Tossa de Mar: boho chic on the Costa Brava

by Annie.Bennett

Kylie Minogue is becoming a regular fixture in Tossa de Mar, bringing a touch of glamour back to the Costa Brava resort that has always attracted an arty crowd

Tossa de Mar may have a bit of an image problem, conjuring up visions of the worst of package-tour hell, but this reputation has never actually been justified. While some of the resorts on the Costa Brava suffered from rampant development, with scant regard for aesthetics, and are now well past their sell-by date, Tossa de Mar has managed to hang on to its medieval quarter and has always kept new construction under strict control – in the centre at least. Along the beach, none of the buildings is more than four storeys high.

It's long been a popular haunt of Spanish celebrities, and over the last year Kylie Minogue has become a regular visitor too, accompanying her hunky fiancé Andrés Velencoso, a model whose family runs a restaurant in the old town. Last summer, the couple were spotted scuba diving and playing golf, as well as looking at houses in the area, and were back again for Christmas. 

Back in the 1930s, one of the many artists who spent time in Tossa was Marc Chagall, who dubbed the village the ‘blue paradise’. In 1950, it was Ava Gardner who was attracting the paparazzi to what was then still a sleepy fishing village. Director Albert Lewin chose Tossa as a location for his film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, shooting scenes in its atmospheric lanes and on La Mar Menuda beach. The film also starred James Mason and the bullfighter Mari Cabré. When it was rumoured that Ava Gardner was getting rather too friendly with Cabré, Frank Sinatra, her boyfriend at the time, arrived in Tossa to save her from the legendary bullfighter’s clutches.

There is a statue of Ava Gardner in the Vila Vella, the old town, where cafés and restaurants flank the narrow streets. The Vila Vella is hidden behind golden-stone walls that date back to the 12th century and have crenellated watchtowers at regular intervals, built to protect the population from attacks by Turkish and Berber pirates. While this is the only surviving example of a medieval fortified village along the Catalan coast, Tossa was in fact founded by the Romans, and fabulous mosaics from the original settlement are on display in the municipal museum on the Plaza Pintor Roig i Soler, which also contains a painting by Chagall.

Where to stay

Sinatra stayed at the Hostal de La Gavina in S’Agaró, just north of Tossa. Nearly 60 years later, it is still one of the grandest hotels on the Costa Brava. Overlooking San Pol beach and set in lush gardens surrounded by lemon, olive, magnolia and palm trees, La Gavina has been open for nearly a century and has a huge seawater pool. Inside, there is a wealth of artworks from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as a collection of Romanesque sculpture. Rates start at around €250 a night, but go up to at least €3,000 for the most luxurious suites.

Back in Tossa, the place to stay during the film shoot was the Hotel Diana, which was also built at the beginning of the 20th century. Although much less grand than La Gavina, the family-run Diana has lots of lovely Art Nouveau details and is right on the beach on the edge of the old town. Rates range from €60 to €140, depending on the time of year. With only 21 rooms, the Diana really captures the Mediterranean spirit of the Costa Brava and makes a great base for exploring the area. Outside the main holiday season, rates start at €60 for a double room.

For somewhere with more facilities, the Gran Hotel Reymar overlooks La Mar Menuda beach and has 166 rooms, indoor and outdoor pools and a swish spa. Doubles go from €70 to €140 depending on the season.

There are reports that Kylie and Andrés are going to get married at the Parador de Cardona, in inland Catalunya, and you can’t really blame them, as it is incredibly romantic. The parador is located in a 9th-century castle, set on a hill overlooking the village, complete with its own church. Apart from when celebrity weddings are taking place, doubles start at around €200, including breakfast, but paradors always have deals available, particularly if you are are travelling around and staying at a few different ones.

When to go

I would recommend a trip to Tossa – or anywhere on the Costa Brava – in September or June, so you avoid the crowds and the hike in prices, but are still almost guaranteed to have good weather. And you never know who might be having dinner on the next table...
 

Annie.Bennett

I specialise in writing about Spain for national papers and magazines, including the Telegraph, Guardian, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Conde Nast Traveller, Elle and National Geographic. This gives me a great excuse to mooch around the country, talking to everyone from Michelin-starred chefs to old codgers in mountain villages.

I have been living in Madrid on and off for the last 25 years, since I went there to improve my Spanish after finishing my modern languages degree. Soon I was teaching English, translating for art magazines and galleries and researching for television programmes. That was only meant to last a year or two, but I had made so many great friends, quite a few of whom were instrumental in the cultural explosion underway at the time, that it would have been daft to leave. Almost without noticing, I started writing about what was happening in Madrid.

I am passionate about Spanish food and wine, and love trying the local specialities wherever I go. In Madrid, I eat out nearly every day in a quest to track down the best restaurants and tapas bars. My UK base is on the Gower coast in South Wales.

My Madrid

Where I always grab a coffee: Pepe Botella in Malasaña (Calle San Andrés 12), with its marble tables and red velvet banquettes, is the perfect place to read El País with a café con leche.

My favourite stroll: I love walking through Los Austrias, the medieval part of the city, for the combination of history, tradition and contemporary life. I always see something I’d never noticed before.

Fiction for inspiration: Benito Pérez Galdós was a sort of Spanish version of Dickens or Balzac. A lot of his novels are based in Madrid - including Fortunata and Jacinta, Miau and Misericordia – and many of the locations still exist, relatively unscathed.

Where to be seen: Le Cabrera for cool cocktails after shopping in the chic Las Salesas area (Calle Barbara de Braganza 2, www.lecabrera.com).

The most breathtaking view: You can see right across the city trom the roof of the Círculo de Bellas Artes (Calle Alcalá 42, www.círculobellasartes.es).

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Madrid is incredibly noisy, but the Retiro Park is perfect for picnics, quiet reading at outdoor cafés, rowing on the lake or just strolling around.

Shopaholics beware!: The outlet shoe shops on Calle Augusto Figueroa in Chueca are difficult to resist.

City soundtrack: Fito & Fitipaldis seem to be blasting out in every bar. 

Don’t leave without...Having a vermut at the Mercado de San Miguel before lunch. It’s the best way to get a handle on what the city is all about (Plaza de San Miguel, www.mercadodesanmiguel.es).