Contribute your own travel stories, personal experiences and knowledge! Click here to write your impressions, recommendations and reviews of destinations, hotels, restaurants, monuments, attractions.
The Costa Brava is less bucket and spade now and more style by the bucketload. These chic summer spots are just a short step off the beaten track
Tucking into fresh lobster under a plane tree decorated with fairy lights, with waves softly breaking in the background, I found it hard to believe that I was on the Costa Brava, the coast famous for sunburned Brits, all-day breakfasts and rowdy nightlife.
Begur, a chichi little town an hour north of Barcelona and 50km beyond package holiday favourite Tossa de Mar, has finally come of age, with a spread of fantastic restaurants and boutique hotels offering a stylish Spanish beach holiday where you might least expect it. In recent years it has become very popular with Barcelonians, and now many have bought stylish holiday homes there.
Getting there is easy: budget airlines fly to Girona, where you can pick up a hire car and within an hour be flat out on one of the golden beaches, such as Sa Tuna and Sa Riera, that lie beneath hills dotted with architect-designed houses, or settled with a glass of wine at a stellar restaurant, such as Sa Rascassa, where I enjoyed my fairy-lit meal of lobster.
This tiny restaurant-with-rooms is set beside a small cove down a long steep wooded valley from Begur, and feels like a secret hideaway. Staying here is a treat, and the food – classic Catalan dishes – is wonderful, though some evenings I preferred to borrow a torch to walk around the cliff to the next village for dinner.
Over dinner one night, the restaurant’s owner, Oscar Goriz, told me that Begur used to be nicknamed “little Africa”, because “it is so far off the main coastal route that you have to take a deviation to get here”.
It is certainly worth a trip. Begur is a colourful and exuberant town, with narrow streets of Moorish and Spanish architecture topped with a crumbling medieval castle that has views along miles of coastline. The town’s most stunning neoclassical mansions were built by local merchants returning from Cuba in the late 19th century, and they sit alongside fishermen’s huts, the homes of wealthy families who traded with the West Indies and Americas, and houses rumoured to have hosted pirates.
In one such mansion, now the Aiguaclara Hotel, I sat in a quirky bistro that wouldn’t be out of place in a trendy backstreet in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Its walls are lined with cabinets displaying tin toys and painted vintage signs, and the dining room backs on to a small flea market selling vintage gems. In the garden, a diner was swinging his legs casually from a bright green egg-shaped hanging chair, and downstairs a lounge with an honesty bar offered olives, local wine and a bucket of beach toys.
Beyond Begur, the bare orange landscape stretches out, with little medieval towns, vineyards and villages along the road to Girona. The spring brings meadows of wildflowers, and the best way to get around is by bike – there’s hardly any traffic on the roads and you can meander from town to town, stopping for tapas and wine in little shaded bars.
In the medieval town of Regencós, just inland from Begur, the cinema has been turned into a stylish hotel, the Hotel del Teatre, with a designer restaurant that is regularly packed on summer weekends. From its balcony, I sat and watched the world go by, listening to donkeys braying in the background.
Another medieval must-see is the town of Púbol, whose centrepiece is the castle Salvador Dalí bought for his Russian wife Gala. The castle is crumbling beautifully, with pomegranate and fig trees growing around the terrace, and an array of long-legged elephant statues hidden in the shady garden. Inside you can marvel at Gala’s 1960s couture dresses in a long dark gallery, and learn how the glamorous pair used to live. The living room and kitchen are set up exactly as they were when the couple still lived here, and feel as if they’ve just popped out.
This is the area for exploring the Dalí Triangle, the trio of sights that includes the sleepy whitewashed village of Port Lligat and Dalí’s knockout Theatre-Museum in Figueres (salvador-dali.org/museus). For me, the lesser-known Dalí sights were just as interesting: those you see simply driving around the countryside.
The artist is, of course, famous for his surreal paintings, and while I didn’t spot any melted clocks dripping over the skeletons of sheep, the backdrops were everywhere: distinctive triangular islands, a broad blue sky taking up 60% of the view wherever I looked, burnt orange earth and scribbly olive trees. In the paintings, it looks too much like a wasteland to be real, but in real life, it’s there in all its spare beauty.
Despite its reputation, this part of Spain is successfully shrugging off the association with package tourism and developing into something quite unique. It has all the benefits that mass tourism brings – frequent flights for a start – but take just a small step away from the beaten track, and you can find different and stylish experiences, where you feel like an individual rather than one of the pack.
This must be what happens when slow tourism and mass tourism collide.
• Return flights from the UK to Girona cost from around £120 return with Ryanair (ryanair.com). Doubles at the Aiguaclara Hotel (+34 972 622 905, aiguaclara.com) in Begur from €70. Doubles at Sa Rascassa (+34 972 622 845, hostalsarascassa.com) from €90. Doubles at Hotel del Teatre (+34 972 306 270, hoteldelteatre.com) from €91