Catalunya is the northeastern province of Spain, which we knew nothing about prior to our arrival, but we knew immediately when we entered because suddenly neither of us could read the road signs or understand what anyone was saying. It was slightly alarming at the supermarket when I couldn't understand the cashier when she told us the total for our purchases; I thought I was losing my mind but was relieved when we learned the official language of this province was Catalan instead of Spanish. We probably would have cruised right through and still know nothing about Catalunya had we not found warm-showers hosts to stay with, but we got lucky and met Jordi and Gemma, and through them learned a great deal and saw a good portion of a spectacular region of the world.
We arrived to the tiny village of Bellestar, population 28, perched atop of a hill surrounded by grand vistas of mountains and green fields. We've ridden through many such villages on this trip, wondering what it would be like to live in a place like this, but usually just passed by the old stone buildings, down the abandoned streets and continued on to the next town of a decent size where we could get food or supplies, so when we discovered our hosts actually lived there, we were excited to discover what their lives were like.
We intended to stay with Jordi and Gemma for one night, or maybe two if the weather was crummy, but we generally never stay in one place longer than that because we either get bored or else feel like we're imposing on our hosts' lives and overstaying our welcome. That was far from the case here; we found ourselves in the home of people who absolutely love where they live, enjoy showing and teaching outsiders about Catalunya, understand what it's like to travel for extended periods of time and therefore know that sometimes all we want is a shower, laundry and a quiet place to relax. They went about their lives like normal and every day we were told of some outing or event that was to take place in the upcoming day or two and enthusiastically invited and encouraged to join them. There was never an end to their future adventures and they repeatedly told us that we could stay as long as we wanted. There's no doubt in my mind that if we had wanted or needed to stay for a month they would have happily let us move in for that long.
Jordi, Gemma, Mike and Cari
We arrived late on Wednesday evening, somewhat in the mood for a hot shower and early night to bed, but were instead invited to one of Jordi's friends' house to watch the Barcelona vs. Madrid soccer match. If there is one thing that Mike and I have learned from traveling, it is to never turn down the opportunity to hang out with locals. There is no better way to learn about, discover and actually experience life from a different place than to take part in the daily activities of the people who live there, away from other tourists. It's a rare occasion to run into complete strangers who are willing and enthusiastic to enable such an experience, so of course we said 'yes' to the soccer match, and thus began our 5-day stay in Bellestar.
Night one was the soccer match, which Barcelona (which is in Catalunya) won, and along with watching the match we also got our first of many political lessons for the week of the tensions that exist between Catalunya and the rest of Spain. We quickly learned to not call Catalonians “Spanish,” as many of them take it as an insult and wish for nothing more than their province to become independent from Spain. It was interesting to hear their viewpoints of political issues within their own country rather than having them ask about the US government, which is usually the case, and it was wonderful to see people so passionate about keeping their ancient cultures and language alive.
Thursday wasn't so exciting as it was rainy and we opted to stay at home and take care of tasks like laundry, bike maintenance and catching up on emails. Not very fun, but necessary every once in a while. That night we went to a BBQ with Jordi and a bunch of his friends from his cycling and skiing group. There we got a taste of some traditional Catalonian cuisine including tomato bread, which is bread rubbed with garlic and ripe tomato and drizzled with olive oil and Calcots (the 'c' is pronounced like an 's'), which are green onions cooked over a barbeque until the outsides are charred. They then wrap the bundle of onions in newspaper to steam them and when you're ready to eat, you peel the outside layer of the onion off, dip in a delicious tomato sauce and enjoy. We weren't overly impressed with the bread but the onions were absolutely wonderful.
The onions on the grill.
Mike enjoying his Calcot.
Friday morning we went into the nearby town of La Seu d'Urgell with Jordi and walked around town while he went to work for a few hours. As most people know, we're not much into checking out cities, but Jordi and some of his friends kept telling us that we should go visit the Old Town and Olympic Park where the kayaking events were held for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. We were both thoroughly impressed and easily passed several hours watching several dozen athletes practicing for an upcoming competition in the man-made, yet surprisingly beautiful, river.
Kayakers practicing in Olympic Park.
That afternoon we went with Jordi and a couple of his friends for a bike ride in the mountains near Bellestar. The riding was spectacular on quiet, back roads that we never would have discovered on our own, through villages where people once lived but are so far out in the middle of nowhere that now only 1 or 2 people still remain. It was the first time in nearly a year that we had ridden our bikes without all of our panniers on them and despite the fact that all of our upper body strength that we had before leaving on this trip is completely gone, we were happy to discover how strong our legs felt (as they should). Riding up the mountain roads felt “easy” and we found ourselves cruising up hill at a pace that was faster than our overall average speed on our loaded bikes. It made me eagerly dream about someday getting back on my ultra-light road bike and how good it's going to feel, but don't get too excited Mom...it wasn't enough to bring me back home quite yet.
That night we went out for drinks and tapas with Gemma and met some of her friends. We were planning on leaving the next morning as the weather was expected to be good and both Gemma and Jordi were going to be busy all of Saturday, but over dinner we were invited by two of Gemma's friends, Carlos and George, to go hiking with them instead. The hike sounded enticing as it would take us right up to the base of the mountain that overlooks Bellestar and since we hadn't really gotten a great look at the Pyrenees and would be leaving town in the other direction, we decided to stay a little longer.
The day started out nicely with our fearless leader, Carlos, informing us that we were going on a short, 1 ½ – 2 hour hike. That sounded perfect to us who, of course, only brought a liter of water and were wearing running shoes instead of hiking boots. An hour into the hike, we arrived at a beautiful green meadow with the granite spires of Mt. Cadi towering above us. Although the weather never completely cleared for us to get a great view, it was satisfying enough. We sat in the meadow and enjoyed the lunches we brought along and afterward, rather than descending back to the parking lot, Carlos continued to lead us higher and higher on the mountain. When we inquired about his intended route, we were told in his broken English not to worry, the trail makes a loop, but as we watched the village where we started disappear farther below us with two large valleys in between, it became clear to us that any loop trail we'd be doing would take several days at least. After nearly 4 hours on the mountain and losing sight of the trail countless times, I was about to make up a story about being too tired just to force them to turn around rather than watching them adamantly search for some trail they had no idea whether or not even existed because no one had a map. Luckily, Carlos and George eventually gave up on finding the cairns marking the loop trail on their own accord and Mike and I were very pleased that we'd only have to hike another few hours rather than few days. By the end of the hike we were all ready to throw Carlos over a cliff, certain that he would never get us back to the car, but of course he did and a beer and monstrous plate of potato chips at the local pub made us all happy in the end.
Carlos, Mike, Cari and George at Mt. Cadi.
Beer and chips after the hike.
We arrived home exhausted and ready to sleep but Mike stayed up late preparing two of Jordi and Gemma's mountain bikes for a TuPedala club ride that we were invited to join the next morning. Anyone who knows me, or has been following this blog since South America, knows of my dislike for mountain biking, but I was promised it wouldn't be hard core single track, we'd get to meet more people, see another region of Catalunya and the ride sounded interesting so we figured we might as well go for it and stay one more day. It turned out to be a spectacular day for a ride, which also ended up up being a tour of historical markers of the area as well. Roughly every hour we'd stop at another site to see an ancient burial ground, a tower build in the 8th century marking the boundary between what was Muslim and Christian territories, churches build in the 1600s and a monument marking the very center of Catalunya. It was nice having frequent stops which kept the group together, allowed us to talk with lots of new people and broke up the riding into short segments which is a good thing for someone with little confidence on a mountain bike. I don't know if I dare admit this, but I actually enjoyed myself of the ride and discovered that mountain biking might not be so bad when you have the right equipment.
Cari and Mike riding with the TuPedala Bike Club.
Mike riding through a field.
8th century tower.
Group photo on top of the tower.
Cari at one of the old churches.
After 5 days in Bellestar with Jordi and Gemma, it was finally time to continue on our way. We had such a wonderful time, met some of the nicest people and we would have liked to stay longer but I'm afraid if we did, we'd get too comfortable and never leave. We thank everyone we met during our stay for your hospitality, kindness and friendship, for including us in your lives, teaching us parts of your culture and showing us the beautiful area that you call home.