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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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