Our biking holiday was described as “Contrasts of Catalunya,” and I suppose it was meant to refer to that combination of mountain and Mediterranean Sea that you can find on Spain’s Costa Brava. The intense blue of sea and sky contrasted with green pine forests and palm avenues and a palette of yellow, which varied from brilliant sunflowers to the dull gold of haystacks and scorched grass.
Our accommodation was various, too. Nearly every day, the Headwater representative conveyed our luggage to a new dwelling, and after hours of biking we would discover that evening’s surprise lodging: a hotel set into the hillside, and so vast and winding that my daughter named it “Pan’s Labyrinth;” a beachside hotel whose décor hadn’t been touched since the early 1960s; a traditional farmhouse; and best of all, a converted castle as stylish as anything you might found in Northern California.
We cycled through holiday trailer parks, a nature reserve, the occasional crowded highway, lots of farm land, orchards, modern cities and medieval hilltop villages. The views did change, but the smell of Catalonia was disturbingly consistent. Although there were brief whiffs of salty air and fresh pine, you could never really get away from the fact that the pork industry is central to Catalonia’s economy. We never actually saw any pigs, but we saw the signs of them everywhere. It must be said plainly: the smell of pig shite was, at times, overpowering.
I didn’t find biking to be very conducive to photography. Frankly, my biking skills weren’t really up to the no-hands approach and it was a bit much to ask eight other people to stop riding every time I spied something scenic. I wanted, so much, to take a picture of our long and colorful single-file of bikes . . . but I had to be contented with the posed line-up here.
Indeed, I’m sure that I missed lots of gorgeous scenery altogether – as my eyes tended to point downwards, always inspecting the terra-not-so-firma for rocks and potholes. (Despite my vigilance, I got two flat tires – one of them conveniently near a pizza restaurant, but the other on a busy highway.)
Most of my best (and worst) memories didn’t get recorded on film, and already their intensity is starting to fade. I wonder what, after a few years, will remain in my memory file of Catalonia? So many of my favorite memories have to do with appeasing my appetite: eating the most delicious chocolate cake for breakfast; discovering that I like fresh sardines; smearing rustic bread with crushed tomato, olive oil and salt, in the Catalan way; sharing a seafood paella at a beachside restaurant; slugging down cup after cup of café con leche.
It always seems like mealtimes are erratic on holidays, either feast or famine. We ate three-course dinners late at night, and massive breakfasts early in the morning, before we wanted them . . . but we never seemed to get to lunch before a ravening hunger took hold. One afternoon, after a long, hot morning walking through Barcelona and playing tourist at Sagrada Familia, we stumbled upon a stylish tapas bar. I’m sure the food would have been delicious no matter what, but with the keen edge of hunger, the combination of meltingly hot seafood croquettes and chilled rosé wine was absolutely memorable.
My worst memories were physical, too – not so much about the belly, but more about the aching legs, back and neck. We were staying at a farmhouse the night before our longest bike ride, and I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning under an oppressive blanket of heat and raucous birdsong from the open windows. The next day, I was full of anxiety about 44 kilometres of “undulating landscape.” Undulating turned out to be a rather euphemistic word for hilly . . . and the scary thrill of hurtling down hills really, really was not worth the shuddering effort of forcing my bike up them. I took the following picture whilst taking a breather from climbing that very hill. I’m sure that the scenery was beautiful that day, but I spent most of my energy trying not to cry.
Occasionally, we had such steep climbs that it was necessary to shift down to the dreaded 1:1 on our bike gears. We dubbed this the “Coco the Clown” gear, as it felt as silly and ineffective as a clown on a tricycle. You could push your bike by foot just as quickly, as I proved on more than one occasion.
A rather piercing memory is of biking slowly, ever so slowly, up a long hill which passed by a primary school. Some young boys hung on the wire fence and jeered at us. My friend, who speaks good Spanish, said that they were calling us donkeys. It haunts me still. Was that just a generic insult, or did it have something to do with our awkward, plodding progress? Perhaps I misunderstood their tone and they meant to be kind. Perhaps they were suggesting that we would be better off with donkeys, as did my dear friend Fantastic Forrest.
In this picture, my friend Bon Bon and I are smiling because her gung-ho husband had run over a patch of stickers. It’s not that we enjoyed his misfortune, but we were rather pleased to get an extended break as he patched his tire.
The mothers laughed the most; whined the most, too.
Our gung-ho male companion – fearless leader, map-reader and general chivvier of lazy lasses – was philosophical about the ups and downs of hilly landscapes. Apparently, he subscribes to the idea that you have to take the rough with the smooth. I think that it says a lot about my character that I would just prefer to stay on the flat all the time. I’m obviously a Dutch biker by temperament.
Despite this claim, I did opt to climb to the top of the observation tower in the nature reserve. Anyone who has voluntarily agreed to wear padded lycra shorts might as well be a good sport.