Like so many of us I thought I knew Spain. Of course I recognised that there was more to the country than the various “Costas” that hold such an enduring appeal for sun-lovers, but I never imagined the culture and diversity of landscape that I was about to encounter. I was off to Catalonia – a fiercely proud part of Spain that has maintained a strong identity all of its own.
What I hadn’t reckoned on was rugged cliff paths covered in flowering cactus, late blooming wildflowers and fragrant Pine and Citrus trees, deserted coastlines offering empty beaches with warm turquoise seas, mediaeval villages “baking” in the afternoon sun surrounded by Apple, Pear and Peach orchards and most surprisingly virtually no traffic apart from the odd farmer going about his business and certainly none of the hordes of holidaymakers that destroy the tranquillity we strive for during our precious free time.
I flew Ryanair from Glasgow Prestwick – my first time with the so called “no frills” airline. Two and a half hours later after a pleasantly uneventful flight we landed at the modern airport of Girona. Steve met us at the airport and within 10 minutes of landing we were on the way into the heart of the Alt Emporda district of Catalonia – the “breadbasket” of the region. Our stop for the night was a rustic farmhouse on the banks of the river Fluvia just outside the old town of Sant Pere Pescador. Owners Miguel and Anna have converted and modernised this charming farmhouse – accentuating the stone walls, wooden beams and spacious living areas to offer characterful and individual bedrooms with well appointed en suite bathrooms - and very comfortable beds, which were to become a feature everywhere we stayed in Catalonia. These ‘Casa Rurals’ are country houses that are registered and monitored by local tourist boards as accommodation providers. After a friendly check- in we were treated to a complementary bottle of local Cava whilst we were given an informal and relaxed run down on the area and local customs, as well as the itinerary for the next day.
We were going to be cycling a circuit of around 25 miles predominantly on traffic free tracks. There is a vast network of these “Ruta Cicloturistica”
tracks, with regular signposts that allow you to wind your way through the countryside from one settlement to another. Our route had been planned carefully utilising some of these trails along with locally known traffic free country roads and we were given route notes with a blow by blow account of left and right turns along with distances between each direction change, backed up with a cycle computer that allowed us to monitor our mileage and corroborate the directions. If this wasn’t enough, our route directions were also cross -referred to a number of photographs printed at the back of the direction notes. These really gave us confidence.
One of our trusty steeds
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any easier we were also presented with a GPS unit that was handlebar mounted. The GPS was pre-programmed with our route and as long as we followed the coloured line on the large screen, overlaid onto a map of the area, we knew we were going to fly along the next day. Our bikes were introduced to us – comfortable saddles and riding positions with panniers ready for our swimming kit and tomorrows packed lunch. Map holders on the bars ensured that quick glances were all it took to keep on track.
With nothing left to concern ourselves with we went up to bed and drifted off into a peaceful sleep serenaded by the crickets and the sounds of the countryside.
Breakfast the next day was a leisurely affair. Miguel had prepared a cornucopia of cured meats (I counted 5 types) , local cheeses – both hard and soft, several types of freshly baked bread, hot muffins and local almond tarts, yoghurts, cereals and preserves, all washed down with coffee and huge bottles of orange juice that he squeezed as guest traipsed into the dining room.
Breakfast done, and off to explore...
We were eager to see more of the area so we saddled up and set off. We skirted Sant Pere Pescador before leaving the country roads in favour of stony tracks that ran alongside the river. Within 10 minutes we were ambling along a leafy farm track passing fruit pickers and the occasional fisherman.
We soon reached the small farming community of Cinclaus – which could have been used as a film set with its iconic outbuildings, rustic church and tasteful and discreet restaurant. After such a huge breakfast we weren’t tempted to stop and so carried on into the countryside. We were fortunate with a temperature in the low thirties – uncommon for September as it’s usually in the mid twenties – but we certainly weren’t complaining. Hats and sun block were the order of the day.
The cycling season in this part of Catalonia is pretty much year round. Most of the routes seldom deviate from sea level –which is fantastic on two counts: 1) it’s great for those of us that aren’t in training for the Tour de France as the only time you “experience” a gradient is when you are looking at the majestic backdrop of the nearby High Pyrenees, and 2) the lack of altitude of these routes means that you are protected from the colder temperatures of the foothills.
A few miles later and we crossed a main road and rolled into the mediaeval village of St Marti d’Empuries. I wasn’t expecting the Mediterranean to look so blue and beautiful, but glimpsed from the view point at the foot of the old church of St Marti, the sea looked very inviting.
First stop of the day at St Marti d’Empuries. Already thinking of a swim!
Narrow lanes in the mediaeval village of St Marti d'Empuries
After exploring the village we hopped onto a purpose built promenade – built for bikes, walkers and roller-bladers to coast smoothly along the shoreline. Littered along the way were a number of quiet beaches that were ideal for a quick dip and a little sun worship. It wasn’t long before we locked the bikes up and gingerly skipped barefoot across the hot white sands to a shady spot. Seconds later we were in the sea and smiling from ear to ear. This was turning out to be a pleasant morning and a great first day.
On the way to the beach – not long now
We showered on the beach, dried off and decided to avoid the midday sun by visiting the nearby Roman and Greek ruins that Empuries is famous for. €3 each got us in to a very impressive archaeological site with jewellery, pottery and mosaics that are evidence of cultures that go back to over 800 years before Christ. This part of the Mediterranean coast has been an important trading and administrative centre for thousands of years and we are now fortunate enough to admire the imposing castles, churches, cathedrals and other historic buildings that have been left behind. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the lives that have been played out here as we leant against ancient stone pillars looking out to sea through old olive groves.
One of the many original Roman Mosaic floors at Empuries.
We were still a few miles from our Catalonian “home from home” so the reverie had to stop there. Jumping back on our bikes we checked the GPS and followed the coloured line on our screen as we headed back inland. We cycled through Apple orchards, saw the biggest Peaches we’ve ever seen and our mouth watered at the sight of equally luscious Pears. A couple of small towns later and a brief rest stop to take on an ice cream or two and we were back at the river. With only a mile or so to go we stopped in Sant Pere Pescador for a chilled glass of beer that went down very well. Nibbling on ‘Boca’s’ (small snacks that are served with beers) we watched the world go by for half an hour before a small diversion into the centre of the old part of town where the mediaeval houses and streets hid the thick stone walls of the local ancient church.
Almost home. The provision for cyclists, like this traffic free section of the bridge, was very welcome
Ten minutes later I was relaxing in the gardens of our casa rural, by the side of their pool. As the sun went down and dinner was served we were treated to a procession of dishes that Miguel had been preparing. Crispy aubergine skins, anchovies and olives, spicy potatoes in a tangy sauce, ribs and chops, homemade sausages, great carafes of red wine from local vineyards, massive juicy tomatoes, soft warm bread, finished with a caramel flan with fresh biscotti type biscuits and several glasses of Miguel’s own Grenache.
We’d spent a total of about three and a half hours in the saddle, an hour on the beach, two hours visiting the ruins and what seemed like an eternity tasting mouth-watering Catalonia food. Seeing this part of Spain at the speed of a bike was perfect for us. We managed to engage with the locals with our (very) basic Spanish, literally get off the beaten track and enjoy some very relaxed cycling and visit those hidden gems that you just don’t get to see normally. We felt that we had been immersed in the local culture in a low impact and positive way – no carbon emissions, fresh air and gentle exercise and our money had been spent with local businesses on local produce. A wholesome and well earned night’s sleep welcomed us as we dreamed of our next Catalan adventure.
They next day we woke early – we didn’t want to rush our breakfast as we now knew about the mountain of fresh food that was waiting downstairs.
As we finished our coffees Steve arrived. We filled our Hydra packs with water, grabbed some fruit, and joined our luggage in the car waiting for us outside. Today we were going to experience a day of walking on the Catalan coast line. A short 15 minute transfer to the town of Roses and we were on the beach. Steve handed out route notes – again with those handy photographs to ensure we didn’t get lost – and gave us a 5 minute brief on the day ahead.
The start of the trail
What lay ahead was 10 miles of cliff path, with about 3000 ft of total ascent – ending at the seaside town of Cadaques – a favourite haunt of Salvador Dali. The path itself was easy to follow – simply keep the sea on your right and you can’t go wrong. Every 45 minutes or so throughout the day we’d drop down onto quiet sheltered coves where a swim was inevitable. The terrain varied from hard-packed soil to rocky parts where a little more attention was required – but nothing was too taxing. We carried food and water with us and drank regularly. It is possible to take advantage of the few beach bars that are open between May and September, but we preferred self sufficiency. This allowed us to stop where we wanted.
On the cliff path
Around every corner the scenery changed so it was difficult to know when to stop – we were really spoilt for choice. Rocky promontories, shady glades, beaches with clear water and amazing visibility and cliff top clearings where the Citrus trees thinned out all presented themselves to us as we strolled along in pleasant temperatures in the mid thirties. A great deal of the walk is shaded which makes the day all the more enjoyable.
We met a number of people coming the other way: singles, couples and groups with ages ranging from late Twenties to late Seventies. There was a equal mix of men and women, made up of Europeans, Australians, Americans and a fair share of Spanish locals – all of whom seemed to be having a good time, judging from the smiles and cheerful “Hellos” and “Holas” that were exchanged. The walk had a really strong “feel-good “factor and the occasional bouts of exertion were always rewarded with stunning views along the coast and over the hills that separated the beaches.
When we finally left the coast we ascended over old trails that seemed to have been etched into the landscape since time immemorial. You expected to see farmers carrying baskets of olives down to the villages as much as seeing those who like us were taking advantage of the fresh air and isolation. Butterflies in amazing colours flitted alongside us as we reached the highest point of the path and joined the wide stony track that twisted and turned, dropping down into our final destination, Cadaques.
Feeling pretty smug at the top – all downhill now!
Rounding a corner we were presented with our first view of the town. It’s easy to see why Dali and other artists have made this their home. Seen from the hills above the town Cadaques is a jumble of whitewashed buildings with red tiles roofs, reflecting the sunlight. As you get nearer you appreciate the light that seems to pervade the air, and the dramatic sea as it crashes against the harbour walls and rocks the brightly coloured fishing boats. It’s an inspiring place to end your day and the hotel where you spend the night is just a few metres from the seafront. For most people after a quick shower and a change of clothes the town is yours to discover.
Relaxing in Cadaques.
There are a variety of restaurants serving fresh locally caught seafood and the bohemian bars and cafes are in keeping with the creative feel of the town. Cadaques is a favourite with the “Barcelona set” and is a very cosmopolitan little place. Generally this is where most walkers will spend a rest day mid-week as there is so much to explore and discover – Dali’s summer house around the bay being one of the main attractions.
However we were being whisked off to spend the night in the mediaeval county capital of Castello d’Empuries. This small town was the most important municipal centre in the 11th
century and has left behind some impressive architecture and monuments. Getting lost in the warren of narrow cobbled streets that open up onto squares with grand houses where the old nobility once lived, gives you a real sense of place. We were staying in the centre of town at a small hotel that features on our walking itineraries. The hotel is next to the old Santa Clara Convent, another impressive albeit austere building. At the top of the little lane that separates them is the incredible church of Santa Maria – which appears more like a Cathedral, in the centre of the town.
The impressive facade of Santa Maria church in Castello d’Empuries.
These were the views from our bedroom window as the sun went down. We headed off into the maze of allies and passageways and found ourselves at a little bar where we had a reviving coffee before heading back for dinner. We had decided to eat at the restaurant at our hotel. Ian was the hotel owner and our host for the night. Never too invasive but with attentive service we were treated to one of the best meals we’ve had in a long time. My Mussels with Chorizo were freshly caught and served in a delicious sauce – I could hardly see over the top of the mountainous peak that was my portion. The steak that followed was cooked to perfection – as was my partners Lamb – again a generous and succulent plate. The House Red would put a number of vintage bottles to shame. Having such wonderful food after our exhilarating walk banished any guilt feelings.
I would consider our cycling tour as an Easy to Moderate day out. With little or no traffic and on mostly flat trails this is cycling for non cyclists as well as for those who spend more time on two wheels. A weeks cycling in Catalonia comprises of carefully thought out itineraries and routes that include ancient monuments, nature reserves, sleepy villages where time seems to have stood still, beaches and countryside.
The walk we did, whilst only 10 miles, did include enough ascent and descent to make it perfect for a day’s walking. We spent about 5 hours on the path – and this included rest breaks and food stops. We were bombarded with incredible scenery and ever changing vistas. It was the sort of walk that you could do again, this time in the opposite direction and still get a completely different but equally rewarding experience from. For those used to walking you could grade this as Moderate – based on ascent/descent rather than distance. If you are new to adventure active holidays then this would be a mild challenge – but certainly achievable by anyone with a modicum of fitness.
A network of Catalonian countryside and coastal paths waiting to be discovered
The accommodation on both the walking itineraries and the cycling itineraries is exemplary. An incredibly warm and sincere welcome always awaited us and this hospitality was enhanced by the level of attention spent on the meals that we were presented with. The cuisine of Catalonia is something that the locals are rightly proud of and wherever we went they wanted to share it with us.
Now I feel I know Spain a little better than I did before – and I’m richer for it.
Mark flew Ryanair from Glasgow Prestwick to Girona. Ryanair flights also depart from Aberdeen, Birmingham, East Midlands, Edinburgh, London Gatwick, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle and other regional UK airports.
- 5 nts Self Guided Walking holidays in Catalonia, B&B, incl transfers, route notes, maps & baggage transfers from £485.00 pp
- 7 nts Self Guided Walking holidays in Catalonia, B&B, incl transfers, route notes, maps & baggage transfers from £565.00 pp
- 5 nts Self Guided Cycling holidays in Catalonia, B&B, incl transfers, route notes, maps, bike hire, helmet, repair kit, GPS & baggage transfers from £545.00 pp
Prices are per person based on 2 pax sharing and exclude flights. Half Board options (i.e. breakfast and evening meal) are available. Extra nights and extensions in Girona are also available. £-POA.
- 7 nts Self Guided Cycling holidays in Catalonia, B&B, incl transfers, route notes, maps, bike hire, helmet, repair kit, GPS & baggage transfers from £632.00 pp