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Essential Costa Brava: the inside guide

It gets a bad press, but the region hides Spain’s most beautiful — and surreal — stretch of seaside. We reveal the secrets of the costa with the most

In a nation blessed with more than its fair share of heavyweight beaches, it’s the Costa Brava that delivers the knockout blow. Stretching about 120 miles from Portbou, on the French border, to Blanes, at the mouth of the River Tordera, it floors you with its pine-fringed private coves, perfect little family beaches and discreetly glamorous resorts. Yes, there’s also the bare-knuckle, full-English grease stain of Lloret de Mar in the southernmost section — the bit that got the Costa Brava a bad name — but we’re not going there.

We’re staying in the Emporda — the northernmost part, and home to industrious, fiercely independent Catalans who’ve made their livings in fishing, wine, cork, olives and, latterly, tourism. They occupy a coastline of heartbreaking beauty, ranging from the fertile plains of the Gulf of Roses and L’Estartit to the pine-forested coves of the Muntanyes de Begur and Cap de Creus: unspoilt places where the inconvenient topography has prevented the development of its hill towns and seaside villages. It’s a land of family-run hotels and fish restaurants owned by fishermen, and its huge popularity with the French self-drive mob means few British tour operators get a look-in — indeed, this is one of the few destinations to which I’d recommend putting together your own package. And if you can only travel in high season, for Pete’s sake book now, because this coast is rammed in August. Far better, though, to go in late June, early July or September, and commit to going full Catalan. That means soaking yourself in the sensual reds, whites and rosés of the DO Emporda, Spain’s newest wine territory, and stuffing yourself from menus celebrating mar y muntanya — the Catalan version of surf’n’turf that inspired Ferran Adria’s El Bulli and sparked the foodie revolution that transformed Spanish cuisine.

The beaches
Tamariu
In the 1920s, Josep Pla, the local writer who was to Catalonia what Laurie Lee was to Gloucestershire, used to hike around the cliffs from his bourgeois home in Palafrugell to get drunk with Tamariu’s fishermen. If he returned now, he’d recognise the place: the tamarind trees after which the village was named still line the prom, the fishermen still haul their boats from the cove onto the pretty beach, and the boozer, which has grown into the near-perfect Hotel Tamariu, is still run by the Pellicer-Trilla family. Sure, there are more shops and seafood restaurants than in Pla’s time, but that’s a good thing. If you come, plan to stay put for the week, because time away from this soporific paradise is, frankly, time wasted.

COSTA BRAVA TIP

  • In the peak season, the narrow roads get jammed, so lose the car. Instead, base yourself in a location that has a beach, bar, shop and restaurant within walking distance

Platja de Canadell
The sweet, intoxicating smell that fills the whitewashed streets of Calella de Palafrugell after sunset is dama de noche — or night-flowering jasmine. There are five beaches here, linked by a serpentine prom that slithers under arches, up and down steps and seemingly through people’s front gardens, but the best is the chic Platja de Canadell, where Pla used to sleep off his boozy lunches with the town’s bad boys — he did a lot of drinking — in the shade of a beached boat. You’ll find toys for hire and grilled fish in the under-the-arches restaurants, but if you can tear yourself away, go and see the crazy modern sculpture collection in the Museo Can Mario (£2.50; fundaciovilacasas.com).


The botanical gardens at Calella de Palafrugel

La Pelosa
El Bulli may have closed, but if you follow the dirt track a mile or so east, you’ll come to the best-kept secret on the Costa: 100yd of eucalyptus and pine-shaded sand, where the cars are always outnumbered by the boats of the glitterati. They’ve come not just for the exquisite wilderness beach, but for Juan Gomez Rodriguez’s Restaurant La Pelosa. It looks like the kind of place you just walk into, but don’t be fooled: those celebs have reserved, and so should you, especially in July and August. Is the food good? Ferran Adria, who used to run the restaurant up the road, thinks so (mains from £10; restaurantlapelosa.com).

Gola del Ter
Alcatraz is the Spanish word for gannet, and the chances are they’ll be your only neighbours on this wilderness beach in the Aiguamolls — or wetlands — of the Baix Emporda. A Sahara-like swathe of sands and clothing-optional dunes at the mouth of the River Ter, it’s a beach more reminiscent of Norfolk than Spain, but for the blistering sun. The easiest way to get there is to head towards Torroella on the GI-641 from L’Estartit, then take a left onto Carrer de la Pletera, following it 1.7 miles south before turning left at the T-junction. Then it’s first right off the track to emerge on the banks of the Ter. Need lunch? Wade across the river-mouth, take the first left off the path, and along the south bank of the river you’ll find the Restaurant Ter-Mar — a local favourite specialising in crispy deep-fried elvers (mains from £7; restauranttermar.com).

Aiguablava
Aiguablava’s charms include: a beach of fine yellow sand; clear blue waters so sheltered that you’ll rarely see a wave; superb snorkelling over the rocks at the north end; the best family hotel on the Costa, just around the corner (see Where to Stay, below); a fine-dining restaurant; and a beachside branch of the Barcelona barman Javier de la Muelas’s international award-winning Dry Martini cocktail bar. It follows, therefore, that Aiguablava, down the mountain from Begur, should be a teeming, screaming nightmare from June to September. That it’s not is down to the car park: with just 120 spaces, and nowhere else to park for miles, it’s Spain’s most effective crowd-control device.

The days out
Catalonia’s prettiest village and Dali’s house
The famous and the wannabes still flock to Cadaques, which many Catalans consider the province’s prettiest village. They come hoping to rub up against what brought Lorca, Picasso, Buñuel and, most famously, Dali, to this once rough port at the eastern tip of the remote Cap de Creus peninsula. These days, it’s a place where idle blondes update their lifestyle blogs over soya lattes in the seafront cafes — and a pleasant enough spot for a waft through the giftshop-strewn streets, a blast around the harbour in a rented Rib (£150 for four hours; cadaquesrent.es) and a long lunch. The real draw, though, is Portlligat, a village to the north where the sole attraction is the 40-minute guided tour of Dali’s seaside home. Walking in and finding his studio exactly as he left it when he upped sticks in 1982 is a surreal experience, but you must book ahead to get in (£9.50; salvador-dali.org).


The market in Girona

Culture and food in Girona
Too often dismissed as little more than an airport, Girona, which stands astride the shallow River Onyar, is all at once Roman, medieval and modernist, a rebel outpost that has much for the foodie and the shopaholic. Try to visit on a Tuesday, so you can blow a fortune on cured meats, cheese, oil and wine at the fabulous weekly market on Passeig de la Devesa (9am-2pm), where charming separatists are always happy to explain why Catalonia must be freed from the Spanish yoke. The cathedral is worth a visit to experience the hangar-like vastness of its gothic nave, to see the 12th-century Tapestry of Creation and to hang out on the huge flight of steps at the front (£6; catedraldegirona. org). If you’re lucky, you’ll have got a reservation at the Roca brothers’ El Celler de Can Roca (£250 with wine; cellercanroca.com). If you’re clever, you’ll grab lunch at Divinum, run by the Can Roca alumni Joan Morillo and Laura Tejero: the set menu is only £30 (divinum.cat).

Surrealist Figueres
Figueres is a lovely spot for a wander. It has a huge market (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; Plaça del Gra), a leafy Rambla, charming cafes, the full house of modernist, noucentista, baroque, neoclassical and rationalist architecture, and an atmospheric Jewish quarter, where the houses facing the church have no windows. These attractions count for nothing, however, against the huge pink carbuncle studded with golden loaves of bread and topped with giant eggs. Yep, it’s the Dali Theatre-Museum, one of the most crowded places in Spain in high season, but so good — the Mae West room and the Rainy Cadillac are worth the entry fee alone — that you can’t miss it. You have to be smart, as the coaches from Barcelona arrive at about 10am. The museum opens at 9am, and you can book online. Otherwise, go late: last entry is at 5.15pm (£12; salvador-dali.org).

Take the train to Barcelona
There’s no room here to describe all the attractions on offer in Barcelona (see our free Insider City Guide for that, at thetimes.co.uk/insider), but Spain’s buzziest city is an easy day out from all points on the Costa Brava — as long as you don’t try to drive there. Take the train instead: the main line into Barcelona runs just a few miles inland, with trains stopping at 15 local stations between Figueres and Estacio de Franca. The journey time from Figueres is an hour and 45 minutes; return tickets cost £27 (renfe.com).

Where to eat

Vicus, Pals
Proof that Catalans are simply a bit better than us comes at Vicus, where the everyday lunches eaten by the everyday office workers of the hill town of Pals are likely to be the gastronomic highlight of your year. Set up in the family guesthouse by Elisabet Figuerola, it specialises in local rice, hake and anchovies from the mar, and oxtail from the muntanya, all composed with Instagrammable precision.
Set lunch £16; vicusrestaurant.com

Compartir, Cadaques
Sister restaurant to Barcelona’s dead fashionable Disfrutar, Compartir was created by the former El Bulli chefs Eduard Xatruch, Mateu Casañas and Oriol Castro. Set in a gorgeous old building in the town centre, the clue is in the name — it means “share”. Diners are brought sharing plates loaded with Adria-ised versions of Catalan favourites: sardines marinated in raspberries, beetroot and pistachio; razor clams with mushroom soup and jamon.
Mains from £14; compartircadaques.com

Candelaria, Peratallada
It looks like the kind of place the Mad Hatter would take Alice on a date, but the cuisine at this restaurant in the tiny village of Peratallada matches the bordello-style decor for imagination and execution. Foie foam with mango chutney, anyone? Or perhaps grilled pork with toffee and vanilla potatoes?
Mains from £18; candelariaperatallada.com

Turandot, Begur
Turandot is probably best in late autumn, when the log fire bleeds smoke into the dining room and you go home smelling like a gypsy’s blanket. But summer’s pretty special, too, when the terrace smells of jasmine and the irritatingly youthful chef Lucas Morato Perez-Porro wanders out for a chat. He does mar y muntanya with the odd surprise — the anchovies with strawberries are surprisingly good — and the menu del dia is a bargain.
Set menu £22; turandot.es

Bo.TiC, La Bisbal d’Emporda
Look out for the former La Torre flour mill, on the northern outskirts of La Bisbal d’Emporda, now home to a playful Michelin-starred restaurant that does for Empordan cuisine what Dali did for Empordan art. Bag a table on the terrace and dig into the 15-course tasting menu, which includes walnuts with roast duck, rabbit with salsify and black mushroom, and mint and pennyroyal with apple and cottage cheese.
Tasting menu £70; bo-tic.com

Where to stay

The hotels

Terramar, Llafranc
Lying between dozy Tamariu and elegant Calella de Palafrugell, Llafranc isn’t quite as hip as it was in the 1960s, when Rock Hudson, Sophia Loren, Kirk Douglas and Elizabeth Taylor got up to all sorts of shenanigans here, but it still radiates quiet sophistication and a sly sense of fun. The Hotel Terramar sums it all up: across the prom from the beach, with a cocktail terrace, a fab seafood restaurant and bargain sea-view rooms.
Doubles from £76; hterramar.com

Aiguaclara, Begur
The boutiquiest option in boutiquey Begur is this so-called casa Indiana, built with fortunes made in Spanish Cuba. The owners, Clara and Joan Olle, have given the 10-room property a film-set romance, adding the retro chic with a careful precision that looks entirely random. The best room is Aiguablava, the first-floor double with the terrace overlooking the castle.
Doubles from £80, B&B; hotelaiguaclara.com


Rocky inlets on the coast near Girona

Hotel Tamariu, Tamariu
If you’re looking for the perfect little family-run Catalan seaside hotel, you’ve found it. The rooms are big and simply furnished. The beach is just there. The tamarind-shaded breakfast terrace is a life-affirming delight. The fish is so fresh, it still thinks it’s alive. And the sibling owners, Anna, Lluis and Susan, will spoil you rotten.
Sea-view doubles from £102, B&B; tamariu.com

Hotel Aigua Blava, Fornells
The Capellas have been getting it right at their tumbling seaside hotel since 1934, gathering a retinue of return business that sometimes now comprises four generations of the same family. They come back for the paradisical sea views, the simple Catalan cuisine, the tiny, all-but-private beach and, above all, the ever so slightly haphazard ambience of the best family hotel on the Costa.
Doubles from £104, B&B; hotelaiguablava.com

Hotel Vistabella, Roses
The list of celebrities who’ve stayed at this 1960s-chic luxury hotel on Canyelles Petites beach reads like the guest list for an Oscars afterparty. Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Eva Longoria, Kylie Minogue and David Guetta have all been to the notorious champagne parties at the Vistabella’s beach club, El Pirata, contributing to its claim to have the highest champagne consumption in Spain. There’s also a spa and the Michelin-starred Els Brancs restaurant, run by the El Bulli-trained Javier Cabrera.
Doubles from £125; hotelvistabella.com

The villas
The inconvenient topography that kept the big hotels out has also limited coastal villa development to a few clusters: Llafranc to Sa Riera, then L’Estartit and the southern shores of the Cadaques peninsula. And that’s quite enough. Spain-Holiday.com has more than 700 properties, ranging from six-bedroom pads with private pools in sleb-heavy Canyelles Petites (£5,123 a week in high season) to a two-bedroom beach apartment in Sa Riera (£1,464 a week). Vintage Travel has about 50 properties in the region — a week in the five-bedroom La Sardana de Llafranc, which has a private pool and is just 250yd away from the golden sands of Llafranc beach, costs £5,046 in August (vintagetravel.co.uk). The PCI Holidays portfolio includes the lovely Casa Ray, in Begur, which sleeps five and has a pool (from £743 a week in July; pci-holidays. com). It’s also worth looking at Oliver’s Travels (oliverstravels.com).

COSTA BRAVA TIP

  • Cocktails are for later: in Catalonia, fishbowl-sized G&Ts and other cocktails are a postprandial drink. Stick with a Damm beer before dinner

Flights
Girona is the most convenient airport for the Costa Brava. It’s served by Ryanair from 16 UK and Irish airports, by Jet2 from nine UK airports and by Thomson Airways from Birmingham, Bristol, Gatwick and Manchester.

Prefer not to fly? The train journey is getting faster: take a direct 07.19 Eurostar from London St Pancras to Lyons and you can be in Girona by early evening. Returns start at about £260pp (selected dates only; voyages-sncf.com).

Boots on for a Costa Brava hike
The Wild Coast offers some of the best seaside walking in Europe, with routes that compete with the Cinque Terre, in Italy, and the most beautiful sections of our own South West Coast Path. The backbone is the 362-mile GR-92, aka the Cami de Ronda, which runs in 20 sections from Ulldecona, in the south, to Portbou, in the north, largely following the old coastal beat of the Guardia Civil’s anti-smuggling patrols.

One of the most spectacular stretches — following paths that overhang the Med, hug rocks, skirt tiny coves inaccessible by road and emerge on beaches lined with restaurants that might make you think “Stuff the walking, let’s have lunch” — is the 14-mile stroll from Palamos to Begur. Bus 23 back to Palamos goes from Begur’s central square at 3.50pm and 6.20pm (£1.45; moventis.es).

Another is the 13-miler from Roses to Cadaques, following the dazzling coastline via Montjoi and Cala Pelosa (that’s your lunch sorted: there’s a chiringuito just up from the sand) before cutting across the sun-blasted wilderness of Cap de Norfeu and dropping down into Cadaques. Bus 32 leaves at 5.15pm from the bus stand off the Riera de Sant Vicenc (£2.40; moventis.es).

Shorter circular strolls using the Cami de Ronda are plentiful: the blog costabravaliving.net offers routes and descriptions. If you fancy making a week of it, Inntravel’s Catalan Coast itinerary covers 40-odd miles over six days, with luggage transfers and stays in good hotels (from £875pp, half-board; 01653 617001, inntravel. co.uk). Fly to Girona with Ryanair.


A well-refreshed Catalan

The Costa’s finest fiestas
Any excuse will do. If there’s no saint or other religious reason available, then something to do with fish, flowers, folk-dancing or sea shanties offers Costa Bravans the opportunity to stay up all night getting drunk and letting off fireworks.

Easter isn’t such a big deal among sceptical Catalans, but the Nit de Sant Joan, celebrated on Midsummer’s Eve — June 23 — is huge, with tens of thousands of bonfires burning on beaches and in backyards. All are lit, the local lore insists, by the sacred Flama del Canigo – an eternal flame that has come to represent the Catalan identity.

A week later comes the festival of Sant Pere Pescador (June 29), patron saint of fishermen, in every seaside town and village in the region, involving traditional dances, religious processions and fireworks. The most passionate celebration, not surprisingly, takes place in the village of Sant Pere Pescador.

COSTA BRAVA TIP

  • Seek the menu del dia. It’s a no-brainer: £8.50 for a three-course lunch with wine, designed to attract locals rather than tourists. If you see it, order it

All towns hold their own festas mayors, or annual parties, the best of which is Begur’s Caribbean-themed Fira d’Indians, held on the first weekend in September and celebrating the town’s Cuban connections. You’ll find this theme elsewhere (thousands of locals made their fortunes in Cuba in the 19th century), mainly involving habaneras. These are the elevation of the boozy singsong into events of intangible cultural importance, with groups of well-refreshed locals competing in the rendition of Cuban sea shanties. The idea is to get drunk on cremat — burnt rum with cinnamon, lemon peel, sugar and coffee beans — and try not to join in.

The most famous habanera is held in Calella de Palafrugell in July (£25; havanerescalella.cat), but there are smaller, less formal and more entertaining free events in Platja d’Aro and Pals on the second weekend in July, and in L’Estartit and Fornells on the last weekend. Llafranc, Begur and Palamos hold theirs on successive weekends in August.

Sardanas offer yet another opportunity for a party. The sardana is an Empordan folk dance involving huge circles of hand-holding dancers, who perform precise and nuanced steps to a gentle tune played by the cobla, or band. It’s easy enough to learn, and you’re always welcome to join in, but do not make the mistake, as many tourists do, of thinking it’s a drunken knees-up. Yes, strong drink is taken in an atmosphere of conviviality, but the sardana, which was banned under Franco, is a deeply respected expression of Catalan identity.

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