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Home in Barcelona’s Collserola Mountains

Last updated on July 1, 2020

I was always at my happiest up in Barcelona’s Collserola mountains. I felt at peace, like I belonged, that I was free to be me.

Peddling up the hill to Carretera de les Aigües, it was as if I were cycling towards home. And as I left, hurtling back down the mountainside towards the city, I’d leave little pieces of me behind like breadcrumbs leading back to myself.

Written circa summer 2016.

Colserolla Mountains Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from

I leant over the handlebars to check my squeaky wheel and my lungs filled with dust from the sunburnt road.

It was loose and not far from coming out of the front forks, so I tightened it up as best I could using my fingers. Next time I was in the city I’d buy a helmet, I thought. But, then, I’d been saying that for about fifteen years. 

I was at the top of Avenida del Tibidabo and had just struggled up the steepest stretch, past the pointy gothic mansions that now harbour embassy buildings and other such offices where people do jobs you never knew existed.

As I always did on my ride up to Collserola, I kept an eye out for 32 Avenida del Tibidabo to come into sight. This colossal manor house features in The Shadow of the Wind, one of my all-time favourite books.

The story is about a boy called Daniel, whose life becomes bizarrely intertwined with the life of a writer named Julian Carax.

You come to learn how Julian lost the love of his life, Penelope Alayda, who had lived at 32 Avenida del Tibidabo, and how he blames his writing for tearing them apart. Riddled with regret and overcome by grief, he dedicates his life to tracking down and destroying every single copy of his books.

Eventually, whilst trying to burn down the factory where the last of the books are stored, he is savagely burned and horrifically disfigured.

I won’t spoil the story for you (if I haven’t already), but many of the awful atrocities and gory events that unfold happen at this very house.


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The squeaking stopped and I was confident that the wheel wouldn’t fall out of the forks. I spent a few minutes scorning myself for not having checked it before, but decided in the end that it wasn’t worth ruining the rest of my ride.

I felt heavy droplets of sweat drop from my hair onto my knees as they rose and fell with the cadence of my peddling.

I listened to the Beatles at full blast and sang along under my heavy panting. It was Ringo Starr’s 75 birthday and I tried to imagine how he might be celebrating.

Stopping again some miles later to sip on some water, I said “cheers” to Ringo and, “peace and love, peace and love” as he’d wished us to do in a video I’d seen.

From the dusty Carretera de les Aigües, which snakes its way along the side of the Collserola mountains, you can enjoy elevated views over the entirety of Barcelona.

I could see the towers of La Sagrada Familia piercing the skyline in the distance, as well as the beach and the Mediterranean Sea. This view – and this cycling route – was what kept me sane. And it’s what kept me in Barcelona.

I absolutely adored it here. There’s something so magical about the sweet smell of the pine trees as they ooze their sticky sap and sway in the breeze, the sound of the sunbaked soil crackling under your tyres as you weave along the mountain’s contours.

And all of Barcelona nestles beneath you for you to gorge on as you traverse it from above.

I took a different route than usual. I’d been cycling up this mountain every day for almost three weeks and I was craving something different.

So much of my life has been the result of this thought pattern: ‘I wonder what’s around that bend. I wonder what would happen if I went that way instead of that way.”

I ended up in a village I never knew existed. There was a man opening the shutter of a tiny little ice-cream parlour and I could hear mothers with American accents telling their children to “come down off that slide this instant, young lady!”.


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Secret spot in the hills of Barcelona.

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I turned back and decided to retrace my route back down. It’d been awfully hard work getting up, but I chuckled to myself with excitement at the thought of tearing back down.

I pulled over again to take a picture of the giant satellite tower, the tower that perches at the highest point of the city’s horizon. You can see it from pretty much anywhere in Barcelona.

But as I raised my camera up to my face, a smell of rotting flesh overwhelmed my senses. I sniffed purposefully and followed my nose to the cause.

To the side of the track were bushes and pine trees growing from the dry soil but I could make out the shape of something that looked, well, like it wasn’t a plant-based being.

The smell again, the musky smell of rot, of decay and death. What if it’s a human, I thought. What’ll I do then?

I hesitated as I took off my glasses. did I really want to see this?

I was right. It was the smell of death, of decomposition. But it wasn’t a human. It was a cat.

It was only inches away from the side of the track I was on and I could see its fur, grey and black with wisps of white. It was a big cat, probably the biggest cat I’d ever seen, and I imagined it as some sort of wild mountain cat.

Apart from the smell, the only reason I knew it was dead was because its eyes had been eaten, leaving two black and seemingly bottomless gauges in its face.

It must’ve been run over, I decided, before moving up a few metres so I could take my photo without being overcome by the smell.

Feelings of guilt and shame consumed me as I shuffled along with my bike between my legs.

Couldn’t I have at least thrown some soil over it to give it some kind of burial? 


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A bizarre beauty. (Barcelona’s Telefonica tower at sunset tonight).

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Then I selected a live version of ‘Crossroads’ on my iPod and let Ginger Baker’s thunderous double bass drum guide me back down the dusty gravel track to the city, where I would reassume my role as “local expat”.

More Barcelona Journals

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Look Deluxe, Barcelona: Un Día en la Vida

Barcelona by Bicycle: My Favourite Routes & Rides ~ A Cyclist’s Guide

Day & Night at Barcelona’s Gràcia Festival ~ A Papier-Mâché Playground (Photo Journal)

What to See & Do in Barcelona on Your First Visit ~ And What Not to Do

My Life in Barcelona

Barcelona Essentials: Know Before You Go

Journal: Boys and Their Toys ~ Carretera de Les Aigües, Barcelona

Barcelona in One Day ~ Must-see Sights and Essential Bites

Where to Stay in Barcelona ~ The Definitive Neighbourhood Guide

Best Hotels Near Las Ramblas, Barcelona ~ An Inside Guide

19 Free Things to See and Do in Barcelona ~ An Inside Guide

9 Best Restaurants Near Barceloneta Beach, Barcelona

Barcelona in 2 Days (or a Weekend) – An Inside Guide By Ben Holbrook

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