Under a Catalan Sky

[I’m using the (Un)Inspired Ramblings Facebook page to post some more regular updates and photos in between main blog posts here. You can find it here.]

The rain is still running down my face as I try to find somewhere in the tent to put my soaking waterproof without getting everything else wet. Thunder echoes as the sky lights up and I contemplate how to cook with my meths stove inside my tent without sending it, all my belongings and myself, up in flames. On offer for tea: pasta, half a pack of dehydrated vegetable soup, and an onion. Not that inspiring. And tonight could have be so different.

The tarmac roll down into Spain from the border had not been as smooth and enjoyable as I’d have liked due to the gusting sidewinds which throw me off balance and make me distinctly nervous. I stick my helmet on (its been relegated to being strapped to a pannier since the weather has been warmer for all but the faster or more bumpy downhills) and ride mostly on the wrong side of the road for a while where there is no barrier between the right hand side and the drop down the hillside. Somehow, although this is just a few miles from the border, things do feel a little more Spanish…

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I’m headed to the family of a University friend for a few nights, who live just south of Figueres. Despite the steep final part of the climb to the relatively low Col de Banyuls (thankfully all the middle aged roadies in lycra riding the other way, followed by support vans and trailers, past me slightly lower down where I was still pedalling manfully uphill), I’m early so head into Figueres for a little look around.

Somehow (actually, thanks to Google) I stumble across the Cerveceria Venice and am relieved when, despite most of the town just awaking from siesta time, the barman responds to my question about whether they have food with a strong “of course!”. I don’t think he really understood the explanation of my surprise being due to having spent a few weeks in France where EVERYTHING seemed to be closed… I order a little tapas – just a few euros – and am slightly overwhelmed by the huge plate of meat that comes back to me!

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As their name suggests, they do a fine selection of beers (although you’ll see from the dust on these bottles that these are beers that have been here – they’re possibly not going to all be here at once… Nevertheless, I think I’m going to like Spain…)

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I don’t manage to take any pictures of my friend’s family or their lovely place; I’ve got to get better at engaging and taking photos of others. But after a couple of days, a little break, and with a few gear replacements, I’m ready to roll again.

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Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been contemplating on a slight change of plan. I was going to head west along the foothills of the Pyrenees, following a route that has been pieced together by Gerard Tost. But, its now early October and if I head to the Atlantic coast and then carry on westwards, I’m going to be putting myself in probably the wettest part of the country for a while. That doesn’t sound too clever. So I’m coming around to the idea of instead heading south. I’ve pieced together a route on GR1 and GR2 to reach GR7, which then runs all the way down the eastern side of Spain. Its away from the coast and touristy areas, but there’s not a huge amount of information on how rideable it is. But its a start, I guess.

So off I head. GR 1 turns out to be pretty smooth, although its wet after a few days of rain, as well as being sandy, which doesn’t make the best combination. Some parts of the trail have been washed away by flooded streams.

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Elsewhere, the mud clings to my tyres, depositing itself on my frame and staying there. This must add a few kg to the bike!

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There are some lovely places along the way though. The Catalonian colours of red and yellow stripes, and particularly the Estelada – the unofficial version of the Catalan flag with the addition of a five-pointed star in a triangle – flown by separatists to show support for independence, is everywhere, along with political graffiti in many places.

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Spending the night in Banyoles, and moving on the next day, I follow mostly small undulating trails both out in the countryside and through small towns, and narrowly avoid my lunch being squashed (or eaten) by a herd of goats,

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Again I’m thankful for having a gps track to follow, to avoid missing those hard to see GR route signs (you can probably only just spot it…)

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There is some pushing involved…

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But soon I’m in the delightful town of Besalu for some lunch.

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I’d love to stay here but I (incorrectly) don’t think that there is a campsite nearby and I’ve hardly got started today. I regret this decision not long after picking up GR2 to head south west, as things start to get difficult. There is more pushing. A lot more pushing. There is also a lot of heaving and lifting the bike up rock steps and over boulders that appear to make up the ‘footpath’ that I’m trying to follow. Incredibly, from the Spanish maps that I have, this route looks as if it is a small track or road. It’s soon apparent that compared to the French 1:25,000 maps, these Spanish equivalents are pretty poor. There is no differentiation between a small tarmac road, a gravel track and little more than a goat track disappearing into the undergrowth. Sometimes the tracks shown simply don’t exist.

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I spend the afternoon hauling the bike up what seem to be steep, boulder filled stream beds, and pushing through bramble and nettles. I don’t really have photos which demonstrate this properly – partly because things NEVER look as steep or big in photos, and partly because during the worst it was all I could do to hold on the bike and push it up over the next boulder.

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Even on sections of the trail that are rideable, strands of thorn-covered creepers hang down across the path, and grab hold of my clothes and skin as I try to pass.

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I get lost, run out of water and have a slight sense of humour failure. For the final part of the day, the GR2 route is just impassable with brambles and nettles, so I opt for a road detour to finally reach Santa Pau just before dark. I haven’t covered a great distance today, but it was not much fun. If this is the state of the less popular (non-Camino) GR routes in Spain, I might have to have a rethink about my (new) route.

The next two days are spent mostly on the road, and without that many hours on the bike. I feel a bit tired of the exertion, and of the routine, and I swear that I’m taking longer to pack up and leave in the morning now. Even though I’ve just had a little break, I feel the urge to stay for a while wherever I find myself, rather than pushing on. I ride via Olot, turning south and spending the afternoon first climbing and then descending on tarmac to spend the night at Rupit and then head to the historic Catalonian town of Vic, with its traditional Placa Major, the next day.

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I sit in the sun drinking a coffee in a little square, contemplating whether to stay in a hostel in town or to head out to a campsite and come to the conclusion that the hostel will probably be more expensive, and that I’ll be tempted to head out for dinner and spend money. So I do the more disciplined thing and ride a few miles down the road to a campsite at the nice sounding village of Santa Eugenia de Berga.

What from a distance looks promisingly like a typical town festival turns out to be strangely dominated by model railways, both sets up and running, and stalls of boxed engines, carriages and accessories, which must be related to the Magical World of Trains which I later find out is in the town. I head up to the campsite, thinking that I’ll get myself sorted out and then wander back for a look. The campsite is another slightly depressing, fixed caravan place, with a gruff receptionist and, to add insult to injury, is more expensive that the hostel would have been. But I can’t be bothered to head back to Vic now so I pay the cash and find my spot. I notice the sky get darker as I’m putting up my tent and I’m barely out of the shower and getting dressed as I hear the rain hammering down on the roof of the toilet block.

And so here I am, soaked in my tent after a quick dash from the shower block and a pause at the bike to grab some things, contemplating a poor dinner. The water is pouring from the sky too heavily to even consider a trip back into town, either to take a look at the festival, which much surely have ended now, find somewhere to eat or buy some more supplies. I post on Facebook and a friend replies quickly telling me to crack open the San Miguel. Sadly, I have none and there is no shop here. I do however, have a can of coke – small pleasures.

The following morning, once a few things have dried out, I ride back into Vic, straight to the HI hostel, and book in for two nights, which then becomes three after I succumb to the urge to stay in one place for a little while. I get a little proper human conversation – which has been sorely missed so far on this trip – with Mia, a fine arts student who works in a couple of creperies in Vic, and with Lukas and his friend Darian who have just biked into town on my last night. Lukas has ridden from Santiago de Compostela, along the Camino de Santiago in reverse, and after riding with Darian to Barcelona (Darian’s home) for a few days, will start the journey back to his home in Switzerland. No photos of these people, of course… when will I learn…!? (Although the photo of me below is taken by Mia – does that count?!).

Vic is an old town in the heart of Catalonia. The Placa Major is the largest and most famous of all those in the region and the town is filled with medieval buildings, a Roman temple and modernist buildings. The market that fills the Placa Major is huge. Everyone is buying fresh vegetables and there are many stalls of fresh local mushrooms, as well as all sorts of other wares. So I spend a couple of days wandering around, catching up with this blog, drinking coffee, people watching, eating crepes, exploring the markets, and thinking about what comes next.

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A late night with few of these with Mia in a little bar selling all sorts of delicious bottled beers is possibly not the best way to prepare for the first day of riding in a few days…

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Posted in Bikepacking London to Seville (2014) and tagged , , , .

4 Comments

  1. We did warn you about the terrible Spanish maps, Chris! Sorry about the rain ! (At our age we don’t want people taking photos of us anyway!)

  2. Another great write-up. Besalu looks like a stunning town. Vow to take more photos of the people you meet along the way and don’t let the opportunity pass 🙂 …Keep up the good work; the blog is really good (especially for a Spain-obsessed cyclist like me!)

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