The fabled coast
Photography: sharyn cairns
The most glamorous way to explore the Costa Brava is what you might call the Rock Hudson option - aboard a vintage 1950s Italian speedboat, all gleaming mahogany and cream leather trim, drinking in the view. From the vantage of the deep blue Mediterranean, you can appreciate why, a century ago, the journalist Ferran Agulló christened this dramatic stretch of Spanish shoreline between Barcelona and France the Costa Brava, or Wild Coast. Its pine-forested cliffs, riddled with caves and coves, remnant castles and ancient stone walls, still radiate the rugged beauty that has lured foreigners for centuries. First the Greeks, then the Romans and, in more recent times, an A-list of foreign and local luminaries - Hudson, Liz Taylor, Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso - have been drawn here by the promise of sun and serendipity.
Once La Baronesa, our vampish vaporetto, departs from Palamós port, its skipper Joan Santolaria entertains us with juicy fragments of this coast's fabled modern history. That handsome stone fishermen's hut by the shore was once used by Salvador Dalí as a studio, he says. (The artist wrote of his time here, before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, "This period of summer enchantment, the last days of happiness of Europe…") A grand villa perched on a promontory is where Truman Capote holed up to write In Cold Blood. At nearby Cap Roig, a Russian colonel by the name of Nicolai Woevodsky and his English aristocratic wife built a castle set among 8 hectares of botanical gardens that today form a superb setting for concerts by visiting international artists.
It is high summer and our voyage is a reverie of sparkling sunshine, brisk tramontana wind and a flotilla of yachts drifting by, their tanned crews often waving languidly as they pass. The colours of the Costa Brava are blue and green, which sounds mundane until you witness first-hand the intensely saturated colours. This is no timid palette but untamed, exuberant splashes of light.
By the time we reach Calella, the call of the coast is irresistible and we signal to the tender that plies the cove here to ferry us to shore. Calella is where the rich of nearby Palafrugell come to unwind, shoulder to shoulder with Barcelona's cool set. Its ribbon of grey-gold sand is studded with parasols - stripes, blocked colours, swirls - and peopled by brown bodies sprawled between upturned menorcinas, cheerful wooden boats painted in pastels. Whitewashed buildings line the seafront, their ground floors shaded by arched porches concealing cafés and restaurants where holidaymakers retire for epic seafood dinners beside the water. In the golden glow of late afternoon, Calella's charm is mesmerising.
It all seems so unattainable, this dazzling, gilt-edged lifestyle, yet the Costa Brava also harbours some of the worst excesses of package tourism, where a week in a high-rise resort can cost as little as $500, breakfast and dinner included. Locals have a semi-pejorative name for the pasty northerners who swarm the concrete resort towns such as Lloret de Mar and Blanès. They are giries, described vividly by our guide Joaquim Puerto as "the sort of people who come here on full pension and spend 12-hour days in the sun getting the colour of shrimps. They just go from room to pool to gin and tonics."
Giries are the latest in a centuries-old succession of foreigners who have fallen for this seductive shore, beginning with the Greeks who established the city of Emporion here in 6 BC. Their legacy lives on in the province's present-day names - L'Empordà in Catalan and El Ampurdán in Spanish. Mass tourism took hold here in the 1950s, around the time Hollywood discovered a cheap, sun-filled location for films such as Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and Suddenly, Last Summer and Spain was entering its second decade of dark oppression under the dictator Francisco Franco. As the region's fame spread, local fishermen got smart and opened chiringuitos, small beach kiosks serving beer and food to arriving foreigners. The riches that poured in made it difficult for many to know when to say stop. The locals have an expression - "fer l'agost", to make August - that alludes to their annual bid to cash in on the summer crowds.
The writer Josep Pla, a cherished son of the Empordà, captured the mood for a prosperous future in the 1960s when he wished for "a touristic clientele that would last for years". A decade later, the Congress of Catalunya decreed it was "necessary to yield to the humanising capacity of tourism". That decision would have seemed a very sensible, liberating course of action after decades of dictatorship, but these days residents anguish regularly over tourism's double-edged sword.
For the visitor, it is easy to avoid the ugly Costa Brava and focus instead on the relatively untouched seaside and inland villages. Puerto navigates a deft course for us that bypasses the coast's low-rent, high-volume alter ego. "People think the Costa Brava is just a couple of holiday resorts - sun, sand and sex - but it's much more than that," he says, heading for the hills behind Palamós into medieval villages of honeycomb-coloured stone.
At one of them, Madremanya, we stay in a hotel called La Plaça whose foundations are a 12th-century farmhouse (hence the vaulted ceilings in the dining room) and whose upper floors date from the 15th century. It was restored throughout in 2000 and its maze of rooms, furnished comfortably but not extravagantly, look out to a pretty garden and a panorama of the Gavarres Mountains. My apartment-room on the second-and-a-half floor has a wisteria-perfumed terrace and a view to the sanctuary of Els Angels, where Dalí married his Russian muse Gala in 1958. The German writer Günter Grass enjoyed this same outlook when he stayed in this room in 2004. (The hotel's bijou library has a complete, autographed set of Grass's work, a gift from the guest author.)
La Plaça's chef, Vicenç Fajardo, was raised in Australia before coming home to Spain at 19 to train in the country's renowned kitchens. Eventually he returned to his native Catalunya where he now prepares typical mountain dishes with modern flair for the packed tables of the restaurant's terrace. "I have travelled extensively in Spain and I can safely say that the Costa Brava is the best part of the coast," Fajardo says. "For the natural landscapes, the gastronomy, the cultural heritage."
He's right. For those who stir from the beaches and explore the cities and towns of the Empordà, there is ample culture to be discovered. The lovely provincial capital, Girona, is a Florentine vision of earth-toned buildings flanking the canalled Onyar River, with significant Roman, Muslim and Jewish heritage to explore. Carrer de la Força, which runs past the imposing cathedral, is the old Via Augusta - the lifeblood of empire that linked Cádiz to Rome. "In Girona," said Puerto, "you can see the footsteps of many cultures. Even Spanish people get surprised here."
Girona is also home to El Celler de Can Roca, named fifth best dining room in the world in the 2009 Restaurant magazine rankings. Less than an hour away, beside the coast at Roses, is El Bullí, the world's most famous restaurant (and top of Restaurant's list for the past four years). The Empordà is preternaturally blessed with fine dining, but a great meal needn't always come with a side order of insolvency. I ate spectacularly well at the likes of the Hotel Empordà, whose restaurant no longer boasts a Michelin star but still delivers a memorable introduction to the region's cuisine, notable for its combination of produce from the mountain and the sea ("surf and turf" to us Australians). Its menu highlights included fish bones (mackerel, I think) macerated overnight in milk, then rolled in flour and deep-fried to form the perfect beer snack, and a dish of summer vegetables and sea cucumber doused in the rare and ridiculously dear argan oil.
In the very north of the Costa Brava, at Llança, El Bullí alumnus Paco Pérez conjures Michelin-starred creations at the seafront Hostal Miramar. Sculptural glass trays arrive with arresting duets of clams with tonic, for example, or beetroot petals with lychee. "This landscape is the source of my inspiration, and of the produce," says Pérez, who trained under Michel Guérard in Paris and has worked with Ferran Adrià. "My food makes people feel more connected to the location."
Back at Palamós, Joan Cuadrat is chef of the landmark local restaurant La Gamba and president of the Cuina de l'Empordanet, a regional collective formed to preserve and promote the distinctive local cuisine. His menu is a vibrant showcase of prime local produce and practices, from stuffed sea urchins au gratin with Cava to the classic surf-and-turf combo of crunchy pig's trotter stuffed with crayfish cooked in its own juice. Central to many dishes are the two base sauces of Empordà cooking - picada, a pesto-like seasoning of garlic, parsley and breadcrumbs or almonds, and sofregit, a garlicky tomato sauce laced with caramelised onion. Some dishes may have a modern twist, but "we preserve the sense of the traditional", Cuadrat says.
Heading north towards the French border, the fields are thick with sunflowers, corn and plump hay whirls, and the roadside is lined with prostitutes on fold-out chairs, waiting for lusty truck drivers to make them an offer they can't refuse.
I imagine this blatant roadside commerce might have amused or
fascinated Dalí, who would have made this journey many times
heading to and from Figueres. The city is well known by its French
neighbours as the place to come for cheap grog, smokes and petrol,
and by the rest of the world as the birthplace of Salvador Domingo
Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, born here in 1904 and buried here
In 1974, Dalí opened his eponymous Teatre-Museu Dalí in a former municipal theatre where he had his first drawing exhibition at the age of 14. ("Where better than a theatre for making the impressions of my subconscious," he remarked at the time.) You can't miss the museum - just follow the hordes to the dark rose-coloured building crowned by giant eggs and art deco mannequins and studded with plaster loaves of bread. Inside is a phantasmagoria of Dalí's mind expressed in paintings, sculptures, installations, jewellery, sketches. In all, the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, which manages the collection, holds thousands of objects from Dalí's life and more than 4000 artworks, the majority of which are displayed here.
The landscapes and colours of the Costa Brava are a constant in his paintings. It may be difficult to recognise them in, for instance, The Persistence of Memory, which captures the light of Portlligat, but the influence is blatant in works such as his brilliant Impressionist/Cubist painting Port Alguer (Cadaqués), completed in 1923. Cadaqués was his favourite spot on the Costa Brava; his family holidayed there regularly and Dalí's presence endures thanks to a statue on the beachfront drive.
It is easy to see why he and Gala chose to live here. Cadaqués is by far the prettiest of the coastal villages we visit, its blinding white buildings adorned with boldly painted shutters and doors and pots of tumbling geraniums. The vast villas set back from the seafront to capture the finest views speak of the glamour and wealth that colonised this once-humble fishing village. Dalí, whose waterfront home is now a museum, kept company here with the likes of Picasso, Luis Buñuel, André Breton and Man Ray. Ordinary mortals may find it a little crowded in summer, though, when the town's usual population of 3000 swells to about 25,000 and human flesh crowds every spare square of pebbly shore.
On the beach, I meet a dapper old man in fishing cap and red cravat who seems to epitomise the dash of the Costa Brava. We chat in Spanish for a bit until he says, "Look, if you're from Australia, shall we speak in English? Much simpler." Turns out he's from Hammersmith in London. "I've been coming here for 60 years," he announces. "Never missed a year!"
Unfortunately, that's the last coherent thing he says before slipping into a monologue of bright-eyed battiness… something about sardines, and cannons. I imagine that's what happens if you spend a lifetime surrendering to the pleasures of the Costa Brava. You go a bit potty - like this man and, in the best possible way, like Dalí. But I have no doubt you'd be happy. Impossible not to be in a place as blessed as the Costa Brava.
THE FINE PRINT
Thai Airways flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Madrid via Bangkok. Iberia has connecting flights from Madrid to Barcelona, from where you can rent a car to tour the Costa Brava or travel to Girona by train in a little over an hour.
STAY & EAT
A historic, eclectic boutique inn set in the heart of the village of Madremanya, a perfect base from which to explore the area. Doubles from $181. Sant Esteve 17, Madremanya, +34 972 490 487
Restaurant La Gamba
Set above the port at Palamós, Restaurant La Gamba showcases regional cuisine with a focus on the Costa Brava's best seafood (giant red prawns from Palamós, rockfish from Begur, anchovies from L'Escala). Plaça Sant Pere 1, Palamós, +34 972 314 633
Lunch here is a Figueres institution. The restaurant's décor - and some of its signature dishes - has been perfectly preserved since it opened in 1961. The hotel has 42 rooms and is an ideal base from which to explore Dalí's hometown. Doubles from $193. Avenida Salvador Dalí i Domènech 170, Figueres, +34 972 500 562
Michelin-starred fare from Paco Pérez is offered in an ultra-modern seafront restaurant. Rooms in the attached hotel are modest but adequate - some have sea views and balconies. Doubles from $135. Passeig Marítim 7, Llança, +34 972 380 132
Billed as the "largest Surrealist object in the world", the Teatre-Museu Dalí is a remarkable showcase of the artist's work and philosophy. An attached exhibition contains his jewellery creations. Dalí's houses at Cadaqués and Pubol are also museums - allow at least two days to visit them all. Teatre-Museu Dalí is open Monday to Saturday, 10.30am to 6pm. Entry is $18. Gala-Salvador Dalí Square, Figueres, +34 972 677 500
Joan Santolaria runs coastal excursions aboard La Baronesa (maximum three passengers) and his 1915 sailing ship the Rafael (maximum 23 people). +34 972 600 034