Costa Brava: The coast that keeps it surreal

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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.

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