Spain May 2019
Panic on the M23, it was shut, Gatwick terminals are panic at the best of times. The plane left on time for my cycling adventure / Spanish sojourn. Pink Prosecco fueled the flight, the stuff of 3rd division footballers wives. Premier league would drink Crystal.
Twenty minutes early but an hour later and no sign of a taxi, certainly not the one I’d booked. I discarded the bike box and managed to load the frame, saddle, two wheels, panniers etc. into the back of an estate car. The driver bit his nails while looking over his shoulder, which wasn’t exactly soothing around midnight. I was even more nervous when he communicated that my hostel was in the middle of Bilbao’s old town, a pedestrian zone. As it turned out only few hundred meters from where he dropped me but it could have been the other side of the moon as I staggered with the above constituents of a bicycle, to my room for the night. Half an hour later I was installed in a shoebox listening to Desert Island disks drinking whisky and restoring sanity.
The Mozart Bar in Miranda de Ebro was busy. Wine was randomly splashed in the direction of customer’s glasses. A flux of townsfolk surged and ebbed as they stopped off on route for lunch. A table of local ladies drinking Cinzano were set for the afternoon.
Miranda de Ebro Station
I munched my tapas then went to catch the train pretty much where I came from except a little further North. San Sebastián is only 70km along the coast from Bilbao but no train line has managed to bore through the mountains direct so we came inland then headed back again.
At the far end of San Sebastián or most distant from the railway station was my hosts apartment block. An ugly building but once you were inside that became irrelevant as you looked back over the bay from my verandah. Nice hosts recommended a bar adjoining a concrete square. Delicious food, I went the next night as well.
San Sebastian Bay from my apartment block (below). The facade and interior (next page) of The Church of Saint Mary in the old town
Sodden Sebastián and no strangers at the bar, The Church of Saint Mary and the start of the Santiago de Compostella Pilgrimage from the woods behind the apartment block.
From verdant mountains sheathed in mist and showered with rain to the Atlantic foaming gently on the sandy beach for the benefit of the San Sebastianites. I made my way to the old town and the Church of Saint Mary. A stunning façade and vaulted interior led to crypts with gory religious memorabilia.
As the clouds parted I climbed the hillside behind the apartment block to the start of the pilgrimage trail.
I left my gentle hosts the next day to the the barks of their soppy dog waking up the household at 6am and cycled through the sleepy town. A few people going to work and kids emerging out of nightclubs at daybreak.
No bike the conductress told me. Ok I take the wheels off. It had worked from Bilbao, not so easy here. She eyed me suspiciously and wagged her finger when the saddle still stuck out of the luggage rack. Ok I take the seat off and invited her back to check, grudging acceptance until the process was repeated with a more officious conductress. The train effortlessly pulled out of the station and I and my bike were still on board.
We slowly snaked our way through valleys and under hills cloaked by beech and oak. The first couple of hours were so slow that I was wondering if we’d make it to the other side of Spain and Barcelona. The hills gave way to dusty plains and wind blown balls of scrub rolling across the semi desert like the setting for a spaghetti western. A few scratched fields waited patiently for rain, towns in the middle of nowhere.
Storks peered out of their untidy nests built on chimney tops and pillars beside the railway tracks. We reached Zaragoza, the center of nowhere then the train sped up.
The café bar on the Alvina cross country RENFE semi-high speed train was alive and had the same effect on my sleep deprived self. A beer, a dried ham sandwich and happily back in my seat I watched Spain roll by. Barcelona was just round the corner.
‘You’re very lucky,’ said the German proprietor of the third floor hostel, set in an elegant town house. And I suppose I was with a big spacious room lit by shuttered windows opening onto a balcony ledge above the street below. And as a special favor, since I was so lucky, I could keep my bike in the room. My phenomenal good luck was a little overwhelming.
Like a demon possessed I set upon Barcelona to find a bike box – unsuccessful, the Reich kinder boy dismissed my request as absurd. I found another bike shop – warm, call on Monday. A gym, the gym that I went to when I was staying with Tom in what I reminisced to be a remarkably nice apartment. The bars and restaurants we went to around Avenue Parallel. I’m probably going to have to wrap the Trek – my bike, in a Sargasso Sea swirl of plastic to get it on the plane – Plan B.
Showered and clean I headed back to Av Parallel from my incredibly lucky hostel but didn’t make it and had dinner at a formulaic Spanish restaurant on the main road. It was still good.
Bilbao, San Sebastián and Barcelona connected by RENFE great but my stressed itinerary induced paranoia and in turn blotched skin. The distance flies with the gradient but against one kilometer is worth three and this afternoon’s cycle traversed a thousand meters from the station at Ripoll to Borredà Village. A biting wind blew head on as I turned right and North to the mountains and their snow capped peaks.
Species extinction was headline news as we rush headfirst into environmental Armageddon but not here – yet. Within minutes of leaving the main Ripoll road I heard a cuckoo, now absent from Sussex and as the forest closed in and the countryside descended so the stress departed.
View up the valley from Borreda (It’s pretty countryside)
A sigh of relief when I got here, that is El Querol Vell a fourteenth century farmhouse in Borredà where I’m staying for the next five days.
The towns seem closed for a lot of the time, their inhabitants guts tuned two hours later than mine. So I’m having tea now I’ve got some when I want dinner, which is at 8.30 or what feels like a midnight feast. Breakfast is 12 hours later at 8.30am and that took some negotiating. Signor El Querol of the same name except as I later found out it was Ignacio, and I became buddies excepting a slight misunderstanding over temperatures. I suggested it was a little above freezing as recorded and shown on the internet, that’s the next valley, the one not supporting Catalan independence I expect.
There’s a box circuit from Borredà to Berga then La Pobla de Lillet where Tom, David and I came off the Haute Pyranees at 1800 meters last year. I remembered the two self-congratulatory beers that were the killer as we had to climb back up again over the fifteen hundred meter pass to get to Sant Jaume de Frontanya and on to Borreda.
This time I stopped to pay respects to the 11th century church that lit up when I stuck a Euro in the slot. Despite this it was a spiritual place; the thousand year old chapel surrounded by a little hamlet and a friendly dog.
Gentian on the roadside & Sant Jaume de Frontanya
Berga wasn’t in the slightest bit spiritual my first stop on the box circuit but I found some tea. On route was the Embarasment of Balls ok a clumsy slapstick for ?? (Read on) that I rode across to get to Berga. Past Berga I was on B-roads, which allowed for a little wobble when I was looking at the new growth bursting out of the trees.
One place seems to stay open in Catalonia and that’s the bar by the church in the center of the village (Borredà). Anywhere else that one might purloin a service from has only a brief window in their daily calendar allowing the customer the privilege of purchase.
The central bar has a supermarket though the lights have to be turned on from behind the bar and a hardware store but I made do with a couple of Estralla’s, the Spanish beer. Still it wasn’t time for dinner so I watched CNN debating facial recognition in China AKA Huwaei.
Exerting exercise or exercise exertions. Not much sweat in this dry chill environment so soothed and calm if a little extended, restored by being here but eventually dinner is served. What can I do when I’m exhausted? Read a book. I am but it’s disturbing and provocative. Adam should be the dream companion; hunky, beautiful, programmed for sex, biddable but is he? A robot, but when the main character try’s to turn him off Adam breaks his wrist. Way more complex with many issues examined but central to the story is what do we want and when we get it what are the consequences.
I walked through mixed pine-woods along the GR4 long distance footpath, which continues to the French side of the Pyranees. The countryside rang with the sound of birds. Species long declined in the UK. Apart from the sound of cuckoos and the crested tit I saw yesterday, a treecreeper and an eagle, its brown plumage was a disguise, like a cloak over its shoulder.
An 11th century chapel, Saint Sadurni de Rotges. In the middle of nowhere like Saint Jaume yesterday but also still used.
Terraces where once there was agriculture, now glades of trees. Wire fences hung with signs warning Reserva de Caca’s, no hunting I understood. My hackles rose but it gives this mainly or recently unspoilt landscape a purpose and belongs to someone, so it has a chance of preservation. Huge cement works on the way to Guadiole with a fantasy castle for the owner, like the Brecon Beacons in Wales now depopulated and reverting back to nature. And everywhere the yellow flags for Catalan independence.
True to form Vilada was shut. Visions of a non-sandwich lunch faded as the village came to an end with no apparent restaurant but there was a bar. And a little supermarket so lunch was grapes, chocolate and beer more than made up for by the view over the town from the top of the hill.
Saint Sadurni de Rotges
Walk tall like a lobster. Some bizarre story David, my brother had told me from a self-help book no doubt designed to make him rich. Lobsters don’t walk they sort of scuttle, not helped by having disproportionately large claws get in the way. I think it meant stand up straight so I shrugged the fatigue from my shoulders and strode into town.
Trains, buses, roads, electricity though we had a power cut, sportive zona industriel all thrown at the Catalans as a sop but it sort of makes it worse. Judging from very brief and ill informed observations that maybe this is not the most broad minded or educated region. It feels like everyone’s each other’s cousin when you walk in a bar.
There’s a village not far from Berga called Baga so when you see a sign pointing towards Baga Berga you wonder if anyone has a sense of humor.
A Swallowtail butterfly
I was getting close, the man in the bike shop in Berga found a bike bag – on his computer, that’s what you want, he stated proudly, Yes I said ruefully. I called the Aryan nation AKA Barcelona bike shop, who said they had a consignment of bikes being delivered so would have a bike box, when?
A piece of piss, I thought bathed in the arrogance of my recently returned cycling fitness as I spun my way basically down hill to the Emballisment de Baels (see before). There’s a little bit of hill into Berga but then it’s a big road beside the reservoir to where I was going to turn off on D roads to La Nou.
Emballisment de Baels
The road up to the Village of La Nou was steep, not for very long but on a par with the pass to St Juan so I admired the old guy (older than me!) with calves like wire hausers powering up the hill. His face was grimaced in what appeared to be agony so I couldn’t imagine he was enjoying himself but then maybe I look like that.
Of course today when I bought my picnic in Berga to have in the mountains of Nou (La Nou de Bergueda) each bar I went into on route, two in fact, appeared to offer delicious things for lunch and my picnic was anything but; a mango rotten in the middle, a bottle of vinaigrette purporting to be rose, flannel bread and a tasteless tomato. There was some quite nice cheese.
The Church at La Nou
I had my compromised lunch with a massively muscled bull, whispering sweet nothings in the ears of his bell clad cows in an alpine meadow. I know she’s pretty but your clang is more alluring he snorted at another bovine beauty.
In the mountains of Nou with my Trek
Grhcargh very fast, that’s how Catalan sounds when the boys in the big boots talk in the bar, which filled a little of the yawning gap of time between what was reasonable for exercise and finally dinner. In between Estrella’s I thought about the silver ring that I wear. It’s silver because I’ve got a silver relationship, beautiful but not as good as gold. I was thinking about bringing Manus here – as in Spain. We’d have to sort out food, rice especially but the countryside and El Querol, Laor Na! (Very good in Khmer).
Borreda and its history on a mural in the centre of the village
Talking of which, or not, Ignacio formerly known as El Querol is triggering my nascent French, not that there’s much nascent-cy but its better than a complete absence of Spanish.
A one hundred kilometer circuit South of Borredà and Berga. I came here to enjoy not endure I told myself but looked wistfully at the map and wondered how hard it actually was, so set off the next day.
The twenty four kilometers of small D road between Borreda and where it emerged onto the C road, was one of the prettiest routes I’ve ever cycled running beside the Riera de Merles. Wasted as it was nearly all downhill, so over in an hour. I could have stopped.
You could see a gradation of rainfall in the thickness and height of the forest from where I started to where I turned West onto the main road. It was a hard slog broken when I headed up to the little village of Orvan. The best cold coffee I’d had, it was supposed to be hot. A steep hill before the Berga Valley, a deer leaped in the fields beside the road.
Ignacio was telling me about the depopulation of the Pyranees and you can see it in the now forested terraces and abandoned cement works. Great for tourists or so you’d think except that Spanish tourists apparently care more about cost. It’s not cheap to offer a service in an area where there aren’t many, so maybe the caca is a blessing.
I stopped at a bar and watched a pair of Collared Doves, who while very pretty were not very good at building a nest. The male’s job was finished when he put a twig on the females back. She looked at him as if to say, what did you do that for and the twig fell on the ground. He flew down picked it up and took it back to her. Ok you want me to put it in our nest and she made an effort to incorporate it into the untidy pile of twigs she’d assembled. The egg when it does come is going to give the bar’s customers below an unexpected omelet.
I had a proper lunch in Berga. Paella to start, skate with ratatouille and a tart half way between crème caramel and cheesecake with a bottle of wine and coffee for eleven Euros. Meanwhile I wistfully noticed that Catalans have a healthy disregard for the bodywork of their vehicles, most were scraped or dented.
Enterprise obviously hadn’t made it to this part of Spain yet, I thought as I checked in for my hired car at Gatwick a few days later. This is a different lifestyle and makes Berga for all of its ennui a worthy place. I pushed my bike along small alleyways around the old church and up to the hospital to where I’d been yesterday to avoid the Tunnel de Berga.
Back in Borreda the boys in the bar were gobbling like turkeys as they talked in Catalan when I went for a last beer.
Cuckoos trumpeted my departure, a concerto scored for all participating songbirds. I remembered the route as downhill all the way. I try hard to maintain a healthy pessimism in my approach to life but my mind gave me away. The first four kilometers were straight up and it wasn’t until the last ten that the gradient shifted. The bursting woods, birdsong, roadside flowers and hills gave this last ride an edge of sadness as I was leaving this beautiful place, Ignacio, El Querol, Borreda. After five days I needed someone to have dinner with but I’d found peace there.