Along The ‘Wild Coast’

Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Travel Writer

Tossa de Mar is just one of dozens of lovely little beach towns along the Costa Brava, the “Wild Coast” of Spanish Catalonia.

As the bus zigzags and stomachs churn along the looping mountain roads, the Mediterranean comes into view, and you can see where the wild part comes in. Just an hour and a half north of Barcelona, you are already in the Pyrenees foothills, and the coastline is dramatic: jagged golden rocks that slope vertiginously into a sparkling turquoise sea.

Nearly all of the Mediterranean is beautiful, but the regions are distinctive. Northern Italy is verdant and humid; Greece is arid, pale and rocky.

The Costa Brava, stretching north from Barcelona to the French border, is carpeted with a native pine tree that shimmers with shades of intense tourmaline green in the Spanish sunshine. Upon closer inspection, you realize that these lush green mountains are actually an arid, rocky landscape. The wild blend of silvery olive trees, pines and shrubby palms stays green all year long, meaning that long after Biarritz and East Hampton turn drab and leafless, Tossa — and the nearby towns of Calella de Palafrugell, Begur and Palamos — retain their allure.

Summer stretches well into October and the sun still sets at 8 on the Spanish coast, yet beaches and hotels are relatively empty after the traditional August holidays.

There isn’t much of Jewish interest here (for that, head to the provincial capital of Girona, with Spain’s best-preserved Jewish ghetto). Culture of the urban sort is sparse along the Costa Brava, which manages to be both sophisticated and very, very local.

There are medieval castles aplenty, and historic old towns, and walled fortresses that used to shelter fishing villages from Turkish pirates. But aside from strolling the historic streets, gazing at the sea or hiking along the endless pristine coves, there is little to do on the Costa Brava but relax.

It had long been my goal to explore the coast north of Barcelona, one of my favorite cities, and over the years I had done so by bus, hitting many of the region’s tourist highlights.

But going deeper into the region proved a challenge. Trains, hampered by mountainous topography, bypass many of the most charming spots. The pricey bus monopoly has frustrating schedules; the last bus from Tossa leaves at 6:55 p.m., about halfway through the long Spanish afternoon.

And hotels, with some exceptions, are pricey. Determined to avoid the tacky overdevelopment of the Costa del Sol, the Costa Brava has opted for low-scale touristic infrastructure that helps to maintains its historic feel and exclusivity. This is the Spanish coast for families and couples, not for the nightclub-and-mojito crowd. (An exception to the rule is the cheap, conveniently-close Lloret de Mar, which you should skip unless you enjoy trashy discos, water parks and seedy high-rises that look like something the Soviets dreamed up.)

The most accessible of the Costa Brava towns is Tossa de Mar, with its golden medieval walls, cliffside castle and broad, sandy beach. Ninety minutes by bus from Barcelona, it has plenty of cheap-but-charming hotels ($60-80 a night) and a pleasantly compact feel. You can do it in a day trip, but Tossa’s magic is most apparent at night, when moonlight shimmers across the coves.

Centuries of history are evident in the narrow lanes of Tossa’s old town: geraniums bloom from window boxes, and stucco walls are studded with Catalan inscriptions. The medieval section consists of a dramatic, walled path that winds up a mountain overlooking the town’s beaches, where waves crash against the golden rocks. You can enjoy a $3 glass of crisp local wine while taking in the view from a cliffside café, or climb to the lighthouse and a maritime museum.

Further north, accessible mainly by car, are the most economically exclusive towns of the Catalan coast, Calella de Palafrugell and Begur. Tourists here are well-heeled and dressy — wealthy Catalans from Barcelona, French weekenders, and lots of fair-haired Northern Europeans with strollers in tow.
Calella de Palafrugell is the beach “suburb” of Palafrugell, an industrial town with a transit hub. Calella itself is elegant and pastel, with a wide promenade, manicured mansions and lanes lined with lemon trees.

As you wend your way north, the roads narrow into country lanes with endless roundabouts, and crumbling medieval towers sprout from hilltop villages. Wanting to stay in Begur this summer, but unable to afford the lovely boutique hotels, I found a $55-a night room on Airbnb.com, a popular room-renting website, and landed in a restored stone house in the ancient village of Palau Sator.

Begur was just a 15-minute drive through grassy fields into the winding, pine-covered mountains. In contrast to tiny villages like Palau Sator, Begur boasts a substantial historic center, with lovingly preserved buildings and a lively central plaza — and very few tourists to mar the lazy feel. In the silent heat of a summer day, with everything shut up tight for siesta, Begur feels ancient and lost in time.

But the sea always beckons. Nestled along Begur’s steep, wooded coastline, a string of walking paths extends for miles in each direction along the shore (the regional tourism bureau issues a brochure, widely available, mapping these paths). You can hike from cove to cove, stopping for lunch in a “big” cove like Sa Tuna, with its three cafés, or in Aiguafreda. Across the shimmering water, islands of craggy rock jut from the blue depths, confounding sailors at high tide.

It takes effort to get to this Wild Coast. But in a solitary cove shaded by pines, as you swim amid a school of silvery fish, life feels effortless indeed.
 

A cover in Begur, Spain, above. Photo by Hilary Larson

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