LOUISE MIDGLEY explores one of Spain's best kept secrets by bicycle
There’s a memorable scene in the award-winning film ‘A Room with a View’ where the young, free-spirited, George, can be heard singing his creed as he hangs precariously from the gnarled branches of an olive tree in the Tuscan hills.
“Joy, Beauty, Espoir" he chants; just the words that popped into my head as I freewheeled through some of the most stunning countryside and villages of the Terres de L’Ebre region in southern Catalonia on a Headwater cycling tour.
Riding through this quiet and unspoilt region of Spain was in complete contrast to fighting for your space on many of our British roads. Here, with the sun on my back and wind in my hair, the security of wide, virtually empty, designated cycle paths filled me with a childish excitement I hadn’t experienced in years.
I was pedalling with a small group of journalists and our Headwater guide, all of whom were more proficient cyclists than me but I surprised myself by holding my own (and my handlebars) with little effort, because the majority of routes were flat and the hired bikes top of the range.
Hotel L’Algadir, a family run concern was spotlessly clean, welcoming and ideally positioned for exploring the vast Ebro Delta National Park.
After a short break we made our way to MonNatura, a visitor centre packed with information on the diversity of flora and fauna of this important western European wetlands area; en route we encountered a multitude of birds feeding from the watery rice fields.
There are thought to be more than 300 species of birds either resident or visiting the National Park and a vast network of observational points has been strategically placed to help visitors observe them. This is a bird lover’s paradise and being an enthusiastic bird spotter, I was in my element, especially at the sight of so many leggy herons and colourful flocks of flamingos.
The day was rounded off with a cookery demonstration by the hotel's owner and passionate chef Joan Capilla (with a little verbal translation from his affectionate father) and a delicious, gastronomic tasting menu of local produce was enjoyed by all.
We spent a relaxing morning cycling around the Les Olles Lagoon and Port d’ILLa of the Ebro Delta region. Perhaps relaxing and cycling are not two words one would normally put together, but when the ground is flat and there’s a multitude of wildlife to distract and delight, the effort is minimal and each stop visually memorable.
Through lush-green paddy fields, marshlands and rice fields we sped to an awaiting boat ready to escort us to the mussel fields and oyster farms of the salt-water lagoon.
Here we booked in to the luxurious Hotel Parador de Tortosa, a medieval Zuda castle with spectacular views of the ancient town and banks of the Ebro River. More than 2,000 years of history make up the cultural and historical heritage of Tortosa; a city which has been declared an area of artistic and historical importance.
We were given an early evening, informative tour of the town and majestic cathedral by the local tourist representative and I was struck not only by the beauty of the architecture but the fact that it was relatively tourist free; further reaffirming my view that Southern Catalonia is delightfully unspoilt and one of Spain’s best kept secrets.
At this point, confidence in my cycling proficiency had reached a peak and I was treasuring every minute of the cycling tour. We rode 25 kilometres along the Via Verde; the Green Way route of the disused Zafan Valley railway and now used solely by walkers and cyclists. This off-the-beaten track, rich in orange groves and lined intermittently with fig, olive, almond and pomegranate trees had a majestic backdrop of mountain scenery.
We cycled through long dark, atmospheric tunnels and past pine-scented forests and I was constantly reminded that ‘life doesn’t get much better than this’.
Lunch was in the Wine Cathedral, a Modernist-style building designed by the architect Cesar Martinell, a disciple of Gaudi, in the pretty village of Pinell de Brai. We sat outside soaking up the sun, devouring a light lunch and sampling the local wines.
Our last hotel was on the fringe of one of the most picturesque villages in the Terra Alta region, Horta de Sant Joan. It was at Hotel Les Capcades that we were treated to the most delectable of tasting menus by its resident female chef. The crispy lamb chops, duck cannelloni and mandarin ice cream courses were delicious.
Earlier in the evening we visited the Picasso Centre in Horta, where the painter stayed in 1898 and returned again in 1909, marking the start of the Cubism period.
Our Headwater tour was coming to an end and my faithful bike had to be returned. With a lunchtime flight we had just enough time to visit the majestic Templar remains of Miravet Castle, situated on top of high rocks overlooking the Ebre River in the pretty village of Miravet. As one of the biggest fortifications in Catalunya, it gave commanding views of the surrounding areas and was simply breath-taking.
Headwater offers three holidays to Southern Catalunya.
For details about Cycling round Ebro river visit: www.headwater.com/holidays/cycling/spain/C06SC.htm
For Undiscovered Southern Catalunya visit: www.headwater.com/holidays/cycling/spain/C08SC.htm
For Discovering the Ebro Delta visit: www.headwater.com/holidays/cycling/spain/C07SC.htm
All trips run from April to October 2017