Spain’s Costa Brava isn’t on the radar for many Americans tourists yet. However, its stunning Mediterranean coast and quaint white-washed coastal towns, combined with rich culture and traditions, are great reasons to cross the Atlantic.
I had visited places nearby Costa Brava many times, while living in London. But as familiar as I was with other regions of Spain, its wild northeastern coast (Costa Brava means rugged or wild coast in Spanish) had always eluded me, for one reason or another.
That was until I recently watched a BBC documentary which showed that – despite being one of the most popular and crowded of European summer destinations – parts of Costa Brava have kept their authentic charms and flavors. The program also mentioned that while some stretches of the coast have been overdeveloped for tourism – especially the area just north of Barcelona – it’s still possible to find the real thing, in others. I couldn’t wait to check it out.
Costa Brava is different from the rest of Spain in almost every way. In fact, depending on who you ask, it’s not even part of Spain! That’s because it’s part of Catalonia, a proud nation-within-a-nation with its own language, culture and traditions, that has been trying to secede from Spain for a long time. Catalonia also has a rich culinary heritage, and some of its restaurants are voted ‘best in the world,’ every year. The Catalans are very proud people, and rightly so.
Stretching from Blanes – north of Barcelona – to the French border, the ‘Brava’ (as the locals call it) is a 125 mile-parade of sandy coves, golden beaches, rocky promontories and beautiful views. By far the prettiest of the three major holiday coasts of Spain (Costa del Sol and Costa Blanca are the others), until 1960 Costa Brava was a quiet region living off of its wines, olives and fishing. The tourists arrived around 1960, and never left.
I drove from Barcelona to Girona and then to Figueres, before getting to Costa Brava. It was the end of January, winter in Europe, but the temperatures were mild and the sun was shining everyday. Leaving Hotel Duran in Figueres, I was warned by the friendly concierge to be careful on the road to Cadaqués, my first stop. He was not exaggerating: a narrow mountain road full of curves, I drove at 20 miles an hour until its end, in Cadaqués (fortunately there was no traffic). I later heard locals joking that the difficult access helps the town keep its air of seclusion – the only other way to get there is by boat.
On the last curve of the road, I was rewarded with an astonishingly beautiful view: a white-washed town built into hills, going down to a cobalt-blue sea, under an even bluer sky. Topped by a small church on its highest point, the village looked more like a Greek island than Spain. It was breathtaking.
Driving downhill to town, its narrow streets with low houses gave a feeling of times past; there was not a tall building in sight. Cars are not allowed in the center of town so I had to leave mine in a public parking, after getting directions from a man whose language (Catalan) I barely understood.
Hotel La Residencia, where I had a reservation, was a cross between an art gallery and a country inn, right in the center of town. From my room I could see the beach directly in front, and on each side of the bay were whitewashed houses that extended uphill. Leaving the hotel for a walk, I spotted some Asian tourists taking pictures, and wondered if it was true that the crazy road kept people out.
The town had an artsy atmosphere, thanks to the everlasting influence of Salvador Dali, the eccentric Surrealist artist from nearby Figueres. One of the most influential artists of the 20th-century, as a young man Dali used to summer in Cadaqués with his family. After becoming famous, he moved permanently to nearby Port Lligat, a pleasant 20-minute walk from Cadaqués. The house he shared with his equally eccentric wife Gala – the now Casa-Museu Salvador Dali – was a magnet for international artists and celebrities until he died, in 1982. Casa Dali is the reason Cadaqués became known as the ‘Saint-Tropez of Spain’.
Cadaqués is also home to very good restaurants. But unlike the formal, Michelin-guide famous tables of Europe, in Cadaqués they were low-key places that serve fresh food at low prices to a local clientele. The two recommended by the concierge in the hotel turned out to be outstanding – the famous Mediterranean diet, called ‘local food’ in Costa Brava, was just what I needed, after a long walk exploring the area. Food never tasted so fresh.
Cadaqués is small, and best explored by foot. I walked its winding alleyways, passing by towers and arches that always lead to the sea. Discovering photogenic angles everywhere, I felt that the day was too short for so much beauty, and only returned to the hotel after dark.
For breakfast the next morning – served by a friendly Catalan lady who worked in the hotel – there was a choice of locally grown fruits, honey and yogurt. Everything – except the coffee – was from the region. If that’s not quality of life, I don’t know what is.
Driving out of town on the same road, I was still under the spell of that Costa Bravan paradise, but ready to explore the rest of it. Surprisingly, on the way back, the road didn’t feel as challenging as before. “One gets used to it,” I thought. “Or perhaps Cadaqués is so beautiful that makes people forget how difficult it is to get there.”
There’s more to Costa Brava than scenic beaches and beautiful coastal towns, though. Inland, small medieval villages take us back in time, to what life was like centuries ago.
That is the case of Pals and Peratallada, both a short ride from the coast, yet worlds apart. Peratallada is a labyrinth of cobbled streets and stone houses winding up to a castle and a lookout tower, both documented as early as 1065 AD. Surrounding it all, there is an ancient wall with a moat – built for protection from attackers in the Middle Ages – which limit the town from expanding and may explain its untouched medieval look. Parts of the film ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ were filmed on-location there.
Peratallada is also served by good restaurants, boutique hotels and art galleries. Once the capital of a feudal barony, it now attracts a very sophisticated crowd every month of August for the celebrated event Festa Major. With concerts and festivities, the festival is very popular with Northern European tourists, who fill all the hotels and inns for the occasion.
I left my car in a public space outside of town and dragged my suitcase along, looking for the hotel. There was not a soul around who I could ask for directions and all I could hear was the sound of wheels on the stone pavement. When I finally found the small but charming Hostal Blau, the sign by the door said 1762. Later, the owner told me that this was the year that his ancestors built a new addition to the house (he was born in it). The original building was actually much older, he said.
I was the only guest and the hotel door was locked when I arrived; the lady of the hotel was waiting for me at the restaurant across the street, and waved when she saw me. It was Sunday, and inside the place some local people were gathered in front of a TV screen, watching a football match (soccer). They welcomed me effusively, in Spanish, as if I were an old friend. I tried to imagine what their lives were like in such a small place, but judging by their relaxed ways and easy laughter they didn’t seem to miss life in the big-city much.
I had a few meals in that restaurant – it was the only one open off-season. Again, the food quality and the low prices surprised me: around $20 for lunch or dinner, a little more with wine. Its excellent cuisine wouldn’t be out of place on Madison Avenue in New York, I told the young Moroccan waiter serving me – he was very happy to hear it. It’s just that, in New York, what I had just eaten would have cost around $100 or more. But I didn’t tell him that…