Still pining for something which fills the void from my South American cycling adventure at the end of last year, I snapped up the opportunity to go cycling in the Costa Brava area of Spain. A friend from our Giant Camden Team Liv cycling club, Giovanna, goes there often and just last year had tried out her cycling legs in this challenging terrain and highly recommended it. I didn't need much convincing!
I am only familiar with Barcelona in this area, from a (slightly failed) long weekend many years back, so was keen to reclaim this beautiful area. Our base was to be at Pals, a coastal town almost midway between Barcelona and Girona. Although I initially intended to take my lovely Liv Envie road bike with me, a few factors made me reconsider:
1) The expense - by the time I had factored in taxis to and from the airport, the baggage handling fee and the hire of a bike box it was coming to almost £250.
2) The hassle - I was already having flashbacks to the less pleasant part of my South American travels, including breaking down and rebuilding your bike and the anxiety of trying to get the damn thing through the airport.
So I was delighted to see that this part of Spain is very well set up for cyclists and found a bike shop just a few kms from Pals where I could hire a good quality Giant TRC road bike for €99 for the week. I can highly recommend these helpful guys at CiclesJK.
And so, after a fairly relaxing flight to Barcelona, we picked up the bike from Palafrugell and drove to Pals, where we cracked open a beer and plotted our first ride the next day. Giovanna spoke with much fondness of her first rides in this area last year where she met up with some Dutch guys who supported her over some of the challenging hills this area has to offer. The word 'hill' always fills me with mixed emotion. I love the climb, having developed strong quads from my Andes adventure, but still have the fear over the descents.
Anticipating hot weather, we decided to make a start at 7.30am, so that we could have this ride knocked out by lunchtime. The first part of our ride was to take us through some lovely little villages along a deceptively flat piece of road. This was a really pretty area, where we made a stop to have a look at Sant Feliu de Boada and Peratallada. Further along these lovely roads we also stopped to admire the sunflowers, or girasol (literally, 'turn to the sun', why does everything sound so much better in Spanish?).
As we cycled through Cruilles, Giovanna warned me of the upcoming climb, and sure enough, a few kilometres along the road there were markings in the road which said '6km to the top'. This was a nice winding road though, and so the climb didn't seem too arduous. We met up with some other cyclists at the top for a slightly comedic photograph directed by one guy who said "Please let me have a photo taken with you two so that I can tell my wife why she should come cycling with me and not let me go on my own!'. Happy to help :) Then of course came my moment...the downhill! I was overtaken by a Jimmy Saville lookalike, long white hair blowing in the wind, no helmet on. Well, if he crashed then it wouldn't be such a loss would it, I thought...
The sun was now starting to really beat down and so we decided to have a short stop at a cafe in La Bisbal d'Emporda for a quick orange juice. Giovanna told me an intriguing story about this little cafe which, although very unassuming, is actually run by the (alleged) illegitimate son of Catalan King Juan Carlos.
It has become quite an institution amongst locals for the amazing jamon....and of course the curious royal connection. Then it was the final stretch back to Pals, where we stopped in the main village at a lovely little tapas bar for some tortilla and small snacks. Better hold off on the cerveza we decided until we got back home!
Day two started off rather tentatively as a thunderstorm was forecast for around lunchtime. How far should we go? Did we really want to be stuck at the top of a mountain when lightening struck? Let's see how it goes we thought...Well it didn't take too long, maybe about 40 minutes, before we could see the gathering dark clouds and the rumbling of thunder. In fact it seemed like we were cycling towards it. Giovanna suggested we make a call on what to do as we approached the appropriately named town of Torrent just as some ominously large drops of rain started to fall. Apparently there was a quick way home, 5km, or we could turn around and go back the 12km way we had come. The decider was Giovanna saying she had never cycled in a thunderstorm...let's do it! The rain was really starting to come down now as we laughed out loud doing a PB reaching 35-40km an hour on the return journey. We agreed that fun though it was, an hour avoiding being struck by lightening was probably enough for one day!
In true holiday style though, the storm passed by early afternoon and offered us the opportunity to get back outside and soak up the sun.
After a stretch out in the pool, we decided to do a bit of non cycling sight seeing and took a drive along the coast. Giovanna took the smaller coastal route roads, pointing out that this was a ride we would do one day. The downhills here were already alarming me, even in the car! Oh but the views were stunning, and we decided to stop for dinner at Calella de Palafrugell, a beautiful little coastal town. Cerveza and sardines on the seafront, heaven!
Day 3 dawned, and feeling like we hadn’t quite put the miles in on Monday, where better to test ourselves than by going to the top of the climb that we had intended to do on Day 1? So we set off bright and early to find that the track route down from the house had been a casualty of yesterday’s deluge and the rutted parts were full of water. I protectively carried my bike over the huge puddle whilst Giovanna waded through it. (A manoeuvre she was to regret as she realised about 15kms along the route that her rear brake was caked in dried on mud.) The run out to Cruilles was the same as the first day, but with less of the touristy type stops at villages, and only a passing wave and ‘A Deu!’ (as seems to be the casual way of saying ‘hello’ in Catalan) to the sunflowers. There was one moment we felt a stop was in order, though as we saw a hot air balloon flying serenely over the fields we were cycling past. When I say 'serenely' I couldn't help but think of the opening chapter though of one of my favourite books 'Enduring Love' by Ian McEwan. If you've read it you'll know what I mean!
We then took a road to Monells via the lovely village of Madremanya. Some slight hills on the way there, and then there it was, the sign to ‘Els Angels’. It seems that all climbs in this area are 6km in length as Giovanna shouted ‘See you at the top’. This was definitely a more challenging climb than our first day out. The road winded around quite a lot, meaning that there was very little reprieve, and no flat areas – this one definitely called for the small chain ring! I was ever aware of what I was to face on the way back down, and was grateful to note that the sheer drop was on my right hand side going up, so I would be further away from it coming down! I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I passed a ‘serious looking’ cyclist who had pretty much come to a stop about half way up. Well, I say half way, but there didn’t seem to be the encouraging km countdowns painted onto the road here.
As I approached the summit though, I could see a small pathway up to the Els Angels chapel, and the inevitable view point where I bumped into two South African guys who offered to take my photo. When I asked if this was their first time cycling in this area they replied that they came her every year and that it was ‘a religion’. This was a suitably topical reference as Giovanna appeared and told me about the
history of the chapel, whilst we had a refreshing orange juice in the plaza outside.
Brace yourself Denise I thought as it was my turn to say “See you at the bottom” to Giovanna. Yes, it certainly was a steeper descent than our first hills trip, and as I eased off the brakes to then grip them again a bit too dramatically as a bump appeared in the road, I had that moment where I thought I was going to go over the handlebars. Eek. It really is an odd feeling I thought as I happily cycled flat out along a straight part of the route at over 45km/hr without a thought of the crash fear.
After the obligatory relax and stretch out in the pool on our return, we decided we deserved a nice meal out and found a real gem of a place about 5km from the house called Pahissa del Mas Pou. This was a real find, located on the edge of the rice fields of Pals, we took our seats at a table on the terrace as the sun started to go down and had some of the most amazing food. Starting with their take on the Catalan tomato bread, we then shared monkfish with black trumpet funghi and tenderloin beef, which was divine. Although neither of us really wanted a dessert, it had to be done and so we shared a couple of dishes which were equally amazing, and all washed down with a bottle of Albarino wine. Yum!
Was it the Albarino or the big bike ride yesterday, but we both agreed that we needed a more sedate day on Day 4. Unable to resist the empty pool though, I started the day with a few (ok about 100) laps and then lay in the sun where I continued to read my holiday book 'Nomad' by Alan Partridge, whilst chuckling like an idiot to myself. Giovanna asked if I had any issues with boats if we were to go to one of the local beaches and hire one. "I bloody love boats!" was my excited reply. And so we hired a small boat which we were to pick up after a nice lunch in Pals.
We were given a safety overview and demo about how to drive the boat and drop anchor as we picked up our vessel at Aiguafreda beach. I am sure this was really informative, had it not been in Spanish, with me only picking up the odd word here and there. Giovanna volunteered to get the boat out of the bay, shrugging off the advice to go left rather than right due to the strength of the winds. Ah well, we like a challenge! The wind was certainly having an effect on the sea as we bounced our way over the waves. I misinterpreted Giovanna as she shouted 'wave' whilst taking some photographs. She was actually warning me to hold on as a big wave approached, rather than telling me to wave at the camera. Oh well, no harm done, and I was having the time of my life!
This coastline really was stunning, but as we only had 4 hours on the water, we decided it was time to look for a small bay to drop anchor and go for a swim. As Giovanna was back on the controls, it left me in charge of the anchor duty. Did I remember what the guy had said, she asked? Remember? I didn't understand most of it! Never mind, here we go, and nothing like an audience of a few other boats watching to motivate you not to f**k it up! Oh but we did, as I attempted a few anchor throws, wondering how you know when it has taken hold, and in fact, then, how do you reel it back in again? Apparently continuing to pull at it isn't the way to go though, as Giovanna shouted "Stop touching the bloody thing!" which then just made me laugh even more. It was getting embarrassing so we decided to give it a go, and if the boat started to drift I could swim after it and grab it couldn't I?? Oh jumping into that water was amazing! A sea swim is always the highlight of a holiday for me. I had a dive down to look at our anchor, which just seemed to be limply lying there...was that ok? We were both in the water by this time though, so there was no going back. As the sun started to go down, and the boat, to be honest, starting to slightly drift, we decided to head back. My turn at the helm, and the wind hadn't died down. I was loving it thought as we bounced through the waves, shouting 'whoop'! I had forgotten though that part of this duty meant me guiding the boat back safely into the harbour. Uh oh, this became a bit stressful as a group had gathered waiting for the boats, and helpfully shouting guidance (again, in Spanish of course!). I did it though, and covered in salt spray I happily fell out onto the harbour wall. Bliss!
This was a day I had been having anxiety dreams about. Buy why, this is supposed to be a holiday, no?
I think Giovanna's run through of the route on her Strava the night before, over a gin and tonic had stuck in my subconscious. She was reminding herself of the steepness of the climbs, whilst of course I was fixated on the corresponding descents.
The first 'hill' was actually a gradual uphill drag out of Pals, a distance of about, yes, you guessed, around 6km. The only real challenge here was the fast traffic, but at least I had reminded myself to look to my left and not right at roundabouts, which should save Giovanna some alarm.
This took us up to Begur, where Giovanna said we had a choice and could miss out one hill. We both looked at each other, were we shirkers? No siree! The first section of this downhill was on a cycle path that was part of the pavement, with a sign that indicated a 20km speed limit. Optimistic, I thought as it was a speed that was definitely exceeded on the way down, and never met on the way back up again. And yes, we had actually just come down this hill for the challenge of climbing back up it. First one done, tick, not too bad. Then came the hill known as 'The Wall'. This was definitely a taxing one, really having to grind it out in a low gear at the gradient of just under 13%. The thing that was causing me most concern though, was the road surface, it constantly felt like you were riding on a flat tyre. We proudly reached the top though and wow, was it worth it for the beautiful view. I knew what was coming next though, an equally steep descent, not only on rough road, but very narrow, with the threat of unpredictable cars and pedestrians at every turn. Giovanna had warned me about a sudden stop junction which was still on a steep part of the hill, and so I was grateful to be able to give a cursory glance to see nothing was coming and turn onto the main road. There wasn't any way I could stop or actually go any slower at this point!
With white knuckles we rode into Tamariu, a lovely little beach resort where we stopped for an orange juice. I was so tempted to jump into the sea for a swim but I knew we still had 28km of cycling and 2 hills ahead of us. This was no time for a soggy bum!
The final climb of real significance was to Far de Sant Sebatia, where we had driven a few nights previously to take in the amazing views from the lighthouse. Trying to block out the accident that had happened between a motorbike and a car at a junction on the way up to the climb, I confidently started to power up it, passing cyclists as I went. I was slightly lulled into a false sense of security on this one though, as I thought the gradient would then be equally manageable coming down. Ah but no, we were coming down on the other side, and this was not a gentle descent! In fact the first part of the downhill was so steep and sharp that I had an unnatural urge just to keep going straight over the edge!
The remaining 20km back to Pals had some undulations - nothing too taxing. But having done over 53km of hills, we felt a relaxing swim in the pool was in order, followed by some of the local roast chicken from the amazing Can Padres and a beer. Then the only decision that had to be made was what bottle of wine to choose from the amazing Vins i Licors Grau - apparently one of the largest wine and spirit stores in Europe. This really was 'kid in a sweetshop' stuff, set in 1,200sqm of floorspace, it boasts over 9,000 wines and spirits. We had to have a sit down on the trolley to contemplate the section in this photograph which is just the dry sherries! What a way to end off a fantastic trip, a wine tasting and barbecue by the pool. It was difficult to tear myself away the next day. What a fantastic place for cycling, and joie de vivre in general. On a personal note I returned feeling invigorated, suntanned and having lost 5lbs (despite the G & T's and Albarino!) I definitely hope to return to this part of Spain to seek out some further routes and adventures.
In contrast, you will see my next blog post is about my 'Prudential Ride London 100' event the following week. It was definitely a very different experience....
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.