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.

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
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

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick