On Barcelona’s doorstep

Imagine this: your prodigiously talented artist husband buys you a Gothic castle, then lavishly (if quirkily) decorates it for your private retreat, which he can only visit on your written invitation. Impossible? Well that’s just what Costa Brava’s famous native son, surrealist artist Salvador Dali did for his spouse and eternal, if not exactly ever-present, muse, Gala Dali. He does, however, paint himself into a majestic ceiling panel so that when Gala raises her eyes she sees him always in her heaven.

Fortunately, you don’t need a written invitation to visit the Gala-Dali House-Museum in Pubol, or either of the other two museums that make up what is known as the Costa Brava Dali Triangle: his magnum opus, the hyper-bizarre Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres and his House Museum in Portlligat.

Three other local heroes, the Roca brothers, owners of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, which has twice been named the Best Restaurant in the World (and is now at World’s No. 3), also channel daring, magic and humour to create otherworldly culinary masterpieces that still manage to honour the landscape, memories and traditions of their Catalan heritage.

And this is just the beginning of what this ‘Wild Coast’ of northeastern Spain has to offer. Bustling Barcelona, with its curvy Gaudi masterpieces and labyrinthine Gothic Quarter, may be Catalonia’s big-ticket destination, especially for Aussies who do the Mediterranean cruise hop from Venice. But an hour or so away, the medieval town of Girona and its Costa Brava stretching to the French border offer a rich tapestry of adventures, whether you are a food and wine lover, cyclist, golfer, beach freak, history buff or art aficionado. Or, all of the above.

Catalonia is fiercely proud of its culture and language and has been in the news a lot lately with a bid for independence from Spain. Politics aside, its Costa Brava region has a different sort of notoriety based on the low-cost, high-rise flop-and-drop resorts like Lloret de Mar and Blanes that lure sun-starved Northern Europeans on package tours.

Step outside these concrete bunkers, however, and you’ll come across Iberian and Roman ruins dotted across a landscape of centuries-old olive groves, rugged clifftops and pretty coves. Orchards and rice fields sprawl across rich plains overlooked by snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees.

Meanwhile, New Age restaurants sit alongside traditional bodegas in fortified hill towns and white-washed seaside villages sport cafes serving sparkling fresh seafood right out of the clear blue waters of the Med. And a delightful touring route links the wineries of the local Emporda wine region, named after the sixth century Greek market town of Emporion, where grapes were first grown. Now you’ll find architect-designed cellars nestled among gnarly old bush vines. It’s an altogether enticing mix of the ancient and the avant-garde.

Start your perambulations in the pretty medieval city of Girona. Admire reflections of its ochre and red houses along the River Onyar then walk along the Old Town’s 14th-century fortification walls for panoramas of narrow streets and church spires, including the imposing Catalan Gothic Cathedral. (Fans of Game of Thrones fans will recognise many settings from Season Six here).

Girona is no museum piece but a thriving university town and pro-cycling centre where no less than 100 professional cyclists train on the nearby diverse terrain. In the heart of the Old Town, Bike Breaks is a great way to access the local scene offering group rides every Thursday morning. If golf is more your thing, check out the spectacular nearby PGA Catalunya Resort or Peralada Golf Resort, a little further north.

Girona is a buzzy foodie centre, too, and not just because it is home to El Celler de Can Roca. Take a Girona Food Tour to sample local delicacies like traditional xuixos cream-filled pastries, sweet blood sausage, anchovies and salted cod, sheep and goat cheese, olives, Iberian cured hams, and artisanal peasant bread smeared with tomato (the go-to Catalan snack of pa amb tomàquet). And, for the grand finale try baked apple ice cream topped with cloud violet and shredded coconut popped inside a toasted brioche at Jordi Roca’s Willy Wonka-like Rocambolesc ice-cream parlour.

If you’ve booked well enough in advance (and have deep pockets) the multi-sensory food and wine degustation at El Cellar de Can Roca is a must. You may be presented with ‘olives’ hanging from a bonsai tree; oyster tartare in a freeze-dried oyster shell with walnut, green apple, Earl Grey mayonnaise and bergamot dust; veal bone marrow with charcoal-grilled sea urchin and pak choi and – to stir your memories – puffed pastry of butter cookies, cream of Darjeeling tea, old book essence and lemon madeleine ice cream. New Age science and Old World art converge to create a dining experience laden with culture and emotion.

But don’t stop here. Fourteen restaurants sport 18 Michelin stars in Girona province, more per capita than any other region in the world. The chefs in these parts are legendary for pushing culinary boundaries (Ferran Adria’s now-closed El Bulli restaurant was in a tiny seaside town not far from where Dali built his home in Portlligat). Their inventiveness would be nothing, however, without the exquisite raw materials found here where the mountains meet the sea across vast alluvial plains. Seek out the red prawns from Palamós, anchovies from l’Estrella, rockfish and sea urchins, rice from Pals, olives, apples and wild mushrooms, suckling pig, not to mention cheese and beef from the high pastures of the Pyrenees.

The quality of the food is mind blowing everywhere you eat — from a simple seafood café in Cadaqués to the charming Vicus restaurant run by a young couple in the village of Pals, where you can savour razor clams with escabeche and lime, artisanal carnaroli rice with pork ribs and morels, and a lemon from their garden frozen and stuffed with lemon cream and ice-cream. Costa Brava even has its own surf and turf cuisine, where classic dishes might incorporate the likes of langoustines and chicken and, for sushi, check out FarNomo, a superb Japanese restaurant next to the San Sebastian lighthouse above Llafranc.

You may come for the food, but savour the wines while you’re here. There are some interesting surprises, like Eccoci Winery nestled beside a nature preserve not far from Girona. Owned by reclusive Tiffany jewellery designer (she of the Tiffany heart) Elsa Peretti, this eco-winery is producing delightful Chardonnay/Viognier and red Bordeaux blends. Enjoy a guided walk from the pretty village of Sant Marti Vell before enjoying a wine and food tasting on the terrace.

In Baix Emporda visit the striking Brugarol cellar, designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning local architecture studio RCR and constructed from corten steel from a recycled World War II cargo ship. Stay next door at Finca Bell-lloc at the contemporary-art-dotted rustic farmhouse, and feast on the property’s produce, farm-raised chickens, goats, and pigs, olive oils, cheeses, and jams.

Many Emporda winemakers are also resuscitating indigenous grape varieties, such as Grenache Gris, Carignan, Macabeo and Picapoll. This makes cellar door visits in the Costa Brava all the more interesting, because instead of imbibing yet another Shiraz, Chardonnay or Cabernet, you can taste the unique soil (an interesting mix of slate, pebbles and sand) and soul of the oldest wine region on the Iberian Peninsula. Visit Martin Faixo in a 14th-century stone farmhouse on the scraggly hillsides of Cap de Creus outside of Cadiques, Mas Llunes for a sensory wine tasting in their cellars and, not far from the French border, Vinyes d’Olivardots, where mother-daughter team Carme and Carlotta Pena are hand-crafting indigenous vines, some even aged in ceramic amphorae like their Greek ancestors.

Make time to discover the layers of cultures that have called the Costa Brava home. The Empúries’ archaeological site offers a fascinating insight into how a Greek trading port eventually merged with a Roman city, while the Ullastret hilltop fort shows a sophisticated indigenous Iberian culture from the Bronze Age. Fast forward 1000 or so years and you can still wander the maze-like streets of medieval villages like Peratallada and Pals.

And you can’t leave this wild coast without exploring some of its prettiest coves and seaside villages. A 217-km Coastal Path, the Camis de Ronda, links Blanes in the south with Portbou in the north. Several sections are particularly appealing, including two short walks between the pretty whitewashed villages of Castella and Llafranc, and Cadaqués and Portlligat.

Here everything comes full circle back to Dali, who built his eccentric home from a jumble of fishermen’s cottages in Portlligat. Looking at the stark beauty of this coast, it is easy to see why Dali said: “I am inseparable from this sky, from this sea, from these rocks.”

The rocks of nearby Cap de Creus form a backdrop in one of his most famous paintings, The Persistence of Memory (one of his ‘Melting Clocks’ masterpieces), which now hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Channelling memories though scents, flavours and colours are also essential to the Roca brothers’ vision.

There are so many layers to explore here in the Costa Brava from ancient ruins to cutting-edge culinary creations, from the mountains to the sea. This proud sliver of Catalonia both cherishes its past and fancifully embraces the future. It’s hard to imagine a more intriguing place to visit. •

Photography by Susan Gough Henly.

Travel facts

Getting there

Qantas has daily flights from Sydney to Barcelona connecting through Dubai. Either rent a car at the airport or take a train to Sants station and then change to the high-speed train to Girona. qantas.com; renfe.com/EN/viajeros/index.html

When to go

The best time to visit is during the Spring (March to May) and Autumn (September to November). Summer is also lovely but more crowded.

Where to stay

  • Nord 1901 Hotel is a charming boutique hotel with a courtyard pool in the Girona Old Quarter.
  • Hotel Peralada Wine Spa and Golf offers a serene five-star retreat, wine spa and golf course in the heart of Emporda wine country. hotelperalada.com
  • Located in a 16th century stone farmhouse outside the Medieval village of Pals, Hotel Gastronomic Es Portal is a boutique hotel with a lovely gourmet restaurant.
  • The winery estate of Finca Bell-Lloc has rooms, apartments and private houses for rent.

Where to eat and drink

  • The World No. 3 restaurant, the three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona offers a sublime culinary adventure with whimsical degustation menus.
  • Vicus Restaurant, in the village of Pals, is a small family-owned restaurant offering inspired seasonal dishes with contemporary flair.
  • Located in an ivy-draped medieval castle, the one-Michelin-starred Castell Peralada Restaurant offers inventive food and wine by El Bulli alumnae.
  • Tucked under archways in Girona’s Old Town, Plaça del Vi 7 is the passion project of Roger Viusa, named among the best sommeliers in the world. Taste the best local wine and tapas.

What to do

Further information

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