Catalonia Is Not Spain

Three days from mountain to sea

Look at a map of Europe and find Spain (or España). You'll see that the east of the country comes to a point, sandwiched between the Pyrenees Mountains to the North and the Mediterranean Sea to the South. This point is called Catalonia in English or Catalunya in Catalan. This beautiful place, full of rolling hills, wide beaches and jagged peaks, was the battleground where many wars between the Muslim Moors of Cordoba and the Christians of the Holy Roman Empire took place. Eventually it settled in as the last bastion of Christianity, but with its relative isolation from the rest of Europe it developed its own language, customs, and sense of identity. Five hundred years later, they've still got it.

What the Catalans do have is a beautiful country, a love for all things two wheels, and a fantastic, friendly attitude. Even if you speak bad Spanish to them.

In fact, they probably prefer bad Spanish, (or even English) to Spanish as spoken by a Spaniard, as they are famously rude to folk from other parts of Spain who do not speak Catalan. In any case, not something 'Mericans need to worry about. My poorly-spoken Mexican-dialect restaurant Spanish helped correct a couple of drink orders by monolingual friends and other such trivia but was mostly not really needed, as English is pretty widely understood.

A couple of issues ago (MC August '09) I mentioned in my review of Triumph's new Thunderbird that I'd gotten to do a few extra days on it so I could call it a real test. As they usually are, our initial ride on the bike was a couple hundred miles with lots of time for photography; not digging on anyone, but that's just the way our schedules usually work out with 8-12 magazines all riding the bikes and sharing photographers. Luckily for me, I had some extra time in my schedule, so I kept the bike for a few days after the initial press ride and did some exploring on my own.

There was a 'Bird decked out at the launch with a raft of accessories like floorboards, bags, backrest, windshield and a touring seat. I really wanted to hit the road on that one, but alas I had to run with a stock one. There are several features that made the Thunderbird a perfect companion, (long range, great handling/suspension and a comfy riding position), while its downsides were few (sparse passenger accommodations, not many places to strap things).

My first day out, I took my wife with me on a grand adventure to explore the countryside. Our destination was the path less traveled, or at least not traveled by me. During our press ride, we'd ridden all over a local mountain called Montserrat. Don't get confused with the island in the Caribbean, as that island is named after this mountain. Even though we ran all over the twisty roads, we never went up to the Santa Maria de Montserrat monastery with its commanding views of Barcelona and the coast 30 miles away, so that was our destination for a day of riding.

It seems there are two kinds of roads in Spain: the ultra-modern highway that cut directly through terrain features by bridges and dynamite, and secondary roads, just paved-over centuries-old paths and roads that follow the terrain by the path of least resistance. Needless to say, the second kind is much more fun. But to get out of a metropolis like Barcelona in anything like a timely manner the first kind of road comes into play. Riding in Spain is actually a lot like riding in my home state of California in weather, driver temperament, and lane splitting. Of course, you can also choose to just sit in traffic, if you want. Anyhow, for all of my adventures outside of town I took the A-2, avoiding the costly toll roads, and utilizing lots of lane-splitting.

Going northwest on A-2 there is no missing Montserrat as it looms to the north. It looks like an impenetrable wall of rock from the south, which is probably why it made such a good spot for a monastery. In fact, Montserrat is Catalan for "jagged mountain." Due to its wicked topography it is the go-to spot for local bike types. If you only leave Barcelona for one place on your trip, this should be it. The roads are of the ancient variety, but with fresh, smooth pavement. You can go ahead and try to get lost on these sparsely-used back roads, but you can't as there are always signs pointing back to Barcelona.

Santa Maria de Montserrat itself is an awesome place. Nestled between rocky crags, the place is huge, and boasts its own train station and cable car, we're guessing for those who don't like twisty roads. From one of the many viewing decks you can spy miles and miles of old walking trails all over the mountain as well, some going to medieval shrines and monuments all around the mountainside. Pilgrims travel here from around the world to see the place and hear the L'Escolania boys choir sing every day at noon.

Unfortunately my plans for a grand adventure with my wife were falling apart. The smallish passenger pad was already taking its toll, as she needed a break every 20 or so miles. So after thoroughly exploring the mountain, we headed for the beach.

C-31 is Catalonia's version of the ever-popular coast road. Other than the ugly concrete barrier that lined it, C-31 was a twisting, beautiful ribbon with great views of the sparkling Mediterranean. After coming most of the way back to Barcelona, we took the coast road west to Sitges, where we dined on the beach and explored its skinny little streets.

Moto Museums And Really Big Mountains
I took off solo the next day. I had miles to cover, and countries to visit. My destination? Andorra. The teensy little country nestled in the Pyrenees, seemed a good enough goal. With decent time management I figured I could make it all the way to France. Looking specifically for skinny lines on the map I blasted out of Barcelona on the A-2 again, only this time blew right past Montserrat on the C-55. While the C-55 isn't the twisting goat paths of the mountain, it was a good cruiser road, with winding sweepers connecting the dots between ancient towns with beautiful old buildings and occasionally Roman ruins off the side of the road.

In Cardona I found a castle on a hill with a commanding view of the valley. Castle Cardona is now a state-run luxury hotel, but you can ride right up to and around it on your bike and park right on the battlements. Continuing on the C-26, I soon found myself in the rugged country near Basilla. Here the C-14 runs up into the Pyrenees, but a short jog to the south gets you to Museu de la Moto. I'd highly recommend this museum over just about any American one, as there is a wealth of makes and models that never made it to the US. Stuff I'd never heard of before, along with super rare bikes, a 1940s-period bike workshop mockup, and a whole floor dedicated to Spanish brands.

After what was probably way too much time checking out old bikes and eating a fine lunch at the café, it was straight up C-14. Much of this road skirts the edge of a reservoir (Pantano de Oliana) with a series of tunnels blasted to straighten out the road. I found it fun to take the old road turnouts both to drop the pace a little and enjoy the views of the lake.

It was getting late when I met up with the N-260, which is the road that follows the foothills of the Pyrenees, and I should have given up my stubborn streak right there and skipped Andorra, but curiosity got the better of me and up I went. When asked about where I went later by a brit. I told him Andorra. He asked what I got there, so I naturally asked "what does one go to Andorra to get?"

His reply? "Anything you want." So if you need something hard to find elsewhere in Europe, or in need of a bike shop (there are a ton of them here), by all means visit Andorra. If not it'll be the low point of a trip through the Pyrenees. It's just got heavy traffic, long lines at the border, and they don't even stamp your passport! However, after turning around, heading back out and rejoining N-260 to the east, I was once again in heaven. Here, deep in the mountains, on this road were snow-capped peaks on both sides (in May), more of the long sweeping corners common to four-lane highways, but beautiful and relaxing and uncrowded, even on a Saturday.

With the sun sinking low, I just took the expressway back, but I couldn't have picked a better one. The C-16/E-9 heads due south to Barcelona through a long tunnel with a $20 toll (ouch). Those snow-capped mountains I saw earlier? The tunnel goes through them. Out the other side the road follows the Llobregat River Valley and reminds me of I-70 through Colorado, only with a constant downhill trend. Towering peaks and waterfalls, occasionally a set of switchbacks. It's one of the nicest expressways I've ever seen.

Don't Forget Barcelona
Our last day was spent, once again, as a couple toodling around Barcelona to check out all of the magnificent architecture. Antoni Gaudi is a legend in this town, and one of the world's foremost architects, who designed and built parks, churches, and public buildings all over Barcelona. The beautiful buildings didn't start with Gaudi, as there are spectacular old Roman sections of town, some ruinous, some still in use. But I'd like to think that it wouldn't be quite as beautiful as it is if it weren't for all of the 20th century and later builders feeling like they need to measure up to Gaudi's genius.

Barcelona is a very bike-friendly town. You can park on the sidewalk just about anywhere there is room. If you're safe about it, you can even ride on skinny little pedestrian streets, if they're not crowded. Right in town there are scenic and beautiful roads to explore like the roads up and around Montjuic.

In the end, I discovered that just five days in a town like this is not enough. I have a new favorite foreign town, and this is it.

Do It Yourself
Obviously this is not something you can just hop on a plane and do, so we rounded up a few contacts in Barcelona via Google (we don't endorese any of these businesses). If you have your heart set on a cruiser, you're probably getting a Harley, there are also BMWs, Hondas (just sportbikes/dual-sports) and Ducatis for hire as well. Weekly rates start at about $500 Euro for an 883 Sportster to closer to $850 for a Road King, and don't differ much between dealers.

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Catalonia Is Not Spain