Marseille to Barcelona cycling tours

From above, the Provence coast looks like a series of sandy waves. The Mediterranean pushes against the dunes to the south, carving out sand bars and spits. Beyond, lagoons, reed marshes and waterways make up the biggest river delta in western Europe.

This is the Camargue: one of the highlights of our Marseille to Barcelona cycling tour, which spends two days weaving between the lakes and levees of this nature reserve west of Marseille.

The Camargue is Provence, but not as most tourists know it. That mauve smudge on the horizon? They’re pink salt pans, not the ubiquitous lavender fields found further north. Here, cyclists can keep their eyes peeled for over 400 bird species while riding along gravel paths and boardwalks. That’s when traveling in a small group comes into its own – the more eyes the better for spotting flocks of flamingos, signs of boars and beavers, bats darting overhead, and the famous herds of Camargue bulls, plus the semi-wild Camargue horses that farmers use to round them up.

Cycling tours spend two days here, but it takes much less time to realise that – despite thousands of years’ worth of human endeavours to tame the water with paddies, dykes, and pans – the tides are still in charge in the Camargue.
I’ll never forget traveling through the wetlands of the Camargue – the orange sunrise illuminating hundreds of pink flamingos looking for their breakfast in the marsh.
– Tessa, account manager at Responsible Travel
Exploring the Camargue by bike highlights just how reliant everyone here is on these waters. You’ll stow your bike on a ferry and cross the Rhone river to get from Marseille. Arrive the next day, or even in a few hours’ time, and the scene will have shifted – birds moving with the tides and changeable weather. Return in a few years’ time, and you’ll witness an even bigger transformation as rising seas seep ever inward and heatwaves create saltier landscapes.

While the Camargue is a region used to constant change, climate change is coming too quickly for the people and animals here. This region is reliant on fresh water, farming and the bulls that graze the marsh, but the flood defences aren’t a match for insistently rising sea levels.

The edge-of-the-world quality of the Camargue is one of the reasons why it’s a favourite stop on the trip. The itinerary follows the best routes around this vast wetland, guided by a tour leader who can easily navigate the terrain while sharing the stories behind everything from the thatched cottages painted by Van Gogh to the monuments manadiers build for their favourite departed bulls.

As one of the first stops on the tour, the Camargue also sets the tone for the rest of the ride. This cycling vacation might begin in Marseille and roll to a stop in Barcelona, but it’s really about lingering in the places in-between.

Beyond the Camargue – highlights of cycling from Marseille to Barcelona

Marseille

Marseille is the second-biggest city in France but feels more like a gathering of towns and villages with diverse backstories. A walking tour zooms in on the oldest parts of the city – the yacht-crammed harbour of the old port, the three hills and tangled streets of the Panier neighbourhood, where the Greeks first set up shop about 600BC, plus the mural-lined staircases of Notre-Dame-du-Mont. Continuing the climb up to Notre-Dame de la Garde cathedral warms up the calves for the rest for the journey.

Sete

The port city of Sete balances on the edge of a large coastal lagoon. A crosshatch of canals slices it into bite-size, very wanderable pieces, and although it draws comparisons with Venice, this is a busy, lived-in city where local people still pile into the seafood restaurants along the waterfront after work.

Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi is the most famous of Sete’s canals, but the best parts for cyclists are out of town. You’ll follow the backroads to Beziers, taking on a peaceful stretch of the canal en route. It trundles on for another 200km or so to Toulouse – revolutionary in the 17th century when it allowed cargo to be moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic without sailing around Spain.

The canal was an engineering feat the Romans thought impossible. However, engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet wrangled 260km of aqueducts, bridges, locks and tunnels straight through France in just under 15 years. It’s architecturally beautiful, with canals smoothing through tunnels of trees and under bridges worked from local stone. And it’s almost like the tow paths were made for cyclists – merci, Pierre.

After rolling down the Canal du Midi, you’ll set your bike aside and catch the train to the sun-washed stone port town of Collioure. This is where you’ll get your first peek of the Pyrenees – the sign that the Spanish border is just over the hills.

Banyuls pass & Figueres

Banyuls pass is the easiest route over the Spanish border. That said, it’s still a climb at 355m high. It’s one of the lesser chosen passes through the Pyrenees, so you’ll likely get the narrow winding roads and long-range views across the riviera to yourself.

Cyclists can usually pass through without a hitch, but others aren’t so fortunate. Long a breathable border, the Banyuls pass was a “road to freedom” – a safe passage for the French escaping the Nazis, and then the Spanish escaping Franco’s dictatorship. In recent years, Banyuls pass has become less free as French authorities try to stop migration across the border by blocking the route with boulders – a move that’s gutting to many local people who rely on a fluid border crossing for seasonal work and income from tourism. In 2022, a grassroots organisation successfully unblocked the pass; your guide will offer an alternative route if needed.

Whichever path you take, Figueres is the day’s finish line – arriving in time for a trip to the Dali Theatre-Museum… or to sprawl in the sun with a café con leche on the leafy La Rambla.

Emporda

Craggy coastal paths, medieval villages, oak forests, sandy beaches, canalside towns… Cycling through the border region of Emporda is like scrolling through a photo album; there’s a new, even more arresting vista around each turn.

Cycle tours stop in Empuries, where the crumbling sun-bleached ruins of the ancient Greek city remain. Some of the earliest tombs are Iberian, dating back to the 6th century BC, before the empire set down its temples and ramparts.

Palamos port on the Costa Brava is the end of the ride, but not the end of the journey. From here, you’ll hop on a bus to the grand finale – Barcelona, which is only a 1.5-hour drive away. That’s just enough time to rest weary legs before celebrating the end of the vacation with a cava or creamy orxata in the Catalan capital. Salut!
Travel Team
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Photo credits: [Page banner: Florian Wehde & Dorian D1] [Intro: Jeroen Komen] [Marseille: Elisa Schmidt] [Banyuls pass & Figueres: Bertrand GRONDIN]