Sarah Hyde explores the sights and history of Catalonia by bike

A good holiday, as far as I’m concerned, involves learning something about the destination. I didn’t expect to learn that my trip to Spain was actually a holiday in Catalonia.

But we were ideally placed to find out more as we cycled through the sun-soaked countryside from village to village in this historic and fascinating region.

Our trip was organised by Inntravel, a travel company which has an established reputation for its ‘slow holiday’ approach. Its ethos is sustainable tourism, taking holidaymakers off the beaten track and carefully planning routes for them to cycle or walk from one small taverna, guesthouse or hotel to the next. Meticulous attention to detail and years of collaboration with local hosts mean guests can have an independent traveller experience without the anxiety and months of planning.

We had taken a walking holiday in Spain with Inntravel last year so we knew we were in for a treat, in safe hands and confident we could just relax, soak up the sights and history and pedal along.

Ah. Pedalling. That was the only fly in the ointment. I’m not the world’s most proficient cyclist. A walking holiday is fine. Put one foot in front of the other, what can go wrong? You can fall off bikes and it hurts, before you even think about the saddle-sores. Still, the brochure said ‘easypedalling’ and I trust Inntravel implicitly, so we packed helmets, shorts, sun cream and jetted off to Girona where a taxi arranged by Inntravel was waiting to whisk us to Madremanya and the Hotel La Placa.

At this point, I went off the whole idea of cycling from one hostelry to the next. I wanted to stay here. It is shockingly lovely, a 15th Century farmhouse lovingly and stylishly converted to create an exquisite hotel and restaurant with just 12 rooms. It nestles in gardens bursting with colour and scent and the views from this tiny medieval hill-top village across the valley are incredibly beautiful. It was hard to tear ourselves away from our terrace for dinner, but with the chef-owner Jaume Vidal being Michelin-recommended, we managed and were rewarded with local speciality tapas and treats as well as our chosen dishes.

Sadly, our cycles were waiting for us after a breakfast al fresco so we checked the map and Inntravel’s route notes, left our bags in the hall to be collected and taken to our next destination, and off we went along the deserted road which led to the cycle routes we would follow. And we hadn’t gone too far before we realised we should be on the other side of the road… The route planned for us was through an area of varied scenery and ancient villages, sometimes bumping along a sandy track by a riverside, seeing herons and listening to very vocal toads, sometimes whirling along smooth cycle tracks through pine forests heady with scent and then suddenly emerging into the open, with dramatic views of the snow-capped Pyranees providing a backdrop to the lush fields and hills all around us.

The sleepy villages en route were built to withstand wind, fire and war. The thick-walled houses of golden sandstone huddle within mighty defensive walls and have a troubled history. Celts, Roman, Moors and Franks have laid claim to this region which has developed a distinct and proud regional identity, with its own flag, language, culture and culinary traditions.

In the civil war which ravaged the country in the 1930s, Catalonia supported the Republicans – the losing side – and suffered after Franco came to power. Political and linguistic freedoms were restored in the 1970s but the campaign for independence from Spain continues and is gathering pace. We learnt so much about the local history thanks to our hosts at our second stop-over, the Hotel El Cau del Papabou in the medieval fortified village of Peratallada.

We were greeted there with a much-needed glass of chilled wine and a chance to relax on the intriguing first floor indoor mezzanine terrace. The English wife of the owner chatted at length to us and Shiona and Andrew, also on the Inntravel cycling trip, about the struggles Catalonia has seen, and the effect The Crisis, as the economic nightmare is referred to here, has had on the region.

There was not much sign of poverty to be seen in the beautifully-renovated farms and homes we passed as we spent the next day on a 31km circular tour around Peratallada. We later learnt these are the second homes of wealthy Barcelonans, and although it is good to see these buildings being given a new life, it made me wonder where local young families go to live.

After our second night at the lovely Papabou, it was hard to tear ourselves away, again. Especially as I was feeling a little tender in the saddle area and the way out of the village was along a cobbled lane. Ouch.

But our final destination had real pulling-power. The Mediterranean seaside resort of Llafranc beckoned, a mere 25km away, billed in our route notes as “a nice easy day”. Well, that’s a matter of opinion, and maybe I was being unrealistic thinking it would be downhill all the way from here, as it wasn’t. But the pull uphill to the village of Pals was worth the effort, once the cycling stopped. This hilltop village was pounded to rubble during the civil war and has been completely rebuilt.

What’s more, they cleverly incorporated bars serving cold beers on shady terraces and a town square with ice cream bars. Perfect.

After Pals, it was more or less downhill, in a good way, with glimpses of the sea to keep us going and a 1.5km freewheel into the 21st Century and the Hotel Terramar in Llafranc. This is a renovated 1930s hotel in a tiny resort which feels as though it dates from around that time.

Beautiful clear water, an arc of golden smooth sand and a strip of hotels and guest houses which date from the Art Deco period, it brought to mind F Scott Fitzgerald’s French Riveria as it must have been before the crowds.

Our bikes handed back, we lay on the sand and had a dip in the still-chilly sea before dinner.

But back to learning things on holiday. As well as finding out I had been to Catalonia, not Spain, I learnt that the Catalan for a ham and cheese toastie is ‘bikini’. I learnt that the traditional Catalan breakfast includes bread rubbed with raw garlic and covered in crushed tomatoes.

And I learnt that on a cycling holiday, the last thing to worry about is Visible Pantie Line. Stout underwear, preferably with padding, is the order or the day.

Sarah Hyde travelled with Inntravel.