Beyond Barcelona: Discover the secrets of Catalunya by bicycle

With a warm headwind whipping at my pigtails and my legs pumping furiously upon a pair of bike pedals, I’m 10 years old again, experiencing the exhilarating thrill of freedom that only a set of wheels can bestow. But instead of cycling around the civilized suburbs as I did in those bygone days of innocence, I’m winding through the wilds of Southern Catalunya in Spain.

Miles of olive groves, green valleys sculpted by terraced fields and narrow passes gouged from red rock canyons sweep by beneath a blazing blue sky. Mind adrift, I lose myself in the Zen of forward momentum, serenaded by the sound of … well, nothing, save the smooth whoosh of tire spokes — and, if I’m honest, my increasingly labored breathing as I embark on a slow uphill ascent.

At least I can be reassured that I’m burning some of the thousands of calories I’ve been consuming on my cycling tour of this resolutely resilient region of Spain, which maintains its own language, culture and cuisine. It’s not just the paella and shellfish I’m sampling, though, but the rich diversity of the landscape and villages of Catalunya’s Terres de l’Ebre, a 1,420-square-mile UNESCO Biosphere Reserve embracing the Ebro River basin, two national parks and 88 miles of coastline.

“Once you are here,” says Albert Folch Giro, deputy director for the Terres de l’Ebre, “you are off the beaten path.”

Nothing could hammer this home more effectively than the 28,000 hectares of rice fields that mirror the sky in the Delta, the second most important rice-growing region in Spain. But beyond agriculture, a special breed of travelers is increasingly contributing to the economy as well.

“The tourists that come here are looking for nature, not massive buildings,” says Joseph Culvi, director of MonNatura Delta de l’Ebre. Located in the coastal marshes of Amposta, about a two-hour drive southwest of Barcelona, this nature and cultural heritage center encompasses a bird-watching tower, 19th-century salt pans and a chance to try your hand at navigating a traditional flat-bottomed boat.

“We want to draw people that respect the landscape, who want to hear that,” Culvi says, cocking his head toward the sound of birdsong wafting along the breeze.

He’s even thankful for the occasional swarm of mosquitoes, which proliferate after a rainfall and keep less hardy visitors at bay. “Mosquitoes are part of the landscape,” he shrugs. “They contribute something to nature.” He pauses. “I guess.”

Mossies aren’t the only winged beasts in the Delta. More than 300 species of birds — approximately 60 percent of all those in Europe — pass through Ebro Delta National Park each year. Twitchers may feel their hearts flutter when they glimpse a rare Audouin’s gull, “but the flamingos are the stars,” Culvi grins, leading my friends and me to the top of the observation tower, where we peer through binoculars at a dozen pale pink specimens high-stepping among the marshes.

While bird watching may be the main attraction of the Delta for many, it’s the pancake-flat landscape that appeals to me. We enjoy a morning of effortless cycling around L’Ampolla, following a coastal route past a sandy white beach before veering off onto gravel trails threading through the marshes. Despite the heat, we’ve hardly broken a sweat by the time we arrive at Port d’Illa Harbor, where we’ve arranged a boat tour of the oyster and mussel beds in El Fangar Bay with Ruben Cabrera of Mirador de La Badia.

With his eyes glued to the cloudless horizon and his hands gripping the boat wheel, 27-year-old Cabrera, who runs the family business with his brother, Xavier, sluices between skeletal wooden platforms made of sun-bleached logs that squat low above the shallow seabed. We have an opportunity to sample these fruits of the sea for ourselves when we dock alongside an overwater restaurant run by the Cabreras, where a cheerful group clad in swimsuits are enjoying glasses of cava with fresh mussels and oysters, and when I say fresh, I mean fresh. Xavier Cabrera scampers across an adjoining platform with the alacrity of a gymnast on a balance beam, clutching a sack full of shellfish, and soon we, too, are slurping oysters and gobbling mussels as greedily as popcorn at a blockbuster film.

Reluctantly abandoning the coast, we head farther inland toward the north to discover still more dramatic scenery. In Tortosa, we sleep in a stately castle converted into a hotel and tour the Gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria, which hunkers above a compact labyrinth of tunnels used as a bomb shelter during the Spanish Civil War. Following a steamy morning’s ride on the Via Verde to Pinell de Brai, we feast on octopus, local cheese, cured meats and fresh cherries washed down with swoon-inducing wines at the soaring Wine Cathedral, an art nouveau brick and stone edifice housing a restaurant, the Pagos de Hibera winery and a museum of winemaking.

In the medieval hilltop town of Horta de Sant Joan, where Picasso invented Cubism — and where replicas of his works fill a small museum — we’re rewarded with views of the craggy mountains of Els Ports National Park, punctuating the surrounding plains. And in Miravet, another artistic enclave filled with painters, potters, sculptors and photographers, we march up steep streets flanked by terraced stone houses to the ruins of a 12th-century Knights Templar fortress, offering a spectacular panorama of the river’s serpentine path below.

But when I think back on this trip, it’s the memory of the placid blue bay of El Fangar that will serve as my favorite souvenir — a mental postcard of a place where the sea melts into the sky like a maritime mirage. Although I won’t soon forget the ache in my backside, either, perhaps permanently imprinted with the outline of my bike seat now. Next time, I’m plumping for padded shorts, even if I do look like a Lycra-clad sausage.

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