Catalonia – Spain’s high-functioning, chippy and fiercely independent little cousin. Its protracted secession quest has grabbed the headlines in recent months. And if it’s not that, many associate it with stag dos or hen parties, an interminable cathedral project or a language that isn’t quite Spanish.
Perhaps all this has led to Girona cruising gently under the radar as a top-draw European cycling destination. I am by no means pretending to have ‘discovered’ this medieval cycling nirvana. The US Postal Service team established Girona as their base in 1997. The number of pro riders choosing this fortified city as their home has increased steadily ever since. You only have to ride up one of the nearby hills to be passed by a pro-team on a coffee ride, or check your Strava in the evening to see names you’d otherwise only expect in your fantasy cycling squad. The cycling equivalent of a drizzly Sunday league game with Chelsea running drills on the next pitch.
Its impressive pedigree means Girona now offers everything you could possibly want from a European cycling destination. Our long weekend series will break down a range of popular and lesser known spots into categories to help you pick your next training camp or ‘family holiday’ with ulterior motives.
It’s hard to find flaws in the cyclist’s playground that is Girona and its environs. Sure, there are some potholes, cracks or roads that turn out to be gravelly ‘short-cuts’ with some bonus elevation gain. But on the whole, the roads are smooth, wide and well-marked. Perhaps the most noticeable positive for the area are the drivers, or rather the lack thereof. As soon as you leave the main roads heading out of town, their numbers plummet and those that do pass do so in a courteous manner, leaving the 1.5m gap their highway code requests. The coach loads of tourists plaguing Mallorca were pleasantly conspicuous by their absence too.
Depending on your preference, there are expansive flat roads, long winding valleys, punchy climbs, technical descents and from what I saw from my road bike, trails galore. If you typically gauge an area by its climbs, the area can be best rated by Rocacorba (the only regularly marked climb in the area), Els Angels, Sant Marti Sacalm and Sant Grau Ermita. All are within easy reach of city limits. If blowing up your lungs doesn’t appeal, why not explore Banyoles (the rowing lake used in the ‘92 Olympics) or head east to exquisitely deserted coastal roads hugging the Med.
Flying with your bike these days really couldn’t be simpler. But given you need to make the transfer from Barcelona to Girona, many prefer to hire a bike on arrival. For the same price as renting a bike box and paying for the extra luggage, you can just rent from one of Girona’s various bike shops. All offer competitive rates and a wide range of brands complete with commendable service. A quick Google will serve you a list of options to choose from. I went with Eat Sleep Cycle Girona because they were the only outfit with 63cm frames at the time. Their staff, minimalist open-plan shop, bikes and quality of service were the best I’ve experienced around Europe and I would happily recommend their services. They also run tours or free ride outs from their shop every Monday which may be of interest.
Girona can cater for all budget, taste and group size. There are too many hotels, hostels, apartments or Airbnbs to choose from so I won’t recommend anything in particular. If you have a cool €1.1m burning a hole in your pocket, and are looking for a questionably decorated apartment in the city centre, you could always buy Lance Armstrong’s former flat.
The milder climes and lower altitude of the region allow for riding year round. The climbs aren’t snow covered in winter, and rainfall is comparatively light; another reason for its popularity within the pro circles. You could take a trip there over the winter and it would certainly be more pleasant than this biblically bad winter just gone. But the prime months are March-June and September-November. July and August will be hotter and the roads busier than normal.
Located north-east of Barcelona, getting here couldn’t be simpler. You can fly to Girona itself on a range of seasonal flights from numerous UK airports. Or hop on flight to Barcelona airport, a veritable short-haul hub. There are regular trains that run to & from Barcelona if the Girona flights prove costly or inconvenient. If you’re in a group or have taken your own bikes, low-cost car rental might be the preferred option. The tolled autopista (€7 each way) gets you to Girona in just over an hour. Parking can prove tricky though as the cobbled streets within the city walls are largely pedestrianised; it’s worth checking if your accommodation provides parking before you book.
As you would expect, the city itself offers a tantalising selection of bars, tapas, burgers, pasta and heladerias. We made several uninformed decisions when facing down an unresearched paradox of choice. Wandering the streets in a group, every member ravenous and unable to speak Catalan, meant we ended up in the same pasta restaurant two nights running. A pizza with a side of pasta each washed down with a caña or vino tinto was no bad thing. By day three we opted for the healthier option of 2 burgers, salad and beer for €15. Much like the advice to not hit the supermarket whilst hungry, you may want to do your research before and book ahead. Remember that it’s Spain and restaurants don’t open until 8pm.
Out on the bike, options are just as numerous. You simply have to roll through a town at lunchtime and pick a spot. Again, don’t forget everyone needs a siesta so you may struggle beyond 2pm. Don’t expect gourmet food; fixed menus, bravas and bocadillos will see you through.
A must-see is the famed Rocacorba foodtruck near the summit of this gloriously pointless dead-end climb. We enjoyed a cold beer, freshly barbecued botifarra (spiced local sausage) sandwich and lively music for €5. Bora-Hansgrohe were there enjoying the same thing. Maybe not the Estrella though…
If you can’t face the first kilometre without a gourmet caffeine hit, Girona will not disappoint. You can alternate between La Fabrica, Federal and Espresso Mafia for your breakfast and bean options. Cafés are available in every town too. Just don’t ask for a flat white beyond the city walls – you may only be served with a blank expression and espresso.
Perhaps Girona’s only downside. Your days can be endlessly whiled away exploring the countryside on two wheels to then wander the streets at night. However, non-cyclists could do the city justice in a day or two. The architecture, cathedrals, bridges and galleries are glorious. But two days flitting from shop, to café, to church, to bar would be plenty.
Barcelona is only a 40 minute train ride away though. Depending on the length of your trip, wider options are easily within reach.
Total score 4.5
It’s really very hard to fault Girona. Its relaxed way of life, heritage and architecture, food and drink, roads and countryside all merge to create a surprisingly low-key cycling haven just a few hours from the UK. Be sure to do some research in advance; pick your season, routes and food spots and you can’t help but have a blast. But if you’re looking for a family holiday spot where you can sneak a few hours on the bike whilst the others easily entertain themselves, you may want to consider alternative destinations.
Top Travel Tip
Catalans are fiercely proud of their own language, particularly as it was oppressed for decades under Franco’s regime. Make the effort to learn a few key phrases for your trip – a little linguistic willing goes a long way!