When General Franco was looking for a moneyspinner, he turned his attention to the craggy coastline sweeping northwards of Barcelona to Pyrenees. In doing so he created – as the story goes – Spain’s first package tourism destination.
The Costa Brava’s alluring ensemble of beaches and calas (coves) and salty maritime villages were no secret to Barceloneses of course, and it had its Côte d’Azur moment in the 1930s when the likes of Ava Gardner and Orson Welles flocked here. Franco’s vision may have been responsible for formulaic high-rise resorts such as Lloret de Mar, but in destinations such as Cadaqués, Dalí’s old stomping ground, or the upmarket enclaves of Tamariu or Llafranc, it barely held sway.
It goes without saying that August is probably the worst time to visit the Costa Brava. The roads that lead to the best calasand beaches are clogged, and once there, staking your towel space is an exercise in patience and diplomacy. In July school groups flock to the campsites, making some beaches noisy. June is a good bet (at least until school holidays start on June 23rd) and September even better. The weather often stays beach-friendly until end October. Even in February, this writer had a glorious weekend of plus 25 degree-days in a luxury hotel near Palamós that was offering incredible off peak rates.
The Costa Brava is decidedly more down market than the Côte d’Azur, and unless you are staying in the St. Trop-ified villages of Cadaqués or Llafranc you can leave the resort wear at home. Bring a pair of light walking shoes if you plan to do one of the many beautiful coastal walks, and a sweater or jacket in summer as the evening breezes can get robust. Plastic sandals or latex surf socks are pretty much essential for the costa’s pebbly coves. You can buy these, and pretty much everything else, once you arrive of course, but keep in mind the biggest shopping hubs are the inland towns of Girona and Figueres, and unless you are visiting during winter, you’ll probably want to stick to the coastal destinations.
Most visitors hire a car, especially if their accommodation is situated a good distance from the beach (something to think about when booking) but buses from Barcelona and Girona service some destinations. (The only train line from Barcelona finishes at Blanes). As a rule of thumb, the bigger the hotel the more likely it is to be opened off-season. Self-catering accommodation is trickier to find as most are managed by local agencies. In this case, let Google guide you.
Once you are there
Bar some mega discos dotted around the major resorts like Platja d’ Aro, nightlife on the Costa Brava is decidedly low key. Once you have checked in, start the evening (as most visitors do) with a long stroll along the seafront before heading onto dinner. Use this time to get acquainted with your immediate surroundings, mentally noting shops and eateries you may wish to return to. Even in high season, most destinations on the Costa Brava retain their village-like ambiance and unless you have a car to get you to the megamarts located on the highways, you’ll want to ‘go local’. Taxis are available but tend to be expensive and there are also mini-buses that scoot around the villages – timetables and routes are generally posted on notice boards outside the ajuntament (town hall) on the village squares.
Noted restaurants, such as Tragamar (www.tragamar.com) in Calella de Palafrugell or Miramar in Llança (www.restaurantmiramar.com) need to be booked ahead, especially if you want an outdoor table. Like the rest of Spain, people tend to eat dinner from 9pm onwards, though you’ll always find something open sooner catering to Northern European habits. During the summer, many cultural venues are also opened in the evenings as well. This is the case of Museu de la Pesca in Palamós (www.museudelapesca.org) the Vila Casas art foundations in Palafrugell and Torroella de Montgri (www.fundaciovilacasas.com) and the Museu Dalí in Figueres. During July and August, the medieval inland town of Peralada hosts an exciting arts and music festival (www.festivalperalada.es).
By day, the biggest decision you’ll need to make is which beach, or cala (cove) to go to. This is where you really see the advantage in having a car, as village beaches can get very crowded. If it’s long, golden stretches of sand you want, head to the family-friendly destination of Platja d’Aro, Lloret de Mar (if you must, this popular tourist resort is garnering an increasingly seedy reputation) the beautiful crescent shaped bay at Roses, or L’Escala (famous for its local anchovies) or Sant Martí de Empuriés, where you can also see the incredible ancient remains of Catalunya’s Grecian colonists.
The Cap de Begur is often considered the ‘heart’ of the Costa Brava. Here is where you’ll find the most breathtaking pine dotted peaks cradling sapphire coves – though accessing them is not always easy (some involve long walks) and accommodation here tends to be expensive, especially in the upmarket enclave of Sa Tuna. The pretty towns of Sant Felíu de Guixols and neighbouring S’Agaro are splendid places where Barceloneses of all stripes have been holidaying for over a century. Both have great beaches, and from S’Agaro you can take the Cami del Ronda, the magnificent (and very easy) coastal walk that starts at La Gavina, a famous hotel from the costa’s early 20th C heyday.
Off-season, you’ll probably want to turn you attention inland to the ancient hilltop villages. The so-called ‘Dalí Triangle’ consists of three sites where the master of surrealism lived his life; the castle he built for his wife Gala at Púbol, his home at Port Lligat (pre-booking advisable) and of course his magical museum at Figueres (the queues for the latter are much shorter off-season too). With its moody Gothic architecture and clutch of museums, it could be argued that winter is a better time to visit Girona, the monumental ‘capital’ of the Costa Brava. Foodies will be well catered for in Palamós, the home of the costa’s fishing fleet. Try the fat, succulent ‘Palamós prawns’ in any one of its excellent eateries.
Whether you are flying out from Barcelona or Girona airport, leave plenty of time, as high season traffic on the costa can get snarly. Girona-Costa Brava airport, which is used mainly by Ryanair flights to and from many destinations in GB and Ireland, has limited facilities – particularly restaurants. If you don’t have a car, there are some buses that connect major destinations on the costa with the airport, but they don’t always align with departure times (see www.sarfa.com). The same company has routes to Barcelona, which tend to be more frequent. They stop at the Estació Nord, from where it’s best to take a metro to the Catalunya stop then the airport bus. Note that there are different buses for the two terminals. (Check whether you are flying from either T1 or T2.) If you arrive early, you might want to spend a bit of time mooching around central Barcelona before heading to the airport – perhaps even having lunch, as restaurants at the airport are expensive. There is a convenient locker service to leave your luggage near the airport bus stop