Tag Archives: Costa Brava

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

Catalonia, In Search of Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis Voices of the Old Sea

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’.

Costa Brava Catalonia Spain

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 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, almost feudal, rural industries and he mourned the changes that take place.

The book is an account of localised social change punctuated with humour 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 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 prefer us to believe.

Bari Puglia Door Detail

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 tunny 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 an 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.

Costa Brava Beaches Tourism Norman Lewis

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.  This 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 opens a hotel and begins the gradual transformation of the village into what he considers to be a tasteless tourist trap in spite of resentment and resistance and 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.”

Benidorm Spain

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.

Castelsardo Street

I am fairly certain that the village is on the Bay of Roses which leads me to chose between Roses in the north and L’Escala in the south.  I have discounted Cadeques because this would have been just too remote.  The nearest big town is almost certainly Figueres so I have concluded that it must be Roses.  Lewis doesn’t give away many clues and most people agree that a lot of the content of the book is simply ‘made up’ but I submit two other pieces of evidence to support this theory.

Alicante Fishermen

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 thirty kilometres 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.

Read my story about Benidorm in the 1960s here.

Benidorm Fisherman

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Catalonia, Caldes de Malavella and Vichy Catalan Natural Water

Caldes de Malavella Catalonia Spain

Caldes de Malavella…

With the alternative accommodation arrangements in place and being finally satisfied with our room we decided to explore the centre of the small town of Caldes de Malavella and walked out into the streets where there was a sort of old fashioned ambiance about the place.

The hotel was on a main square with a roundabout constructed of old oil drums painted blue and white and decorated with pot plants and next door was the town petrol station which consisted of a single pump obstructing the pavement standing outside the main shop, a bit more than a mini-market but nowhere near a supermarket but which had a good selection of wines at the sort of prices that we like.

Along what you might call the main street we passed a few bars and restaurants but they weren’t all open so dining choices later looked as though they may be a little limited.  The town had a small stone built church and some interesting grand houses and this was on account of the fact that Caldes is a spa town, rather like Harrogate in England or Baden-Baden in Germany, blessed with natural spring waters and thermal baths that are said to have a long list of health benefits and miracle curative powers.

In fact the Romans, who knew a thing or two about thermal baths, discovered this place about two thousand years ago and there was an excavated villa on the other side of the town and close to the Balneari Prats there was another Spa hotel called the Vichy Catalan with a splendid and imposing brick facade.

Vichy Catalan Caldes de Malavella Catalonia Spain

Vichy Catalan Mineral Water…

Next to the hotel was the bottling plant for the natural spring water sold under the same name and claimed to be Spain’s most famous natural water.  According to the web site “It is a Naturally Sparkling water with a high mineral content and a distinctive taste. Composition in mg/litre   pH (at source)   6.82 TDS (total dissolved solids)   3052 Calcium   54.1 Magnesium   9.2 Sodium   1110 Potassium   48 Bicarbonates   2135 Sulphates   47.3 …”  – so, a lot of good stuff in there!

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.

It was clearly going to be difficult to find somewhere to eat so we found a bar and tested it with a drink and after concluding that it would do we returned to the hotel via the shop where we bought some wine and a bottle of Vichy Catalan mineral water, which turned out to be nearly as expensive as the alcohol, and we sat out on the balcony to sample it.

This was not the best hotel balcony it has to be said with probably the worst view ever overlooking a council car park, a builder’s merchants yard, a recycling centre and the rear view of a block of apartments with scruffy balconies but with a bottle of Estrella and a glass of Rioja we hardly noticed it as we sat in the sunshine and wasted an hour or so away until some unwelcome grey cloud began to sweep in from the north and take the sunshine away.

There weren’t many guests about at the hotel in the evening and the following morning we woke early and presented ourselves for breakfast in the dining room and it was only then that the truth dawned about the Balneari Prats!

Balneari Prats Hotel and Spa…

Balneario Prats Caldes de Malavella Catalonia

Being a Spa hotel with magical curative waters meant that it was full of old age pensioners with a variety of ailments who were here for the treatments and the promise of health improvement.  They obviously started early because the dining room was full of people who clearly had no time to waste and were all down here in their white hotel dressing gowns and slippers, shuffling back and forth arthritically to the buffet table, drinking the Vichy Catalan in the hope of everlasting life as though from the Holy Grail itself and selecting healthy option breakfasts.

It was all rather surreal and it is certainly the first time that I have ever stayed in what seemed to be a care home for the elderly who after breakfast disappeared one by one along a clinical and rather sinister looking corridor towards the treatment rooms.

In the garden of the hotel there was a swimming pool with natural thermal water with more expansive claims about health benefits so before taking to the road we went for a swim and wondered if it would be rather like the film ‘Cocoon’ and that we would finish the exercise feeling twenty years younger.  We didn’t of course but probably because we didn’t stay in the water long enough because today we had plans to visit the Costa Brava.

Costa Brava Catalonia Spain

Benidorm, The War of the Bikini

The War of the Bikini…

“It was not only in Farol that brusque changes were taking place…they were happening at a breakneck pace all over Spain. Roads, radio, the telephone and now the arrival of tourists… were putting an end to the Spain of old.  And for those who wanted to see it as it had been, there was not a moment to be lost.” Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’

If Pedro Zaragoza Orts is remembered for the Beni-York skyscraper he is even more famous for the so called ‘War of the Bikini’.  In the later years of the 1950s the icon of holiday liberty was rapidly becoming the saucy two piece swimsuit but in staunchly religious Spain, still held in the firm two-handed grip of church and state, this scanty garment was seen as a threat to the very foundation of Catholic society.

According to the official version the swimsuit, that was a little more than a provocative brassiere front with a tiny g-string back, was invented by a French engineer called Louis Réard and the fashion designer Jacques Heim.  It was allegedly named after Bikini Atoll, the site of nuclear weapon tests on the reasoning that the burst of excitement it would cause on the beach or at the lido would be like a nuclear explosion.  Plenty of fallout and very hot!

And it certainly had this effect in Spain and although occasionally allowable on the sandy beaches, it had to be covered up in all other areas; on the promenades and in the plazas and in the shops and the bars and cafés for fear of causing any offence.  In one famous incident, a British tourist, sitting in a bar opposite a beach wearing only a bikini, was told by a Guardia Civil officer that she wasn’t allowed to wear it there.  After an argument she hit him, and her strike for social justice cost her a hefty fine of forty thousand pesetas.

Benidorm Bikini Cover Up

Zaragoza needed tourists and tourists wanted the bikini and with more pasty-skinned northern European tourists arriving each year in search of an all over suntan the Mayor knew that the banning of the two piece swimsuit simply couldn’t be sustained or allowed to threaten his ambitious plans for development.

Zaragoza took a gamble and signed a municipal order which permitted the wearing of the bikini in public areas and in this single act he effectively jump started the Spanish tourist industry.  Zaragoza said: “People had to feel free to be able to wear what they wanted, within reason, if it helped them to enjoy themselves as they would come back and tell their friends about the place.”  In deeply religious Catholic Spain not everyone was so understanding or welcoming of the bikini however and in retaliation the Archbishop of Valencia began the excommunication process against him.

This may not seem such an especially big issue now but to get a better perspective it is important to contextualise it in terms of the time.  Spain was in the grip of an ultra-conservative dictatorship and the beaches at Benidorm were still managed in theory according to a decree of 1907 that had segregated the beaches into specific zones for men and women and where people could only bathe if, in the words of the decree, they were ‘decently dressed’.

L'Escala Costa Brava

Excommunication was a very serious matter in 1959 and his political supporters began to abandon him so the story goes that one day he got up early and drove for nine hours on a little Vespa scooter to Madrid to lobby Franco himself.  The Generalissimo was suitably impressed with his determination and gave him his support, Zaragoza returned to Benidorm and the Church backed down and the approval of the bikini became a defining moment in the history of modern Spain ultimately changing the course of Spanish tourism and causing a social revolution in an austere country groaning under the yoke of the National Catholic regime.  Zaragoza went on to become Franco’s Director of Tourism and a Parliamentary Deputy.

Not many people would have described Franco as a liberalising social reformer and perhaps he secretly liked to look at semi-naked ladies but not long after this lots of women on holiday in Benidorm dispensed with the bikini bra altogether and brazenly sunbathed topless and Benidorm postcards had pictures of semi-dressed ladies on them to prove it.

One thing I am certain of is that this wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference to my Nan because I am not sure that she ever possessed a swimming costume, never mind a two-piece!  She was rather old-fashioned and the human body in the naked form was only permitted behind closed doors with the curtains closed and preferably after dark.  If she ever went in the sea I imagine it would have been in one of those Victorian one piece bathing costumes of the previous century.

Grandad too wasn’t one for showing bits of his body normally kept under his bus conductor’s dark blue uniform and didn’t even concede to a pair of shorts, preferring instead to wear his colonial style slacks even during the day.  When he came home his impressive suntan stopped at the line of his open neck shirt and his rolled up sleeves.

For people who had never been abroad before Benidorm must have been an exciting place in the early 1960s.  Palm fringed boulevards, Sangria by the jug full and, unrestrained by optics, generous measures of whiskey and gin, rum and vodka.  Eating outside at a pavement café and ordering drinks and not paying for them until leaving and scattering a handful of strange coins on the table as a tip for the waiter.

There was permanent sunshine, a delightful warm sea and unfamiliar food, although actually I seem to doubt that they would be introduced to traditional Spanish food on these holidays because to be fair anything remotely ethnic may have come as shock because like most English people they weren’t really ready for tortilla and gazpacho, tapas or paella.  They didn’t really want garlic, olive oil or saffron and they certainly didn’t return home to experiment with any new Iberian gastronomic ideas and I suspect they probably kept as close as they could to food they were familiar with.

Benidorm is a fascinating place, often unfairly maligned or sneered at but my grandparents liked it and I have been there myself in 1977 for a fortnight’s holiday and then again on a day trip in 2008 just out of curiosity.  It has grown into a mature and unique high rise resort with blue flag beaches and an ambition to get UNESCO World Heritage Status and I hope it achieves it.


More posts about Benidorm…

Benidorm c1960

Benidorm, Plan General de Ordinacion

Benidorm, The War of the Bikini

Benidorm 1977 – First impressions and the Hotel Don Juan

Benidorm 1977- Beaches, the Old Town and Peacock Island

Benidorm 1977 – Food Poisoning and Guadalest

Benidorm – The Anticipation

Benidorm – The Surprise

World Heritage Sites