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Costa Brava goes back to its roots
Packed beaches and Brit pubs? Not necessarily. Here’s what drew travelers to one of Spain’s most beautiful regions in the first place
The medieval town of Begur sits on a hill dominated by the remains of a once-mighty 12th-century castle.
Winding roads leading to the old town below are strewn with ancient towers, hidden alleyways and fishermen’s huts.
Tourists come primarily for the eight sand-and-pebble beaches, bordered by pine stands and cliffs and linked by unpaved roads.
Begur locals congregate at Sa Tuna, one of the smaller, more secluded pebble beaches. At mealtimes, banter in Catalan, the regional language, fills the surrounding restaurants.
Could this really be the Costa Brava? That’s all heaving beaches and pubs serving pints of British beer and fish and chips for homesick expats, isn’t it?
In fact, you can find spots as serene and stereotype-defying as Begur throughout the Costa Brava -- from the whitewashed houses of surrealist master Salvador Dali’s beloved town of Cadaqués, to the 575 BC ruins of the Greco-Roman town of Empúries, to historic coastal villages such as Pals and Peralada.
Mass tourism kicks off
Mass tourism kicked off in the Costa Brava in the 1950s, when Spain began to emerge from the isolation brought by civil war and the country searched for new sources of revenue.
Sharing a Mediterranean coastal location, similar landscape and temperate climate with the then more famous Côte d’Azur, the Costa Brava (which literally means -- as it then was -- “wild coast” in Catalan) was an obvious choice for tourist development.
It was soon a hit with travelers seeking a cheaper alternative to French resorts. Before long, multi-story hotels and beachfront apartments dominated once quiet towns along the coastline.
Mass -- and, it’s fair to say, often crass -- tourism such as this is what many people have since come to recognize as the face of the Costa Brava.
Until recently, that is.
In the past decade or so, development has slowed down in favor of a focus on tradition and the region’s natural resources -- the strengths that drew travelers to the region in the first place.
Gastronomy is one of those strengths. Decidedly Mediterranean, with an abundance of fresh seafood and olive oil, cuisine plays an important part in the region’s identity.
Tiny local eateries prepare their simple menus with the same meticulous care as fine-dining establishments. Tales of great-grandmother’s special recipes or the disputed origins of traditional dishes are common discussions in both.
Costa Brava wine has also had a makeover. Until a decade ago, Empordà and other regional wines were produced mainly in bulk to cater to cost-conscious package tourists in larger resort towns.
Now quality is the watchword of a burgeoning number of artisan winemakers throughout the region.
Here’s the best of the new -- or, rather, old -- Costa Brava.
Nearly 50 museums and galleries are scattered throughout the Costa Brava.
One of the most popular is the Dalí Theatre-Museum, in Figueres (5 Gala-Salvador Dalí Square; +34 972 677 500), one of several attractions in the region devoted to the native-born surrealist artist.
You can make a Dalí day of it with lunch in his favorite fishing village, Cadaqués, and in the afternoon pay a visit to the former residence (Calle Port Lligat; +34 972 251 015), with its bizarre interior, he shared with his wife and muse Gala in the lovely village of Port Lligat.
Well preserved towns and other historic sights exist throughout the Costa Brava.
Tossa de Mar is the only surviving fortified city on the Catalonian coast; Peratallada is a good example of a medieval village; and Perelada Castle (Plaza del Carmen 1; +34 972 538 125) has been producing wine since the 13th century.
There’s great scuba-diving in the super-clear water around the uninhabited Medes Islands.
They’re just offshore -- you can easily paddle out to them from the seaside town of L’Estartit.
Equipment and training are available from Les Illes Diving Center (Carrer Illes 55; +34 972 751 239).
On dry land, the flora and fauna of these wild former penal islands are another attraction.
Nearby L’Estartit, there’s a fantastic view from the 14th-century hilltop Montgri Castle (Passeig Catalunya 84) in the town of Torroella de Montgri.
Kayaking is popular off the historic port town of Sant Feliu de Guíxols, with 10 kilometers of surrounding beaches and bays. For kayak rental and information, try Kayak Center Guixols (Passeig del Fortin; +34 667 76 91 80).
Cycling is a great way to get from village to village. It’s particularly lovely at dusk, when the sky turns shades of pink and blue.
Inland, former train tracks have been converted into paved routes for cyclists and walkers as part of the Vias Verdes (“Green Ways”) Project.
The celebrated Girona temple to experimental cooking, El Bulli, closed in 2011 but, only 50 kilometers away, the self-proclaimed “avant-garde” restaurant El Celler de Can Roca (C/de Can Sunyer, 48, Girona; +34 972 22 21 57) won top spot in the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards this year.
Highlights are a Zen garden terrace, an 11-course “festival menu” (think food as science) and a selection of more than 60,000 wines.
In April, El Bulli’s former head chefs, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateo Casañas, opened their own unpretentious eatery in Cadaqués, which has since become a foodie favorite.
Compartir (Riera Sant Vicenç; +34 972 25 84 82) means “to share,” which is precisely the concept -- guests are advised to share dishes to experience the symphony of flavors on offer. Rooms are also available.
A drive through the forest of Lloret de Mar brings you to Sant Pere del Bosc (Paratge de Sant Pere del Bosc; +34 972 36 16 36), a family-owned restaurant and hotel on a hilltop overlooking the sea.
Seafood and local meat combine in a praised seven-course tasting menu, but the secluded location and site -- a beautifully restored former monastery -- are as much of a draw.
You’ll find hotels in all categories but the many renovated residences and other buildings offering accommodation along the Costa Brava offer a great opportunity to soak up the local vibe.
Located in the heart of Begur, Hotel Aiguaclara (St Miquel 2; +34 972 622 905) is a 19th-century colonial mansion-turned-boutique hotel with retro-chic interior and first-rate hospitality.
Modernist-styled Hotel Diana (Plaza de Espana 6; +34 972 341 103) is a 21-room beachside hotel in the historic town of Tossa de Mar with magnificent views of the sea and fortified old town.
In the whitewashed fishing village of Cadaqués, the recently renovated Hotel Playa Sol (Platja Pianc 3; +34 972 258 810) has gorgeous views of the Cap de Creus.