Catalan Cruising

Words & photos: Matt Grayson

As we approach the top of the Mare de Deu del Mont, the road curls back on itself and passes between two high ‘towers’ of rock. From here it’s just a few hundred metres to the summit where there is a car park and – during the summer – a café serving refreshments to people who come up to enjoy the view.

At this early hour, still before sunrise, we expect to have the place to ourselves, so it’s a surprise to find a man sitting on a bench overlooking the stunning vista, playing a guitar. We exchange a few words in Spanish, he tells us that his son lives nearby in the valley below. He goes to the back of his van and digs out three oranges and three lemons, grown from the trees in his garden in Valencia.

Mare de Deu del Mont is not as famous as the climb of Rocacorba. The latter is ‘the’ Catalan mountain, prized for its proximity to Girona, the cycling capital of the world. Mare de Deu del Mont, on the other hand, is a 110km round trip from the city, and it demands a lot of a rider – higher, closer to the Pyrenees and with a far superior view, it is the best climb in this part of Spain.

In the morning light, riding its upper slopes, you get a chance to enjoy the panorama – Pyrenees in one direction, the rolling plains of the Emporda wine-growing region in the other. You can see the summit of Rocacorba quite clearly from up here and it looks tiny from this viewpoint.

The next destination is Besalú, a hair-raising descent down the mountain, with tight turns that are rarely driven by cars – allowing deposits of gravel to build up in the turns. It’s sketchy stuff, as Jake slams his bike around one turn and another, really enjoying the chance to test his limits. When we arrive in Besalú, it’s time for a can of soda. We choose a shady square to escape from the midday heat.
Besalú thrived in the Middle Ages, the official centre of a territory that extended beyond the Pyrenees and into what is now France. The name comes from the Latin word, ‘Bisuldunum’, meaning ‘fort on a mountain with two rivers’. This part, at least, has not changed. In the centre of the town there are picturesque, cobbled alleys and an imposing church in the town square, but to the south you have its most famous landmark of all.

The ‘pont vell’ (old bridge) was built in the 12th century and remains an impressive piece of architecture even today. Its narrow pathway passes beneath a (now fake) portcullis, with views up to the Mont we have just descended.

After lunch, leaving Besalú behind we head south for the sleepy village of Monells. It’s a popular stop for cyclists leaving Girona and heading east towards the coast because of its stunningly beautiful square, with a couple of charming café-bar-restaurants facing onto it. The fact that both cafés are closed on the day we are there is a little disappointing, but serves to make the village appear more idyllically peaceful.

Monells is the perfect staging ground for our final climb of the day, an assault on the legendary Els Angels climb that looms above Girona. This ascent is beloved of local riders, ex-pat pros and cyclo-tourists alike, and has been ridden more than twice as many times on Strava as Rocacorba and Mare de Deu del Mont put together. The primary reason for its popularity is that its western ascent begins just five kilometres outside of Girona. We are starting from the eastern side, the steeper but shorter way up, followed by one last gorgeous, sun-drenched descent into the town’s outer limits.

Even if Girona were further away, Els Angels would still be a lovely climb. It winds up through tree-lined slopes (recently resurfaced with pristine new tarmac) and while the gradient on the east side is tough, the views behind you towards the Mediterranean are stunning. On the descent, as Jake once again throws the bike into every turn, he has the distant inland mountains to enjoy, as well as the occasional glimpse of Girona’s outer ‘suburbs’. As the golden hour arrives, it is clear that our day of Catalan cruising is coming to a successful end.

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