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Under a Catalan Sky

Chris rides through Catalonia to Monserrat – an impressive multi-peaked mountain around 40km north-west of Barcelona.

Nearing the Pyrenees Mountains, I contemplated my onward route through Spain. I originally intended to head west along the foothills of the Pyrenees, however in early October, riding in that direction would put me in the wettest part of the country for the next couple of months. I came round to the idea of heading south instead and pieced together a route on the GR1, GR2 and GR7 long distance trails – the latter of which runs all the way down the eastern side of Spain. I would be away from the coast and touristy areas, and there wasn’t much information on how rideable the trails might be, but it was a start

"In the small villages, the Catalonian colours of red and yellow, and the unofficial Estelada flag were everywhere."

The roll down into Spain from the border at Col de Banyuls, on the eastern edge of the Pyrenees, had been a nerving experience – gusting sidewinds tried to throw me off balance precariously close to the unprotected drop down the hillside. The first villages that I passed through definitely felt more… Spanish, in a way that I can’t quite identify. Perhaps it was the subtle changes in the architecture or the slightly more arid nature of the landscape on this southern side of the mountains. I was heading to stay with the family of a University friend that lived just south of Figueres; out of the winds, and with the roads on the Spanish side much smoother, I arrived early enough to detour into the town for a look around. As Figueres awoke from its siesta, I stumbled across the Cerveceria Venice and its amazing selection of beers, relieved when the barman responded to my request for food with a strong “Of course!” He didn’t understand my surprise – he clearly hadn’t spent several weeks in rural France, where everything seemed to be closed during the day! I ordered tapas for a few euros, and was overwhelmed at the huge plate of meat that arrived…

After a couple of days in Figueres – resting and waiting to receive a few bits of replacement gear from the UK – I was ready to ride again. GR 1 turned out to be technically smooth, but following a few days of rain, it was wet and sandy, which made a testing combination; swollen streams had washed some parts of the trail away. Elsewhere, the mud clung to my tyres, depositing itself on my frame and staying there, adding a few kilograms of weight to the bike. In the small villages, the Catalonian colours – red and yellow – and the unofficial Estelada flag (flown by separatists to show support for independence) were everywhere. Banyoles was one of these villages – I spent a night there before following the small undulating trails out into the countryside, through more small towns and goat herds to the delightful town of Besalu.

Not long after picking up GR2 to head south-west, the riding started to get tough and I immediately regretted not stopping in Besalu, even though it was still early in the day. There was more pushing – a lot more. A lot of heaving and lifting the bike up rock steps and over boulders that made up the path I was

trying to follow; I spent the afternoon manhandling the bike up steep, boulder filled stream beds, and pushing through bramble and nettles. Even on sections of the trail that were rideable, strands of thorn-covered creepers hung down across the path, grabbing hold of my clothes and skin as I try to pass. From the Spanish maps that I had, this route looked as if it was a small track or road but it was soon apparent that, compared to the French 1:25,000 maps, these Spanish equivalents were pretty poor with no differentiation between a small tarmac road, a gravel track, and little more than a goat track disappearing into the undergrowth. Late in the day, and running out of water on the tough GR2 trail, I opted for a road detour to reach Santa Pau just before dark. I was relieved and frustrated – I hadn’t covered a great distance – the state of the less popular (non-Camino) GR routes in Spain meant the riding was tough.

I spent the next two days mainly on roads, heading south to the historic Catalonian town of Vic, via Olot and Rupit. Despite having had a break a few days ago, I succumbed to the urge to stay in one place for a little while and booked into a hostel for three nights. 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 a mixture of medieval and modernist buildings, as well as a Roman temple. The market that fills Vic’s Placa Major is huge, busy with people buying fresh vegetables: locally picked mushrooms, and all sorts of produce. I spent a couple of days wandering around, catching up with my blog, drinking coffee, people watching, eating crepes, exploring the markets, and thinking about what should come next.

It was great to meet a few people too: Mia, a fine arts student who worked the evenings in a couple of creperies, and Lukas and Darian who had their bikes in a café in the Placa Major. Lukas had ridden from Santiago de Compostela, along the Camino de Santiago in reverse and, after riding with Darian to Barcelona for a few days, they planned to start the journey back to Lukas’ home in Switzerland. It was uplifting to talk to other travelling cyclists about their experiences…


"I navigated the small roads and GR trails by the unique silhouette of Montserrat's jagged peaks that were always visible on the horizon"

It was after leaving Vic that I realised the direction I was riding in would take me close to the mountain of Montserrat – somewhere I had heard of but didn’t know much about. Montserrat, which literally means ‘saw (serrated) mountain’ in Catalan, is 10 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide, and gives the appearance of being higher than it actually is, because it rises straight up from the Llobregat River. The mountain has been religiously significant since pre-Christian times with a temple built here by the Romans; the first mention of a monastery here was in 880 AD. Today, sitting underneath the incredible multi-peaked 1200 metre mountain is Santa Maria de Montserrat – a famous Benedictine Monastery.

After riding out of Manresa, I navigated the small roads and GR trails by the unique silhouette of its jagged peaks, made out of a pink conglomerate sedimentary rock, that were always visible on the horizon. The trails took me closer, and higher, eventually forcing a lot of slow, sweaty carrying of my loaded bike up the narrower rockier sections, but boy, was it worth the effort! I hadn’t planned on following the road up to see the monastery itself, but after having my water replenished by some friendly builders that were restoring a smaller monastery, I couldn’t resist and I was soon rolling into the visitor car park,

joining the many tourists who had arrived by coach, or via the railway that climbs the mountain. The monastery is without doubt beautiful, but it is the location, rather than what has been built, that struck me the most.

Wanting to get back outside to those views, I hit the trails again just before dark to a find somewhere to stay, but as I passed a little picnic area at the base of the rocky outcrops, I caught sight of a truck parked up behind the bushes and a thought occurred: this could be a great opportunity for some wild camping. The truck that Martien and Juan Carlos were staying in was truly amazing; it was a long-term project for Martien. He is a ships’ captain who worked for ten weeks before having ten weeks off, so this adventure mobile is his home when he is back on land and he uses it to travel around the mountains of Europe and further afield…

Martien and Juan were friendly and invited me to share a barbecued leg of lamb and some beers. I pitched my tent nearby, at the foot of some of Montserrat’s towering rock peaks and went to join them; this was always how I imagined my campfire cooking to be! All too often it is smoked meat, sauce from a jar, and one token vegetable…

"Martien and Juan were friendly and invited me to share a barbecued leg of lamb and some beers. I pitched my tent nearby, at the foot of some of Montserrat’s towering rock peaks and went to join them..."

The views throughout the evening and the next morning were astounding; I couldn’t stop taking photographs of the changing skies and light. As I followed the road that traversed the mountain west, with the vertical peaks on my left and cloud filled valleys to my right, I realised what a special day and night I’d had. Before I knew it, I was riding with the mountain behind me – leaving it behind the horizon.

Originally, I had been a little uncertain about heading towards Montserrat, given how much hard work I had found some of the trails in the previous couple of weeks, and without having done much research on the route. But in return for the effort, I had unexpectedly experienced a unique place in a unique way. Just a few days after a miserable night in a sodden campsite with a depressing excuse for a dinner, I had the most amazing few days and evenings with good company, wonderful views and lovely food. The lows feel extra low, but the highs put you on top of the world. Travelling by bike, you really do never know what is around the corner…