The look and feel of the north-east coast of Spain owes a lot to an experiment set up by Franco. Kate Simon reports

So why does Catalan sound so French, I ask my Catalan friend. The look in her eyes tells me that I am testing her patience. "Catalan is not a French version of Spanish. It is a language in its own right. The Catalan empire used to stretch further than Perpignan, you know." I feel suitably chastised.

So why does Catalan sound so French, I ask my Catalan friend. The look in her eyes tells me that I am testing her patience. "Catalan is not a French version of Spanish. It is a language in its own right. The Catalan empire used to stretch further than Perpignan, you know." I feel suitably chastised.

But then the subject of Spain's most north-easterly province has always been a sensitive one. Not least since General Franco stripped it of its newly gained independent status, just after he won the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He also banned the Catalan language from the schoolroom and the offices of government. As late as the early 1970s, when my friend was growing up, it was spoken only in the privacy of the home.

We are chatting over a glass of cava around the dining table in a tourist villa on the Costa Brava, Catalonia's seaside playground. My friend's eight-year-old daughter is reading in the corner. She is fluent in Catalan, Spanish, and - thanks to her British father - English. My friend reminds me that Franco died just 30 years ago this November. How times have changed, we say.

Our villa is a good example of that change. A very comfortable and convenient base, it is, however, set in one of those contrived residential areas that you find along the Spanish coast, just off the main road, somewhere between A and B. These strangely suburban avenues and cul-de-sacs of detached houses with swimming pools provide most un-Spanish homes from home for north Europeans. You suspect that they happily take the mower for a spin around the lawn on a Sunday morning, despite paying for gardening services in the maintenance bill.

The strife of civil war and the oppressive years of Franco's rule seem a lifetime away from the Spain enjoyed by these Euro-communities of British, Germans and Scandinavians. Yet it was Franco who began Spain's great drive for tourism which spawned such places.

In the 1950s the Spanish government, by then in the hands of Opus Dei, forced the generalissimo to acknowledge that years of self-imposed diplomatic and financial isolation from the outside world lay behind Spain's spiralling economic crisis. They counselled him to take a more liberal turn: devalue the peseta, borrow more money from the Americans (who were keen to set up military bases), encourage foreign investment, allow Spaniards to migrate to more affluent countries - and make the most of all that sun and sand by setting up a tourist industry. The Costa Brava is where this mass tourism project began. Spain's first package holidaymakers arrived here from Britain in 1954, bussed in from the airport in Perpignan, across the French border.

We are staying in the Baix Emporda, the area stretching from Sant Feliu de Guixols in the south to L'Estartit to the north. The centenary celebrations of Salvador Dali's birth last year cast the spotlight on the Alt Emporda, just to the north, where the Surrealist artist was born. But it is unusual for our chosen destination to be overshadowed by its neighbour. The Baix Emporda is one of the prettiest parts of the Costa Brava, a landscape of plains and mountains fringed by a pine-clad coastline of craggy coves and sweeping sands.

We are visiting in early February. It's hardly the season to hang around the Med, especially with the tramontana, a cold northerly wind, whipping the coast for most of our stay. But winter is the time to get under the skin of a place. We find little traffic on the roads, even fewer pedestrians on the streets. The towns and villages we pass through are largely deserted and show scant evidence of being busy local communities outside the holiday season. Restaurant doorways bear signs saying "On holiday until March". Shutters are down. Gates are locked. The Costa Brava is shut.

Our suspicion that this stretch of coast has become second-home country is confirmed by the numerous crews we see digging up the roads and putting up villas and supermarkets in time for the summer season. The churn of the concrete mixer becomes a familiar noise on our travels. It isn't news that Spain has learnt a hard lesson about overdevelopment (again initiated by Franco's great drive to roll in the tourists). But while coastal areas like these are subject to far stricter controls today, the construction work we witness is continuing at a fast and furious pace.

I'm not talking about the nightmare scenario of mile upon mile of high-rise hotels and thundering dual carriageways. Far from it. Development here has been and continues to be low-key. Nature generally succeeds in shining through. Driving through pine groves on winding coastal roads, you might imagine momentarily that you're in a wilder part of Greece or Italy. But it is not quite the "unspoilt" coast that many articles and guidebooks would have you believe, though it is as authentic a taste of Catalonia as you are likely to get, considering this coast's long and close relationship with tourism.

At Sa Riera, we discover a gorgeous little cove. It shelters beneath cliffs covered in umbrella pines, and a generous sandy beach is bisected by a stream (a riera) that runs to the sea. My guidebook tells me that it has retained its fishermen's quarter, inferring that this is part of its charm. I can see a row of upturned boats at the far end of the beach, but the houses there are nothing special and merge with a shabby low-rise block of apartments and cafés. Yet, the story is different at Sa Tuna, a similarly enchanting bay. Construction has been more sympathetic, with stone houses - partly whitewashed - arranged around the little square.

At Tamariu, the promenade that wraps around the beach is very attractive, with an up-market riviera atmosphere. A backdrop of white buildings - including a quite smart hotel, several shops and a cluster of restaurants - is fronted by a row of tamarind trees, with benches supplied so that visitors can pause and admire the view. Llafranc is a grander version of the same (and was a favourite of Dali's), and if you continue up the mountain you can take in wonderful views of the coast and the sea beyond. The most appealing spot is Calella de Palafrugell, with its jumble of white buildings climbing away from the shore. It's the most authentically preserved of this crop of fishing villages.

Inland, at Begur and Palafrugell we find more thriving communities than down by the shoreline, as well as handsome ancient quarters where winding lanes weave between buildings that date back to medieval times. But from the point of view of architectural merit all are put in the shade by Peratallada and Pals. The former is a moated settlement (the moat is now a dribble of a stream) with archways leading to quaint cobbled squares and alleyways. Pals, beautiful and intriguing, looks untouched by time. The explanation lies in the intense bombing it suffered at the hands of Franco's Nationalists. It prompted a man called Figueras to embark on the labour of love that was the re-building of the town, a 30-year process that began in 1948 and restored Pals to its former glory. Wherever you go in the Costa Brava, it seems that the ghost of the past is always present.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Ryanair flies from the UK to Girona (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.co.uk).

The author was a guest of PCI Holidays (01202 548022; www.pci-holidays. com) which offers two-bedroom apartments from £293 per week, including gas and electric, linen and weekly cleaning. She travelled around courtesy of Connect Car Rental (0871 900 8261; www.connectcarrental.com) which offers car hire from £10 per day.

Further information

Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk).

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