Tag Archives: Costa Brava
“How can anyone put it? One thing is certain – here we have always been and here, whatever happens, we shall remain, listening to the voices of the old sea.” – Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis – Voices of the Old Sea…
“By the end…it was clear that Spain’s spiritual and cultural isolation was at an end, overwhelmed by the great alien invasion from the North of money and freedoms. Spain became the most visited tourist country in the World, and slowly, as the foreigners poured in, its identity was submerged, its life-style altered more in a single decade than in the previous century.” – Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’.
The Costa Brava in Spain…
The north east coast of Spain was first named Costa Brava by the Catalan journalist and poet Ferran Agulló in an article published in the newspaper La Veu de Catalunya in September 1908 when he applied the name to the stretch of rugged landscape and coast which runs from the river Tordera, near Blanes, to Banyuls.
As I understand it, it is rather difficult to agree an exact English translation for Costa Brava. ‘Rugged Coast’ is most often suggested, but a Catalan will tell you that ‘brava’ is a word with a meaning that goes beyond ‘rugged’ to ‘wild’ or ‘fierce’, even ‘savage’.
Spanish mass tourism began on the Costa Brava, a truly beautiful stretch of coastline, overlooked by the Pyrenees in the north and which wanders down the coast of the Catalan province of Girona. Along much of its length it is a coastline characterised by intimidating crags and cliffs, nicked by tiny coves and secret bays and backed with rough pine forests stretching all the way down to the water line of the blue Mediterranean.
In preparation for visiting the Costa Brava I read the book ‘Voices of the Old Sea’ by the travel writer Norman Lewis who (allegedly) spent three summers in the fishing village he called Farol and where he watched, recorded and lamented as modern tourism replaced traditional rural industries and he mourned the changes that take place.
The book is an account of catastrophic social change punctuated with recollections of conversations and stories of strange Catalan customs – such the local tradition of drowning of a mouse in the first barrel of newly-pressed grapes, walking over red hot coals and jumping over new born babies. It is hard to tell how much embellishment Lewis allowed himself, probably quite a lot I imagine, because he wrote the book many years later from old notes and he even neglects to mention that he travelled there in a Ford Buick with his wife and family and not as a solo traveller as he would like the reader to believe.
Slowly over the three sections of the book he explains how he integrated himself into a community that had barely changed for hundreds of years, where people adhered to tradition, superstitions ruled, and the ageless rhythms of the year continued as they had for centuries.
A feud with a neighbouring village, the patriarchs who meet in the bar, the travelling clairvoyant who predicts the best time to fish for tuna or sardines and all the details of village life are recounted in a way that is appropriate to the pace of life there.
He asks a local man to explain about life and he replies: “How can anyone put it? One thing is certain – here we have always been and here, whatever happens, we shall remain, listening to the voices of the old sea.”
But it is affection tinged with melancholy and despair, for Lewis was observing life on the verge of headlong and irreversible change, the cork forests that were the life blood of their neighbours were suffering blight, the fish were not as plentiful as they once were and worst of all, the first waves of tourism were beginning to lap at the shores of the Costa Brava and a way of life was heading for extinction.
In the 1950s, the Costa Brava was identified by the Spanish government and by local entrepreneurs as being a coastline suitable for substantial development as a holiday destination to compete with the south of France and mainly for package holiday tourists from Northern Europe.
It was a sort of perfect ‘Surf and Turf’ with a combination of a very good summer climate, a green environment, excellent beaches and a favourable foreign exchange rate, which made Spain a relatively inexpensive tourist destination and this was exploited by the construction of large numbers of hotels and apartments in such seaside resorts as Blanes, Tossa de Mar, and Lloret and in a relatively short space of time tourism rapidly took over from fishing as the principal business of the area.
Lewis recalls his time there to describe the poverty-stricken and almost medieval lifestyle of the fishermen and their families. During the second season a dubious local businessman called Muga opens a hotel and begins the gradual transformation of the village into what Lewis considers to be a tasteless tourist trap in spite of resentment and resistance by the fishermen who continue obstinately to fish the dwindling stocks even when it is pointed out that they can earn far more taking tourists on a single boat trip than in a whole season of fishing.
By the third season there is no turning back – the fishermen’s wives are working as chambermaids at the hotel, and even Lewis’s friend Sebastian has had to abandon his ambitious travelling plans and become a waiter.
Muga’s bribery and manipulation, at least in his own mind, are benevolent, even visionary. He aims to modernize the region and turn Farol into a tourist attraction, complete with seafront hotels and shops filled with flamenco dresses and Cervantes figurines – in other words, souvenirs from the complete opposite side of Spain, souvenirs that have no connection with Catalonia or the Costa Brava. On account of this rapid transformation Lewis sadly laments that “Farol began its slow loss of identity.”
Norman Lewis and the Bluff of Farol…
There is actually no such place as Farol (farol means bluff) because if he possibly could, Lewis, in a selfish sort of way, wanted to retain its anonymity, he didn’t want his description of an idyllic fishing community to contribute to the flood of tourism that he thought would destroy it.
This was all rather pointless of course because by the time he wrote the book the changes had all taken place and there is a wide streak of vanity running through this objective because once started nothing was going to stop the ever increasing flow of pasty faced tourists from the north.
Given how much Spain’s Costa Brava had changed already by the time Lewis was writing, Voices of the Old Sea is devastating in its understatement. Refraining from overtly referring to the full extent of the later transformation of the place that Lewis was painfully aware of he lets us fill in the blank sequel ourselves with the shocking knowledge we already have about the impact of the northern invasion.
The truth is that it may not even be based on anywhere in particular and many people have tried to identify the fishing village of Farol and I am going to have a try as well.
Lewis gives little away but on the rare occasions that he lets his guard down there are a few clues. He tells us that Farol is fifteen miles away from Figueres and that it is situated on the Bay of Roses which leads me to chose between Roses in the north and L’Escala in the south. It could possibly be either.
A lot of people agree that a lot of the content of the book is simply ‘made up’, an amalgam of various places he may have visited driving around in his Buick but I submit two other pieces of evidence to support my specific theory.
Lewis tells us that the village priest Don Ignacio has a passion for archaeology and likes to visit the Roman ruins at Empurias and he visits the site by taking the bus. Now, Empurias is close enough to L’Escala to walk but is twenty miles from Roses so would almost certainly require transport. Secondly, Lewis calls the neighbouring village Sort and tells us that it is five kilometres from Farol and lying conveniently five kilometres from Roses is the modern town of Castelló d’Empúries, which I suggest is the village Lewis calls Sort.
As secondary evidence I suggest that the name of the entrepreneur who wishes to drive the transition to tourism is taken from a local feature – his name is Mugo which is the name of the river that flows through Castelló d’Empúries and empties into the Bay of Roses. As his influence grows Lewis tells us that Mugo buys new property that is regarded as useless marsh land through which a river flows and this little snippet is not completely irreconcilable with the development of such land south of Roses which was to become the modern day marina of Empuriabrava.
Finally Roses is just about the right distance from Figueres as Lewis states, thirteen miles by modern roads but probably a little further seventy-five years ago.
Just my thoughts, I might be completely wrong of course!
Read my story about Benidorm in the 1960s here.
As we nail down 2015, please excuse my annual self-indulgent post to begin the new year as I look back over the last one. I have ignored the WordPress annual statement to produce my own review.
The top ten most visited posts on my Travel Blog always surprise me but then I don’t pretend to understand how search engines work. I say visited pages rather than read because I am neither conceited enough or sufficiently naive to claim that a visit equals a read. I know that a lot of people will arrive here by mistake and swiftly reverse back out via the escape button!
Just to go back a bit, in 2012 the site recorded 170,900 visits and I was optimistic that as I kept posting this number was just going to keep going up but then in February 2013 Google made some devastating changes to its search algorithms and the numbers halved overnight and have never fully recovered. I finished 2013 with 79,470, a decrease of 115%.
I thought it was important to keep going so in 2014 I posted 320 times and the total number of visits recorded was just over 101,000 so there was some significant recovery. 2015 has not seen the same level of improvement but there has been consolidation. I have posted 311 times and the number of reported visits is 106,600, an increase of just 5.5%.
These are the Top Ten posts of 2015:
No change at the top this year and this post has recorded 8,715 visits which is over 3,000 more than last. I posted this in August 2013 following a week touring Catalonia and pulling in a visit to Barcelona along the way.
I’d like to think that this is because it is a knowledgeable and scholarly assessment of Gaudi’s architectural contribution to the urban World but I think it is more likely because the image attracts visitors as it easily found in a Google search and people seem to like it because it has been copied several times!
5,870 hits, up from 3,300 and staying in the Top Ten for the sixth successive year which by that measure makes it my most successful post.
In total it has 17,800 visits which makes all time second after my post about Norway, Haugesund and the Vikings. This one has been around for a long time ( since June 2009) and has always been popular especially around the Spring and Summer when invitations to the Royal Garden Party are going out and when people are wondering how to get one or what to wear if they have one.
This one has been around a while as well and with 1,610 hits and a fifth year in the Top Ten is becoming a stubborn stayer. A bit of a surprise to me really because this is the account of a day trip to Mount Vesuvius whilst on a holiday to Sorrento in 1976 with my dad. From my memories of the same holiday I posted several blogs about visits to Capri, Naples, Pompeii, The Amalfi Drive and Rome but these have only achieved a handful of hits between them.
A second top ten appearance again this year for the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi (maybe I am an expert on Gaudi after all). After I had taken a look at the official Twelve Treasures of Spain I thought it might be fun to draw up my own personal alternative list. I included Antoni Gaudi in a general rather than a specific way. I posted this in March 2013 and this year with 1,455 visits it has risen five places to number four.
This is the first of this year’s new entries with a surprising 1,325 visits and no convincing explanation why that should be.
I visited Southern Ireland in June 2014 and wrote several posts that I personally would consider more interesting than this encounter with a grumpy street entertainer and a worn out old collie dog. Once again, and rather disappointingly, I suspect it isn’t the words but the picture that grabs attention. It was a map of the Ring of Kerry which I noticed displayed on the front of a shop.
The second of this year’s new entries and I must confess that I am rather pleased about this one.
There are some posts that I have written that I would like people to read and this is one of few that have achieved that. Before visiting Catalonia in 2014 I read the book ‘Voices of the Old Sea’ by Norman Lewis which is an account of the Costa Brava in the 1940s and the approach of mass tourism. In this post I attempted some research and some interpretation of the book and the area. It has recorded 977 visits and in this case I like to think that this is because of the subject rather than the pictures.
This post has also been a consistent performer with five years in the top ten but in terms of visits is this year’s biggest loser, down almost 3,200 hits to just 790, dropping four places from last year’s number two and if that slide continues I expect it to be gone next year. I posted this in April 2010 after returning from a visit to Krakow in Poland. It was a good trip but I am not sure why so many people would hit on it. It is not as interesting as my trip to Auschwitz or the Crazy Mike Communist Tour.
I posted this in March 2010 and it finally made the top ten last year and I am glad to see it there for a second year. It has stayed in this year with 740 visits. It is actually one of my personal favourites and is a story about the Spanish seaside resort of Benidorm inspired by some photographs that I came across of my grandparents on holiday there in about 1960.
The last of the new entries and another one that I am pleased about. This is the story of the Italian singer Domenico Modungo. Domenico who? I hear you ask. Well, let me tell you that Domenico is renowned for writing and performing what is claimed to be the most famous, most copied, most successful ever Eurovision Song Contest entry and most lucrative in terms of revenue, Italian popular music songs of all time. Think about it…have you got it…
“Nel blu dipinto di blu” or most popularly known as “Volare”. With 656 visits it has only just about crept in to the top ten but I am happy to see it there.
Seventh place with 636 hits and four years in the top ten which demonstrates the importance of an ‘About’ page.
If you have read one of these posts or any of the 1,785 others on my site ‘Have Bag, Will Travel’, then thank you very much! I guess it proves that George Bailey (It’s A Wonderful Life) was right when he said: “The three most exciting sounds in the world are anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles.”
On reflection, not a bad year but I still haven’t been Freshly Pressed (Discovered). Do I care? Well, maybe a little bit!
I’d be interested to know about other people’s most popular posts in 2015 and the possible explanations why? Comment and let me know. I’m a sucker for statistics!
Caldes de Malavella, Catalonia…
The best part of the town was a dusty tree lined boulevard which was slumbering in the soporific heat of the late afternoon and which followed the line of a straight road with once grand villas with rusting iron balustrades, heavy wooden doors with impenetrable metal locks and adorned with scarlet geraniums spilling untidily over the balconies and dropping their crisp, sunburnt leaves one by one into the street.
The Siesta Time in Caldes de Malavella, Catalonia
In the early afternoon the residents retired into shuttered rooms leaving a dusty tree lined boulevard which was slumbering in the soporific heat and which followed the line of a straight road with once grand villas with rusting iron balustrades, heavy wooden doors with impenetrable metal locks and adorned with scarlet geraniums spilling untidily over the balconies and dropping their crisp, sunburnt leaves into the street like confetti.
It was so quiet that I could hear the paint lifting and splitting on the wooden doors, the gentle creaking of rusty shutter hinges, the squeaking complaints of rattan as sleeping residents shifted a little in their balcony chairs and the faint crack of seed pods in the flower planters.
Yellow – The Colour of Sunshine…
I don’t know what it is about sunflowers but they do seem to excite visitors from Northern Europe, it is probably the spectacle of thousands of happy waving heads in contrast to the solitary one or two that we grow in our own gardens usually with disappointing weedy results. This is because as their name suggests they need the sun and that is something that is not too plentiful or reliable in England.
It is easy to oversleep behind wooden shutters that blot out all daylight and the next morning we woke way beyond our normal wake up time and had breakfast on the pavement as the temperature began steadily to rise.
Even in Spain it seems it can be difficult to make plans based on the weather but with the benefit of hindsight we would probably have organised this trip in reverse because for the first few days when we visited the beaches there was a lot of cloud and temperatures were little more than average but now that we proposing to visit the cities the temperatures were predicted to reach almost forty degrees.
So we decided to rearrange the itinerary and return again to the seaside and this time visit L’Escala at the southern end of the Bay of Roses. L’Escala is the town that I had dismissed as the Farol of Norman Lewis so it would be interesting to test my theory because at another time it may have possible to find evidence that points towards this alternative suggestion.
It was only a short journey to the coast and almost completely uneventful until we spotted a field of sunflowers that Kim wanted to stop and photograph. I don’t know what it is about sunflowers but they do seem to excite visitors from Northern Europe, it is probably the spectacle of thousands of happy waving heads in contrast to the solitary one or two that we grow in our own gardens usually with disappointing weedy results. This is because as their name suggests they need the sun and that is something that is not too plentiful or reliable in England.
I left the road and parked the car on a dirt track and I didn’t see a problem with that because it didn’t appear to go anywhere in particular and then we disappeared into the field to take our pictures. Suddenly there was an almighty commotion and an irate woman was shouting and gesticulating and demanding that we move the car.
Wow, she was in a real temper and only after I had apologised several times, bent myself double in a penitent sort of way and beamed at her with a cheerful face as big as any of the sunflowers in the field did her fierce countenance break into a reluctant and belated smile as I moved over and let her pass. For the next few minutes my ears were burning and I don’t think that it had anything to do with the sun.
Satisfied with our photographic efforts we completed the last few kilometres to L’Escala, parked the car and walked through the tangled knot of narrow streets of what I imagine was once the old town towards the seafront. It was quiet and it was relaxed and I knew immediately that I liked the place and we came to the sea with a statue commemorating what L’Escala was once famous for – sardine fishing because before tourism and hotels, before glass bottomed boats and pedalos, before yachts and marinas this was once a thriving fishing village and the most important catch was the sardine or the anchovy.
From the statue we walked along a causeway overlooking a rocky sealine where gulls and cormorants searched for fish and fishermen snorkelled with nasty looking harpoons which I imagine made this a no go area for recreational swimming and on towards the sandy beach and the marina to the south where to my horror Kim spotted a street market and I knew that we would be sucked right in.
It was horrible in there, really horrible, with rows and rows of stalls that went on seemingly forever with people pushing and shoving and traders shouting and bullying and there was no way out left or right and so feeling giddy and the palms of my hands sweating with fear I just had to keep going . Eventually we broke through the overhead canopies into daylight and I thought maybe it was all over but this respite was only temporary and after a short break it carried on. At this point however Kim excused me from the ordeal so I went and found a bar at the edge of the sand and twenty minutes later we were both happy because I had enjoyed a cool Estrella and Kim had bagged a couple of bargains.
It seemed only right now to find somewhere for a plate of sardines so we left the busy tourist beach and made our way back to the old town where we found a suitable looking place and a plate of the local speciality before returning to the car and moving north a little way along the coast to the small village of Sant Martí d’Empúries.
Being the weekend this delightful place was absolutely swarming with people and I am sure that most of the population of nearby Figueres had left the city for a day at the beach. It was a good thing that we had eaten in L’Escala because there was no chance of a table in the busy Plaza Mayor but we managed to grab a table at a lively beach bar to have a cold drink before taking a short swim in the sea. To be honest it was far too crowded to be comfortable so we didn’t stay long and after we had brushed the sand from our burning feet we returned to the small village and its handful of sights.
Some say that this is the earliest inhabited place along the Costa Brava but the real reason it seems that it all looks so immaculate is because it was given a serious makeover in preparation for the Barcelona Olympics when Sant Martí d’Empúries was the place that received the Olympic Flame that was brought in from the sea, I assume directly from Mount Olympus.
On the subject of Greece, very close by here is the archaeological site of Empúries that was established here in the sixth century B.C. by Greek traders and settlers but I wasn’t that confident of getting to see it because of Kim’s recent travelling revelation that she doesn’t really like ancient ruins so I chose not to mention it and I caught the suggestion in the back of my throat before it came spilling out.
Tossa de Mar…
So, Roses was a disappointment, mostly because I had high expectations of the place but today we were going to drive to the south of the Costa Brava to the holiday resort of Tossa de Mar and if I had high hopes for Roses and found it to be rather a let-down I had no such optimism today because I was absolutely certain that I was going to find everything that I thought I disliked about the Spanish Costa resorts and I was ready to snigger and sneer at a place I was positive would be nasty and sleazy.
It was only a short drive to Tossa but it was much more attractive than I had expected as we swooped like a Spanish Imperial Eagle along a treacherous corniche as we followed a precarious coast road with green pine forests on one side and the dazzling blue of the Mediterranean on the other until we reached the seaside resort and found an edge of town car park.
As we walked into the town past the excavations of a Roman villa it slowly began to dawn on me that I was going to be in for a shock and that I just may have to eat my words about tacky Tossa. Where Roses had been untidy, Tossa was immaculate, where Roses was vulgar, Tossa was charming and where Roses was made of concrete, Tossa was traditional and whitewashed and I was obliged to quickly readjust my preconceived and rather ignorant perception.
The narrow streets were vibrant, the shops were tasteful and the restaurants looked inviting and we made our way through them towards the seafront and the beaches and suddenly and without warning we emerged from the modern commercial centre and we were at the entrance to the old medieval walled town.
The “Vila Vella Enceinte“
is the only example of a fortified medieval town still standing on the Catalan coast and its present unspoilt appearance dates back to the end of the fourteenth century. It still has the entire original perimeter with battlemented stone walls, four turrets and three cylindrical towers with parapets. At the highest point, where the lighthouse stands now was originally, until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the castle of the Abbot of the Monastery Santa Maria de Ripoll, the territorial Lord of the town.
The site was declared a national historic monument in 1931 and I really wasn’t expecting this as we walked the walls and through narrow streets of cobbles and stone houses where plants with exuberant and effervescent blooms draped gaily from every windowsill and balcony, red geraniums like volcanic lava and white roses spilling like cooling foam, until we reached the very top with a view of the town on one side with its imposing parish church and the rugged pine studded coastline on the other.
As we sat at the top of the climb and admired the views in all directions I reminded myself that in future I should be careful not to be too hasty in forming an opinion of a place and then we walked back down the steep streets, past the pretty houses and back through one of the wall gates and then to the seafront where we stopped for a while and ordered a San Miguel and enjoyed watching the people walking back and forth along the promenade.
We were going to drive to Lloret now but for some reason decided against it so instead we steered the car out of the car park and made our way north along the coastline instead.
After the demanding coastal road we arrived first in Sant Feliu de Guixois, a busy town but with a fine, rather sedate sandy beach stretching away in both directions north and south and with a sheltered bay where we stopped for a while and swam in the Mediterranean that we shared with a beach full of mostly local holidaymakers. And then we carried on to Palamos which we drove through quickly on account of the prevalence of high rise concrete apartments of hotels that immediately reminded us of Roses and eventually we arrive in mid afternoon in Palafrugell and I think I must have got lost and confused somewhere here because I found industrial estates where I was expecting fishing villages tucked into impenetrable coves and we convinced ourselves that after Tossa de Mar everywhere else was most likely to be a disappointment today so having had enough of the surf we headed inland towards the turf.
As we drove away from the coast and into the green forests and fields I was glad that I had visited the Costa Brava and had my opinions readjusted because on the whole I had found the region to be delightful and although Norman Lewis wouldn’t agree with me not entirely spoilt and destroyed by tourism and certainly nothing like as awful as the Costa Blanca and the Costa Del Sol.