felt like just the perfect sunny day to splash some sunscreen, wear those sunglasses, put some music in the years and walk all day. Girona demands it too! It’s an ancient city, with plenty to charm you with. One of the best preserved Jewish quarters in Europe, the stellar Girona Cathedral, the ‘passeig arquaeologic’ or the aqueducts, the arab baths or just the eiffel bridge over the river. The areas around the two main street spoil you rotten with open air cafes and bars. So do the red wine Sangria’s! And that was Girona for me. A solo one day walking trip! And after peddling long and hard for 3 days, it felt good to walk! Tomorrow would be back on the little seat of ours, which had served us so well.
Next up and the last of the lot is a city, which took a while for us to get its pronunciation right, ‘Sant Feliu de Guixols’. Alright go take a shot at it. Now google it. We did too but we also cycled to it. A mediterranean town located in the heart of costa brava, Sant Feliu finally gave us a shot at a beach. This was our finishing point and with this last leg of 50 km, awarded us with an opportunity to take a swim at the beach. Day 5. We started out early as usual. Again a fairly relaxed ride and the fact that we were heading for the shore meant that it was again downhill. Most of the trail crossed through flat meadows and occasional patches of pine and eucalyptus forests. Perhaps the most eventful moment of the last leg was this little tumble I took off the bike. While overzealously capturing tricky videos from my helmet-mounted Gopro camera, I hit the front brakes on a downward slope. The next I knew, I was flat on the ground, with the bicycle rested on my chest. It made for a funny viewing but not before it gave me a few big bruises around the lap and the elbow. You come to love something for a week, its not uncommon for her to leave you a love bite at the end of it perhaps? I rode on! After a few breaks, we finally got to Sant Feliu around late afternoon. Less tired, more upbeat, this is where it all came to an end. The cycle trip, none the less. I wouldn’t stretch it as far as calling it an emotional moment but to pack those cycles away after a week long adventure, gave me a sense of longing next morning. Even a car racing game is addictive after all.
We got to Sant Feliu only my late afternoon, which meant that we had little to no time to hit the beach. Though rich in culture and history, what it lacks in tourist attractions, it makes up in its long list of things to do. The city and it’s coast offers a fantastic opportunity for some hiking, biking and needless to say, watersports. So hiking it was first up! We took a short trail along the rocky coastline of the city, with some lovely views of the turquoise sea water below. Next day, and day 6 as we’ve come to know by now as our customary ‘rest day’, was dedicated to a little more of this hiking and the long awaited swim in the sea. The water was uncomfortably cold but unthinkably clear. When you are standing in 5 feet deep water and can see a nail on your foot, you know you’ve gotten yourself on a good beach. Add to the fact that on that morning there were a grand total of zero people on that beach, it felt pretty damn perfect. Even in that cold spell, 2 hours were spent in the water like a small kid who gets a first shot at a bathtub. Soon after, was an encounter with a old spanish writer who was enamoured by the idea of a camera, which can be carried around on a bike or submerged in a water. As a writer and a storyteller, he claimed how he had now found a best tool to help him document his stories. A conversation in broken english, fried calamari and sangria went on for nearly 3 hours. These small fascinating experiences, they really stay with you. Some more up and down-hill walks through the lovely beach city and the sun had finally set; on Sant Feliu and our little week long biking adventure.
The next day, we took a train back to Barcelona before we dispersed and headed out for our personal conquests. I can’t finish this before giving a shout out to my lovely team who I rode with. It always is less tiring, when you have a pair of wheels riding beside you.
It ain’t easy to jot down a 7 day trip in a few pages. It is as much as an overview can be for the experience and memories are far richer. Intentionally so, I even avoided as much as mentioning the names of my fellow riders here or our wonderful guide for that matter. All of which requires another piece in itself. But you get the idea. A challenging enough trip for you to break a sweat but fun and picturesque enough for you to do this for even 2 weeks longer. Well balanced, shall I say. As it is with a cycle or with life. To keep that perfect balance, all you need to do is keep moving.