A high-altitude cycling challenge in Catalonia

Alt Emporda’s gnarly off-road terrain and treacherous mountain trails provide a peerless training ground for pro cyclists. Charlie Norton digs deep – and is rewarded by the region’s world-class cuisine along the way

Former Benedictine monastery Sant Pere de Rodes in Catalonia
Former Benedictine monastery Sant Pere de Rodes in Catalonia | Image: Alamy

As I pedal down the easternmost promontory of the Iberian peninsula towards the towering white lighthouse at Cap de Creus, I’m suspended on a tramuntana crosswind that would blow a professional peloton apart. The peninsula is part of a natural park that inspired Salvador Dalí, whence, he liked to claim, he was the first in Spain to see the sun rise, from his elegant bedroom in nearby Portlligat. And as the red sun tips over the Mediterranean, even the hardy goat-head thorn and juniper, which stretch down and loom over choppy, azure waters, look lush.

I’m facing a few punishing days in the saddle, culminating in an iconic 8km climb of the Serra de Rodes to a monastery that overlooks ancient vineyards planted by the Greeks; but fears of my oncoming agony are counterbalanced by this inspiring vista – and by daydreams of the fine wine and gastronomy that will await at the end of the day. I am on a pioneering trip, curated by luxury adventure travel outfitters Bacchus on Bikes, to the sensational area of Baix and Alt Empordà, near Girona. Classic Catalonian Dalí country, and coined the “nirvana of two wheels” by TheNew York Times, the region combines peerless road and mountain-biking routes with wine-tasting and haute-cuisine opportunities.

For cyclists, this region has languished in the shadow of the Alps and the Pyrénées. Hard to know why, given Alt Empordà’s stunning coastal vistas, peaceful roads and remote climbs used in the Vuelta a España Grand Tour – not to mention its not-really-secret “secret” status as a training ground for some of the top professional teams, including Garmin (and, in the past, Lance Armstrong and US Postal Service). For mountain bikers, there are some gnarly off-road climbs near Roses as well as the Pirinexus region, arterial trails through vineyards and the Pyrénées stretching all the way to France. The area is, as everyone by now knows, a world gastronomy capital, cemented by the elBulli Foundation (Ferran Adrià’s new think-tank for culinary creativity, due to open next March), the continued excellence of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona and the soaring reputation of Compartir, where we have a table booked as one of the highlights of the trip.

The BoB entourage pick me up at Girona airport with Canondale Evo (road) and Scott Scale (mountain) bikes, fitted to my exact specifications. Founders Tony Wallington OBE and Mark Lissaman are on hand, as well as our Catalan guide and mechanic Josep María Codiria Casulleras and experienced sports physio Richard Luddington. Wallington, a former bobsleigh Olympian, talks me through the flexible itinerary on the way to Can Xiquet, a rustically refined boutique hotel with terraced views of the Alt Empordà plains. “We can set up a Vuelta Grand Tour stage day, some killer climbs or a mountain-bike pootle through vineyards in the Pirinexus; or you can lie on the beach if you fancy a day off – we can always meet up at the main tastings and restaurants; we have the logistics to do that.”

The author on the ascent from El Port de la Selva to Sant Pere de Rodes
The author on the ascent from El Port de la Selva to Sant Pere de Rodes | Image: Mark Lissaman

We quickly hop onto the mountain bikes for a leg-loosening few kilometres to Celler Masia Serra, the vineyard of Jaume Serra, one of the outstanding oenologists in the region, trained at Château Pétrus – though it’s a spectacular gin and tonic served with lavender, lemon, vine leaves and chilled granite that we enjoy as an aperitif. We later head back to Hotel Can Xiquet’s restaurant for cod carpaccio with rosemary oil and grilled squid, washed down with the Ctonia 2013, a flowery white Grenache from Masia Serra.

Next morning we break our legs in gently on the Pirinexus route from Cantallops south to Capmany, wild flowers drooping in the summer heat between stands of cypress trees (partly responsible for the area’s reputation as the Spanish Tuscany). The trails are gentle, and it’s a pleasure to see the respect the Catalans afford cyclists on the road; clearly, it’s much deeper within the culture here. From Capmany our route takes us across the plains of Alt Empordà, where we meet olive-oil magnate Martí Clos to view his centennial olive groves; we then cycle on to Rabos for a tasting of his award-winning virgin Clos de la Torre in the atmospheric vaulted tasting room.

Clos (currently being wooed by Harrods to sell his oils exclusively in the UK) says, “In the old days we waited for the tramuntana winds to blow the olives to the ground, but they were always too ripe.” Now the elaboration of Andalucian picual, Tuscan frantoio and Alt Empordà argudell olives make an exceptional blend that has taken Prestige gold four years running at the Terra Olivio awards in Jerusalem. The oil is poured into blue glasses so you can’t see the variations of green in the hue. “It’s all about aroma and taste,” says Clos. We’re looking for hints of vegetable, fruit, spice and bitterness. The Clos de la Torre is exquisite, a soft, peppery explosion; I buy the largest vessel I can physically take back to the UK.

After a transfer to Hotel Sol Ixent, in Cadéques, and an agony-relieving back massage from Richard, we travel down to Compartir, which is in a refurbished old stone house, a relaxed setting for informal and unpretentious haute cuisine. Three former elBulli chefs – Mateu Casañas, Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruc – have struck progressive gold here; they deploy dazzling techniques using top-quality local ingredients. We feast on zingy red tuna cannelloni, razor clams with salty Ibérico ham, firm, juicy monkfish and an explosive liquid chocolate bombe with blackcurrant, which is utterly delicious.

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Next morning we rise in the pre-dawn cold to cycle to Cap de Creus, pedalling hard to unstiffen our legs and heads. It’s the long road-biking day I have been waiting for, around 140km, and the tramuntana has just started to blow. At the lighthouse we ambitiously attempt an Iberian breakfast picnic of squidgy tomatoes and garlic on hunks of fresh bread, with Spanish coffee from a flask, though we are wildly grabbing anything that might blow away. And indeed, it feels like a morning for the slightly absurd and surreal as the wind nearly knocks us off our bikes several times, and later we tour Dalí’s refracted curio of a house, now open as a museum, in our tight Lycra and helmets, cleats clanking on floors.

We cycle on to Celler Martín Faixó, an ambitious family project to reclaim the vines in the Cap de Creus Natural Park. “The Greeks brought vines here in 3,000BC, because they realised they could grow lighter, fruitier grapes in the tramuntana,” Faixó explains. “The first vines were planted here, and stretched all the way to Bordeaux.” In 1870, an infestation of phylloxera decimated them, however, and with very little work available the local population was reduced from 7,000 to 500 as they sought jobs elsewhere. But now that disease-resistant vines from America have been planted, truly high-quality wines are produced in the Cap’s slate-y soil. “We’re awakening a sleeping giant,” says Faixó.

From here we head down the mountain to El Port de la Selva for a light lunch, over which we contemplate our next leg-burning climb. Hours later, we’re on it – up the 8km Serra de Rodes, just over 500m of ascent. There’s a steep early ramp, reminiscent of Alpe d’Huez, then meandering hairpins, where I quickly find a rhythm. On every cresting turn the staggering views of Alt Empordà distract me from the lactic acid searing through my legs. When my chain comes off, the support vehicle is immediately on hand; Josep María leaping out to get me back on my way for the last long, glorious switchbacks. He pops up again at the summit, next to the Sant Pere de Rodes monastery, a treasure trove of Catalan Romanesque art, to hand me a glass of Crémant. We descend through the Espelt vineyards to the village of Sant Martí d’Empúries on the coast. Ancient Greco-Roman ruins and a long sandy beach form the backdrop to Hotel Empúries, in whose Villa Teresita restaurant, manned by renowned chef Rafa Peña, we enjoy mackerel, crayfish and prawns.

On day four it’s on to the treacherously stunning mountain-bike tracks of Serra de l’Albera, through the high-altitude vineyards of Celler Hugas de Batlle. There are some near-impassable sections – so steep our feet won’t go down on the pedals, and we walk breathless and sweating as we take in the views over the Med. We switch to road bikes to head up to Selva de Mar, then back onto mountain bikes for the trail up to Celler Mas Estela, which is known for its biodynamic production: wines are aged in French oak barrels in a restored 12th-century pigeon coop that is ventilated by the tramuntana. This vineyard perfectly manifests the new passion for Alt Empordà wines and offers a definitive tasting. The Vinya Selva de Mar 2006 (a black Grenache-Syrah-Carignan blend) is full of dark-fruit personality – and a star on the wine list at El Celler de Can Roca. Next up is a deep, smooth Garnatxa Dolça de l’Empordà Solero 1990, perfect with chocolate or rich cheeses – or, apparently, cigars, which is what it was supposedly served at elBulli.

The exterior of El Celler de Can Roca
The exterior of El Celler de Can Roca | Image: El Celler de Can Roca

There is a huge contrast between Celler Mas Estela and Celler Bell-lloc at Finca Bell-lloc, where a Swiss-German family has built an avant-garde subterranean cellar with Russian cargo metal, reminiscent of a Bond villain hideaway. There’s no shortage of hype surrounding the place, but the 2013 Garnatxa more than lives up to it. And the accommodation is lovely, in a converted farmhouse with views of the mountains and a family chapel.

On the final day, we mountain-bike through the quaint town square in Calonge to reach Celler Mas Gil for a spectacular tasting (Clos d’Agon 2008, one of Spain’s finest white wines) with Miguel Coronado. Then we’re back on the road bikes on a soft climb into the Gavarra mountains on bounteous tarmac to Celler Sota els Angels, where Guy Jones and María Jesús de Polanco produce classy organic wines – their no-frills white earned the ultimate kudos from Josep Roca, head sommelier at El Celler de Can Roca, who said it is “the most honest wine” he has ever tasted.

I choose to forgo the lung-busting final 10km climb to Monastery Sota els Angels in favour of a long lunch of traditional black pals rice with cuttlefish at L’Antic Casino in Pals. I’m happily spent, battered by wind and mountains but sated by the fruits of the land. “The food and wine are the soul of the place,” says Josep María on the transfer back to Girona, “but come and experience it while it’s still a secret haven for cycling in extraordinary terrain.” He’s right – in this corner of Catalonia, somehow at once rustic and exquisitely refined, it’s impossible not to be, as the Spaniards say, touched by the tramuntana.



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Charlie NortonDecember 30 1975 – June 7 2015

Shortly after this trip to Alt Empordà, Charlie Norton died in an accident in Morocco. He had written regularly for How To Spend It about high-adrenaline adventures, from climbing to see the mountain gorillas of Virunga and canyoning in Nepal, to cycling in Sri Lanka and surfing in Sierra Leone. We will remember him fondly for his lust for life and will miss his boisterous prose.

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