Anyone expecting extraordinary lava landscapes like those on Lanzarote is likely to be disappointed in the Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa Natural Park. It’s been too long since the small volcanoes spewed lava, here in the hinterland of Catalonia in north-eastern Spain. Meadows and forests have long since blanketed them with a green mantle.
The Ruta del Carrilet begins here in the Garrotxa. It runs from the Pre-Pyrenees through Catalonia to the Costa Brava on the Mediterranean coast and is one of 127 Vías Verdes – or “greenways” – in Spain. They follow disused railway lines that have been turned into hiking and cycling routes.
As the train lines were constructed on even terrain, the paths are ideal for cycling tours and leisure cyclists, but also for wheelchair users and hiking trips with children. There are almost 2,500 kilometres of these greenways across Spain today.
On the Ruta del Carrilet
The landscape of Garrotxa is characterised by 38 volcanoes. An old quarry leads deep into the Croscat volcano, revealing the various layers of lava that shimmer in black, red and brown. At the Santa Margarida volcano, bikes must be left at the bottom, with a short hiking trail leading visitors through oak and chestnut forests up to the crater rim. Inside the circular volcanic crater, there is a small Romanesque chapel.
On the way to Olot, the trees of the fairytale-like La Fageda d’en Jordà beech forest provide some much welcome shade. Some 100 metres above the village, the Montsacopa volcano with two old watchtowers offers a magnificent view of Olot with its imposing townhouses.
Olot is the starting point of the Ruta del Carrilet, which leads to Sant Feliu de Guíxols on the Costa Brava via Girona, covering a total distance of 95 kilometres.
First, the route takes you through the green valley of Vall d’en Bas, also known as the “Catalan Switzerland”. The path passes over railroad bridges and through narrow gorges that were once carved into the rock for the steam locomotives.
Cheese and whisky stop
On the side of the road near Sant Esteve d’en Bas, a sign saying “La Xiquella” points to a small cheese factory. Oriol Rizo produces cow’s and sheep’s milk here in the traditional way, and his cheeses have won numerous awards. They sometimes taste of hazelnuts, sometimes of almonds, sometimes of herbs. Some are sharp and spicy, while others taste mild and creamy. In any case: they’re all perfect for taking on the bike ride.
A few kilometres away, you can enjoy Oriol’s cheese in a truly original and interesting setting with Roy Lawson and Goretti Raurell. Roy is Scottish and offers cheese and whiskey tastings at his inn La Rectoria de Sant Miquel de Pineda right on the Ruta del Carrilet. Expect strong contrasts and intense flavour combinations.
Picnic at the waterfall
A couple of kilometres later you reach the town of Sant Feliu de Pallerols after crossing an old stone bridge, idyllically situated on the Brugent river. At the weekly market, local farmers sell cheese, bread, sausages, fruit and vegetables – a great place to stock up for your trip.
Further along the route to Girona, beautiful waterfalls and bathing spots invite you to have a picnic, such as Gorg de Can Poetí or Gorga de Santa Margarida.
Girona is without a doubt one of the most beautiful cities in Catalonia, with a past that dates back to the 1st century and the Romans. Arab baths, the Jewish quarter, squares with stone fountains, the historic city walls: Girona is, quite simply, a gem.
There is a reason why the city often serves as a film set. German director Tom Tykwer turned Girona into a medieval Paris for his film “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”, while a number of scenes from “Game of Thrones” were also filmed here.
The second leg of the Ruta del Carrilet begins in Girona. Past grain fields and over railroad bridges, the route continues along the River Ter toward the Mediterranean Sea from here.
Detour to the thermal baths
Shortly after Cassà de la Selva with its modernist houses, it’s worth turning off onto the Thermal Greenway, another bike path. It leads for about 15 kilometres to Caldes de Malavella, the perfect place to rest the legs exhausted by a long morning of cycling.
The sodium-rich water has been bubbling out of the ground here at a temperature of 60 degrees Celsius for thousands of years, as evidenced by the Roman thermal baths of Puig de Sant Grau.
Caldes de Malavella with its stately homes and castle invites you to linger. Hotel spas such as the Balenari Prats have made the town rich with their thermal baths.
Back on the Ruta del Carrilet, the trail heads steadily downhill towards the Costa Brava, eventually reaching Sant Feliu de Guíxols which is idyllically tucked away between the hills. The coastal town with its imposing Romanesque monastery looks back on a long fishing tradition, with boats bobbing up and down in the harbour.
The sun glistens on the water and the beach restaurants smell of fresh fish. But first things first: park your bike, put on your swim suit and take a well-deserved dive into the cool, refreshing Mediterranean.