Stretching from Blanes, 60km north of Barcelona, to the French border, the unfairly maligned Costa Brava (Rugged Coast) boasts wooded coves, high cliffs, pretty beaches and deep blue water. Struggling under its image as the first developed package-tour coast in Spain, it is very determinedly shifting away from mass tourism. It is undeniable that the unharnessed tourist boom wreaked damage in some areas, but the old sangría-and-chips image is giving way to greater prominence for the area’s natural beauty and fascinating cultural heritage.
Broadly, the coast is split into three areas: La Selva at the southern tip, clustered around brash Lloret de Mar, and the medieval walled town of Tossa de Mar; the stylish central area of Baix Empordà between Sant Feliu de Guíxols and Pals, popular with the chic Barcelona crowd, which boasts some wonderfully scenic stretches of rolling coastline around Palamós, the beaches and villages of inland Palafrugell and hill-top Begur; and the more rugged Alt Empordà in the north. This area is marked by the broad sweep of the Golf de Roses, site of a nature reserve, the Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, and the alluring peace of the ancient Greek and Roman settlement of Empúries, and extends to the bohemian Cadaqués, which attracts an arty crowd paying tribute to Salvador Dalí; the artist lived most of his life in the labyrinthine warren of converted fishermen’s huts in a neighbouring cove, now a fabulous museum.
Beyond Torroella de Montgrí, the scenery changes quite abruptly as you move into the fertile plains and wetlands of the southern part of the Alt Empordà, dominated by the broad swathe of the Golf de Roses. Coves give way to long stretches of sand as far north as Roses, which nestles in its own closed-in bay. The gulf is backed for the most part by flat, rural land, well watered by the Muga and Fluvià rivers. Having been left to its own quiet devices for centuries, this section of coast is distinct from the otherwise touristy Costa Brava, and has really only suffered the attentions of the developers in towns at either end of the bay, most notably in the few kilometres between Roses and the giant marina-cum-resort of Empuriabrava.
At the southern end of the gulf is the pleasant old fishing port of L’Escala, made more remarkable by the presence of Empúries, a ruined Greek and Roman settlement and one of Spain’s most important archeological sites. Beyond Roses, the familiar crashing rocks and deeply indented coves return with a vengeance in the wild Cap de Creus headland. The jewel in the crown here is Cadaqués, eternally linked to Salvador Dalí, who lived for years in the neighbouring fishermen’s village of Portlligat, now home to an absorbing museum in his bizarre former residence. For the final run to the French border, the road swoops along the coast through quieter villages such as whitewashed El Port de la Selva.
Why did the most famous chef in the world close his restaurant at the height of its popularity? The answer to that explains who Catalan chef Ferran Adrià is.
Adrià’s legendary “molecular gastronomy” restaurant El Bulli, near the town of Roses, was voted best restaurant in the world for five years – twice in 2010 – by Restaurant magazine, the arbiters of such things. At its apex, there were two million reservation requests per year – and eight thousand granted. Adrià closed El Bulli in July 2011, and in its place is setting up a nonprofit culinary foundation and centre, due to open in 2014, in pursuit of what he calls “constant evolution” and “a permanent commitment to creativity”. For up-to-date information, including information on visiting, check the website: welbulli.com. In the meantime, though El Bulli has now closed its doors, you can visit the lively tapas bar, Tickets, Ferran opened in 2011 with his brother Albert in Barcelona.
Adrià is perhaps best known for his “foams” (espumas), scented with everything from carrot to pine nuts to smoke. One of his culinary signatures has been to re-create traditional Mediterranean flavours via very non-traditional methods, his wizardry yielding such concoctions as liquid ravioli; spherified olives; parmesan ice cream; and “caviaroli” – caviar made with allioli. As Adrià has said of his cuisine: “Nothing is as it seems.” Adrià is also famous for his deconstruction of Spain’s comfort dishes, like tortilla de patatas. Hot potato is transformed into foam, onion made into a thick purée and egg white becomes a whipped sabayon. It’s served in a tiny sherry glass with a spoon: the flavours fill the mouth – intense, warm and startlingly familiar.
The El Bulli Foundation will occupy the same space as the restaurant, which is perched over the quiet cove of Montjoi, at the end of a long and winding road above Roses. It’s a lovely, isolated spot – a far cry from the thronged Costa Brava and its laminated, quadrilingual menus. The land on which it sits was originally purchased by a German couple, who opened a beach bar which was followed by a restaurant, which they named after their pet French bulldogs – El Bulli. Adrià joined the staff in 1984, and contemporary Catalan cuisine has never been quite the same since.
Adrià is sometimes compared to another famous native son of Catalunya: Salvador Dalí. One is a surrealist on canvas, the other a surrealist in the kitchen. We asked Adrià about the parallel, if any, between art and cuisine, and he summed it up like this:
The dialogue between art and cuisine is still young. But in the end, it’s not that important if cuisine is art, but if it changes the way you look at the world.
There are three museums in the Costa Brava devoted to the life and work of Salvador Dalí and they’re known locally as the Dalí Triangle. The Teatre-Museu Dalí in Figueres provides a display of the breadth of his art and his consummate creative skill, whereas the Casa-Museu Castell Gala Dalí, northwest of Girona, reveals the artist’s complex personal relationship with his Russian wife and muse, Gala. Famously, he was only allowed to enter her home with permission; he repaid her with mischief by painting false radiators on the covers she had insisted he install to hide the real ones. You can also gain insight into the artist at Casa-Museu Salvador Dalí in Portlligat, next to Cadaqués, which was his only fixed home from 1930 until 1982, when he moved into Gala’s castle. The casa is a tortuous maze of a home made up of fishermen’s huts that were successively acquired and strung together.