Last updated on June 20, 2019
In an attempt to see more of my adoptive home, I took off on a 2-day, 160km bike riding adventure from Barcelona to… “somewhere on the Costa Brava” and found everything I’d been dreaming of.
Plans, dreams, aspirations… like you, I’ve got so many. But if there’s one thing I have more of, it’s excuses.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve talked about cycling from Barcelona to Seville, or around Catalonia. I’ve been living in Spain for years, on and off, and it’s always worried me that I am so unfamiliar with the areas and cultures that lay beyond Barcelona.
Cycling, I decided, would be the best way to discover it all…
Jack Pearce, my grandfather, once told me about a friend of his who had always dreamed of walking the entire circumference of the UK, along the coast. “It was his retirement plan. But, of course, when he retired he was just too old and tired. You’ve got to do these things while you’re young and able, you see Ben?”
My grandfather went home later that day and my mum noticed me ruminating his words. “You know he wasn’t talking about his friend? You know he was talking about himself? That was his dream,” my mum revealed. I’ll never forget that conversation, especially now that he’s gone.
But it’s one thing talking about cycling from Barcelona to Seville and a very different thing actually doing it. And, always looking for a distraction or excuse, I found myself scouring the classifieds for cheap motorcycles.
“I can do it all in a couple of days if I get a motorcycle,” I told myself. “I don’t have time to do it on a bicycle,” I said.
Singed by the sun, soaked by sudden storms, shaken by exhaustion, but constantly inspired by the sweet, pine-scented coastal roads and luminous blue sea, it was everything I could have dreamed it would be.
But suddenly I realised I was only making excuses for myself. In reality, I already had everything I needed: a bike and an able body. I didn’t need a motorcycle, I didn’t need a touring bike, I just needed to slap on some sunscreen and start pedalling.
And that’s what I did. I spent about €50 on some padded cycling shorts to cushion my tush and some panniers to carry my stuff, and I headed north out of Barcelona with the vague notion of following the coast up the Costa Brava, an area I’ve been trying to get more familiar with for some years.
OK, so maybe it wasn’t the epic, life-changing saga of a journey from Barcelona to Seville, but it ticked all the boxes. And what I found within me, what I learnt about myself on my Costa Brava cycling adventure was everything I could have wished for.
Making Do. Making it Happen.
My bike, a bog-standard mountain bike that I bought for around €300, is by no means the perfect touring machine, but I’ve grown quite attached to it over the year or so I’ve had it.
It’s proof that you really don’t need all the gear to make your dreams a reality. I called her Gwen in the end, for reasons I’ll leave for another story, and together we’ve had all kinds of misadventures.
Singed by the sun, soaked by sudden storms, shaken by exhaustion, but constantly inspired by the sweet, pine-scented coastal roads and luminous blue sea, it was everything I could have dreamed it would be. It wasn’t without its low-points, but it was the impetus I needed to get out there and do it, the adventure I craved and the beginning of many cycling adventure.
Day 1 ~ Beyond Barcelona’s Boundaries
With Gwen fully loaded with everything from a Swiss army knife and bike tool kit to camping gear, tins of beans and all sorts of ridiculous items, the route from my apartment to the beachfront felt completely anew.
But I still found myself in stressed out city cycling mode as I weaved and wound the weight of my bike around giddy tourists and aggressive drivers.
Everything changed as I arrived at the Forum venue near the ex-industrial area of Poble Nou, where the thump and boom of the city’s debauched Sonar music festival began to find its pace.
A quick scramble through the billion-dollar-boat bulging marina and over a graffitied bridge and I suddenly found myself in a whole new world. Barcelona glistened like a medallion behind me, oblivious to my departure, and the temperature immediately seemed to drop as I cruised along the crackling sand to Badalona.
The Devil on My Shoulder
It wasn’t the temperature dropping, it was in fact the stark realisation that I was finally doing it, finally just going. A sense of guilt washed over me, a feeling of greed.
Why was I doing this? What was the point? How could I be so self-indulgent? It was the devil on my shoulder and I responded between the huffs and puffs as I pushed on…
Because this was a life-long dream, to pack up a bike and just go.
There didn’t have to be a point, the challenge and experience was its own reward.
And self-indulgence comes in many forms – at least I wasn’t hurting anyone.
The headwind continued to grow stronger, but I felt clearer and more powerful than ever as I pushed onwards into it.
For me, cycling is a constant reward, a continuous sense of movement, progress and development.
Badalona is part of Barcelona’s greater metropolis area and was founded by the Romans in the 3rd century BC, but it’s often referred to as some kind of ugly sister of a town, a soulless, unremarkable place unworthy of a visit. The reality however is something altogether different: a swaying palm-lined promenade lined with pretty buildings and cafes that overlook vast expanses of clean sands and the cobalt Mediterranean Sea. “I could live here,” I thought.
We can read about places, we can watch videos and flick through photos, but nothing comes even remotely close to traveling, living, feeling, smelling and tasting a place.
Meditating on the Med
I know plenty people who think it’s boring, but I’ve always cycled alone. It’s the perfect opportunity to switch off and simply be in the moment. I don’t fully understand why I find it so meditative, I just do.
Perhaps it’s the fact that you have no choice but to focus on the present moment when you’re cycling, on where you are and what’s ahead of you. For me, cycling is a constant reward, a continuous sense of movement, progress and development.
And I was drifting into that place, to the place I go in my head when I ride long distances, when I was brought back to earth with a bit of a thump.
The map had suggested I follow the N-11, a sort of coastal dual carriageway that apparently “features wide hard shoulders that are perfect for cyclists”. But what I found instead was a hive of frantic over taking and 100mph undertaking with little space for a day-dreaming cyclist, so I stuck to the coast, literally, to the sunbaked dirt track that eventually ended up with me stuck on the beach.
I pushed Gwen through the deep sand, her weight magnified as she sank and spilled over.
Sunburnt Storms and Shivering in Calella
The weather seemed to worsen with each rotation of my wheels and I considered how it proved my theory that Barcelona is indeed some kind of magical bubble, a place that operates on a completely different frequency to the rest of the world.
I checked my Strava map and was disheartened to find I’d only travelled some 30km – hardly a mammoth ride. My legs were tiring and my body temperature had dropped in the strong wind that engulfed me. Flecks of rain speckled by skin and it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t actually know where I was going.
I mean, I knew I needed a campsite, but I didn’t actually have one in mind. The flecks of rain became tears and eventually marbles of splish splashing water that bounced off the road and sprayed out the back of the cars that sped past me.
I pulled over at a petrol station to find shelter and put on my raincoat. I’d eat some granola bars and make a plan.
My map told me that there was a campsite within spitting distance of where I was, but I was more excited by the sound of Calella, a beachfront resort town that was familiar from my days hanging out at my mum’s office when she was a travel agent. It was 10km farther on. It felt like a thousand.
Day 1’s Ride
A Lucky Break
I arrived in Calella to find the rain still pouring from the sky and pulled over to search my map for a campsite. My hands were wet and cold and it hurt to unclasp my fingers from the handlebars. Bear in mind that this was June, a month normally drenched in sunshine and warmth in Catalonia.
I arched my back, stretching and cursing the sky, only to notice that I’d stopped right next to a cliffside campsite called Camping el Far. It was a gift from above and, despite the cold water seeping into my clothes, I rode in with a smile on my face.
A middle-aged woman with black hair screamed into the telephone before slamming it down with a gasp. She looked up at me and took stock of my mud-trudged, rain-riddled appearance and asked calmly, “For camping?”.
I practically threw my wallet at her in gratitude.
“We will give you one of our tents, ok?”
“But I have a tent,” I replied.
“But is raining very much and… it’s the same price for you, is six euros, ok? And it has a proper bed.”
It was more of a blessing than I realised. When I unzipped my luxury tent and explored its two double bedrooms, complete with electricity and a television, I noticed I was shaking uncontrollably and ice-cold.
I crawled into the bed and pulled every blanket I could find over me, but nothing seemed to warm me up. I considered what I would have done if I’d have had to stay in my little tent with nothing but the thin sleeping-bag liner I’d convinced myself would be all I’d need for a summer cycling trip in Spain.
From under the blankets I chugged two cans of beer that I’d bought at the campsite shop and finished the huge pack of salted almonds and cranberries that I’d brought from home. But instead of settling me, it sent me into an almost delusional state and the room began to spin as if I’d had twelve and not two cans of beer.
Eventually I slept.
I woke to the sound of children laughing around the pool next to my tent and the sensation of warmth. It was 8pm (the same day) and the shivers were gone. All I could think about was eating.
I unzipped the tent and was greeted by the beginnings of sunset. I wandered over the train tracks that run along Calella’s beachfront and plunged my toes into the sand, still wet and cold from the day’s rain. The streets were narrow and neon-lit, with never-ending rows of souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants where cheery tourists nattered and sipped on cold cañas and glasses of scarlet-hued wine.
I ducked into Restaurant Can Miquel, which seemed to be the only Spanish restaurant in town that wasn’t built with the sole purpose of satisfying foreigners’ insatiable appetite for cheap tapas and sugary sangria.
Wearing shorts, my salt-crusted cap and my fluorescent cycling jacket, the waitress welcomed me warmly and smiled knowingly when I asked for a table for one.
I ordered steak and grilled vegetables and a glass of red wine from the nearby Empordà wine region. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a meal so intensely and my body seemed to absorb the flavour and sustenance like an unwatered plant would water.
Day 2 ~ A New Day on Old Legs
I woke early the next morning and felt rejuvenated by the sun that seeped in through the canvas roof.
The pine trees of the campsite filled my every breath with their sweet and soothing aromas and I could see the blue sea warming in the distance. What a breathtakingly beautiful campsite, I thought to myself as I stood on my terrace and slathered on more sunscreen.
Any thoughts I’d had of waking up and heading straight home instantly evaporated in the early morning sun and I had another quick look at the map, desperate to make some sort of plan for the day.
The day before I’d cycled roughly 50km and it ended with me shivering and shaking in bed with exhaustion. Today, as I layered the suncream onto my wobbly, fatigued legs, I convinced myself that I could manage almost 100km. In 29°C heat.
Cruising the Costa Brava and Greenways Cycle Routes
Before leaving Barcelona I’d read about Catalonia’s Vias Verdes (Greenways) cycle routes, which trace old abandoned train tracks.
It struck me that I could find one back to Girona, where I could jump on a train back to Barcelona.
A quick Google search revealed that one of the cycle routes connected Sant Feliu de Guíxols, a town on the Costa Brava, to the city of Girona.
Hugging the coast as much as possible, the map said it was a four-hour, 55km ride from my current location in Calella to Sant Feliu de Guíxols.
Vague Route Planning
And I deduced that it was another 35km ride from Sant Feliu de Guíxols to Girona via the Vias Verdes cycling route.
This is where I don’t quite know what I was thinking. The day before I’d cycled roughly 60km and it ended with me shivering and shaking in bed with exhaustion. Today, as I layered the suncream onto my wobbly, fatigued legs, I convinced myself that I could manage almost 100km. In 29°C heat.
I filled up my water bottles, inhaled another granola bar and hit the road.
Under blue skies, I darted off the winding GI-682 down to the various beach resorts that line the Costa Brava, places that I’d heard of a thousand times but never seen for myself.
They are every bit as sun-bleached and over crowded as you’d imagine them to be, with jet-skiers and parasailers causing scenes out in the water and old, leather-skinned sunbathers sprawled out on the hot sand like furless seals. But I also found each little resort to be clean and elegant, with manicured gardens and an abundance of attractive cafes and restaurant terraces that gave each beach an air of prosperity. I was impressed.
There was Pineda de Mar, Malgrat de Mar, Blanes, the notoriously touristy Lloret de Mar, which I didn’t like at all ( I don’t think I even stopped to take photos), and finally Tossa de Mar, which I found to be far more tasteful and beautiful than I’d imagined.
At Tossa de Mar, which was one of the places that most surprised me, I sneaked off down one of the little streets into the heart of the town, hunting out somewhere, anywhere, where I could sit outside with Gwen and eat.
Food, beer… it was all I could think about and I was like a snarling beast as I barged my way through the crowds to find it.
I eventually settled on a tiny little cafe where I ate chicken-stuffed wraps drizzled in a sugary-sweet chilli salsa and swallowed fistfuls of undercooked chips whole between greedy gulps of beer.
It was, to say the very least, an animalistic experience.
Winding Roads and Quiet Beach Coves
This was the part I’d been dreaming of. This snaking, curling, winding road seemed to go on forever, and I hoped it would.
The elevation was intense at times and the heat was really getting to me. My camera swung wildly around my neck and I couldn’t help but stop at the top of each climb to take photos. The road would sweep around a corner, revealing the glowing turquoise waters and thick pine forests that tumbled down to the cliffs to the water. I zoomed in on little boards and paddleboarders that seemed to float on air.
But onwards and ever upwards, I had to continue.
I can’t quite express how much I enjoyed this stretch of the ride. Every atom of my body vibrated with joy as I took deep breaths of sappy-pines and olive trees.
Lizards scuffled off into the scrub as I pulled over to sip water and soak in the views. And the soundtrack was supplied by the constant chirp of what must have been a million crickets, and the rumble of motorcyclists roaring past me with their knees on the ground.
But as much as I loved it, there was no denying that I was beginning to tire.
Dilusional in Sant Feliu de Guíxols
My spirits were still high, but I was trembling and shaking with exhaustion by the time I got to Sant Feliu de Guíxols.
A chic and important hub of Costa Brava, I considered that it would be a good place to stop for an extra night. It was a town I’ve always wanted to see. But it felt like I’d be admitting defeat, so I pushed myself to continue.
I stood in awe at the monastery, unable to focus or find the co-ordination to use the map on my phone. I felt drunk, like it was all just a dream and that I’d wake up soon.
I straightened my arm as I put my phone away and it spasmed with the most intense cramp, just from the weight of holding my phone. I was severely dehydrated and I’d run out of water, but I somehow managed to roll down hill to a the spot where I knew the Vias Verde (Greenway cycling) route started.
I popped into a shop to buy water and an energy drink. I was determined to make it to Girona. The cycle track would be safe anyway, even if I was weak and weary, and the lady in the shop told me that it started just around the corner. I was too close to quit now.
Countryside Cruising Along the Vias Verdes Cycle Route
It felt strange not being by the sea. It had been a constant for so long, and now it was gone. It also felt strange to be on an actual cycle track. It was so… easy. All I had to do was follow the little arrows and follow the “Ruta del Carrilet II“.
My legs now completely numb, it felt like Gwen was carrying me home by herself, through the dusty forests and lush vineyards, past people’s back gardens and over bizarre bridges.
We travelled through farmland and endless miles of rolling fields, lush and so much greener than I thought it would be in the this part of the world. There were even lavender fields at one point.
For the most part it was just me and the sound of the grit crackling beneath my tyres, the creak of Gwen’s chain grinding away at her cogs.
Occasionally I’d overtake a cyclist or a dog walker and I’d say “hola!”. I sang at the top of my lungs, screaming along to Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All along the watchtower”, dreaming of juicy watermelons as I sang along with Sol Driven Train’s “Watermelon” song – “Sticky and Sweet, tender and pink, so firm and round, sunbathing on the ground…”.
It was as if I’d gone slightly mad. Perhaps I was slightly mad, I considered.
Many of the train stations (about 98 of them apparently) along the old railway have been converted into flower-bedazzled cafes and they were bustling with ice-cream lickers and newspaper-thumbers. It took all of my willpower not to pull over for a glass of cold beer.
I knew that my body would seize up if I did, so I kept puffing on, whispering to Gwen that we’d be home soon.
But my favourite train stations were the ones that had been left to rack and ruin, the ones that were crumbling and dilapidated like haunted houses. I imagined groups of Spaniards waiting there for the little train to come and take them off on their summer holidays.
Day 2’s Ride
And Now Home…
Though I’d ridden around 85km already, and about 50km the day before, the last 10/15km felt like eternity.
The signs would say “Girona 10km” and then it would feel like I’d been riding for an hour when the next one would say “Girona 8km”. I whooped and hollered at every building that rose on the horizon, every sign of civilisation, firmly believing it was Girona coming into sight, that it must be Girona by now. But it was always just another sleepy little town or village.
I pushed on until suddenly I was following a river into the city. Girona really is such a beautiful city.
And that was it, I was there, at the end of the road, suddenly carrying Gwen onto the train and heading home. It was all so underwhelming. No one had been waiting for me, cheering me on as I crossed “the finishing line”. No one on the train realised what we had just been through. No one cared about our adventure…
But as I sat on the floor with Gwen, demolishing the damn tin of baked beans that I’d lugged with me for the last two days, I felt my body throb with each and every mile, every twist and climb, every tree, dirt-track, vineyard and beach cove. Etched into my soul, it would always be with me and I didn’t need anyone else to know about it or understand.
And where else could Gwen take me? Where else could we go now that I knew I could do it alone, now that I realised I didn’t have to keep making excuses for myself anymore?
The world seemed to unfold and expand within my mind, inviting me to pick a destination, pack a few granola bars and just… go.
Plan Your Costa Brava Cycling Adventure
Cycling tips for touring the Costa Brava:
Cycling Gear ~ You can explore the Costa Brava on any type of bike, but I’d suggest either doing it bikepacking style, with a lightly-loaded mountain bike, or with a touring bike. Best of all would be a gravel bike, as you’ll find yourself on dirt-tracks as often as roads.
Tent? It’s a tricky one. I lugged my heavy tent the whole way and didn’t end up using it. Many of the campsites along the Costa Brava have really nice bungalows and/or lodges which are perfect for cyclists because you can throw your stuff inside, lock it up and then explore, but this kind of accommodation often gets booked up. A camping pitch, however, is always easy to come by, so it’s worth having an ultra light tent with you, just in case.
Sleeping-bag? From now on I will probably just be taking a light sleeping bag but also some clothes that I can layer up to sleep in if it gets cold/wet.
+ Lifesaver Item: I bought a Levin solar powered USB charger for my trip and it really saved the day. I strapped it to the back of my bike, where it charged in the sun, and plugged my phone into it when it was dying so that I could still use my Google Maps. Essential.
Spares and Repairs ~ There are bike shops and rental companies in most towns and villages along the Costa Brava, so don’t overload your bike with tools (like I did). Better to keep it light and just buy replacement parts or pay for repairs if/when you need them.
Exploring the Vias Verdes Cycle Routes ~ Take a look at the website to decide which cycle route works best for you. Remember that they are generally signed (if at all) in Catalan, so make sure you know what you’re looking for. Don’t take on the Vias Verdes (Greenways cycle routes) unless you have a mountain bike or gravel bike (or chunky tyres on your bike). They are pretty smooth, but a road bike with skinnies on wouldn’t last too long.
Food ~ Part of the charm of cycling the Costa Brava is that you can stop off at the little towns and seaside resorts along the way. Keep an eye out for blackboards out front promoting special “Menu del dias”, which are set lunch menus that normally feature three courses, bread and a drink – perfect for the hungry cyclist.
Don’t pack loads of food thinking that you’ll be doing most of your eating at the campsite. It’s cheap enough to eat out or at least pop to a supermarket along the way to stock up (obvious, I know). What you should pack, however, is nuts, fruits and (yep, you guessed it) granola/energy bars that you can nibble on whilst you ride.
Water ~ An obvious one again, but probably the most important. It gets seriously hot in this part of Spain and the climbs can really take it out of you. Make sure you’ve got enough space/capacity to carry at least a litre of water at all times. If you’re nearly out of water, make sure to start making plans to fill up. As I found out the hard way, dehydration strikes hard and fast.
Best Campsites for Cyclists Touring the Costa Brava
I’ve enjoyed many more cycle touring adventures (and non-cycling) along the Costa Brava since this particular trip and have stayed at a number of excellent campsites. Whether staying in my tent, a bungalow or lodge, these were the campsites I have found to be most suited to those travelling on two wheels (or anyone who plans to explore the Costa Brava by motorcycle or on foot).
I’ve chosen them based on location – you’ll notice I haven’t picked any near the bigger and more touristy resorts of Lloret de Mar or Tossa de Mar, for example.
Camping Begur, Begur ~ Natural Campsite in Prime Location
Probably the most beautiful campsite I’ve eve stayed at, Camping Begur is located near the beautiful Medieval town of Begure. the pitches are spacious and kept as natural as possible and the bungalows are perfect for romantic escapes or even family stays. This is what camping is all about. Get more info and book today. Get more info and book today.
Camping el Far, Calella ~ The Closest Campsite to Barcelona
Calella is a cute little seaside resort and I believe this Camping el Far is the closest campsite there is to Barcelona, which makes it an obvious choice for anyone departing from or heading to Barcelona. The glamping tents are fantastic and extremely comfortable (as I found out) for couples, groups of friends or families. The chalet/lodges are also extremely impressive and you can also pitch your own tent for a bargain €6 per night. Oh, and you can literally stumble to the beach and into town. Get more info and book today.
Camping Resort-Bungalow Park Mas Patoxas, Pals ~ Medieval Comfort
Pals is another fantastical, fairy tale-like Medieval village perched on a hill. It’s well worth a visit and even an overnight stay. Camping options are limited, but this camping/bungalow park is definitely a good option. Get more info and book today.
Camping Solmar, Blanes ~ 300m From the Beach
I liked Blanes a lot. It’s popular with Catalan holiday makers and I know a lot of residents in Barcelona head there for sun, sea and sand in the summer. Camping Solmar is one of those “full on” campsites where you can go swimming or play tennis, ping pong or whatever you can dream of, but I like it because it’s just 300m from the beach. Dump your bike and take a dip. Get more info and book today.
Camping Valldaro, Platja d’Aro ~ Chic and Sophisticated Resort Town
I’d never heard of Platja d’Aro until I found myself freewheeling along its main artery. It’s incredibly chic and glamorous and I was sad I couldn’t spend more time there. It’s definitely one of the towns I would suggest staying in if you have a bit more time to play with and it’s also a good base for exploring the rest of the Costa Brava. It’s more of a hotel/apartment sort of place, but Camping Valldaro is also an excellent choice for cyclists and those travelling on a budget. Get more info and book today.
Bungalodge Sant Pol, Sant Feliu de Guixols ~ Perfect Base for Exploring the Costa Brava
Sant Feliu de Guixols is another chic and important town on the Costa Brava, perfect for stopping overnight or setting up base to explore the Costa Brava. The wooden Mediterranean-style bungalows sit in the site’s stunningly well-kept gardens and the pool is particularly tempting. The only problem is that you might get a bit too comfortable. Get more info and book today.
Camping Rodas, Roses ~ Discover Dalí’s Costa Brava
Roses is a little fishing village turned tourist town. I like it for its prime location, close to the town of Figueres, which is important because it’s where Salvador Dalí created his wonderfully bizarre museum, and also to must-see town of Cadaques, which is the pretty little white-washed fishing village you picture when you dream of the Costa Brava. Camping Rodas is a good camping option and is located within easy access to all of the magical places along this stretch of the coast.
Wow Ben! Chapeau!
We did once a bicycle tour from Barcelona to Sant Pol de Mar (around 50 Kilometres). It was great: beautiful scenery, nice bicycle roads till Mataro… But the next day, the way back, I couldn’t sit on my bike anymore…ouch!
Hola Celine! BCN to Sant Pol de Mar is a very good ride! Well done! I’m planning to do more this year, hopefully much longer rides – one or two weeks in the saddle – and am sure I will have the same problem haha! Adios and happy riding. Ben
Fantastic post Ben!
I can’t wait to read the sequel. Didn’t I read somewhere (Twitter maybe) that you were planning to cycle to Seville on your folding bike?
As to the “wide hard shoulders suitable for cyclists”. I’ve seen similar written several times on a certain travel forum and, having driven along the NII, have always wondered what on earth they were talking about!
Gracias Richard! Hope you’re doing well.
I was indeed planning an epic “foldable bike adventure”, at least until someone stole it… heart-breaking!
But thinking I might have more luck on a proper touring bike, so I’m currently doing my research.
How much easier do you think to do by e-bike?
Infinitely easier no doubt, but less satisfying too of course!
The photo: “Abandoned train station along the Greenways (Vias Verdes)”
it’s not really a train station. It’s a train barrier guardhouse (Penedés – Llagostera) and it’s the only one abandoned
OK thanks for pointing that out Jordi. Suerte!