Why go here?
Think the Côte d.Azur at a fraction of the price. The Costa Brava may still suffer from the lingering residue of a reputation as an egg-and-chips, packageholiday hell, but away from the larger resorts, you’ll find some of the most gorgeous, unspoilt, and romantic coastline in Europe.
Along this stretch, from Blanes, just north-west of Barcelona, to the French border, there are golden, sandy coves and award-winning, family-friendly beaches with nary a high-rise to be seen. You’re also on the doorstep of the Emporda region’s lush countryside – great for walking or cycling, with medieval villages to explore and some of the best food in Spain to taste.
The great outdoors
El Golfet near Calella, Platja Fonda near Begur, and Cala Llevado near Tossa de Mar are among several beautiful coves along this coast. Alternatively, for large swathes of sand where the kids can run free, Aiguablava, also near Begur, is equally pretty, flanked on either side by pine tree-clad hills. Or there's the chi-chi bay of Llafranc, with its yacht-filled harbour and restaurants. In Palafrugell, the Cap Roig Botanical Gardens offer fabulous views of the surrounding coast, as does the Cami de Ronda – a winding coastal path edging along many of the Costa Brava's most stunning beaches. There are also scenic walking and cycling trails, such as the Narrow Gauge Railway Route (en.costabrava.org) from Girona to Sant Feliu de Guixols.
The history trail
Almost as impressive as Pompeii, but far less well known is the sprawling complex of Greco-Roman ruins at Empuries (mac.cat/eng/Branches/Empuries) – Spain’smost important archaeological site. With the coast just across the road and the Pyrenees in the distance, it’s also one of the most beautiful. Moving forward in time, the vast 18th-century fortress of Sant Ferran (castillosanfernando.org /ENG/index.php) in Figueres is one of the largest in the world and offers panoramic views of the Emporda countryside, as well as a fascinating network of underground cisterns and tunnels to explore. Equally memorable is the medieval Jewish quarter, Arab baths and cathedral in Girona.
The retail therapy
The medieval town of La Bisbal is the centre of the local pottery industry and the place to come for terracotta dishes or vividly hand-painted ceramics, from plates and wall tiles to candlesticks and planters. Salo, on the seafront promenade in Cadaques, also has a good selection to choose from. If you like quality, unusual jewellery, Gemma Ridameya (00 34 972 159441), also in Cadaques, makes quirky pieces using silver, softened pebbles and pieces of volcanic rock, while Artefusa (artefusa.com) in Castello d’Empuries has handmade pieces in silver. For fresh food, meanwhile, and the ripest tomatoes you’ve ever seen, head for the weekly markets at Begur and Palafrugell.
The inside attractions
Trace the Dalí triangle: the Dalí Museum (salvadordali.org/museus/figueres/en_index.html) in Figueres – complete with golden egg-topped pink façade – where you can see the Mae West sofa; Dalí’s home (salvadordali.org/museus/portlligat/en_index.html) at Cadaques; and the Gala Dali Castle Museum (salvador-dali.org/museus/pubol/en_index.html) at Pubol, with its predictably bonkers interiors, which the artist adapted for his wife Gala. Aqua Brava Water Park (aquabrava.com/en/the-water-park.html), near Roses, is great for a family day out. Alternatively, for deluxe pampering, head to the Zen-inspired Mas Spa at the five-star hotel Mas de Torrent (mastorrent.com) near Begur.
The places to eat and drink
Catalonia has some of the best restaurants in Spain, including the Michelin three-star Celler de Can Roca (elcellerdecanroca.com) in Girona. The Restaurante Portitxol (hostalempuries.com/en), at Hostal Empuries, specialises in organic fare from its own kitchen garden, or there’s Sa Rascassa (hostalsarascassa.com), in a romantic walled garden near Begur, serving exceptional but reasonably priced contemporary Catalan cuisine. For something more rustic try the excellent Can Torrades in Begur (Carrer Concepcio Pi i Tato), or for picnics, the small bay at Aiguafreda near Begur, has stone tables and benches amid the pines. For drinks, the nearby Vintage Lounge (vintagecapsasal.com) is a retro-styled bar and terrace with spectacular sea views. Or check out the quirky L’Hostal (00 34 972 258 000) in Cadaques – Salvador Dalí ’s favourite bar.
How to get there
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Girona daily, while EasyJet (easyjet.com) and British Airways (ba.com) fly into Barcelona. Avis (avis.co.uk) offers a week's car hire from Girona airport from £114. Double rooms at the Hotel Castell d’Emporda (castelldemporda .com) cost from £120 per night. Double rooms at the Hotel Mediterrani de Calella dePalafrugell (hotelmediterrani.com) cost from £71 per night. Double rooms at Hostal Empuries (hostalempuries.com) cost from £95 per night.
Costa Brava Tourist Office (costabrava.org); Spanish Tourist Office (08459 400 180; spain.info).