Medieval villages, cliff-side beaches, freshly caught fish, and rich flavors—T+L gets lost in Catalonia’s rugged countryside along Spain's northeastern coast.
“Don’t look!” said my husband, Chip. It had been my idea to revisit Cadaqués, the tiny, remote Catalan fishing town that Salvador Dalí once called the most beautiful place in the world. But in the twenty-odd years since my last trip to Catalonia I had forgotten the wild hairpin drive up the rocky crags of Spain’s northern Mediterranean coast and the dizzying drop to the postage-stamp village below.
I first discovered Cadaqués with Parisian friends, in my twenties. We had stopped at the Dalí Theater-Museum in Figueres, with its surrealist, egg-topped cornice, before heading east to the wild coast to linger over glasses of local Muscat in the Bar Marítim on the beach and to soak up the town’s bohemian charms. We had heard stories of Marcel Duchamp playing chess with John Cage and Jean Cocteau at the Bar Melitón in the 1960’s, when the best way to arrive was by boat. The many artists who had come here since the 1930’s—including Picasso, Max Ernst, André Breton, Man Ray, and Joan Miró—played chess there or paid a visit to Dalí at his house up the road in Portlligat.
As in St.-Tropez and other Mediterranean towns, artists still set up easels along the port. But now, unlike the Côte d’Azur, with its meticulously raked beaches, Cadaqués seems to stand apart from time—its rugged cliffs defying the sea. As we slalomed down the lower part of that mountain road on the windbeaten Cap de Creus, the gleaming walls of the 16th-century Santa María church rose up before us, the Mediterranean glistening in the distance.
“You can look now,” Chip said, as we wound through the village along the water’s edge, past whitewashed walls covered with purple and pink bougainvillea and alleyways filled with cubbyhole shops and artists’ ateliers. A rack of bright Indian block-print scarves and straw fedoras on display outside one such cubbyhole, Sa Tortuga, caught my eye and we stopped out front. The scorching Mediterranean sun made it virtually impossible to resist the hippie-chic style epitomized by breezy white dresses, espadrilles, and the generous market baskets the locals carry. Next door, a clothing store called Mo displayed crisp button-down shirts and fedoras among a selection of Danish housewares.
I had been drawn back to this part of the Costa Brava in the hope of rediscovering the region’s bohemian aesthetic and dramatic landscape, but also for the food. Three weeks before we arrived, El Celler de Can Roca, in nearby Girona, had been named the best restaurant in the world. My friend Colman Andrews, an expert on the region’s cuisine, had raved about the local fare—the chewy, garlicky razor clams; the Empordà wine—and the langoustine boats gliding across the Bay of Roses every morning at seven. Ferran Adrià closed El Bulli in 2011, but a new generation of chefs, many of them Adrià’s collaborators, have restaurants in the area.
That first night we headed for Compartir, a casual spot tucked behind the fisherman’s church in Cadaqués, whose three owners used to work at El Bulli. Their idea for Compartir, the handsome young maître d’ Ramón Canaleta told me, was to translate the same high culinary standards into a simpler and far less expensive menu. The place was already crowded with young locals dressed in long, flowing skirts, lace-up espadrilles, and colorful blouses. The waiters laughed at my husband when his eyes grew wide at the flavors and textures of a watermelon-and-tomato salad with blood-orange foam. Then came turbot prepared Thai-style with coconut sauce, basil, and onion, and then a plate of simple raw salmon strips served with tiny tweezers for dipping the fish into hot miso soup. For dessert, chocolate balls that literally exploded with flavor.
“Opening a restaurant in Barcelona is a business, but in Cadaqués it is a passion,” Canaleta said, as he served us an astonishingly good Spanish red from Pla de Bages that was under 20 dollars. A Dutch couple at the next table was saying that they’d heard El Bulli was reopening. Their daughter had a friend who was working in the kitchen. Was it true? We didn’t care; we had found our own El Bulli.
The next day we paid a visit to the Almadraba Park Hotel, in nearby Roses. It was built in 1969 by a classically trained Catalan chef named Josep Mercader and the restaurant is now run by his grandson, Jordi Subirós. At Almadraba Park Jordi poured us a local Empordà wine called Tocat de l’Ala (meaning “crazy”). As he served up house specialties, including cured and fried anchovy spines and salt cod, he imparted bits of Catalan culinary history. The Subirós family are, in many ways, the gatekeepers of Catalan cuisine. Mercader’s first restaurant, El Motel, in Figueres, about 20 miles south of the French border, is now run by Mercader’s son-in-law, Jaume Subirós; it has been a culinary institution since it opened, in 1961, and Mercader’s approach was a source of inspiration for Adrià’s cooking at El Bulli. Mercader had been one of the first chefs to turn rustic roasted vegetables into unexpected forms. Jordi attributed his grandfather’s creativity to a keen sense of aesthetics and a fiercely independent character. “Catalans are different,” he said, “We are taller and nicer!”
He was right. For the next week, as we headed south to the Romanesque ramparts of Begur and then farther inland to the dusty medieval town of Regencós, friendly Catalans greeted us. “¡Hola! ¡Hola!” they would say when we passed on the streets of La Bisbal, where we shopped for the brightly glazed pottery found on every table in the region, or while we strolled on the Passeig del Mar in Tamariu, where we settled in for a chilly glass of San Miguel next to a table of three young women in neon tank tops and long block-print skirts smoking Marlboro Lights and cackling in Catalan about their escapades at a local club.
From Roses we headed down the C-31, through fields of hay bales and sunflowers, and towns like Torroella de Montgrí, with its terra-cotta rooftops and tomato farms. On the horizon medieval villages popped up like Lego-style brick forts: Peratallada, Monells, and Pals, where in the 15th century women hid with their children in the fortified castles as pirates approached from the east. Now their ramparts are crumbling and postcard shops and red geraniums in window boxes punctuate their broad stone plazas. Every once in a while we would see a starred Catalan flag fluttering in a window, a reminder that the region—one of Spain’s wealthiest—is still hoping for independence.
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The hush of the siesta enveloped Begur, where we climbed to the top of the medieval castle in the middle of town. The view stretched for miles across the rolling fields of the Ampurdán. To the north we could almost make out the Greek and Roman ruins of Empúries and the port of Roses beyond. We took refuge from the scorching sun in the narrow streets with their ancient towers and cozy tapas bars (although locals will remind you that tapas are more of a Madrid thing). Historically the Catalans traded with India and Cuba. Shops lining the main street now stock hammered-silver jewelry, long ropes of beads, and floral tunics from India.
To escape the oppressive afternoon heat, we drove down switchbacks lined with pine trees and ended up in Ayguafreda—little more than a mossy concrete dock built into a secluded cove. We found the Hostal Sa Rascassa and settled into a late lunch under a plane tree in the gravel courtyard. Óscar Górriz, the lanky proprietor with a grizzly beard, is a refugee from a Barcelona advertising firm. His loose linen shirt billowed in the breeze as he darted around serving us fresh bread, cracked olives, and rosé. Some of Catalonia’s best wines come from the Empordà vineyards, which yield whites, rosés, and full-bodied reds. Óscar told us to buy local pottery at a shop in La Bisbal called El Talleret Díaz Costa.
Somehow it seemed fitting that we got lost that afternoon driving through a fancy Hamptons-like housing development outside Begur. The surrounding area is known as the Dalí Triangle—roughly demarcated by the Dalí Theater-Museum in Figueres, the artist’s home in Portlligat, and his wife’s tomb in Púbol. The artist’s predilection for the unexpected became a recurring theme of our trip: the lack of signage on the roads down the coast, the secret beaches and coves reached only by stairs cut into the rocks, and the mysterious sound of church bells ringing in the night in dusty one-horse towns like Regencós.
We had to get lost in order to find the most magnificent beaches on the Costa Brava. Beyond the small marina in a fishing port called Fornells, we followed a footpath that runs along the rocky cliffs, through a tunnel, and around a rocky promontory. We came to a crystalline pool carved into the rock, something straight out of a Dalí painting. Nearby, a hidden staircase descended to Platja Fonda, a black-sand beach that was empty except for some spear fishermen emerging from the aquamarine waves.
The sun was going down by the time we arrived at our hotel in Regencós, a tiny town set amid hayfields on the road from Begur to Palafrugell. Hotel del Teatre, built partly in an ancient theater, with Romanesque-style arches and hulking beams, had been transformed by well-known Barcelona designer Sandra Tarruella. The next morning, Mercedes, the innkeeper, showed us how to find the Platja de Castell beach near Palamós. The best swimming spots here can only be reached on foot. We traversed the broad sand beach and began hiking up the rocky cliff, through shady, tree-lined paths that twist and turn above the coastline, pitching downward toward clear water. We passed a pre-Roman settlement with walls where ancient dwellings had been. Farther along we discovered a rope leading down a steep, gravelly cliff and we slipped and skidded until we landed on the rocky beach below. Two older women were taking the water temperature with a big thermometer: 21 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Fahrenheit), they marveled. The water felt crisp and cool, a relief from the noonday sun. We chatted awhile in broken English until they packed up their towels and waved—“Adéu, adéu,” they called. And we watched as they climbed up the cliff, leaving us to the deep turquoise cove.
Kate Betts is the author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style.
T+L Guide to Catalonia
Compartir Cadaqués Riera Sant Vicenç, Cadaqués; compartircadaques.com. $$$
El Celler de Can Roca Michelin three-starred restaurant from brothers Joan, Jordi, and Josep Roca. 48 Can Sunyer, Girona; cellercanroca.com. $$$$
El Motel Restaurant 170 Avda. Salvador Dalí i Domenech, Figueres; hotelemporda.com. $$$
Hostal Sa Rascassa 3 Cala d’Ayguafreda, Begur; hostalsarascassa.com. $$$
Rafa’s 56 Carr. de Sant Sebastià, Roses; 34/97-225-4003. $$$
Dalí Theater-Museum 5 Plaça Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres; salvador-dali.org.
El Talleret Díaz Costa 54 Carr. de l’Aigüeta, La Bisbal; 34/97-264-2708.
Mo Cadaqués 7 Plaça del Doctor Pont, Cadaqués; 34/97-225-8830.
Sa Tortuga 6 Plaça del Doctor Pont, Cadaqués; 34/97-215-9248.
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Appeared as "Catalonia Dreaming" in T+L Magazine