Dali's Figueres - a dazzling day trip from Barcelona

by Denise_Tench

Figueres, Salvador Dali's sleepy birthplace, is just two hours north of Barcelona and a wander around the town's mind-bending Dali gallery is like attaching a pair of jump leads to the imagination

Aside from budget two-hour flights and ice-cream weather, the major reason why Barcelona has become a darling of holidaymakers is because of its ability to capture the imagination.

From the winding streets of the Barri Gotic to the revolutionary haunts of passionate dissidents in the days of George Orwell's visits, Barcelona has enough brain fodder to keep the dullness of reality firmly at bay.

However, there is another Catalan town within day-tripping distance of the bustling hub that makes the secretive pockets of Barcelona seem completely textbook.

An easy train ride from Barcelona

Figueres, a two-hour train journey to the North of Barcelona, sits on Catalonia's border with France and is the birthplace of Salvador Dali, one of the international art world's most recognisable names and chief player in the early-20th-century dada and surrealist movements.

On a quiet day - such as Sunday - visitors to Figueres will not be overwhelmed by tourist throngs and can happily stroll through the town to see three of its major draws.

Dali's birthplace

The first is the house of Dali's birth - unspectacular, admittedly, save for the ornate doorway, but the humble stone terraced building is the essential first piece of the jigsaw of Dali's life.

Secondly, wanderers will come to the town's picturesque main square, flanked by Calle de la Rambla.

Dali stakes claim to the north-east corner, as a compressed image of his face painted on to the floor only becomes discernible when it is viewed through a reflective pole.

Next to the optical illusion that is a tribute to another of Figueres' sons, Narcis Monturiol i Estarriol. Political writer, innovative thinker, the man who produced the first modern submarine - however he is considered, Monturiol i Estarriol is more than deserving of his carved stone memorial.

Figueres hotels

Travellers visiting during festivals or those who simply want to get a little more intimate with Figueres could bag a privileged view of these two public features by staying overnight at Hotel Rambla (Rambla, 33, 17600 Figueres, Spain), which overlooks the bottom of the square. This is a great mid-range choice and it's clean, economical, close to several al-fresco restaurants and injects a little European-ness into the proceedings with its breezy balconies.

For those looking for something more weird and wonderful in a faded grandeur kind of way, Figueres' Hotel President (Avda. Salvador Dalí, 82 - 17600 Figueres) is a ten-to-fifteen minute walk from the train station. The dark wood furnishings contrast with the fun decadence and weird Dali-themed décor, but it is a cosy place with rooms available for less than 100 euros (£83) per night.

Another hotel worth mentioning due to its reputation for consistency is Hotel Duran (c/Lausaca 5, 17600, Figueres), which is as close to the Dali Museum as a visitor can be. It is reasonably priced with rooms between 60 and 100 (£49 and £83) euros a night and boasts a lavish Russian Tsar-style restaurant and clean, simply-laid-out rooms.

Dali Museum

Finally, following the main artery leading from the square will take visitors to the primary reason for a trip to Figueres. Standing proudly on top of a summit overlooking the town is the provocative Dali Museum (Plaça Gala-Salvador Dali, 5, E-17600, Figueres. Tel. +34 972 677 500 - http://www.salvador-dali.org/).

A bright maroon castle-like structure, complete with bread-shaped adornments, the building is unmissable, not least due to the giant white eggs that crown it.

The museum stands out unapologetically from its crumbling centuries-old neighbours - rather like the moustachioed, cane-twirling Dali himself would have while traversing the alleyways of his hometown.

Pre-museum rumble? Grab some Figueres food

In the side streets surrounding the museum are all the usual souvenir shops and of course, a line of overpriced restaurants. Exploring a little further afield before settling on one of these will unearth some cheaper and more individual tapas bars for a lunchtime rest.

Try L'ou D'or, which translates as 'Golden Egg', (Carrer Sant Llàtzer, 16, 17600, Figueres; Tel +34 972 50 37 65; www.loudor.com). This airy, crisp restaurant delivers filling Catalan fare for around the 20-euro (£16) mark.

After quelling the stomach rumbles, approach the entrance to the Dali museum, where all manner of eye-grabbing statuettes await - a visual banquet for art-lovers and a fitting introduction for newcomers to the artist.

After paying the 11-euro (£9) entrance fee, the foyer leads to the most stunning and dramatic element of the house - the courtyard.

Open-air art

Golden statues stand uniformly on carved window ledges, while on the ground a portly naked female figure reaches upwards to the exposed sky.

Underneath her is a black vintage car - an art piece entitled 'Rainy Cadillac' - in which sits a suited dummy obscured by plastic foliage and a neglected interior.

Although Dali's major and more recognisable works are scattered across the globe in high-profile galleries, the pieces at this museum fill in the gaps of his more obscure years, as well as his later life and his progression as an artist, thinker and sculptor.

Additionally, it feels as though visiting the building is to see Dali's life come full circle, as his sombre, low-lit tomb can be found in the bowels of the gallery.

Optic illusions

One of the most memorable experiences is the Mae West Room, a spacial interpretation of Dali's 1935 painting dedicated to the actress' profile.

No matter what angle it is photographed from, the whole composition seems perfectly preened and picturesque, with every snap looking like a catalogue image.

Ruby lips and diamond eyes

At the end of the Dali trail, quite literally, is treasure. Perhaps a lesser-known fact about the artist is that he shifted his talents from the canvas in his later years to focus on the art of jewellery-making.

According to the man himself, this was in response to utilitarianism and to demonstrate that, regardless of expense, objects can exist for the sake of beauty without ever fulfilling a functional role. In other words, art for art's sake.

His jewelled works achieve their ends, as sitting in their lavish cabinets, glittering behind glass are some truly thought-provoking, boundary-pushing pieces. Regardless of whether visitors agree with the intentions behind them, it is impossible to deny that they're in a class of their own.

The jewels include a diamond-edged eye with a ruby tear duct and a red heart whose tiny clusters of rubies move rhythmically in and out, imitating life and simultaneously questioning the frailty, beauty and ugliness of it.

However serious Dali aims to be, however, hints of his humour always manage to seep in. Personifying this are the ruby lips, inspired again by Mae West. The dainty red mouth is filled in with shiny pearls and seems to flash an ironic grin at onlookers.

Travellers turning up at the museum looking for Dali the brash socialite, the 'king' of surrealism who sought to shock with his attention-grabbing publicity stunts, may not find what they are looking for in sleepy Figueres.

However, those looking for Dali the human, his artistic trial and error processes, the reality of the quieter moments of his life and finally, the artist's irrepressible spirit and wit, will not be disappointed.