A Journey Through Costa Brava: Spain’s Hidden Gem

Andy Mossack, a well-known British travel writer and the creator and presenter of BBC Radio’s “Where in the World is Andy” travelogue series, describes his visit to Spain in his latest installment for Fly.com. Be sure to check back in for other insightful reviews from his travel exploits.

Spain’s Costa Brava, a hundred-mile stretch of Catalan coastline in northeast portion of the country, has struggled to compete with the more glamorous reputation of other Costas further south. But for those in the know, Costa Brava is Spain’s hidden gem. All the ingredients are there: the shimmering Mediterranean, the cozy whitewashed houses rising up high above the small bay, the craggy coastline. Not to mention, the area is a provider of some of the finest cuisine in Spain with fourteen Michelin stars, the birthplace of Salvador Dali and the inspiration for Picasso, no less than nine championship golf courses, and some simply stunning towns, villages, forests and bays.

The Costa Brava stretches from Blanes, Spain (40 miles north of Barcelona) to the French border at Portbou. Beginning from the northern part of the coast, here are the places to visit as you make your way south:

Alt Empordà Region: Dali and Fine Dining

Tucked away In the northeast corner is Salvador Dali’s home town of Figueres, a beautiful area that not only provided much of his inspiration, but where today his legacy and influence is still very much in evidence. No more so than at the striking egg-domed Dalí Theatre-Museum, a structure that was Dali’s largest work and where since his death in 1989, his remains lie (under the largest egg of course!). Figueres itself is worth a day or two to wander around, with its charming old town and castle as focal points. You can also use it as an excellent base to explore the rest of the surrounding Alt Emporda region, and in particular, the sleepy fishing village of Cadaqués which became a bohemian magnet for many artists including Picasso, Duchamp and Miro.  Not to be outdone, Dali built a maze-like home studio nearby out of old abandoned fishing huts, which you can visit today with a reservation in advance.

The area is also a culinary landmark. Just a five-minute drive from the nearby popular harbor town of Roses lies the little pebbly beach of Cala Monjoi hidden within the Cap de Creus Natural Park. Here you’ll find the famous Michelin 3-star El Bulli Restaurant, owned and run by culinary genius Ferran Adrià, said to be the world’s best chef. The restaurant reputedly got over three million dining requests a year, but is sadly no longer taking reservations. It closed last year and in 2014 will be reborn as a foundation of gastronomic creativity. Still, it’s worth a visit just to see a piece of culinary history.

Baix Empordà region: Castles and Coves

Traveling farther south, we move into the Baix Empordà region, home to some of the best coastal scenery in Spain, its mountainous terrain courtesy of the nearby Begur Massif. Reaching the delightful medieval town of Begur with its 16th-century castle and assorted Roman remains, you come to realize just how strategically important it was, perched high up there overlooking the coast. The narrow cobbled streets in Begur’s old town resonate a timeless quality as they lead you down into the stunning beaches and bays that lie below. This town is pure living history; its eight beaches and coves are all linked by a complex network of smugglers paths that were the life canvas for pirates, sailors and fishermen, all past generations of the townsfolk today.

Girona: Cathedrals and Cobblestones

We’re midpoint on our journey south now, and if you have time, it would be well worth a 30-minute detour inland to the regional capital Girona, the Costa Brava’s beating heart. The walled old town on the western bank of the Onyar is a fascinating journey through a thousand years of history. After all, it’s been occupied over seven times and naturally enough absorbed many of the occupying cultures as a consequence. Take a ramparts walk along the old walls, visit the stunning 14th-century cathedral and get hopelessly lost walking around El Call, the old Jewish Quarter with its myriad cobbled streets and alleyways. Girona is an easy place to walk around on foot, like a smaller Barcelona but without the crowds. Talking of Barcelona, don’t confuse Barca’s famous tourist trap Las Ramblas with Girona’s La Rambla, which is its own shopping and social center, but nowhere near as touristic.

Blanes: Sea, Sangria and Garden Paradises

Back on the coastal trail now and we’re heading for Blanes’ botanical wonders, passing through Tossa de Mar with its remarkable old town and fortress and wide sandy beach. It was once the bohemian haunt of writers and artists who became captivated by the beautiful scenery, so grab a lunch of cheese, bread, chorizo, olives and wine and sit awhile under a fragrant pine to soak it all in.

Blanes is a favourite coastal haunt of local Catalonians looking to escape Barcelona, its wide beach and village atmosphere a compelling argument to take off work and head for the sea. But it’s not all about sea and sangria here. Blanes has two botanical garden paradises that will be irresistible to any green-thumbed lover of the leaf. The Marimurtra Gardens were founded in 1924 by German botanist Karl Faust and contain plant life and fauna from around the world in three separate areas, tropical, temperate and Mediterranean. With more than 4,000 different species, it fast became one of the most important botanical centers in Europe. Pinya de Rosa is another nearby botanical garden. It is a unique collection of over 7,000 tropical plants and cacti that have managed to adjust to their new surroundings living happily within the Mediterranean climate.

Catalan Favorites

As you make your way down the coast be sure to sample traditional Catalonian cuisine. Here are some dishes to look out for:

  • Suquet —  a classic monkfish stew made with fish, potatoes, garlic and tomatoes
  • Paella Catalan — the classic Sunday rice casserole
  • Escalivada — using baked onions, peppers and eggplant, is another favorite together with local lamb cooked with ratatouille
  • Brunyols sweet sausage and apple dessert fritters
  • Xuixo — delicious cream-filled doughnuts

To keep up with Andy and his travels, be sure to check out:

Featured Image: Cadaqués, Catalonia, Spain (Shutterstock.com)

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