Spain has long been synonymous with “holiday”, as summer hordes and the blighted landscapes of the Costa de Sol and Blanca sadly attest. Mass tourism is an inescapable reality in the world’s fourth most visited country, yet there still exist regions somewhat removed from the maddening crowds. Catalonia, Spain’s northeast corner, is rich in such places, and along with the Basque country is Europe’s celebrated center of nouvelle cuisine. A multiday road trip up the Costa Brava provides for an unparalleled sampling of landscape, culture, and cuisine; time that will undoubtedly further an understanding of the immense pride Catalans have for their superlative homeland.
Our four-day, 250km excursion will take us northeast up the coast towards France and back towards Barcelona via an inland route, taking in 14 towns, numerous sites, and a wide range of Catalan cuisine.
The Costa Brava is the northernmost stretch of Catalan coastline, running roughly 206 km northeast from Blanes to Port Bou on the French border. Translated as “brave/wild coast”, the name was coined in 1908 by Ferran Agullo, journalist, politician, and pillar of the Catalan kitchen. Geologically unique, the coast is defined by a series of mountain ranges that run into the sea, with untold numbers of coves and beaches often crowned by pine-topped cliffs. Famed for its vistas and light, the coast has long attracted artists such as Yves Klein and Picasso, and proudly celebrates its native son, the eccentric Salvador Dali.
Not quite as famous as Dali, but markedly eclectic and well on its way, Catalan cuisine is enjoying both a profound renaissance and spirited evolution. Widely considered Europe’s most medieval cuisine, and indeed codified in the 14th century, traditional Catalan cooking is an intersection of Roman, Arab, and Gallic ingredients and technique. At its simplest, it’s a seasonal cuisine built on four main sauces and the bounties of farm, Mediterranean, and the Pyrenees. At its most obtuse, it’s a regional medley of odd, seemingly contradictory pairings such as mar i muntanya (sea and mountain), fruit-accented meat and fowl dishes, and a blurring of sweet and savory. Wine, introduced in 600 BC by the Greeks, holds the disparate table together, with Catalonia now home to eleven recognized Denominacion d’Origens.
That such an antiquated cuisine should also be at the foundation of Europe’s culinary revolution is an irony not lost on the Catalans. Ferran Adria, a Barcelona-born chef widely considered the “father” of molecular gastronomy, revolutionized nouveau cuisine with his foams, gels, and emulsions at elBulli, his famous restaurant in Roses, on the Costa Brava. Though it closed last summer largely due to finances, elBulli was, and will continue to be, an institution. It will reopen in 2014 primarily as an experimental culinary think-tank, but Adria has hinted, to the relief of many, at impromptu tastings and a brief but bona fide dining season.
Today, Catalan chefs, along with their Basque contemporaries, are the vanguard of the avant-garde kitchen, often employing culinary physics in their cuisine. The Mediterranean kitchen, it can be said, has never been more exciting, and Catalonia, with 43 Michelin Stars as of 2012, has never been more relevant.
The town of Blanes, roughly an hour northeast of Barcelona, is the gateway to the Costa Brava. A working fisherman’s port of 37,000, Blanes retains an unmistakable charm with its colorful harbor and well-preserved center. The medieval Castle St. Joan dominates the landscape, offering spectacular views, while the old town contains a bevy of architectural gems, including numerous gothic buildings of the Cabrera Viscounts, the church of Santa Maria, a rare gothic fountain, and Modernisme residences. To the northeast are the Marimurta botanical gardens, one of Europe’s finest. Created in 1921, Marimurta showcases over 3000 species of fauna spread over 4 hectares. This surfeit of terrestrial wonder is complemented by the town’s five popular beaches, spread over four scenic and accessible kilometers.
Just up the coast lies Tossa de Mar, home to a celebrated art museum, an ancient Roman villa and Catalonia’s most important medieval ramparts. This picturesque stretch of coast, inhabited from 200 B.C. and known as Tossa since 966, boasts no less than 16 beaches, with Platja Gran (Grand Beach) flanking the bulk of the Vila Nova (New Town). A Costa Brava landmark, Tossa’s ramparts and seven watchtowers date from the 12th century and once protected a castle. Though the castle is no more, most of Tossa’s Vila Vella (Old Town) remains, and this National Monument is the town’s main draw. Perched just inside the 800 year-old walls on a terrace is Catstell Vell, an indulgently romantic restaurant and an ideal place for a traditional Catalan lunch. Tossa’s famous dishes are Cim I Tomba (fish and vegetable stew), which has its own culinary event in September, and Langosta al estilo de Tossa (lobster Tossa style). (lunchtime menu from e23, reservations recommended)
Northeast of Tossa, via the spectacular Carretera GI 682, is St. Feliu de Guixols, a charming fishing, boat-building, and cork-producing town of historic import. Like Tossa, St. Feliux (named for the Catalan saint) is popular for its beaches and remarkable scenery, but where Tossa is defined by the medieval, St. Feliux is famed for its Modernisme, enjoying some of the best Art Nouveau architecture in Girona. A great walking town, St. Feliux has two Ramblas (Vidal and Portalet) and a beach promenade (Passeig de Mar). A millennium-old Benedictine monastery and the Hermitage of St Elm provide orthodox religious draws, with the nearby Pedralta (a logan, or rocking stone) a pagan counterpoint.
La Taverna de Mar, an idyllic waterfront restaurant, is the place to sample St. Feliux’s natural bounty. Effortlessly romantic, the property comprises a dining room, terrace, and private baths dating from 1929. The restaurant sources its outstanding seafood selection from both the Med and the Bay of Biscay, and offers set menus as well as a la carte. (€68, set menus from €86-98)
Not far from St. Feliux, on a peninsula jutting south from S’Agaro, is the Hostal de la Gavina, the undisputed queen of Costa Brava hotels. This 5-star luxury resort, declared a cultural heritage site in 1932, offers 57 rooms, 2 bars, 4 restaurants, several pools, a salon, massage, and numerous high-end boutiques. Popular with celebrities and jet-setters, the property is famous for its antiques, gardens, and superlative location. (€187-505)
The town of Palamos, ten kilometers up the coast, is home to one of Spain’s last Mediterranean fishing fleets and its only fishing museum, El Museu de La Pesca. Set on the northern end of a small bay below the Les Gavarres massif, this 12h century town is still a fishing stronghold, and its harbor comes alive every afternoon when boats return to unload their catches for auction. Palamos’ sizable shrimp (gambas) are prized throughout Catalonia and believed to be at their best, and largest, between May and July. During this time gastronomy in town revolves around the crustaceans and restaurants offer creative set menus showcasing the prized delicacy.
Twenty minutes inland lies La Bisball D’Emporda, a busy market town and important pottery center. Potters have been active here since the 15th century and ceramics a major fixture of the region from the 1800’s. Boutiques and craft stores abound and are complemented by a ceramics school, frequent workshops, and the informative Museu Terrecota. Visitors also come to walk the town’s medieval streets, tour the Castel Palau, and experience the lively farmers’ markets. The sardana, Catalonia’s national dance, can also be witnessed here, as La Bisbal is home to the Cobla Principal de la Bisbal, a famous folk dance band.
Due east of La Bisbal is the fairytale village of Pals, one of Catalonia’s most important medieval towns. El Pedro, Pal’s Old Town, is set on Puig Aspre, a hill surrounded by rice producing plains, and is easily identified by its 11th century Romanesque tower. Sant Pere, originally a gothic church but now an architectural hybrid, anchors Pal’s picturesque warrens, and a leisurely stroll will reveal towers, tombs, walls, and fortified houses. Rice from the nearby delta has a protected D.O., and many believe Pal’s historic rice mill to be Europe’s oldest.
The Mas Salvi hotel, just outside of town, is an elegant place to sample the cuisine of Pals and the Baix Emporda. Housed in a 17th century estate, the restaurant offers an inspired menu of modern takes on traditional Catalan dishes and is an ideal spot to experience the famous mar i muntanya (sea and mountain, or surf ‘n’ turf) and local wines and olive oils. Meals average e60, with tasting menus from e65.
East of Pals is Begur, a quaint and historic village that’s given its name to its surrounding hills and cape. This hamlet sits at the foot of a prominent hill under the historic protection of its 11th century castle. Both its Old Town and nearby Esclanya are mazes of atmospheric streets and impressive Romanesque architecture. Spoiled with eight beaches and numerous coves, Begur’s culinary specialty is rockfish, and from May to June the village holds its annual Campanya Gastronomica Peix de Roca (Rock Fish Gastronomic Campaign).
To the south, overlooking the bay of Fornells, is the Hotel Aigua Blava, a four-star resort with commanding views of the Mediterranean. All 85 rooms face the sea, beach, or gardens, and amenities include a saltwater pool, tennis and volleyball courts, a salon, a summertime nightclub, and several bars and restaurants. Restaurant Aigua Blava is the undisputed best of the group, offering seasonal, tasting, and standard Catalan menus. El Grill offers both Catalan and Continental cuisine in a more informal atmosphere, and Barbecue La Rocalla (open July-August) stays true to its namesake and is completely al fresco. (rooms e278-441) (Aigua Blava set menu from e48)
North of Begur anchoring the southern end of the Gulf of Roses, is L’Escala, a winsome fishing village famed for its anchovies and sardines. The practice of salting and preserving fish in Iberia began here via the Greeks and their ancient settlement of Empuries. L’Escala, the southernmost town of the “Anchovy Coast” continues in its seafaring traditions, and has several anchovy factories and the unique Museu de Anxova i de la Sal (Anchovy and Salt Museum) for students of history. Els Pescadors, a popular seafood restaurant in the Old Quarter, provides a rustic backdrop for those more keen to learn via menu. (e25-32, daily and set menus)
A pleasant 2 kilometer walk up the coast are the remains of Empuries, the most important Greek archeological site in Spain. Dating back to the 6th B.C., Empuries, from the Greek Emporion, or market, was the first Greek settlement in Iberia and has been undergoing excavation since 1908. The village fell to the Romans 400 years later and entered a state of terminal decline. Insights into its colorful history can be had at the Museu de’Arqueologia de Catalunya: Empuries.
At the top of the gulf is Roses, the foremost fishing port of the Alt Emporda, and its famous Ciutudella, a military fortification of the 1500’s. It encircles the ancient Greek village of Rhodes (Rose’s namesake), a Roman villa, and the beautiful Lombardian monastery of Santa Maria de Roses. A well-regarded museum ties the many historical threads together.
North of Roses, on the southern side of the Cap de Creus peninsula, lies Cadaques, Mediterranean gem, gallery hotspot, and inspiration to untold number of artists,
Picasso and late resident Salvador Dali included. Nestled at the top of a peaceful bay, Cadaques’ white-washed buildings and easy grace have delighted visitors for years, even inspiring the Chinese to build a replica. The village boasts a plethora of galleries, an art museum, and the church of Santa Maria de Cadaques. A short walk away in Portlligat is Dali’s late studio/residence, now home to the House-Museum Dali. Taps de Cadaques, a curious plug-shaped pastry, have been made in the town since the 18th century.
Restaurants abound in Cadaques, but for originality and location the Restaurante Cap de Creus is the undisputed winner. Housed in a retrofitted administration building next to Catalonia’s second-oldest lighthouse, British expat Chris Little’s remarkable restaurant is informed, but not bound, by Catalan tradition. Indian dishes occasionally make their way onto the menus, and the whisky selection is respectable. (set menu from e78)
Lodging in Cadaques tends towards the simple, but for an elegant, yet approachable locale that’s open all year, the Rocamar is recommended. On the southwestern edge of the bay, with an unparalleled view of the town, the property evokes a mid-century grandeur and enjoys two private beaches. Amenities include an indoor and outdoor pool, sauna, tennis courts, and several restaurants. (from e150)
Cadaques might have been Dali’s inspiration, but his imagination reaches its full fruition in his hometown of Figueres. The Teatre-Museu Dali, a truly surreal experience, was conceived in the 60’s and opened in 1974. Comprising three distinct spaces, the museum is vastly more than the sum of its parts, quite unlike any institution in the world, and a chance to step inside a revolutionary artist’s head.
El Motel, the acclaimed restaurant in Figuere’s Hotel Emporda, is a fitting complement to Dali’s brainchild. The inspiration for Rose’s El Bulli, vanguard of the avant-garde kitchen, this seminal restaurant is an ideal choice for experiencing the culinary bridge between Catalan gastronomy old and new. Elegant, decorous, and inspired, El Motel offers a standard menu, a 50th Anniversary menu, and a fresh market menu. Reservations are required. (a la carte menu e50-80, 50th menu e60, Market menu e35)
South of Figueres en route to Barcelona lies Girona, population 100,000. This cultural destination owes much of its colorful history to its location, a confluence of four rivers and crucial link between Catalonia and France. Girona has a unique Jewish history; it was home to one of the largest settlements in Europe for roughly 600 years, and its Call, or Jewish quarter, is a main point of interest. Other religious sites include its cathedral, with the widest gothic nave in the world, the Church of St. Feliu, and the Monastery of St. Pere de Galligants. Girona is a superb walking city, and half of its
medieval ramparts are now topped with promenades, allowing for unique views of the environs.
Girona is also home to El Celler de Can Roca, voted World’s Second-Best Restaurant in 2011 by Restaurant Magazine and a 3-star Michelin destination since 2009.
Opened in 1986 and operated by the brothers Roca, this landmark restaurant is a quintessential spot to sample Catalonia’s avant-garde cuisine, and with its new location, is widely considered one of the best in the world. A dining room built around an arboretum, a wine cellar that provides tours, and a kitchen-cum-laboratory are only a few of its idiosyncrasies. El Celler offers a Tasting and a Feasting menu, but like El Bulli, prides itself on offering experience as opposed to mere dining. (Tasting Menu e130, Feasting Menu e160)