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Pedalling Priorat: A Catalonia cycling guide

For the firm of thigh, pedal power may be the best way to experience the switchback-strewn landscape of Priorat. With wines as exquisite as the hills of the Costa Daurada are steep, it’s surely worth saddling up for this two-wheeled adventure.

Located in Spain’s far northeast, perched perfectly beside the Mediterranean sea, Catalonia is an autonomous region. The Catalans are proudly independent of their Spanish compatriots in both their language and culture. The region’s capital, Barcelona – one of the world’s truly great cities – is bursting with life, art and heritage.

These days, the region of Priorat in southern Catalonia is at the forefront of modern Spanish wine. Some of Spain’s most talented winemakers have flocked here to produce expressive wines of power and balance. Located southwest and inland of Barcelona, it’s a region of steep hills and sweeping vistas and, for those willing to make a go of it, a wonderful place to explore by bicycle.

Priorat sits like an off-centre bullseye in the middle of the DO Montsant, the region’s special designation resulting from its black slate soil, known as llicorella, which contrasts with the surrounding sedimentary and calcareous soils of Montsant. Many of its top vineyards are planted on steep, terraced hillsides.

The up-and-down roads

Hillside vineyards looking northeast to the village of Porrera

Hillside vineyards looking northeast to the village of Porrera. Credit: Tim E White / Getty Images

When cycling in and around Priorat, there are plenty of alternative routes to choose from, but you will be climbing (and, therefore, descending) no matter where you decide to go. It’s a great region for road cyclists to explore and is a hotbed of mountain biking. For wine enthusiasts without much cycling experience, e-bikes (see ‘nuts and bolts’ box, below) will make a Priorat trip a memorable experience without much training required.

As an experienced cyclist, I covered some of these routes in fairly compressed days. However, I suggest an itinerary that is approachable and allows for ample time to enjoy Priorat’s hospitality and vinous bounty. Coffee, pastries and long lunches are just some of the charms afforded by its small towns. Take full advantage. Most importantly, cyclists are responsible for their own safety. Given the region’s searing daytime heat and the realities of wine consumption and operating a bicycle, I strongly recommend riding early in the morning and spending the afternoons and evenings tasting wines in cellars and over dinner. A long day in the saddle makes for guilt-free indulgence afterwards. Cycling is a great way to take in the world’s wine regions, but remember that drinking (other than water and electrolytes) and cycling do not mix. Make smart choices and enjoy your time responsibly.

Upon arrival, I recommend checking in for an overnight stay at the gorgeous Hotel Mas La Boella, a renovated 12th-century farmhouse and now luxury boutique hotel just outside the city centre of Tarragona, on the coast. Enjoy a 10-course dinner here that showcases locally sourced ingredients with a pairing of regional wines. Eat well: you’ll need the fuel.


Illustration of areas of Priorat

Credit: Ross Becker / Inkling Illustration

Catalonia cycling tour: The nuts and bolts

Bike hire

In Montbrió del Camp, you can hire a bike (and guide) from Montbike – a wonderful bike shop with possibly the best coffee in Catalonia. It has professional mechanics and guides who know the region intimately and can help you craft a cycling itinerary based on your interests and fitness. A road racing-style bike will be perfect for this trip and costs about €27 (£24) per day; if you need a boost on the climbs (recommended for most people), e-bikes are available for about €39 per day. The prices go down for longer rentals. Guides are available for €150 per half-day and €200 for full-day excursions for groups of up to 10.

Wine itinerary and transfer

While you always have the option to carry your own luggage and make your own arrangements, cycling luggage-free is obviously a much more pleasant option. The bespoke travel company Travel Priorat can arrange transfers, winery tours and accommodation for you – as well as pick-up from the airport or train station – making for a hassle-free experience. Prices are based on the package you choose.

Fitness

An above-average level of fitness is useful, as is familiarity with riding longer distances on a bike. Overall, the daily distances are manageable, and even with frequent stops, you should arrive each day with time to visit the local attractions. If you’re using e-bikes, it’s essential that you charge your batteries each evening.

Terrain

The landscape is hilly at nearly all times, so you will need fitness going up and concentration going down.


Catalonia cycling tour

Day 1

The abandoned village of La Mussara in the Prades mountains

The abandoned village of La Mussara in the Prades mountains. Credit: Sergi Reboredo / Alamy Stock Photo

Montbrió del Camp to Siurana de Prades (65km from Montbrió, 40km from La Mussara)

Rise early and collect your bicycle in Montbrió del Camp (a short drive from Tarragona). From there, you can choose the hard or soft option, from Montbrió del Camp, through DO Tarragona, making a picturesque entry into Priorat.

For ambitious riders, cross the plains through almond and olive groves in the morning sun to the region’s most notable climb, the Colle de la Mussara. Its 13 switchbacks make for challenging but doable climbing. A short ride from the top of the Colle de la Mussara is the abandoned village of La Mussara. Vacated during the 1960s, there are a number of legends about its demise and supposed haunting; most realists associate it with the devastation caused to the surrounding vineyards and local economy by phylloxera. Those opting for the shorter route will need to arrange a transfer to La Mussara and can work with local bike shop Montbike to do so.

Most of the day’s climbing is behind you as you absorb the breathtaking views of the mountains that separate Priorat from Tarragona. The serrated edges of many of the Catalan pre-coastal mountain ranges seem to rise in every direction. The Serra de Montsant, which will be your constant companion for the next few days, guides you towards the heart of Priorat.

A stop in the quaint hill town of Prades is a must. Its charming red-sandstone construction dates to Moorish occupation. The church of Santa Maria Maggiore and surrounding hillsides were the subject of a painting by Joan Miró. It’s a great spot to stretch your legs, take in the main square for a coffee or opt for one of the locals’ favourite pastries from the Forn de Mont-Ral bakery on the edge of the old town.

From Prades, pick your way west through vineyard and orchard land, past the nearly deserted town of Albarca to a red-rocked canyon and the final – and certainly steep – climb of the day to the ancient stronghold of Siurana. You’ve put in a solid day of riding to finish at the top. The medieval town is perched above sheer 300m cliffs with views across Montsant and into Priorat. Lunch at the charming Restaurant Siurana offers rustic yet delicious local fare and a wonderful rosé made in-house.

Off the bike

Having made your way down from Siurana and further west to nearby Escaladei in Priorat, spend your afternoon tasting wine and visiting the ruins of the 12th-century Scala Dei monastery. It’s a must-do for lovers of Priorat wine. This is where it all started. Nearby, Priorat star winemaker Ricard Rofes of Cellers de Scala Dei  produces some of the most sought-after wines in the region. Just across the river is La Conreria d’Scala Dei, whose Les Brugueres Blanc is one of the region’s rare and wonderful whites.

Stay overnight at the chic Terra Dominicata hotel and winery, which offers tours and wine tastings (€20, book ahead), as well as pairings of its wines at the on-site restaurant Mater Terrae.


Day 2

 The Ferrer Bobet winery, perched among the scenic hills just south of Porrera

The Ferrer Bobet winery, perched among the scenic hills just south of Porrera

The villages of Priorat’s DOQ, Pt1 (26km)

The symbol for the Priorat DOQ (Denominació d’Origen Qualificada) is based on the insignia of the ancient Carthusian order of the Scala Dei, which translates as ‘ladder/stairway to God’. The symbol is a ladder of 12 rungs representing the 10 villages and two growing regions of the DOQ. The cycling loop described here, covered in one or two days, passes through many of those ‘rungs’ and encircles the entire region.

Starting promptly in the morning, pedal away from Terra Dominicata heading east, back towards Escaladei. Make a left off the main T-702 road onto the TV-7022. Instead of crossing the river into the village, you’ll continue on and it’s not long before you begin climbing towards La Morera de Montsant, with the beautiful mountains of Serra de Montsant guiding your way. Garnacha and Cariñena vines flank the road on both sides as the short and punchy climb delivers you to the quiet village of La Morera.

This marks the ride’s highest point of the day and sets you up for a beautiful winding descent among the vines in the shadow of the sheer, multi-coloured cliffs of the Serra de Montsant. The sun climbs above the Muntanyes de Prades to the east as you descend towards the valley below. It’s a breathtaking sight.

Heading east on the TV-7021, pass the outskirts of the village of Cornudella de Montsant, then head south on the C-242 road, which will take you alongside the Riu de Siurana river. In the early morning, you can feel the temperature drop a good 5° Corso – this gives you a sense of the microclimatic variation present in this dynamic wine-growing region.

At a fork in the road, take a right onto the TP-7402 and a bit of gentle climbing will take you above the village of Porrera, the destination for today (if you’re doing the two-day loop). As you descend towards Porrera, the village’s rooftops and church spire beckon. You pass the modern winery of Celler Marco Abella on your way into the centre. The village is bustling at midday during harvest season as local merchants set up for market in the small square.

Off the bike

Explore Porrera’s charming old town, snack at the local market or have a big Catalan lunch at the local favourite Restaurant La Cooperativa (+34 977 82 83 78), a family-owned bistro. Wineries abound in the hills around Porrera, including Marco Abella, the popular Ferrer Bobet or, just out of town, Mervm Priorati.

There are plenty of local B&B options in Porrera, such as Icona del Pont Vell or Ca Porrera. For upscale accommodation, you can transfer to Falset (a few km to the southwest) and the Hotel Lotus Priorat, or to Toroja del Priorat (about the same distance northwest) for the ORA Hotel.


Day 3

The pool at the Gran Hotel Mas d’en Bruno

The pool at the Gran Hotel Mas d’en Bruno: lounge after a hard day’s ride

The villages of Priorat’s DOQ, Pt2 (35km)

The cool of the morning in Porrera, owing to the Riu de Cortiella flowing through the town centre, is a contrast to what will be today’s finish in some of the warmest parts of the Priorat DOQ. A gentle yet persistent climb out of the river valley from Porrera, via the T-740, warms you up quickly on the way to Falset. You climb up over the valley with breathtaking views, looking back northwards, of the valleys and mountains you’ve pedalled through.

Falset is a good stop for a coffee and is much bigger than the small villages you’ve come through thus far. Don’t linger too long over your espresso, however. The climb to Gratallops (northwest on the T-710) as the day warms is fully exposed to the sun’s rays and gives you a further appreciation of Priorat’s variety of microclimates.

Looping back towards Escaladei, the charming village of La Vilella Baixa – colloquially known as Priorat’s New York City thanks to its ancient, multi-storey construction – is also a great place to make a coffee stop. You can finish your day’s ride at the luxurious Gran Hotel Mas d’en Bruno, north of Torroja del Priorat, where you can arrange a spa treatment or just lounge by the pool, as well as stay overnight.

Off the bike

In the afternoon, make a trip across to Poboleda (east of Escaladei) and enjoy a tasting or tour of Perinet or the celebrated Celler Mas Doix. In the old town, the locals’ favourite spot for lunch is Brots, with its creative preparations of local cuisine. Dinner at one of Mas d’en Bruno’s three restaurants, along with their Priorat wine tasting or master class, is a wonderful way to end your Priorat adventure.


How to get there

Arrive at Barcelona-El Prat airport.  A train from central Barcelona to Tarragona takes 30-50 minutes and costs the equivalent of £7-£11. You can take a taxi direct from the airport for around £120, which is about a 90-minute drive. Travel Priorat can help you to make arrangements.


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