Photo Essay:  Rural Beauty in the Costa Brava Countryside

Photo Essay: Rural Beauty in the Costa Brava Countryside

Sun, sand, sangria.  The Costa Brava is famous (or infamous depending on your view) for all of these things thanks to the influx of mass tourism into coastal towns like Lloret de Mar.  Away from the crowds, however, is the quieter and rural Costa Brava countryside full of charming villages and friendly people.  Although fairly close to the major party towns, the countryside and the little towns of the Emporda region of the Costa Brava feel a world apart.

rural beauty on the Costa Brava countryside of Spain

Emporda is a historical region in the interior of Costa Brava which is full of  medieval architecture. The charming villages are postcard perfect.  Some of the places we visited were the castle-palace of the Bishop Prince of Girona in Bisbal, Gala Dali’s (wife of local hero Salvador) home in Pubol, the charming reconstructed town of Pals and the Iberian ruins of Ullastret dating from 400 B.C..  We didn’t get to it but there is a Dali museum in the town of Figueres.

Known as the Catalan Tuscany, Emporda’s landscape is dotted with rice fields, olive groves, apple groves, vineyards and medieval villages.  This area, nestled between the mountains and the sea, has historically been a fertile and rich land.  Unlike the Italian Tuscany though, Emporda is still off the mainstream tourist path. It’s very easy to escape city life and feel like you’ve settled into the Costa Brava countryside like a local.

You can really get into the bucolic ideal by renting a cottage or doing a farm stay.  Don’t worry, there are also charming boutique hotels if you prefer some luxury for your rustic getaway. For example, Castell d’Emporda is a restored Catalan castle which is now a boutique hotel.  El Moli de Siurana seems a hybrid of the boutique hotel/farmhouse option.  In any event, you will not be lacking for accommodation choices!

The Costa Brava Countryside

As you can see the towns are close to each other.  The best thing to do is to either drive or cycle from town to town.  When you are tired stop off for some simple but delicious cuisine.  Live like the locals on fresh bread, tomatoes, olive oil, aioli and, of course, wine.

The Costa Brava Countryside

Fresh bread which is perfect for an impromptu picnic.

The Costa Brava Countryside

Delicious aioli made with fresh garlic in a stone mortar which looks like it has had lots of use.

Photo Gallery of the Costa Brava Countryside

The Costa Brava Countryside

The bridge over the River Daro built in the early 17th century.

The Costa Brava Countryside

A an idyllic farmhouse stay with a private swimming pool.

costa brava countryside

The view from the turret of a castle.

The Costa Brava Countryside

Beautiful old stone work arches provide shade from the sun.

The Costa Brava Countryside

You almost feel like you have stepped back in time at these beautiful old medieval villages.

The Costa Brava Countryside

My burricleta served me well.

Costa Brava Countryside

Colorful flowers in an old bucket adds to the beauty of the aged stone.

The Costa Brava Countryside

Flowers piling out of a windowsill match the faded colours of the stone.

The Costa Brava Countryside

Every village no matter how small seemed to have a church.

The Costa Brava Countryside

A field of poppies – simply stunning. This reminded me completely of The Wizard of Oz.

The Costa Brava Countryside

Two paths diverged in a field. Which one would be an easier cycle ride??

Costa Brava Countryside

The Catalan flag flies proudly all over the Costa Brava.

The Costa Brava Countryside

I loved the colours of the buildings.

The Costa Brava Countryside

What the photo doesn’t show is that this lane was heavy with the scent of orange blossom.

The Costa Brava Countryside

There are ruins and castles dotted throughout the countryside perfect for active children to explore.

Costa Brava countryside

Many of the farmhouses have these towers where the family could hole up for safety in case of invading marauders.

Getting to the Costa Brava Countryside

The Costa Brava countryside is easily accessible.  Luckily, there are two airports that serve the area (Girona and Barcelona).  The Girona airport is served by many low-cost carriers including Ryanair.  We flew into Barcelona because it has more flight options.  For some of our trip, we had a car rental.  Alternatively, you can use an airport transfer service from either airport, such as Atlas Transfers.

Once you are settled into your accommodation, I would suggest you bike around the countryside.  If that sounds like too much excerise, there are burricletos (bicycles with engines) that will help you cruise the countryside with ease. Warning:  The countryside looks pretty flat from the car but not so flat when you are actually cycling it!!  For suggested itineraries, the Emporda tourism office has handy tour routes of its 250 kilometres of bike paths.

This post is linked up with Photo Friday, Travel Photo Thursday and Weekend Wanderlust.

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Great Adventures at PortAventura Park in Spain

Great Adventures at PortAventura Park in Spain

When I was in the Costa Brava in Spain at the end of April, my kids were disappointed that the water parks in the places we went to were not open yet for the season.  I didn’t tell them that the biggest of them all in the area, PortAventura Park, was up and running.  Because I’m a mean mummy who just wanted to sip sangria on a secluded beach near Begur.

Luckily, my fellow blogger Suzanne Fluhr who writes at Boomeresque went to PortAventura with a group of fellow TBEX bloggers.  She could told me all about the fun my kids had missed.  Did I feel guilty?  Not a bit.

Located  on the Costa Dorada, PortAventura Park is an entertainment complex consisting of an amusement park, water park, hotels, restaurants and shows.  The set-up is similar to those theme parks operated by Disney.  This summer Cirque du Soleil, are staging their famed circus act in July and August at the park.

Port Aventura is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The grounds are very nicely planted and tended. As you can imagine, it gets quite hot during the summer and there seemed to be an effort to provide shaded places to sit.

20th Anniversary PortAventura

Image credit: Suzanne Fluhr, Boomeresque

The Park is divided into 5 different countries and regions (somewhat randomly selected) such as the American West, China and Polynesia. Each region also had some rides that would be suitable for families—i.e. tame-ish water rides. There were at least 2 big roller coasters which Suzanne didn’t ride, but others in her group did and liked them.

PortAventura China section

Welcome to China!
Image Credit: Suzanne Fluhr, Boomeresque

Port Aventura American West

Willie Nelson blares out over the American West
Image credit: Suzanne Fluhr, Boomeresque

PortAventura

Image credit: Suzanne Fluhr, Boomeresque

For the littlest ones, there is an area with rides based on Sesame Street.  Seeing the photos, I had flashbacks to my own Sesame Place days when my kids were younger.

Port Aventura Sesame Street

Sésamo Aventura
Image credit: Suzanne Fluhr, Boomeresque

You should be prepared to get wet (not too much of a hardship with the Spanish sun beating down on you). The park has “drying huts”, subject to an additional charge.  I would think you’d dry very fast in the summer without resorting to drying huts.

PortAventura aquatic park

Image credit: Suzanne Fluhr, Boomeresque

You don’t need to worry about having a fussy eater with you.  The food options included Spanish food as well as fast food and cafes.  And, they serve wine! Hurrah!  While your kids run around, you can chug down a bottle (or two) of Spanish wine.  Theme parks the world over would be so much more fun if they served wine to the parents in tow.

The Park sell tickets by the day so you can enjoy all the rides at the park.  Suzanne got the impression though that they did seem to nickel and dime you for things to purchase in the park.

Will we go to PortAventura when we next visit Barcelona?  You bet.  They had me at wine in the restaurants. And, I’m pretty sure my husband will appreciate the can-can girls.

PortAventura Theme Park in Costa Dorada in Spain

Image Credit: Joao Maximo

Thanks to Suzanne for reporting back on PortAventura.  Do check out her blog, Boomeresque, if you are a baby boomer looking for fun, adventure and travel (not necessarily in that order).

PortAventura

Image credit: Suzanne Fluhr, Boomeresque

Details for Visiting PortAventura:

PortAventura is well-located on the Spanish coast.  It is one hour from Barcelona airport and only 15 minutes from the smaller airport at Reus.  Europcar has special rates for PortAventura visitors if you choose to drive.  There is PortAventura stop on the regular Renfe trains including the high-speed trains that come from Madrid, Malaga etc.

A standard one day ticket entry to the Park costs 45 Euros for adults for the day.  Both a junior ticket (ages 4-10) and a senior ticket (age 60+) costs 39 Euros. There are concessions for multi-day visits, evenings only, disabled passes etc.  Check out their very well-detailed English language website for more information.

There are lots of beach hotels and activities nearby on Costa Dorada so you are not restricted to staying at one of the four four-star hotels at PortAventura either.

 

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Salvador Dali and the Nature of Love

Salvador Dali and the Nature of Love

The bride floated down the aisle gracefully navigating the rose petal strewn aisle.  Swathed in layers of white silk and chiffon, she and the groom radiated happiness like beacons of hope.  Their families were equally pleased and all the wedding participants felt bathed in a sea of well-being and delight.  This wedding with this bride and groom felt absolutely, positively right.

A long-time friend of the bride, I was delighted to witness such unbridled joy. As it happened, this wedding occurred just at a time that I was wondering about the nature of romantic love.  I’ve been mulling over what attracts people to each other ever since I visited the Gala Dalí Castle in Púbol in the Costa Brava last month.  The Gala Dalí Castle belonged to Salvador Dalí’s wife with whom he had an intense and unusual relationship.

Salvador and Gala Dalí – The Relationship

Salvador Dalí and his Russian wife, Gala, met in somewhat scandalous circumstances.  She and her artist husband were visiting Dalí when they started having an affair.  As the story goes, her husband returned to their family home and Gala stayed put with Dalí.

The couple had a tumultuous love affair.  By all accounts, both people were difficult personalities.  Dalí lived with a fear of dying and being another forgotten artist.  Gala hated the idea of growing old.  You can see why she hated being a mother and had a non-existent relationship with her daughter from her first marriage.  Children, after all, remind you of the passage of time and that your first flush of youth is gone.

As Dalí’s muse, Gala was worshipped and her likeness recreated in art and sculpture.  It must be the ultimate ego trip to be the muse of a tortured, artistic genius.  I can’t think of any other reason why Kate Moss would have stayed with Pete Docherty (genius being in the eye of the beholder).

Through his art, Gala would be beautiful forever.  For a woman who was so afraid of growing old, her beauty would be captured through the ages.  Very egocentric, Gala had no friends and a deep sense of entitlement.  For example, the story goes that she drove into town one day and parked her Datsun illegally.  A policeman approached her to move her car but instead she ordered him to keep watch over her car while she ran into a store.

Gala Dali Datsun

Gala also loved living the good life.  Dalí did not quibble over money and gave her everything she wanted. Other anecdotes recount that when she wanted to go shopping, he would just pull out a wad of bills and give it to her without question.

The Princess in the Castle

Salvador Dalí bought and refurbished an 11th century castle in the village of Púbol in Catalonia for Gala.  He had searched extensively in the South of France and in Catalonia until he found this particular castle.  When he showed it to her, Gala pronounced that the castle and its gardens, even in ruins, reminded her of her childhood summers in the Crimea.

Gala lived at Púbol Castle from 1971 to 1980.  She insisted that Salvador get written permission from her in order to visit her at the castle.  The castle became a refuge for Gala which isn’t surprising considering the intensity of Dalí’s devotion to her.

Dalí, the romantic, put a bright spin on her condition that she give him express written permission to visit her.

“This condition especially gratified my masochistic feelings and thrilled me; Gala became the impregnable Castle that she had never ceased to be.  Intimacy, and above all, familiarities diminish every passion.  Rigor of feeling and distance, as demonstrated by the neurotic ceremony of courtly love, increase passion.”

– Salvador Dali

Clearly, Dalí put Gala not so much on a pedestal as a throne.  (He built a throne for her which she never liked).  In fact, the throne room also has an altar-like table tableau as well.  So many mixed messages in this room.

Gala Dali Throne room

The castle was furnished by Dali in a mixture of his own designs as well as purchased pieces.  For example, he designed the pillow cushions in the living room.  Even when he was trying to let her have her own space, there are visible reminders of him everywhere.

Gala Dali Living room

Gala DAli living room cushion

Dalí’s vision of the princess in the tower and courtly love shows up us a repeated motif in the castle.  The castle is very picturesque with climbing roses adorning the stone walls.

Gala Dali castle climbing roses

Gala Dali courtyard

Every princess needs a white charger and so there is even a stuffed white horse which was a housewarming gift from a friend.  Dalí created a love song written for Gala which he had illustrated into a coat of arms for her.

Castle in Pubol white horse

Dalí designed and had the Castle garden and a pool created for Gala as well.   His fear of insects is shown in the somewhat scary elephant fountains he created for the garden.  The pool had a sea demon as well as a collage of Richard Wagner’s head.  Some people would say having to sit through a Wagnerian opera is a horror in itself.  In any event, Dalí’s princess was safe in her castle away from the monsters inhabiting the outside world.

Gala Dali Garden elephants

Richard Wagner heads at Gala Dali house

During the refurbishment, Dalí removed the castle kitchen to create an ensuite bathroom for Gala.  He designed the taps and covered the old stove to make a dressing table.  Gala just ordered food from a restaurant in town.  I don’t think fairy tale princesses spent much time eating.

Gala Dali taps

And, where would an artist be without some mother issues?  Dalí lost his mother when he was a teenager and Gala in some ways fulfilled a motherly role as well for him.  In one blatant example, she drove him around in town in one of her cars because he never learned to drive.

Dalí liked to have input on Gala’s outfits as well.  He would create the designs for the fabric and then get the leading French fashion houses to produce the dresses.  A display of some of Gala’s outfits show a who’s who of designers of the era, among them Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaperelli, Jeanne Lanvin and Pierre Cardin.

Gala Dali clothes

I could’t help but think of the Kanye West-Kim Kardashian dynamic we have today.  Kanye is another artistic genius with his mother issues and his wife who he likes to dress like a living doll. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Although Gala had no friends, she did have lots of lovers.  These men would be at the castle when Dalí wasn’t around.  The artist accepted this fact of life because he would do anything to please Gala.

Was this love or just obsessive narcissism?  I don’t know.  In the concept of courtly love, the object of the knight’s affection is worshipped from afar because usually the lady in question is married.  Dalí and Gala, however, enjoyed earthly pleasures far too much to stick strictly to the tenets of courtly love.  It wouldn’t be the first time that people in love did exactly what they wanted and stuck a justifying framework on it after the fact.

I fear I am too bourgeoise to understand the Dali/Gala relationship which is perhaps why it stayed with me long after I left the castle in Pùbol.

The End of the Affair

After Gala’s death, Dalí’s health declined rapidly. He lived in the castle for three years after Gala died in order to be closer to his muse.

Unfortunately, his temperament had not gotten any easier with old age and his nurses disliked him.  He would repeatedly press the bell to call his nurse to the bedroom until one day it short-circuited. The bedroom caught on fire but Dalí was rescued.  For a man afraid of death though, the fire was too close a call. He returned to his town house in Figueres never to return again to the castle in Púbol.

Gala is buried in a crypt at the castle.  Dalí was supposed to be buried beside her and there is a tomb next to hers prepared for his body.  Supposedly there is a hole between the tombs so that they could hold hands in death.  Instead, however, Dalí is buried in Figueres. The story goes that the Mayor of Figueres announced that Dalí had told him privately on his deathbed of his wish to be buried in Figueres.

Gala Dali Crypt

Even in death, Dalí and Gala had a complicated love story.

 Visiting the Gala Dalí Castle:

The Gala Dalí Castle is open for visitors all year round.  It is closed on Mondays.  Tickets cost 8 Euros for adults and concessions are available.  It is located in the picture perfect little town of Pubol on the Costa Brava in Spain.

 

Top 5 Reasons My Children Loved The Costa Brava

Top 5 Reasons My Children Loved The Costa Brava

My family came out to join me on the Costa Brava in Spain while I was at a travel blogger conference at the tourist town of Lloret de Mar.  We rented a car and went exploring along the coast of the Costa Brava in search of more traditional Catalan towns than you get in Lloret de Mar.  We chose to drive north further up the coast away from Barcelona, a city we knew and loved well. Time for something new!

Why did my children love the Costa Brava?  Here are their top 5 reasons.

The Fantastic Beaches of Costa Brava

There are some fantastic beaches sprinkled along the coves of the coast.  Sheltered by coves, the water is fairly tranquil and clear.  Occasionally we could see all the way to the bottom even though the water was quite deep.

exploring costa brava with kids away from the mass tourism

Similar to the beach at Lloret de Mar, the beach at Tossa de Mar is made of coarse sand. Clambering along the rocks lining the coves in Tossa de Mar the children spent time looking for sea anemones in the rock pools.

 

The little town of Begur is blessed with 8 different beaches.  We were planning on stopping by for a few hours but loved it so much we spent the entire day.   The beach at Ca Tuna has pebbles great for skimming stones while the beach at Aiguablava had soft sand perfect for playing.  Beach hopping along the coast, we also stopped by the pretty little coves in the towns of Llafranc and Palafrugell.

little village on the beach at begur

Although it was a holiday weekend in Spain as well, the beaches were not crowded.  Fellow tourists seemed to be well-dressed, sunglass-shod urban types chattering away in Spanish.  Along the beaches, the children played while their parents grazed on fresh fish and sipped wine at a nearby restaurant.  I can definitely get into this sort of beach holiday!

Fresh Air and Outdoor Fun in the Costa Brava

Sometimes I think my children are part mountain goat. If there is something to climb, scramble or jump over, I know where I will find them.

They clambered over rocks at the beach shoring up the coves and cliffs, balanced on stone walls, and climbed up hilly mountains.  For example, in Begur the castle, located high above the town, has a paved road as well as a shortcut through the wildflowers on the hill.  Guess which one the children took?

climbing through the wildflowers

Also, did I mention the views were spectacular?

begur sea

Interesting Walks Around the Costa Brava

We found many cliff walks along the coast such as that in Lloret de Mar and Begur.  These paths were originally used by customs officials to watch out for smugglers.  Nowadays they are a nice walk – nothing too strenuous but there are the occasional steps. In some cases you can even walk from village to village.

We walked along the stone paved paths, a soft breeze carrying the scent of orange blossom and sea air and the cry of sea gulls.  The different rock formations stuck out like craggy teeth into the ocean and on which you could see the occasional person sunbathing or fishing.

In the village of Begur, the warren of side streets beckon you to explore with occasional flashes of colour, a grand entranceway or a mosaic wall.

charming village of begur in the Costa Brava in Spain

In Tossa de Mar, there is a nice walk up the ruins of the old fortress and the lighthouse.

tossa de mar bachfront

Afterwards, you can walk along the city walls of the Vila Vella which is the old walled city.  My children were completely envious of all the families who got to live in the Vila Vella still.

“They can climb on the walls every day, mummy!  How much fun would that be?” my daughter remarked.  How much fun, indeed.

The Cool History of the Costa Brava

In the Tossa de Mar, the Villa Ametlers are the ruins of a Roman villa which are free to explore.  The ruins of the villa are in pretty good condition and attest to its owner’s wealth and importance. We could see fragments of the old mosaic floors, the baths and the heating system.

roman villa mosaics

Measures such as look-out towers, fortified city walls and the security doors all showed the fear the villagers in Tossa and Begur had of North African pirates.  For children, pirates are the stuff of swashbuckling stories. I can’t imagine though how terrifying it must’ve been though for these villagers when the call went out that pirates had been spotted.

tossa de mar tower

We fell in love with the farmhouses with the towers as well.  Far from the safety of towns, farmers would have a tower of their own to keep watch for pirate raids and also barricade themselves for safety.  My daughter decided that these towers would be perfect for a modern-day Rapunzel.  When she is a teenager, I’m thinking I could not agree more.  She can stay in the tower and out of my hair until she heads to university.

fortified farmhouse catalonia

 

The Great Food of the Costa Brava

We ate well in both Tossa de Mar and Begur where the options for dining were plenty.  My son is a complete foodie and insisted on trying out all the fresh fish, calamari and steak on offer.

In the video you can see when he ordered a salt encrusted baked bacon/steak dish at Restaurant Can Pini in Tossa de Mar.  They brought it to the table and cracked it open in front of us.  It was the most expensive thing on the menu, even more costly than the paella my husband and I shared.  The food was excellent and the restaurant is deservedly proud of having hosted the current King and Queen of Spain when they visited Tossa years ago.

My daughter, on the other hand, stuck with basic Spanish tapas and pasta at the restaurants.  Her choices were probably a good thing because two children with my son’s appetite and flair for ordering would drive us into the poorhouse!

In Lloret de Mar, the Happy Food Truck Tour in the center of town was a lot of fun.  The food trucks were old fashioned camper vans decorated in sweet vintage fabric and bunting.  For obvious reasons, the most popular food truck was simply called “Cupcake.”

Happy Truck Food Tour Cupcake Truck

***

We had a great weekend with the children in the Costa Brava in May.  The children were disappointed (but we were not!) that the water parks were not yet open.  I’m sure the water parks would have made their top 5 list. Instead we had fun the old-fashioned way – beach combing, hiking and eating lots of ice cream.  A perfect long weekend in the sun in my opinion!

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgE7RCt0TE8]
The Good, the Bad and the Fantastic at Lloret de Mar

The Good, the Bad and the Fantastic at Lloret de Mar

The lurid neon sign above the entrance to the club in Lloret de Mar on the Costa Brava shouted total striptease and for added emphasis, “sexy sexy sexy.”  Presumably the inebriated punters the club was trying to lure needed help in equating striptease with sexy.

I find the main drag in Lloret depressing. You may have seen any number of similar towns along the Spanish coastline – a brash, budget beach town for sun-starved Northern Europeans with an unlimited appetite for drink.

lloret de mar cocktails

Pick your poison!

I had to laugh when my friend, Rachel, who blogs at Rachel’s Ruminations, showed me the sign in her hotel room which stated clearly that the hotel would need to be compensated for any towels ruined by tattoo ink.  And, this hotel is billed as one of the luxury options in town.

In case you are wondering, I found myself in Lloret de Mar for a few days in May for the TBEX conference.  Deciding to explore further, I wondered if there could be more to Lloret than a cursory first look would suggest?

What’s Good About Lloret de Mar?

I tried dinner at, La Lonja, a restaurant recommended by a friend.  The restaurant appears charming with its blackboard menu and cheerful blue tables on a little stone side street in the centre of town.  Some of the charm is ruined though if you look further down the street and spot the sign that says “sex shop.”

Sort of like your family, you really have little control over your neighbour’s choice of retail operation.  For all I know, the restaurant was in place long before the other store opened.

The owner of the restaurant was behind the bar ringing up the tapas orders of which there were plenty.  The waiters served up the food fast and furious. The small tapas portions fuel communal sharing of plates and convivial talk all washed down with jugs of wine.  I ogled a paella being served to a neighbouring table and felt a slight pang of regret that I did not order it. In all honesty, though, I was very happy with the tapas I ordered.

La Lonja lloret de mar

Charming but don’t look further down the street.

Lloret de mar La Lonja paella

A delicious pan of paella

Lloret de Mar La Lonja owner

The owner chats with customers.

The cliff walks starting from the beach at Lloret are handy to walk off any big meals. Rocky outcrops, crashing waves, and seagulls flying overhead create an idyllic stroll.  The attractive contemporary villas lining the cliff walk suggesting a more genteel clientele than along the main strip.

lloret de mar castle

You have a choice of beaches at Lloret from the wide coarse sandy one in the center of town to the little coves such as Santa Cristina.

lloret de mar beach

The parish church of Santa Roma is a surprising burst of colour in the centre of town. Originally constructed in the Gothic style in the 16th century, the church was rebuilt by wealthy citizens in the early 20th century.  The church became a frothy confection influenced by Modernism and Byzantine elements as well as the original Gothic.

Lloret the parish church of sant roma

parish church of sant roma lloret

What’s Fantastic About Lloret de Mar?

The Maritime Museum, located in a former mansion built by one of the town’s returning sons who made their fortune in Cuba, weaves a rich tapestry of Lloret’s history.  The museum describes the town’s early years as a humble fishing village, the building of frigates for the Spanish trade with the New World and the influence of the Americanos who flaunted their wealth.

With explanations in English, Catalan and Spanish, the museum is a fantastic multimedia look at Lloret. This museum is so great it deserves its own future post.  I don’t know how many of Lloret’s package holiday visitors will visit this museum (a real shame in my opinion).

Lloret’s days as small fishing village and then a chic home for the returning nouveau riche are long gone.  I was heartened though to see small pockets of beauty amidst the sun, sea and party atmosphere of the town.