Skip to main content
Original Issue

Presenting the Costa Brava

Almost unknown to Americans, Spain's own Riviera offers the good life for a song

By this week summering Americans had landed in Spain in force. They crowded into the corridas in Seville, pored over the El Grecos in Toledo, gaped at the gypsy caves in Granada—but few indeed were to be found among the international horde that had descended on the Costa Brava, the "Rugged Coast," klieg-lit by sun, spangled with hotels and carpeted with beach. For most Americans this, the world's cheapest Riviera, where the unrugged life can cost well inside $5 a day, remains an undiscovered Eden.

From Blanes, 38 miles up from Barcelona, north and east to the French border, the rugged coast is a seaside fringe along the Mediterranean that sometimes ends abruptly in creased cliffs wizened by years of aggravation from the sea and sometimes descends slowly through plains of cork and olive groves to broad strands of pinkish sand that glow rose in the final hours of the summer sun. Jiggling around deep coves and across the flat beaches, the Costa Brava runs out of breath perhaps a hundred miles later, somewhere beyond the surrealist precincts of Port Lligat, where the beginnings of the Pyrenees run in treeless humps out to sea. Around the dozen or so watery nooks and inlets and stretches of sandy beach, over 400 pensions, rooming houses and hotels, small and grand, have risen in the past two years.

Americans coming by air from the States could make the coast as quickly as the crowds of Europeans who annually cruise down there by car. Three times a week Pan American World Airways sends DC-7Cs from Idlewild to Iberia. Leaving New York at 2:30 in the afternoon, the planes set down at Barcelona at 9:40 the next morning, with one intermediate stop at Lisbon. From Barcelona, an ancient ex-American train, a double-decker bus or a rented Spanish Fiat (called Seat here) covers the remaining 40 miles in time for a swim. Figure $473.10 first class each way, or $290.10 if you take the economy sandwich special. Flying economy both ways ($522.20 for the round trip), two weeks of the brave Brava life could be done for $600.

The aficionado's Costa Brava begins just up the coast from Blanes in the tiny fishing village of Lloret. By year's end 16 new hotels will have opened along this wide flat beach, which not very long ago occupied itself exclusively with pulling fish out of the sea. Up on the heights, with the only swimming pool in the town, is the new Hotel Roger de Flor, under the same management as the Avenida Palace in Barcelona. Typical of the smaller new inns is this year's 52-room Solterra Playa, which offers French cuisine and the flamenco dances of Andalusia, all at the prices of Catalonia. An inside room and bath with three meals: $4.50 a day, plus 15% service. Outside room $5; seaside room with balcony $6. Under the same management is the Villa Solterra, charging about $4 a day with food, but there are dozens of places for less.

Perhaps the most exclusive sanctuary in Lloret—a settlement with a shaded seaside promenade, a majority of Germans and English and a smattering of Swedes, Belgians and Swiss—is a sumptuous hideaway called the San Marco de Venezia. A flowered villa by the sea, fashioned by an interior decorator of flamboyant but handsome taste and operated today by a 21-year-old blonde Swedish beauty, the San Marco brims with plants and vines and frescoes. White-gloved waiters serve its food. A rooftop solarium comes equipped with a bar and a splendid view of the beach. The price for all this bacchanalia is $8 to $9 a day, including, of course, meals.

But these prices in tony Lloret are a Costa Brava extravagance compared with Tossa del Mar, just up the line. In Tossa, a Bohemia-by-the-Sea, the 138-room Rovira Hotel charges $3.80 a day for room and bath and three meals (and is sold out until October 29). The new Hotel Windsor, with an inauspicious inland location and Bronx-modern furniture, gets $4.20 a day. Best of all, perhaps, is the Ancora at $4 to $4.70 a day.

What Tossa lacks in hotels it makes up in tourist color. Turrets of an ancient fortification guard the heights over its beach. On the sand, bathers must hunt and peck for body space among the high-prowed hulls of the red and green fishing boats. You can trudge up the steep narrow alleys, past the old bewhiskered Catalan ladies to the museum, with its brick floor and white walls and paintings by Rafaël Benet, Marc Chagall, George Kars and Olga Sacharoff, all of whom worked here and first made Tossa arty and attractive.

San Feli√∫ Guixols (rhymes with sea shoals) was once interested only in the cork industry—indeed, freighters still put into its almost landlocked harbor to load with cork for the States—and is now the main city of the tourists' Costa Brava. With its Paseo Maritimo shaded with plane trees and sprinkled with bars, its smart branch stores of swank establishments in Barcelona, its little bars and clubs, it is more c√¥te d'Azur than Costa Brava. Only the prices and the language have been changed.

Although it grew prosperous by trading with America back in the 17th century, San Feli√∫'s history goes clear back to the Phoenicians, who camped here in 800 B.C. and called the place Alabriga (fortress in the sun). Now a hotel using the old Phoenician name and an old Phoenician sun symbol offers room and bath and meals at $4 to $4.50 a day, attracts mostly Belgians, Swiss and a few cognoscenti from the U.S. forces in Germany.

A new elegant den right on the harbor in San Feli√∫ is the Reina Elisenda, named for history's lone Catalan queen. A modest skyscraper, it has 20 modern rooms with glass walls that peel back to an unhindered view of the harbor, studded with its fishing boats, mussel-cultivating tubs and freighters puffing steam before starting the long run to the States. Below are the palms and the plàtanos of the paseo, where on summer evenings the citizenry comes to dance the sardana in the Open air. Less modern and less expensive is the Montjoi, high on the heights over the town, with 24 rooms, terrace views and flowers, all for less than $8 a day for two—meals, to be sure, included.

Just over a mile from San Feli√∫ is the planned settlement called S'Agaró, the Costa Brava's showpiece. Begun in 1923 by a sprightly, spindly Catalan named José Ensesa Gubert, it started with a pair of orderly white villas with red-tiled roofs. They were sold immediately. Artists and ministers and wealthy Spaniards joined the seaside community, buying plots and sometimes building their own villas, all of which still have to be approved by S'Agaró's architect. In 1932 Ensesa joined two villas together, and with 11 rooms and two baths opened the Hostal de la Gavina, the Inn of the Seagull. It has never closed since, not even during the Spanish Civil War. Today La Gavina has 100 rooms, all with bath, and is generally accepted to be the best resort hotel in Spain. All of its rooms are decorated with priceless antiques gathered by Ensesa through the years, and the tariff—antiques, food and all—is inside $10 a day.

Running along the seaside girth of S'Agaró, which encompasses the grounds of the Gavina and its more than 50 red-topped villas, is a stupendous cliffside walk that winds for four miles under the canted pines, through arched galleries, past strange blooms that sprout from the crevices in the red-brown rocks.

For the nighttime hours between dinner (finishing about 11:30) until dawn, Ensesa has created a nightclub under the pines called the Garbi. The coast's smartest dance band plays in this upholstered forest, but should any guest feel the need of more strenuous exercise, the Garbi, like many another Costa Brava nightspot, has a sideline athletic endeavor—in this case, bowling, open-air and floodlit for night play. Just up the road the Bikini nightclub (dining and dancing) attracts the nocturnal athletes with one of the most beautiful miniature golf courses ever seen by this devotee of Lilliput links. Aside from dazzling its players with its lovely gardens it fractures its English-speaking duffers with a score card printed in the mother tongue. "We beg the players in their own advantage to help us conserving the game in best conditions," the card says. "Do not march on the playground itself if not necessary. Advance on the causeway. Respect the plantations. Should a player hold up the persons following him, he will come to a standstill and let them continue. We thank you by anticipation for your collaboration."

Playa de Aro, where the Costa Brava for a fleeting interlude stretches into a broad flat beach flowered with yellow amapolas growing in the sand, is a veritable nest of nightclubs that flourish and fold with each new season. Its inns, including an all-German motel, are more permanent. A standby since 1928 is the Hotel Costa Brava, a family hotel eminently popular with the Swiss, who camp there for $3.50 a day for room and bath and meals plus 15% service. New this year is the Park Hotel San Jorge, with 90 rooms hanging over the Mediterranean, just above a delight of a beach that runs in a small crescent of sand to a pine-dotted promontory up to its shoulders in the sea.

A scant five miles distant, Palamós is a bustling burg that beckons its fishermen home each afternoon by raising a flag and shooting off a cannon. The pescadores come sailing into port then, anchoring their boats in the roadstead and paddling ashore with the day's catch artfully displayed on palettes. A prime buyer is the Hotel Trias, a rather modest establishment as hotels go but possessed of an unusual kitchen, presided over by its lady proprietor, Maria Trias. It features the strange Catalan dish of lobster with chocolate sauce, the further Catalan combination of lobster with chicken, but above all it makes a poetic suquet simmering such fish as rape, cap roig ("red head" in Catalan), gamba (shrimp) and calamar (cuttlefish) in a stew of smashed almonds, olive oil, flour, garlic, parsley and saffron.

There is no coastal road after Palamós, so you take the inland highway to a hub and from the hub you take a spoke that leads down to some seaside hideaway where in summer fishermen must move over and make room for foreigners down from the north. Tamariu is like that, and you reach it along a crooked way from the hub called Palafrugell. It is the tiniest of coves caught between a thumb and forefinger of roseate rock hirsute with the green of pines. In the crook is a sandy beach where little barks nest and fishing boats with their glowworm lights wait for the night's work. Almost a continuous terrace stretches around the half-moon of the beach and over it an arbor, and it is hard to tell where one tavern leaves off and a new one begins. Up above, coquettes hang out of balconies and converse with swains, and down below, dahlias grow as big as grapefruits and strollers pause to read the signs of the Bar Pat-Xei: "Food and drink are bad here but they are still worse in other places. Choose the lesser evil."

The Hotel Tamariu, which is part of the seaside crescent, has some 50 rooms that with private bath cost $3.60 a day, including taxes, meals and dinner wine. At that, both lunch and dinner are four-course meals. On the hillside looking down on it all, El Hostalillo charges $3.70 a day plus 15%. Permanent population in Tamariu: 65.

From Palafrugell another spoke leads over the hills and down to the sea at Aigua Blava, where the fishermen seem to have surrendered hopelessly to the sybarites. The hillside amphitheater is strewn with lovely villas, belonging to the famous eye specialist, the Count of Arruga; Ventosa y Calvell, former Minister of Finance; Juan Roger Galles, a textile tycoon; Artie Shaw; and other captains of industry. The Galles estate adjoins the grounds of the Aigua Blava Hotel, a delightful inn perched at the water's edge amid umbrella pines and eucalyptus looking out on red rock, beige sand, white boats, black grottos and blue and green water. Its dining room is fashioned of rough-hewn timbers, furnished with high-backed, country-style chairs and decorated with fishnet draperies, corks still attached. Bright pottery sparkles on the white plaster walls. There are tennis and open-air ping-pong and a choice of four beaches in the tiny bay. At day's end the roto-body-broilers retreat to Bassa Morta, where the sun lingers longest. Diehards paddle out to an island 50 yards offshore which is clear of the sheltering hills and bask in sunset's final glow. An Aigua Blava room with terrace by the sea rents for $7.70 a day for two with meals, or a flat $7 without the porch. A private bungalow for two with daily subsistence comes to $8 U.S. For excursionists the Aigua Blava has reciprocal rights for lunch at a choice of seven hotels stretching from San Feli√∫ clear up to La Escala.


The northward spokes out of Palafrugell lead now to the village with the singularly cordial name of Pals, and to La Bisbal, which claims fame as the birthplace of that ruler of the rumba, Xavier Cugat. The hills have flattened into plains here and the roads are long tunnels of leafy plane trees that stretch at last to the outskirts of La Escala, the most redolent little settlement this side of Secaucus. La Escala catches fish, and in every dark warehouse corner patient fishwives sit by the hour packing anchovies in jars or stuffing them into wooden boxes for export across the world. While this may make for a solid economy, it doesn't do much for the nostrils. On the other hand, neither does it deter a sturdy company of Dutch, Belgians, English, Germans, French and Swiss who flock to the Hotel Voramar, where they live the seaside life a step or two away from the anchovy-stuffers, a privilege for which they pay $3.60 a day. For painters and photographers La Escala is a gem. Its high-prowed traínas, which go to sea all night, pose all day in the sun. Its fishermen and its visitors on chill days drink cremat, which is a bowl of coffee and rum served purple and flaming in the taverns of La Escala and the chill open-air nightclubs of Llafranch. But until Voramar builds a long-promised pool over the offshore rocks the nearest swimming is on the beach of the ruined city of Ampurias, which was first settled by Phoenicians from Marseilles who built a small shipyard there about 550 B.C. Later came the Greeks and then the Romans. In the third century B.C. it was a Roman naval base and the largest city of Roman Spain. Norman pirates sacked Ampurias in the ninth century and it lay under sand until archaeologists came probing in 1908.

Far more interesting than dead Ampurias is the live ruin of Cadaqués, which can be reached by hiring a boat from La Escala or by trundling zigzag over the Pyrenean foothills. Inside this natural fortress, all but cut off from the rest of Spain, is the tumble-down town, so often sacked by Gauls and then by Turks, by French and English and pirates that it seems hardly now to care. There is a tavern in the town under a few trees in the square, and even a few shops of singularly good taste. And, strangest of all, a perilous road leads around the sea wall—the waves breaking over the passing cars—to the Rocamar Hotel, a Waldorf growing in Pompeii. Stunning chandeliers of Majorcan glass hang in the dining room, and in the bar where vacationing Spaniards gather the walls are aglow with lithographs of Dali's illustrations for Don Quixote.

The master himself creates in a white house in Port Lligat, up a snaking road from Cadaqués. Besides his home there is the tiny Port Lligat Hotel, built of shale rock and glass, that looks, as Dali's does, down to the cove with its boats pulled up at the emharcadero and Dali's two white swans cruising the lagoon. Stuffed swans live inside Dali's house, as does a stuffed polar bear who stands on his haunches inside the front door wearing a turquoise necklace, and a carved arm comes out of one wall clutching in its plaster hand a wooden pitchfork and an American flag.

"Look, no green," Dali says as he surveys gray mounds tumbling into the sea. "I cannot stand green. Here looks like skeleton of one rotten donkey. Can work fine. Work, work, work. No green. In New York sleep, sleep, sleep, cogitation and cocktail parties."

Down below in Aigua Blava, S'Agaró, Tossa and Lloret the grass grows greener. For the international clan that gathers amid the verdure of the pines there is no work—just sleep, sleep and sun, zarzuelas and the sardana. The piper gets paid in pesetas, and $5 hasn't stretched so far since the free lunch was in flower.



SMILING HEADWAITER at S'Agaró's elegant Hostal de la Gavina serves opulent paella.



TINY TOWNS around pink beaches, rugged hills and azure sea are typical of Costa Brava scene. This is Llafranch, seen from a lookout point on its lighthouse hill.



AT TOSSA DEL MAR, Barbara Langanke of Hamburg, in striped slacks, perches on boat rail below ruins of tower.



AT TAMARIU the sardine boats are pulled up on the beach at midday, while swimmers and snorklers take over the bay.



AIGUA BLAVA's honorary general is Philadelphia-born Britisher, Colonel John A. Drexel. His hat is from Palm Beach.



AT PALAMOS, the Marquesa de Licodia and son José Emmanuel of Barcelona splash at beach in front of summer home.



CADAQUES HOLIDAY is goal of visiting actors Mr. and Mrs. Bim Dikkers of Rotterdam, who came in Goggomobil.



FAMOUS PAINTER Salvador Dali takes a Hamletlike pose in a cowboy suit against white-washed rocks at Port Lligat.



WRITER-IN-RESIDENCE Robert Ruark, wife Ginny and boxer Schnorkel pose in Palamós under a tiger trophy.


HUNDRED-MILE STRETCH of Costa Brava is studded with resorts, handy to cities.