From October 2015
The Costa Brava (at least the 5 days I had drinking it in, both literally and figuratively) is virtually unknown to most Americans. Not only have they never had the good fortune to experience it, but when mentioned, was usually met with the same head tilt my dog gives me when she has no idea what I am talking about.
To put it bluntly. OMG! What an amazing place. The unspoiled part of the Mediterranean coast that is also the most precious. We spent a glorious time about two hours north of Barcelona, posted up in the magical town of Begur and explored the hill towns and the beaches and the enclaves of Catalunya’s favorite son Salvador Dalí.
It’s hard to believe that in the whole scene that is the Mediterranean Coastal Crazy of Spain, France and Italy that there is a pretty wide expanse of mostly undisturbed loveliness from Barcelona to the French border. The entire coast is to die for, with nary a resort-like place once you pass Lloret de Mar, the stomping grounds for pasty Northern Europeans searching for sun in all inclusive packages. The towns in and around Lloret de Mar caved to the Atlantic City vibe back in the 60s but learning that lesson, it appears that the wise folks of Catalunya were determined to keep the Trump’s and his unimaginative hotelier brethren out of this last bit of God’s country where nary a resort of cruise ship proportions exists. (I did read that a resurgence is afoot in this little bit of spoiled paradise so maybe it is worth a second look. However, did not bother and whizzed right by in search of a sure thing.)
Finding much written about the Costa Brava before we went wasn’t easy. Other than a few blog posts and a mention in the “farther afield” sections of Barcelona guidebooks, there really wasn’t very much.
Now, while basically unspoiled and naturally beautiful, don’t let that lead you to believe that this is all RV and camping country. And I’m sure there is plenty of that. (Personally I wouldn’t know as my desire for this type of activity is on par with nipple piercing). But if you are seeking great food, great people and views to die for… ‘this be the place.’
With so many lovely towns and coves to see, we could never do it justice in just five days. So here are some of the highlights of our meanderings.
We rented a car in Barcelona and drove the easy peasy drive to Begur, our home base. Driving anywhere in the area was not very challenging. Granted I was the passenger, but my husband who normally has driving Tourette’s had no verbally expressed complaints and rants were kept to a minimum. Roads are great and signs even better (think, NOT New Jersey). Cars are a must if you want to see this region. A good GPS is helpful and will keep you in stitches with the mangling of the street names by theMisGPS narrator.
Home in the Hills
Begur is a hill town with an old castle ruins at the summit that looks down on lovely whitewashed beach towns a 5 minute drive below.
We stayed at a mansion turned hotel called the Hotel Aiguaclara, a family run operation of 10 rooms with a killer location and an equally enchanting restaurant. (C/Sant Miquel, 2, 17255 Begur, Girona;+34 619 25 36 92; https://www.hotelaiguaclara.com/en/)
Joan (as in Miró) and Clara were the most gracious of hosts and Esther the hotel manager steered us to all the right spots. Going to Begur et al. in late October has a distinct advantage of avoiding the summer crowds while still enjoying 70 degree weather. The teeny tiny minus is that there are fewer open restaurants and shops so some streets can feel a bit abandoned. But none of this in any way hampered our delight in this area. Many of the buildings in Begur were built by natives returning with their spoils from Cuba back around the turn of the century, thus erecting less than humble abodes to their newfound wealth… all quite tasteful I might add (think, NOT Beverly Hills).
Begur, is surrounded by lovely coved beaches and little jewel box towns from Plata del Raco to the north to Aiguablava to the south. From the summit of Begur which is the old castle tower of an ancient fortress you can literally see all of these spots on a clear beautiful day. There are walking trails to all from Begur for those with the constitution to climb back up from a day at “la playa” or one can take the car and park at the base of the hills and walk into town.
We only got to one gem, Sa Tuna which could not have been more delightful. Pastel-washed houses and winding little streets surround a lovely cove with crystal water. You can actually walk the coast from town to town as we did, stopping short of the neighboring burg of Aiguafreda. Again, being off season it was very quiet with not a single boite or boutique open but delightful, nonetheless.
We had most of our dinners here as we wanted to partake in the local wines without having to also partake in the winding unlit roads in the evening.
Turandot: Lovely little spot recommended by Esther (who coincidentally had a reservation there the same night as we did) was a marvelous first night dining experience. Good wine, good authentic Catalunyan fare and superb service. Even a swell little bar if you get there early (which in Spain is before 9PM). C/Onze de Setembre, 27, 17255 Begur, Girona; +34 972 62 26 08A; http://www.turandot.es/
Platillos: Boy was this a find. Again a reco from Esther, this tiny little tapas spot was beyond good. It might have been the best tapas we had in Spain. No more than 10 little tables and a bar on a tiny little street off of a main square it was THE place to be and tough to get into given the limited number of places open off season. Imaginative offerings and fab local wines, all reasonably priced made this a must visit spot. C/Pi i Ralló, 8, 17255 Begur, Girona; +34 972 62 25 02; http://canclimentplatillos.com/
Aiguaclara: This was our hotel’s restaurant. A very eclectically decorated place where we enjoyed our morning desayuno with hot café con leche served by equally hot guys who were the musicians performing at dinner. Food was great, locally sourced and fresh and the atmosphere was festive and welcoming. Eat here whether you are a hotel guest or not. C/Sant Miquel, 2, 17255 Begur, Girona +34 619 25 36 92; https://www.hotelaiguaclara.com/en/
Galena Mas Comangau: This was another hotel restaurant on the road just entering Begur. A nice little walk from our hotel. A little more fussy than some of the others, but nice for a special meal. More traditional steak and seafood kind of place. C/Ramon Llull, 1, 17255 Begur, Girona; +34 972 62 32 10; http://www.mascomangau.com/
Rostei: This was our only lunch in Begur; our first meal upon arrival. And what a great introduction it was. A little cavelike dwelling in the heart of town with some of the best bread I’ve ever eaten. Great classic Catalunyan cuisine and equally great service. So glad we happened in. C/ Concepció Pi, 8, 17255 Begur, Girona; +34 972 62 27 04; http://rostei.com/public_html/en/restaurant/
There were a few others we hoped to pop into about which we heard great things, but alas were closed in late October.
Can Nasi: A great walled restaurant on a hillside deep into Begur. I passed it on my morning constitutional, but we weren’t able to get a reservation. The location was divine, and the menu was mouthwatering. (Got some good press in TripAdvisor and other site reviews.) Camí del Mar, 5, 17255 Begur, Girona; +34 972 62 34 11; www.cannasi.com
Sa Rascassa: Right outside of the little coastal town of Sa Tuna and apparently THE spot for great eats in and around the beach coves outside of Begur. (Best part is no one under 12 in the evenings!). Cala d’Aiguafreda, 3, 17255 Begur, Girona; +34 972 62 28 45; http://hostalsarascassa.com/en/restaurant-begur-costa-brava/
Note: Especially for dinner, it is critical to have reservations regardless of time of year virtually anywhere along the Costa Brava.
Other than the beauty of the “end of the Pyrenees” and the lush beaches, the big draw is that grand master of all that is surreal himself. Called the Dali Triangle, there are three towns that pay homage to his genius, or madness depending on your point of view and we did all three. One a day was the best way to go to allow time to take it all in without madly driving from place to place.
Note: Advance reservations (available on-line) are a MUST unless you have an affinity for waiting in line with the fanny pack crowd. In some instances you cannot get in without them as they only allow so many visitors per day. If you are staying in Barcelona, there are tours that do Dali so that is an option.
There are many guidebooks on the details of each venue as well as on Dali and his muse Gala so I’ll keep this text to a few impressions.
Plánol Guia (aka Gala Dali Castle in Púbol). Net net, this is the castle that Dalí bought and “Dali-fied” for his wife Gala where she lived until her death (he was admitted upon her invitation only). An old medieval castle, it’s probably the least visited, which made it the least crowded and the most serene. Worth it, especially the gardens with amazing sculptures hidden in the foliage. Galena is buried there as well so you can stop buy and say “Hola” during your visit. Gala Dali, s/n, 17120 Púbol, Girona; http://www.salvador-dali.org/museus/castell-gala-dali-pubol/es_index/
Dalí Theatre-Museum. (Plaça Gala i Salvador Dalí, 5, 17600 Figueres, Girona; http://www.salvador-dali.org/es_index/) The king of self-promotion took over the theater in the burg of Figueres and you can’t miss it. Its Kremlin-esque exterior of burnt Siena stucco with gold ball and turd (I s**t you not) embellishments scream out from the old town streets. This is the place with the Mae West room and the car that rains inside and much of the dripping clock-like Dalí to which most are familiar. But it’s so much more…some other artistic partners are there as well as a lot of work that you wouldn’t immediately associate with Senor D. But start at the top (in reverse order of the numbers to avoid the throngs starting at the beginning and crowding out the view of everything). And DO NOT MISS the jewelry exhibit annex. Unbelievable designs I had never seen or even heard of. Who knew? And if you get there a bit early, have a café con leche at the charming but kitschy Dalicatessen (C/Sant pere 19, 17600 Figueres) right on a square a spit from the museum. A lovely proprietor will chat you up and let you use the restroom any time you are in the town. (A worthwhile friend to have in my book after muchos café con leches).
The Dalí House (aka Casa Museu Salvador Dali in Portlligat). Platja Portlligat, s/n, 17488 Cadaqués, Girona; http://www.salvador-dali.org/museus/casa-salvador-dali-portlligat/. Sir Paul had to have gotten his inspiration for “The Long and Winding Road” from the trip through the mountains to the beach town of Cadeques. (Leave time as this part alone is about an hour’s schlepp from the main highway).
Old Sal wanted privacy and boy did he get it. Technically the Dali House (a collection of fisherman’s cottages purchased and connected over the years for Dali and his darling) is on the bay of Portlligat on the other side of the peninsula from Cadeques. You can try to drive there directly, but the parking and the no-vehicle streets are rather daunting, so I suggest you park as soon as you get to Cadeques and hoof it. The town is quite lovely (albeit a bit on the touristy side as Dali is the main draw). And what a draw it is. His only fixed address from 1930 where he lived and worked until 1982 when his beloved Gala died and he hightailed it to her castle to live out the remainder of his life in cozy proximity to her corpse. There is so much to take in… the living and entertaining quarters (with one kick ass pool with cheeky Dali touches); the studio with the canvas brackets to lower large works through floors so he could sit in one spot while painting all sections; the olive groves and the courtyards (with my fave, the “Christ of the Rubbish” sculpture). And then the view of the sea… ahhhh.
So much Dali inspires the need for food so we attempted to have lunch at a highly recommended little spot back in the winding streets of Cadeques called Casa Anita (C/Miquel Rosset, 16 +34 972 25 84 71; http://www.casaanitavip.com/ ) but alas being late October it was closed. So we were relegated to one of the less inspired spots albeit with a great view of the water, where we gulped down a mediocre meal to avoid driving back on that long and winding road in a storm that looked like it was brewing overhead. The proprietress of the restaurant thought we were mad and said “no, no rain” but we took no chances. Her arthritis might have been saying no, no, no but the grey cotton candy skies did, in fact, open up to a full on thunderstorm shortly after we got back to Begur at cocktail time. (Thank you to the Weather App Gods for the tip off). We sat it out in our hotel bar downing more than one of the best friggin’ Mojitos I have ever poured down my gullet. A win, win for all.
On our one rainy day, at the suggestion of our hotel proprietor, we ventured to the biggest city between Barcelona and the French border, called Girona. Think Italian hill towns like Perugia and Orvieto, but a smudge grittier. Don’t want to denigrate our visit too much as we didn’t see her with her best face on and much was closed on that Monday. When the rain subsided we did get to walk around a bit and came upon the lovely centerpiece of a cathedral. Can’t say much else, but would give it another go if I went back on a nicer day.
Calella de Palafrugell is one (which we did get to) of three lovely coastal towns belonging to the municipality of Palafrugell, province of Girona, Spain, the other two Llafranc and Tamariu (which we did not get to). Driving there you will hit the hill town of Palafrugell, but don’t get confused… this is not the final destination. As we were hitting the town, the vision of a tourist office appeared and beckoned me in for great maps of the coastal towns and recos. (Every little nook and cranny needs a map to navigate so the tourist office stops are essential or print them out from the web before heading out as analog navigation is essential for finding your way around these little gems).
I envision that Calella de Plafrugell is the kind of smart and charming fishing village St. Tropez was before Bardot pouted through town sans brassiere. A lovely beach walk, quaint shops and not a sockless Gucci-loafered foot in sight. (Perhaps they appear in July but were delightfully absent off season). This little excursion was intended to hit at midday so lunch was definitely on the menu. We selected our dining location based on, well its location. Right on the beach, canopied from the sun, with a cool breeze blowing.
While the atmosphere did not disappoint… neither did the food at Can Gelpi (Carrer de les Voltes, 11; +34 972 61 45 72; http://visitpalafrugell.cat/en/calella/restaurants-en/can-gelpi/# ). Delicious right from the sea, seafood salad with crisp lettuce and just the right touch of dressing. Of course, we added in Iberian ham to have with our wine but who wouldn’t. With a full belly, a bit of a cava buzz and a lazy fall sun,had a meteor ended it all there, I wouldn’t have felt cheated. Splendor defined.
On one of our drives we ventured out to the reconstructed Medieval town of Pals. Very charming but almost too-precious-by-half (as in rebuilt a la Disney for tourists) so not terribly authentic. We were however, tempted to have lunch at the oldest restaurant in the area but alas it was closed for the season. (A recurring theme if you travel here after September).
Not wishing to waste a dining opportunity on touristy tapas traps, we sought out a Relais and Chateau Hotel and Spa called Mas de Torrent hoping for premier eats. And we were not disappointed. Nestled right outside the town of Torrent, we snagged a magnificent meal the day before it closes up for the season. Having enjoyed great food and wine at modest prices throughout most of the trip, we went whole hog on the day’s Tasting Menu with wine pairings which was 12 COURSES! Small and tasty every one and we did not leave feeling like we ate the whole hog. Further, it was still cheaper than many meals we’ve had in New York at ordinary ho-hum establishments. Lovely view of the grounds with vineyards and olive groves. Worth the splurge for lunch pre-siesta, which you will definitely need following. (Afueras de Torrent, S/N, 17123 Torrent, Girona, +34 902 55 03 21; http://www.hotelmastorrent.com/en/).
Alas, we only had 5 days breathing in the fabulousness of the Costa Brava, but I could spend a lifetime indulging my senses in all the bedazzling charm of this region which seems to have remained exquisitely unspoiled. Hoping it stays that way long enough for another visit.