Travel: Paradises regained: Many Fifties dream holidays have been nightmares for years. But even the Costa Brava still has idyllic spots. Over the next three weeks, Jill Crawshaw reviews old favourites
Sunday 06 June 1993
The Costa Brava and the Balearic Islands, the Algarve and Corfu: these destinations have been in the frontline of the package tour industry ever since the late 1950s, when a two-week holiday would take two months' average earnings. Today's equivalent takes only two weeks' work; but along the way many a holiday paradise of the Fifties and Sixties, offering hot sun, sandy beaches, a casual lifestyle and low prices, has turned into a nightmare. And many holiday-makers now take day-long flights to the Caribbean, Thailand and Goa, for the sun, sandy beaches, casual lifestyle - and higher prices. But unspoilt resorts and indigenous pleasures can still be found in traditional hot-spots.
THE COSTA BRAVA
FIRST impressions of the Costa Brava aren't exactly the stuff holiday dreams are made of. Those arriving by rail or car from France at Port Bou find an Iberian Crewe with the torpor of a frontier town shorn of its status by the EC open border policy.
When I last arrived at Gerona airport, bored officials were handing out Aids leaflets, with harassed holiday company reps trying to round up passengers who had scuttled off to the bar for a couple of quickies before taking one of the huge herd of coaches revving up in the car park. Then the tidal wave of tourist traffic flowed off down the motorway, speeding towards Lloret and the south, completely bypassing some of the best and cheapest holiday spots in Spain, resorts delightful in their own right or as bases for forays into the rich hinterland of Catalonia.
For much of the 80 or so miles of the Costa Brava, from Blanes to the French border, the mountain backdrop and rugged, deeply indented coves (brava means craggy), hopeless terrain for large-scale development, have preserved a coastline as scenic as anything to be found in the Mediterranean. The holidaymakers who go hurtling on to the Costa Dorada, Costa Blanca and the Costa del Sol just don't know what they're missing.
WHICH RESORT? There are 20 or so resorts on the Costa Brava proper (the popular Calella de la Costa and Malgrat are on the Costa Dorada). They vary enormously in character, although their current desirability seems to
be in inverse proportion to their square footage of sand.
At its southern end, Lloret makes no pretensions to being anything other than an out-and-out pop spot; Tossa is extremely pretty but overrun in July and August; and S'Agaro is mightily exclusive. Here the seriously wealthy from Barcelona sip 10-year-old malt (hardly ever sherry) in designer villas that nudge the landscaped gardens of the hallowed five-star Hostal de la Gavina, the Costa Brava's most sumptuous establishment.
There are a number of low-key, middle-of- the-road resorts along this southern end of the coast too - Blanes, Palamos, and the rather dignified, almost Edwardian San Feliu, which probably appeals more to a local, rather than an international clientele.
For my family and me, however, the delights of the Costa Brava are tucked away on the rockiest stretch of the coast in a series of little bays with Palafrugell and Bagur acting as the hubs. From these two market towns, country lanes weave eccentrically between orchards and wheat-fields peppered with little round towers, once guarding the villages from pirates and marauders of the rich Catalan countryside. These uninvited visitors probably landed in some of the half-dozen little fishing villages nearby. None, these days, is completely 'undiscovered', but tourism seems to have captured the mood rather than trampling all over it.
To the south, Calella de la Palafrugell, never to be confused with Calella de la Costa, rivals Tossa and Cadaques in picture-postcard perfection. Unexploited by high rises and other tourist clutter, its seven small sandy beaches are overlooked by a jumble of pastel and whitewashed shops, arcades and restaurants. There are a couple of small, pleasant 'package' hotels, and the rest of the accommodation even along the seafront is modest in standard and price. It's a measure of the place that the same Spanish families book it year after year, guaranteeing both the quality and the price.
For one enchanted week we stayed in a simple flat on one of the promontories with the sea on three sides of us; two children and several years later we returned to an equally simple rustic cottage about a hundred yards away, with a staircase down to the cellar boatyard and direct access to the beach. From Calella, it is a stunning 20-minute cliff walk to Llafranch, which is in the process of becoming very chic indeed. Marinas always seem to increase prices, and Llafranch is no exception - my spot-check of meals in the restaurants lining the long, straight beach (it gets pretty crowded in August) showed an average 100 pesetas per paella more than Calella.
Next door is Tamariu, smaller and prettier, another favourite with Spanish families. In the charge of nannies and grannies who fuss constantly about their sunhats, the younger children with voices like foghorns command the construction of huge sandcastle urbanisations while their older siblings, bored with the sand, scramble off with nets and buckets, to 'hunt' in the rock pools.
Apart from the designer trainers they are ruining, it all has a slightly old-fashioned air about it. The middle-class British have been hiding in neighbouring Aiguablava for years; 'No packages here', they mumble. If pushed, they will praise the 'quality of light' - the deep blue waters of the fjord-like inlets that give the place its name; it is this, added to the dark green of the pines, the silvery olive trees and the red rock, that causes them to wax lyrical. The Hotel Aiguablava receives only slightly less praise, its owner having managed to run a fair-sized, smart hotel with the friendliness and welcome of a small pension.
The Spaniards built another luxury establishment here, the modern Parador Nacional de la Costa Brava, extremely comfortable and, like all these state-owned luxury hotels, serving excellent local food. Architecturally however, and unlike the ancient buildings that have been restored as paradors, this one tends to dominate its wooded headland, and falls into the category of those modern buildings that are better to look from than look at.
The last three little dents in this rocky stretch of coast are Aiguafreda, Sa Tuna and finally Sa Riera, one of my real favourites though it's little more than a tiny seafront almost completely covered with fish restaurants. They spill out haphazardly among old anchors, nets and bollards, offering their daily specials of calamares, lubina, Zarzuela de la Casa, each just a bit different from its neighbours. Day trippers to Sa Riera fall in love with its old white-washed cottages, painted shutters, outside staircases and boat houses at ground level, and make inquiries about holiday accommodation, only to find that most of it has been reserved for regulars year after year.
After Sa Riera the coast flattens out and the opportunities for developments have been duly seized. Approaching the somewhat unimpressive tower blocks of Estartit from its western end, we were on the point of beating a swift retreat, but decided to persevere. The rest was a happier holiday story; our apartment was over the old harbour and very basic indeed, but had a huge balcony from which we monitored the activities below from dawn to dusk.
The fishing boats puttered in at about eight every morning, literally under our window, with what looked like pathetically small catches. The water-ski boats set up an hour or so later, followed by fleets of dinghies from the very good local sailing school. Divers left the pier just before midday for the Isla Medas, half an hour away, for some of the best diving water in the Med.
Our eldest child, then 13, having observed these activities suspiciously for days (they were as cheap as any I've seen) took them up enthusiastically, and has been a watersport addict ever since. Our youngest paddled about the gently shelving beach, huge and wide enough for even the most claustrophobic sunbather, but always in view of our balcony.
Moving up the coast, there's plenty of sand at L'Escala and Rosas, two resorts that in my view do not live up to their picturesque-
sounding names. Beaches have low priority at Cadaques, at the eastern end of the Costa Brava; its holidaymakers rarely seem to swim, though they paint, write, walk, eat, boutiquebrowse and pay homage to Dali - his former home is at Port Lligat, round the next bay. It has weathered well, this white-washed village hidden at the end of a wild, scrub-coloured mountain pass, despite the attentions of everyone from 16th-century Turkish corsairs and Algerian pirates to the current hordes of French and Italian youth.
'If you want to see what St Tropez is selling in August, come to Cadaques in June,' a French youth tells me, snorting at the mention of what was once the home of the Beautiful People. 'I've a big problem,' sighs a local boutique owner, about to open for the season. 'I don't know if they'll want flares this year.'
WHAT TO SEE: Unlike the Algarve, the Catalonian hinterland, with its own increasingly vigorous and flourishing culture, has plenty to offer the sightseer. At least half a dozen worthwhile and easily manageable outings can be made from the resorts on the coast.
Pals is one of the little medieval hilltop villages, built and fortified slightly inland to protect the population from pirates. Here the fretted silhouettes, the towers and church, must have attracted marauders as much as they stir the imagination of the modern visitor. The careful restoration of the town has won many awards, and so too have its restaurants, which offer some of the best local food. Look out for the Catalonian version of 'surf and turf' - specialities often mix meat and fish, game with fruit, chicken with lobster, snail and rabbit with peaches and nuts.
Peretellada is another little treasure of medieval origin that has eased itself gently into the 20th century. Geraniums embroider wrought-iron balconies, spill from cans, pots and oil drums; cats doze on warm pantiled roofs, Spanish families chatter in briefly glimpsed courtyards and patios.
The Teatro-Museo Dali at Figueras is the most visited museum in Spain after Madrid's Prado. Opened in 1973, it is full of surreal jokes and fantasies - eggs on the roof, huge feet descending from the ceiling, deforming mirrors and Cadillacs that rain. A real visual hoot, and in a totally non-scientific survey of my own, I found that the average visitor spent nearly twice as long here as in the Prado.
It is strange to find such an extravaganza in a town like Figueras, next to the staid and sombre Church of San Pedro. Perhaps that is part of the joke. There are also excellent tapas bars and restaurants round the shady main square.
Right on the beach, the ruins of Ampurias are the best archaeological remains on the Costa Brava, the first site to be colonised by the Greeks in Iberia. In the 6th century BC they built a small settlement at San Martin de Ampurias, which was then an island (later silted up). Many of the remains have been excavated, and can be seen either on site, or in the museum - although some are actually copies. But these seem pretty puny by comparison with the contribution of the Romans; they greatly extended the port which became one of their most important trading posts.
Combine, perhaps, the excursion to Ampurias with a visit to the Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de la Emporda, where the coastal marshes and wetlands support a host of important migratory birds.
Gerona, capital of the Costa Brava, is too often ignored by visitors who rush away from the airport or are deterred from exploring the town by the sight of its industrial suburbs. Providing cars are abandoned before the pedestrian bridges, the town is a pleasure to explore, its cool arcaded streets ideal for shopping and restaurant browsing.
Among its historic highlights are the Cathedral of Santa Maria, approached by a monumentally baroque stairway of 90 steps, its huge nave about 95ft across, reckoned to be the widest in the world; the well restored Jewish quarter in the labyrinth of narrow old streets around the Calle de la Forge; the Arab Baths, in fact built by the Christians in the 12th century, 400 years after the Arabs had left.
There are fewer Moorish influences in Catalonia than in much of the south; the Arabs were here for only 50 years (as opposed to eight centuries in Andalucia). And the re-
mains of the tepidariums, frigidariums and caldariums of Gerona's so-called Arab Baths are, of course, neither Arab nor Christian in design, but Roman.
GETTING THERE: Iberia (071-437 5622) and British Airways (081-897 4000) offer scheduled daily flights to Barcelona. A 'Money Saver Fare' costs from pounds 162 return to pounds 219 in peak season. The cost of charter flights to Gerona varies, with Britannia from Gatwick, for example, from pounds 120 return, rising to pounds 166 in peak season. Other fares will become available, and it is always worth checking with travel agents. Car hire: from about pounds 55- pounds 80 for three days and pounds 110- pounds 170 for a week.
STAYING THERE: pensions and hotels. Expect to pay around pounds 25- pounds 30 for one night in a double room in a one-star hotel, pounds 28- pounds 34 in a two-star; pounds 50- pounds 67 in a three-star.
TOUR OPERATORS: several specialist operators offer inclusive holidays to the Costa Brava: Magic of Spain (081- 748 7575); Mundi Color (071- 828 6021); Cadogan Travel (0703 332661).
FURTHER INFORMATION: More details, prices and addresses, as well as leaflets on Gerona and the Costa Brava, are available from the Spanish National Tourist Office, 47 St James's Street, London SW1A 1LD (071-499 0901, fax 071-629 4257 - the latter number is available to the public).
NOTE: holiday brochures, timetables and many guide books printed in this country use the Spanish spelling, which appears generally in this article. and spellings. The exchange rate used here is 180 pesetas to the pounds 1.
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