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Barcelona Costa Brava Villa Rentals

Guidebook pages 22 to 28. L'Escala to Figueres

This section includes:

  • the ruins at EMPÚRIES
  • the marshlands of L'EMPORDÁ
  • and FIGUERES

The casino/castle in Perelada

4. intro. to L'Escala to Portbou

This is a highly varied part of the Costa Brava, ranging from the 15 km long Gulf of Roses, with its sandy beaches running along the edge of an alluvial plain, to the most dramatically rugged part of the Spanish coast, the Cap de Creus. Inland, the tramontana-swept Alt Empordà is hemmed in by the Pyrenees and the Gavarres mountains, offering magnificent Mediterranean scenery, megalithic dolmen abound, as do age-old masias set in fields delineated by rows of tall cypreses, and countless small villages huddled around a medieval church. This part of the coast also boasts one of Spain's best restaurants, el Bullí, just outside of Roses.

L'Escala, the next stop up the coast, is a holiday resort and fishing port at the southern end of the Golf of Roses. This important fishing village is famous throughout Spain for its delicious sardines and anchovies, an up-market version of the tinned variety we all know. Frequented mainly by local tourists, the center of l´Escala, with its narrow streets sloping down to the rocky coastline, is genuinely appealing. The southern suburbs of l'Escala towards the beach at Cala Montgó are horribly built up - there's even a Burger King - but there are footpaths into the rocky promentory leading to deserted beaches stretching all the way south to l'Estartit.

Market on Sundays on the Passeig Maritimo. Fruits and veggie market on Tuesday and Thursday. Good anchovies available at Anxoves de at De la Torre 20. L´Escala's most popular restaurant is Els Pescadors, on the fishing port (972 77 07 28). This place is always packed with folks eager to dig into fresh seafood, brought in early each morning from the market next door. Assorted fried seafood and shellfish, oven-baked fish, and of course, the delicious local anchovies. Restaurant Myriam on the Ronda del Padró (972 77 02 87) is a pricier option. Closed Thursdays and all January and February. Hotel Nieves Mar on the Passeig Marítim 8 is another favorite. The town cemetery, El Cementiri Vell de l'Escala, on Carrer Gregal, was constructed in a harmonious neoclassical style in the early 19C, and is one of the most beautiful in the region. L'Escala has two diving clubs. Call me for info.

L´Escala´s proximity to the important archeological site of Empúrias (10-18h, 10-20h in summer, 325ptas), which lies just a couple of km north out of town, is another considerable attraction, as is medieval Sant Martí, just beyond the ruins. Here you can see layers of Spain's history lying one above the other. The ruins can be seen in a leisurely afternoon, spending the rest of your time on the duned stretch of beach in front of the ruins. The wooded shores around there hide a series of lovely cala-beaches with shallow water and soft sand. Be warned that, due to a strong undertow, bathing off the shore here can be dangerous, especially if the weather changes suddenly. At weekends the woods are full of picnicking families, setting up everything but the kitchen sink from the trunks of their cars.

the Greco-Roman ruins at EmpúriesEmpúries: the site

The Phoenicians founded a colony on Sant Martí d'Empúries (then an island) in 575BCE, and this became the Greek city of Emporion (trading station). The original Greek city occupies the site closest to the shore. For three centuries, the Greeks conducted a vigorous trade from Emporion throughout the Mediterranean. In the early third century BC, their settlement was taken by Scipio, and the Romans established an important settlement, ten times the size of its Greek predecessor, with an amphitheater, fine villas with stunning black and white mosaics, and a broad forum.. The Romans were replaced by the Visigoths, who built several basilicas, and Emporion only disappears from the records in the ninth century when, it is assumed, it was wrecked by either Saracen or Norman pirates. Excavation of the Greek and Roman cities has been proceeding since 1908. It has proved extremely difficult because of the superimposition of buildings constructed over some 2000 years. Among the ruins nearest the entrance are the temples of Asclepius, god of medicine, and of Zeus Serapis; a watch tower; water cisterns with a reconstructed filter; on the other end of 'main street' you'll find the agora or main square; and in the street leading down to the sea, the stoa, a covered market with the remains of shops and an arcade where traders bought and sold. Recent subaquatic excavations (Oct. 1997) have confirmed the existence of the remains of a large Roman port situated some 200m offshore, consisting of dikes, shipyards, and warehouses, dating from the second and first centuries BC.

Because it was at Empúries that the Greeks first set foot in Spain, it is here that the Olympic flame was brought from Athens to inaugurate the 1992 games in Barcelona. A small museum has been established, although many of the original finds have been transferred to Barcelona's Archaeological Museum, and replaced with reproductions. It is worth investing in the English-language guidebook to steer your way around the site, especially the Greek area which, without additional information, is otherwise rather dull.

A short walk up the beach to the north of the ruins lies the tiny walled town of Sant Martí d'Empúries, an atmospheric little place, with an impressive eleventh-century chuch and a couple of bars on the square in which one can recuperate after exploring the ruins. There are good views of the Golfo de Roses from the walls outside the village above the original Greek port. This town is picture-perfect and very much on the tour-bus route, so in the summer months it's best to visit early in the day

DETOUR: A little inland is the village of Sant Miquel de Fluvià, with a fine Romanesque church (consecrated 1066) belonging to a former Benedictine abbey. Should you find the church closed, ask for the key at the store in front of the church tower. Close-by are other villages with interesting medieval buildings: Sant Tomás de Fluvià (old Romanesque priory) and Sant Mori (Gothic- Renaissance palace), and Vilaür.
For those of you interested in horseback riding, Can Sort, Escola d'Equitació (972 56 03 35) is one of the Costa Brava's finset establisnments offering arrangements from hourly rides to a full week of riding 5 or 6 hours a day throughout the Province. (About $100 per day, all included. If you just wish to ride an hour or so, it costs roughly 2000pts for first hour, and 1500 pts. per additional hour.. The club is situated between the hamlet of Sant Mori and Bascara, on the sea side of the A-7 underpass. Can Sort has fifteen horses, and offers classes at all levels, as well as excursions lasting from as little as two hours to 5 days. .

Heading north from Empúries you'll come across several villages on the flatlands leading towards Castelló d'Empúries: Viladamat was once a Roman encampment on the Via Augusta linking southern Iberia and Rome, Pelacalç has an interesting 16C town center, and L'Armentera, which in antiquity had an important Jewish community. Although these towns might be worth a peek, I usually rush through this area as it is home to an inordinate number of camping grounds.

The Golfo de Roses is a wide bay backed for the most part by flat, rural land, well-watered by the Muga and Fluvia rivers. Halfway around the bay is one of Catalunya´s newest and most accessible nature reserves, the Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l´Empordá, encompassing 4,000 hectares of what's left of the Empordá marshland. The park attracts a wonderful selection of birds to both its coastal terrain and the paddy fields typical of the region. There are several easy paths around lagoons and marshes, and blinds have been created along the way. Morning and early evening are the best times for bird-watching, and you'll see the largest number of species during the migration periods (March to May and August to October). Entrance to the park is free, and you can pick up informative brochures (in English, too) at the information center at El Cortalet (45 12 31). Don't forget the mosquito repellent! The nearest town is the somewhat drab and developed Sant Pere Pescador, with plenty of places for campers to get cheap eats, and a small Aerodome for skydivers and those with pilot licenses.

The once island town of Castelló d´Empúries, halfway between Roses and Figueras, boasts a rich medieval patrimony astride the Muga river. Formerly the capital of the Counts of Empúries and an important trading center, the town's narrow alleys and streets conceal some fine buildings, a medieval bridge, and the impressive thirteenth-century battlement church of Santa María. The church now stands on the site first occupied by a 6th century Visigoth church (destroyed by the Moors) and later by one built in 888 by Wilfred the Hairy, Count of Barcelona. The enormous ornate doorway is remarkably well preserved and it alone is reward enough for the trip. An exceptional alabaster retablo (altarpiece) of 1485 by Vicente Borras is at the back of the apse, carved with lively scenes of the Passion, and crowned by a curious series of conical pinnacles. Town market on Tuesdays and Sundays. Typical frozen biscuits, aiguamoxos, available at La Fleca on Prat de la Riba 4.

On the highway outside Castelló is the restaurant Allioli (25 03 00) set in an eighteenth-century masia, with traditional dishes like venison or rabbit stew. Midday menu costs 2,500 pesetas. In town, the Mesón El Conde on Plaça de l'Esglesia (77 03 06) has good game dishes. Nearby Sant Martí del Far d'Empordà has an interesting church with one nave of rectangular base situated on a rise overlooking the flatlands below. It is an good example of a fortified Romanesque church, with a barbican and a few gothic gargoyles added later.

North of Castelló on your way to Perelada is Vilanova de la Muga, with a large Romanesque church of Santa Eulália dating from the 12C, its original frescos depicting the Pancreator surrounded by disciples and symbols of the disciples. Perelada is another important fortified precinct with several noteworthy buildings. The main attraction is the impressive castle of the Rocaberti family which stands in the midst of a large park. The castle is now the site for the luxurious Casino of Perelada, with roulette, blackjack, baccarat, chemin de fer, and one-arm-bandits. The crenalated walls are of the fourteenth-century, and the original Renaissance palace has been added to throughout the centuries. The castle has a good collection of Flemish carpets, and a library with of over 60,000 volumes. Adjacent to the castle is the Convent of Nuestra Señora del Carme, founded 1206, formerly a Dominican friary, with a particularly beautiful cloister and patio., The capitals were brought over from Sant Pere de Rodes. The convent houses a fine collection of glass, ceramics and paintings, as well as items of Gothic sculpture. The old town just below the castle has some nice buildings and a fine arcaded plaça. The Casino and grounds are the site for an important summer Music Festival which brings the world's top classical music talent to the Costa Brava. This summer's festival (July 11- August 22, 1998), has twenty soirées programmed, including a recital by Alfredo Kraus, opera with Roberto Alagna, ballet with the Bolshoi of Moscow, and a Porgy and Bess with Simon Estes.

Ca l'Iter on Dr. Clos 4 is the commercial outlet and museum for the Cavas del Ampurdán SA, a sister of the cava house of Castillo de Perelada, which make the popular white 'Pescador' and red 'Cazador', as well as an oaky red 'Castillo de Perelada' reserva, robust and fruity, if not over-elegant. Their cava, however, is first-rate. The dry, round and flowery 'Gran Claustro' is aged for five or six years in cellars beneath the adjacent church of N.S. del Carme. (Visiting hours: 10-12, 16:30-18:30; closed Sundays.) Check out the foundry Can Pitu Ferrer on the same street at no. 21.

The Casino's magnificent restaurant (53 81 25) reminds one of the Pantagruelesque banquet-halls of the Middle Ages, and boasts an extensive wine cellar and some of its own culinary inventions. Quail-breast and lentil salad, codfish and creamed spinach lasagna, duck magret with grapes and fried apple cakes, assorted dessert cart, etc. Cal Sagristà at Rodona 2 (53 83 01) occupies the antique rectory of a fourteenth-century convent. Salad with a selection of many types of local home-made sausages, home-made raviolis, suquet, etc. (Nik and Birgit from Bern said service was friendly and good but the food at Cal Sagristà was only run-of-the-mill.) On the road SW towards nearby Vilabertran (note the perfectly intact Roman bridge on your left) is restaurant Mas Molí (53 83 81) with good local fare in a tastefully restored masia. Traditional farmers' vegetable stew- escudella- with an assortment of meats and sausages served on the side, roast piglet (cochinillo), oven-baked lamb shoulder, stuffed bananas with cream, etc. Menu for 3,500. Closed Sunday nights and Mondays. (Lluis and Lluisa, knowledgeable sources, highly recommends restaurant Ca la Maria in Mollet de Perelada, 6 kms north of Perelada.)

Perelada Golf Club, just on the outskirts of town, offers 18 holes on fairly level ground, and is suitable to golfers of all levels. Greens fees, hire of clubs and caddie carts, electric buggies, practice green, golf school. Clubhouse, restaurant and bar. Open all year. (972 53 82 87)
The wine cellers at Mas Fita (972 50 20 41) on the to Vilarnadal to the northwest of Perelada may be visited from 10 to 13h, and 16 to 20h. Above Vilarnadal in Capmany, Celler Pagés also welcomes visits and degustaciones. Ask for Sr Mariano Pagés.

Vilabertran grew up around the eleventh-century monastery (Augustinian canon) with Romanesque church, cloister on trapezoidal floor, bell-tower, and Gothic abbot's palace. Don't miss the magnificent gold processional cross, 1.90m high, in the Chapel of Vera Cruz. Visits to monastery 10-13/ 15-18h, 400 ptas. Vilabertran town itself is rather dull but does have one modernist palace worth seeing and does host an important late summer festival, the Schubertiada, which brings some of the world's most prestigious lieder performers to the parish church. Good sausage shop at Carrius, on the Plaça de Catalunya.

Despite being the birthplace of the inventor Narcis Monturiol, who built the first submarine, Figueres is best known these days as the birthplace of Salvador Dalí and site of the Teatre-Museu Dalí where he is buried. The old theater which houses the museum is well signposted, and you are unlikely to miss it - a terra-cotta structure topped by giant eggs, and studded with loaves of bread - symbols of life. Golden figures like Oscars stand on pedestals separating the eggs. After the Prado in Madrid, this is the second most visited museum in Spain, and in the summer months, stays open until 1 am. Expect huge crowds and long queues at peak hours in the tourist season. Try to go early AM or late PM. (Open 10:30 to 18h/ 750 ptas. In August also from 22h to 01h/ 1000 pesetas. Closed Mondays) This 19th-century theater was converted into a museum by Dalí himself and houses a huge and varied collection of his strange creations, with an odd assortment of architecture, sculpture, jewelry, etchings, and drawings. The Mae West Room and the plant-filled Cadillac are justly famous, but don't expect to see Dalí's most famous works here. Dalí supported what most Catalans consider to be the wrong side during the Civil War (the fascists), and consequently is not revered in Catalunya the way Miró and Tàpies are. Regardless of his politics, after an hour or so in this museum, you´ll realize that Dalí was probably as kooky as he looked. In March of 1998, the emblematic geodesic dome was substituted with a stainless steel replica at the cost of over $1 million. Following your visit, you may like to browse through Dalí and other modern art prints and memorabilia at Distribuciones d'Arte Surrealiste, a shop next door on the plaça.

Figueres' small city center has some fine Modernist buildings, and taken with the Dalí museum, there is enough of interest to fill an enjoyable day or two in Figueres. On the main Rambla, you'll find the Museu de L'Emporda, with its collection of archeological artifacts from nearby sites, including some Romanesque pieces and Catalan paintings. Also on the Rambla is the Toy Museum, or Museu dels Joguets, with a private collection of over 3,500 objects that resume the history of the toy manufacturing industry in Catalunya. The town has held an important place in Catalan history from the time of the expulsion of the Moors to the Civil War, when Republican leaders met in the dungeon of the Sant Ferran castle which was their last bastion in Catalunya after the fall of Barcelona. Figueres was in effect the capital of Republican Spain for one day. It was also in pentagonal Sant Ferran, built in 1753 and Europe's largest castle, (with a 3km perimeter and 32 hectaire surface area, able to house 8,000 men and 500 horses) that the French executed the heroic defender of Girona, General Álvarez de Castro, after the six-month long seige of 1810. Also on the outskirts of Figueres - just off the road towards l'Escala, is the private Museum of Naíve Art (972 52 57 29, open daily from 10 to 19h). On May 3, Figueres celebrates Fires i Festes de la Santa Creu with local competitions, cultural events, and expositions of drawings, paintings, and commercial machinery. The Feast of Saint Peter, the town's patron saint, is the occasion for a popular revetlla, or dance party, on 28th and 29th of June.

A lively market on the covered marketplace Thursdays and Saturdays. El Mam on Joan Maragall 11 is a well-stocked wine and liquor store. Patisseria Vidal on Serra 25 has good turrones, or almond pâtés, as well as a other local sweets. Emporium on Sant Pau 26 specializes in candied fruit and nuts.

There are a wide range of restaurants in the narrow pedestrian lanes around the museum, and some pavement cafés on the central Rambla, most notably the Café del Progrés, since 1864. The most famous place to eat in Figueres is 135 year-old Hotel Durán, Lasauca 5, (972 50 12 50) which features good regional dishes with a modern flair provided by - who else - Mr Durán, a renowned author on Catalan cuisine. Wild asparagus, black rice, paella, civets or casseroles of wild game, duck with turnips, etc. For a bit of nightlife, Figueres' greatest concentration of bars is on the plaza above Hotel Durán, across the wide boulevard. Just above these bars is the cheapest place I found in Figueres for a menu de noche; called La Pansa - very basic but filling meals served in front of a blaring TV cost about 1,000 pesetas. Restaurant Presidente at Ronda Firal 28 (972 50 17 00) has a spacious dining-room decorated with some Dalíesque touches, and a mix of Franco-Catalan cuisine. Lobster and shellfish crêpes with crab sauce, filet of sole with orange in puff pastry, quails stuffed with foie gras and grapes in cream sauce, etc. There are also menus to be had near the town's central market at Can Jeroni, Castelló d'Empuries 36. Out of town on the N-II towards France you'll come across the inn of another famous local restaurateur, Josep Mercader, the Hotel Ampurdán. Lamb with anchovies, tuna tartare, all kinds of stews, stuffed apple, and home-made sorbets.

DETOUR linking to route 6 (Besalú p.46.): If you plan on continuing inland from Figueres towards Besalú (see route 6), Avinyonet de Puigventós, four km out of town, has a hotel/restaurant, Mas Pau (972 54 61 54) renowned for its inventive cuisine. Melon soup à la mente, grilled vegetables of the season, anglerfish alioli with honey, boned hare with chocolate, carpaccio of pears au vin, etc. Two km from Avinyonet is Mas de la Torre, a fortified masia dating from 1541 with a long history of putting down serf rebellions. Beyond Avinyonet is the medieval nucleus of Cistella, the enormous 15thC castle at Vilarig, and the lovely scenery arround the Boadella dam. Further towards Besalú lies the well-preserved village of Lladó, where the fine Augustinian canonry of Santa Maria can be admired in a very pleasant village setting. The striking doorway has six highly decorated curved arches and four columns with Corinthian capitals. Above Santa Maria is 17C Sant Feliu, restored in 1998. A German ex-pat has set up a jazz bar called el Pesol on the Plaça Major in this most unlikely place. Let me know if you check it out. Also on Lladó's Plaça Major is restaurant Kan Kiku (972 56 51 04) with its high beamed ceiling and tasteful decoration, good service, and a carefully selected bodega of fine wines. Bacallá a la mussolina d'all, or cod fish with garlic mousse, is one of the delicious house specialties. Fiesta Major on Sant Lambert's Day, September 11, also Catalonia's national day.