Spain’s Costa Brava isn’t on the radar for many Americans tourists yet. However, its stunning Mediterranean coast and quaint white-washed sea towns, combined with rich culture and traditions, are great reasons to cross the Atlantic.
I had been near Costa Brava many times, while living in London. But as familiar as I was with other regions of Spain, its wild northeast coast (Costa Brava means rugged or wild coast in Spanish) had always eluded me, for one reason or another.
That was until recently, when I watched a BBC documentary showing that – despite being one of the most popular summer destinations for Europeans – parts of Costa Brava have kept their authentic charms and flavors. They also mentioned stretches that have been overdeveloped for tourism – specially the area just north of Barcelona – but if you know where to go, it’s still possible to find the authentic Costa Brava. I couldn’t wait to check it out.
Costa Brava is different from the rest of Spain in almost everything. As a matter of fact, depending on who you ask, it’s not even in 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 has also a strong culinary heritage, and quite often the restaurants voted ‘best in the world’ are located there. 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 miles 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 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 it ended, 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 on 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. Breathtaking.
Driving downhill to town, narrow streets with low houses gave a feeling of times past. Nothing denounced life in the present day, 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 its direction from a man whose language (Catalan) I barely understood.
Hotel La Residencia, where I had a reservation, was a mixture of art gallery and country inn right in the middle of it all. From my bedroom window I could see the beach right in front, and white houses going uphill on both sides of the bay. I also spotted some Asian tourists walking around, and wondered if it was true that the crazy road kept people out.
There was an arty atmosphere around the town, 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 no less eccentric wife Gala – 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 serving 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 long walks. It was light, and tasted fresh.
Cadaqués is small, and best explored by foot. I walked its winding alleyways, passing by towers and arches always leading to the sea. Discovering photogenic angles everywhere, I felt the day was too short for so much beauty and only returned to the hotel after dark.
Next morning, the breakfast served at the hotel by a friendly Catalan lady followed the same pattern of freshness: locally grown fruits, same with the honey and the 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 Brava 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 lost in time take us back to what life was like, centuries ago. Some remain today just as they were then.
That is the case of Pals and Peratallada, both a short trip from the coast, yet with a completely different landscape. 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, an ancient wall and a moat – built for protection from attackers in the Middle Ages – limit the town from expanding, which may explain its medieval character. Parts of the film ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ were filmed on location there.
Peratallada is also home to 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, when its celebrated summer event called Festa Major takes place. With concerts and festivities, the festival is very popular with Northern European tourists, who flock in droves to Peratallada.
I left my car in a public space outside town and dragged my suitcase along, looking for the hotel. There was not a soul around to ask directions to, all I could hear was the sound of my suitcase wheels on the pebble streets. When I found small but charming Hostal Blau, I saw a sign – 1762 – by the door. Later, the owner told me that it was the year his ancestors built a new addition (he was born in the house), that the original building was actually much older.
I was the only guest, too. The owner’s wife 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 life was like for those living there. Judging by their relaxed appearance and easy laughter, they didn’t seem to miss life in a big city much.
I had 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, as I told the young Moroccan waiter serving me – he was very happy to hear it. It’s just than in New York what I had just eaten would cost around $100 or more. But that I didn’t tell him…
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