In the Alt & Baix Empordà
Take a driving tour of the highly picturesque, beautifully preserved, charming, atmospheric medieval villages of Pals and its castle tower and rice fields (but is perhaps a bit too-well restored and overly manicured), and the nearby tiny Sant Feliu de Boada, with its lovely 12th-century Romanesque church. A little further inland is the beautifully preserved walled village of Peratallada, with its defensive walls still intact, a moat and castle-palace, 13th-century church of Sant Esteve and lookout tower-its name means “cut stone”. Palau-Sator, a sleeper, has a little farm museum that’s open from 12:30 to 9:00 pm is a 10-minute drive north of Peratallada. Ullastret, a few minutes west of Palau-Sator, is another village surrounded by defensive walls. You can also visit the ancient ruins of the Poblat ibèric d’Ullastret (Puig de Sant Andreu), the oldest known Iberian settlement, set on a lush hillside just north of Ullastret. It was inhabited continually from the 7th-century BC until its mysterious abandonment in the 17th-century. And if time allows, end your driving tour in picture postcard perfect Monells, where the river divides the town-Old Quarter. It has a pretty porticoed square and flower lined streets.
The villages of Peratallada-Pals-Palau Sator are architectural jewels and form the “Golden Triangle” of the Lower, Baix Empordá, which is often called Catalonia’s version of Tuscany. The villages are close to one another so you can hit them on one long driving excursion.
For lunch on this loop we recommend the Restaurant Ibéric in Ullastret (their fish comes directly from the Palamós pier), the Mas Pou in Palau-Sator (a Bibi Gourmand selection for value in the Michelin guide), the Can Bonay in Peratallada, Can Dolç in Sant Feliu de Boada, on the main square next to the church, with a children’s play area, and L’Hort del Rector on the outskirts of Monells, run by a Catalán/Canadian couple. You’ll find this last one on the Monells-Madremanya road, just in front of the Saint Genís church, which has a Gothic apse and a Baroque façade. Its catalán name means “The Parish Priest’s Kitchen Garden”. But here you should enjoy cod, as most of the main courses are versions of cod in its many guises, the house specialty, although there are main courses and starters for non-cod lovers.
See the splendid Greco-Roman ruins and Museum of Empúries + lovely sandy beach under shaded pines of Sant Martí d’Empúries next door. The drive to Empúries from Girona will take about 45 minutes. These ruins are considered some of the finest, most fascinating ancient archaeological sites in Spain, if not in all of Europe. The Greek settlers who arrived here in the 6th-century BC developed “Emporion” (the market place) into one of the most significant Greek trading centers in the western Mediterranean. In 218 BC the Romans invaded, and towards the end of the 2nd-century AD they established a settlement here for their veteran soldiers to the west of the Greek town. The Roma and Greek settlements were united as one during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The decline of this once-flourishing city set in around the end of the 2nd-century.
After an Empúries visit you can explore the nearby village of Sant Martí d’Empúries with its beach of golden sand and have a meal at the Impressionist painting-filled Mesón del Conde on the Plaça Major at No. 4. It has an outdoor terrace and is a local favorite. This could be an unforgettable day of art, history and nature.
While in the area be sure to visit L’Escala, the anchovy capital, with an anchovy museum. Buy a tin of local anchovies. The Museum of Anchovies & Salt is open from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and 5:00 to 8:00 pm. Admission is 2€.
For one Michelin star dining in L’Escala, you have El Roser 2 with prime views of the bay at Passeig de Lluís Albert. Chef Jordi Sabadi helms the kitchen and his brother, Rafel, acts as the sommelier.
Visit, dine and/or shop in the lovely hilltop market town filled with 19th-century indiano mansions and crowned by the remnants of a 17th-century castle, once used as a defense against frequent pirate raids. The top of Begur commands extensive views of the central Costa Brava and the town itself attracts an international crowd in the summer. Many of its indiano homes, some porticoed with fading frescoes, have been restored by noted catalán architects, and plaques have been placed in Spanish and English explaining the history of each home.
What is an indiano?
The indianos were locals from all over the Costa Verde (Green Spain) who in vast numbers immigrated to the Americas: Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Cuba in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to seek their fortunes. Once they had amassed considerable wealth in the textile, tobacco and banking industries, they returned to Catalunya, Asturias, Cantabria, Galicia and the Basque Country and built huge, ostentatious palaces to showcase their newly minted fortunes. In early September Begur will celebrate its annual Fira Indians Festival, a 3-day event that commemorates the relationship between the town and Havana, Cuba.
Salvador Dalí’s over-the-top, wildly extravagant Teatre-Museu Dalí in Figueres in the Upper (Alt) Empordà attracts more visitors than any other museum in Spain, apart from Madrid’s Prado. In addition to the museum, Figueres has a pleasant, prosperous old center. There is underground parking at Placa Catalunya and the Dalí Museum is walkable from there. A regular Thursday morning outdoor market is held on the Rambla lined with plane trees. To visit the Teatre-Museu it’s best to look online in advance, noting the opening hours of each month, and to avoid a long line during high season, purchase your tickets (14€) online at Salvador-Dali.org.
The 11th-century castle that Surrealist Salavador Dalí purchased and restored for his Russian wife, Gala, in this sleepy little village in 1970, the Gala Castell Dalí Púbol, is one of the three points that make up the so-called “Daí Triangle”. The artist himself lived in this palace until 1984 but moved back to Figueres after being badly injured in a fire here. The third point is found near rather isolated Cadaqués, his equally outré home, the Salvador Dalí House in Portlligat.
Figueres also boasts another small museum, Museu del Joguet de Catalunya, the Toy Museum of Josep Maria Joan Rosa, at Carrer de Sant Pere, 1, a short walk from Teatre-Museu Dalí.
For lunch after a visit to the Dalí museum, we recommend the dining room of the Hotel Durán at Carrer Lasauca, 5, nearby, off the Rambla, in business since 1855, serving traditional catalán fare at moderate prices. It’s open daily, and its famous all over Catalunya.
On a slighter longer trip from Girona, taken during the week to avoid horrendous weekend traffic on a tortuous road, would be the journey to the Aegean looking, bohemian, artsy whitewashed fishing village of Cadaqués, home of Surrealist Salvador Dalí. If you venture here, wear extremely comfortable shoes as the steep streets of the old quarter, the Barri Vell, are paved with large, rough stones. There is a market held on Mondays at Riera de Sant Vicenç, Mercadillo de Cadaqués. The town featires an interesting museum, the Museu de Cadaqués, at Carrer Narcís Monturiol, 15, with displays relating to Dalí’s work and excellent exhibitions of local art. And the 16th-century Esglesia de Santa Maria is highly photogenic. It has an ornate gilded altarpiece and the 3rd side chapel on the left was painted by Dalí. The seafront offers a pebble beach, artist shops, street musicians and cafes and restaurants where Dalí and writers, such as García Marqués, used to congregate. Read all about the village in 36 hours in Cadaqués.
The best restaurant in town is Compartir at Riera Sant Vicenç. The dishes here are meant to be shared (hence, the name, “compartir”=to share). The three chefs here trained at El Bulli and have opened a gastronomic restaurant in Barcelona, Disfrutar, which made number 55 on Restaurant Magazine’s The World’s Best Restaurants for 2017. It also earned two “suns” from the Repsol Guide and the personal recommendation of Joan Roca, of Girona’s 3-Michelin starred El Celler de Can Roca. Another attractive dining spot with lovely views overlooking the bay is Es Baluard.
Dalí’s home at neighboring Portlligat, a rambling collection of fishing huts, is a fascinating museum that can be visited by advanced appointment only, bookable online.
Don’t forget to try the ‘Taps de Cadaqués’, small buns shaped like corks, eaten at afternoon tea or flambeed with rum as a dessert.
While in the area, you can visit Empordàlia, a wine cellar and olive mill. There is also the Cellers d’en Guilla near Rabós d’Empordà, and Mas Estela in La Selva de Mar. Call or email for reservations.
Attend the daily fish auction from 4:30 to 5:30 pm on weekdays, Tuesday-Friday, at the port in Palamós, south of Begur. At the port there is a small Fishermen’s Museum, Museu de la Pesca, which explains the past and present of the fishermen’s work. Fishing is a huge business in Palamós and its red prawns, gambas de Palamós, are highly coveted and quite pricey. This thriving town, home to the fishing and cork-producing industry, has a life of its own, independent of tourism. Its old quarter is a bustling knot of pedestrianized streets centered on its town square, Plaça Major, full of shops, cafes and restaurants. The tourist office sits at Passeig del Mar 22.
At the working port there is a small Fishermen’s Museum, Museu de la Pesca, which explains the past and present of the fishermen’s work. Fishing is a huge business in Palamós and its red prawns, gambas de Palamós, are highly coveted and quite pricey. The museum is open May, June and September Tuesday-Friday from 10:00 am to 1:30 pm and from 3:00 to 7:00 pm. On Saturday, Sunday and holidays it opens fro 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and 4:00 to 7:00 pm. In the months of July and August it opens Monday-Sunday from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm. The Espai del Peix was opened in 2011 next to the town’s interesting interactive Fish Museum to raise awareness of the industry and local gastronomy. It runs a variety of cooking classes/demonstrations.
Have a lunch of the acclaimed prawns at La Salinera, at Avinguda 11 Setembre, 93, a Bibi-Gourmand (great price to quality ratio) selection of the Michelin guide. During the week it’s only open for lunch but on Fridays/Saturdays it also opens for dinner. Another Michelin recommendation is La Menta at Tauler i Servià 1, with an outdoor terrace, open for lunch and dinner but closed Tuesdays. Or a more rustic fishermen’s tavern founded in 1936, a local institution, La María de Cadaqués, with a wood beamed interior hung with artworks, where Truman Capote dined during the two years he lived here while writing In Cold Blood. You’ll find it on the same street as La Menta, at number 6. From September 1 to June 22 it closes on Sunday evenings and all day Mondays/Tuesdays. In July it closes only on Mondays and in August it closed for Monday lunch.
In Palamós the celebrations of the summer solstice, the Festa de Sant Joan on June 23, 24 and 25 are especially lively with music, dancing and fireworks.
Spend the day in the multi-layered, beautiful city of Girona, one of Catalunya’s most prosperous and colorful cities, sitting on the banks of the river Onyar. The highlights of Girona include the Cathedral of Santa María and its museum, with the Romanesque Tapestry of the Creation and 12th-century Romanesque cloister, Museum of Jewish History, its interesting Cinema Museum, the Arab Baths (actually 12th-century Christian), its ancient medieval Jewish Quarter, El Call, and walking along with city ramparts, the Passeig de la Muralla. It will take about an hour for the drive from Llofríu to the parking lot at Correos (the Post Office), which is the most convenient parking in the modern city, where you can cross into medieval Girona via the Eiffel-designed iron bridge.
Have lunch in El Call of Girona at Cal Ros, located on an atmospheric square and considered one of the city’s best tables for traditional Empordanese cuisine.
Tour the recently renovated and enlarged Cork Museum, Museo del Suro, in the center of Palafrugell, to learn all about the world of cork and the importance of its production here in the Empordà. Cork reserves in the nearby cork forest are manufactured mainly into bottle corks. A boom set in when catalán wine growing expanded following the 19th-century birth of cava, the catalán sparkling wine. Palafrugell is still the most important cork manufacturing location in Catalonia today.
Visit the Castle and Gardens of Cap Roig just south of Calella de Palafrugell, a cliff top, 8-hectare botanical garden, which took 50 years to lay out and was finished in 1927. It was constructed by a White Russian colonel named Voevosky and his English wife. It boasts exceptional views of the headland of Calella amidst a colorful display of flowers and plants from all over the world. An all-star music festival is held in the gardens each summer from July 4-August 15. The botanical gardens are open in summer from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Admission is 6€.