Coastal Spain: Parasols and high art

There's much more to soak up than the sun on Spain's beach resorts, says Michael Pauls
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The Independent Travel

Back in the Sixties Robert Graves got an insight into a new phenomenon when he overheard two secretaries discussing their holidays. One mentioned she had gone to Mallorca and her friend asked her where that was. "Don't know," was the reply, "I flew." Spain's Mediterranean resorts have had a reputation ever since; strange holiday infernos of licensed burro taxis, wide-screen TVs blaring out Manchester United matches and baked beans on toast pustulating under beach umbrellas. Is there anything more edifying under the Iberian sun? Is it possible to have a simpatico beach holiday with some art and culture too? Let's take a quick tour around Spain's coasts, starting with the Costa del Sol, and see if we can do it.

Back in the Sixties Robert Graves got an insight into a new phenomenon when he overheard two secretaries discussing their holidays. One mentioned she had gone to Mallorca and her friend asked her where that was. "Don't know," was the reply, "I flew." Spain's Mediterranean resorts have had a reputation ever since; strange holiday infernos of licensed burro taxis, wide-screen TVs blaring out Manchester United matches and baked beans on toast pustulating under beach umbrellas. Is there anything more edifying under the Iberian sun? Is it possible to have a simpatico beach holiday with some art and culture too? Let's take a quick tour around Spain's coasts, starting with the Costa del Sol, and see if we can do it.

Up until the Fifties, the Costa del Sol was one of the backwaters of Spain, a string of hard-scrabble fishing villages with nothing to offer save endless sandy beaches and an abundance of cheap land. With a little help from General Franco's technocrats, Europe's glistening new playground for the masses was born.

But not all the costas are the same. Up on the Costa Brava in Catalonia, chips and visiting Morris dancers may be just as common as on the Cosat del Sol, but this Costa was never so isolated from the life of its region. From Barcelona to France, there's not only luscious scenery, but fine old towns.

These include La Bisbal, famous for its ceramics, an ancient Greek settlement at Empuries, and what is considered the cradle of the Roman Catalan era, the monastery Sant Pere de Rodes. Dip just inland to visit Girona's glorious cathedral or make a merry Dali pilgrimage to the Museu Dali in Figueres, housed in a building covered in ceramic turds. His house, in nearby Cadaques, hosts a summer arts festival (information for all Dali sights at www.salvador-dali.org).

On the other side of Barcelona, the fun continues as far as Sitges, Spain's sybaritic gay resort. It's a long, dull stretch of C-division costas after that, brightened by Tarragona, bursting at the seams with Roman ruins and the city of Valencia, a buzzing "new Barcelona".

The Costa Blanca, north of Alicante, definitely belongs to the big league, but high-toned diversions are thin on the ground. Benidorm, with its striking skyline of skyscraper hotels, can offer Spain's largest theme park, Vegas-style shows and all the other warning signs of modern civilization. Basically, this costa's story is much like the Sol's; not so long ago, the clams had the beaches all to themselves.

Spain's northern coast may not have the reliable sunshine of the south that package operators favour, but for anyone seeking something more fulfilling than sandy ice cream, it's worth a look.

Start right at the French border with San Sebastian, quite simply the most gracious seaside resort in all of Spain (see box, right). Heading west from there, the mountainous Basque coast hides sweet villages, such as Getaria and Lekeitio, where you can spend the off-beach hours getting to know your kind but inscrutable Basque hosts. After these comes the last place in the world you would think of as a resort - gritty, industrial Bilbao. Everyone goes there for Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum and the other monuments of a surprisingly refined city. But not many know you can do "El Goog" in the morning, then take a 20-minute metro ride to clean, attractive beaches at Getxo and Plentzia.

Next comes Cantabria, where the choicest spots lie east of Santander. Here, resorts have grown up around fishing villages blessed with a beach, such as San Vicente de la Barquera and Comillas. There's a bit of Barcelona in Comillas. A century ago, when it was fashionable, the high rollers who flocked here commissioned some startling Catalan Modernista villas for themselves, including one by Antoni Gaudi - now an excellent seafood restaurant called El Capricho de Gaudi (at Barrio de Sobrellano, reservations recommended; 0034 942 720 365).

There are plenty of other things to see in this surprising corner of Cantabria: just 15 minutes down the coast lies one of the loveliest villages in Spain, Santillana del Mar, a jewel of medieval architecture. But culture in these parts goes even further back - by about 14,000 years. Just outside Santillana the famous cave at Altamira contains herds of thundering bison and graceful deer, a masterpiece of Upper Paleolithic art. The cave itself is too delicate to receive visitors, but there's a near-perfect replica of it and several other painted caves in the area.

Over at the far end of the northern coast, you'll be in Celtic Galicia, the Ireland of Spain with its rugged seacoasts and emerald fields. Here you'll find the only costa that doesn't get its name from the moist inspiration of a tourist office: they call it the Costa del Muerte, from all the shipwrecks it has caused.

Sending postcards from the Coast of Death would be jolly, but this isn't the best spot for bathing or culture. Nudge around Land's End towards the Portuguese border to find the Rias Baixas, a jumble of coves, islets and hidden beaches. You're in the heart of Galicia here, among bagpipers, divine seafood and honest granite towns like Pontevedra, where you can learn all about the culture of Europe's Celtic fringes.

All that's left is the Atlantic coast (see page 8) and the south with its much-maligned Costa del Sol. It doesn't help that this Costa is in Andalucia, the home of all Spain's unchained stereotypes: the bulls, the flamenco, mantillas and guitars, orange blossoms and polka-dot dresses for the little girls at Easter. It may seem over-the-top to tourists, but not the Andalucians. Their culture may be blatant and extrovert, but our grey old world could use a little of that.

Seeing the stereotypes parade past in a club or a hotel restaurant might be disconcerting, but walk around a bit and you might find yourself enjoying this nearly new, tacky, cosmopolitan, frivolous Miami-on-the-Mediterranean. Spend time in the bars that the waiters and the coach drivers frequent, where everyone throws everything on the floor and where a dish of gambas a la plancha with lots of garlic may, on the night, seem the best gourmet treat in the world.

Spaniards in the post-Franco era can be rather insistent about living in the present, rather than the past. Their idea of "culture" often has more to do with what's going on right now than with their venerable cathedrals. They enjoy the works of their quirky contemporary artists and architects, the Eduardo Chillidas and the Santiago Calatravas. They believe in the new and they can dance all night.

Another thing - reflect that in our quick spin around the costas we have passed through eight regions, three languages and at least five distinct dialects. Even on the coasts, you can experience something of the remarkable diversity of a land that isn't really "Spain" at all, as one of its historians likes to point out, but "the Spains".

The Costa del Sol is one of these Spains too and even though you might need to devote a long day trip over the mountains to see a concert or a bit of culture in a Murillos exhibit, you can still find, down among the sun-charred Brits and their patient Andalucian minders, something of the duende of everyday Spanish life.

You'll get a clue it's there, in Fuengirola or Torremolinos, when you look down from your hotel window and watch a Spanish family across the street having a party on the rooftop of their block of flats. There's a little barbecue and lots of laughter between the washing lines. They're having more fun than you and you're the one on holiday.

Michael Pauls is co-author of the 'Cadogan Guide to Spain'

San Sebastian

Why camp on a costa when you can enjoy this delicious Belle Epoque confection? If San Sebastian looks like a royal resort, that's because it was one, back in the 19th century when queens and regents brought their courts down from Madrid for the summer. Despite its architectural elegance, this is a very lively place, with a twist of the unexpected - on my last trip there the first thing I saw was a Mexican mariachi band, marching down the calle.

San Sebastian has a lovely medieval heart where you can split your time between the city's famous tapas bars and the museums; the Museo de San Telmo is a treasure of everything Basque, for this royal town is also one of the strongholds of traditional Basque culture. That includes cuisine, something the Basques take seriously; three of Spain's top restaurants are here. And there's plenty to see; the city throws a wild Carnival, as well as an International Jazz Festival all through July and an important film festival in mid-September.

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