Travel - Spain: Surreal sketches of Spain

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The Independent Culture
The Dal Museum aside, there doesn't appear to be a lot to see in Figueres. This small but lively Spanish town, a few miles inland from the far north-east coast of Spain and just 15 miles from the French border, is where Salvador Dal, surrealist and exhibitionist, was born in 1904 and where he died, by then a recluse - some say a psychological wreck, held prisoner by guardians in his own house - in 1989.

After Madrid's Prado, this is the second most visited museum in Spain and is best avoided in summer, when bus-loads descend and the queues can become horribly long. For those in the queue, the surrealist treat begins on the outside; the large stucco building is crowned with a metal dome and decorated with an array of luminous egg shapes perched atop the walls.

In an outer courtyard, next to a totem pole of car tyres, there's a black Cadillac, wet inside, the steamy occupants surrounded by snails. Inside there are some fairly traditional paintings, a few by other artists, but the place is dominated by the horrific and the absurd.

Generated by Dal's peculiar mind, you'll find a goat skull with violin body (which, according to one of the Museum's guide books, "materialises a 1966 Dalinian erotic nightmare") and a painting which apparently shows "the surprising and unusual version of The Grand Masturbator, full of light and happiness". Hmm.

Whatever your opinion, you won't leave the museum without wondering whether Dal was not - at least at times - having us on, and that he could most definitely paint in a more traditional sense. Take a look at the portraits of his beloved wife, Gala and you can't fail to be impressed by his skill.

Figueres has more to offer the visitor, however. Nine miles east of the town is what's left of once extensive coastal marshes and lagoons. The best parts are contained within a little over three square miles of protected reserves but 18 square miles of the surrounding land, much of it farmland, forms part of the Emporda Marshes Natural Park.

By the time we arrived at the park's impressive information and teaching centre, it was early afternoon and the showers of a rather cool morning - ideal for viewing surrealist art - had given way to sunshine, equally ideal for setting off by car to find the Estany Europa, a set of small lagoons at the northern end of the park, where we were told we might find some impressive birds.

We weren't disappointed. As soon as we crept out of the car and grabbed our binoculars, several flamingos appeared, walking sedately in the shallow, reed-fringed water. Most of the flamingos were brown and white but a few gorgeous, snow-white-and-pink adults walked sedately by. Viewed from one of the two wooden hides on the lake edge, these magnificent birds came within perhaps 30 yards of us, close enough to hear them slurping water through their peculiar beaks.

There were not solely flamingos to be seen, though. All kinds of wading birds, from purple herons and black-winged stilts down to the tiny, grey- brown and cream temminck's stints, were in evidence. From hides looking out over other bits of this wetland, we spotted marsh harriers hunting above the reeds and bluethroats hopping around the fringes of scrub and reeds, escapees from harsh northern winters.

For sheer impact, it's hard to beat the purple gallinule, one of Europe's rarest marsh birds and one which has been successfully reintroduced here. We were lucky. From another hide we watched, entranced, as this iridescent, purple-blue water bird with its scarlet beak and forehead, walked nonchalantly around, treading carefully over pieces of reed with its incredibly long and agile toes.

The size of a chicken, you might more realistically expect to find this bird in the depths of some tropical forest rather than here on the Spanish coast, within earshot of the huge marina developments, a couple of miles north.

Dragging ourselves away from the surreal flamingos, we drove northeast through the popular seaside resorts of Rosas and Cadaques to Cap de Creus, the mountainous headland that juts out into the sea, the eastern limit of the Pyrenees.

It was worth it for the stupendous views over the marshes we had just come from and west to the high mountains of the Pyrenees. But what we hadn't expected on a warm, still evening was the sheer extent of the aromatic and healthy headland vegetation, bursting with scented herbal bushes of lavender, rosemary and lentisk.

And, should scuba diving or snorkelling take your fancy, this is the place. The waters off the coast of the headland are protected as part of the Cap de Creus Natural Park. While commercial fishing is banned and small-scale angling is regulated, diving is allowed in designated sectors. A cornucopia of corals, sea fans, red algae and a plethora of colourful fish are, reputedly, the reward.

The cliff scenery at Cap de Creus is spectacular. We sat on a steep, rocky slope overlooking a tiny cove and watched a pair of cormorants drying their wings as the sun, still bakery warm on our backs, began to dip down below some distant hills. Surreal? Of course it was.

Figueres is about 90 miles north-east of Barcelona by rail or motorway. A hire car is essential to get around the Emporda Marshes and Cap de Creus.

The Emporda Marshes Information Centre is at EI Cortalet on the road between Castello d'Empuries and Sant Pore Pescador and is open daily.

Figueres has a range of accommodation: from about pounds 20 per night for a double room at the Pension Bartis to around pounds 45 per night - or more, depending on season - at the Hotel Duran, a comfortable but old-fashioned place just off the tree-shaded main square.

The Dal museum is open daily between July and September and closes on Mondays during the rest of the year. Entrance is 900 pesetas (about pounds 4)

Spanish Survival Kit

Taking off

Air travellers to Spain this year can expect the madre of all fares wars. The low-cost airlines easyJet (0870 6 000 000) and Go (0845 60 54321) have chosen the country as this summer's battleground.

As well as the existing easyJet services from Luton to Barcelona and Madrid, the company is adding flights from Liverpool to Malaga. Go, which doesn't presently fly to the Iberian peninsula at all, is adding three new routes from Stansted in the next few months: to Malaga (29 March), Bilbao (29 April) and Madrid (1 July), with fares starting at around pounds 80.

GB Airways - which operates services to Spain on behalf of British Airways (0345 222111) - is stepping up its flights to a range of Spanish cities for the summer, with fares of pounds 119 for early summer to Malaga, Valencia and Palma de Mallorca.

With other competition from BA itself, Debonair (0541 500300) and Iberia (0171-830 0011), expect some fierce fare-cutting, which could also spread to charter airlines.

For many of the islands and smaller destinations in Spain, the only prospect for a non-stop flight is to use a charter.

Touching down

Taxi rides from Spanish airports can be expensive. There are good public transport options at Madrid (bus, pounds 3), Barcelona (bus or train, pounds 2), Bilbao (bus, pounds 1), Palma (bus, pounds 1), Malaga (direct trains to destinations along the Costa del Sol) and Tenerife South (buses all over the island). From Gibraltar airport terminal to Spanish territory is a walk of 200 yards.

Checking in

The parador (government-run hotel, usually in a historic property) remains the best travel bargain in Spain. Keytel International (0171-402 8182) represents the chain in the UK.

Getting around

Rail remains the best way to combine comfort, speed and economy. Domestic flights are still mostly overpriced and uncomfortable, though the introduction of competition means Aviaco (Iberia's domestic arm) has sharpened up its act. Madrid-Barcelona costs pounds 50 one-way. Car rental is best booked in advance from Britain.

Finding out

Spanish Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (0171- 486 8077).

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