Catalunya or Bust by the Back Roads
Story and photos by Amy Rosen

A directionally challenged travel writer finds her way to each lunch and dinner table on a bike itinerary through Spain…with some travel companions who are just the opposite.

Spain travel

I've got a not-so-secret secret: I have no sense of direction. As a travel writer, I understand that this makes zero sense, yet as a human being I stand by the fact that it's not my fault. I was born this way. So, when a couple of pals decided we should go on a self-propelled biking trip through the Catalunyan coast of Spain, at first I thought, "Hooray!" And then I thought, "Uh oh." But then I thought, "Razor clams! Sardines! Cava! Paella! IN!"

Naturally I didn't mention my nagging mapping misgivings to my friends. All I knew was that I love biking; it's how I get around town back home in Toronto. And I love eating: I'm also a cookbook author and food editor, it's how I make most of my living. As for getting from unknown foreign town to town on two wheels in time for our dinner reservations each night—I had an ace up my sleeve in the form of a horrific personality flaw. I'd be doing what I always do: Pulling a good old Huck Finn when it comes to navigating.

I was armed with a binder full of extremely detailed directional notes from Exodus, the vacation outfitter that sent us on this adventure. Exodus offers 500 itineraries for walking, trekking and biking tours in 90 countries. They organize everything on the ground so that all you have to do is show up in Spain with your suitcase and helmet. They'll have a bike and panniers waiting for you and will then shuttle your luggage to your pre-booked hotels as you loop your way around the coast.

Cobblestone street

Pals Head to Pals

We loved our easy breezy rides. We'd signed on for a level 1 adventure. They go up to 10 in difficulty but we don't like hills. Along the way we'd stop to take in bright walls of flowering wisteria and huge swaths of yellow fields—canola I think—with lunches in medieval towns, like Pals off in the distance, but soon enough up a winding cobblestone hill. There were horses, and other bikers, azure skies and dozens of "Hola!" shouts from friendly dog-walkers along the bike paths.

"Two hours: that wasn't too bad," we all agreed as we sat down to lunch at a family-run restaurant called Pedro in Pals. It was dishing out a 14-euro three-courser that included amazing grilled cuttlefish and one of the loveliest bottles of rosé any of us had encountered. This was our favorite little town, all scrubbed winding cobblestone streets and arches, with tower balconies, the best shops we saw all trip (buy your ceramics here), and our top lunch too, where the waiter had trouble recommending his favorite dishes since, "My mom makes it all!"

"Uh oh", we sighed, while drinking that beautiful wine—crisp, fruity, refreshing—as if the blush of its color would somehow diminish the blush of our overheated cheeks. Naturally, the result was the complete opposite. So, after our molten chocolate cakes and espressos, we were on the road again, the peddling somewhat more wobbly after our three-glass lunch.

The Pacesetter and the Mapheads

By the end day two we had fallen into a rhythm and I had named myself unofficial pacesetter and safety monitor, keeping us moving and yelling "car!" every now and then for good measure.

"Guys, stay to the right of the white line, please", I'd intone on the few occasions we found ourselves on a main thoroughfare. Or, "Careful of the smell of manure, it's pretty strong here," I'd explain, while gagging my way past a pig farm.

But they were on to me. And I had a sense that my freewheelin' time of Huck Finn'in it on this self-propelled bike journey was coming to an end. Little did I know that they were happy the way things were, as they had some very specific personality flaws of their own.


Turns out Sarah and Alyssa needed to be in charge and know exactly where we were at all times—as much as I didn't. They took to rhyming off Spanish town names and burbling rivers as if they were native Catalans and had grown up on the bomba rice fields in La Bisbal or next to the ecological park near Sa Punta. Meanwhile, I was aware that we were in the country of Spain, and that body of water we were eating our patatas bravas next to was most likely the Mediterranean.

"Let me know if you want me to take over," I'd say each morning at breakfast as we went over the notes before taking off for the day.

"Okay," they'd say, waving me away.

Recovering in Castles

One afternoon we came upon a site out of a fairytale, a large medieval castle nestled on a hilltop. "We're staying there?" we all ogled from our bike seats on the winding hill below the 14th century gothic castle.

Castell d'Emporda is just what you want in your castle stay: historic on the outside and modern on the inside with a crystalline pool and views to die for. It's owned by Albert Diks, whose passion is Napoleon. "He did a lot of bad things but a lot of good things too," he explained over local Nut gin and Fever-Tree tonics on the gorgeous hilltop patio. "Power corrupts." Diks' became fascinated with Napoleonic history and started painting toy soldiers decades ago. His handiwork is on display in a dedicated room in the castle that contains his recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, complete seafoodwith thousands of hand-painted soldiers.

Our lodgings continued to be fantasies come to life. We stayed another couple of nights at the gastronomic Hotel Sa Punta, set amidst beautiful grounds and just a five-minute walk to the beach. One evening, in the hotel's signature restaurant, I had local rice with artichokes and salt cod, and veal that tasted like a tender grilled steak. After much wine, our dinner concluded with several pours of a local herbal digestif, sent over by a kind German-Spaniard who wanted to smoke his cigar in the restaurant.

Clicking along, 25 kilometers one day, 37K the next, with nice lunches in between and brief stops in evocative medieval towns throughout, we truly felt we had earned these lavish dinners and good times. But on day four we took a wrong turn and I saw how quickly jovial biking through orchards blooming springtime pink, could turn desperate.

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