Having eaten and slept very well in this excellent hotel we felt quite refreshed, despite yesterday’s exertions. Amongst its many top notch attributes it was very cycle friendly – so no one minded us wheeling the bikes across the marble floored lobby as we set off.
Slightly bigger roads today, as we avoided the steep gradients of the back roads. But the open views were superb as we climbed up again.
We called in at a fortified town called Mont-Louis, entirely enclosed within huge walls. This was a much needed supply stop, as we had nothing to eat and a final pass to cross. It was very familiar as Tim Scholes and I had passed through on our trans Pyrenean ride a few years ago. It hadn’t changed. Leaving town we climbed to the Col de Quillans – briefly reversing the route Tim and I had taken – for a picnic lunch.
The next few miles were still in open, high country at the head of the river Aude. But soon we dropped into the spectacular wooded gorge that the Aude has cut deep into the limestone. The descent was over 3000ft in 20 miles, but quite slow on a bad surface. There was a real sense of remoteness about it.
Back to camping tonight on a pitch right beside the bank of the roaring Aude. This is a top rafting section and the peace is broken by rafts of kids hurtling past and enjoying the thrills.
We woke up to clear, blue skies once again. Our camp site host family kindly fetched bread from town for breakfast, and extra supplies for a picnic lunch, and we were off on the biggest single climb of the trip. After a few fairly level miles we turned north up a side valley and the road began to ramp up through beautiful oak forest. We stopped for photos of cattle on a grassy col,
before a short tunnel through a limestone ridge took us up to the higher level of natural pine forest.
The smell was fantastic, and we were delighted to see and hear an eagle – first quite close up and then soaring away down the valley beneath us. The route was complex – up and round the heads of several valleys – before a steep section brought us to Castellar de n’Hug.
We had considered breaking the climb in two and staying here for the night. But it was only about 11.30, so we made do with coffee and a fantastic view from the hotel terrace. Now we had joined the ‘main’ road (it was not very busy) and the gradients changed less often. But the downside was that, for the first time, we could see our route snaking up the hillside to a seemingly impossibly distant height. Logically, seeing it doesn’t change anything – there is still the same amount to climb – but psychologically it’s daunting. Or exciting!
Now we were above the tree line on the open mountainside with huge views to the south. It seemed to be raining on the coast towards Barcelona, but it was very sunny in the mountains. After a couple of short stops, and some steeper sections, we eventually reached the top of the Coll de la Crueuetta at 1888m soon after 1pm. A well-earned lunch was taken. Several other cyclists passed by – but no one else had fully laden panniers and a tent!
It was a double summit. So after a short descent we began a gentle climb across alpine pastureland with cattle and horses to a second, lower col. This was the top lift of the La Molina ski resort – so we stopped at the restaurant for cold drinks. There followed a proper descent, through the ski resort – including a short tunnel under one of the pistes – and snaking on down to the valley floor. Too many speed humps and too many side turnings for my liking, but still fun. At this point we were joined by the Barcelona to Toulouse railway line that had emerged (very sensibly) from a tunnel. We followed it on down the valley, turning off just in time to avoid the main roads. Gently rolling country and small villages led to Puigcerda, perched up on a hill.
We had planned to camp just outside Puigcerda and to explore the old town, but just before we left home Helen had seen a piece in the Guardian travel section promoting the best European hotels at under £100 a night. And the Hotel Bernat de So, in Llivia, was one of them. Llivia was only about five miles down the road, so we had booked in. Now we were faced with a dilemma. It was about 3pm, and we wanted both to visit Puigcerda and to make the most of our newly booked, highly recommended hotel, and we didn’t really have time for both. In the end, the fact that the centre of Puigcerda was a couple of hundred feet up the hill above us was the clincher. We set off on the final leg to Llivia without a backward glance. I am sure Puigcerda is lovely The hotel Bernat de So certainly lived up to expectations. It had a fabulous old courtyard, a lovely swimming pool, and was beautifully converted and fitted out. Llivia was a great place to explore that evening, after the swim, and dinner was excellent. All in all this was a fantastic day that will live long in the memory.
We were up and away soon after 08.30 – the old packing routine seemed very familiar. The local village had a small cafe/bar and so we called in for breakfast. It was a beautiful morning and, sitting in the sunshine at the start of a 3 week trip, life didn’t get much better!
Our route took us first across the flat valley floor on quiet lanes. Then a short, steep climb to reach the bigger road heading over the pass to Ripoll – our lunch destination. This was where the real climbing started. It was already getting very hot as we set off – very slowly – up a 6 mile climb of nearly 2000 feet. We took a couple of breaks, one where the road reached the top of the ridge and gave great views.
The final section to the top was easier, and the descent to Ripoll was beautiful. There was very little traffic.
Waiting for Spanish restaurants to open at 8pm never suits us, particularly since we are usually bedding down in the tent as it gets dark around 9.30. So midday meals are the thing in Spain, and then picnic food in the evening. So we had an excellent pasta lunch in the main square in Ripoll. This is quite a big town on the main road over the main pass to Andorra and France. There are some grand buildings in the centre.
After lunch we had to do a short section of the main road before turning off at Campdevanol to take a quieter road over the mountains. After just a couple of miles of gentle climbing up the side valley we stopped at Camping Moli. This turned out to be a lovely, family run campsite, based on an old mill building and farm. As we arrived the afternoon storm clouds were building up and, as soon as the tent was pitched and the washing done and hung out, down it came – torrentially. We sheltered in the mill drinking beer until the worst passed over. Checking the tent afterwards revealed a serious flood. Water had run down the slope to puddle in the porch. More rain threatened so we unpegged it and dragged it to the only patch of field that was not under water! No harm done to the bedding, but putting on soaking wet cycle shorts and shirt the following morning was no fun!
At dinner that night the family’s eldest daughter told us about her cycling trip along the towpath of the Canal du Midi from Carcassonne to Toulouse. But she couldn’t quite believe that we intend to cycle over the Pyrenees to get there.;
Having flown into Girona with bikes in cardboard boxes, the first task after breakfast was to build the bikes. Luckily the hotel had a very swish basement with a gym and swimming pool, and a whole clean white room for bikes and bike assembly. Much better than using the pavement outside. With bikes assembled and packed up, we set off on the journey at about 11.00. But we didn’t plan to leave Girona until about 14.00 – so we pushed the bikes through the old town, revisiting the cathedral cafe (where we had been with Catherine and Daniel in 2005) and eventually having a long, fixed menu lunch nearby. The first of many!
The first part of the route followed a good, beside-the-road, bike lane out of Girona.
Having crossed the motorway, this deteriorated a little into what was at times a sketchy gravel track, before joining the bed of the old railway line that we were to follow for the rest of the afternoon. This was mainly a good surface, though never tarmaced. The weather was hot and sunny – high 20s – and there were some stormy rain clouds threatening over the mountains to the north.
Soon after Angeles we crossed the river Ter (whose valley we had been following gently upstream from Girona) and we had our first refreshment stop at a cafe below a hydro dam where the river leaves a gorge. Our route set off north from here up a side valley. After a short section of road, we rejoined the rail trail, now climbing at about 4% most of the time. It was still 15 miles or so to the col, and nearly 2000 feet of ascent. And this was our easy, introductory, afternoon! The reality of crossing the Pyrenees by touring bike began to kick in, as the weight of heavy bikes on a rough surface in the heat took its toll on our legs. Luckily, the rail trail was deeply shaded most of the time, and there were other cyclists to entertain us. We played ‘leapfrog’ with one guy, who abandoned his female partner when we overtook them in order to overtake us – only to wait for her, and be overtaken by us again … and again ….
At one point we abandoned the trail for a shortcut along the road. This was a mistake, first because it was steeper, and second because there was no shade. And miles of this kind of climbing to come over the next two days! We got back on the rail trail at the first opportunity. Just before the col the road and the bike trail swopped places, with the road taking the old rail tunnel underneath and the bike trail taking the abandoned road over the top.
We reached the top in good shape and descended just a little to our first campsite about 3 miles short of Olot. This was just ok – no food on site, so we picnicked outside the nearby swimming pool where we we able to drink beer until it got dark. Thunder rumbled but there was no rain.