After a multi-lingual food shopping mission in the Catalan groceries of La Seu d’Urgell (quite exhausting in itself!) we left the town on quiet but unrelentingly uphill roads late last Thursday afternoon. In fact, it was midday, and the cicadas were the only things moving in the searing heat – apart, that is, from two unwise cyclists. Higher up, the pine forest afforded some welcome shade, and we made it as far as the small hamlet of El Ges before stopping for a much-needed late lunch. The rest of the saw incredible scenery, with cliffs of plasticine-like earth, long swooping descents down hairpins and climbs up to ochre-coloured ridge-top villages.
A stony, narrow track brought us the final 4km to that night´s campsite near the tiny village of Fornols. We pitched the tent among hibernating caravans – come September, campers seem to desert these sites en masse! It was lovely and quiet but we regretted the remoteness of this spot the next morning, with only a chocolate biscuit each for breakfast and a hard 5km climb to the nearest source of food! It was worth the wait, though, as we treated ourselves to steaming cups of xocolata (thick hot chocolate with vanilla and cinnamon – you need a spoon to eat it). The views were wonderful as we then climbed further up the valley, a muted, bluish haze just revealing distant mountain ranges. There was more spectacular geology to be seen that afternoon, as we crossed a newly constructed dam of enormous proportions, the reservoir backed up behind it an incredible, iridescent green colour. Another new road thankfully took us through rather than over the next mountains via a series of tunnels – a lot cooler – and we were soon at Clariana, our destination for the day!
Leaving the hilly Serra del Cadi behind us, we made rapid progress the next day through a rather uninspiring, industrial landscape, scarred by too many factories, by gravel extraction and road building. We had a brief rest in the sizeable town of Manresa, which boasted plenty of Catalan graffiti and anti-government slogans but not a great deal else of interest, it seemed! Late in the afternoon we arrived at the mountaintop sanctuary of Montserrat, after a stiflingy hot climb. The monastery, reached by a zig-zagging road or by a custom built cable car, is very popular with daytrippers from Barcelona and also much further afield, who come to see La Moreneta. This influx of people makes for a rather un-monastic, crowded feel, though once the coaches depart at teatime it´s a lot more peaceful, and you get a feeling for the original appeal of the place. Our campsite, terraced into the steep hillside (it really is very steep) gave amazing views of the surrounding area. Had we been looking out at the right moment on Sunday morning, we would have seen a hire car from Girona toiling its way up the hairpins, bearing Anna´s mum and dad, sister Rhona and her boyfriend Vincent! We spent a lovely day wandering around with them, and were well fed, watered and reprovisioned but it was all over a bit too quickly and we were soon reluctantly waving them goodbye and heading back up to the campsite.
We rejoined the road next morning, which disconcertingly didn´t seem to be any easier on the way “down”, as it skirted the mountain in a very un-flat way indeed… The sheer cliffs and tall fingers of rock at least afforded some shade at that time of day! A little later on the small road we were on abruptly ended at a motorway and seemed to rejoin a little further on, so we had a nerve-racking 500m skid along the hard shoulder – not recommended, though it was quite an exhilarating 30 seconds in a way! The rest of the day took us through pine, thyme and rosemary scented woods at first, then down to wine-growing regions, with unkempt fronds of green and huge bunches of grapes in the roadside vineyards. Two kilometres up a rough track, just as we were beginning to doubt the earlier signpost, we came to a deserted campsite, thankfully open all year. We made a quick foray on foot up to the remains of the 9th century castle overlooking the site, collecting blackberries for dinner on the way back. Despite heavy rain overnight, the next morning was clear, and even the cami rural we had to follow had been newly asphalted, so progress was quick. Scrubby pine forest characterised the lanscape for the rest of the morning, until we reached the Cistercian monastery of Santa Creus.
Fortified by a large lunch, we descended swiftly through almond groves to Tarragona, where we made for the Balcon del Mediterraneo for our first view of the sea since Cherbourg, nearly six weeks ago. The last few days have been spent resting up on the beach just outside the town, with the “neighbours from hell”. We thought we were overhearing an episode of “Eastenders” on a nightly basis as first mother and father, then daughter and boyfriend, then boyfriend and father, argued over whose turn it was to pick up the bar-tab. Still, it was nice not to cycle for a while, and we alternated exploring what remains of Roman Tarraco with swimming in the sea and relaxing on the beach.
Leaving there on Sunday morning, we followed quiet roads inland to a campsite on the bank of the Ebro river near Tivenys, before rejoining the Med at Benicarlo late this afternoon. Another big day tomorrow will take us along the coast on what the map marks as a “jeep track” so that should make for interesting reading next time!