Freewheel with the family along the greenways of Catalonia

Spain's abandoned railway lines have a new lease of life as cycling trails, says Kate Simon

My friend Steve isn't impressed by the cycle ride I'm about to embark on. "Huh, after 19 pedals turn left? Where's the adventure in that?" We're looking at the instructions I've been sent for my two-wheeled journey through Catalonia on a Via Verde – a disused railway line converted into a traffic-free route for cyclists and walkers – and it's true, they can't be faulted for their detail.

I'm undeterred by his criticism. This greenway, running from Ripoll in the foothills of the Pyrenees to Sant Feliu de Guixols on the shores of the Mediterranean, may be well signposted and downhill pretty much all the way, but the part that I will cycle lies in the shadow of the benign volcanoes of La Garrotxa, one of Catalonia's prettiest areas, and I will call into its medieval towns and villages as I go. As a resident of the region, Steve approves of this, at least.

What's more, I'm travelling with the family. My partner, Dean, is a keen cyclist; my son, Quincy, is out of practice; and me, well, it's been too long since I did any exercise. Our host, Inntravel, which has added the option of cycling this Via Verde in a new package for 2012 titled "Freewheeling in Catalonia", has arranged the bikes, handpicked the hotels, and will transfer our luggage from place to place. This gentle, straightforward ride is a good compromise for a family holiday on two wheels.

Gentle isn't the word that springs to my mind the next morning as I struggle to climb the steep ascent to the top of the Coll de Bass. Dean and Quincy power past me; in truth, the effort I'm requiring of my leg muscles says more about how unfit I am than the challenge presented by this small hill, the highest point of the whole route at a mere 600 metres above sea level.

Yet most of our journey along this Via Verde is on the level, or downhill. The ascent of the Coll de Bass also takes us off the main sandy path on to a minor road, one of the stretches of Tarmac that it is occasionally necessary to cross (yellow tramlines mark a lane for cyclists and walkers) to bridge gaps created in the years since the railway fell into disuse.

The transformation of Spain's disused train tracks began in 1993. Catalonia's greenway opened in 1997 but is still a work in progress, a piecemeal project that has linked three old railway lines to create a run of 136km (85 miles) through the region.

At its northernmost limit, the Iron and Coal Route – once crucial for transporting these heavy materials from the Serra Cavallera to Barcelona, yet defunct since 1985 – now provides a thoroughfare for cyclists from Ripoll to Sant Joan de les Abadesses.

The heart of the trail is the path of the old narrow-gauge railway, or carrilet, from Olot to Girona, which served the countryside districts of El Gironès, La Selva and La Garrotxa from 1911 until 1969. And to the south, the trackbed of a second carrilet, in service from 1892 to 1969, connects Girona to San Feliu de Guíxols, 40km away on the Costa Brava. With just a couple of days to spare, we only have time to cycle the 50km or so from Sant Esteve d'en Bas to Girona for a taste of the trail.

The Coll de Bas now conquered, we freewheel down into the Vall d'Hostoles towards Sant Feliu de Pallerols, zig-zagging along a stream, veils of trees buffering us from the sounds of everyday life. We take a turn around the town's cobbled streets, past the Roman bridge, before taking a breather beneath the trees in El Firal square.

On we go, through woods of rare holm oak, dipping through cool cuttings, under bridges hewn from the local volcanic rock, chased by the river Brugent, which hurdles over waterfalls to meet the river Ter, finally reaching our home for the night, Les Planes d'Hostoles. This town was built on a flow of lava and a stroll around its streets reveals some fine modernist buildings, constructed during a textile boom at the turn of the 20th century. One of them is our hotel, Can Garay.

Built in 1906, the dark-red Art Nouveau mansion has been sensitively restored by Lluis Garay, the great-grandson of the original owner, and his partner Sophie, and revitalised as an elegant hotel with six bedrooms and one suite. As with our previous night's accommodation – El Ferrés, a restored 18th-century farm building on the edge of the village of Joanetes – it is a comfortable stopover, where a superior dinner of local dishes is prepared for us. Last night it was peppery local pork sausage, botifarra; tonight we try patates d'Olot artesanes, little fried parcels of potatoes stuffed with mince.

Catalonia's Via Verde passes through a landscape that feels Alpine and Mediterranean in turns. As we press on the following morning towards Girona, we plunge through oak woods, before reaching the old station at Amer – one of few along this stretch that has been shown a little care rather than being abandoned – and stop for a drink in the town's graceful arched square, one of the largest in Catalonia.

Then the landscape flattens out, and we traverse a monotony of fields before hugging a main road, ticking off the villages of La Cellera de Ter, Anglès and Bescanó. It's only as Girona rises before us that we cut inland again to some peaceful woods, finally emerging onto a vast stretch of carefully tended allotments. Entering a city through its back garden is a curious approach, but then taking a different view of the landscape is what the Vias Verdes are all about.

Travel essentials

Getting there and staying there

Kate Simon travelled with Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk), which offers "Freewheeling in Catalonia", one week's self-guided cycling holiday, from £820 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes seven nights' B&B, five dinners, bicycle hire, maps and route notes, and luggage transfers between hotels. Return transfers to Girona airport cost £120 per person. The package can be offered with rail travel from London included from £1,245 per person. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies to Girona from a number of UK airports, as does Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; thomsonfly.com).

More information

Vias Verdes (viasverdes.com).

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