Catalonia, The Costa Brava and the Bay of Roses

Costa Brava Cadaques

“I have spent a delightful summer, as always, in the perfect and dreamy town of Cadaqués. There, alongside the Latin sea, I have been quenched by light and colour” –  Salvador Dali.

The search for the Costa Brava of Norman Lewis was going to start exactly where I thought might be the place that he visited, stayed and wrote about in his book ‘Voices of the Old Sea’ so this required a journey of fifty kilometres or so from Caldes de Malavella in a northerly direction towards the very top of the Bay of Roses.

The plan was to take a steady drive towards Figueres and then drive east first of all to the Cap de Creus Peninsula which was once so inaccessible that the only way in and out was by sea and the seaside town of Cadaqués which was the summer home and studio of the artist Savador Dalí.

To get to our destination we had to bypass the city of Girona and in plotting the route I became confused by a lot of new road construction and unfortunately blundered onto a toll motorway that swept us quickly all the way to Figueres.  This is quite easy to do because in the last few years and especially after joining the Eurozone and getting access to cheap loans, Spain has indulged in an frenzy of infrastructure improvements to its high speed rail network and to its roads and the Spanish motorway network is now the fifth largest in the world by length, after the United States, China, Russia and Canada.

Catalonia Ceramic Tile Map

Being a natural skinflint I don’t like toll roads but as we arrived at the pay booth there was no alternative but the really annoying thing was that next to this motorway we could see the toll free national road running alongside.  This is because many main Spanish roads have been upgraded not just once, but twice or three times and unlike in more populated countries, where upgrading means improving the existing road, the Spanish solution, where there is plenty of room, has often just been to build a new road next to the old one. Consequently, on some routes, there are actually three parallel roads, the historic route, the post-Franco new road, and the more recent motorway.

On the plus side the motorway made the journey very swift and soon we were bypassing Figueres and heading east towards Roses and shortly after that the long straight highway buckled into a series of sweeping hairpin bends as the mountain road made progress towards Cadaqués.  Nearer to the old fishing village we passed through hillsides of abandoned dry stone wall terracing which is all that remains of a wine growing rural industry that was destroyed over a hundred years ago by phylloxera and this was so distressing to the people that farmed here that the vines were never to be reintroduced.

Cadaqués might be difficult to get to but this doesn’t deter hundreds of people driving there and the place was busy today as apparently it always is as we parked in a large expensive car park on the edge of the town and then walked over a steep hill to reach the seafront.

Tossa de Mar Costa Brava

Cadaqués was once a simple fishing village and there are steep narrow streets with whitewashed houses and sharp stone steps carved directly out of the mountain and then on the seafront side there is barely anything left of the old ways but it was nice enough – trendy, arty, sophisticated and expensive.  This was confirmed by a glance at the menu boards of the seafood restaurants and tapas bars all along the harbour walls and the narrow road next to the sea.  The water was lead coloured and black with weed and fringed by a sharp sand beach where people stretched out in the sunshine striving for a suntan.

We didn’t propose to stay for lunch so after we had walked in both directions along the charming sea front we tackled the undulating cobbled streets making their way across the hill to the huge church at the top of the village and then returned to the car, paid the exorbitant parking fee and returned back along the twisting mountain road towards Roses.

I was excited about going to Roses, I was sure that this is where Norman Lewis stayed and the place generally comes highly recommended in the guide books.  I was immediately disappointed.

There was nothing charming about this place at all. Despite the tourist developments Cadaqués had preserved a lot of its original charm but Roses had clearly swept it all away in a ribbon of soulless 1960s development of concrete boxes and car parks.  A colleague had told me that if I went to Roses then I shouldn’t shout about it because he didn’t want too many people to discover what he called a best kept Spanish secret but to be honest I didn’t like the place at all and as far as I am concerned he can keep the secret as long as he likes.

We stayed long enough to walk along the sea front with its good views of the Bay sweeping  south like a Saracen’s sword and then through a couple of untidy streets with the worst kind of tourist shops and then without a single glance back just drove away from the town with no intention of ever going back.  If Roses is the village that Norman Lewis wrote about then I was certain that I suddenly completely understood everything that he said.

Fearing that all resorts along the Bay of Roses might be like this we now abandoned the proposed coast road route back to Caldes to Malavella and took the direct route back although skilfully avoiding the motorway this time and driving through attractive green forest, fields of harvested hay and the occasional burst of yellow as we drove through fields of swaying sunflowers holding their proud heads up high  into the sun and moving slowly like the shadow of a sundial as they followed its progress through the sky.

Cadaques Costa Brava Salvador Dali

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