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These notes describe the route that 3 CTC members, Owen Barder, Eleanor Grey and Steven Kovats, took from Bordeaux to Gerona in 1993. We are not experts in this region, and we don’t claim to have identified the best routes and places to stay. But we had an excellent holiday. We hope that these notes will help you to plan your own trip in the area.
We are not in the very hardy category of cyclist: we were aiming for plenty of exercise with comfortable accommodation and good food. We therefore chose to break up the route between mountains to prevent any day from being too difficult, which meant that we did not cover much ground some days, and we tried to stay in comfortable hotels.
In Spain you can stay in government-run Paradors, which are reasonably luxurious hotels, sometimes in buildings of historic significance. They are not cheap – around 10-15,000 Ptas (50-75) for a double room – but they are a good place to stay for a special occasion. This trip passes Paradors in Viella, Arties, Seu s’Urgell, Cardona and Vic. They are usually full so you need to book ahead. If you are going to choose one to stay in, the Parador in Cardona has the most atmosphere and interesting architecture (it is built into an 11th century castle) but the one outside Vic is the best place for a luxurious day off by the pool.
We went by British Airways from Gatwick to Bordeaux (Merignac). This is ridiculously easy, and there is no requirement to box or bag your bike. For those that haven’t done it before, you have to loosen the handlebars (which usually requires a 5mm allen key), let the air out of the tyres (so they don’t burst in the depressurised hold) and remove your pedals (which usually requires a spanner). At Merignac, the baggage handlers carried the bikes carefully from the plane to us in the baggage hall.
The return from Playa de Aro (near Gerona) was by coach, courtesy of Bike Express. This is a double decker bus which travels through the night, with a purpose-built bike trailer on the back. We left Playa de Aro at 2.30pm on Sunday afternoon, and were dropped in Gravesend at 11am on Monday morning. Bike Express can be contacted on (01642) 251440
Weather and clothing
We went in mid August. It was hazy on most mornings, but became hot and sunny by lunchtime on most days. There are sometimes thunderstorms in the Pyrenees in August. Conditions at the top of the cols are variable: it can be windy, misty and cold, and it is usually chilly coming down, so a good windproof jacket, gloves and a pair of leggings are essential. It can also be blisteringly hot, especially as you get further south, so take suntan lotion and long-sleeved T-shirts, and make sure that you have capacity to carry around a litre of water for each person.
Maps and guides
We used just two maps: the yellow Michelin map of Aquitaine (no 234, 1:200 000) and the orange Michelin map of Catalunya (no 443, 1:400 000).
We also had with us the red, hardback Michelin guides to France and Spain/Portugal. Although they are a bit heavy, they were indispensable for identifying accommodation and for a brief summary of what to see.
We also took the Rough Guide to the Pyrenees. This covers the right area, but we rapidly found that we did not agree with its assessments and stopped using it.
Day 1: Bordeaux (Merignac) to Creon (52km)
Route: D106 to Bordeaux Centre; D113 out of Bordeaux to Latresne; D240 to Cenac; D14 to Creon
Road quality: Very busy into Bordeaux and out again. Good cycle track along Garonne to Latresne. Quiet & flat to Creon.
Accommodation: Chateau Camiac (56 23 20 85) outside Creon. Very expensive modern chateau. Bordeaux would be a better choice.
Comments: We booked late which meant hotels in towns more directly on the route were fully booked. So we slogged through Bordeaux on busy roads, and out again the other side. You could stay more cheaply in the centre of Bordeaux or avoid the city altogether by heading south from the airport, staying in a town such as Hostens, and then taking the D651 south to Mont de Marsan.
Day 2: Creon to Villeneuve de Marsan (115km)
Route: D13 to Cadillac; D117 to Illats; D118 to Budos; D114 to Villendraut & Captieux; D932 to Villeneuve.
Road quality: Very quiet roads. Gravel from Villandraut to Prechac: very slow going. Rather straight and boring after Villandraut.
Food & accommodation: You can buy a picnic at Cadillac, or there are plenty of places to eat in Villandraut. We stayed at Relais Francis Darroze, Villeneuve de Marasan.
Comments: Rather straight and boring cycling. Flat, however, and therefore easy to cover substantial distance. The hotel was luxurious with very good food and a pool, but expensive. Armagnac country, so try some after dinner.
You have a choice about which of the cols of the French Pyrenees you want to tackle. By going through the pass at Lourdes to Argeles-Gazost, we skipped the Col d’Aubisque. You could add a day to the tour by going through Pau to Laruns on Day 3, then over the Col d’Aubisque to Argeles-Gazost the next day.
Conversely, you could reduce the tour by a day and miss out Col du Tourmalet by cycling to Bagneres de Bigorre through Tarbes on Day 3.
Day 3: Villeneuve de Marasan to Argeles-Gazost (116km)
Route: D934 to Aire-sur-L’Adour; D22, D13 to Lembeye; D295 to Villenave-pres-Bearn; D47 to Luquet; D42 to Pontacq; D940 to Lourdes: N21 to Argeles-Gazost.
Road quality: fast but very busy to Aire-sur-l’Adour; then splendid quiet roads to Pontacq. Fairly hilly into, and just after, Lembeye. Lots of traffic but fast road, from Pontacq to Argeles. Lourdes congested.
Food & accommodation: Lunch in Lembeye (there is nowhere after that until Pontacq). Overnight at Hotel le Bernede, 65 Argeles Gazost. Argeles is a tacky holiday town: plenty of moderately priced but unexciting accommodation. Lots of tourists so worth booking somewhere ahead.
Comments: More interesting cycling, but a long day. Hotel cheap and cheerful but no better than any other in the town.
Day 4: Argeles-Gazost to la Mongie (40km)
Route: D921 to Esterre / Luz St Saveur; D147 to la Mongie (over Col du Tourmalet 2,114m)
Road quality: excellent road surface. Gentle upward gradient to Esterre. Then fairly constant 8% gradient climb for 18km to the summit of Col du Tourmalet. Long and gruelling climb. Very well signposted every kilometre. Short, easy descent a little way off the col into La Mongie.
Food & accommodation: Cafes on the way up Tourmalet (especially at Bareges, 6km up, but also at 12km up) and a cafe at the top of the pass. Overnight at Pic d’Espade, La Mongie. La Mongie is a ski resort: several hotels and restaurants but quiet in the summer.
Comments: Good consistent climb to the Col du Tourmalet, the highest road pass in the French Pyrenees. Popular with local cyclists, it is often on the route of the Tour de France. It is, however, hard work with panniers (pack light!). We bought patisseries and ate them halfway up. Great countryside and good views. Remind yourself if your spirits flag that this is the toughest climb of the whole holiday.
We arrived in La Mongie in the early afternoon Being a ski resort there is not much to do there in summer: we spent the rest of the day washing clothes and relaxing. You could alternatively coast down the hill to Ste Marie de Campan or (at the cost of having to retrace your steps the next day) to Bagneres de Bigorre.
Day 5: La Mongie to Bagneres de Luchon (71km)
Route: D918 to Arreau (over Col d’Aspin 1,489m); D618 to Bagneres de Louchon (over Col de Peyresourde 1,569)
Road quality: Long descent from La Mongie into Ste Marie de Campan. Col d’Aspin much less challenging than Tourmalet with an average gradient of 5.5%. Becomes increasingly steep as you climb (maximum 9%). No cafe at top. Enjoyable, but windy descent. Col de Peyresourde slightly more difficult – average gradient of 7.5% – and less consistently graded. Includes some sections as steep as 10%. Cafe and creperie at top. Brilliant 18km descent into Bagneres.
Food & accommodation: Lunch at Le Moulin d’Avajan at foot of Col de Peyresourde. Highly recommended. Alternatively, you could eat in Arreau, at the bottom of d’Aspin. Lots of hotels and restaurants in Bagneres de Luchon.
Comments: Not too difficult, despite two Cols. The descent from La Mangie was marred by the clouds early in the morning. May be better to come down the day before if the weather is clear and if you have booked into a hotel in Ste Marie de Campan. The Col d’Aspin is easy and pleasant. Peyresourde is more challenging, but well worth it for the descent.
Bagneres de Luchon is a spa town, striking for its fading gentility, with plenty of touristy bars and restaurants. If you have time, visit the baths for a soak in the hot sulphurous water, and relax in the natural sulphurus sauna.
Day 6: Half day: Bagneres de Louchon to Vielha (38km)
Route: D618 to Bossost (Spain) (over Col del Portillon 1,293m); N125 to Vielha.
Road quality: Col del Portillon averages 7% but is very steep in places. More difficult than Peyresourde and as steep (though not as long) as Tourmalet. Densely wooded on both sides. No border formalities at the top. The road on the Spanish side was being rebuilt: which was plainly needed. Gentle uphill into Vielha, along the Vall d’Aran.
Food & accommodation: Cafes in Bossost. Parador just beyond Vielha (highly recommended) and Arties, or hotels and restaurants in Vielha.
Comments: We made this a short day, since we were aiming for an afternoon by the pool at the Vielha Parador. Col de Portillon is hard work on the way up. Nonetheless, you can be in Vielha in time for a late lunch. Alternatively, if the weather is good, you can picnic at the top.
Day 7: Vielha to Rialp (70km)
Route: C142 to Esterri d’Aneu (over Puerto de la Bonaigua 2,072m); C147 to Rialp.
Road quality: Very long (25km) but modest gradient climb to the Puert de la Bonaigua on good roads climbing the wall of the Vall d’Aran. Exhilarating 25km descent into Esterri d’Aneu on excellent road surface. Then 25km down the valley alongside the Noguera Pallaresa, mainly downhill, on good road.
Food & accommodation: Cafes in Baqueira soon after leaving Vielha. Two cafes at the top of the pass. Hotels and restaurants in the towns along the valley, especially in Rialp and Sort. We stayed in the Condes del Pillars in Rialp (on the main road) which was fine.
Comments: Excellent ride. Very long ascent but moderate gradient, with good views of the Vall d’Aran. Good descent down to the Noguera Pallaresa. Main road along Noguera Pallaresa fast but busy; the towns are not very exciting, unless you want to go rafting.
Day 8: Rialp to La Seu d’Urgell (60km)
Route: C147to Sort; N260 to Adrall (over Col del Canto 1,725m); then N260 to La Seu d’Urgell.
Road quality: Another long (25km) ascent up Col del Canto. One or two steep sections, but mostly moderate gradient. A tremendous descent into Adrall, on good surface, and not as windy as other descents. Final 6km into La Seu d’Urgell is on a fast, busy road.
Food & accommodation: Few opportunities to eat or drink between Sort and Adrall. No cafe at the top of the pass. If the weather is good, buy a picnic in Rialp or Sort to eat at the top. Plenty of hotels and restaurants, including a Parador, in La Seu d’Urgell.
Comment: one of the best days, partly because we had good weather. Although the climb is long, the views are splendid and it is nowhere too steep. Road down is fast and has lots of views. In La Seu d’Urgell you could see the cathedral, cloisters and cloisters museum – all were inexplicably shut when we tried. The park is very pleasant for a stroll and a drink.
Day 9: La Seu d’Urgell to Cardona (92km)
Route: N260 beyond Oliana; L301 to Solsona; C1410 to Cardona.
Road quality: fast, busy road along the Rio Segre. Then poor quality, broken asphalt road to Cardona. Uphill after Castellardela Ribera, steep only in one section. Descent into Solsona made a little treacherous by road surface.
Food & accommodation: You can buy food and drink in Organya and Oliana, but there is nothing after that until Solsona. If you are going to picnic, you will have to hunt out some shade. Hotels and restaurants in Solsona and Cardona. In Cardona you can stay in the (quite expensive) Parador built into the 11th Century castle at the top of the hill, which has stunning views.
Comments: although a long distance, this is fairly easy cycling. The day we went it was fiercely hot, and you are very exposed most of the day. Cardona is a pleasant village, the Parador in the castle is a memorable place to stay.
We had two days in hand at this point, and decided to take it easy, so we meandered a bit, taking two days to get to Vic, but you could do it more directly in a single day. Alternatively, you could head for Barcelona from Cardona, though the road is said to be terribly busy.
Day 10 (half day): Cardona to Berger (31km)
Route: B420 to Montmajor; C149 to Berger
Road quality: quiet country roads. Not too bad.
Food & accommodation: Nothing between Cardona and Berger. Lots of hotels in Berger. We stayed in L’Estelle, which was reasonably comfortable.
Comments: Enjoyable, easy and short day. Good to be off the main roads. We spent the afternoon in a cafe in Berger, which is a pleasant little town at the foot of the Pyrenees.
Day 11: Berger to Vic (76km)
Route: C1411 to Gironella; C 154 to Vic.
Road quality: Quiet country roads again. Also not very good surface, but compensated by lack of traffic.
Food & accommodation: Not many places to get food between Gironella and Olost (we bought a picnic in Berger). Hotels and restaurants in Vic. Parador 15km from Vic.
Comments: Very good journey – one of the best day’s cycling because it was off the main roads.
Vic has a pleasant mediaeval quarter which is worth visiting. The Parador near Vic is at a remarkable, remote location in the mountains over a lake below.
Day 12: Vic to Gerona (94km)
Route: N141d to Sant Julia; then follow signs to Espinelves & Arbucies; GE552 to Hostalric; C251 to junction with N11; N11 to Gerona.
Road quality: Poor surfaces, and fairly hilly in the morning. Then long descent from Espinelves to Arbucies, and fairly flat thereafter. Last 18km on the N11 on a very busy road, but with reasonable hard shoulder you can cycle on.
Food & accommodation: Lunch in Arbicies or in frequent roadside restaurants. Plenty of hotels and restaurants in Gerona.
Comments: The recently built motorway, the C25, has swallowed up the GE543 marked on older maps, so cyclists are condemned to following minor roads, often in sight of the main road below. As a results, the road layout leaving Vic bore little resemblance to what was shown on our map. Once found, the route is free of traffic and, although slow at the start, speeds up after Espinelves.
Gerona is an interesting city: you could visit the cathedral, with its 11th century Tapestry of the Creation, the art museum, and walk around the old town.
From Gerona, you can head for Barcelona (90km), the beaches of the Costa Brava (35km) or the airport (15km). If you are returning to the UK on a Bike Express coach, you need to get yourself to Playo de Aro which is 35km from Gerona.
These notes are available on the World Wide Web at http://www.owen.org/cycling/