The world through the eyes of a cyclists: Catalunya

The Via Verde going through the Dels Ports nature park
The Via Verde going through the Els Ports nature park

5 PM, Lleida, a city I’ve only heard of the day before. The place my cycling trip was about to start from. I went south, aiming for a camp site in Mequinenza I had previously looked into on-line. I started fairly late in the day and have progressed rather slower than expected, with lots of stops to check position, direction, occasionally going back, trying out a gravel road too difficult for my bike…and at about half past 8 I realised there was no way I would reach Mequinenza before well after nightfall. Another stop to look at the map and I found another camp site some 10 km closer, in the village of Massalcoreig. I turned from the main road onto a side road, than to a smaller and poorly maintained one with a few rabbits and myself the only animal life around. As I progressed I grew more and more uneasy. I was supposedly just a few km from the camp site, but there was absolutely no sign of the camp site at any intersection and it was almost night. I finally entered Massalcoreig and as I reached the point of the supposed camp site just outside of the village, it was completely dark. I was in a forest, swarmed by a million mosquitoes and as I pointed my light to the left, the only thing I could see was a large gate with a single sign – camping prohibited. And as if that wasn’t enough, there was a roar from some kind of large animal in the forest. Tired, hungry and impatient to finally set up camp and try and relax, I turned back, unsure what I would do. Slowly climbing up the main road in the village, I look at two trees not far from the road at the end of the village, look at the light in the window of the house next to them, look at the clock which says 22:15, give it a thought and decide – with a non-negligible touch of desperation – to ask the people living there if I could hang my hammock between their trees for the night. The host was somewhat surprised to hear a visitor at that hour. I explained why I was there and asked if I could set up my hammock in their back yard and long story short, an hour later, Raul and his wife Carme and I were sitting on their porch and looking at photos of my trip so far, talking about Raul’s Camino a few years back and so on. They graciously gave me some fruit and water, allowed me to charge my (numerous) batteries and set me up in their garden for the night. The next day they found a little token of gratitude of mine on their porch before moving on south. I wasn’t at all happy about the fiasco with the camping site, but this kind of connection with people living in places I was travelling through, the ability to share stories was exactly what I had hoped to encounter on my way. That was the first time on the trip that I learned the value of being able to speak (rusty) Spanish at 10 PM after a long day.

Raul i Carme
A very welcome helping hand to a stranger in need: gràcies Raul i Carme! 😉

Inland Catalunya struck me as a combination of somewhat depressing agro-industrial landscape and beautiful, although sometimes rough, dry country. I don’t know if it was a mood I brought with me, or something I caught there, but the endless monoculture orchards with rows of trees bent and broken to be easier to manage and somehow industrialised villages made me feel like I was in the wrong place. At other times, the road rose steeply into highlands some 500 meters above sea level, opening impressive vistas unlike any I’ve seen before.

Inland Catalunya
500 metres a.s.l, warm August day, the magnificent natural scenery dwarfing the otherwise huge fort overlooking the river below

The road would rapidly descend when crossing a canyon of a river, then climb back up again, down and up with each canyon, always taking me back to the highlands. I visited camps at Fayon, Bot and Arnes, in the afternoon heat I cycled up the (extremely steep!) hill on top of which Horta de Sant Juan sits, a little town that reminded me a bit of Motovun in Istria, and had the exquisite pleasure of cycling up and down the Via Verde de Terra Alta, a railway-turned-cycling-path that is now one of apparently numerous such paths combining untouched nature, peace and calm, mild, cycle-friendly slopes, open stretches and tunnels which are a wonderful way to recover from the hot August sun.

The Via Verde de la Terra Alta
The Via Verde de la Terra Alta: and to think I almost overlooked it!

However, I didn’t see a reasonable way to get to Valencia without going much further inland or going down to the coast and I was making rather slow progress in the hilly inland country, so the coast it was: I might as well start heading back up north-east towards France. That was kind of a relief in that my journey got a clearer direction and goal – cycle as far towards home as I can. I spent the day going a bit deeper inland and then gently gliding down into Tortosa and finally l’Ampolla, right next to the huge, protruding delta of the Ebre river, where I first reached the Mediterranean sea. I was glad to see it.

The beach in Ampolla
Finally back on the coast and ready for a sunset swim

The beach in Ampolla was an early sign of what was to come. Most of the coastline up until the Costa Brava seemed to follow the same pattern of very long beaches with fine sand, heavy waves pounding the waterline relentlessly. The water was murky, but otherwise refreshing and I enjoyed my first opportunity for a swim since Cerbère. The camping site at Ampolla was also a clear indicator that camping on the coast was going to be significantly more expensive than in inland camps. I was busy setting up camp next to a couple of young women from Austria who were there with their kids when a guy came up and asked me if I was from Croatia – that’s how Ivo and I met.

Ivo
Ivo: my relentless cycling buddy for a good part of my journey

Ivo is a student of architecture from Croatia and had already spent about a month and a half on the road when we met, going in the same direction, also on a bike. It was pleasant to have someone to talk to after 2-3 days of being mostly alone and for the remainder of my trip we would cycle together, split up, meet up again, cycle some more and so on.

A street in Valls
“My right thigh is burning and I feel like this may be the end of the trip if I don’t stop very soon. All trace of daylight is gone and I’m wandering through tight, winding back alleys of this village/town with shabby characters asking me things I don’t understand. I’m being sent back and forth across town towards a meeting point, having to trail 2 cars to get there, my mind randomly and frequently coming back with the same thought: how can finding a point on the globe still be this difficult?!”

A few days later a new stage of the trip started and it was called Barcelona. Barcelona was completely overwhelming. The idea was to stay in a hostel, switch from cycling to walking for a while, hang out with people we meet and take in a bit of the city. I was a horrible tourist: didn’t visit the Sagrada Familia, didn’t see Park Güell, didn’t visit Barceloneta, Montjuic…I was mostly there for the company and the change in my daily rhythm. Being at a hostel (for the first time!) was a bit of an eye-opener and spending time with people I’ve just met from all over the world was somehow instantly interesting…although the “Where are you from? cool! I’ve been to a country near you! What do you do? Where are you going? …” conversations get old rather quickly. Salsa dancing the first evening, chatting in the lounge area or on a terrace somewhere having lunch together on the other hand was really really pleasant.

Barcelona tour with Alejandro
touring the Goth neighbourhood with Alejandro, our Venezuelan guide
Rambla, Barcelona, after the terrorist attack
“‘Come on, baby!’ – the first time a hooker addressed me in my life. 20 metres from a few thousand candles burning in fresh memory of victims of the terrorist attack in Barcelona. A whole new level of crass.”

But the city itself…I couldn’t leave soon enough. Less than 2 full days there, I was warned at least 15 times “mind your wallet”, “mind your cell phone”, “mind your backpack”, “pay attention in crowded places, the subways, the beaches”, “you have a nice bike, but a flimsy lock”…and after all that, you’re supposed to go out, have fun and relax?! I don’t get it. I felt like I had a target printed on my forehead titled “easy money”, for all the local petty thieves to home in on. Numerous prostitutes and drug dealers right in the most frequented streets of the city centre, homeless people setting up dirty improvised shelters complete with mattresses every 20 meters, heavily locked-down bicycles silent witnesses of the criminal, violent everyday life of the city. Coupled with tiptoeing each night to go to bed in an 8-bed room without waking anyone up, trying to fit all my stuff in a little locker, knowing that one of my roommates was getting regularly wasted with heavy narcotics (although all the others were pleasant to be around) I couldn’t leave soon enough and it was a relief to be on the road with Ivo once again. Destination – a place I’ve previously visited many, many years ago: Lloret de Mar.

Lloret de Mar beach
Lloret de Mar beach

I was in Lloret with my classmates when I was in secondary school and I have fond memories of the place. It was interesting to be there again, although many would (quite rightly) say it’s in no way a remarkable place: one of many fishing village-turned-apartment complex towns on the Spanish coast, bustling with life and colour during the season, but cheap, mass-produced, stripped of innate meaning and soul. I felt good there nevertheless. Being on that beach again – one of the town’s two huge beaches – did bring back some long forgotten memories and gave colour, sound and smell to the handful of fleeting images I could still recall. And the sand…the coarse sand which seemed to be specific to Lloret…it was good being there once again, on that beach. And there’s a special feeling to it when you get to a place by bike. It’s like you own it, like you’ve somehow done it properly…being in Lloret again was a treat.

The ride towards the Pyrenees was not particularly interesting. The only shy and short rain of the trip, a modest, but rather cosy camping site in L’Escala with some acrobatics on the beach I’ve never seen before and then Ivo and I hit the hills, the last stretch of the trip to France. This part of the coast – the Costa Brava – is spectacular. We passed 30 km in about 3 hours. An experienced cyclotourist probably immediately reads between the lines where it says ‘steep climbs and beautiful sights’ and indeed: a rough, steep coastline, climbs and descents alternating one after the other, vistas of open sea – some really pleasant cycling. A spectacular goodbye from Catalunya!

Costa Brava
The dramatic and beautiful Costa Brava

[Part 1: The world through the eyes of a cyclists: getting to Catalunya]
[Part 3: The world through the eyes of a cyclists: going home]

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