Costa Brava: The coast that keeps it surreal

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

After 50 years, has the Costa Brava fallen off the map for British travellers? Simon Calder returns to the place Salvador Dalí once called home

The beginning of Spain, or a last resort? Sipping a strong coffee on the terrace of the Bar Maritim, as the late-autumn sun washed gently over the enjoyers of elevenses, it was hard to tell. Beyond the peninsula marking the easternmost point of the Spanish mainland lay, pleasingly, the southernmost resort in mainland France. But Cadaqués has an end-of-the-world feeling. The whitewashed village wedged haphazardly between the mountains and the Mediterranean is on the way to nowhere, except contentment. And this week its long-standing link with Britain was broken, making its isolation even more splendid.

Del Sol, Blanca, Dorada, Brava: not the back four for Barcelona, but Spain's Mediterranean shores. However, the last of these fell off the map on Sunday. The Aeroport de Costa Brava, which has had year-round flights from the UK for ages, has lost all its British links this winter. Flights may resume next summer, but in the interim you have a precious opportunity: to enjoy Cadaqués in glorious solitude. The rewards start with a seafront where the only crowd is a huddle of watercolourists dabbing dollops of sunshine onto their canvases.

Fifty years ago, the British had never had it so good – and a good few decided to splash out on a package holiday. So where would they go? Somewhere affordably exotic, naturally, but more pragmatically somewhere within range of the propeller aircraft that UK charter airlines used. All of which pointed in one direction: the nearest bit of Spain to Britain, known as the "wild coast": the Costa Brava.

Half a century ago, our holiday horizons ended round about here. Today, there's barely a corner of the planet beyond reach to the average British wage-earner. Yet this fragment of north-east Spain remains just as alluring as ever – a real work of art, or more accurately, artists.

As with the far end of Cornwall, painters were lured to this isolated peninsula by a special luminescence and the raw beauty of the land crumbling into the sea. Picasso's old house is that blue one on the corner where the coastline makes another crinkle in Cadaqués' shoreline. And if you clamber beyond it and over the headland, you find the fantastic palace that belonged to the mustachioed maestro whose statue presides over the Maritim Bar.

In 1930, Salvador Dalí was already a surreal success when he came to Cadaqués – or specifically to the little cove of Port Lligat, a mile to the north. He could afford to indulge, and indulge he did. The man who mangled reality turned a sequence of fishermen's cottages tottering down a hillside into a labyrinthine home and studio that almost gets its feet wet.

You will be expected to scrape your shoes thoroughly on the mat before you step across the threshold into this house of marvels. But by then you will be accustomed to falling in line. Such is the fragility of the Casa Museu Salvador Dalí that tourism is strictly controlled. Call ahead and book a slot, then arrive half-an-hour ahead to pick up the tickets. Spend 30 minutes wandering between the fishing boats drawn up on the sand, or clamber over the crumple of rocks that comprises the final flourish of the Pyrenees – an aperitif before a feast of absurdity.

After the welcome mat, the welcoming bear. The vestibulo del oso, where the tour starts, is dominated by a polar bear, stuffed and standing as nonchalantly as any dead creature decorated with medals and clutching a lantern can muster. (A version of the poor beast appears in the new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris .)

The dining room and library look surprisingly conventional, but on the next level up Dalí starts playing tricks. A pair of irregular polygonal rooms, made for storing supplies and models respectively, flank the artist's north-facing studio. One of his final paintings still graces an easel; he fled the house in 1982, after the death of his wife, Gala. But what catches your eye is a work of engineering, a massive movable steel contraption that Dalí had built to enable him to work on large canvases while sitting down.

Heath Robinson might have felt at home in Dalí's bedroom, with mirrors and windows contrived to enable the artist to watch the sun rise while sitting in bed. His bed, and that of his wife, are dressed theatrically with drapes pinned back ready for a surreal drama.

Dalí and all his famous mates occupy an adjacent room, plastered all over the walls in fuzzy black-and-white prints. They show that a cruel civil war, followed by four decades of fascist dictatorship, did not entirely stifle creativity and celebrity.

When you emerge into the daylight, don't expect instantly to re-boot your sense of reality. This is Dalí's back garden, where the good nature of a Spanish hillside gets unnaturally twisted. A huge white egg is pinned to the roof where other people have television aerials.

Up the hill, one of a pair of gigantic steel skulls has been cracked like, well, a nut. And, look, that compilation of basuras (rubbish) strewn over in the corner is actually a figure of the fallen Christ. Time to find a way back to normal life.

The finger of land pointing due east is real enough. Ancient dry-stone walls embroider the headland, though olive groves have been mostly elbowed out by holiday homes and hotels. But Cadaqués remains the polar opposite of the archetypal Costa Brava resort, unblemished by mass tourism due to its inaccessibility. The biggest hotel in town, the Playa Sol, celebrated its 50th birthday last week with a party (complete with jazz band imported from across the border in France). For half a century, it has lived happily up to its name, with a pretty little beach all of 10 yards from the reception desk.

Last week, the Med was still warm enough for swimming, and when an almighty storm supplanted the sunshine you could gaze out at daggers of lightning striking at the hills on the far side of the bay – illuminating the church that presides over the old fishing village.

The first tourists arrived in the late 19th century, which is when the handsome casino sitting squarely on the main plaza was built. Subsequent development has involved ingeniously inserting properties between ripples of rock. Cadaqués has achieved a critical mass that enables it to provide the holidaymaker's essentials – restaurants serving fresh fish, shops dispensing colourful trinkets, a tangle of lanes to while away a warm afternoon – without surrendering its character of quiet elegance.

A newspaper provides lots of information; not just in the stories it contains, but about the person reading it. Such as their nationality. At the Bar Maritim (founded in 1935, the proprietor announces), Le Monde and Suddeutsche Zeitung are the main titles in evidence. French and German travellers know that a precious reward lies at the end of a long drive from the Rhône or Rhine, and that the final few miles of that journey are simply magnificent.

The road to almost nowhere is a marvel of engineering, twisting like an intestine as it climbs, then curving on a contour around a deep canyon. Depending on your constitution, this comprises either poetry in motion or a recipe for motion sickness. But for the final, essential part of the Dalí journey, it is a road you must take back across the hills from Cadaqués.

It's been a good year for the Roses tourist industry. The hoteliers and bar owners of Spain's northernmost "proper" beach resort have prospered as recession-hit Continental Europeans remembered the old ways of tourism, packed themselves into people-carriers and swerved back to the Costa Brava. Some stopped here, at the first big, wide Mediterranean beach you find after crossing the Spanish border.

The mountains provide a mighty backdrop to a bay where kite-surfers display their balletic mastery of wind and water – and Swiss yacht-owners display their mastery of finance by populating the marina with shiny new kit. Roses is mostly, though, just somewhere to pause on the road to Dalí's finest masterpiece. He was baptised in the big old church in the centre of Figueres, a sleepy town that – in a surreal twist – is the only place in Spain connected to Europe's high-speed rail network, with direct TGVs to Paris.

The town's elegant 19th-century theatre, right next to the church, had been destroyed as Franco's nationalists crushed Catalan republicans at the end of the Spanish Civil War. So Dalí decided to create from its burned-out shell an indelible print of his life and work. He wanted "the most extravagant and solid examples of my art" to be housed in his home town. Not in a mere gallery, but a Theatre-Museum, claimed to be "the largest surrealistic object in the world".

It is also the reason why everyone comes to Figueres. Dalí's moustache might curl with pleasure at the queue that snakes to the box office where admission tickets are dispensed.

When finally you get in, it is a strange and wonderful performance: a circuit of works by the man himself, and also works from his collection, around a garden where a old dark-blue Cadillac is permanently parked. This is the vehicle in which Dalí was said to have driven Gala's corpse around on a macabre trail of the unexpected after her death – though that may be just another surreal tale.

Visitors to the museum are urged "not to follow any preconceived route". Eventually, you will track down the Mae West room, and climb steps to the lens through which the sofa becomes her ruby lips, and two Dalí paintings her eyes. Windows on the soul, indeed, of the star-struck genius whose tomb can be viewed in the crypt. If you can find it.

Dalí's celestial creation is, like this entire corner of Spain, a difficult place to comprehend – a collection of crumpled surfaces imprinted haphazardly by man, and where the light is full of playful tricks.

This corner of Spain may be difficult to find, especially now that the Costa Brava has become the Costa Losta. But it is an easy place to love.

Travel essentials: Costa Brava

Getting there

* The most straightforward way to reach Cadaqués from the UK is by train. The 10.25am departure from London St Pancras arrives at Paris Nord at 1.47pm, giving you plenty of time to cross the French capital to the Gare de Lyon. Have a late lunch at Le Train Bleu, then board the TGV for the five-and-a-half-hour journey to Figueres.

A prettier route involves catching a train to Port Bou, where you change for another train to Llanca. If there is no taxi at the station, wander along to the bar where they will find one for you, or call Loli on her mobile: 00 34 689 39 39 39. The 30-minute journey costs €55.

Staying there

* The three-star Hotel Playa Sol (00 34 972 258 100; playasol.com) is the pace you need. It has been rejuvenated as a stylish boutique hotel. A double sea view room costs €117, including a formidable breakfast. The restaurant is also excellent for dinner, though there are plenty of other options.

* The Playa Sol will close from 11 December to 10 January.

Visiting there

* Casa Museu Salvador Dalí, Port Lligat (00 34 972 25 10 15; fundaciodali.org). All visits to the museum must be booked in advance – if you call at 10am you can probably get a space on the same day. Open 10.30am-6pm daily until 6 January, and then closed until 15 March. Admission is €12.

* Teatre-Museu Dalí, Figueres (00 34 972 67 75 00; fundaciodali.org). Open 10.30am-5.45pm daily except Monday, admission €12.

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?