The stretch of the Costa Brava that lies north of Palamos and south of Estartit is one of the great hidden gems of Europe, with pretty little bays, charming towns, and great hotels and restaurants
Back in the 1950s, Spain’s dictator, General Franco, decreed that the coastal area north of Barcelona and south of the border with France, known as the Costa Brava, should be developed aggressively for tourism. Large resorts like Lloret de Mar and Tossa de Mar were created very quickly, with high-rise hotels and huge apartment blocks, and tourists from northern Europe flocked to the area on cheap package-holiday flights to enjoy an annual couple of weeks in the sun. The legend of “sun, sea, sex and sangria” was born.
But whilst all the activity was underway, and as the very name Costa Brava began to be associated with at best cheap and cheerful and at worst tawdry, a part of the “Wild Coast” began to be developed in a very different way. North of the busy fishing port of Palamos and south of the popular resort of Estartit is a length of coastline that did not lend itself to mass tourism. It is characterised by tiny bays, each with its own small beach and, in some cases, a harbour or other shelter for fishing boats. In the 1960s, a determined effort was made by members of the tourist association to maintain the character of these lovely places – and, in the main, this has succeeded. There has been no ugly over-development and no high-rise hotels or other eyesores.
From Estartit to Platya de Pals
If we start at Estartit (itself a busy and rather over-commercialised town, but not without its merits) and drive south, we pass through the charming old town of Torroella de Montgri, which has an excellent and high-class hotel, the Moli del Mig, situated right in the centre. If you are not looking for a seaside location, and you want a classy base to tour the region, this would be an excellent choice.
Further along the road south, we pass the Emporda golf club, one of a number of top-class golf venues in the area. The very old-world town of Pals is definitely worth a stop. Its best restuarant is the El Pedro, where the menu del dia offers excellent value and traditional Catalan cuisine. If you are in the luxury holiday mood, the five-star hotel Mas de Torrent, just outside the town, is very much worth considering, with fine accommodation and a top-class restaurant specialising in the cuisine of the area.
In most cases, small inland towns like Pals are linked with a coastal village a few kilometres away. So, for example, Begur links with Sa Riera, and Sa Tuna and Palafrugell with Llafranc and Calella. In the case of Pals, that village is Platya de Pals, which has a magnificent, clean beach and a wide range of tourist accommodation. At the upper end, the Sa Punta is a splendid hotel set in its own grounds with a lovely pool. The rooms are decorated in the style of the region and the restaurant is exceptional. The chef used to have a Michelin star but decided some years ago that this was more trouble than it was worth - if anything, though, the quality of his cuisine has improved rather than declined! The restaurant is popular with locals for special occasions and a visit at Sunday lunchtime is particularly recommended if you enjoy people-watching as well as fine food and wine. Incidentally, the wine mark-ups are modest – so if you pay, say, €30 for a bottle of wine, it will be sensational.
In season, the Font de Sa Bruixa restaurant (follow the sign from the beach road - it's hidden in the pine wood) has very good barbecue-cooked food and an excellent wine list; it's also tremendous value. For more simple fare, there is an excellent Chinese restaurant, the Gran Muralla, which has a very good value buffet in season.
From Pals to Fornells
South of Pals you reach the little but delightful bay of Sa Riera, which has a nice beach and some pleasant little rocky inlets where you can snorkel and relax. There is a great fish restaurant here called, appropriately, the Costa Brava. Ask the owner/head waiter what is fresh that day - which will be most of it, as Sa Riera is a tiny fishing port - and you can guarantee that it will be good. Worth a detour! The small coves of Aiguafreda and Sa Tuna are excellent for swimming and snorkelling and there are also scuba opportunities and small bars and snack restaurants.
The inland town of Begur is a pleasant shopping and dining destination, and especially worth a visit on market day (Wednesday). Take the Palafrugell road out of Begur, and you will soon come to a road on the left signposted “Fornells and Aigua Blava”. The road descends steadily until you reach a viewpoint from which the panorama of Aigua Blava Bay unfolds. This is one of the most beautiful views in the area and perhaps in the Mediterranean.
In Fornells is arguably the best hotel on the Costa Brava, the Hotel Aigua Blava, long a favourite of British holiday-makers. The AB, as it is fondly known, has four stars, a large swimming pool, a fine restaurant and views to die for. For 50 years, visitors have enjoyed the tranquil surroundings, the bright blue sea, the comfortable rooms and general ambience, and the friendly staff. Aigua Blava is still family-run and there is an attention to detail and to the customer that is very special. It isn’t easy to book – many visitors return year after year, and rooms in high season, especially, are hard to come by - but it’s really worth the effort if you can get in!
Should the Hotel Aigua Blava not be available, then there is the Parador de Aiguablava, high on a promontory overlooking the bay from the other side. This is a good hotel and delivers the standard expected from the national parador chain. Aigua Blava beach is a pleasant and clean place for a swim and there are a few simple restaurants overlooking the bay, offering decent seafood at moderate prices (given the spectacular view, which adds on a few Euros).
From Fornells to Palamos
South of Aigua Blava is the very pretty small resort of Tamariu. It has a clean beach, an elegant promenade and plenty of fish restaurants, the best of which is the Es Dofi, at the end of the prom. Further south again is the quite large and smart seaside town of Llafranc, which has a number of excellent small hotels, including the welcoming, family-run Hotel Llafranch and the equally pleasant Hotel Llevant. There is a hostal (Spanish for small hotel) called La Llagosta, which has a good restaurant with a menu del dia of exceptional value and lovely sea views. Also with a Llafranc address (although some way out of town, high overlooking the sea at the San Sebastian lighthouse) is the superb El Far hotel and restaurant. With only nine rooms in luxurious suroundings, this is a truly exceptional place to stay - and to eat. The restaurant has a superb fish menu.
Linked by a coastal path to Llafranc is its sister resort, Calella de Palafrugell. There are two beaches and a good range of shops in this fishing village - and one or two art galleries (the town is a popular place for artists). Both Callela and Llafranc are outposts of the biggest town in the area, Palafrugell. Once a simple market town, Palafrugell is now quite a sophisticated and elegant commercial centre. Following the main road south of town brings the visitor to Palamos, and the end of our journey through the hidden secrets of the northern Costa Brava.