Beyond Barcelona: Bicycling through Catalan Country

The Ebro River valley stretches out below the village of Miravet in Catalunya.

With a warm headwind whipping at my pigtails and my legs pumping furiously upon a pair of bike pedals, I’m ten years old again, experiencing the exhilarating thrill of freedom that only a set of wheels can bestow. But instead of cycling around the civilized suburbs as I did in those bygone days of innocence, I’m winding through the wilds of Southern Catalunya in Spain.

Get on yer bike!

Miles of olive groves, green valleys sculpted by terraced fields, and narrow passes gouged from red rock canyons sweep by beneath a blazing blue sky. Mind adrift, I lose myself in the Zen of forward momentum, serenaded by the sound of…well, nothing, save the smooth “whoosh” of tire spokes—and, if I’m honest, my increasingly labored breathing as I embark on a slow uphill ascent.

A cyclists wheels past fields and groves on the Via Verde in Catalunya.

At least I can be reassured that I’m burning some of the thousands of calories I’ve been consuming on my cycling tour of this resolutely resilient region of Spain, which maintains its own language, culture and cuisine.

Tortosa skyline with the Cathedral of Saint Mary and the Ebro River.

It’s not just the paella and shellfish I’m sampling, though, but the rich diversity of the landscape and villages of Catalunya’s Terres de l’Ebre, a 1,420-square-mile UNESCO Biosphere Reserve embracing the Ebro River basin, two national parks and 88 miles of coastline.

MonNatura Delta de l’Ebre nature centre in Amposta, Catalunya.

“Once you are here,” says Albert Folch Giro, deputy director for the Terres de l’Ebre, “you are off the beaten path.”

Nothing could hammer this home more effectively than the 28,000 hectares of rice fields which mirror the sky in the Delta, the second most important rice-growing region in Spain. But beyond agriculture, a special breed of travelers is increasingly contributing to the economy, as well.

“The tourists that come here are looking for nature, not massive buildings,” says Joseph Culvi, director of MonNatura Delta de l’Ebre. Located in the coastal marshes of Amposta, about a two-hour drive southwest of Barcelona, this nature and cultural heritage center encompasses a bird-watching tower, 19th century salt pans, and a chance to try your hand at navigating a traditional flat-bottomed boat.

Joseph Culvr (far right) demonstrates the proper way to navigate a traditional flat-bottomed Catalan boat at MonNatura Delta de l’Ebre in Amposta, Catalunya.

“We want to draw people that respect the landscape, who want to hear that,” Culvi says, cocking his head towards the sound of birdsong wafting along the breeze.

He’s even thankful for the occasional swarm of mosquitoes, which proliferate after a rainfall and keep less hardy visitors at bay. “Mosquitoes are part of the landscape,” he shrugs. “They contribute something to nature.” He pauses. “I guess.”

The Delta hosts a rich variety of flora and fauna.

Mossies aren’t the only winged beasts in the Delta. More than 300 species of birds—approximately 60 percent of all those in Europe—pass through the Ebro Delta National Park each year. Twitchers may feel their hearts flutter when they glimpse a rare Audouin’s Gull, “but the flamingos are the stars,” Culvi grins, leading my friends and me to the top of the observation tower, where we peer through binoculars at a dozen pale pink specimens high-stepping among the marshes.

While bird-watching may be the main attraction of the Delta for many, it’s the pancake-flat landscape that appeals to me. We enjoy a morning of effortless cycling around L’Ampolla, following a coastal route past a sandy white beach before veering off onto gravel trails threading through the marshes.

Cyclists enjoy a pancake-flat path along the beach in Ampolla, Catalunya.

Despite the heat, we’ve hardly broken a sweat by the time we arrive at Port d’Illa Harbor, where we’ve arranged a boat tour of the oyster and mussel beds in El Fangar Bay with Ruben Cabrera of Mirador de La Badia. With his eyes glued to the cloudless horizon and his hands gripping the boat wheel, Cabrera, who runs the family business with his brother Xavier, sluices between skeletal wooden platforms made of sun-bleached logs which squat low above the shallow seabed.

A boat roped to a shellfish farm bobs in the shallow waters of Port d’Illa Harbour in Ampolla, Catalunya.

We have an opportunity to sample these fruits of the sea for ourselves when we dock alongside an overwater restaurant run by the Cabreras, where a cheerful group clad in swimsuits are enjoying glasses of cava with fresh mussels and oysters, and when I say fresh, I mean fresh.

Fresh mussels are on the menu at Mirador de La Badia in Ampolla.

Xavier Cabrera scampers across an adjoining platform with the alacrity of a gymnast on a balance beam, clutching a sack full of shellfish, and soon we, too, are slurping oysters and gobbling mussels as greedily as popcorn at a blockbuster film.

Xavier Cabrera carries a bag of mussels across a shellfish farm at Mirador de la Badia.

Reluctantly abandoning the coast, we head further inland towards the north to discover still more dramatic scenery. In Tortosa, we sleep in a stately castle converted into a hotel and tour the Gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria, which hunkers above a compact labyrinth of tunnels used as a bomb shelter during the Spanish Civil War.

Arches frame the cloisters at the Cathedral of Santa Maria in Tortosa, Catalunya.

Following a steamy morning’s ride on the Via Verde to Pinell de Brai, we feast on octopus, local cheese, cured meats and fresh cherries washed down with swoon-inducing wines at the soaring Wine Cathedral, an Art Nouveau brick and stone edifice housing a restaurant, the Pagos de Hibera winery, and a museum of wine-making.

The Wine Cathedral in Catalunya’s Pinell de Brai offers tours, tasting and a restaurant.

In the medieval hilltop town of Horta de Sant Joan, where Picasso invented Cubism—and where replicas of his works fill a small museum—we’re rewarded with views of the craggy mountains of Els Ports National Park, punctuating the surrounding plains.

Horta de Sant Joan overlooks the rugged Magic Mountain. A church built by the Knights Templar and the Monastery of Saint Salvador, who is said to have performed miracles here, sit at its base.

In Miravet, another artistic enclave filled with painters, potters, sculptors and photographers, we march up steep streets flanked by terraced stone houses to the ruins of a 12thcentury Knights Templar fortress, offering a spectacular panorama of the river’s serpentine path below.

Miravet towers above the Ebro River, which has flooded the village several times over the past few centuries. It’s crowned by a castle once occupied by the Knights Templar.

But when I think back on this trip, it’s the memory of the placid blue bay of El Fangar that will serve as my favorite souvenir—a mental postcard of a place where the sea melts into the sky like a maritime mirage. Although I won’t soon forget the ache in my backside either, perhaps permanently imprinted with the outline of my bike seat now. Next time, I’m plumping for padded shorts, even if I do look like a Lycra-clad sausage.

Mirador de La Badia offers overwater tours of their shellfish farm, as well as an overwater restaurant and sundeck.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Barcelona is the nearest airport.

Tours: If you’d like help planning your getaway, British-based Headwater offers a variety of holidays—featuring either cycling or hiking–in Catalunya.

Tourism board: Experience Catalunya

Hotel highlights

Hotel Algadir, a friendly, family-run hotel with a swimming pool in the tiny whitewashed town of Poblenou del Delta.

Hotel des Capcades, a chic, contemporary boutique hotel serving meals with a gourmet flair in the plains of Horta de Sant Joan.

Hotel Parador de Tortosa, housed in an atmospheric castle in Tortosa—only instead of a moat, this castle has a swimming pool.

Hotel Parador de Tortosa is a castle that has been converted into a hilltop hotel in Tortosa, Catalunya.

Add a few days in Barcelona at Hotel Arts Barcelona to recover from your cycling extravaganza. This Ritz-Carlton-operated beachfront hotel, with an outdoor pool, hot tub, and a 43rdfloor spa where you can soak in sky-high views from the vitality pool, sauna and open-air terraces and indulge in a Natura Bisse treatment. Reward yourself for your free-wheeling adventure with a meal at the two Michelin-starred Enoteca Paco Perez—one of six bars and restaurants at the hotel.

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