The complete guide to the Costa Brava

It was the first of the Spanish costas to open up to the package-tour market and it remains the most popular. But don't be put off. The Costa Brava is full of gorgeous medieval towns and villages without a high-rise hotel in sight. And then there's Barcelona...
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The Independent Travel

WHY IS IT CALLED THE COSTA BRAVA?

WHY IS IT CALLED THE COSTA BRAVA?

The so-called "wild" coast is named for its rocky shore; it was first given the name by a Catalan journalist nearly 100 years ago. It begins about 40 miles north of Barcelona at Blanes, on the northern side of the Tordera river; the resort is best-known for its fish market, and for the Mar i Murtra botanical gardens (00 34 972 330826) just above the town.

Between there and the town of Portbou, next to the French border, are nearly 200 miles of coastline, notable for rocky headlands and small fishing villages, many of which can only be reached after a hazardous journey on seriously winding roads.

One spectacular part of a drive along the coast is the corniche road between Tossa de Mar and Sant Feliu de Guixols. Squeezed among the larger resorts are small, almost inaccessible, bays and clifftop paths.

Further north are the coves and creeks around Begur, with unspoiled villages such as Aiguablava and Aiguafreda tucked at the bottom of steep roads. South of Blanes is the flatter Costa Maresme, or marshy coast, whose beaches are separated from their villages by the railway line and the busy coast road.

SO HOW DO I GET THERE?

If you want to drive through France, the Costa Brava is easily accessible from the E15 motorway, which links the French town of Perpignan with Girona, the main town in the Costa Brava region, and Barcelona.

The nearest airport for scheduled flights is Barcelona. The Spanish airline Iberia (020 7830 0011; www. iberia.com) flies there from Heathrow and Birmingham; look out for off-season deals which often include two tickets for the price of one. British Airways (0345 222111; www.british-airways.com) departs from Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham; Easyjet (0870 600 0000; www.easyJet.com) flies from Luton and Liverpool; and Go (0845 605 4321; www.go-fly.com) flies from Stansted.

If you're hiring a car, a motorway from the airport takes you around the city and north towards Girona; from there, the exits to the beaches are clearly signposted. Charter flights usually land at Girona-Costa Brava, which is just south of Girona, and an easy journey from both ends of the coast.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

Crucetours operates a daily boat service linking various resorts along the coast, starting at Calella, just south of Blanes, and continuing as far as Palamós (for information and timetables, call 00 34 972 372692). If you want to visit several resorts, and don't feel like driving - or, in the height of the season, can't face the hassle of finding a parking space - this is an efficient way to get around. There are also short trips from most of the resorts to nearby points on the coast in glass-bottomed boats; these are more interesting at the northern end of the coast, where the landscape is more varied.

Local trains leave Barcelona's Sants station and go up the coast to Blanes, before turning inland to Maçanet; and the mainline service from Barcelona to Paris stops at Girona, Figueras, Llançà and Portbou before crossing the border.

IS IT FULL OF PACKAGE TOURISTS?

Certainly, at this time of year, the beaches are packed with tourists, all there to enjoy a week or two of more-or-less guaranteed sun, vast sandy beaches and a lively nightlife. This was the first of the Spanish costas to open up to the package-tour market, back in the 1950s, and it has retained its popularity even though there is a great deal more competition now than back then.

Many of the original fishing villages have been replaced by high-rise hotels, but some are still visible: try wandering through the old quarter of Tossa de Mar to get a feel of what it must have been like 50 years ago. The larger resorts prefer to offer visitors a home-from-home, and are particularly appealing for anyone who wants a holiday in the sun, but who doesn't like the idea of being abroad. Specifically, this means that you never need encounter people speaking a language other than your own, and that every meal you eat can consist of food just like mother makes - wherever it is that mother lives.

But if your idea of a holiday is being able to avoid meeting your fellow countrymen, then please don't be put off: the Costa Brava offers plenty of smaller resorts and medieval villages representative of the real Spain.

SUCH AS?

If you take a break from the beach, there are several inland towns and villages worth visiting. The largest town in the region is Girona; the old Jewish quarter is an interesting area to explore. On a smaller scale is the town of Figueras, most of which is often ignored by tourist groups who stop to see the Dalí museum and then move on. But head downhill when you leave the museum and there are some lovely old streets, leading into the Rambla, a wide open space surrounded by trees and cafés.

There are several small medieval towns not far from the coast. One of the nicest of these is Castelló d'Empúries, with its old walls, cobbled streets and the beautifully ornate door of the church of Santa María, considered to be one of the most important religious buildings in the region. Begur, perched on the top of a headland, is a pleasant place to retreat to when the sun starts to go down. In the early evening there is a market in the main square, and the cafés and bars fill up with people who have come to pass an hour or two watching the world go by.

Besalú, Vic and Olot all have lively markets, but if you are serious about a spot of shopping, take a trip to La Bisbal d'Empordà, the centre of the Catalan pottery industry. Along the main street, Carrer de l'Aigüeta, every shop seems to be selling terracotta pots, plates and statues, some in their natural state, and others painted in green, blue or a rich yellow. On the outskirts of town are several of the factories where the pottery is made, and which are happy to demonstrate what they do. There is also a terracotta museum at Sis d'Octubre 99 (00 34 972 642067), which explains the history and traditions of the pottery industry.

AND IF I WANT TO STICK TO THE BEACHES?

The whole coast is famous for its sand, so the choice is between the big resorts, with their range of facilities, or the quieter villages. The coastline from Blanes in the south up as far as Palamós is an unbroken strip of hotels, apartments and restaurants, and it is not easy to distinguish where one beach ends and the next begins.

One of the most charming parts of the coast is at Tossa de Mar, where you get both the attractions of a busy beach resort and a quaint medieval quarter, surrounded by 13th century walls. There are also pleasant walks around the headland, with good views out to sea.

North of Palamós the coastline becomes rockier before it opens out into the Golf de Roses. Here, the nicest beach is Sant Pere Pescador, about 3 miles from the town of the same name. North of Roses the landscape becomes more mountainous, as the Pyrenees get closer. The beaches are smaller, with whitewashed buildings tumbling over the mountains towards the sea.

WHAT ABOUT WATER SPORTS?

There is plenty of opportunity for watersports on the Costa Brava, including sailing, windsurfing, waterskiing and scuba diving. The Golf de Roses is a popular spot for windsurfing and the resort of Sant Pere Pescador has centres for both sailing (00 34 972 193072) and windsurfing (00 34 972 193091).

The seven Medes islands, which can be reached from the resort of L'Estartit, form a marine nature reserve, one of the best areas in Spain for scuba diving and underwater photography; viewing trips in glass-bottomed boats can be organised from L'Estartit for the less adventurous.

Further north, there are several other diving centres, including one based at the Hotel Porto Cristo at El Port de la Selva (00 34 972 387062). Mooring facilities are available at many of the resorts along the coast; for details, or to make advance bookings, contact the tourist office in Girona (00 34 972 208401).

It may not quite be in the category of watersports, but Waterworld, just outside Lloret de Mar on the Carretera de Vidreres (00 34 972 368613; waterworld.es) has plenty of water-based attractions, including Rafting River and Water Mountain. There's a free bus service from Lloret.

AND ANCIENT RUINS?

The ruins of Ampurias (00 34 972 770208), the former Greek town of Emporion, are among the most striking in Catalonia. Emporion was founded in the 6th century BC when some Greek sailors landed on the beach at the southern end of what is now the Golf de Roses, and it grew into a flourishing trading centre. During the Punic Wars, several centuries later, the Romans anchored their warships in the port, and a Roman city grew up nearby.

The ruins of the two cities are still being excavated, but the layout of both is clearly visible, and there are some well-preserved mosaic floors in the Roman settlement. A path along the edge of the beach links the site with the old village of Sant Martí d'Empúries, now joined to the mainland but once an island, and the spot where the Greeks first landed.

If you like your ruins to be less ancient, it is worth visiting the Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes (00 34 972 387559), a few miles above the harbour of El Port de la Selva. Now extensively restored, the building dates from the 10th century, although bits continued to be added until the monks finally left in the 18th century. A little further up the hillside are the remains of the small church of Santa Helena, once part of the village that grew up to support the monastery. From here, there are spectacular views to the east over the Cap de Creus and northwards up the coast to France. Several forest walks are marked out across the cape.

WILL I GET A FLAVOUR OF CATALONIA?

Certainly. The Catalan people are very proud of their heritage, and regard themselves as Catalans first and Spaniards second. Since 1979, Catalan has been the province's first language, so all the signposts, for example, are in Catalan, although everyone understands and speaks Spanish.

The most obvious manifestation of Catalan culture is in the displays of sardana, the traditional dance in which the dancers join hands in a circle; there are open-air performances in many villages during the summer, and the town of Olot holds a sardana festival.

WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD?

The typical style of cooking is known as "mar i muntanya", or sea and mountain, which is a sort of Mediterranean version of surf and turf. This involves dishes combining chicken with lobster, for example, or meat with snails - you might just want to stick with the more familiar paella, a combination of rice, chicken and prawns. Since this area has a long coastline, there is plenty of fish and seafood, and you will often see local residents and restaurant owners down at the quayside when the boats come in, looking for the best of the daily catch.

The most famous dessert is the crema catalana, which is a cross between egg custard and crÿme caramel. The wines grown in the Costa Brava are not among Spain's greatest, although some very drinkable wines are produced in the Empordà region around the town of Figueras.

THE DALI TRAIL

Salvador Dali lived in Catalonia all his life, and much of his best work is displayed in the region. He was born in the town of Figueras, although from 1930 to 1982 he lived in a lovely whitewashed house on the beach at Port Lligat, and this is where most of his work was done. This house is now open to the public, although entry is very strictly controlled, and you should book your tickets in advance if you are making a special journey (00 34 972 251015); tickets are valid at specific times only.

Dalí lived in Port Lligat with his wife Gala, for whom he also bought a castle further south in the village of Púbol. This was her refuge, and her husband was only allowed to visit there when invited to do so.

The castle has also been opened to the public, although it is not necessary to book in advance (00 34 972 488655).

The main collection of Dalí's work, as well as his notebooks and other personal possessions, is at the Theatre Museum in Figueras (00 34 972 677500), which has been transformed from its original use to provide a unique backdrop for his paintings and other installations (below).

The style of the Costa Brava resorts varies enormously but the following might give some idea of what's on offer.

Lloret del Mar is the largest resort on the coast - a purpose-built town devoted to pleasure. At this time of year it is impossible to see the beach at all, such is the number of bodies covering the sand. Apart from a few ice-cream stalls and a couple of bars, most of the restaurants and cafés are in the streets behind the coast. Lloret may be busy during the day, but it really comes alive at night, when its discos and clubs fill up with holidaymakers.

Tamariú is a much smaller resort on a rocky stretch of coast to the south of Begur. Boats bob around in the bay and children play on the sand; in the evening, the streets are quiet, as locals and visitors congregate in the fish restaurants around the waterfront. This quiet village is ideal for families, and for anyone wanting to feel they are staying in a real Spanish village.

Cadaqués is an attractive small town with a beach, rather than a resort with a town attached. It was once a small fishing village, and is dominated by the large white church of Santa Marîa. The town's popularity increased along with that of Salvador Dalí, who lived nearby, and whose statue dominates the bay.

Despite the appeal it has for tourists, Cadaqués has managed to retain its charm along with its old buildings and cobbled streets.

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