Homage to Catalonia – Montpellier to Barcelona – Easter 2015

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Thursday 23rd March – Trowbridge to Narbonne

I am a secondary school teacher. The holidays are good and there are opportunities for links with European schools. I am that way inclined, so a solo tour, with a formative few school links, shaped up. I first visited Catalonia in 1984 with companion and holdalls, so had a rough idea of the nature of the region.

With bike loaded up the night before it was a short ride from home to Trowbridge station. For the EasyJet flight from Gatwick it was three trains, changing at Salisbury and Clapham Junction. No real problems, but quite how commuters into London are resigned to consistently standing up all the way from Salisbury without kicking off is beyond me.

Making their touring debut were four shiny yellow paniers, two (front) small, and two (back) large. Not Ortliebs, but for about half the price, the quality and value of Outer Edge paniers get my recommendation. The balance you get with all four does make a distance for a heavy load. EasyJet scales told me the bike weighed 21kg, with luggage of another 23kg, split between the hold and the cabin.

For the uninitiated, taking a bike on a plane is more straightforward than you might think. My magic piece of kit is a dark blue Cinnelli canvas bike bag. Wheels, pedals and racks off, lower the saddle and turn the handlebars. Frame into bag, with wheels into side pouches. Two straps pull it all together, and it even has a carrying strap for the shoulder. It works. EasyJet charge £25 each way for the bike; apparently British Airways carry bikes for free, which is well worth knowing.

The trick for the disassembly is to find a roomy well lit space as close to the luggage check in scales. Then take your time, and relish the fettling. The self-service check-ins were heading for a meltdown, but hats off to a Menzies staff member who rescued me with some quality personal service to complete the process.

At airport luggage carousels it is a mystery as to where the bike will re-appear. Sure enough at Montpellier there it was leaning against a wall, as if by magic. Reassembly took half an hour, no damage sustained even though it had surely been tossed around a little. I’m not precious about scratches etc. so it works.

My accommodation for the night was a pre-booked room at a recommended hotel in Narbonne,a city some 40km south of Montpellier. My planning had messed up on the timings, so the realistic option was an SNCF train city to city. A quick tour of Montpellier city centre was all I could manage before the fourth train of the day. I love European trains, and this one was designed for bikes to be hung from hooks. Not with the weight I was carrying thank you, so a springy seat and an extended arm averted any fall-overs for the hour to Narbonne.

Friday 24th March – Narbonne to Perpignan

Travelling solo has advantages of freedom and flexibility that are enormous advantages. To keep some social contact, I’d made arrangements with three teachers along the route, with links made through three websites, e-Twinning (for European teachers interested in linking) Warm Showers (a touring-cycling community for offering mutual accommodation etc)and the well-known Couch Surfing site.

So Friday morning was a meeting with an English teacher and her Year 7 class for a guest appearance as an Englishman abroad, answering such questions as “Do you have any pets?”, and “Do you prefer Burger King or McDonalds?”. The discussion afterwards with Rose-Marie Saint-Paul helped clarify a growing strategy of mine to turn an embryonic semi-retirement idea plan into a business reality.

Narbonne is a gem of a city, clean, mixture of new and historic, with a picturesque historic cathedral, river walk and city square. The best spot was an indoor food market, packed with stalls for lunch food, rammed on Friday end-of-week lunchtime workers.

The first cycle ride of the week was a recommendation to follow a canal tow-path from Narbonne to Port-la-Nouvelle, some 30km. I’d had warnings about the winds in this region, and sure enough a perfect following wind helped me for the full two hours into the small destination port. The rough track was comfortably passable on the Schwalbes, no suspension no problem, a few puddles and two other touring cyclists along the way.

My “O” level grade B French was helpful, but my eagle eyes missed the poster at Port-la-Nouvelle railway station informing travellers of the disruption to service due to a (fairly common) industrial dispute. Three hours in cafes and bars was perhaps two hours too long, and meant I arrived in Perpignan at dusk, so finding Xavier’s flat 8km from the station was a challenge that took longer than anticipated. Two French chappies saved the evening with their Samsung GPS phone, and gave an accurate description of finding the flat in Xavier’s district .

I had been offered a night with Xavier, a fellow touring-cyclist, through Couch Surfing. Top bloke, hours of easy cycling-related philosophical / political, conversation accompanied by home-made pasta meal from his extensive DIY self-sufficient kitchen range. And a very comfy bed for the night. Xavier, we will keep in touch.

Saturday 25th March – Perpignan to Portbou

 The “Deeksy Factor” is a family phenomenon named after a teacher-friend. If Deeksy was personally with you on a day-out, everything always fell into place. Buses turned up precisely when you needed them, cafe choices were perfect etc. When my back wheel dropped into place first time (which it never normally does)after a bit of fettling I knew Deeksy was with me in spirit. So the day proved, Saturday was cracker.

 Bruce Springsteen released his dark “Nebraska” album in 1987, I suspect to fulfil contractual obligations by collecting his mournful songs from a back catalogue. The iconic track is “Atlantic City”, perfectly matching the atmosphere of the black-and-white 1980 crime/romance film of the same name. The film uses Atlantic City as a backdrop for a failing relationship, and shows the seaside city as a sad and worn-out town on the peripheries of long-past glories. Think board-walks, closed shutters and Torquay in October.

The coastal ride from Perpignan to Portbou passed through a series of French Atlantic Cities, mostly closed down or just getting ready for the 2015 season. I needed black-and-white shades for the full effect.

The following wind continued, accompanied by the glorious panoramic backdrop of the snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees. And sunshine for a cyclists dream ride. The plan was to pick up the Eurovelo route 8, “Mediterranean Route”, and sure enough I found a sign for the route just outside Canet Plage. Now my previous Eurovelo experience was the No. 12″North Sea Route” along the coastline and towns of the Netherlands. There, the signage was so consistently good I swear that if a dog turd appeared overnight, signs would quickly be placed to guide you around it and keep you en-route. This was not the case in France. 55km, two signs.

So it was map work and a keep-close-to-the coast tactic. This worked well through Argeles to the edge of Port Vendres (Windy Port). All that was needed was a slight hint that cyclists ought to go through the village of Colliure. Instead I followed a winding road ascending 200m, the top of which was a sign for a busier road into Port Vents, and the clear message that cyclists were prohibited along it. The dilemma was a no-brainer for any cyclo-tourists “never retrace your route”, so off we went with the phrase “Je n’compris” ready for the first sound of a siren. Downhill on a quality A-road surface and then…. into a 1km tunnel! So I pushed, clinging to the narrow shoulder. It paid off and a self-rewarding pleasant two hours was spent drinking coffee/beer on the harbour side.

Solo flexibility again. A local board-mounted map had shaded relief features suggesting I was heading into some serious hills and winding roads. The train (crossing the border) was a sensible option, and so I entered Spain on the 1640 to end-of-the line Portbou. Passport checked by a slightly incredulous armed border-police officer on the train.

 Devon, Cornwall and Dorset have many seaside villages akin to Portbou,the most north-easterly settlement in Spain. Think Mousehole, Porth Leven or Lulworth. Not what you expect in Costa Espagne, but a great impromptu one-night stop at Hostel Juventus.

Sunday 29th March – Portbou to Sant Gregori

Yul Brynner as an indestructible robot intent on killing you is a force to be reckoned with. He is the baddie in the 1973 film Westworld, set in a futuristic Centre Parcs-like holiday village, where the visitors can live out their fantasies as a cowboy, and kill all the baddies in the knowledge that the baddies are actually robots. Only it all goes wrong, naturally…..

On a bright, sunny, windless morning I left Portbou by train having worked out that fellow morning breakfasters at Hostel Juventus where there as a prelude to some serious hill walking. Once beyond the hills I alighted at Vilajuiga, and a glorious ride into Roses. The game of “waving to Spanish MAMILS” amused me – about a 60% return rate, the other 40% were buffer-faced onto their GPS bike computer, oblivious to the glorious backdrop of distant coastline and snow-capped Pyrenees peaks. MAMILS are the same all over Europe.

Roses is a typical Spanish holiday resort, beach in a gentle bay, populated hillside backdrop, wide promenade and a host of sporty beach facilities. Budget airlines to Girona airport complete the package for a value family sunny holiday. Even in late March it was buzzing.

A short ride on cycle track across marshland to Empuriabrava, and the Yul Brynner parallels. Like Westworld, Empuriabrava is a cleverly engineered resort, developed for a certain type of holiday maker. The type, apparently, is rich, German and boat-owning. With a short stretch of  unremarkable flat beach to start with Catalonian planners had a fair amount of foresight when they built 24km of canals to a grid pattern on reclaimed swampland, all linked to a man-made harbour. With a summer population of around 80,000 (think Weston-Supermare) it is very big, very artificial and very successful. Most houses have a boat moored in their back garden. There are a lot of boats, in Empuriabrava, some of them very very big. It has an aerodrome for skydiving. I wouldn’t choose to go on holiday there.

The restorative powers of watching human pyramid building is always underestimated! Some 5km north in Castello dÉmpuries, outside La Catedral five groups of human pyramid builders took it in turns to construct their pyramids, always topped by a wiry eight year old scrambling to the summit. Human society in all its glory. The rest of the day was a ride to Fueges, train to Girona, and ride to meet fellow-teacher Isa Pont at her home in Sant Gregori.

Monday 30th March – Sant Gregori to Tossa de Mar

Monday mornings always bring a strange feeling in the guts of school teachers. Its no different even when you know it’s a non-school day. You just need to get the week started as soon as possible. So it was a pannier load-up in Isa’s hall, and a fond farewell to Mac and Isa, who themselves were planning a cycle day out.

Girona is well worth a visit for half-a-day or so. Its far more the heart of Catalonia than Barcelona claims to be, evidenced by many flags adorning apartment blocks representing the independence-seeking state of Catalonia, currently denied the referendum for independence that Scotland was granted. A non-binding indicative referendum last November returned a result of 80% in favour of independence – but with huge opposition from Madrid-based government its not going to happen.

Sitting at the foot of the Pyrenees, Girona is often used as a training-camp base for professional cycling teams, and so there were a fair few lycra-clad-skinnies-with-shades-on posing on bridges in pairs. Just how “good” these cyclists were is hard to say, but I didn’t see any of them on the delightful Greenways route from Girona to the Costa Brava coastline at Sant Feliu de Guixols, a 30 km off-road route, mostly built on a disused railway line.

Over the years I’ve become acquainted with many Greenways cycle routes. One in Brittany was memorable for being tree-lined along its 40km length, blocking any views to the countryside. The two characteristics a touring cyclist needs on these routes are consistent sign-posting and a passable surface. The “Ruta del Carrilet” delivered on both of these, and more besides. It needed detailed instructions from a Tourist Information Centre assistant to get me to the start-point, but after that the signage never let me down. The trail wound itself along river valleys, through large fields and the middle of many small villages. The best of these was Llagostera, with a castle on the top of a hill which just had to be climbed simply for the 360 ° views of the surrounding countryside. This ride was a “top ten” on anyone’s list.

Noteworthy was the cycle-themed sculpture park, literally in the middle of nowhere. Very simple, very clever use of old bicycles to adorn a field with a bench. You just have to stop there and take the obligatory photo.

Football holds a similar interest to me as cycling, so when a small neatly-formed stadium appeared on the edge of a village it was time for a distraction-break. Sta Cristina is so small it doesn’t get a Wikipedia entrance; its essentially a few houses at a crossroads. And yet it has a small-but-magnificent stadium that holds 2000, complete with 3G all-weather pitch and sprinkler system. Best of all the tea-room was open! My research puts Sta Cristina FC in “Group 30” of the Spanish football pyramid, so probably on a level with Odd Down FC.

A diversion for football literature aficionados now comes to mind in the shape of the excellent “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro” by American journalist Joe McGinniss beautifully documents the season that the Italian club Castel di Sangro (also on a par with Odd Down FC) spend in the second tier of Italian football. Simply brilliant.

So back on the Ruta de Carrilet, and into the seaside town of Sant Feliu de Guixols. Unlike Portbou, Sant Feliu was already in full-swing for the season, many Spanish promenaders with ice-creams. Decision time, where to stay for the night. I made the (correct as it turned out) choice to push on for a few more kilometres, and started along the Corniche to Tossa de Mar.

A Corniche is a French or Spanish coastal road that winds up and down to pass through rocky cliff lines. They offer magnificent views of the coastline, the return for some punishingly steep ascents. Sant Feliu to Toss de Mar is a fabulous Corniche. It took me the best part of two hours to cover the 18 km, but this was from 6 p.m. with slowly disappearing light. No winds, no traffic, cracking views. I tend to do the “as slow as possible without falling off” tactics for uphills, and with the tablet-on-handlebars playing random back catalogue songs the evening took on a magical quality. These moments are the unpredictable rewards that cyclists love.

Into Tossa de Mar, which I’d also visited in 1984. Its changed, unsurprisingly, its quaint old-time feel now complemented with a few medium-sized top-end hotels. I found a small hotel and booked on for the night, with a Pizza 11 p.m. meal next door.

Tuesday 31st March – Tossa de Mar to Barcelona

 The Costa Brava conjures up images of classic package holidays for Brits, high-rise hotels a short walk from golden beaches. It doesn’t disappoint. The stretch of coastline from Blanes to Barcelona is 70 km long and joined by 20 towns or villages of various sizes. I took the train and enjoyed the views for two hours; the line clings to the beach for the full duration.

So arriving in Sants Barcelona railway station I had the best part of three days to explore Barcelona – but had no accommodation sorted. Some map work identified a tourist information office to find. Barcelona is three cities in one: the historical city; the waterfront and the new city. Most of the population live in the new city, which is compact and stretches for the 13 km which its main thoroughfare, the Diagonal, passes through.

The new city is built to a grid system, with each avenue allowing cars to travel one way. Depending on the width of the avenue (and most are dual carriageways) cyclists have their own lane either through the middle or next to the pavement. It generally works, and most junctions have traffic lights which inform you when cyclists can cross.  The traffic is fast and busy. Cyclists are more common than London. You can make rapid progress. So after an hour searching an elusive TIC (I never did find it), I spotted a promising looking hostel called “Bed and Bike” which became home for three days.

If all you need is a bed and a shower, and somewhere to lounge around for an hour or so, hostels these days are worth considering. ”Bed and Bike” charged about €12 per night, a lot cheaper than most hostels situated in the historic centre. The “Bike” feature was that the hostel had about 20 bikes that residents were free to use. There was good indoor storage for visitors’ bikes.

The commuter traffic finally quietens down at 10 p.m, and with well-lit streets, it’s a good time for a cycle exploration, feels perfectly safe, and gives a few interesting photo opportunities.

Wednesday 1st April – Barcelona Tour Day 1 – by bike

 Whilst other definitions go on about “ the seat of a bishop” Yourdictionary.com defines a cathedral as a large and beautiful place of worship. I like this definition, and by it I visited two contrasting and popular magnificent cathedrals for the people, Nou Camp and Sagrada Familia.

My brother Duncan and I started following football in 1968, Sheffield United v Sunderland, Div 1 as was, open terraces, Bovril etc. As a long extension of being a student, Duncan studied for his PhD with a thesis entitled “The politicisation of football in regional Spain”. The synopsis is that pre- and post-Spanish revolution the people of Spanish regions (Basque, Catalan etc) expressed their distaste for dictatorial Madrid at football match gatherings. Hence Nou Camp, the home of Barcelona FC, was the cathedral for expressing support for the suppressed Catalan state. Or something like that….

A trip to the Nou Camp captures the essence of this “people’s politics”. For the bargain price of €23 I went on the Barca tour. It is very cleverly done, well curated and appeals to all ages. The initial museum gives an excellent pictorial history of FC Barcelona, with explanations in Spanish, Catalan and English. My two favourite exhibits were a picture of Paulíno Alcántara, the latter day Messi, who always wore a white handkerchief in his shorts. And the size 5 boots of Messi himself.

After the museum, the self-paced tour did all levels of the stadium, the changing rooms, the chapel, press-box, and many opportunities for machine photos like Alton Towers. Then the club shop, which for the small price of €133 you can buy a youth-size replica shirt of Barca’s third away-shirt for Champions league matches. Shameless. Barca always held my admiration for refusing shirt-sponsorship, and carrying Unicef (the club charity) on its shirt fronts. Until 2011, when Qatar Foundation, and then Qatar Airways appeared. Its association with the bizarre (some may even say corrupt – not me…) 2022 World Cup venue selection of Qatar sticks. Something has to fund the proposed new stadium I suppose.

I lived in Dorchester for 13 years, during which I blogged many Sunday cycle rides with the Poundbury Peloton (five us at tops). Features of our rides were pork pie picnics and visits to the many local Dorset churches. So visiting Sagrada Familia was a natural extension of an established cycling tradition. A 30 minute ride back down the Diagonal linked the two cathedrals together, the small price of €15 admission ticket, and its into Sagrada Familia the “eighth modern wonder of the world”. Held up to be Antoni Gaudi’s crowning glory, what staggers me is how anyone can even imagine such constructions, let alone build them. Yes, after over 150 years it is still under construction, but at least its finished inside. The museum of its construction is magnificent. I also like the commonality between Gaudi and Alan Bradley (ex-Coronation Street character), both meeting untimely deaths run over by local trams.

The upshot of the day is that a bike helps you see the sites of Barcelona, how quickly you understand its geography, and can get “under the skin” of the city. I like that. Its less tiresome than walking, and you see more. In the evening I joined a “Tapas Tour” run by HostelCulture. Great fun, accompanied by young students from Australia, Phillipines and Malaysia. It’s a while since I’ve biked home from a night club at 3:30 a.m., and it felt perfectly safe.

 Thursday 2nd April – Barcelona Tour Day 2 – on foot

 Walking is the best way to sightsee a tight city centre. Not segways, not bikes, both available and not appropriate.  So apart from getting from the hostel to the cathedral, I rarely used the bike. HostelCulture offered two walking tours, the historic city, and the Modernism tour. I took both. Payment is by tips (tax avoidance I think), and hats off to both Kym and Fatima, who worked hard at making the impromptu groups gel and banterful. Both were appropriately paced, and good fun. The streets in the historic core are small and random, which makes vistas of the building sometimes difficult to find. Too many buildings in the way.

On the modernism tour about a third of the people on it were solo tourists, the rest young students in pairs. The soloists tended to be older, and I had an interesting chat with a female German tourist. Yes, we were both teachers, hhmmm. The theory we floated was that going touring solo has huge advantages of flexibility, time efficiency, and better opportunities to meet people. In eight days of solo bike touring I never once wished I had come with someone else. The theory extended to suggest that it might be worth having a similar minded “touring partner” from anywhere, which would mean there was no “social baggage” or worse still “family baggage” that would pop up and get in the way of a good adventure. It’s a theory.

So after a day’s walking and a hostel rest, back in the saddle at dusk to tour Montjuic, parkland site of the 1992 Barcelona Olympiad. The castle offered great high views, the roads empty. On to the illuminated fountains, orchestrated to a Daft Punk soundtrack. Very European. Kym had recommended a curry/kebab restaurant of the cheap and authentic variety. I had the address, the map, the transport. The 30 minutes spent searching out the north African / Arabic Bismilla Kebabish on Carrer de Joaquín Costa was time well spent. Just €5 bought a plate of chicken curry, rice, cold drink, and popadom. It was packed, no menus, only a back board with dishes, none described in English. Google it, the reviews are consistent for value, authenticity and atmosphere.

The midnight ride back to Hostel Bed and Bike almost passed off without reference to a map, I was now familiar with Barna’s layout.

 Friday 3rd April – Barcelona and back to Trowbridge

 My flight home to Bristol was a fairly sociable 10:00 a.m. departure, a need to be at the airport for 7:30 a.m. to give time for bagging up the bike, so I sneaked out of the hostel at 6:30 a.m. The recommendation to get from Barcelona to its airport was to “take the train”. I cycled the 20 km. It is a well signed route made for cars, mostly dual carriageways, sweeping roundabouts, and early morning it was quiet enough not to be a problem.

Strip down took 40 minutes, the flight uneventful. Bristol to Trowbridge was done with the airport bus to Bath railway station, bike reassembled, and train from Bath to Trowbridge. Home for tea, as they say.

 Equipment

 Two resolutions after Netherlands in 2014 were that on future tours I would shun lycra, and also not do “numbers” (speeds, distances, times, weights). The following list gives my crucial bits of kit.

Bike is a Trek 7.3 series hybrid, 24-speed, with disc brakes. My additions are panier racks back and front, central stand, and my favourite, a tribar extension onto which a plywood holder is cable-tied, for holding the Samsung tablet. Great for a soundtrack, quick camera, and best of all Tab Nav.

Paniers, four Outer Edge in classic yellow, two 23 litres back, two 16 litres on front. Together the four give good balance and stability, and hold absolutely loads. They also leave space for strapping items to the central part of the back panier.

Bungees and cable ties are great for emergencies, and a small rucksack is useful for off-bike walks. Sony Cybershot camera, small tripod, and Samsung tablet was the technology, the tablet giving free WiFi Internet access in most cafes.

Clothing, Berghaus cargo pants with detachable legs, a Marmot fleece, and two coats (Berghaus  Orange GoreTex Waterproof and Ayacucho Red Puffa Jacket). Both screw up into rucksack. One pair of SPD trainers were worn all week with trainer socks, and cotton T-shirts. Small toiletries (razor and toothbrush is the minimum), first-aid kit, and travel towel. Lip balm was bought and needed all week, for wind protection rather than sun.

I took a tent, sleeping bag and liner, and self-inflating mattress. I only used the sleeping bag liner. I had the opportunity to camp (site or rough) but the nights were very cool. Finally the Cinelli bike bag is brilliant for wrapping up the bike etc for the airplane hold. It works. I want to experiment next time, and see whether the bike bag can double up as tent or bivouac. That’ll save a couple of kilograms. Weight wise, it was about 21 kg for the packed bike, 15 kg for the hold luggage, and 8 kg for the cabin luggage.

Reflections

The most important reflection on the week was that it worked, it was really enjoyable time. The area is excellent for cycling and has a good variety of terrain. Five cities, a coastal route, the Pyrenean backdrop all came together well, and a parallel railway line was always available. The time of year was good, I was also lucky to have a week of warm, mostly sunny weather, with only a few light showers. The winds around Perpignan were also kind, mostly following me.

The length of time was right, its not really worth all the trouble for anything shorter, so its more a case of how long the family pass-out is valid for.

Having a rough itinerary is good, punctuated by flight details. On previous tours I have had every night’s accommodation pre-booked, which gives security but no flexibility. I think a mixture works best, and meant I discovered Portbou; also using www.WarmShowers.org is a great way to meet fellow cyclists. Not going lycra-clad means when you are off the bike you are a more natural and comfortable general tourist.

Barcelona is a good city to cycle around, much safer than London, but not as cycle friendly (where is?) as Amsterdam. Finally I have gained more confidence and knowledge of solo cycle-touring, and have left a few things I’d happily come back to in Catalonia.

 Where next?

Through teaching contacts I want to follow up on, it has to be the east coast of Italy, partly to meet Paola and Angela, like-minded teachers that I am intent to do European Exchange project work with. Also because the recommendations I have listened to are consistent, and the airline links are good. Hopefully summer 2015, if its not too hot.

If you are interested in similar, or want the full kit list etc. email me at lindsay.shaw10@outlook.com

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