MONELLS, Spain — Almost every year since 1996, I have organized a week-long, early summer bicycle tour in a foreign country for a group of friends. So far we've biked in 10 countries from New Zealand to Italy, including three tours in France.
I never considered Spain's Catalonia until I started researching our 2013 trip on BikeToursDirect.com, which represents scores of overseas bike-tour companies offering more than 400 tours on all six inhabited continents.
That's where I found an excursion called Medieval Villages of Catalonia, operated by CreativeCatalonia.com, a company that former teachers Daniel Herzberg and Lucy Kinnison, now married and in their 40s, started in 2004 to provide customized biking and walking holidays.
It looked ideal. Exposure to history and culture. Manageable terrain on traffic-free roads. Great restaurants and hotels. A comfortable 25-miles-a-day pace. An invitation to social cycling for our group of 22, most of whom started collecting Social Security checks several years ago.
In May, we descended from scattered corners of the United States on Girona, an ancient walled Catalonian city of 100,000 at the confluence of four rivers. It rests in the shadow of the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border and is probably home to more professional cyclists than any place on Earth. Lance Armstrong once lived here to train for the Tour de France. Dozens of other pros still do.
But our itinerary held no mountains. We were flatlanders, out to smell the roses and find our reward for a day of exercise in gourmet dinners and good wine.
It didn't take long to discover why the Baix Emporda region of Catalonia is renowned as a cyclist's paradise. Just outside Girona, with Herzberg in the lead of our column of bikes and Kinnison in the rear as the "sweeper," making sure no one fell behind and got lost, we picked up the carrilet, an abandoned narrow-gauge railroad bed that has been converted into a sign-posted network of dedicated cycling and walking lanes, stretching 90 miles from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean.
The Med was a morning's ride away. The stronger bikers soon forged toward the front of the pack, oblivious to the mild head wind. Others, like myself, lagged in a second tier but still managed to maintain a respectable pace as we pedaled through a gentle landscape of fields and forests. The sounds of the city were far away.
"The amazing thing that Catalonia offers cyclists is diversity and variety," said Herzberg, who bikes about 2,000 miles a year for pleasure, besides what he racks up guiding various tours.
"It can accommodate all levels of ability, from those who want the challenge of the Pyrenees to those who want to bring their kids along. The youngest cyclist we've had on this tour was 11, the oldest 75."
Our group was the largest Creative Catalonia had ever handled. Most of its clients for which it customizes biking and walking tours are couples in their 40s to 60s, 90% of whom chose self-guided tours.
But I've never known anyone who regretted having a guide. Guides speak the local language (Catalan and Spanish in Catalonia's case), can fix a flat and repair a bike, know the history and culture of a place and make darn good company too.
Either way, your luggage is taken to the next night's hotel every day; the bikes are top-notch, 27-gear, German-made Corratec hybrids equipped with bell, odometer and panniers. Our cost per person, including breakfasts and dinners, bicycles, guides and three- and four-star hotels, was $1,426. Not bad for a week in Europe.
For several days we flirted with the Mediterranean coastline, zigzagging around coves and harbors, pausing to examine ancient stone watch towers on top of which residents once lighted fires to warn the population that invaders were near.
We skirted in and out of villages that belonged to another millennium. The blocks of condominiums in towns along the shore were shuttered, and the streets were empty. In a few more weeks, Herzberg said, the wealthy owners from Barcelona would return and the streets and beaches would be shoulder-to-shoulder. We had come at a good time.
Along the way Catalonia's nationalistic flag fluttered over homes and shops, a reminder that Catalonia, although a part of Spain, was an independent nation in the 12th century and recovered its political and cultural autonomy in 1978 when Spain adopted a democratic constitution.
It has its own regional government, its own language, its own cuisine, culture and traditions. Catalans consider themselves different from the laid-back Spaniards, more disciplined, prosperous and literary. To underscore the difference, the Catalans banned bull fighting in January 2012. Like the Scots, the 7 million Catalans are looking toward a referendum in 2014 that could lead to independence.
The success of any foreign bike trip rests in the hands of the local tour operator. All of us gave Creative Catalonia a five-star rating. Herzberg and Kinnison, citizens of Australia and Britain, catered to our whims, never missed a turn onto a hidden forest pathway, had stitched together a seamless tour and seemed to be having as much fun as we. Their enthusiasm for the beauty of Catalonia and joy of cycling was contagious.
Clearly, we were getting spoiled. We dined one evening at the Hotel Casamar, a one-star Michelin restaurant in Llafranc. We parked our bikes another day and took a spectacular two-hour stroll on the Camí de Ronda coastal walking path above the beach from Platja de Canadell in Calella de Palafrugell to the Cap Roig botanical gardens overlooking the Mediterranean, where a former Russian colonel had set up his private estate in 1927. From there you could continue to walk along the Camí de Ronda coastal path for many more days, as some of Creative Catalonia's clients had done.
We even had a mini-adventure: Approaching the Castell d'Empordà Hotel-Restaurant in a 14th century castle in La Bisbal, we found the road ahead blocked by knee-deep water in a usually dry riverbed. We were just 300 yards short of our destination.
Herzberg gave us an option: Loop around for three miles and approach from a different direction or ford the river with our bikes. Because two things cyclists abhor are head winds and backtracking, our decision was unanimous. We splashed on, led by a retired British ambassador who looked quite undiplomatic as he waded barefoot into the river, pant legs rolled up, shirt untucked, a bicycle balanced precariously at this side.
Ten minutes later we were on the castle's patio being served a bountiful lunch with wine.
Needing a nap more than dessert, we pushed on that afternoon to Monells, a medieval village of about 200 residents with narrow brick streets and the wonderful Hotel Arcs de Monells.
Josep and Sandra Serramia bought the property along the Rissec River — then the ruins of a 15th century hospital — in 1997 and transformed it into a 21-room hotel and fine restaurant that mixed touches of the past with a bright, modern atmosphere.
What hosts they were! When I ordered a double scotch on the rocks one evening, Sandra pushed the bottle of Johnnie Walker across the bar to me and said, "Here, pour what you want."
Finally, after six nights, 100 miles on the road and enough memorable dinners to last a lifetime, our group disbanded in Monells and we headed our separate ways. Four of us rented a car and spent a week meandering on back roads to Madrid, staying in paradores and visiting Moorish villages and towns destroyed in Spain's civil war of 1936 to 1939.
Let me tell you about the neat places we saw. But wait. That's another story for another day.