It’s not everyday that I get to cross a country’s borders within a matter of minutes. Here in the Pyrenees, Spain and France are separated by an invisible border that can be easily crossed on two wheels. Led by an experienced biking guide, Jaume, we weave through cobblestoned alleys of charming towns in Spain, zip past colorful sunflower meadows and Romanesque churches – into France and back.
Straddling Between Two Countries: La Cerdanya
We’d started our journey in the Catalan town of Puigçerdà, a tiny enclave surrounded by the grey granite mountains of the Pyrenees. Sitting on a raised plateau overlooking a valley, the attractive town spots narrow alleyways, historical architecture and chirpy squares lined with cafés. What sets it apart from typical Spanish pueblos are its characteristic alpine feel and the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. With numerous ski stations in the vicinity, Puigçerdà is a popular base in winter for aprés-ski activities.
Taking a break at the main square of town, Jaume shares with us, “We are in La Cerdanya, a comarca (county) shared between Spain and France. Many people are surprised to find that the Spanish and French Cerdanyas are quite similar – after all, both countries share the region and we’re so close to one another that there are not that many differences between our culture and cuisine.”
True enough, during our time in la Cerdanya, we sampled cold cuts and cheese that could easily be mistaken for French, we heard Catalan words that resembled French phrases and stayed in alpine hotels that reminded me of my time in France. Yet, when we spoke to locals, it was easy to bring out the Catalan spirit in them and feel their love for their region. It’s surprisingly refreshing to find a part of the world that holds strongly to its identity yet cradles between two distinctive countries.
Back at the square, we take in a panoramic view of the mountainscapes that envelope Puigçerdà. Sprawled beneath our feet are clusters of houses, pockets of pine tree forests scattered throughout the plains and in the far distance, peaks after peaks poking into the clear skies of the Pyrenees. I can imagine how this must look in winter – a whole horizon of glittery whiteness blanketing over patches of greenery and valleys.
Camino de Santiago – A Challenge of Faith and Physique
It’s time to hop back on our bikes and head out to the Pyrenees countryside. Within minutes of meandering the streets of Puigçcerdà, we’ve left the asphalt roads behind and are now riding along rocky trails, zipping past farmhouses and horse ranches.
“This is the start of the Camino de Santiago (St. James Way),” says Jaume, “the famous pilgrimage route that thousands of people walk each year to get to Santiago de Compostela.” These days, most people traverse the route, not solely for religious purpose, but also to challenge themselves physically and psychologically. Hikers usually spend at least a week walking the camino but it is also increasingly popular to cycle part of the route.
We make a brief stop at the Capella de Sant Jaume de Rigolisa, a neo-Romanic style church that was destroyed by the French in 1793 but later reconstructed in 1887. Jaume points out the the 17m tall bell-tower, a rather impressive feature for an edifice that stands in the middle of nowhere.
Cycling further along the Camino de Santiago, we reach the highway – the road sign that points ahead says ‘Francia’ (France). As a mediocre cyclist (with below average skills), I grit my teeth and brave through the fast-flowing traffic only to find that gliding down a sloping motorway isn’t as nerve-wrecking as I’d thought – I relax and let the wind take me. By the time I catch up with our group of bikers, they’ve gathered at a town square, in front of another Romanesque church. “This is the town of Ur,” announces Jaume proudly, “and we have arrived in France!” I look around, slightly thrilled and yet strangely surprised to know that we’re now in a different country.
Our journey comes to an end at the town of Llívia, a Spanish town literally surrounded by France. Due to historical reasons, Llívia is governed by Catalan rules and legislations but lies geographically in French territories. The people of Llívia speak Catalan, watch Catalan TV and consider themselves Catalans more than anything. Few places have such intriguing background – and even fewer have such strong identities. For a region that straddles between two countries, la Cerdanya definitely has carved its own personality and heritage.
How to Go Biking: Flocs ‘n Blocs organizes half-day bike trips from Puigçerdà to Llívia as well as a variety of biking trips in the Pyrenees ranging in difficulty level.
Where to Stay: There is a myriad of rural hotels and guesthouses in the area. I stayed at the boutique hotel, Bernat de So, in Llívia. Maintaining a perfect balance between heritage and design, the hotel manages to retain the rural country feel of the farmhouse while adding a touch of style and contemporary. It’s a short walking distance to most restaurants and attractions in town.