Cycling between the sea and the mountains
Unexpectedly, Spain became our last destination during our cycling trip through Europe in 2020. After our doubts in Italy, we enjoyed the Spanish sun, sea, beach and mountains to the fullest during our cycling trip through Catalonia, Valencia and Murcia. You can read all about our Spanish cycling adventure in this blog.
Sailor's legs in Barcelona
After a 22-hour ferry starting in Civitavecchia (IT) yesterday, we have finally arrived in Barcelona. With the bikes in our hands we walk off the boat a bit wobbly, happy to see our Surly's are still in great shape. Within five minutes we are cycling on the Ramblas whila a warm breeze makes us forget the Italian cold immediately. The streets are almost empty because of the Catalonian lockdown and we hardly encounter another soul in this otherwise vibrant city. We cycle to our hostel quickly and take out a delicious falafal for a midnight snack, after which we immediately fall asleep with an enormous sense of relaxation. We are confident we have made the correct decision to leave Italy and are curious to explore Spain.
The lockdown in Catalonia is quite strict and imposes many restrictions. We had both visited Barcelona before and this makes us decide to leave it within a day. A coffee stop at Gaudi's impressive Sagrada Familia is the last thing this city has to offer us before we head on. The bike paths in the city are well structured and quite safe, but at the same time test our patience. An endless street with red lights lays in front of us and it takes us almost an hour before we have reached the outskirts of Barcelona. The industrial character because of the nearby airport is not the coolest part to cycle through, but it is unavoidable. At the end of the day we get rewarded for our patience. We reach the coast and cycle up and down magnificent cliffs, encouraged by cars that continuously overtake us from a safe distance. The temperature almost reaches 25 degrees Celsius, the perfect surroundings for a first day of cycling here.
We reach our campground by 6 pm and Niels pitches the tent, while Stefanie looks for ways to continue our route along the coast. There isn't a fully finished route to cycle from Barcelona to Valencia, but the Eurovelo 8 gives us a good sense of direction. It is still under construction so our tactic is to avoid the busy roads as much as possible and cycle along the coast most of our time. This tactic works well and we come across many unexpected highlights. Beautiful unpaved cycling tracks along the beach, hidden shelters and desolated viewpoints at the top of some cliffs.
Our first real stop after Barcelona is the city of Tarragona, a very pleasant Old Roman town that is located at the Costa Caurada. We end up at hotel Pigal where the staff gives us a very warm welcome. We strike up a conversation with the owner and the sweetest receptionist that inevitably leads to a corona discussion. They have had, and are a still having, the hardest time due to all restrictions and feel their savings evaporate step by step. This side of the story is not shown enough according to us, the real struggle that people feel while their dreams and hard work fade away slowly. It's a lovely hotel with the coolest staff and we decide to stay two nights. There is a special, cozy atmosphere in Tarragona and it's a place worth discovering!
The next day we stumble through the old part of town and are charmed by the authentic little streets and cool, local shops. The historic amphitheater is a must see, the proximity off the sea makes this place even more special. We're there totally alone and wander around for about half an hour to fully enjoy this place. Tarragona is also the town where the 'castells' competition takes place every year in the first weekend of October. The goal of the event is to make a human tower as high as possible. We imagine it would definitely be worth visiting this spectacular event.
The day flies by and in the evening we take out some delicious local food at take it back to the hotel with us. "Make yourselves at home" say the hotel owners while the Armenian receptionist joins us for diner. Not much later a couple from France joins us, they have just finished their cycling trip and are returning home the next day. We chat over a few cups of tea and exchange stories. It's these moments that make sure we don't get homesick for the time being!
After 2 nights we leave Tarragona with a good and relaxed feeling, ready to hit the road again. Our legs always need some time getting used to the repetitive movement after some resting days, but we feel fitter every day and this period of time gets shorter and shorter. We pick up on our rhythm very quickly and the fresh sea breeze gives us an extra boost of energy. When you start a cycling trip like this you have to be aware you will be cycling through all kinds of weather, but boy it feels to good to enjoy these warmer temperatures!!
Following the coastline is more difficult about a dozen kilometers outside of Tarragona. We collide with closed walking lanes, tunnels that are too narrow and secluded private areas. They force us to cycle on the big roads more often than we'd like to, but as we said before the Spanish drivers are very polite. It's also required by law in Spain that drivers keep at least 1.5 meters distance from cyclists, a dream for cyclists!
Our route planner Komoot does not always give very up-to-date information on the gradient levels for this route. This part of Spain is not for people who enjoy longer climbs like in France or Switzerland, because we bump into short 20 tot 22% ascents quite a lot, forcing us to push our bikes. We prefer the more steady ascents, but it's all part of the journey and we deal with it by making fun of each other. The cycling tracks get rougher every day, but the scenery is awesome and well worth the effort.
During one of these steep descents we have to take out our maintenance tools for the first time. The stretcher of Stefanie's backpack got loose and stuck between her chain and cassette. Luckily she reacted quickly and stops in time to not make a fall. It's the hottest moment of the day and we curse for a little moment, but remain surprisingly calm at the same time. Niels feels happy and suddenly realizes all those hours of watching bike maintenance videos online are finally paying off (thanks to Roel Peerenboom's Youtube videos!!). We break the chain, remove the stretcher out of the cassette and fix the chain again. All in all it only takes 20 minutes and we're all set to cycle on. At the end of the day we find a nice spot next to the sea and fall asleep with the sound of rushing waves in the background.
We have decided to not bring our old stretchers on our upcoming world trip by bike. The Fixplus straps will be our companions during the next trip!
Next to Vinaròs, Spain offers a little delta area. It is a gray day when the sunny coastal route suddenly gives way to flooded meadows and agricultural areas. We see a lot of water birds and it is a welcome and unexpected change. We come across many street dogs on this stretch, they are everywhere! Most of them don't notice us or limit themselves to some growling and loud barking. Unfortunately, the one thing that happens to every world cyclist is finally there, an "attack" by a street dog. To our great surprise we are startled when 4 little puppies come flying towards us and try to bite our ankles. A bizarre situation and we decide to speed up and spray some water on them with our water bottles and they lose interest within half a minute. We look at each other and we can't stop laughing. "What sissies we are!", says Stefanie. An all in all hilarious moment that we won't soon forget. Tip: If a dog attacks you while cycling, it's best to stop pedaling. It's a contradictory reaction because most of us want to flight or fly. However, it's the spinning wheel and the pedaling motion that dogs can't stand, so to freeze is your best option here!
One of the absolute highlights during our cycling trip through Spain is without a doubt cycling through Serra d'Irta, a rugged natural park located below Peñiscola. It's very easy to reach but highly advisable to use an offroad bike like ours. The beginning is harsh with a short but very steep climb over gravel paths and rocky roads. Other visitors who are visiting the park by foot declare us crazy, but we love the physical challenge. Meanwhile, the sea is left of us, the mountains to right. It's appealing to wild camp, but we see street signs everywhere warning us with a fine of up to €2,000. Along the way a park ranger approaches us, he is curious to ask about our story but meanwhile warns us not to camp here. It's too bad, but we respect these situations and rules, there are plenty of campsites to find nearby.
What follows rapidly after this rugged natural park is a civilized world. We are lucky, because one of our Ortlieb panniers needs a new screw that came loose during this rough patch. We stop at a local bike shop in Torre la Sal and they help us out while we enjoy some sun and coffee outside. Civilization may be back, but the ground is becoming more and more of an issue for us. It's rock hard and dry which makes pitching our tent more difficult. It's these moments we are not too happy with our beautiful Hilleberg tunnel tent and a stand-alone tent would come in handy. However, we get more creative every day and there's a solution for every situation. We use our bikes or big rocks to attach our tent and this works out fine as long as it's not very windy.
A good tip for this route is to follow the Via Verde cycling path from Oropesa to Benicassim. A touristy stretch, but with good reason. You follow a green, quiet bicycle road that runs along old railroad lines. During a hot day, it offers plenty of shelter and a safe, easy way to enjoy the rugged coastline. This might be fun for those who would find Serra d'Irta a little too extreme.
Last days on the bike
After six consecutive days of cycling we arrive in Valencia, a city where we feel comfortable right away. Because of covid it is very quiet and hotel prices are incredibly cheap. We love these rest days and want to explore the city, so we treat ourselves to a warm bed for three days. While it's cold in Belgium we enjoy the Spanish sun to the fullest with days of 30 degrees Celsius.
Leaving the city we cycle inland towards Murcia, we trade palm trees and the beach for orange trees and dry, desert-like landscapes swiftly. The rapid change of scenery is probably one of the most extreme we have experienced on our way from Belgium to Spain. For the first time in Spain we cycle up real mountains and have a far view over the countrysides. When we stop for lunch a local cyclist stops to make a chat and tells us this area can be snowed under in about 1 to 2 months, incredible!
Unfortunately, what we sensed was coming is happening: the borders between the different provinces in Spain are being closed because of covid. Here in Spain they react very impulsively and rules come into effect within 24 hours, which makes it impossible for us to cover another 180 kilometres in one day through these mountains. For a moment we think to just go for it, but we decide not to care anymore. When we are looking for a place to put up our tent on the last evening, we bump into Francis, a shepherd. He is busy herding all the sheep together with his dog. Suddenly we are in the middle of a whole flock. Francis quickly makes a sign that we shouldn't be afraid for the sheep to run over our bicycles.
When we ask him to put up our tent on his meadow, he directs us to a house a little further down the road. An English family lives there and according to Francis they often receive travellers. Not much later we are allowed to pitch our tent on what is without doubt one of the most unique sleeping places during the trip. We camp just next to their house and enjoy a wide view when the woman brings us water to make dinner. Just after a beautiful sunset, we snuggle into our tent.
The next morning, 01 November, there is frost on our tent for the first time. We feel really cold after a warm day of cycling yesterday and for the first time we take out our winter gloves. While packing up our tent and preparing our bikes, our host comes over and treats us with some tea, coffee and toast. How sweet and a perfect end to this trip in Spain. Niels' mom is waiting for us with open arms when we arrive in Fortuna. We are so happy to see her and Marco and to be able to enjoy a homely environment again. Extremely proud and with 2.700 km in our legs we are pampered the same evening and enjoy delicious fries in the Spanish sun!
We didn't realize it back then, but this suddenly appears to be the end of our world trip. Maybe it's just as well that we don't have a clue this adventure was over, otherwise we would never have cycled so cheerfully towards Murcia. A few weeks later, our dreams and hopes disappear because of the endless global covid measures (be sure to read our blog about the total experience of our bike trip from Belgium to Spain). We return to Belgium in February 2021, but in the meantime have found the strength to restart our biggest dream in March 2022! Cycling from Alaska to Patagonia!
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