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Girona had long tempted me. Pro cyclists – Lance Armstrong included – have regularly made this corner of northeast Spain their base, thanks to surprising terrain and perfect weather (not to mention the bonus of Catalonian wine and cuisine). As my wife, Cathy, and I were climbing inland after leaving the coastal road between Tossa de Mar and Sant Feliu de Guíxols – a stunning route often used in the Vuelta a España (Spain’s equivalent of the Tour de France) – it was easy to see why. The road was quiet, the pavement was good and we had serene views of the Mediterranean below. We even managed to laugh (a touch nervously) when we passed a sign indicating an upcoming 14-percent downhill grade. We turned the next corner and stopped. 

“Oh, my Lord,” said Cathy.

It was a 14-percent gradient all right. Straight up. A ribbon of pavement tapered skyward, as if we were at the bottom of a ski jump looking up. Once at the top, panting and standing bent over my handlebars, I realized that what I loved about Spain – neatly symbolized by a descent sign prior to an ascent – was its utter unpredictability. As we found out over the course of a week’s cycling, you can take a siesta in Spain, but you can’t doze off.

oceanside cycling with Canigou in Girona SpainGirona's coastal roads (Photo: Dirk Guenneman / Canigou Cycling)

I later shared my insight with Canigou Cycling’s Dirk Guenneman, who expertly helped us with map routes and bike rentals. Guenneman, a German living near Pals, came to terms long ago with the charming riddle that is Spain, and his favoured response is now simply a shrug. “It’s beautiful and wonderful, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he told me. “But it is Spain.” 

That night, Cathy and I, along with our friends Rich and Charlotte, were able to alleviate the traumatic effect of our climb with a stay at La Rectoria, a boutique hotel attached to an old abbey not far from Olot. Our hosts, Roy and Garotti, were big-hearted, and the food was superb: a confit onion tart to start, chorizo and bream with Montgetes de Santa Pau for the main, topped off – or rather cemented – with sticky toffee pudding and homemade ice cream. The rooms made us feel as if we had somehow fallen into sudden wealth; the ancient cloister had been perfectly modernized so that centuries-old beams and mortar stood out against modern gleaming fixtures. It was a place to spend a week, not a night.

La Rectoria Inn Girona SpainLa Rectoria (Photo: Mark Torra) 

The following day, we set off under a warm sun for a 70-kilometre out-and-back route. You can find steeper climbs, but, for the most part, the cycling in Catalonia is characterized by rolling hills interspersed with picturesque villages like Ullastret and Palau-sator. Every village we passed through – with their bell towers, market squares, cozy cafés, scruffy barking dogs and cobblestone streets – seemed purpose-built to ooze medieval charm.

We chose the town of Palau-sator for dinner at Mas Pou, a restaurant housed in a lovingly restored 16th-century farmhouse. The Baix Emporda is rife with rice fields; we’d cycled past many and were often told the region’s rice, which is soft on the outside and firm in the middle, was particularly good for paella. Seeing no rice on the Mas Pou menu, I asked for it specifically.

“No rice,” said our waiter, a Kevin Spacey look-alike.

“But isn’t this area famous for its rice?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, smiling. “Lovely rice.”

“But you don’t serve it? I mean, we’re surrounded by rice.”

He gazed at me half-lidded. “Not here.”

I settled for monkfish with mixed roasted vegetables, thinking to myself how fitting it was that Spain produced Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a novel about tilting at windmills and which produced the adjective “quixotic,” meaning romantic and improbable.

After the dinner plates had been cleared, our waiter turned to me. “Dessert for you, sir? Rice perhaps?” He bit his upper lip. We laughed while I reminded myself that Don Quixote is comedy and tragedy.

Baix Emporda SpainBaix Emporda

At least the cycling was not quixotic. I’ll cherish the descents the most and will never forget going town to town, from Madremanya to Corçà, along narrow country roads, with a smooth surface and a clear view ahead. You can freewheel in a rush of release and movement so organic, so pure, that your body holds the feeling for hours afterwards.

Our final night was spent wandering the ancient part of the city of Girona. On a small lamplit terrace, we stumbled upon Le Bistrot in the crook of the Y intersection of three grand stone staircases at Pujada de Sant Domenec. As clichéd as it might sound, it was like a movie set, real yet possessed of a mirage-like sheen. Such was the romantic improbability of this tiny square – yes, the Spanishness of it – that I half-expected a film director to yell, “Cut!” and then to have Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem walk by, pull up chairs and casually join us. This was Spain, after all.

Nothing would have surprised me. 



Getting There

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Comments… or add another

Alan Bell

Monday, August 11th 2014 18:09
And you absolutely must have the galtes at Le Bistrot

Maureen Weston

Monday, August 11th 2014 18:46
I enjoyed reading your article. Having just completed a 90 km training ride in the hot sun today I can empathize with the 14% uphill grade....always more challenging when you're not mentally prepared! The accommodations described sounded lovely and the photos beautiful. Makes me want to ride in Spain.

Jacqueline Leger

Monday, August 11th 2014 19:46
Very interesting especially since we are going toSpain I the fall.

Maria Meier

Monday, August 11th 2014 20:54
My Son is a Cyclist and he lives in Girona. I visit every year and i love Girona.

Maria Hamann

Monday, August 11th 2014 23:16
I loved this article ! In few weeks I am heading to Spain to walk the "Camino de Santiago" , where I expect to find loving towns,great food and some "quixotic" experiences.

manel albert

Wednesday, August 13th 2014 09:05
Too many references to Spain and spanish literature in your article, I hope you realized after your stay in Girona, that you were in Catalonia, hopefully soon to be an independent country.

Vivian Stieda

Wednesday, August 13th 2014 18:24
Generally can't stand marketing materials/spam I receive from companies, but really enjoyed this one. Thanks. I will save copies of these little articles to remind myself of holiday ideas. Bravo et gracias!

Adela Witko

Friday, August 15th 2014 15:05
I would like to attend but not this time pls keep me posted tx Adele
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