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Homage to Catalonia

Culture buffs will lose their hearts on a bike tour of Catalonia — a rugged, pine-scented coastal region that Salvador Dalí called home. Far beyond the hubs of mass tourism this two-wheeled trip reveals hill-top towns, wild beaches and the training paths of Lance Armstrong

Homage to Catalonia

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Artist Carles Rebull was talking about l’Agulla de Castell, a bulbous spur jutting out into the Mediterranean, on the northern coast of Catalonia. This outcrop’s ‘eye’ (agulla means needle) is a magnet for sea kayakers and, evidently, landscape painters. Rebull said he’d be painting there again the following day. Today, I was sneaking a look over his shoulder as he was finishing a watercolour of Cala S’Alguer, a cove edged with chic beach cabanas converted from fishermen’s stone huts.

Turning from the watercolour, I climbed some pine-shaded rock steps to the adjoining beach, Platja de Castell, and stripped to my cycle shorts for a quick swim. I dried off by climbing to the top of Poblat Ibèric de Castell, where the Iron Age Iberians had built an acropolis and a temple. The crown of the hill is dotted with their dressed stones. The view down to the needle’s eye, as Rebell had promised, was spectacular. Turning three-sixty, the view across Platja de Castell was also a postcard: curving yellow-white sand framed by umbrella pines. This half-moon cove — saved from development by a local referendum in the 1990s — is an indentation on a ‘rugged, brave coast’ (or in Catalan, the Costa Brava).

Costa Brava? British pubs, lager-tops and concrete? Not a bit of it. We — that’s me and my wife, Jude — were on a romantic cycling trip, entitled Contrasts of Catalunya, booked with Headwater Holidays, a six-night trip taking in Calella de Palafrugell, Pals, Begur, and Castell d’Emporda. “If we marketed this as Costa Brava, it would put people off,” admits Alan Hughes, the regional rep.

“Costa Brava doesn’t have the best of connotations with Brits, but once people are here, they can see why the region is special.”

Avoiding the brassy resorts in the southern half of Costa Brava, we cycled each day from hotel to hotel, clustered around the hill town of Begur on the floodplain of Baix Empordà. The Pyrenees were omnipresent but the steep, short climb to Begur was our hardest ascent of the week; the rest of the riding was mostly flat. With no more than 20 miles of pedalling a day, this wasn’t a challenge; no ‘brava’ required.

The routes we followed — lined with giant bamboo, cork oaks and olive trees — were a mix of quiet country lanes, off-road paths and a former railway line converted to a family-friendly gravel bike trail. We used the paper map and turn-by-turn instructions supplied, but no follow-the-leader guiding. You’re left to your own devices and can complete the daily rides at your own pace, adding on hill-laced loops at the end if you’re feeling energetic.

Those who stop for long, lazy lunches along the way — perhaps lubricated with a little of the region’s wine — may wish to forego the loops. I never did; 20 miles is a warm-up ride for a keenie like me (and I don’t drink and ride). Jude preferred post-ride swims in the hotel’s outdoor pools.

On one of the long, extra-curricular, evening ascents, I ditched the bike at the top of the climb and clambered between coves on the serpentine steps of the Cami de Ronda coastal path — a well-signposted trail, originally stamped out by farmers and, later, by smugglers during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. The path links inlets and bays that can’t be reached by car, or bicycle.

Mainstream Costa Brava has high-rise resorts with long expanses of sand; northern Costa Brava is punctuated with a great many craggy coves and rocky bays. The bijou beaches have pebbles and slivers of sand.

At Tamariu — named for its tamarisk-lined promenade — fishermen’s huts have been transformed into restaurants, and framing the cove are pink crags and umbrella pine trees. The indented coves here are real honey-pots, since much of the coast plunges sheer into the sea, with pine-clad cliffs hiding the next bay.

The next bay to Tamariu is Calella de Palafrugell, home to a busy market town with a large museum devoted to cork, the crop that dominated the region before tourism. Calella, meanwhile, is spread along half-a-dozen sandy and rocky coves connected by high-level promenades and rock tunnels. And cosmopolitan Llafranc, a 10-minute ride further along the coast, has a small marina that attracts yachties. It’s a pretty spot to dally in but my wheels and I had other ideas.

From Armstrong to Dali

Inland Costa Brava is perfect for cycle touring: much of it is flat, there are lots of roads — most of them lightly travelled — and distances between points of interest are short. The roads to avoid are the straight, busy highways running from Girona to the sea, where driving standards are trademark atrocious. Almost everywhere else is quiet,
and the driving saner.

“Catalan drivers are courteous to cyclists,” Alan had explained. “Even if you ride on the pavement, drivers will stop for you at crossings.”

The floodplain that is Baix Empordà might be flat but rising out of the former marshland are islands of stone: the hill towns. The prettiest is Pals. Perched on a rock outcrop, it has artful cobbled streets, medieval archways and twisting alleys, overlooked by cute-as-a-button stone balconies. Half-destroyed during the Civil War, Pals was abandoned until painstakingly restored, over a period of 30 years, by the town’s wealthiest family. The restoration — undeniably picturesque — left the town squeaky-clean and it shines like new, though few people now live here.

Close by, Begur is a large hill town topped by a squat, 11th-century ruined castle. Palau-Sator, meanwhile, is a small hill village and the perfect place for an evening stroll followed by a paella made with the local rice.

And then there’s Peratallada. This, like the other hill towns (they look very much alike), has an imposing, thick-walled church but, unusually, it’s sited outside of the town walls. Peratallada means ‘cut stone’, and many of the pre-medieval buildings here are indeed hewn from the living rock. Those of the narrow streets that aren’t cobbled are planed from this rock. One stretch has deep ruts in it, showing where carts have passed and re-passed over hundreds of years. Sadly, however, the fat tyres of my bike failed to manage it.

We would have fared better with a skinny-tyred road bike. There are plenty about. The back-roads of Baix Empordà hum to the whirr of carbon-composite bicycles spinning along; and Girona, 20 miles closer to the Pyrenees, is home to a great many pro-team road cyclists.

Lance Armstrong started the trend. While still a professional, he lived in a plush apartment in Girona, Costa Brava’s inland city. When not hill training, one of his favourite flat rides was the short spin out to Castell d’Empordà, a boutique castle hotel dominating a small, medieval hill village in the middle of Baix Empordà.

The artist Salvador Dalí was once in the running to buy the ruined Castell d’Empordà, but when his offer to pay for it with his art was declined, he secured the Castle of Púbol instead. Castell d’Empordà — once owned by a sea captain who sailed with Christopher Columbus — continued to decay until, in 1999, the ruin was bought by Dutchman Albert Diks and his wife, Margo Vereijken. Their restoration is chic, quirky and yet homely. One of Albert’s ancestors fought at the Battle of Waterloo, which is why there’s an 195sq ft scale model of the battle, built by Albert, in one of the anterooms. Ask nicely to be shown the castle’s 13th-century chapel of Maria del Remei (Mary of the Remedy). Every year, on the second Sunday of October, this chapel is the focus of a healing rite attended by hundreds of Catholic pilgrims.

Since the hotel’s bike rack is under a fruiting fig tree, we moonwalked to the hotel’s front door, trying to use gravel and motion to scrape the sticky fruit from our clicky-in cycle shoes. This improvised dance routine is probably how the hotel knows cyclists are on their way in. Clicky-in shoes — and Lycra skin shorts — are admittedly overkill for the short distances on this break but one piece of cyclist kit is a must. Since 2004, helmets have been a legal requirement when cycling in Spain. But there are get-out clauses: you won’t cop a €90 (£74) fine for riding without a helmet in towns, or when it’s hot, or when it’s hilly.  Hot hill towns could therefore be considered helmet-free zones, should you so choose. Locals certainly seem relaxed about the lid law. Even on the flat, rural Ruta Del Tren Petit bike trail, we saw very few cyclists wearing helmets.

This former railway line, now a wide, gravel path, is one of the many traffic-free sections of this trip. Another was the riverside trail heading into the town of Torroella de Montgrí, a medieval port for the kings of Aragon before the River Ter silted up. Two miles from town, a fierce wind had brought down a tree, blocking the path. Retracing our steps and finding a road route into town would have been the sensible decision (the tree looked likely to collapse some more). Instead, we dismantled the bikes and fed them beneath the felled tree, hurriedly, not wishing to be squished, like one of Dalí’s famous clocks.

Tributes to Costa Brava’s most famous artist are scattered throughout the region. And while our bike route didn’t pass close to the main Dalí sites here, they were a short bus ride away, and reachable on the trip’s rest day.

The Theatre-Museum Dalí in Figueres — topped with giant model eggs and a variety of other, oversized trademark motifs — is the second most visited museum in Spain and part of the ‘Dalí Triangle’ of key buildings; which also includes Portlligat’s House-Museum and the Castle of Púbol. The latter was bought by the artist as a run-down medieval castle in 1969 and restored for his wife (and muse) Gala, as a place where she could take refuge. Mostly from Dalí: he was as loopy as he looked.

The house has been preserved from the time when Gala died, in 1982, and the heartbroken Dalí moved in. Gala is buried below the house, in the crypt, watched over by the same stuffed giraffe that was at her funeral.

The area isn’t just famous for its artists and hill-top towns — food is big business here. Restaurateurs from Barcelona take the two-hour trip to pick up the best cuts of meat, while Palafrugell and La Bisbal — Baix Empordà’s two main inland towns — produce gourmet meats that are exported around the world.

Another highlight is its seafood which is fresh and abundant. Catalan specialties include rice flavoured with squid ink, and the mar i muntanya cuisine, a coastal idiosyncrasy combining sea and mountain produce to make some stand-out dishes. Think sweet and sour paella of pork, chicken, prawns and cuttlefish; or lobster with chicken served in a chocolate sauce — this was one of Dalí’s favourite dishes. Fish and meat is cooked simply and delicately, either baked in salt or grilled, or served in dishes such as the tomato-based stew suquet.

In keeping with Spanish culture, Costa Bravans eat late — restaurants can be quiet until 9.30pm, so early diners like us could often bag a table with the best views. El Far, the hotel restaurant at the Cap de Sant Sebastià on the cliffs above Llafranc, has a lighthouse on its terrace. The illuminated-every-few-seconds vista over the bay makes the climb, even after a full day’s biking, well worth it.

And when you’ve cycled to the lighthouse on a steep, winding road, there’s no guilt-trip in ordering the calorific crema Catalana. The Catalonian version of crème brulée is the perfect finish to a Costa Bravan dinner and day’s biking.

ESSENTIALS

Catalonia

Getting there
EasyJet, British Airways, BMIbaby, Jet2.com, Monarch, Ryanair and Vueling Airlines all fly to Barcelona from various UK airports.
www.easyjet.com  www.ba.com  www.bmibaby.com  www.jet2.com  www.monarch.co.uk  www.ryanair.com www.vueling.com
Average flight time: 2h.
The closest train station to Calella de Palafrugell — best for this trip — is Flaça on the Barcelona to Girona-Figueras line. It’s just under two-hours to Flaça from Barcelona. Calella de Palafrugell is a 40-minute drive from Flaça. www.renfe.es

 

When to go
During October, when the hill towns and their Gothic and Romanesque churches can be very quiet, but it can be chilly and wet in this part of Spain at this time of year. Costa Brava — inland included — is very busy in the summer months, less so in spring and early autumn.

 

Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.20.
International dial code: 00 34.
Time difference: GMT +1.

 

Eats
El Celler de Can Roca, Girona. www.cellercanroca.com.
El Far, Cap de Sant Sebastià lighthouse, Llafranc. www.elfar.net

 

Sleeps
Hotel Tamariu. www.tamariu.com
Hotel Aigua Blava. www.aiguablava.com
Hotel El Far de Sant Sebastià. www.elfar.net

 

How to do it
Headwater Holidays’ Contrasts of Catalunya trip is a six-night break around the Catalan coast, taking in Calella de Palafrugell, Pals, Begur, and Castell d’Emporda. Available April to October, costing £1,399 per person in peak season, flight included. Two nights are spent at Castell d’Empordà. www.headwater.com

 

More info
www.costabrava.org/en
www.visitemporda.com/en
www.visitpalafrugell.cat
www.salvador-dali.org
www.castelldemporda.com
Language: Catalonia is a bilingual part of Spain. Pack a Catalan phrasebook as well as a Spanish one. Road signs are sometimes only in Catalan.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)