EMPORDA and surroundings


Albons Bellcaire d’Empordà Foixà Fontclara La Bisbal d’Empordà
Canapost Casavells Corçà Clots de Sant Julià Canet Cruïlles Marenyà Matajudaïca Monells Palau-Sator Parlavà Pals Peratallada La Pera Púbol Rupià Sant Iscle d’Empordà Sant Julià de Boada Sant Sadurní de l’Heura La Tallada d’Empordà Tor Ullastret Ultramort Verges Vulpellac

Agullana Castell Sant Ferran fortress Dali's Museum Figueres Maçanet de Cabrenys Lladó Llers L'Escala Les Escaules Peralada Pont de Molins Riumors Sant Miquel de Fluvià Sant Tomàs de Fluvià La Vajol Vilabertran Viladamat Vilanova de la Muga Ventalló

Besalú Porqueres Banyoles Cervià de Ter Le Boulou Maureilles Céret Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines


Where the Pyrenees Meet the Sea

We tend to gravitate to our favourite places, and so have not seen the coast in its entirety for years. Last year we decided it was time to find out how the Costa Brava has done given the rampant construction that was already in progress three decades ago. When we went in July and October, we found that without question, there are eyesores and overbuilt, congested areas, particularly around Platja d'Aro and Lloret de Mar. But this coast is still remarkably beautiful, historically engrossing and the home of some of Spain's most celebrated dining.

The Costa Brava, as this once ''untamed'' or ''wild'' coast was christened, encompasses the entire coast of the Catalonian province of Girona. It is a spectacularly scenic area where high cliffs -- the eastern limits of the Pyrenees -- drop abruptly in sharp jagged formations to the Mediterranean and form dramatic, tightly enclosed coves. Well before the region's beauty and mild weather brought the tourist influx of the 1950's, well-to-do Catalonian city dwellers -- many of them artists and writers -- had already claimed it, building summer houses in choice locations.
Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, successively, colonized this coast -- their port of entry into Spain -- where a veritable wall of mountains formed a barrier between them and the indigenous population. The Moorish domination was brief, lasting only until the 11th century. Once the Reconquest was completed, there arose marvelous Romanesque churches and monasteries and fortified towns. At the end of the 19th century the Costa Brava became linked to the Catalonian Modernist movement, and more recently to Salvador Dali's Surrealism.

Only one road meanders along the coast (the main highway follows an inland route) and it is undoubtedly the best way to see it, although there are occasional traffic snags in and around a few busy towns. We rented a car and headed north with the idea of establishing three bases -- one along the lower coast, another in the heart of the Costa Brava and a third in the northern extreme. We stopped briefly at Tossa de Mar, a town we had not visited since 1973, and even in June, it was already bustling. Tossa has been a tourist centre for decades, but that could not dull our pleasure in seeing once more the beautifully preserved walled town called La Vila Vella, high on a rocky promontory that juts out to sea. Preserved as a national monument and one of the finest examples of the medieval fortresses found along this coast, La Vila Vella dates from the 12th century, although evidence points to earlier, Roman occupation.
From Tossa we continued north, pleasantly surprised to see the modern world disappearing from view; we were in an untouched, densely green area of the coast. Hills blanketed with pine, oak and cork trees engulfed us, and there was a succession of coves with limpid, clear water. The 18-mile stretch from Tossa to Sant Feliu de Guíxols was marred by only two small developments built before a vigorous protectionist movement belatedly brought construction under control.

For over 30 years the deluxe Hostal de la Gavina in S'Agaró, set on a secluded hill overlooking a small curving beach, has been the epitome of elegance and good taste. Nothing has changed -- except, perhaps, our taste in hotels. We found the formal Old World furnishings, wide expanses of polished marble floors and beautifully groomed gardens somewhat lacking in life and warmth. Still, the hotel maintains the highest standards, the service is impeccable, and its restaurant is considered among the coast finest. Hostal de la Gavina is a wonderful oasis along a stretch of the coast that has suffered the most in recent years.

Aiguablava seems immune to change -- probably why it is still among our preferred destinations on the Costa Brava. As we approach, we pass through lush vegetation and catch glimpses here and there of resplendent, well-hidden private houses dotting the hills. At times the ascent from the waterfront is so steep that construction is virtually impossible; and yet the government-sponsored Parador de Aiguablava crowns one of the highest rocky crags. The hotel, modern and spare in style and well over 30 years old, takes a back seat to the vertiginous views. The hotel pool, at the edge of the precipice, is perfectly situated. In the evening, lights sparkle from the houses in the surrounding hills, and we briefly contemplate staying put. But we can't resist exploring nearby small villages on their own coves: Tamariú, Aigua Xelida, Sa Tuna, Aiguafreda, and Llafranc.

We visit again the fabulous botanical gardens at Cap Roig in Calella de Palafrugell, which have grown thick and lush in the intervening years. Conceived by a Russian colonel and his British wife, who came to live here in the 1920's, Cap Roig was their lifetime labour of love. Planted with both native and exotic species, the terraced gardens on a promontory high above the sea explode with fragrance and colour. A delightful walk along a deeply shaded path takes us to an overlook, where the rugged coast appears in all its glory.

About 40 minutes farther up the coastal road we visit the ruins of the ancient city of Empúries. The Greeks landed here and set up one of their first Iberian settlements in 550 B.C., and because it was a land of plenty, named it Emporium, or marketplace. The Romans followed in 49 B.C., and both Greek and Roman foundations remain. Mosaic floors, sculpture and other objects on display in the archaeological museum reconstruct the city's past. Among the ruins is evidence of an ancient fish factory, where anchovies from local waters were most likely preserved in salt.
The tradition continues in nearby L'Escala, celebrated throughout Spain for the excellence of its anchovies. Before we lunch on anchovies and other fish and shellfish at Els Pescadors, with the sea at its doorstep, we visit a garage like shop across the street that looks almost as ancient as Empúries to buy small jars of anchovies to take home.

While here we direct our attention inward, visiting beautifully preserved medieval towns like Peratallada, with cobbled streets, covered passageways and an 11th-century castle (now a deluxe hotel with eight guest rooms), and Pals, former fief of feudal lords that was rediscovered by city folk who have splendidly restored the houses as weekend retreats. We are especially charmed by the isolated town of Monells and its singular Plaza Mayor, from which multiarched porticoed streets, tunnel-like passageways and alleyways emerge at odd angles.

We are eager to reach the upper Costa Brava, in the past the least developed segment of the coast, and we choose the inland route to explore the wild world of Salvador Dali. The artist bought the 14th-century castle of Púbol, 10 miles east of Girona, for his beloved wife, Gala, as her exclusive domain (he entered by invitation only). Today it is a funky museum, displaying just a few of Dali's works, Gala's haute couture wardrobe, her old Cadillac and, in a lower level salon, her tomb.

In Figueres, his birthplace, Dali created a museum in a massive mauve building, punctuated by hundreds of sculptured loaves of bread and topped by gigantesque white eggs. Here he installed his personal art collection, an eclectic amalgam of his own works and those of other artists. Undoubtedly more show than substance -- fun and a just a bit of a fake -- it is nevertheless the most visited museum in Catalonia. Dali is buried in the central courtyard.
With some trepidation we reach Cadaqués, a hilly whitewashed, flower-filled village in sharp contrast to the dark, brush-covered Black Mountain that forms its backdrop. Difficult to reach because of this formidable mountain, Cadaqués has long been popular with artists and an offbeat, bohemian European crowd. In keeping with the proximity of Dali's summer home in Port Lligat -- an assemblage of fishermen's cottages merged into a labyrinthine structure that is yet another Dali museum -- every evening feels like a tribute to Surrealism as visitors turn out in their most outrageous attire. Happily, the town has kept its architectural integrity while accommodating art galleries, shops and restaurants.

We explore the few remaining towns on the Costa Brava, in particular the unexploited Port de la Selva, where fish auctions take place late each afternoon. Nearby, in a mountain setting stands Sant Pere de Rodes monastery, a stunning example of 10th-century Romanesque architecture, restored after years of painstaking labour. The coastal road continues to Cap Creus, a remote wilderness of rocky outcrops and blue and yellow flowers punctuated by craggy coves. In this glorious natural setting civilization seems very far away.

Penelope Casas
The New York Times
May 27, 2001

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