Wind. That’s the prevailing memory I have of Costa Brava – the 256 kilometre stretch of coastline running from just north of Barcelona to the border with France, where the Pyrenees mountains meet the Mediterranean Sea. Wind whipping up the pine trees into a symphony to compete with the sound of the waves, which come crashing into narrow coves or against dramatic jumbles of rock at the foot of vivid orange, tree-studded cliffs. The ever-present sensation of a breeze, strong and cool, against my skin and in my hair, masking the sun’s heat. Cool, soft, incessant wind – ferocious and wild, but also gentle, pleasant.
Read More: Plan your trip with the Perfect 7 Day Costa Brava Itinerary from Savored Journeys.
And it’s no surprise that the wild wind has left such an impression, given that it’s exactly what has helped to form the so-called Rugged Coast; twisting the weather-beaten pine trees and shaping the rocks, creating the very wildness from which the region’s name comes. Journalist Ferran Agulló reportedly formed the name Costa Brava, Catalan for wild or rugged coast, after a visit to Fornells, a picturesque coastal village just outside of Begur, which was the final stop on my journey along this gorgeously wild and incredibly varied coastline, where the one constant has been the sound of the wind in the pines and the waves on the rocks.
Fornells, where a dusting of dry pine needles carpets the stone stairway down to the beach of Platja Fonda, and the sweet forest smell is inescapable, was the perfect finishing post along Costa Brava. As the wonderful owner of the Hotel EETU (one of only two hotels in this tiny town), put it – I came from the worst of the coast to the very best. I couldn’t possibly say that Lloret de Mar, the starting point of my journey, was the worst of the Costa Brava, but, at least at first glance, this major beach resort didn’t pack the same punch as many of the smaller, more secluded parts of the coast.
Lloret de Mar has a bad reputation around Europe, as a package-holiday-hub and an 18-30’s favourite, packed with clubs offering cheap shots and home to more Burger Kings that tapas bars. But first appearances can be deceiving, and beneath it’s gaudy surface Lloret actually had a lot more to offer. Historically, the town is incredibly important, as a ship building hub and major point of trade with the New World after Columbus triumphantly returned and the trade lines were opened up. Most of the town’s wealth comes from the so-called Indianos, or Americanos; locals that left the town (often as young as 12 or 13) to travel to Cuba, returning years later with a fortune which was then invested in Lloret de Mar. A rather poignant quote in the town’s Museu de Mar describes the term nicely;
“Those who return with money are called ‘Americanos’. Those who come back without anything don’t have a name. Nor do those who fail to return.”
The museum, an unlikely find in a town known only for beaches and discos, was housed in one of only two remaining Americano mansions in Lloret. Once, the whole seafront was lined with these grand townhouses, but then the tourism boom hit and almost all of them were ripped down to create the kind of ugly seventies hotels which still litter the coast of Spain, although the ornate city hall and the palm-tree-lined boulevard still remain. Traces of the town’s past wealth and it’s Americano culture still linger, though, most poignantly in the town’s stunning cemetery. The wide avenues of this serene, park-like space were lined with modernist and neo-gothic architecture and sculptures, forming a stunning example of the eccentric Catalan Modernist movement which Gaudi is so famous for. Although there’s no Gaudi here, many of his disciples were behind the extravagant mausoleums and hypogeums, particularly the chief architect Joaquim Artau i Fàbregas.
Beyond the unlikely culture, Lloret de Mar also offered exactly what anyone comes to Costa Brava for: gorgeous beaches. Lloret Beach, the main strip, is a kilometre and a half stretch of clean white sand with a Blue Flag certificate and plenty of watersports, but follow the coast in either direction and you’ll come to more secluded beaches and pretty little coves. Costa Brava, I was surprised to learn, has miles upon miles of coastal footpaths, known as the Camins de Ronda, which lace the dramatic coastline between almost every town on the coast.
From Lloret, the route winds north towards Canyelles and Tossa de Mar, skirting the green cliffs at the northern end of Lloret Beach. It begins just round the corner from the main beach, at the picturesque Platja de Sa Caleta, a small sandy bay lined with colourful wooden boats. I followed the winding path round the coast, up and down stone staircases and through small tunnels, past the deceptively ancient looking D’en Plaja Castle – which in fact is a privately owned home built in the 1940s – with the green of the pines to my left and the brilliant blue of the sea to my right. The water was so clear that I could spot clouds of pale pink jellyfish floating in the rocky coves below, and with each corner the excruciatingly beautiful coastline seemed to become more wonderful.
It would probably be possible to walk the length of Costa Brava along these paths, but sadly there was no time for that, so I didn’t rejoin the Camins de Ronda again until I’d reached Sant Feliu de Guixols. An old fishing village, this was a smaller and prettier town than Lloret de Mar, and formed my first stop in the vertiginous and mountainous region of Emporda.
Although back on the coast, in Sant Feliu de Guixols I veered off the Camins de Ronda to try my hand at something far more menacing; the Via Ferrada Cala del Molí. An intimidating and thrilling experience; hanging from the vertical rock face above roaring waves and deadly spikes of rock, harnessed to a metal cable and praying that I wouldn’t place a foot wrong as I inched my way around the jutting rocks. It was slow going; crossing gorges on wobbly cable bridges, narrowly avoiding attacks from angry seagulls as we ventured too near their nests during hatching season, and confronting over and over my minor fear of heights. Challenging, yes, and terrifying for me, but also amazing fun and seriously rewarding – even if my arms regretted it the following day.
Thankfully, the rest of my time on the Costa Brava was far more relaxing. From Sant Feliu de Guixols I made my way to Platja de Aro for a night of cava, wine, and excellent food at the truly lovely, family-run Can Cristus restaurant in Hotel Bell Repos – rounded off with a particularly potent cocktail – and then to S’Agaro to pick up the Camins de Ronda once more. Here, the coastal footpath winds past an exclusive community of expensive villas and millionaire’s mansions, nestled above the coves or standing proudly at the top of cliffs.
Combining elements of modernism and traditional Catalan décor with an otherwise fairly minimalist architectural style, these manors had views to die for, not to mention private access to the coastal path, and even direct stairways to coves so secluded they may as well be private beaches. The upmarket area, where almost all the properties were second homes, was a stark contrast to the far more cheap and cheerful town of Lloret where my trip had started, but all the towns had one thing in common; that wild, rugged, and unceasingly beautiful coastline, where from the top of rocky cliffs, weathered pine trees stretched out longingly towards the bright blue sea.
More exclusive still was my last stop along the coast. The tiny village of Fornells, nestled around a small marina on a rocky outcrop which juts into the sea to form two small bays either side, was made up of gated communities and expensive villas, all tumbled on top of one another along the quiet coast. My final foray along the Camins de Ronda took me up and down stone steps, all carpeted with pine needles, past the colourful houses of Fornells and green fields splashed red with poppies, through stone tunnels with narrow windows offering glimpses of shimmering blue, beneath the arching branches of pines and past small coves, to the beach of Aigua Blava. I spent two sleepy days traversing this small section of the coastal walk, veering off road to explore small forests and fields of wildflowers, or venturing out around the edges of the cliffs to find rockpools and private coves that I could only reach by clambouring over the jumbles of rock.
Fornells was beautiful: pastel coloured villas and wooden fishing boats, a topsy-turvy coastal path leading to a sandy bay lined with tapas restaurants, all tucked into the foot of a tall hill, at the top of which was the wonderful town of Begur. When I visited at the start of May, I had this almost undiscovered gem all to myself; wandering the silent, sleepy streets of the colourful old town up to the crumbling tower of Begur castle, which was deserted, giving me my very own panorama. Ahead lay the Mediterranean, cool and blue and beautifully still in the distance. Behind sat Begur in a tumble of terracotta roofs along the gentle slopes of two emerald green hills, beyond which stretched acres of forest into a misty blue distance of rolling mountains, while away along the coast the Pyranees arced out a beckoning arm towards the sea. And all the while, there was the wind, slapping my face and flurrying my hair as I watched, spinning a creaking old weathervane round and round, and whispering, endlessly, through the pines.
With Thanks To:
My trip to Costa Brava was hosted in part by Lloret Turisme and the Costa Brava tourist board. Many thanks to them for showing me this wonderful region.