The Highs and Lows of Catalonia on a Harley-Davidson

A first-time rider gets into gear while soaking in the Spanish countryside.  
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The winding roads cutting through the SantLlorenç del Munt il’Obac Natural Park are flanked by grey rock faces and the occasional red monolith. Photo courtesy: Harley-Davidson

Having taken my humble bike through various terrains, from the mountains of Uttarakhand in early spring when the snow is just melting, to the sandy landscape of Rajasthan and the Indo-Pak border, I consider myself a seasoned biker. So, on a rainy day in Mumbai in September last year, I signed up for what I thought would be the pinnacle of my riding experience. After all, it is not every day that a biker is asked if he’d like to ride a Harley-Davidson through the picturesque hills on the outskirts of Barcelona city. Keeping me company on this trip organised by Harley-Davidson would be seasoned riders who tested bikes for a living, all of us astride models of the bike to be launched next season. There was only one catch: I had no experience of riding a Harley. all the kilometres I’d endured so far were on the pockmarked roads of India, on a bike with the temperament of a girlfriend I’ve wanted to break up with time and again. My plan now was to tail the seasoned bikers and make most of the experience.

For decades, Harley-Davidson has been a symbol of royalty in the world of biking. Even before the brand entered the Indian market, the bikes were well known for their rumble and the attention they demanded on the road. And this reputation—along with the fact that it is many a biker’s dream ride—was one of the biggest reasons I made the trip. Of course, there were also the sights of Spain.

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The largely pastoral towns and villages of Catalonia, such as Tona, are often characterised by quaint stone-walled homes with sloping roofs. Photo by: Giorgiolo/shutterstock

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Crema catalona, a crème brûlée like dessert is a local delicacy. Photo by: Hans Geel/shutterstock

 

Three weeks after that rainy morning, I was in the Catalonian region of Spain, interacting with the veterans at my hotel bar in Seva, a municipality in Barcelona province about 60 kilometres north of Barcelona city. The clean hilly air of the opulent region drew people here and what was once home to a few pastoralists is now a neighbourhood of plush mansions. The conversation at the bar revolved mostly around riding at breakneck speeds, and I realised that I was probably the only newbie as I hurriedly gulped down my rum and Coke. It was time for a crash course on Harley-Davidson basics, which was accomplished by a quick trip to the garage where our rides were parked and watching video tutorials that ran late into the night.

The drive from Barcelona-El Prat Airport to Seva earlier in the day had been a good indicator of what I could expect. Olive and orange trees, asparagus fields, vineyards and fields of harvested corn spread out on either side of the road, which then climbed the hills that would be our haunt for the next few days.

The next morning, during a brief introduction of the 2018 line of Harley-Davidson Softails, I met Frank, a badass local rider from Andalusia, who gave me his own two cents of riding wisdom when I shared my anxiety with him.

“You ride a Harley at a pace you’re comfortable with. That’s the key, so go ahead, enjoy yourself,” he told me.

The anticipation was thick in the air as the riders fastened their helmet straps and donned their gloves for the first of the two rides we would undertake in two days. My nerves tingled—rather, jangled—as I inched closer to my bike. To my rotten luck, I was part of the first group to get going and assigned the biggest of the four Harleys, a vintage design called Heritage. I said a silent prayer, hoping that my struggles wouldn’t replace the riding as the entertainment of the day.

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The Black Madonna or Virgin of Montserrat is the patron saint of Catalonia. Photo by: Andrew Michael/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

I fired it up and just about managed to crawl into position before flag-off. Testosterone and accelerators were both raging at our base in Seva. Our route would take us on a 180-kilometre round-trip to Calders and back through picturesque towns and idyllic villages amid rolling hills, and on the winding roads running through Sant Llorenç del Munt il’Obac Natural Park. The moment the pilot took off, a rumble shook the hill out of its morning slumber as Harley after Harley darted out in succession, until of course I took off, tentatively.

It took all of five minutes for me to hit dreamland. I was also glad that there were only a few people out on the sidewalks at that hour, for it would have been odd to see a snail amid these experienced speed demons. Those stuck behind me revved their engines impatiently, waiting for me to pick up the pace. By the time we descended the slopes of Seva, the riders in front were far ahead; those in my rear view mirrors finally ran out of patience and stormed past me in a flash. I could almost smell contempt in the air, but I couldn’t have cared less, given how much I was enjoying myself. For all its size and weight, Harleys are easy to manoeuvre and it took me only a few minutes to feel at ease. The anxiousness reappeared only when the open road gently dipped into a blanket of fog, and the closest tail lamp disappeared in the distance. But the Spanish sunshine eventually lived up to its promise, presenting clear blue skies to ride under after a couple of rainy days.

We hit the Catalonian countryside in the next 20 minutes or so. Unlike downtown Barcelona, which has succumbed to the commercialisation that comes with tourism, these parts are still rooted to their Catalonian heritage, crawling at a pace they were most comfortable with. So I did the same. I simply sat back and let the wind take over. It gave me time to look around and smell the grass instead of the exhaust from the bike ahead.

As we headed to the next big town, Moià, the bucolic landscape unfolded in front of us: lush pastures where cattle grazed disinterestedly as our bikes stormed past. We grabbed the attention of a few locals momentarily, until they continued ambling down the street or returned to their newspaper and espresso at the sleepy, wayside cafés.

By now, I was at ease; the unmatched riding pleasure came as a pleasant surprise. The black surface of the road was fit for a game of bowling, even as signboards with snowflakes warned of slippery conditions in the winter. The road discipline was impeccable—neither did the car behind me attempt to overtake in haste, nor was that multi-axle lorry jumping the line at the blind turns.

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Founded in the 11th century the Santa Maria de Montserrat located in the famous mountains of Montserrat is a functional monastery with over 70 monks in residence.Photo by: Reidl/shutterstock

Far ahead, a spire indicated the presence of civilisation, rising from the centre like an authority among the gathering. The town of Moià, home to Rafael Casanova, the commander of Catalonia during the 18th-century Siege of Barcelona, blended in perfectly with its surroundings. We rode past old and new structures of homes, cafés and shops on the main street, taking in the stone walls and tiled roofs that are all so uniform that it seemed like they had grown up together. This was the heart of Catalonia, and the spirit of the Catalonian independence referendum was strong here. Flags and banners that read ‘Si’ or ‘Yes,’ in support of the movement, hung outside homes and farms. These agricultural towns were a far cry from the tourist hotchpotch that is Barcelona.

As if to break the monotony of the spectacular scenery of the countryside, the stench of cow dung overpowered our senses. But most times, it was the sweet smell of the mountain air. I felt a smile inch its way up my face for the first time; and while the carefree riding was definitely a liberating experience, certain spots along the way called for a moment off the saddle—in silence amid this wonderland.

The last of civilisation soon disappeared as the route climbed under a canopy of cork oak trees that stood like guards of honour for the entourage, while pine forests laid out a thick carpet of green that hugged the hilltops. In the distance towered the white cliffs of Montserrat, a site of great historical importance to Catalonia. The statue of Black Madonna, the patron saint of Catalonia, stands here at a height of about 4,055 feet, the highest point of the region. The wooden sculpture is believed to have been carved in Jerusalem and draws thousands of believers each day.

It was afternoon and we had covered about 60 kilometres before we stopped for lunch at a quaint café in the village of Monistrol de Calders. We had meat cannelloni and traditional Catalonian butifarra sausages along with a crema catalana—a creamy custard, much like a crème brûlée—for dessert. We washed down the meal and our drowsiness with a flavourful cup of coffee, before riding back to Seva. This time I was on a Breakout, a stark contrast to the Heritage due to its elongated frame that stretched every muscle. En route, just before entering Seva, I stopped for a photograph with the installation of Àlex Crivillé, the 1999 world champion of the 500cc MotoGP, which stood in the middle of a roundabout. He too seemed to be smiling, pleased with my maiden tryst. Even before I could get off the mount on arrival, a cold beer was presented by the crew—just the way it’s done.

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A statue of Àlex Crivillé, the 1999 world champion of the 500cc MotoGP stands on a roundabout near Seva. Photo by: Shail Desai

There was a sense of anticipation when I arose the following morning to go the distance again. This time, I was pumped to hit the road, just like the rest.

The day started out on a Street Bob cruiser—its curvy handlebars telling me that initial distance would probably be a lesson in manoeuvring. But it was a smooth transition.

After few kilometres on the same route as the day before, we ventured into the heart of the Sant Llorenç del Munt il’Obac Natural Park, a nature reserve named after two massifs, SantLlorenç del Munt and Serra de l’Obac, that dominate the landscape. The cover of oak and pine trees dwindled as we climbed the sloping roads, eventually giving way to grey rock faces interspersed with the odd red monolith. I was hoping to spot few of the famous foxes that are known to boss the area in search of a quick meal of rabbit or badger.

The foxes remained elusive, and other vehicles remained few and far in between. Cyclists emerged every now and then, with flushed cheeks and spent lungs on the uphill. The sound of our bikes reverberated in places where the road was cut through the mountainside. There was hardly a straight stretch, and we were constantly leaning to make each turn.

Taking a breather at the highest point of our route—at about 1,650 feet—gave us a bird’s-eye view of the region. The green hills of the reserve dotted with grey and white rock faces stretched out almost as far as the eyes could see. The flats of the dipping valleys broke the monotone with images of civilisation—bales of hay bundled into giant balls, and the sloping roofs of barns. Above us eagles sailed the skies, surveying the domain in search of their next meal, even as we celebrated with Queens of the Stone Age grooving on the stereo of the pilot rider’s hulking Street Glide Special.

We descended back to the café in Monistrol de Calders for a lunch of fideuà, a paella-like dish made with pasta noodles. Now, I had a bigger appetite to hit the road again, this time on the last bike I was to ride in this journey—the Fat Bob.

“You’re going to love this one, my personal favourite,” Frank said as I walked to my ride.

A Harley veteran’s word can be either encouraging or alarming for a newbie like me. But the moment I fired up, I knew this was going to be a sweet ride. The riding posture, the response on the sharp turns of the mountain roads—I was finally close to feeling the way I thought the other riders must have through the journey. This time, I kept pace—with Frank, and at the back of the pack as usual.

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Unlike the touristy Barcelona, the towns in the larger province of Barcelona still hold on to their Catalonian heritage.
FSG/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

About 100 kilometres later, as I downed yet another end-of-the-road cold beer, I wished the two days of riding hadn’t come to an end yet. I had spent over 360 kilometres on the road in the most charming setting I’d ever seen—so close to civilisation yet so far from it. With the weather holding up, and all the riders holding true to the rules, Barcelona had been an ideal backdrop for a dream ride in the hills. And it couldn’t get sweeter than a Harley.

  • Shail Desai is a freelance writer based out of Bombay. The thrills and uncertainties of being on the road has kept him rolling for the last two years. While he considers it work, most choose to call it one long holiday.

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