BRIGHT, glorious sunshine beats down on my face as I stand on the side of the road in a small village brimming with sandstone villas, brasseries and cliffside mansions.
It’s an irresistible scene of coastal paradise and for the first time in months it feels as though summer is, finally, just around the corner. For weeks we’d battled a bone jarring cold that didn’t just freeze our toes but our minds as we battled the winter blues on the road south and now – in a single day of warm sun and stunning vistas those bitter blues are gone.
Up a series of winding hills, 15km south, lies the Spanish border but already the French scenery is fading – giving way to laid back beaches and architecture that screams of laid back pueblos and long lunches of wine and paella.
A cool breeze soothes a day’s worth of hill-induced sweat as the Mediterranean serves up a feast of sapphire serenity as we push our bikes back up the steep coastal road that dips down to sea level villages before rising up through a series of switch backs. It’s been back breaking work since we peddled out of Perpignan earlier in the day but even that can’t bring us down and all of a sudden I’m not just thrilled to be a stone’s throw from the Spanish border, but more excited about the road ahead than I have been in months.
At 4pm we fly down a series of steep switch backs into stunning Collioure – a vibrant port town – where sea side shops are shadowed by an enormous castle that juts out from the shore.
For 20 minutes we simply soak up the view of waves lapping against century-old stone before hauling our beasts back on the road that inevitably leads uphill out of the town.
There’s no way we can stop before the Spanish border but as the sun slowly begins to set our good moods turn sour as the hilly coastline forces our aching legs into a painful snail pace.
We’re also hungry – the kind of hungry that turns you into an irrational hulk – and when the “Espana” border sign finally comes into view I’m tempted to set the tent up there and then.
Portbou is a cheerful and relaxing pueblo encased by a small beach and it’s all but empty when we push our bikes over cobble stoned streets in search of a cheap hostel.
All the shops are shut and the cafes are locked and just when I’m ready to cry out of hunger and fatigue a faded hotel comes into view.
We’re charged a whopping 50 euros for a small and shabby room with a shared bathroom but I’m too tired to care and within minutes we’ve hauled our bags up five flights of rickety stairs before collapsing on the tiny bed.
It’s a pattern that we’ve repeated more times than we’d care to admit since peddling out of Marseille just two weeks earlier as the winter blues and wild Arctic winds all but brought us to our knees.
Despite taking a long and luxurious Christmas break (our biggest holiday from the bikes yet) fatigue still crippled us as left our hostel for the coast road west.
Shane from Australia (a Melbourne student who’d spent months cycling from Kyrgyzstan to France) joined us for the first 40km but any hopes of a relaxing ride were dashed with the first gusts of that brutal arctic headwind. Within minutes it had turned our amenities to stone (and our legs to lead) as we battled uphill in the hope the next corner would bring relief but either the god of wind was having a laugh or we were just in rotten luck. To make matters worse our new friend meant my usual outpouring of cyclist’s Tourettes was kept to a minimum forcing me to peddle on in grumpy, outraged silence.
At Martigues we farewelled Shane and just a couple of hours later Scott and I called it a day and shamelessly waltzed into the nearest and cheapest motel. The wind had battered our energy levels and with the weather reports harbouring no relief for days we figured a good night’s sleep was in order.
The aim was to reach Montpellier on new years eve and for the next couple of days we slogged endlessly into the wind (which occasionally transformed into a dangerous side wind) forcing us to average speeds of sometimes 7km per hour on flat roads.
At 6pm on December 31 Montpellier came blissfully into view but a day of cold headwinds meant we were close to exhaustion.
I was tempted to throw down a burger and crawl straight into bed but Scott insisted we at least make some effort and so a couple of hours later we put on our best cycling jacket and joined a throng of new years eve revellers at a Thai restaurant.
By 10am I was yawning on my feet and just an hour later we were both dead to the world.
From Montpellier the road hugged the coast until the Spanish border and we jumped back on the bikes on January 2 (having spent new years day dozing and site seeing) to take the scenic Mediterranean cycle route. Dirt paths perched between the rail way line and the ocean made for picturesque peddling and a couple of days later we arrived at windy Perpignan.
Fellow world cyclists Jojo and Kloklo had offered us a night’s accommodation through Warmhsowers.org and it was more than a relief to escape the wind and meet this fascinating French couple, who were in the final preparations of a multi-year cycling trip to start in April.
We stayed up until 10pm talking life, bikes and the open road, relishing in the easy company of fabulous people before falling fast asleep.
Jojo and Kloklo had warned us of the epic hills that lay between Perpignan and the Spanish border but when we finally peddled across the invisible line it was slight cultural differences that also proved a challenge.
Before reaching Spain friends and media had warned us of the great divide between Catalan (Spain’s northern province) and the rest of the nation but it wasn’t until we reached the prosperous region that reality dawned.
Spanish (or Castillian as it’s known locally) is the secondary language that’s forgone by a large percentage of Catalonians) and for some, you’re better off speaking in English than even attempting to use the latter.
It’s not just Catalan that has its own language in Spain. The nation itself is divided up into regions that often have their own dialects and even languages and while Castillian is named as the official tongue, locals of Valencia and Basque (for example) speak their own first as a matter of pride. Being ignorant of theses facts causes embarrassment at the best of times and offence at the worst and after our Porbou motel host gave us a harsh lesson in the differences we decided to brush up.
The following morning we eased ourselves back onto the bike at Portbou and in the ultimate form of cyclist torture we’re forced to immediately climb up ruthless switchbacks.
The aim was to reach Figueres, just 40km south and slightly inland but while the road flattened out as we left the coast a long paella lunch and tired legs meant it was early afternoon when we finally arrived.
Figueres is famous for almost one thing and one thing only: it’s the birthplace of Salvador Dali. But with the Teatre Museu-Dali being second most visited museum in Spain (and for good reason) it’s worth the coastal detour.
The museum itself is a work of art with large painted croissants and oscar-style statues plastered to the facade and wacky gardens and 12 foot artworks interspersed between the Dali paintings inside.
From Figueres it was a short 40km to Girona – an inland and impressively historical Catalonian city enclosed by medieval defensive walls and the Rio Onyar river.
We’d booked a cheap as chips hostel for the night but after catching a glimpse of the gothic churches, winding cobble stoned streets and chic brasseries we decided one afternoon of site seeing just wasn’t enough.
It’s the kind of city that oozes style, history and that Spanish lust for life and later the following night, while strolling along the top of the perimeter wall, we fantasised about buying a little apartment and lapping up this lifestyle for good.
Being a hotspot for tourists, partying and everything in between we’d booked a cheap hostel ahead of time in Barcelona but an extended stay in Girona meant we had to thrown the bikes on the train to make our reservation in time. It’s a fabulous option for lazy bike tourers as trains are not only cheap, but for regional routes they’re also extremely bike friendly.
There was just one thing weighing on our minds as we chugged towards Barcelona and that was the rumour mill. Stories varying from sneaky pickpockets to identity thefts and blatant robbery in the streets of Barcelona had accompanied us all the way from Australia (one bike tourer who was camping on the outskirts even returned to find everything down to his last pair of underpants stoled) to the extent we honestly contemplated leaving the city off our itinerary.
Our guard was up our hackles were raised and so when a young university student approached to offer advice and chat we were instantly suspicious.
He insisted on showing us where the tourist office was, telling us the top sites of Barcelona and it was only when he shook our hands and disappeared into the crowds that we realised he was genuinely a nice guy who just wanted to practise his English. I felt ashamed and saddened at my cynicism and four days later I realised the tales weren’t just tall – but utterly ridiculous.
Wide, tree-lined streets were in pristine condition as we peddled towards our hostel and glamorous locals seemed to glisten in the sunshine.
Our hostel was the epitome of hospitality and within minutes of arriving the owner Chrystian had given us an intimate tour of the boutique establishment, introduced us to all the other guests and announced that the kitchen was always stocked so “help yourself”.
It was a home away from home and the following day we didn’t just fall in love with magical Barcelona and its world class sites, but its truly warm people.
The fellow hostel backpackers were almost exclusively Australian, American and Korean and from the very first afternoon we bonded over a love of the city, pop culture and sangria.
Jessie and Chloe, globe-trotting twins from San Diego, teamed up with us to tour the city and the following day we strolled through the old town, checked out the historical buildings, grabbed giant chicken sandwiches for three euros and then sat on Barcelona’s glorious beach sipping five euro sparkling wine out of paper cups.
It was nothing short of bliss.
For the following three days we walked the city, visited the spectacular La Sagrada Familia (the most famous work of Barcelona artist Gaudi and seventh wonder of the modern world). This enormous church (which was designed to encapsulate a forest) has been under construction since 1882 and despite being still 20 years off being completion its a phenomenal work of art that lures thousands to its steps each year.
It’s now the evening before we farewell Barcelona for the road south and while the majestical coast city of Valencia and the nation’s capital – Madrid – will make for impressive pit stops our hearts may stay in this colourful urban hub for some time.