If you listened to Episode 015 of The Cycling Europe Podcast you will remember that Paul didn’t make it quite as far as Nordkapp, for fairly obvious reasons. But he did make it as far as Nice in France and will hopefully one day soon return to complete the journey. But here in the written world of these CyclingEurope.org posts (as opposed to the spoken world of podcasts), Paul is in Barcelona and about to set off in the direction of France…
- To catch up on the story so far, take a few moments to read his previous three reports from the cycling front line:
…and here’s part 4. Over to you Paul.
I mentioned at the start of my last blog that cycling through city centre traffic was never a nice experience for a cyclist. Well, cycling north along the coast out of Barcelona might be an exception to that rule. I hadn’t been particularly looking forward to trudging my way out of a big city, at the start of week 4 of my trip from Tarifa to Nordkapp, but it was fine. All I had to do was roll the bike down to the beach, which I’d walked along the previous day, and then turn left. Following the coastline took me out of town, while only having to negotiate a few concrete annoyances (warehouses, car parks, and the like) on the way.
For large chunks of the Barcelona exit, I had some nice bits of coastline on my right hand side, and if I ignored the large buildings and grey industrial blemishes on my left, I could almost imagine that I was cycling through a nice seaside resort again.
I didn’t have to imagine this for long, as in no time at all, I actually was. By mid-morning I’d arrived in Badalona – which may sound like it’s Barcelona’s evil twin from the name, but was in fact a pleasant town with a sandy beach and a cycle-able promenade next to it. A railway line separated the beach and promenade from the rest of the town, and this was the case on and off all day, meaning that I often didn’t have any traffic to worry about.
After a weekend in the city, I was firmly back in beachside-cycling mode now. My transition from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona, to the laid back coastal villages, was epitomised by having grilled sardines outside a beach shack for lunch, with the sand surrounding us on three sides.
Monday night’s destination town of Blanes marked the start of the Costa Brava region. This was made abundantly clear to me by the rock of the Portal de La Costa Brava welcoming me into town, and the fact that I was staying in the Hotel Costa Brava.
I feared that the Costa Brava may have been inundated with busy and over-developed villages tuned to the tastes of people on package holidays. Some of it was – like the part near Calonge, but out-of-season that wasn’t such a bad thing. It meant decent roads, shops and cafes, and not many people or cars.
Between the built-up resorts, were more understated and attractive ones, like Tossa de Mar, which boasted three beaches, and a castle (that looked like it had been plonked upon one of those beaches, at first glance).
North of Tossa, there was a long stretch of relentlessly hilly coastal road, which was seriously hard work to cycle, but still quiet and enjoyable. Despite having the appearance and surface of a much busier road, I generally just shared the tarmac with a few cycling teams out for training rides. For most of this section, I was surrounded by what I thought were pine trees, whose shade often kept me cool on the long upward stretches in the sunshine. An Instagram follower later mentioned that these were in fact Tamarisks, and these evergreen and ever-present trees gave their name to the village where I spent that night. Tamariu was a lovely little sandy cove, with no high-rise hotels at all, surrounded by the trees it was named after.
That turned out to be the last time I was on the Spanish coast, although I didn’t realise it at the time. Despite my best efforts to try and hug the coastline, the lack of roads meant that I had to turn inland shortly into the following day. This wasn’t a bad thing though, as it gave me the opportunity to see some attractive little villages, like Sant Feliu de Boada and Fontanilles.
The inland diversion also took me closer to the point at which it was looking most likely that I’d be crossing the border into France. Looking at the map, I had a few options for leaving Spain, but none looked overly appealing. The N-260 that followed the coastline looked like it had the best scenery, but also handled a fair bit of traffic. The AP7 and N-11 further inland looked even busier, and didn’t even have the view of the sea to redeem themselves, so they were ruled out.
I’d been occasionally following the Eurovelo 8 long-distance cycle route during the last few weeks, which I’d found to be a mixed bag of delight and bone-shaking despair. Some parts were great, not exactly smooth, but firm enough with only light sprinklings of gravel. Other sections veered between being either mud, large stones, slushy sand, or sometimes all three. Keen to avoid any busy roads, I thought I’d take a gamble on the Eurovelo, and follow it up and over the lower Pyrenean hills that lined the border.
Almost immediately after I’d found Eurovelo 8 on the outskirts of the miserable gathering of petrol stations called La Jonquera, the path went rapidly uphill in terms of elevation, and downhill in terms of quality. The loose rocks on a steep gradient made it impossible to keep both wheels of my bike (which was heavily loaded at the rear but not at the front) on the ground at the same time. I was soon pushing for much longer stretches than I was cycling, but I consoled myself with the thought that as it was so steep, I wouldn’t have been moving a great deal faster even if I was on the bike instead of beside it.
Eventually I reached the Col de Panissars – and France! Although I only realised this was actually the border, by the fact that the cycle path signs on the other side were the white and green French-style ones. What I assumed was the line of the border crossing was also apparent by the sudden change in cycle path quality. On one side was the uneven stony mud of the Spanish section that I’d just cycled, and then a clear line where a glorious French tarmac esplanade began. I think I was more excited to see this, than I was to be crossing into France.
The wide, flat, smooth tree-lined path was soon carrying me down the hill into my first French villages, and eventually back to the coast. Argelès-sur-Mer, as well as the following night’s destination of Valras, and many of the places in between matched the Spanish seaside towns I’d visited in terms of having sandy beaches and wide promenades with only a few people milling around them.
A bonus feature that I found many of the towns further north had, was a lake slightly inland. This was the case at Leucate, Ayrolle and Sète. Often the cycle path or road took you between that lake and the ocean, so if you looked straight ahead at eye-level, you could almost imagine you were cycling on water..
Shortly after Sète I swung a left and headed inland, with a view to join back up with the Eurovelo 8 route, and also visit Nîmes. On the way, I’d be stopping in France’s fastest-growing city for two nights, Montpellier. The Lonely Planet website described Montpellier as having “elegant buildings, stately boulevards, shady backstreets, and a spirited vibe”, which made it sound like an ideal place to spend a Saturday night, and a relaxing Sunday.
You can also see Paul’s route via the website DataMinister.com.