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Monday, August 18, 2008

Spain’s Wild Coast

ON the small roads between Cantallops and Llançà — two names that were barely dots on our map of Catalonia in northeastern Spain — the lush mountain greenery turned quickly to farmland rolling out for miles around us and filled with sunflowers and bales of hay.

We were traveling from the interior mountains of this Spanish autonomous region to the Mediterranean. Again and again, rising up in the near distance, came fantastic, if dusty, terra-cotta-colored medieval hamlets and equally ancient churches and farmhouses. On the streets everywhere the lingua franca was Catalan, not Spanish, and amid all the tourists that descend from France and elsewhere, a local pride seemed to pervade the scene, against a backdrop that fell away suddenly, breathtakingly, into the sea.

In Llançà we stopped at Platja Grifeu, one of the village’s perfect beaches, with clear tropical-looking water to swim in. At the beachside restaurant, I ordered a tortilla española, the ubiquitous potato omelet of Spain. It was, improbably, the best tortilla I had ever tasted. I savored it, facing the sea and the local families sunning themselves, in this tiny village about 10 miles from the French-Spanish border on a road that looked like nothing more than a scribble on the map.

By some small miracle — and preservation efforts that have helped to control development in Catalonia — the Costa Brava has maintained an authenticity and a refreshing resistance to change that keeps this stretch of the Mediterranean radically different from the southern coasts of Spain. Fishing villages still feel like fishing villages, medieval mountain towns are still hushed at siesta, and artists still paint on the streets of Cadaqués. Tourists can mingle with residents, in the high season when a mini-United Nations cacophony of conversation fills the streets, and in the late spring and early fall, when visitors are fewer and more local.

Hoping to avoid the typical overcrowded, overdeveloped and sometimes hyper glitzy European beach scene, my partner, Ian, and I drove from village to village in Costa Brava last summer, searching for authentic spots, medieval towns and the water famous for its lustrous aquamarine hue. It was an opportunity for immersion in Catalan language, culture and art. (Catalonia is one of 17 autonomous regions in Spain, but the language is spoken by about 10 million people on the Mediterranean and dominates the Costa Brava.) I took along George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” and read it from luxurious beach to luxurious beach feeling, somewhat guiltily, quite the opposite of a Marxist.

Spanish got us everywhere, but the tourists we encountered spoke a language soup of Catalan, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch. This European mélange seemed buoyed by a collective joy in the picturesque — from the exquisite Mediterranean coves around the medieval village of Begur, to the ancient ruins in St. Martí d’Empúries, to the Greek-style white-washed houses of Cadaqués. Tourists and natives alike also wander the streets of inland and seaside villages with lyrical names (Pals, Peratallada, Peralada and Calella de Palafrugell) and sleep in tiny hotels run by proprietors who want to know your name.

About an hour and 40 minutes from the Barcelona airport, Begur, built on a hill, is a small maze of lanes dotted with excellent fish restaurants, ancient towers and cozy bars, all scattered beneath a dominating fortress where women and children once ran for safety from 17th-century pirates. Within a 10-minute drive, there are eight official beaches (and many more unmarked coves), almost all of which are linked by a mix of paved and unpaved walking routes, leading to shorelines of rock, pebbles, smooth brown sand, and even volcanic black, almost Hawaii-like, sand.

Each of our three mornings in Begur, we switched from cove to cove, leaving the beach at the height of the day to check out nearby villages.

In tiny, touristy Pals we met Dalwa Donofre, a Mozambique-born, Lisbon-raised artist selling massive collages with themes that connected back to the sea. Ms. Donofre’s work was a clear notch above that sold in most of the kitschy shops that lined the sun-dappled streets. In Peratallada, a well-preserved central square filled with cafes made the village feel more alive than some sleepier neighboring towns. But as lovely as the light was in the villages, the siren-call of the shoreline always made us anxious to get back to the sea.

“I like September best,” explained Oscar Górriz, the proprietor of Sa Rascassa, a five-room pension and restaurant on a minuscule cove called Aiguafreda — reachable by car, of course, but also by foot along a seaside path from the tiny white-washed village called Sa Tuna. “The hotel is booked solid all summer, and, come fall, the pace is slower, the tourists are more relaxed; we’re more relaxed.”

Outside, in Mr. Górriz’s courtyard, two French tourists lounged under broad white umbrellas, swishing their feet on the loose pebble floor of the terrace. We ordered the fresh local fish — dorade — simple, grilled and served with sautéed garlic and a slice of lemon. A second dish of fresh, home-made tagliatelle pasta was tossed with vine-ripened cherry tomatoes and homemade ricotta. Cracked olives arrived on the table first, large and juicy, hailing from somewhere farther down the Catalan coast, along with a glass of crisp, cold Catalan white wine, the glass sweating in my hand.

Mr. Górriz told us how happy he was that Catalonia had largely managed to prevent the gargantuan building schemes that have blighted the southern coasts of Spain — “Concrete from Valencia to Malaga,” he said, shaking his head at the sprawling hotels and housing blocks that have gone up on the Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol.

Back in Begur we ran into Ophelie Rouira on the footpath between the coves that marked the black sand beach of Fonda and the larger harbor of Aiguablava where a clutch of fishing families still live year-round. Ophelie invited us to her tiny one-room fishing house. Flowers spilled over rooftops, in riotous shades of violet; a brilliant blue wall framed the outside of the fisherwoman’s house across the narrow cobbled lane. Her neighbor stepped outside to say hello before sitting down to lunch; the family has been fishing and selling its wares locally since as far back as anyone could remember.

Like Mr. Górriz, Ms. Rouira said that she would just as well skip the high season. “I love June, September, October — I swim until Nov. 1,” she said, pulling out an early 20th-century photograph of the beach coves where her house is nestled and pointing out just how little has been added to the landscape in the last 100 years.

It seemed like it would be impossible to top friendly Begur; but we knew there was more to explore. We drove up the coast, past the Greek ruins at St. Marti d’Empúries and on past Roses where El Bulli, the restaurant of Spain’s star chef Ferran Adrià, was sold out through the end of the year. Turning off the highway from Roses we drove into the Cap de Creus nature preserve, a moonscape of scrub brush and hardy mountain trees clinging to a mountain striped with hiking trails. The highway twists and turns, clinging to the hillside until, finally, gleaming Cadaqués comes into view.

Cadaqués is best known for art. Salvador Dalí, most famously, spent part of his childhood in the village, and in nearby Port Lligat (about 30 minutes by foot from downtown) tourists wait hours to peer inside the home he shared later in life with his wife, Gala. The list of artists’ ghosts haunting this small town is a who’s who of 20th-century painters: Pablo Picasso spent time here, as did Max Ernst, Matisse and Man Ray. The footprints of their work are literally everywhere (in 2004 the town put up small markers at locations that have appeared in a work of Dalí’s). But as interesting as it is to walk in their footsteps, it is all the more engaging to see the living artists still working, creating and exhibiting there.

One sunny afternoon, as half the world enjoyed the beach and the other half imbibed the red-wine spritzer known as tinto de verano on various terraces across town, 42-year-old Pere Bellès discussed his own joint exhibit “Dels Fragments al Conjunt” (Fragments Together) at the Galeria Marges-U, a space run by the artists Gustavo Carbó Berthold and his wife, Nobuko Kihira.

Mr. Bellès is wiry and bronzed, with curly brown hair streaked by the sun and paint from his studio. His hands and clothes were similarly dotted with white. On the walls were Mr. Bellès paintings and lithographs, one a set of cuneiform-like black squares imprinted on ivory paper — an alphabet, he explained, based on his impressions of ancient Mesopotamian art. Large canvases were perfectly sliced into 2-by-4 inch blocks of color. On the floor, sculptures from the artist Albert Udaeta, made of iron, could be pulled apart and put back together like a grownup’s version of children’s building blocks. “It’s like how the right wine marries with what you eat,” explained Mr. Carbó, on why he exhibited Mr. Bellès’s work with that of Mr. Udaeta.

Mr. Bellès, who is Catalan, lives in Cadaqués all year long. “It’s a magnificent space for creative people,” he said. “You have the mountains and the sea; you have tranquillity. But if you want to go out, you can. I like the march, the rhythm of the year. In summer there are many tourists and friends who come to town — we can eat, chat.” It’s also a means for an international community to see his work — exposure that small-town artists would otherwise not have. “But in autumn, when it is quieter, the light is best for working, and in the winter the roiling sea is fantastic.”

Just down the hill from Galeria Marges-U, 35-year-old Gemma Ridameya runs a very different type of gallery, filled with wearable creations hewn from silver and rock. Ms. Ridameya has lived in Cadaqués for nine years. In the summer she works a seven-day week in her store, and in the winter she dances (contact improvisation) and creates her next collection. Sea-smoothed beach pebbles are embedded in silver for rings and necklaces; ropes of silver are wound around and around in curlicues that become rings and earrings; volcanic rock is strung from silver wire. The shop is never empty. She too meanders between languages — Catalan, Spanish, English. Locals come in and ask her to create wedding bands or to set stones into wearable art; tourists purchase rings, earrings, necklaces. In Ms. Ridameya’s own ears, the earrings were tarnished from dips in the sea.

Ian and I spent days winding around the old city’s narrow corners, down the uneven cobblestone alleyways into one artist atelier after another. One afternoon we stumbled upon a shop run by the Peruvian born-Rocio Ruiz Mendizabal, who sells silks and wool shawls and other clothing, as well as the ceramics of other Barcelona-based artists. Ms. Ruiz, who lives in Germany during the winter, rents out a room above the store to tourists, all white-washed walls and 18th-century sloping ceilings. Two nights later we ran into her on our way to dinner. She invited us up to her rooftop.

The view was bewitching: Cadaqués glowed with lights below us, the stars meeting the sea; boats looked like bathtub toys bobbling far away, but sound traveling across the water collapsed the distance between us. We talked for a long time, sipping cava and nibbling on snacks that miraculously appeared from the Mediterranean restaurant downstairs.

“The landscape of Cadaqués has always been the same,” Elsa Gummà told us our first morning there. Ms. Gummà’s family is practically Cadaqués royalty — her grandfather invented Servetinal, a stomach-pain medication, in the early 20th century, and with its success bought the small hill on the far side of the bay that, in the 1960s, became Hotel Rocamar, the largest of Cadaqués’s hotels. Ms. Gummà was sitting behind us at breakfast, like any other hotel guest, gently nudging her small sons to finish their food. She was surfer-girl tan, small and athletic, with blond streaks in her brown curly hair. Trained as a journalist, she lives year-round outside Barcelona. She said she came to Cadaqués every summer as a child.

“Now I come back every year for the air,” she said. “It’s too bad you couldn’t meet my grandfather. When he was first here, there was nothing here. Just painters and the rocks.”

Sandy and salty from the sea, we reluctantly left Cadaqués and drove north on the narrow N-260, keeping bathing-suits at the ready, and jumping out of the car every chance we could to swim in ever-less-populated coves as we neared the French border. We marveled at the crazy, breathtaking zigzagging road that pulled us through the mountains and hugged the coast as we neared Port Bou, the last town in Spain.

There was no border control at all as we crossed into France. If it weren’t for the little E.U. sign and a forlorn, abandoned customs house, the only way to know we were no longer in Catalonia was the warning from my Spanish cell phone. We were roaming now.


Many major carriers, including Iberia and American Airlines, fly from Kennedy Airport in New York to Barcelona. Round-trip fares for travel in September start at around $700, according to a recent Web search.

In Begur we stayed at the 10-room Bliss Begur Hotel (San Josep 3; 34-972-624-540; run by a Milan transplant, Giorgio Di Palma. Our standard room cost 115 euros (about $184 at $1.60 to the euro) a night with breakfast. The in-house Italian restaurant, Primo Piatto, was fantastic.

Just outside the medieval town of Cantallops we stayed at Can Xiquet (Afores s/n; 34-972-554-455; The hotel, with an excellent staff and an amazing restaurant, is set in the mountains about 30 minutes from the coast. Bikes are available to borrow and hiking trails abound. Rooms start at about 96 euros, depending on the season, and dinner for two runs from 50 to 125 euros with wine.

In Cadaqués we stayed at the 73 room Hotel Rocamar (Calle Dr. Bartomeus, s/n; 34-972-258-150; on a quiet side of the Cadaqués bay. There are outdoor and indoor pools, tennis courts, and a restaurant overlooking what might as well be a private beach away from the madding crowds. Rates start at 139 euros in the high season.


Five minutes drive from the center of Begur, Sa Rascassa (Cala D’Aiguafredda 3; 34-972-622-845) serves fresh fish and fresh pasta on a lovely cool terrace steps from the sea for about 50 euros for two, including wine. Back in the center of town, Restaurant Rostei (Cala Concepció Pi 8, 34-972-624-215; grills fresh fish — try to reserve seats in the garden (75 euros for two with wine).

Tucked into a corner of Cadaqués, La Sirena (Carrer d’Es Call s/n; 34-972-258-974) served excellent grilled fish “a la Basque” that was the best we had all week.

Beach shacks aren’t known for their cuisine, but a stop at Blau Grifeu (Platja Grifeu, 34-972-380-718 ) in Llançà might just be mandatory. The tortilla española there is thin and perfect and includes “five-hour marinated onions.”


Towns like Pals, Peratallada and Castelló d’Empúries are filled with medieval lanes, 13th-century cathedrals, and a heavy sense of history. The Costa Brava is sprinkled with such villages and most have good tourist information centers to direct wanderers. Begur’s tourist information center was the especially good, with a spirited multilingual staff.

Shopping is best in Cadaqués, where we found Gemma Ridameya jewelry (Cala Vigilant s/n; 34-972-159-441 ) and Nautilus, Rocio Ruiz Mendizabel’s shop (Carrer Curos 5; 34-972-258-640). In Cadaqués the galleries offer an opportunity to see those who have inherited the mantle of Dalí and Picasso. Try Galeria Marges-U (Cala Unió 12; 34-972-258-543;, and Taller Galeria Fort (34-972-258-549, Horta d’en Sanes 9), which hosts the annual “Mini Print International” exhibition every summer.


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