bicycle touring northern spain
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Bicycle Touring Northern Spain

After a long ferry from Sardinia to Barcelona, we spent nine days bicycle touring Northern Spain from Barcelona to Pamplona. We rode past the spectacular Monserrat mountain after leaving Barcelona before riding through long stretches of farmland and many medieval villages. After Huesca, we ventured into an amazing stretch of sparsely populated mountains to make our way to Pamplona.

Route

northern spain bicycle touring map
Overview of our route from Barcelona to Pamplona.

Download the GPX track of our route between Barcelona and Pamplona. We used Ride With GPS to map a general route beforehand, and then adjusted it as we went along to avoid busy roads and gratuitous elevation gain.

ferry from sardinia to barcelona
Our ferry coming into the Porto Torres harbor at sunrise. It was an hour late and we had to wait outside in the cold, but at least it was pretty. Also, a Grimaldi Lines vessel had recently been in the news for catching fire at sea, so we were not terribly excited for the crossing.

Barcelona

When our ferry docked in the port of Barcelona, we were braced for a hectic night ride through the city to get to our hotel. Much to our surprise, we found a bike lane directly outside the dock area and took cycling lanes all the way through the city, stopping for some midnight kebab on the way. Barcelona turned out to be one of the most bike-friendly big cities we’ve ridden through, and we were immediately energized and excited to start exploring Spain.

We spent a couple days seeing the sights in Barcelona, such as the cathedral, the Roman ruins throughout the Gothic Quarter, some of the Gaudi apartment buildings, and the Sagrada Familia – we couldn’t bring ourselves to pay the 26 euros to go inside it though.

indoor fist market in barcelona
Indoor fish market in Barcelona. Presentation was taken very seriously and for some reason fish markets are really entertaining to walk around, even though we’re not big on seafood.
barcelona cathedral
Cathedral in Barcelona.
gaudi apartment building in barcelona
One of the many cool Gaudi buildings in Barcelona.
gaudi apartment building barcelona
Another Gaudi apartment building.

Mountainous Byways

Our route out of Barcelona was, again, almost exclusively on bike paths. Even through the outlying towns and suburbs, the bicycle infrastructure was fantastic. We rode through a few smaller towns before heading into the Parc Natural de Sant Llorenç del Munt i l’Obac. It was a long steady climb to get up into the mountains, and there were hardly any cars on the road and beautiful scenery all around.

Once we reached the top of the pass and turned the corner, we got our first view of Monserrat – a craggy collection of tooth-like mountains with an abbey improbably nestled atop its cliffs. There were gorgeous sandstone rock formations along the road we were riding as well, and the scenery reminded us of the Southwestern U.S.

bicycle touring northern spain
Beautiful sunset on our first night camping in Spain.
monserrat at sunset
Monserrat at sunset. The small lights you can see on the mountain is the famous Santa Maria de Monserrat Abbey that was established in the 11th century.
wild camping spain
Woke up to rain the next morning at camp. Spain was much rainier and colder than we expected at this time of year.
bicycle touring northern spain
Riding past a cloudy Monserrat in the morning.
bicycle touring northern spain
Found some fun dirt roads next to El Llobregat river.
el pont de vilomara
There were tons of medieval bridges in Spain. This was was in El Pont de Vilomara.
bicycle touring northern spain
Quiet roads in rural Spain.
Montfalcó Murallat
Montfalcó Murallat, just before Cervera.

InterCatalunya Bicycle Route

In Cervera, we joined the InterCatalunya Bike Route (iCAT), which we would ride to Lleida. The route is primarily on gravel roads that were all graded and in good condition. The riding was very nice and low traffic, and we enjoyed seeing all the medieval towns along the route. While the low traffic gravel was great, riding through endless farmland did get monotonous at times.

bicycle touring the intercatalunya bike route
Leaving Cervera on the iCAT. Excited to be on a well-signposted bike route.
bicycle touring the icat in northern spain
Lots of almond trees blooming this time of year.
wild camping spain
Trying our best to hide behind some bamboo. Wild camping in farmland can be pretty tricky.

The biggest downside of the iCAT was the density of pig farms throughout the valley. We weren’t sure if the smell was worse in the winter due to an inversion effect or something, but it was pretty unbearable. The smell would get into our mouths and we couldn’t seem to get away from it. Wild camping was also difficult in these long stretches of farmland, and the smell of pig farms didn’t do much for our appetites at dinnertime.

pig farms in spain
One of the many pig farms along the iCAT. Apparently there has been a huge increase in pig farms over the last decade.

Lleida to Huesca

After leaving Lleida, we were relieved to start getting into the hills and away from all of the pig farms. It was kind of unbelievable how constant and overwhelming the smell was.

castillo de Monzón
Riding through Monzón with its castillo overlooking the town.
bicycle touring spain
Hillier section with sandstone rock outcrops.
bicycle touring spain
There was still a lot of agriculture in this area, but more patches of trees like the one in the background.
bicycle touring spain
Snowy mountains blending in with the sky.
bicycle touring spain
Andrew took this photo from the hill where we camped. We didn’t think the road got much traffic so were a bit lax in hiding our tent, then a whole caravan of farmers came back from their fields at once. They probably saw us but didn’t seem to mind.

Huesca to Pamplona

Huesca was a larger city with a beautiful cathedral and old town area that we rode around for awhile. Unfortunately, you have to pay to go inside many of the cathedrals in Spain, so for the most part we just admired them from the outside. Shortly after leaving Huesca, we started the long climb into the nearby mountains. There were some really neat rock formations along the way and we were excited to be heading for more remote territory.

cathedral of huesca
Huesca Cathedral.
bicycle touring spain
We met a dog that looked like a mop and also blended in with the ground.
bicycle touring spain
Amazing scenery heading into the mountains. This is near the Parque natural de la Sierra y los Cañones de Guara.

We were initially worried that there would be a lot of traffic on the road we chose, because it was labeled as a larger highway on our GPS app. However, there was a new highway right next to it, and the road we were riding actually had signs that said “service vehicles only.” We saw a bunch of road cyclists riding it so figured it was OK, and it turned out to effectively be a bike path through a beautiful gorge.

bicycle touring northern spain
Spectacular rock formations in the gorge. You can see the bigger highway with blue guardrails above us.
bicycle touring northern spain
A herd of goats interrupted our photo shoot.

After riding the gorge, we turned onto a byway through a wonderful natural area near Arguis. This section was really incredible, and for the most part we had the whole road to ourselves. We camped at the high point of the section, which we always end up doing despite talk of descending into warmer temperatures, and woke the next morning to chilly rain and fog. It took us a little while to decide on a camp spot because a dead animal smell was permeating the area (we think it was maybe a wild pig).

wild camping spain
Wild camp in a cow field.
bicycle touring spain
Started off the morning with a cloudy descent.

Tiny Villages and Surprise Pilgrimages

Along our route through the mountains, we rode through numerous small medieval villages that didn’t seem to have very many inhabitants. We wondered if they were somewhat seasonal or if the younger generation had migrated to larger cities. It was pretty rainy and chilly when we were there, so also totally possible that most people were hanging out inside. Either way, the architecture was really cool to see and the cycling was very calm and enjoyable.

bicycle touring northern spain
Country road through sparsely populated farmland.
bicycle touring northern spain
Scenic village in the hill country.
bicycle touring spain
Overlook with snowy mountains in the distance.
wild camping spain
Wild camp in a nice forested area.
bicycle touring spain
Fun gravel section, getting closer to Pamplona.

As we approached the town of Javier, we saw that there was a large castle and basilica in the town and decided to make a detour to see them. Little did we know that the annual Javieradas pilgrimage was occurring that weekend, and thousands upon thousands of people were converging on the small town. Lines of cars and buses and flocks of people were heading into Javier, and we were incredibly confused and disoriented after seeing so few people for days!

javieradas
Crowds at Javieradas.

Pamplona

We arrived in Pamplona the following day and spent a couple nights wandering around the city. Pamplona is a beautiful city and we really enjoyed walking around the old town and its many plazas. We tried our first “menú del día” for lunch, which consisted of three courses and a beverage. Being on a budget, we eat out somewhat sparingly, but try to go to at least one traditional restaurant in each country we visit.

menu del dia spain
First course of the menú del día: potatoes, Iberian ham, and a fried egg. Didn’t take photos of the next courses but this one wound up being our favorite anyway.
pamplona cafe
Note the ham hanging above the bar.
pamplona
One of the many beautiful plazas in Pamplona.
bocadillos in pamplona
Butcher and sandwich shop in Pamplona. The circular breads with meat baked in on the right were amazing.
plaza del castillo
Rainy day in the Plaza del Castillo.
plaza del castillo
Plaza del Castillo and Café Iruña, which featured in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises.

A friend of Jenny’s had studied abroad in Pamplona and recommended a cake shop called Beatriz, which is known for its garroticos de chocolate and other unique confections. We were looking through the window at all the treats, and the owner of a gear shop across the street came outside to tell us that Beatriz was “the drug of Pamplona” and that locals would line up down the street for their sweets. It definitely lived up to the hype – everything we got was absolutely delicious.

beatriz cake shop pamplona
A small fraction of the baked goods that awaited us inside.

Video from Northern Spain

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