It’s not just the sunshine, wide leafy streets (a rarity in Europe) the first class infrastructure and the beautiful people – it’s the fact it’s bucked the negative brand.
For months leading up to our Spanish leg cyclists and backpackers alike warned us off “crime-riddled” Barcelona, claiming it wasn’t just the bike theft capital of the EU, but a haven for pickpockets, fraudulent criminals and scam artists.
We’d heard tales of woe ranging from campers having everything down to their dirty knickers stolen to shoppers pulling out a euro for a beggar only to find a fast moving teen capitalised on the distraction and plucked the remaining contents of their purse.
We were so thoroughly frightened we seriously contemplated skipping Spain’s biggest city altogether.
And now we’re here – cycling slowly out of the bright, sunny municipal on wide cyclist-only paths toying with the idea of settling here indefinitely post Long Rode Home ride.
Our reluctance to leave Barcelona begins the minute we wake up on Thursday. It’s the day we’re due to leave with plans to wake up at 7am and peddle out of Fabrizzio’s Petit hostel by 9. At 10am our eyes flutter open and we quickly throw back the covers and cram an amazingly large sprawl of crap back into our panniers.
At 12.30pm we hitch the bags onto the newly serviced bikes and at 1pm we hit the road south.
Unfortunately, this particular route is about as straight forward as an IKEA superstore and its not until three hours later that we reach the outskirts. I’m ready to throw in the towel and beeline to the nearest “RENFE estacion” (train station) but somehow we keep pushing the peddles and eventually we’re rewarded with our first stretch of city-free coastline.
The hope’s to reach Sitges (about 50km south) but we’ve scarcely clocked 35km out of Barcelona when night falls. It’s a pitiful and frustrating end to a pitiful and frustrating day and we strike for the nearest campsite in the hopes of at least getting a good night’s sleep and starting early the following day.
Twenty minutes later (and 22 euros poorer) we’re setting up our tent on a patch of dirt in one of Spain’s many “costa campsites” that could give even Cornwall at peak season a run for its money. You see, while food, hostels and public transport are cheaper here than most of the western EU countries, campsites, inexplicably aren’t. In fact they’re a down right ripoff.
After a dinner of two minute noodles cooked on the ground next to the tent (apparently 22 euros doesn’t get you a picnic table) we fall slowly asleep to the lull of super sized boeings taking off at nearby Barcelona airport.
At 10am we roll out of the campsite to a dreary, rainy day that just seems to worsen the longer we cycle. Tarragona (the home of famed Spanish artist Gaudi) is to be our final destination but as the drizzle seeps into our bones I start to wonder how long it will take to get there. The road’s straight forward enough and boasts a big shoulder for cyclists (you can follow the N340 right down the coast) but by the time we reach Sitges the slog has become a struggle. Sitges is a huge hit with rich Spanish party goers in the summer but on a rainy day in winter it looks as appealing as downtown Essex. The fog is too murky to offer up ocean views, the outer buildings look like they’ve been abandoned since the 80s and the inner city represents a ghost town. Cafes are shut, supermarkets are non existent and the locals seem utterly surprised to see a tourist in their midst.
We leave as quickly as we arrive and push on to Tarragona where a cheap hostel awaits (for the same price as a campsite).
The sun’s out in full force when we continue south down the Mediterranean coast the next morning and within half an hour of cycling we hit a long stretch of car free paths running adjacent to the golden sands.
It’s nothing short of bliss to peddle within a stone’s through of rolling waves and while a cold wind makes for a chilly morning tea stop we’re stoked.
The only problem with cycling amid serious coastal eye candy is it can make the going even slower and we stop every few minutes to take photos while dawdling along boardwalks. By 2pm we’ve scarcely made it 25km.
In a fit of absolute laziness we decide to call it a day and soak up the sun at another extortionately priced campsite on the coast.
No one can accuse Spain of being a country without major contrasts and that night we got a true taste for it in the weather sense. While the day had been a bit brisk the temperature seriously plummeted after 7pm and for the first time in weeks we are huddled up in our down sleeping bags wondering if we’ll need to throw on another layer.
At 8.30am the following morning (after three ignored alarms) we discover just how low the temperature had dropped. A thin layer of ice has coated the entire inside of our little two man tent.
In another grand show of apathy we roll out of the camp ground at lunchtime with the naive intention of cycling 80km to St Carles De La Rapita. The N340 swings back away from the coast and for hours we join throngs of trucks, cars and caravans along a fairly plain country route. Small towns that wouldn’t look amiss in a zombie apocalypse film break up the monotonous leg and isn’t until 6pm that St Carles De La Rapita appears with the glorious Mediterranean in tow.
The weather’s again turned sour when we push out of the village early the next morning and for the first time in a while I’m feeling seriously nervous. We’ve got a challenging 110km ride ahead of us and at 9.30am the wind is already showing signs of gale force.
There’s another thing showing signs of serious change and that’s the scenery. As we peddle inland once more it’s clear the wealth synonymous with Spain’s Catalan region is dwindling and town’s veering close to shanty status pop up along the N340 while run down motels with faded, swinging signs lay in-between. The only sign of beauty belongs to the many mandarin plantations that run the entire distance to Castellon. We’re determined to push out 70km before lunch (leaving us with just 40 to go) and at 2pm we pull into an old disused service station and huddle up against the wall to escape the wind while chowing down sandwiches.
Half an hour later we pull back onto the main road but in just that short space of time the wind has reached howling status. It’s a struggle of epic proportions until the road bends and a tail wind pushes us along the flat at 40km per hour (without turning peddles) for almost 10km. But then we turn another corner.
With the wind screaming into our faces we slow right down to walking pace and soon I’m struggling to move in my lowest “granny” gear on flat bitumen. We stop almost every kilometre to ease our aching legs and while pushing our bikes up a slight rise I come up with a new slogan: Bike touring: why wait for death?
Luckily the foul moods and the foul winds end when Castellon comes into view and at just after 5.30pm we reach the centre.
A cheap as chips motel comes to our rescue (I’m in no mood for the tent) and by 9pm we’re fast asleep.
Tuesday morning dawns and we wake up to sunshine and the knowledge that Valencia (Spain’s third biggest city) is just 65km away.
There’s just one problems – my legs feel like someone has repeatedly bashed them with a crow bar while I was sleeping and the thought of peddling even 10km seems like torture.
Scott asks me if I want to take the train but I give him a sulky “no” and one flat tyre later we’re pushing our way back into a slight headwind.
Valencia – like Catalan – has its own language and while Spanish is the official tongue road signs use both with street signs frequently named one thing at the beginning and another at the end. It’s a confusing situation that seems counterproductive but I’m soon well and truly prevented from pondering the nation’s convoluted politics because my legs are on fire.
While the first 20km is reasonably cruisy along the wide and mostly flat N340 the second 20 is excruciating.
We’ve both reached our limit and soon we’re stopping every kilometre to ease the pain.
Sagunt is the designated lunchtime destination (leaving us with just 20km to go) and it takes until 1.30pm just to reach it.
The outskirts of this town look like a billionaire waltzed in with grand plans for development and then forgot to bring the residents but despite the odd look it means we gain seriously awesome cycle paths into the city. We’re not thinking about cycle paths at this point though – we’re thinking about trains – and how much we’d like to be on.
At first we joke – and soon enough we’re serious. There’s no way our shagged legs could cope with even a milk run and so at 2pm we’re on a carriage bound for Valencia (it’s just a 20 minute ride) for the bargain price of a few euros.
Wide streets, colourful cafes and grand architecture greet us the minute we step out of Valencia Nord station and there’s a similarity to Barcelona that immediately warms our hearts. We’ve booked into a cheap hostel (just 10 euros a person) and it’s a short stroll through bustling streets, huge market places and narrow cobble stone alleys.
Valencia is the official home of paella and if we didn’t know this pre-arrival we would have figured it out pretty quickly. Every cafe, restaurant, pub and street stall boasts every kind of paella available (although it’s chicken and rabbit that’s truly traditional to the region) and in between are the highest number of bakeries we’ve seen in Spain yet. It seems the Valencians have channeled the French in terms of flaky pastries and when we nut out a supermarket half an hour later there’s scores of baguettes to tempt even the pickiest Parisian. We make the grand mistake of shopping while famished and we arrive at the hostel with enough food to survive an apocalypse.
Valencia’s our last stop on the west east Spanish coast as time and money mean we’ll have to take our biggest train trip yet (across the width of the nation) to Portugal in a bid to see the fabulous little country and the wild west coast.
There’s still a good three weeks of cycling left for us in this beautiful part of the world before we take the boat to Morocco and farewell winter and having survived my first European December I couldn’t be happier.