Travel: sun, sea and sweat – Why Catalonia is the perfect place for an active break
From new cycling routes to world-class wellness centres, Jonjo Maudsley discovers why Spain is a favorite destination for professional and amateur athletes.
The dirt road plunges through a thickened stone canyon. Blind turns follow one another. The bike almost slides under me as I shift my body to skid around a particularly sharp turn, kicking up a cloud of dust that floats over the precipice and disappears into the dense forest below.
I glance away. The trees march towards the Catalan topaz coast, far on the horizon and beyond the many hills I have yet to face.
Oh, Spain. No wonder this country is consistently ranked as the healthiest country in Europe, as few other nations can boast of investing so much in sports infrastructure.
Bike lanes like this may only be part of that story, but they are definitely the key chapter right now. Huge projects like the Ruta Via de la Plata (the ‘Silver Route’, a new route from Seville to Gijon, via the Camino de Santiago – another increasingly popular route among cyclists) have firmly established 2022 as the Spanish Year of the Bike, while also opening up a whole new way to explore this roughly cut piece of land.
But despite big projects like these making headlines, there’s also a lot going on locally. In particular, it is the Vias Verdes (the greenways; viasverdes.com) that invite a new breed of casual athletes to experience Spain on two wheels.
Fashioned from old railway lines, the Greenways are long, straight and mostly flat, traversing previously undiscovered stretches of Spanish countryside. With 3,000 kilometers of pistes stretching across the country, they offer a challenging but accessible way to carve your way through the rugged Spanish hinterland.
I know it first hand, because I am here on the Costa Brava of Catalonia, tackling one of the most impressive routes, from Girona to S’Agaro. At 40 kilometers (25 miles), this is a substantial but accessible drive. Better still, it was boosted at the start of the year by a €1.6m improvement plan.
Traces of the road’s past as a railroad scatter before my eyes. Every few miles I find, nestled among the suburban houses, a nice railway shed with sloping wooden roofs. These old stations have been transformed into tourist information centers and mini-museums.
These are both unmissable pit-stops – offering free water refills – and information panels, to tell me the story of this route. I learn that the now-defunct railway once ferried chic day trippers from Girona to the fashionable resort town of S’Agaro – and am starting to feel a little underdressed in my skin-tight lycra and padded shorts.
At the end of the 40th kilometer, I crawl back to S’Agaro totally exhausted, but happy that my trip today is only one way, because I was savvy enough to prepare my secret weapon – a return shuttle.
Once a month, the PGA Catalunya resort, a stone’s throw from Girona airport, offers a guided tour of this Greenway with return transfer (E35/£30 per person). So I rest, while the hotel prepares my return with air conditioning, bike and everything.
My muscles hot and sore, my skin sweating and toasted golden, means the sight of Hotel Camiral – the five-star showpiece of PGA Catalunya – couldn’t be more of a relief. I have already programmed my bespoke recovery program – a favorite among professional athletes – at their state-of-the-art wellness center, which recently received a €5 million cash injection. Entrusting my battered body to Emilia, I find myself going through a series of treatments that make fun of my post-cycle pain.
First comes 20 minutes in the biomodulation chamber with low level lasers, followed by a 90 minute deep tissue massage where, with the skill of a surgeon, Emilia tears my muscles from the hot bones below.
Now to cool off, and what better than the cryo-chamber, where at -160°C, I feel my muscle fibers contract like the fingers of a carpenter. Finally, for the well-being of my mind and body, I embrace a 45-minute rest in the oxygen tent, flushing my blood with the most vital of all vital elements (individual treatments from 60 E/ £51, packages available).
I leave feeling like a freshly activated Terminator, a freshly minted fiver, a fruit that has just reached full maturity. My muscles are spongy, my veins and arteries are full of excitement. My 40 kilometer cycle already feels like a memory of a past life. I understand, now, how athletes do the amazing things they do. I want to do them too. And so I’m outside, freshly dressed, rushing off to another slew of physical activity: golf.
The hotel is home to two of the best golf courses in Spain and my stay at Hotel Camiral includes an introductory golf lesson. It’s a great opportunity to embarrass myself in front of the club pro, before tackling a casual back nine, my balls slashing in all the wrong directions across the 1,334-acre field (green fees on request).
It whets the appetite, and again Hotel Camiral is ready to deliver. With dishes prepared by celebrity chef David Vives, Restaurante 1477 lives up to Girona’s heritage of culinary excellence with a tasting menu of impeccable quality – and, with a healthy undercurrent to the menu , I shamelessly incorporate all six dishes into my fitness routine.
Special mention for the tuna tataki with mango chutney and the Catalan-style stuffed free-range chicken leg. High in protein, low in fat, vitamins and plenty of omega-3s – healthy eating has nothing to do with this good taste.
Refueled and invigorated, I wake up the next morning ready to start all over again. Starting with a light jog around the expansive PGA Catalunya grounds, I can admire the resort’s organic gardens, teeming with frogs and turtles by day, floating bats by night, all expertly cared for by resident biologist Oriol Dalmau.
Then, after a quick dip in the Hotel Camiral’s swimming pool, I head to the gym – its top quality equipment makes me question my own gym membership at home – before finishing my routine through a midday yoga class with a view of the Catalan mountains, blue painted cornflower in the distance.
It is a rare pleasure to leave a vacation feeling fitter and healthier than when I arrived. But again, it’s Spain, a nation united by its love of sport. From its new bike paths to its world-class wellness resorts, this is a country that values its culture of health and fitness.
How to plan your trip
PGA Catalunya’s Keep Discovering PGA package includes a stay at Hotel Camiral, breakfast and access to many activities, including bike rental, golf initiation and buggy rental, from E610 / £523 per night.
The two-day Spa-Cation package offers three treatments per person and one night from E491 / £420. Visit pgacatalunya.com.
Ryanair fly direct to Girona Airport from London Stansted all year round with prices from £28 return.
Ryanair also flies from Scottish airports directly to Barcelona.