Tag Archives: Costa Brava

A Costa Brava Summer: 24 Hours in Palafrugell

The patio bar of Hostel L’Estrella

In summer, just north of Palamós, the Costa Brava turns a bit quiet thanks to an absence of big hotels and mass tourism. Palafrugell, located a few miles inland, is in a privileged location at the heart of this part of the Costa Brava — a place I always wanted to visit. Finally, I had the opportunity. Palafrugell is well below the radar for most tourists. Calella de Palafrugell, a very upmarket coastal destination — and one of three coastal towns (the others being Llafranc and Tamariu) belonging to the municipality of Palafrugell — gets all the “buzz” in travel and food guides. But “buzz” is not everything.

Centre Fraternal, Plaça Nova

Palafrugell, with a population of 23,000, is the largest town in the region (Baix Empordà) and, as I discovered, has a lot to offer, beginning with a busy central square (Plaça Nova), where the locals gather in the early evening. With no traffic, and at least a half-dozen cafés, it is a great place to order a drink, have a few tapas, and people watch in the cool air. The Centre Fraternal, with its large windows opening on to Plaça Nova, is a cultural center active since 1887. It has a restaurant and great atmosphere. There’s a sizable market (one of the best I have seen) in the town center selling fish, meat, fruits and vegetables every day except Monday. On Sunday the market triples its size to sell other products, from clothes to kitchenware.

Modernisme Door, Cork Museum

Carving of cork cutters, Cork Museum

The cork industry determined the town’s development. Thanks to an abundance of cork oak trees, Palafrugell was famous for its cork manufacturing in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The largest factory closed in the 1970s, leading to harsh unemployment. There is a small but impressive museum (Museo del Suro) commemorating the history and heritage linked to the Catalan cork industry. The museum building itself is an old cork factory in a Modernisme (Catalan Art Nouveau) design. It is in the town center.

“Kouros” by Manuel Solà, Can Mario Museum

Sharing the old cork factory complex is the Can Mario Museum, a contemporary sculpture museum which was inaugurated in 2004. It houses more than 200 sculptures from the 1960s to the present, created by various artists who were either born in or are residents of Catalonia.

Facade, Sant Martí church

The parish church of Sant Martí is definitely worth a visit. Constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries its nave and side-chapels are in the Gothic style. It was badly damaged in 1936, at the beginning of the Civil War.

Mural: Baptism of Jesus, Sant Martí church

In 1939 restoration of Sant Martí began. Guillem Soler, a Catalan painter who specialized in frescoes, designed and painted murals for the church between 1942 and 1948. They are genuinely impressive.

View of Sant Martí church from L’Estrella Guesthouse

Summer in Palafrugell brings the sounds of havaneres, Catalan sea shanties rooted in the songs sung in local taverns. The songs relate Caribbean travels in the 19th century, a time when many Catalans sought their fortune there — especially in Cuba, which explains the songs being called haveneres: “of Havana”. Outdoor concerts featuring groups who perform havaneres are frequent events — in fact, I enjoyed a concert havaneres at the Plaça Nova during my stay. Here is an example, sung (in Catalan) by Sílvia Pérez Cruz, native of Palafrugell, and her father, Càstor Pérez:

Near Plaça Nova

I could have spent more than 24 hours in Palafrugell and want to return to this peaceful, friendly place. Hostel L’Estrella is recommended as a great place to stay and restaurant L’Arc offers wonderful local cuisine.

All photos © La Gringa Ibérica

My Summer (sometimes Autumn, Winter or Spring) Place: Sant Feliu de Guíxols

View from my apartment

Sant Feliu de Guíxols is a small Catalan Mediterranean port town, about an hour north of Barcelona, with a long history. At present it is my home for 4-6 months each year. It has all the qualities that make it a great place if you are an artist, writer, photographer or poet. But because Dalí never stayed here, it is not known as an artists’ colony.

The town was named for the Carthaginian Saint Felix (Sant Feliu in Catalan), martyred in Girona during the last great persecution of Christians by Roman authorities in 304. The Romanesque Basilica of San Feliu was constructed in Girona to honor him. Guíxols is a bit of a mystery — it appears to be derived from the word iecsalis, found in a 10th century document, that seems to mean “rope-maker”.

Sant Feliu de Guíxols grew around a 10th century Benedictine monastery. The fortified monastery has been rebuilt many times, and now has an art museum as well as a parish church and a restaurant under its roof.

Sant Feliu beach in winter

These days, the town is relatively active throughout the year — emphasis on relatively. November, January and February are particularly quiet and despite what the local tourism office promotes, the weather year-round is not an idyllic eternal summer: winter brings cold rain with the tramuntanya (Catalan name for the northern wind) and summer, when tourism takes over, can be uncomfortably (and at times unbearably) humid.

Downtown Sant Felíu

Sant Feliu de Guíxols has a small historic center, with narrow streets and architecture spanning centuries. A market hall, on the Plaça del Mercat, was constructed in 1929. A local farmers’ market is held here every Sunday morning.

Local cliffs

The town was once an important centre for cork manufacturing and, in fact, it was economically prosperous for decades thanks to the cork wine and champagne stoppers produced here. Small abandoned or redeveloped (parking lots a favorite) cork factories can be seen in just about every neighborhood as well as cork oak trees, endemic to southwestern Europe and northern Africa.

The port of Sant Feliu

Fishing is a tradition here but has never had the importance it has in neighboring Palamós. Some small boats are still active today, with blue fish (primarily sardines) the main catch. In late spring a month-long blue fish festival (Campanya gastronòmica del Peix Blau Ganxó) is held. During the festival many local restaurants offer menu selections featuring blue fish. The smell of grilled sardines are a sign to me that summer has arrived here.

Spring in Sant Feliu – the best season to visit!

Beginning in the 1950s, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, like the rest of the Costa Brava, began to be developed as a center of tourism. Though high-rise tourist apartments and hotels line the seafront, it avoided the worst excesses of package tourism. The near-by town of Platja d’Aro has the nightlife, the multiplex, and chain stores, leaving Sant Feliu de Guíxols with a slower pace. The Festival de la Porta Ferrada — Catalonia’s oldest music festival — began here in 1958, and is a very diverse summer festival that attracts large crowds in July and August.

7 things to see/do in Sant Feliu de Guíxols:

The Monastery

Monastery/Thyssen Museum: The Benedictine monastery is the most important heritage site in town. Mare de Déu dels Àngels church, the History Museum of San Feliu and the Summer-Autumn exhibition space of the Thyssen Museum are all located in the monastery.

Sant Elm

The Hermitage of Sant Elm: In 1203 the monks received royal authorization to fortify a cliff  that would warn them of attacks from the sea. In 1452 they built the hermitage of Sant Elm, dedicated to La nostra Senyora del Bon Viatge (Our Lady of the Good Journey). From Sant Elm, the bay and the city of Sant Feliu de Guíxols as well as the dramatic coast can be seen. It was from this spot that journalist Ferran Agulló had the idea, in 1908, of christening the coast with the name of Costa Brava (“wild coast”).

The Casino (detail)

Casino La Constancia: Designed in the modernista mozárabe style by Barcelona architect General Guitart i Lostaló, it was inaugurated in 1889. It is located on the Rambla del Portalet. Despite being called a casino, it was never a place of gambling but the headquarters of a working and labor society founded in 1851. It was a place of  cultural activities (including popular dances), discussion forums, and a library. Today it is a restaurant.

Rescue Station

The Maritime Rescue Museum: A museum located in the town’s rescue station (built in 1890) dedicated to the history of local maritime rescue operations. The view of the harbor from here is beautiful.

Sant Feliu Cemetary

Town Cemetery:The Sant Feliu de Guíxols cemetery, established in the 19th century, contains some remarkable tombs in the Catalan Modernist style which reflect the opulent good-fortune of some during the height of cork manufacture and maritime trade here. It is small enough to explore in less than an hour.

Camí de Ronda

Camí de Ronda – Sant Feliu to Sant Pol: This coastal path (Cami de Ronda)begins in downtown Sant Feliu de Guíxols and is an easy hike crossing a pine grove near cliffs and the sea. At the end of the path is Sant Pol, the most northern of Sant Feliu’s neighborhoods.

Casa Estrada: , the “house of 9 towers”, Sant Pol

The beach at Sant Pol: Located on a large bay, Sant Pol is a long family beach, complete with boardwalk and a protected area of dunes. Among its attractions is its architectural heritage. The best-known house on the beach is Casa Estrada, the “house of 9 towers”, built at the end of the 19th century.

A Costa Brava Summer, 2016

Sa Concha Blog

… Sa Concha beach, near Platja d’Aro …

I am spending the summer on the Costa Brava, in the northeastern corner of Catalonia. This is a region I have been exploring for many years  —  so sharing a few insights and images is way overdue!

Steps to the Sea - S'Agaro

steps to the sea, S’Agaro …

Stretching along the Mediterranean from Blanes, 30 miles (60km) north of Barcelona, to the French border at Portbou, the Costa Brava (Wild Coast) is filled with wooded coves, high rugged cliffs, peaceful beaches and clear blue water. On the streets everywhere the lingua franca is Catalan, not Spanish. Some areas are also overflowing with the damage that followed rapid tourist development beginning in the 1950s, but, in general, it remains a relatively unspoiled region.

Tossa de Mar

… the medieval walled town of Tossa de Mar, la Selva  …

The Catalan coast is divided into three coastal comarques (counties): la Selva to the south, Baix Empordà at the center, and the Alt Empordà in the north. During the winter months the Alt Empordà  can be subjected to the legendary Tramuntana, an impressive wind that blows off the Pyrenees.

Fishing Boat - Blanes

… a small fishing boat on the beach in Blanes …

The cultural heritage of the Costa Brava is tied to the fishing trade and ship-building. The city of Blanes, in la Selva , known as the “Gateway to the Costa Brava”, is a good example. Beginning in the 18th century, the local economy entered into a period of growth with all of the typical Costa Brava economic activities of the time:  extensive maritime-fishery, boat building plus lacework, rope making, and barrel making. The town was a center of shipbuilding and also had a famous sailing school. Tourism is the major industry of Blanes today.

Cami de Ronda near Sant Pol_edited-1

… view from the Cami de Ronda (walking trail) near Sant Pol, Baix Empordà …

One of the best ways to appreciate the Costa Brava is to walk the many coastal trails that connect traditional fishing villages. The Camins de Ronda (walking trails) were originally created by fishermen to protect coastal inhabitants from approaching pirates and smugglers. Certain parts of the old trails vanished with tourism development in the late 20th century but many trails have been recently restored. I find them very safe and well-marked. Difficulty varies in each section, but even the easiest section might be a challenge for visitors who don’t integrate walking or cycling into their daily routine.

Empúries - Blog

… ruins of Empúries …

Empúries Roman Tile Blog

Roman tile floor, one of many at the Empúries ruins

The ruins of the ancient Greco/Roman colony of Empúries, founded in 575 B.C., are located just north of the town of L’Escala, in the Alt Empordà. The strikingly beautiful coastal site is one of the most important Europe — and, for me, a very memorable visit. The site is open year-round and the Museum of Catalan Archaeology is located on the grounds.

Castell d'Aro

… a quiet street in the medieval town of Castell d’Aro …

Església de Sant Martí de Romanyà Blog

… the church of Sant Martí de Romanyà in the village of Romanyá de la Selva …

This is a region filled with medieval towns, churches and farmhouses. Small farms are everywhere, supplying the local markets.

Casa Font en Begur Blog

… the Indiano Casa Font (the Font house), Begur, Alt Empordà … 

Llagostera Blog

… an indiano in Llagostera, Baix Empordà …

Sant Pol

… the indiano Casa De Les Punxes in Sant Pol, Baix Empordà …

Indiano Begur_edited-1

… an indiano in Begur, Alt Empordà …

In the late 19th century a large number of inhabitants of the Costa Brava traveled or emigrated to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic — it has been estimated that as much as one third of the average town here left to make their fortune. Many of these immigrants were financially successful in the Caribbean, especially Cuba, and returned to their towns and villages on the Costa Brava where they constructed large and ornate houses. Many houses, referred to as Indianos (“from the Indies”) can still be seen — some are a bit dilapidated, many restored. During the first week of September, the town of Begur (Alt Empordà) celebrates their nostalgic relationship with Cuba with the Fira d’Indians (Festival of the Indianos).

Dali Museum Figueres

… the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Alt Empordà

The rugged Alt Empordà is Salvador Dalí country. Dalí lived most of his adult life in a unique house of converted and connected fishermen’s huts in Port Lligat (near the French border), and three excellent museums: Dalí Theatre-Museum, Salvador Dalí House – Port Lligat, and Gala Dalí Castle Púbol comprise what is known as the Dalinià Triangle. Here is a wonderful video about them: The Dalí Triangle.

Cabanas Blog

… the beach at Sant Pol,  Baix Empordà …

Beyond the intense summer tourist season, there is year-round activity on the Costa Brava. Out of season (November – March) the area returns to being “local” — the small coastal towns and villages go quiet and the bars, restaurants, hotels and shops that cater only for the summer tourists shutter during the winter. At times it can be bleak, windy and rainy — especially in January and February — but it is also when you can discover the calm and space of the coast — and the beautiful winter light.

Winter light

… January sunset over the Massís de les Cadiretes (Baix Empordà) …


All photos © La Gringa Ibérica

Costa Brava: the “Wild Coast”

Costa Brava Tossa de Mar

Vintage Poster : Tossa de Mar

“Costa Brava” was officially recognized in the 1960s to promote tourism. How did the famous Catalan coast get its name?

Costa Brava 2

Vintage Poster

Ferran Agulló i Vidal, (Sant Feliu de Guixols,1863 – Santa Coloma,1933) was a Catalan journalist, poet, politician and gastronome. In September 1908 he published an article in the Catalan newspaper La Veu de Catalunya, referring to the rugged northern Mediterranean coastline for the first time as the “Costa Brava” — the Wild Coast. Previously the coastal region of north-eastern Catalonia, consisting of Alt Empordà, Baix Empordà and Selva, in the province of Girona, had no official name.

Playa de Oro

Vintage Poster: Playa de Oro (Platja d’Aro)