From new cycle routes to world-class wellness resorts, Jonjo Maudsley discovers why Spain is a favourite destination for pro and amateur athletes.
The dirt road plunges through a thicketed stone canyon. Blind turns come one after the other. The bike almost slips out from under me as I shift my body to skid through a particularly acute turn, whipping up a cloud of dust which floats over the precipice and disappears into the dense forest below.
I steal a glance into the distance. The trees march towards Catalonia’s topaz coast, far off on the horizon and beyond the many hills I have left to tackle.
Ah, Spain. No wonder this is consistently ranked Europe’s healthiest country, for few other nations can boast that they invest so heavily in sporting infrastructure.
Cycle routes like this one may be just one part of that story, but they are undoubtedly the key chapter right now. Huge projects like the Ruta Via de la Plata (the ‘Silver Road’, a new route connecting Seville with Gijon, via the Camino de Santiago – another path becoming increasingly popular among cyclists) have firmly established 2022 as Spain’s Year of the Bike, while also opening up a whole new way to explore this rough-cut hunk of land.
But despite grand projects like these stealing the headlines, there is plenty going on at the grassroots level too. In particular, it is the Vias Verdes (the Greenways; viasverdes.com) that are inviting a new breed of casual athlete to experience Spain on two wheels.
Fashioned from old railway lines, the Greenways are long, straight and mostly flat, slicing through previously undiscovered tracts of Spanish countryside. With 3,000 kilometres of track sprawled across the country, they offer a challenging yet accessible way to bash a new path through the rugged Spanish outback.
I know this first-hand, because I am here in Catalonia’s Costa Brava, tackling one of the most impressive routes, from Girona to S’Agaro. At 40 kilometres (25 miles), this is a substantial yet accessible ride. Better still, it was boosted earlier this year by a E1.6 million improvement scheme.
Evidence of the route’s past as a railway line is scattered before my eyes. Every few kilometres I find, nestled among the suburban houses, a cute railway shed with pitched timber roofs. These former stations have been converted into tourist information centres and mini museums.
They are both essential pit-stops – offering free water refills – and information boards, to tell me the story of this route. I learn that the now-defunct railway once carried spiffy day-trippers from Girona to the fashionable beach resort of S’Agaro – and start to feel somewhat underdressed in my skin-tight Lycra and padded shorts.
At the end of the 40th kilometre, I crawl into S’Agaro totally spent, but thankful my journey today is only one-way, for I was savvy enough to prep my secret weapon – a shuttle home.
Once a month, the PGA Catalunya resort, a hop-skip from Girona Airport, offers a guided tour of this Greenway with a transfer home (E35/£30 per person). Thus I repose, while the hotel prepares my air-conditioned return leg, bike and all.
My muscles hot and aching, my skin sweat-parched and golden toasted, mean the sight of Hotel Camiral – PGA Catalunya’s five-star centrepiece – could not come as more of a relief. I’ve already scheduled my tailored recovery programme – a favourite among pro athletes – at their state-of-the-art Wellness Centre, which recently benefited from a E5 million cash injection. Entrusting my battered body to Emilia, I find myself whisked through a series of treatments that laugh in the face of my post-cycle pain.
First comes 20 minutes in the biomodulation chamber with low-level lasers, followed by a 90-minute deep tissue massage where, with the deftness of a surgeon, Emilia wrests my muscles from the hot bones beneath.
Now to cool off, and where better than the cryo-chamber, where at -160°C, I feel my muscle fibres clench like a carpenter’s fingers. Finally, for the benefit of my mind and body, I embrace a 45-minute rest in the oxygen tent, flushing my blood through with the most vital of all the life-giving elements (individual treatments from E60/£51, packages available).
I depart feeling like a freshly-activated Terminator, a newly-minted fiver, a fruit that has just reached full ripeness. My muscles are spongy, my veins and arteries are full of effervescent fizz. My 40-kilometre cycle already feels like a memory from a past life. I understand, now, how athletes do the incredible things they do. I want to do them too. And so I’m out the door, freshly dressed, hurling myself towards another slew of physical activity: golf.
The hotel is home to two of Spain’s premier golf courses, and my stay at Hotel Camiral includes a golf initiation lesson. It’s a fine chance to embarrass myself in front of the club pro, before I tackle a casual back nine, my balls pinging in all the wrong directions throughout the 1,334 acre estate (green fees on request).
That works up an appetite, and here again, Hotel Camiral is ready to deliver. With dishes curated by famed chef David Vives, Restaurante 1477 lives up to Girona’s heritage of culinary excellence with a tasting menu of impeccable quality – and, with a healthy undercurrent to the menu, I unashamedly factor the six courses into my fitness programme.
Special mentions go to the tuna tataki with mango chutney and the free-range chicken leg with Catalan-style stuffing. High protein, low fat, vitamins and omega-3 aplenty – healthy eating has no business tasting this good.
Refuelled and reinvigorated, I awake the next morning ready to do it all again. Starting with a light jog around the sprawling grounds of PGA Catalunya, I get to take in the complex’s organic gardens, teeming by day with frogs and tortoises, by night with fluttering bats, all expertly cared for by live-in biologist Oriol Dalmau.
Then, after a quick dip in Hotel Camiral’s pool, I head to the gymnasium – its top-quality equipment makes me question my own gym membership back home – before finishing my routine with a lunchtime yoga class looking out over the Catalan mountains, painted cornflower blue in the distance.
It is a rare treat to depart from a vacation feeling fitter and healthier than when I arrived. But then again, this is Spain, a nation united by its love of sports. From its new cycle routes to its world-class wellness centres, this is a country that prizes its culture of health and fitness.
How to plan your trip
PGA Catalunya’s Keep Discovering PGA package includes a stay at Hotel Camiral, breakfast and access to an abundance of activities, including bike rental, golf initiation and buggy hire, from E610/£523 per night.
The two-day Spa-Cation package offers three treatments per person and an overnight stay from E491/£420. Visit pgacatalunya.com.
Ryanair flies direct to Girona Airport from London Stansted year-round with prices starting at £28 return.
Ryanair also fly from Scottish airports direct to Barcelona.