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


Costa Brava: Spanish steps (ENG)

Linda Cookson finds the rugged cliff paths and tiny fishing coves of the Costa Brava just waiting to be explored.

I've never been much of a rambler, so the news that my partner and I were off to do some walking on the Costa Brava prompted more than a few raised eyebrows from my nearest and dearest. By the time the hoots of laughter had subsided, with some well-worn jokes about castanets and straw donkeys thrown in for good measure, I was starting to get distinctly cold feet about the whole thing.

How wrong can you be? As walking holidays go, this was as painless as it gets - a succession of gentle cliff-top strolls from one idyllic little beach restaurant to the next, with the feel-good factor of fully deserving that extra plate of paella or carafe of wine on account of the 30-minute potter that had preceded it. And the Costa Brava itself - or, at any rate, this section of it - was a revelation. Enclosed within spectacular rocky headlands and ringed by forests of Mediterranean pine, the elegant little resorts and small fishing coves that we visited were as far from rousing choruses of "Y Viva España" as you could hope to find.

We were walking in the Empordà region, the far eastern corner of northern Spain where the Pyrenees run down to the sea and sandy bays alternate with the rugged cliffs that give the Costa Brava its name ("wild coast"). The scenery is dramatic, but also surprisingly rural. Inland from the coast there are vineyards, olive groves and huge cork-oak forests that in the past supplied one of the area's most important trading commodities. The market town of Palafrugell, where the cork was processed, has a whole museum devoted to the history of cork.

Our base was the small seaside town of Llafranc. Once a simple fishing village, it now boasts a new marina as well as a tree-lined promenade - Passeig de Cypsela - where glass-fronted restaurants face the sandy beach. But it still retains much of its original charm. Blue-and-white tiled seafront villas dating back to the 1920s are interspersed among much simpler whitewashed houses, and the eastern end of the beach is still given over to fishing boats. Wooden boat-rests lead diagonally into central launching ramps. As the sun rises, the resulting criss-cross herringbone pattern of bleached planks shines silver against the sand. Traditional fishermen's bars - such as La Cabeta, with its rickety roof terrace - sit happily alongside more sophisticated neighbours.

In the centre of the promenade stands the Hotel Llafranch (the "h" has been added to the resort's name). It has been run by the Bisbe family since 1959 and is a living monument to faded glamour. Black-and-white photographs of Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas and Sophia Loren recall its glory days as the haunt of Sixties film stars. We stayed in the pretty Hotel Llevant, another family run business which boasts an even longer history than the Llafranch. Its simple white décor, display cases of ceramics and walls of colourful paintings give it the feel of an art gallery (which indeed it once was). The role of custodian is taken by the family dog, Drap - Catalan for "cloth rug" - who slumbers peacefully among the treasures.

Llafranc is a perfect starting point for novice walkers. The cliff pathways are well-tended and well-signed - just follow the Camí de Ronda signs and then watch out for the painted red or green splodges on walls and tree trunks that mark the different routes. Llafranc is also, it has to be said, perfectly positioned for lazy walkers. Both of the sets of steps that mark the exits from each end of the bay lead first to a very easily accessible destination.

There's then the option either of continuing on to a more challenging route or of celebrating one's successful arrival with a beer, a swim and a snooze (followed - on one shameful occasion in our case - by a taxi home). At the eastern end of the bay, by the marina, the steps wind their way first of all to the Cap de Sant Sebastian, a 167m-high cliff. The imposing lighthouse at the top of the cliff has guided the sailors of the Costa Brava since the mid-19th century. The walk to the lighthouse takes about 40 minutes, and the breathtaking views from its mirador - both out to sea, and inland across the forests and rolling plains of Empordà - are reward enough for the climb.

To make a real day of it, though, continue further along the coast. Two hours north of the lighthouse, with the opportunity for an idyllic midway picnic break in the near-deserted bay of Cala Pedrosa, is the fishing village of Tamariu - an enchanting small beach resort at the foot of steep, pine-clad hills.

Our favourite walk out of Llafranc was from the western end of the bay. From here, the cliff-top path takes you first to the nearby village of Calella de Palafrugell. The route is simplicity itself - a leisurely amble along a wide track, set with wooden sleepers and carpeted with pine needles. Swallows swoop and butterflies flutter around you, and the cliff-side is a patchwork of colour - yellow broom, purple vetch and the papery orange flowers of the prickly pear. In the near distance are a small group of islands - the Formigues - whose coral formations attract divers from all over the world. Between the islands and the mainland, the variegated colours of the sea - purples, greens and petrol blues - show the location of the region's extraordinary underwater hill ranges. The descent to the village of Calella begins about 30 minutes along the path. It's a string of rocky bays and small beaches rather than a single location, and exploring it is a joy. You arrive first at the wide sandy expanse of Canadell beach, before passing through a curious sequence of white porches to reach the centre of the village, Port Bo.

In many ways, Calella is Llafranc's shabbier cousin - more rough-and-ready, less manicured. Port Bo has a boardwalk rather than a promenade, and the atmosphere around the harbour is strangely Aegean in feel. The side-streets are steep and narrow, fishing boats are hauled up on the sand, and bustling cafés cram together on the jetty. Further along again from Port Bo, down a pathway newly covered in red asphalt, is the most picturesque spot of them all - Port Pelegri. Housing nothing but a simple beach restaurant and a tiny diving school, its horseshoe cove is ringed by arched boat stores set back into the cliffs.

When we visited Port Pelegri, the green and blue paintwork of the heavy wooden doors was being freshened up for the summer. It was like stumbling into a film shoot to find the crew still applying the final touches to the set. After pressing on south of Calella for a further 45 minutes, we found ourselves in a film-set experience of an entirely different sort. The fabulous cliff-top Jardí Botanic (botanical gardens) of Cap Roig - housing thousands of exotic species - are set, surreally, in the grounds of an early 20th-century gothic castle built by an exiled Russian aristocrat. A succession of lovely terraces - banked with flowers of every variety and shaded by olive and Judas trees - lead you down to the very edge of the cliff, and vertiginous views of the rocky coast below.

The sheer variety and loveliness of this area of the Costa Brava was a real discovery. So too was the realisation, fuelled by several cervezas, that we actually rather liked walking and seemed even to be rather good at it. It was poetic justice, therefore, that on the last day we got lost.

By now, we'd moved a little further up the coast and were staying in the hillside town of Begur. Full of confidence, we abandoned all the walking notes and maps we'd been supplied with and set off on the cliff path from Aiguablava beach to Fornells. You'd imagine it would be difficult to lose your way when all you're supposed to do is follow a cliff-top path. But we managed it.

The path itself is reached via a series of easily manageable, if initially steep, steps. Thereafter, the walk ought to have been a doddle - and so it seemed, at first. Down below us the waves glittered and sucked at the rocks, and the views were among the loveliest of our trip.

Then, just as we thought we were reaching Fornells, a series of steps descended into a dull little cove where an arrow pointed to a concrete passageway, a semi-open tunnel that led, we supposed, to our destination. The tunnel brought us to another passage, stale and dank. By now we had our first inkling that something might be amiss.A rather dispiriting dark trudge ensued - until suddenly we re-emerged into bright sunlight, into a lovely open field in the middle of the countryside, full of poppies, mimosas, cornflowers and what looked like wild asparagus. Rusting farm implements smothered in morning glory confirmed that we'd ended up on someone's cliff-top farm. Ten minutes later, after walking past a series of derelict barns, we finally came to a road. It led to a hotel with a wonderfully stylish cliff-top restaurant - far grander than the cafés and simple restaurants we'd been used to. But when you've been lost and then managed to find your way again, just like a proper rambler, it's important to give yourself a treat.

Traveller's Guide - The Independent
Saturday, 12 August 2006

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