Springtime in Costa Brava: Snapshots from Where the Sun Meets the Sand
By Eric Sweigert
There are no tumbleweeds in Spain’s Costa Brava. The ubiquitous American symbol of desolation made famous by the Western film genre would’ve been a fitting sight during our visit to Northeastern Catalonia at the height of the low season.
As we walked through empty, Franco-era apartment complexes, past unoccupied restaurants and bars, and along lonely beaches where the loudest noise was the crashing waves, we saw all the evidence of a thriving resort-community lacking only one thing, the people.
This fact bothered us little as we roamed this beautiful land and made the most of an opportunity for quiet afforded to few.
Sunrise at Platja D’Aro
Hugging the coast 20 miles short of the French-Spanish frontier lies the energetic community of Platja D’Aro in the Girona province of Catalonia.
One of the principal municipalities of the famed Costa Brava, this landscape offers an environment reminiscent of the French Riviera or Cinque Terre in Italy.
Unique to this region are events and festivals that have stood the test of time and offer a diverse palette of cultural immersions to visitors year-round, including one of the best Carnival celebrations.
This thriving city is located an hour north of Barcelona by car and provides a good point of departure to other popular towns including Girona, Begur, and Tossa de Mar.
A short walk north of the city’s public beach takes you to a winding, well-maintained path towards the communities of Sant Antoni de Calonge and the larger Palamós.
My wife and I set out early to explore this terrain and were greeted by quiet coves and secret harbors only discoverable by foot (or bicycle as we would soon learn).
Never far from the sound of crashing waves, hikers meander this path under the shade of Spanish umbrella pine and palm trees.
Any sweating that occurs is quickly lifted by the gentle sea breeze circulating through the coastal air.
As we walked, we came across secluded beaches where small fishing boats huddled close to the bluffs to avoid the tidal reach and stately homes which overlooked the crashing waves.
This region is also widely popular for other outdoor recreation including kayaking, mountain biking, sailing, scuba diving, and bicycle touring. We met two such enthusiasts enjoying breakfast on one of the quiet beaches.
Felix and Raphaël were young travelers from Quebec, riding their sturdy bicycles from the coast of Portugal all the way to Greece. Drawn to the sight of their unique cargo and risking an interruption of their serene morning meal, I struck up a conversation with them about their journey.
They had left Barcelona the day before and were averaging about 50-80 miles each day. Reflecting on their travels so far in Spain, they remarked, “We’ve had no major [mechanical] issues so far. A few flat tires but nothing serious. We hope to camp most of the time and obviously want to follow local Spanish law as much as possible.”
Reminding me of a similar journey I once took, albeit on another continent, they concluded that, “Cycling is one of the best ways to see the world. Just you, the machine, and the road.”
As of this writing, Felix and Raphaël are just starting the French leg of their impressive undertaking with at least 6 more countries to go.
To travelers tired from exerting themselves on the many trails and walks in the area, respite appears only a few blocks away. The city center of Platja D’Aro offers an abundance of opportunities to sample the local fare of fresh seafood and Jamon Iberico and enjoy the city’s cosmopolitan and cultural character.
Facing the city beach, the boardwalk ensures that diners can enjoy their paella with a side of sunshine.
The restaurant Marcal Cerdán offers a vibrant setting for a memorable meal. The proud owner Emiliano, whose family boasts a 3 generation legacy of cold pressing olive oil in the South, will impress you with his Catalan hospitality and the four-legged mascot of the restaurant named Moni, will happily offer to help you finish your meal.
Another good option nearby is La Tagliatella, a Spanish chain of Italian dining with impeccable service, two pages of house-made pasta and sauce combos, and even better risotto.
To finish off your evening, just inland from the beach, a stroll through the Castell d’Aro historic quarter can provide an excellent dessert of local history as you visit the ruins of the Benedormiens castle dating back to the 11th century.
This coastal community provides the perfect headquarters to begin one’s exploration of the local countryside and municipalities.
Storming the Citadel in Begur
A 25-minute drive up the coast lies the narrow alleys and imposing castle of Begur. This medieval town boasts some of the best beaches in Catalonia, and magnificent homes built in the 19th century with money from Spain’s lucrative colonial holdings overseas.
Arriving in the city from nearby Girona or Barcelona, the first thing visitors notice is the massive hill emerging from the city center and crowned by the Begur castle dating back to 1025 AD. ]
The Citadel has seen its fair share of action over the centuries, with the most recent violence coming from a rampaging Frenchman during the Napoleonic wars of 1810. As I walked the gradual, spiraling path up to the summit, I was greeted by spectacular vistas of the Pyrenees to the West and the Spanish coast to the North.
In springtime, the air fills with the aromas of blossoms, flowers, and the steady hum of bees. As you reach the rooftop level, the smells and chatter from the numerous Begurian cafes and restaurants join the mix as they drift lazily upwards from the city center below.
An Imposing Presence
Arriving at the base of the castle, one can easily imagine the imposing presence the fort must have had over any would-be attackers and if it wasn’t for the easy trail, the heights would be reserved only for the fittest and most able climbers.
A trip to Begur would not be complete without a visit to the easily-navigable city center.
Wrought iron balconies and bright terraces offer the perfect vantage point to spy on the proceedings below, and numerous Catalan flags fluttering on the ocean breeze hint at the strong regional pride to be found here.
Situated on the main alley leading to the castle, the Can Pol Pizzeria Granja offers a pleasant interior courtyard, a menu to fully satisfy all tastes, and excellent service regardless of visitors’ ability to speak the local language.
As my journey was during Semana Santa (Holy Week), they were serving a special fried dough called Brunyols topped with powdered sugar. A few inviting shops away lie the plaza de l’Eglesia with more food options and a Catholic Church rising high above the adjacent tile rooftops.
When temperatures get too hot in town for locals, relief is only a short drive away. Situated downhill from the impressive promontories of Begur are the coves and beaches of Aiguafreda, Platja Fonda, and Platja d’Aiguablava.
It is in these intimate settings that invite the visitor to snooze to the sounds of lapping waves, swim in the crystal waters of the Mediterranean Sea, or to sunbathe with your favorite novel. Especially during the low season, these inlets allow visitors to forget the noise and crowds of city life.
Repelling Pirates in Tossa de Mar
Although I was scanning the waves for any sign of the skull and crossbones, it seems the worry of coastal raiders that justified the construction of the medieval walls of Tossa de Mar was no longer quite the priority.
I had begun my journey back to Barcelona from the Costa Brava but had heard rumors of a pristine, beachside city on a remote stretch of Catalonian coast.
The rumors proved too much to disregard and as my eyes traced the impressive contours of the walled village, I was not disappointed.
As you emerge from the more recent expansion of the city encompassing the beach and look south, you catch a glimpse of the only remaining example of a fortified town still standing on the Catalan coastline.
Complete with turrets, towers, and parapets most of which are accessible to climb, visitors can roam the settlement freely with the exception of the private residences which many still call home.
A path lined with stone guides travelers up the gentle incline, through the intact gates and into the interior of the well-fortified village. The ruins of a Romanesque church lay halfway up the bluff and at the top lies the lighthouse from which, on a clear day, can be seen Barcelona to the South.
If I was a buccaneer hoping for a smash-and-grab job, I would think twice before raiding this sturdy, seaside stronghold.
Part of the reason that Mediterranean cultures know how to live well is that they have had more time to figure it out. This tenet became evident as I ambled past the rapidly-filling eateries and restaurants of Tossa de Mar in search of relief for my grumbling stomach.
I finally settled on Can Kalav overlooking the beach and I prepared for the predictably difficult task of selecting the appropriate dish from the many delicious plates and tapas on offer.
I finally settled on my favorite, croquetas de jamón with a splash of the local light beer, Estrella. Forgetting the diet I’ve been consistently ignoring since my arrival, I ordered one more dish of patatas bravas before paying the bill and escaping the hungry-looking gulls that were starting to circle.
Upon my return back to the bustle of Barcelona, I was impressed that such a charming escape lay only an hour’s drive up the coast. Although the low season offers an opportune time to distractedly walk the communities of Costa Brava with the nonchalance of a window shopper, this destination affords worthwhile attractions year-round.
For myself, the whole purpose of travel is to find those moments bursting with newness and meaning that only the traveler can articulate. Like walking into a library or bookstore for the first time and feeling surrounded by centuries worth of lived experience, the Costa Brava is steeped in stories never told and history never written.
Instead, this quality that drives so many to buy the ticket to a far off place, is felt more than seen, sensed more than observed, and is woven into the unique fabric of this colorful part of the world.
Eric Sweigert is a teacher, writer, and lifelong learner currently pursuing a graduate degree from a Spanish university. After spending half a decade working in the American education system, he sought to expand his skill-set for developing and communicating useful ideas to others while immersing himself in a stimulating new culture. His current research and work interests include European cultures, American politics, and all things travel-related.