Thursday, 27 August 2015

Pedal power: Around Catalunya on two wheels

Cycle on holiday? Sure, I once rented a bike in Valencia for a few hours to cycle round the Jardines del Turia. But a cycling holiday? Well, let’s just say I'm more likely to be sporting a sun dress than pulling on padded shorts when on vacation. But when I got the chance to try out UK-based travel company Headwater’s Contrasts of Catalunya trip, a 6-day holiday relying on pedal power, I reconsidered my holiday wardrobe. After all, the yoga and pilates retreat I went on in Morocco turned out to be one of my most relaxing trips ever – could active holidays be the way forward? It was certainly worth finding out: after all, Catalunya is one of my favourite parts of the country, and true to the Contrasts of Catalunya name, the routes took us both along the Costa Brava and through the beautiful (and thankfully relatively flat) countryside of the Empordà.

The Emporda countryside

So before I knew it, my suitcase was packed with the aforementioned padded shorts and a cycling helmet nestling between sun and swimwear. I was Costa Brava-bound to show off my new gear on routes that would take us from Calella de Palafrugell to Platja de Pals, then inland to La Bisbal d' Empordà before returning to Calella. The routes sounded idyllic: apparently we’d ride through rice fields, alongside orchards and through the picturesque medieval villages of Pals, Toroella de Montgrí and Peratallada, pausing at our leisure (or perhaps when we were panting for breath).

Headwater has been offering self-guided cycling, walking and activity holidays for 30 years. Specialising in ‘relaxed activity holidays’, their trips are planned with the less-sporty in mind, making them well suited to very occasional cyclists like me. With holiday options in Europe and further afield, Headwater offers cycling trips in Andalucía and Asturias as well as Catalunya, plus walking holidays throughout Spain. Holidaymakers are provided with extensive route notes, a map and, in this case, GPS files to navigate from hotel to hotel by bike. There’s no group, no guides: you can travel solo, with friends or family and go at your own pace. There’s thankfully no need to pack light either: Headwater transport your suitcases to your next destination while you’re transporting yourself.

First & final stop: Calella de Palafrugell

My friend and I were met at the train station in Flaçà (almost 2 hours north-west of Barcelona) by our Headwater reps, who drove us to our first stop: Hotel Garbi, perched above coastal Calella with a commanding view of the bay. Having already received our route notes and detailed information about all our destinations by post, the reps briefed us on the practicalities of cycling in Catalunya and gave us tips on the towns we’d be visiting. Information absorbed, we were fitted with our transport for the week: two slick silver 21-speed bikes, complete with handy panniers. After a year out of the saddle, I was surprised by how wobbly I felt – how was I going to cycle 24 kilometres the next day? Clinging to the fact that the Headwater brochure describes the Contrasts of Catalunya trip as ‘ideal for first timers’, I tried to relax and enjoy my seafood dinner with a spectacular sea view.

All too soon we were bidding adéu to the Hotel Garbi and hitting the road. For all of two minutes: a few metres down the road, we turned onto a country track. Well-surfaced and wide, we rode side by side and contemplated the views across freshly-harvested fields, admiring hilltop villages in the distance. A few kilometres in, with the town of Palafrugell in sight, we paused for water – and to reassure each other that actually, this cycling lark wasn't so bad. It was certainly relaxed going so far despite the encroaching August heat: the terrain was mostly flat and the scenery stunning. Our confidence had grown: we pushed onwards, guided by the GPS files mapping our route. I greeted fellow cyclists with a breezy ‘Bon dia’, acting as though this was how I spent every Sunday morning. The road cycling was easy too; roads are blissfully quiet out in the country so we barely had to contend with traffic.

Could I pass for a pro cyclist?

Our route that day took us through the medieval town of Pals, a maze of cobbled streets lined with houses hewn from honey-coloured stone. If it hadn't have been August, we would have lingered in Pals until lunch time, but despite the breeze that accompanied us most of the way, we were keen to reach Platja de Pals before the afternoon heat set in. And what a treat when we did arrive, just in time for lunch: the Hotel Sa Punta is a welcoming oasis above the main beach resort, with its saltwater swimming pool, its tranquil gardens – and its incredible restaurant. Dinner was included on 4 of our 6 nights (guests make their own arrangements in Calella), and with food this fantastic I wasn't complaining. Our 4-course menu degustación was a treat on both evenings: the menu changes daily, drawing on local and seasonal produce, and offering meat, fish or vegetarian options. Impeccable service meant we never had to lift a hand to pour a drink: we felt like (cycling) royalty.

Dinner at the Sa Punta

Although rest day routes are provided for those who want to use pedal power to explore the local area on the days when they aren’t changing hotels, we chose to interpret ‘rest’ literally and sit cycling out for a day. After all, we were near the 2-mile sandy stretch of Platja de Pals, plus a host of coves such as Sa Tuna and Sa Riera, famed for their turquoise waters and pine-tree backdrops. We also explored the hilltop town of Begur, topped with a castle from which there’s a beautiful view out to the Mediterranean Sea and the Illes Medes. By day 3, we were sufficiently rested and fortified by the Sa Punta’s divine cuisine to cycle 34 kilometres, this time rolling through rice fields, alongside apple orchards and rivers, and through the medieval town of Torroella de Montgrí. Our destination this time was the Castell d’Empordà, a castle-turned-luxury hotel deep in the countryside of the Empordà. This fertile region is known for its rice production and its wine – and we tried both on the terrace at the hotel’s restaurant. Being in the middle of the countryside was an excellent excuse to rest up and enjoy lounging by the pool, admiring the views out over the fields.

Castell d'Emporda: One of the three hotels on the Contrasts of Catalunya route

By our final day’s cycling, we were pros: packing our panniers was a cinch, our bikes were an easy ride and navigating was a breeze. Shame there wasn't an actual breeze that day though: although the August temperatures had been manageable, the muggy weather made cycling a bit of a slog. Our route took us through several pine forests, which may be picturesque, but their sandy ground is harder work than road cycling. Still, day 5’s route took us to our favourite village of the week. Peratallada is one photogenic place: narrow streets leading to pretty plazas, window boxes adorned with bright geraniums and local crafts on sale everywhere. It was a shame to leave, but we pushed on to the town of Palafrugell itself, and finally made it to coastal Llafranc for lunch by the beach. It was about 4pm by the time we reached Calella – plenty of time to catch a few last rays of sun before enjoying our last evening meal in this pretty seaside town.

The pretty village of Peratallada

So, would I take another cycling holiday? Absolutely. Although on the occasional uphill stretch I may have been praying for four wheels instead of two, bikes are a great way to get around. Due to the tracks available to cyclists in this part of Catalunya, we saw far more than we’d have been able to by car, and being out in the fresh air makes you appreciate scenery in a different way. I’d probably avoid August next time, and pace my days more slowly to spend more time in the hamlets and villages we passed through, Peratallada and Pals in particular. The possibility of going at your own pace is a real draw of Headwater holidays – you aren’t under pressure to complete routes in a certain timeframe or keep up with anyone. Detours are entirely possible too – the routes are intended as a guide, but we stuck to them as they were so well-planned, taking in a good balance of coast and countryside, and ensuring we had plenty of opportunities to stop for food or drink in the villages we visited. I certainly saw more of Catalunya than I would have done on an average beach holiday – and there’s nothing more satisfying than flopping down by the pool, sweaty but safe in the knowledge that you've earned some tanning time. And that someone is going to cook you a delicious dinner.

Headwater offers cycling, walking and activity holidays in Europe and the rest of the world. Contrasts of Catalunya runs from April until 20 October and costs include transfers, use of bikes, route notes, support from Headwater reps and accommodation (half board for 4 nights, B & B for 2). For more information on Headwater’s holidays, see their website.

All photos from my Instagram feed


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Kim! It really was. I think active holidays make a great change from a desk job, but on this one we still had plenty of time to relax too.


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