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Wild and without enough time: Catalonia to Portugal

And so begins one of the longest journeys of our European hitchhiking travels. We have one more brief stop in Catalonia and then we need to get to Portugal, for we have lost a lot of time. Originally we had planned to hitchhike through northern Spain to Portugal and down to Porto. We have come to the conclusion that it’s just not worth it. The time it would take and all of the beautiful areas we would miss because we wouldn’t have time to explore would be a bit crushing. There must be an alternative.

Flights around Europe are usually pretty cheap so we wonder, could we maybe fly from somewhere in Catalonia directly to Porto? We check Skyscanner and it seems Ryanair is flying directly from Barcelona to Porto for the cheap sum of €65 (both, including luggage). The opportunity is too good to pass upon so we book the flights straight away. The first flight of our trip! It feels a bit naughty. We didn’t want to travel this way, we wanted to travel only by our own means. But at this point, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages and the prospect of the beach and warmth is comforting.

The immediate problem now is how to get to through Catalonia to Barcelona. Well, the even more pressing issue is how to get to Olot, our next stop along the way. Olot is 208KM away, over mountain passes and windy roads. And boy, what a journey it is. Eight rides it takes us. And an unexpected stop in a mountain top hotel due to us getting stranded in the snow. Where to even start.

Hitchin’ with two punks through Catalonia

We don’t leave very early. To be honest we really don’t want to leave at all. We have come to love Catalonia, Espot and the beautiful national park of Aigüestortes i Estany of Saint Maurici. Press on we must though, we have a long journey to our final destination of Morocco. Waving goodbye to our strange but nice host, we stroll through the snowy streets to the main road down from Espot and the mountains. We dump our bags on the floor just behind the tourist information centre hoping to catch any traffic leaving Espot: there’s only one way out.

Our first ride is with a punkish looking couple. They’re super cute and happy to help us. They drop us off in Rialp, about a 30 minute drive. But that’s already further than they were going. In 30 minutes we already manage to talk politics and get to the topic of fascism in our respective countries. Pretty heavy for 10AM.

Our next ride is bizarre. After waiting no more than 10 minutes, Laura, the lady from the campsite we just came from pulls up. She is looking at us very strangely but ushers us over. We can’t figure her out. Clearly she is kind but she shows no emotion whatsoever. In the car is her mother, we’re not sure where they are going but she drops us off at the next town for they are heading in a different direction to us.

Family hitchhiking tours

Next we need to traverse a mountain pass, to shorten the journey. Hopefully we won’t get stranded on the top of it. Sebastian stops for us after a short while. Again with his mother, he agrees to drive us over the mountain pass to La Seu d’Urgell. He speaks good English and translates our stories to Spanish for his mother. The views from the car are beautiful, mountain peaks and snow all around. The roads are empty, but we can go anywhere we want. The feeling of freedom burns strong with the help of all these kind and beautiful strangers. Catalonia has been incredible so far.

In La Seu d’Urgell we are feeling a bit peckish so we have a quick stroll and find a coffee shop. We pack some croissants and head back to the road. Cars zoom past our spot on the main road. It’s not ideal but it’s all we’ve got. A tiny car pulls up and another emotionless face ushers us in. She is sort of frowning at us and it’s almost like she has to help us but doesn’t really want to. She doesn’t talk much, probably due to the language barrier but we smile lots to try and show our appreciation. We feel awkward as she pays the toll for the mountain tunnel, but in the end the fee is the same whether we are in the car or not. We are forever grateful for the rides and experiences.

Only the third mountain pass of the day in Catalonia…

When we tell her our final destination in Catalonia and she looks confused. She knows something we don’t. She drops us off in the centre of Guardiola. It looks nice here. Cute, nestled in the valley, tall peaks towering all around. Alas, this is not our final stop and we must go on, over another mountain pass to Ripoll. We head to the motorway where our road splits at a roundabout.

Selfie of us hitchhiking to Guardiola in Catalonia

The traffic is very thin. It takes some time to get a ride. A youngish hippy/metal dad picks us up. He’s on his way home from work and drives us a short while to his home town, La Pobla de Lillet. He tells us the road is quiet and he’s not sure we’ll get a ride. Grateful for his concern, we proceed anyway; we’ve heard this many times before. The town is beautiful with a medieval stone arched bridge crossing the mountain stream. We’d love to stay here but there are no hotels whatsoever.

If you are visiting there are a few things to do: A narrow gauge railway takes you to a cement museum and the Jardins Artigas, beautiful gardens designed by Gaudí, the most famous artist and architect from Catalonia! Sounds pretty good if you ask us.

Catalonia ride from DHell

On with the journey. Just outside of La Pobla de Lillet is a petrol station. It starts raining so we head there, at least there is cover. We share a coffee from the shop. It’s getting cold and the sun is setting. We’re nowhere near our destination.

After waiting in the cold with no luck for 45 minutes or so, a DHL driver stops and says he can go Ripoll way. I’m stuffed in the back of the van with one million parcels and Caroline is in the front. We can’t communicate at all but the guy does not stop talking and pointing at the map. After 10 minutes he does a U turn and goes back to the petrol station. He’s frantically yelling and pointing at the map but we don’t understand him. He gets frustrated and swings the van around a corner and heads up a windy mountain pass.

He’s driving super fast along a mega bendy road and I fly around in the back of the van and feel very sick, clinging on to whatever I can. Parcels for all of Catalonia fly around and hit the sides and floor of the van. In the end he kicks us out at a village in the wrong direction we wanted to go with no traffic leaving it and to top it off it’s snowing. He jumps back in his van and zooms off.

Scout master support

It’s freezing cold up here. We stumble around the village trying to find accommodation but all is closed. In the end a scout master with a pack of children leading some sort of expedition or hunt asks us if we need any help.

It’s a blessing from heaven and when we explain our situation he runs around the tiny mountain top village asking locals for a place to stay and finally finds us a room in a closed hotel for the night. A very nice hotel but also very expensive, even with the off season discount. We take it because it’s that or sleeping outside in the snow.

I’m feeling incredibly sick still, my head is spinning, I can barely stand. To top it all off I’m starving. We devise a plan: I get into bed and Caroline goes to find food. An hour later I’m woken up by Caroline, with a bag full of treats, organic chocolate and some crisps. There is only an expensive souvenir shop open which sells a few expensive treats and local goods from Catalonia. I manage a few crisps, get chocolate all over the luxurious white sheets and then pass out for the night.

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Castellar de n’Hug Ghost town

Morning comes and our heads are all over the place. Where the hell are we? How do we get back on track? Should we get up and go early? Will we find a ride out of here? Is there even any public transport? Where the hell in Catalonia are we????

It turns out we are in Castellar de n’Hug. A cute little town perched on top of a mountain, 1400 metres elevation in the highlands of Catalonia. No wonder it was snowing last night. Well, there is no snow this morning and the winter sun is burning down without a cloud in sight. It’s apparently a tourist town nowadays, with some waterfalls which mark the source of an important Catalan river, the Llobregat. Caroline is absolutely shattered from the ordeal and wants to sleep a little longer so I go for a little walk around the village before we hit the road again.

It turns out we have deviated north east when we wanted to go east. So now there are two options: we head south east on a smaller road to get to the next pit stop, or we head back south west to La Pobla de Lillet, where we came from and head east from there. We decide on south east, less kilometres. We walk about 20 minutes out of town to where our road branches off from this main road and wait. We’re convinced no one will pass us and we’ll be stuck here, in the mountains of Catalonia.

Caroline holding the hitchhiking sign on Catalonia outside of Castellar de n'Hug

Rappelling to Ripoll

A van zooms around the corner and slows down, shaking his hands as if to signal he’s not going the way we need to go, which is strange because it’s the only way. Another car comes by five minutes later and amazingly stops. He can take us to Ripoll! We can’t believe our luck. We’ve waited no more than ten minutes.

The man is incredibly kind and emanates a very positive vibe. He doesn’t speak any English but that doesn’t stop him speaking and smiling with us. We chat somehow without sharing a common language. We think he’s trying to tell us that one of his kids has travelled and that’s why he stopped. He insists on driving us all the way to the centre of Rippol to a supermarket so we can get some breakfast, but not before a cow blocks the tiny mountain road refusing to let us pass.

Cow blocking the road on the way to Ripoll, Catalonia

Not olot left now….

We don’t spend much time in Ripoll, we really want to get to our campsite in Olot so we can chill out. The last days have been a bit mental, considering the crazy DHL driver and the fact we almost froze to death in a mountain hut like two days ago. Catalonia has taken its toll on us!

So we head to the main road and pick up a ride pretty quickly. The dude takes us all the way to our campsite in Olot, but not before he circles Olot three times, continuously missing the turn off because he doesn’t believe us when we tell him left even though we are looking at Google Maps!

Finally he drops us off outside the reception where we meet a campsite employee. She tells us to find a pitch and then come and pay. The “campsite” is disgusting. It’s pretty much just mud and stones, bare empty trees and decrepit campers. We take one look at each other and head for the exit. Forty minutes later and one more ride with a kid who just passed his driving test and his mother, we find ourselves in a much nicer campsite a few kilometres outside Olot, called Camping la Fageda. It’s much prettier and better equipped.

The campsite is so much better, there is a bar, a restaurant, the pitches are green, grass everywhere and the whole campsite is surrounded by forest. There is a big common room, sort of like a barn with lots of benches inside with a big log burner to keep it all warm. There is a microwave and a kettle, plug sockets, pretty much everything you need. The toilets are clean with hot water and the showers are decent.

Campsite marathons to keep warm

We pitch our tent on a lovely bit of green area, away from everyone else. It’s been another long day of hitchhiking through Catalonia We make dinner and then the sun begins to set. As soon as it dips below the horizon, it gets very cold. We thought we were in for a warmer night down here, since we are a bit more south in the Pyrenees, in the foothills rather than the mountains. There is no snow here but it’s cold. A kind of damp cold that chills your bones. We head to the bar to stay warm and sink a few beers whilst doing a bit of planning for the next days.

Aydin cooking at la Fageda campsite

By the time we leave, it’s absolutely freezing outside. Like so cold we’re not sure we can sleep. So we devise a plan. We take some plastic bottles and run the taps in the bathroom until piping hot water comes out. We then take our makeshift hot water bottles and place them in our sleeping bags to warm them up. Next we decide to do laps of the campsite and star jumps in the bathroom to raise our heartbeats and get warm. As soon as we are done brushing our teeth we race back to our tent preserving as much heat as possible and dive into our sleeping bags. We might have looked like complete idiots but dam we are cosy in our sleeping bags now.

Exploring the Volcanoes of Olot

So, for those that don’t know. Olot is a town in Catalonia surrounded by dormant volcanoes. The town is actually built around two of them and you climb them for great views over the town and surrounding landscapes. There is a famous forest named La Fageda d’en Jordà. It consists of beech trees which have grown in the soil christened with the lava flow from the volcanoes thousands of years ago.

The whole area is known as Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park and La Fageda d’en Jordà is one of the twenty six nature reserves that make up the natural park. It’s a popular getaway destination in Catalonia. Our campsite is situated right inside the forest.

We decide to take a hike in the natural park, passing through the forest, some volcanoes and other interesting sights, churches, co-operative farms and so on. We will end the hike in Santa Pau, a small, pretty romanesque village.

The forests are pretty, especially in autumn when the vibrant colours are on display, contrasting with the tall, slender white trunks. The forest is busy since it’s a weekend. Many people escape the busy coast lines of Catalonia and head for the tranquil countryside.

la Fageda d'en Jordà, famous forest in Catalonia

We pass a dairy farm with a fascinating history, studied as far away as Harvard. Cristóbal Colón, a Spanish psychologist, started the business to employ mentally ill people from the region. There is even a film made about the venture: Yoghurt Utopia.

Santa Margarida volcano

Past the farm, and closer to the volcanoes, we pass a church at the foot of a volcano. This one we will climb. The path straddles around the volcano base, gently creeping up. The sun is now shining and we have to shed layers. It’s a far cry from the previous night. Up we go through the tree lined trails until we reach the edge of the volcano where the crater is visible. It’s a fascinating sight for those unaccustomed. It only feels like a volcano when you witness it from the edge of the crater.

The crater itself is not how you’d expect. It’s green and completely covered in forest, apart from a small patch in the middle where a tiny chapel stands. The name of the chapel is Ermita Santa Margarida (Find it on maps here). We make our way to the chapel where we lay in the autumn sun with a bunch of other people, relaxing and enjoying the day.

Santa Pau: The best vegetables in Catalonia

An hour passes and we decide to continue. We pick a steep trail out of the Volcano crater to the rim and then descend on a different path towards Santa Pau. Around an hour of walking and we enter the outskirts of Santa Pau. The small windy street leads downhill to a bridge where the old town sits above a small river on a hill. Almost like a moat bridge, it’s a gateway to the medieval roman settlement.

Santa Pau, Catalonia
Image by Andrew Moore from Flickr

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Inside the old settlement are winding narrow cobblestoned streets, with stone brick buildings leaning on each other, in all different shapes and sizes. A town square is surrounded with beautiful irregular stone arches, all around, people pass by behind the arches. A road winds up to a huge square shaped building, elevated above the ground surrounded by grass. It seems to be residence of the town mayor or someone else of importance.

Sunsets and selfies

We further explore the small town before finding a viewing platform looking over the beautiful green landscape of Catalonia. The sun begins to set and we wonder how we will get back but for now we enjoy the fascinating shapes of the clouds, cast in a magnificent pink hue. Well, until a large family invades our personal space with selfie sticks, beer cans and enough noise to annoy a deaf person.

We head for the main road and hitch a ride back to our campsite in a sweet SUV. The driver and his wife tell us how they have come all the way from Barcelona to a restaurant in Santa Pau. He tells us that the soil, because of the volcanic sediment, is fertile like no other and therefore produces the best vegetables in Catalonia, Spain, and possibly the world. Unfortunately we cannot remember the name of the restaurant!

It’s time to sleep and yet again it’s freezing. Learning from the previous nights triumph, we make more hot water bottles and jog up and down the toilet block while brushing our teeth. To get the blood really boiling we do some last minute squats and then bounce back to the tent.

Castellfollit de la Roca: more magnificent villages in Catalonia

The next day we decide to take to rent bikes and cycle to this beautiful town perched on a rocky outcrop. We decided to walk in to Olot to rent bikes from Centre Logístic de Bicicletes. It’s about a 45 minute walk and not a very interesting one. There doesn’t seem to be any prices on the website. We paid €15 euros each back in 2017. The bikes were new and good quality, the only problem was the route we picked. Pretty much down the motorway, not great in hindsight. Half was uphill, and the other half we zoomed down to our destination. The ride was about an hour. There must be a nicer route – I’m sure the folks at the bike shop can recommend a better one.

Pastry from Castellfollit de la roca

As we get to Castellfollit de la Roca, we lock our bikes up and head for a delicious looking bakery. It doesn’t look like much on Google Maps but trust us, it’s a little piece of heaven. The old town of Castellfollit is basically one street. One long and windy passage, along the huge rock that was carved out and disconnected from the other mountains around by huge burning rivers of molten lava. The street is lined with one row of houses either side of the street. The houses meet the very edge of the sheer cliff faces on both sides of the street. Where the houses end and rock begins is to be uncovered.

Catalonia lava landscapes

At the end of road, the narrow street opens up into a sort of square, with a church. The church tower rests on the highest part of the rock, some 50M high up from the river down below. A Catalan flag waves in the wind from the top of the tower. The other side of the square is the very end of the rock, and peering over the edge is dizzying. The river flows on into the valley as it widens, before entering the flat plains of Catalonia that lead all the way to the sea. From this point we are less than 60KM away from the sea.

Just before the church a small road turns off to the right and zig-zags down to the river and the valley below. From here you can walk around the foot of the rock-perched town through little plots of vegetables and grazing cattle to a long bridge over the river where a wonderful panoramic scene of the town, sitting on the rock with the river flowing underneath it unfolds. In the background, rolling green hills add another dimension to the almost unimaginably perfect scene.

Castellfollit de la roca, Catalonia above the river
Castellfollit de la roca silhouette with Catalonia flag waving

We decide to take the road back up to our bikes across the bridge. This leads us to another great photo spot. Along the road and on the bridge are great spots. The perspective is a little better due to being higher.

Castellfollit de la roca in Catalonia

Blazing the budget for pizza

Blurry picture of Olot pizza

The sun is beginning to dip so we head for our bikes. Cycling back is a lot harder but when we reach the top we shift gears and wiz back to Olot, gleaming all the way with the wind in our hair. It’s been a great day and we can’t be bothered to go back to our campsite yet so we stroll around Olot, through the main streets looking for a bar. Then we decide to get a pizza, we’re starving. We find what looks like a promising pizzeria, Pizzeria L’Espurna. It’s a really nice place, kind staff and creative pizzas. We’re quite surprised to find a place like this in rural Catalonia. It’s the type of place you’d expect to find in a hip city, vegan options too!

Tipsy hitching in the dark

We ignore the issue of getting back to our campsite and the fact that we should be in Portugal tomorrow. A few more beers later and we hesitantly make our way to the roundabout from where the road leads to our campsite. We’re pretty sure we won’t get a lift now since it’s dark and well, we wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers unless we could get a good look at them. It seems the locals are more blasé about potentially scary hitchhikers and we get a ride without even waiting five minutes! We were fairly sure we would have to walk the 45 minutes back to the campsite! The nice dude drops us off right outside our campsite and we hurry to bed in preparation for an early start tomorrow.

On the road: Catalonia to Portugal

Our flight leaves Barcelona airport at 10:20PM, naturally we need to be there at 8:20PM. In total it’s about 140KM’s to Barcelona airport, which is not really that far considering it’s early. We decide to try and hitch there and recuperate some money we have lost from the flight. There should be buses and trains along the way if we get stuck and the day is closing in.

We decided to take the flight because it’s a long way from our current location to hitchhike to Portugal. It’s 1200KM. We imagine this would take us at least 3-4 days. We don’t have that time to spare unfortunately if we want to make it to Morocco before Christmas and see all the things we want to. We’re going to have to cut this portion out. It also would be frustrating to travel through this beautiful landscape and not be able to stop so we think it’s for the best to skip it altogether.

The first stage of the journey is to get to Olot and to the main road heading towards Barcelona. We decide that this roundabout is probably a good starting point. It’s a long slog with the heavy rucksacks. The sun is burning down surprisingly strong, after all it’s almost winter. It takes a good hour to get to the hitch point and we already have to take many breaks before we get there.

Waiting in Olot

Getting a ride is not really any easier. We wait for what seems an age. First we try our luck with “Barcelona” written on our sign but after a while we try to put a more local destination on it, hoping to catch some commuter traffic. This works a bit better and after another half an hour we catch a ride to Vic, 40KM along the way from Olot to Barcelona. Our driver is a graphic designer on his way home after finishing some work. Once in Vic he shows us where the train station and bus station are in case we can’t get a ride and then shows us a good spot to hitch from. What a guy!

100KM to go through Catalonia

The next ride comes faster and slightly strange but clearly kind guy picks us up. We’re a bit unsure at first but the little picture of his cute daughter wedged in the rear view mirror calm our nerves. He’s actually on his way to pick up his daughter from school in La Garriga. He drops us off at a petrol station on the motorway where it’s very cold and the wind is savage. We try to hitch on the slip road from the petrol station back on to the motorway but no cars are stopping.

We wait another hour and decide it’s not going to work here. There is just not enough traffic and we can’t just walk on to the motorway. The only traffic passing us is the ones who stop at the petrol station.

The next plan is to head towards town. From there we can try the main road out of it or grab a bus or train. We’re only 50KM’s away from the airport now. It’s another really long walk into town and it’s already around 2:00 PM. We’re not as successful as we would have liked. It takes us another 45 minutes to get to the next hitch spot where we wait another 30 minutes with no luck. It’s now almost 3:30. We’ve got around 5 hours to get to the airport. We start to get nervous and decide it’s not worth the effort. We decide to take the train.

Barcelona bound

It’s another half hour walk and when we get close we realise we might miss it, and then have to wait another 2 hours so we start running. Which is super hard with a massive rucksack on your back. It’s also uphill. We jump up the stairs and twist around the corners bashing in to the railings, almost falling over. We make it to the platform. Oh shit, the wrong one. We run back down the stairs and on to the street again. There’s no easy way to get to the other platform. When we finally get there we fumble around for the next 5 minutes trying to figure out the ticket machine, only to figure out that the train is late!

The rest of the story is almost not worth mentioning but at least we do catch our flight. A train from the 1940s takes us to Barcelona where we take the tube and another train to the airport. The airport is a pile of crap with no decent food so if you’re hungry, bring your own. Now it’s time to fly, see you in Porto in a few hours!

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get there

Espot

If you want to go to Espot, check out the facts section in our post about Espot.

Olot

The best airport for Catalonia is most likely Barcelona. There are a few others but you are most likely to get a good international deal from Barcelona.

It’s pretty easy to get to from Barcelona. Take the bus. The train doesn’t go all the way. From Olot, getting around should probably be done on foot since it’s pretty and there are lots of hiking trails. There are also lots of bike trails so that’s another option.

We will obviously suggest hitchhiking as well! It worked well for us in the area, apart from on the trip to Barcelona, but that was more due to our time constraints. We got around the Olot area very easily.

Castellar de n’Hug & La Pobla de Lillet

If you want to check out any of these beautiful mountain villages of Catalonia you need to head to La Pobla de Lillet first. There is an Alsa bus that goes there from Barcelona. You can search here. There is another local bus leaving from La Pobla de Lillet to Castellar de n’Hug. Check Google Maps or the local bus timetables, it seem the bus only goes once a day at around 8PM.

You are far better off with a car or hitchhiking for that matter around the country side. We find the best areas to hitchhike are the mountains. It usually more common there.

Things to do

Accommodation

We stayed at the campsite Camping la Fageda which was really great, pretty and well equipped. It can get busy though. They also have little apartments, if you don’t want to camp.

Check out some deals on Booking.com below if you’re looking for something in the city.

Booking.com

Pro Tips

If camping in Olot definitely go to Camping la Fageda instead of the one in the city.

If you’re made of money, ride in a hot air balloon over the volcanoes!

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