I wait in the train station in a little town called Parets for three hours. There is a young man sitting across from me who speaks English and explains that the train has stopped due to the weather, high-speed winds, but he soon leaves, picked up by his girlfriend, leaving me with no one who speaks English. Someone comes through later, no seguir I catch, we aren’t continuing. People look as if to leave but stop outside and congregate around a man I assume is the conductor. He is answering questions and all I can make out is that no one knows anything. I fiddle with my bike and take photos. Spanish and Catalan are being spoken very quickly and I hardly understand anything.
Finally the conductor makes an annoucement and everyone begins to leave. Someone repeats to me, vas a la rotonda. We walk to a traffic circle in the town where a bus picks us up to continue the train’s route north. The bus could fit my bike, to my relief. I sit in the back next to an old Catalan couple who say something to me about their suitcases when I get on, I explain I don’t speak Catalan and they smile and wave me into the seat. The bus departs and follows a road rising up the hillside of the valley. We are headed toward the mountains in the north.
A man sitting next to me says in English, if you’re going to Ripoll, you need to stay on this bus until Vic, and then take the train to Ripoll. There’s been some sort of accident and the trains aren’t moving through the mountain valley. We talk for a little bit. He asks me where I’m from. I’m American, too, he says. I’ve been living Catalonia for thirty years. I moved in one year after Franco left. It’s been interesting watching this country grow as a new democracy. He told me his children grew up here and he speaks Catalan with all of them.
A woman sitting a seat in front of us interrupts in Catalan, and they talk for a bit, and the man translates for me that she is a concert violinist and knew of his son, who is a composer living in California, and apparently well-known here.
Eventually, five hours late, I make it to Ripoll.
Ripoll is a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Here I visit the Benedectine monastery Santa Maria de Ripoll.
I have breakfast at the hotel, café con leche, toasted slices of bread coated with tomato juice (a Catalan favorite) and a basket full of local cured hams, with a cutting board and knife to sample them. I read in the news that the train that had caused my delay was impaled by a fallen tree and that the injured conductor had his leg amputated.
The hostess is named Aina. Aina, eye-nah. I practice saying Ripoll. Reepoiyyy. In the cold air, my tongue begins to flutter slightly, and suddenly I’m rolling my R’s. Rrrripoy.
I pack my bike and take the scenic road to Olot, over a low mountain pass. Four or five cars pass me in as many hours. I clamber up an outcrop at the top of the pass to take this photo. The only noise in the still air is cattle bells clanging in the distance.
The first thing I notice about Olot is the smog, hanging low over the town, punctured by the extinct volcanoes all over the valley.
The second thing I notice, biking into town, is the smell, like burning oil. I ask a few people about it. One woman claims that it is just moisture from the streams. Another man didn’t seem too concerned. Olot is a working town, lots of embutidos, jamón factories.
I meet a bicyclist, Manel, and we go out for coffee. ¿Qué le gusta? the waitress asks. Café amb llet says Manel, café con leche I say. The waitress looks at me and says, vale, dos cafés con leche. Ah.
The thing about the gente here, says Manel, is people in Spain think, oh they just speak Catalaaan out there. But we speak perfect Spanish! Everyone speaks Catalan with each other, but everyone can speak Spanish, no problem, we all learned it in school. I don’t think we should be a part of Spain. We are different. This is catalunya!
So you voted, Sí, Sí?
Yes, I did. Sí, sí. I think Spain is corrupt. Corrupt politicains, wasting money. Sure, our politicians are corrupt too, but less. Spain is in a bad place right now, and we should separate. I moved here, in Olot, for work. Six months ago. But now it’s very bad. I don’t know if I’m gonna have a job much longer. Some days they call me in, some days no. I don’t know when I’m gonna work next.
Manel bikes with me down the valley a little, and points me toward the mountains. You go ahead, he says, I have to get back. Maybe soon I will have enough time for a long trip. Have you heard of the camino santiago? Yes, I say. The main walk is camino frances, and there’s a more difficult one, camino del norte, along the coast. It starts along the border with France, in Basque country. It might take a week or two. Some day I’ll bike or walk that.
I leave Manel and bike up the mountain.
The next day I leave Olot and continue to Girona. Most of the route is on an old railway trail, part of the vias verdes network in Spain. It follows the valley south and slightly downhill. I can coast much of the way.
I stop in a village along the way for lunch, and have squid with pesto and delicious fried potatoes called patates d’Olot.
In Girona the trip takes an unexpected turn. I meet Pau, who invites me to stay at his house to have dinner with his wife. The first floor of Pau’s house is a garage filled to the brim with bikes, portable stoves, scooters, endless tools and odds and ends. This is very clean for me, he says. Just last week it was impossible to walk in here. I was building a pipe organ for a circus in France.
Dinner is delicious, some kind of cuttlefish risotto. Our conversation tends to lapse in and out of English and Spanish. At some point it turns to construcción de iglús, a favorite topic for Pau, as he once was the president of the local igloo builder’s association. Before I know it I have agreed to let Pau take me up to the mountains in the morning to teach me to build igloos.
We leave at 7 so that we have enough light.
There isn’t too much snow but we make do with what has collected in a ditch. Pau lets me place the blocks. I do an OK job: the igloo stands, but it looks a bit lopsided.
Pau makes lunch, ramen with tuna fish, and espresso, in a beautiful little portable espresso maker.
France is just across the valley, under lenticular clouds. Some day I’ll return and take a proper bike trip over the mountains, perhaps with Pau as my guide.