Discovering the Costa Brava

What's in a name... One of the first Spanish Mediterranean rivieras to open to mass tourism in the late 1950s. The government of the time, still very much controlled by fascist dictator General Francisco Franco, selected the long stretch of coast north of Barcelona and towards the French border as one of the newly created 'tourism zones' to lure Northern European holidaymakers (and Brits in particular) to the sunny shores of Spain. Even the name 'Costa Brava', literally 'the rugged coast', is pretty much artificially concocted: the correct name for this region is Empordà (in fact Alt and Baix Empordà - respectively Northern and Southern Empordà). But I'm digressing: by the 1960s small fishing villages like Lloret de Mar and Tossa de Mar had been swallowed by tall concrete condominiums and other assorted architectural atrocities. Where small fishing boats once plowed the waves, now big catamarans crowded with rose pink Germans and Brits line the old fishing ports. So goes the story of the Costa Brava as we've all heard. Or maybe not.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not denying the existence of such soul-depriving places like Lloret or Tossa, with their awful restaurant menu boards complete with pictures of sweaty looking eggs & bacon breakfasts and spaghetti bolognese for the hapless foreign tourist. Or the pervading smell of suntan lotion flying in the sea breeze. Or the endless array of souvenir shops selling Chinese-made-real Spanish crafts. Or mini-sangria bottles. Or flamenco dresses. Or tacky frilly fans. I could go on: the list is endless... But there's lots more to the Costa Brava: it took a recent road trip to find out. And that's not even that much out of the way. One only needs to look for it. And it's often just there, around the corner: a stunning and unexpected catalogue of beautiful beaches, picture perfect towns steeped in thousands of years of fascinating history and even wild, almost untouched natural areas.

From a LGBT point of view, the Costa Brava is not known for an abundance of gay-owned businesses, though there are a few gay bars in main tourist destinations like Lloret de Mar. This does not mean that this part of the Spanish coastline is not gay-friendly. We have encountered absolutely no issues in our trips around the region and the Catalan people are incredibly hospitable and friendly, as well as extremely proud of their land, so they are more than happy to show it round to all visitors, regardless of their sexual orientation. The destinations we talk about below are perfect for anyone who want to discover the stunning depth of history, culture and nature of Catalunya beyond nearby Barcelona. A car is the perfect way to explore this coast - it is quite cheap to hire a car here and the roads are always pretty well maintained. Besides, you will get the option to reach a lot of places off the beaten track.

​The long stretch of sandy coast from Barcelona to Blanes is mostly uneventful and probably predictably so: the proximity to the Catalan capital and the existence of a suburban rail line means that most of the properties here are either second homes or cheap housing for commuters into the city. There are a few industrial areas too, just to add to the low appeal of the location. Once arrived in Blanes, things seem to pick up a little. There are some attempts to create a pleasant seafront parade and a small ex-fishing marina, plus a few modernista homes. Nothing too exciting, but certainly cheerful and pleasant nevertheless, on a warm weekend afternoon, with a busy beach.

Tossa de Mar

Tossa de Mar is one of the key locations along the Costa Brava. It is worth visiting, of course, if only because it sort of epitomizes the whole Costa's splitting dilemma. On your left the remains of a beautiful medieval castle and village. On your right the awful concrete condominiums and the tourist menu restaurants, plus a smattering of souvenir shops that could belong anywhere else. In front of it all - a wide and crowded beach, at least in the summer months. When we visited, in the height of the summer, the old cobbled streets were packed, but still retained a lot of character. We suggest to arrive nice and early before the tourist buses arrive en masse.

The most convenient way in and out of Tossa is the road that links the town to the main highway. And that seems to be the most trundled route too. However there is a much more spectacular road linking Tossa to Sant Feliu de Guíxols, a long and winding coastal route that acts as a continuous series of opportunities for spectacular pictures of secluded bays and precipitous cliffs. The best direction for travelling on this route is from Tossa towards Sant Feliu because all the spectacular miradores will in this case be always on the right hand side of the road.

Despite being just a short distance from Tossa, Sant Feliu feels completely different: certainly a city with a tourism vocation, but it appears that the excesses of the same may have missed it altogether. In fact it does look and feel like a city with actual residents, not one of those towns that duly close down at the end of the summer. You have a feel for it when you walk around the main streets and actually hear mainly Spanish or Catalan being spoken, unlike in Tossa. The parade of souvenir shops cedes the ground to cafès frequented by locals and a handful of foreign tourists. Wealthy Barcelonian have their summer residences on the hill and rugged promontory that separate Sant Feliu from the next long beach, Sant Pol and S'Agarò. Here a beautiful walk along the stunning precipitous coastline reveals stunning villas boasting colourful bougainvilleas and immersed in shady pine forests. For a moment it looks like being in Saint-Tropez. However here the feeling is relaxed, low-key and again, hardly any foreigners around in the beachfront restaurants, despite being the height of summer. A long way from Tossa indeed.

Driving further north, it's worth taking a detour to Calonge: a medieval town that hasn't yet being entirely gentrified and touristified like Pals or Begur, as we'll see later. Unlike the latter towns, property here is still cheap, a sign that the grand-design renovators haven't quite got here yet. Further along the coast there is a string of rather uneventful - though not unpleasant - locations, Platja d'Aro and Palamòs: here a long series of supermarkets and shopping malls on the edge of town give way to a familiar and busy resort-style high street, with bars, restaurants and shops. Not only tourist shops though, some decent fashion names are present too. Just a short drive further north you find Palafrugell: the town itself is possibly quite unremarkable but a very short distance to the east are some stunning coves set in the rocky coastline. Seaside towns like Calella de Palafrugell and Llafranc with their white buildings along the beach seem to be transplanted here from Corsica or Elba. It's fairly touristy, all right, but at least the concrete monstrosities haven't arrived to this part of coast, which has maintained a classy and upmarket profile. A quick drive takes you up to the Cap of Sant Sebastiá for amazing views from the old lighthouse (now a hotel/restaurant) and you also have the chance of browsing through the well displayed remains of an ancient Iberian village dating back thousands of years.

And there is actually plenty of archeology to explore in this area. Just north of the resort of L'Escala, you find the Greek & Roman ruins of Empuries, in a stunning setting along the coastline. They tell a story of Mediterranean trades that stretched from here to Asia Minor and beyond, in fact a pretty actual tale of cohabitation of different peoples in the name of prosperous commerce. A bit further inland at Ullastret are the fascinating ruins of an Iberian city dating back to the 6th century BC, well worth the visit.

Also fascinating is the town of Torroella de Montgrí, which is dominated by a spectacular castle from which a breathtaking view can be enjoyed and is certainly worth the hike up the hill! We recommend sleeping at the superb Palau lo Mirador, which used to be the residence of the Torroella noble family and was first documented in 1385. Now a luxury hotel with all modern comforts, it is an experience well worth the detour from the coast. The town of Torroella itself is quiet but very charming - don't miss the gorgeous cathedral. A few Kilometers from here is the resort of L'Estartit, faced by the beautiful Medes Islands - a natural marine park.

Not far from here is the old village of Begur, situated on a steep hill beneath a Romanesque fort on top. The views to the east and north towards the Alt Empordà, the Pyrenees and the Medes islands are breathtaking. The main peculiarity of this town is that many of its inhabitants emigrated to the West Indies in the late 19th Century in search of fortune. When they returned, after becoming wealthy through trade and commerce (with some murky deals thrown in the mix for good measure), they proceeded to build incredibly elaborate mansions in their home town, dotted all around the old city. However Los Indianos, as these men were called, not just embellished their own residences but also their town: testimony is the beautiful Casino which acted (and still does today) as a cultural palace for the benefit of all residents. It's quite noticable how the largest tourist group here are the Dutch, probably due to proximity of Girona and its airport, with many daily flights to several cities in the Netherlands. We suspect that many of the local residents are also Dutch nationals, who spend here most or part of their time. However also many Spanish VIPs have residences here, which is hardly surprising, for the serenity and charm of this town is beyond doubt.


Whilst previously described Calonge is still relatively unspoilt and un-gentrified, possibly at the other end of the scale is the village of Pals, which is located just a few kilometers from Begur. Although itself a stunning medieval town, here it feels a bit like the process of restoration has created a village so meticulously clean and looked after that it actually resembles a film set rather than a working community with real and permanent inhabitants. Still, it's a pretty village - though in the summer it tends to be mostly tourists you'll see, scrambling from one souvenir shop to the next.

Roses is a busy town at the end of the wide gulf bearing the same name and surmounted by the southern face of the Cap de Creus. To the east of Roses are some pretty holiday resorts, though densely developed along narrow beaches and steep hillsides; to the west and south, the high rises take over again the flat lands. Here you will find resorts like Empuriabrava with its villas and apartments alongside over sixty kilometers of artificial canals where thousands of individual boat moorings were created in the 60s and 70s: a resort entirely modelled on Florida's equivalent.

The rocky Cap de Creus is quite unlike the other craggy costa further south. Here the volcanic nature of this area is clear, as is its bareness and asperity. Sticking out into the Mediterranean and being the easternmost part of mainland Spain, this area is known for its strong Tramuntana winds which often suddenly whip the surrounding seas and caused many historical disastrous shipwrecks. Centuries ago some of this seemingly unforgiving windswept and sunburnt land was actually cultivated by monks who lived in the many remote monasteries dotted around and who produced fine wines and the ubiquitous olive oil. All that remains today of this past activity are the terraces on the steep slopes and many old olive trees. The phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th Century devastated the once rich vineyards and today only a few producers have re-established the old wine producing arts. It is still quite incredible to admire the endless hand-laid terraces that cover entire sides of the steep hillsides and imagining the region hundreds of years ago. The town of Cadaquès sits almost at the easternmost point of the Cap the Creus and despite being one of the most renowned tourist destinations of the Costa, it manages to maintain its beautiful atmosphere, with its steep narrow streets and sugar-white buildings. The town is rightly famous for its connection to Salvador Dalí, who lived and created his art here (his house is in Portlligat, just outside of town) but Cadaquès also didn't fail to impress other famous artists, from the film director Buñuel, to poet Garcia Lorca, to artists like Picasso, Duchamp and Magritte.

Just north of Cadaquès is the stunning lighthouse situated at the end of a narrow and windy road, but all around the arid rocky and almost lunar landscape opens up in stunning coves with crystal clear waters which are worth the relative trek down the stony tracks. The wind and the rain carved some of the flaky rocks into amazing shapes and forms. There are some pretty interesting shiny pyrite boulders dotted all around the area.


The north face of the Cap the Creus hosts the small village of Port de la Selva. From this point on the coast morphs again and the proximity to the national border means that most of the tourists here are indeed French. Organized on parallel streets and perpendicular stairways along the steep coastline the village features a pretty seafront with a few small shops, delis, restaurants & cafès and a gravelly dark beach. A few fishing boats line the small port. Unlike the posher and cosmopolitan Cadaquès, here everything seems to move a lot slower and the streets away from the beach are steeped in a peaceful silence.

The coastal road proceeds north along a beautiful coastline that make us remember distant corners of the world. New Zealand, perhaps? Nice villas and bungalows are perched on the green hills or hanging over coves and rocky outposts. Just a short distance along is the pretty town of Llançá, built around a sheltered marina and port. It's now only 10 kilometers from the border and the rail line from Girona and Barcelona swings along the coast for a final stretch and a few tunnels before reaching the French border at Portbou. A pedestrians-only promenade along the beach of Llançá leads to a rocky outcrop that once was a tiny islet, before it was joined to the coast in the 1950s. The old town is a bit further inland.

There is plenty to see here too. The Pyrenees plunge towards the coast here and on these green and often very precipitous slopes you will find some very spectacular monasteries - we mentioned their role in producing wine and oil in the Cap de Creus - now ruined and transformed in open air museums, such as Sant Pere de Rodes, perched on the side of the mountains and offering a great insight on the life of these remote communities over a thousand years ago, in the uncertain times of the early middle ages.

It's refreshing to see that there is so much more to see and do along this often maligned Costa. 

Sunset on Sant Feliu de Guixol's Harbour

Location (Map)

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