‘What’s 2,330,000 euros in Aussie dollars?’ I want to know.
‘Around four million,’ answers Mevrouw T, without even pulling out the calculator.
‘Four million for a typical village terrace house, four dormitorios.’
‘Bedrooms. Looks ordinary from the outside. Must have nice bathroom taps.’
The showers are becoming heavier. It’s certainly not beach weather on Spain’s Costa Brava, so we’re relying on local real estate agents’ windows for alternative entertainment. Tourists who came here hoping for a quick tan are huddled in cafes and listlessly poking through souvenir shops.
If property prices are anything to go by, the Costa Brava still clings to its glamorous image as the playground of the beautiful people. In the 1950s and 60s film stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Ava Gardner partied in its luxury hotels. Salvador Dali was a local. Mevrouw remembers growing up in Amsterdam and being green with envy when other kids said they’d been on holidays to the Costa Brava.
Now the ‘Wild Coast’ is just over an hour’s drive or train ride north from Barcelona, and cheap Ryanair flights into Girona make the area accessible for us common folk. It’s worth the trip, even in the off-season. Even with the rain setting in.
I wonder if Sophia Loren ever did as we’re doing, following the cliff path that leads from chic Llanfranc towards sleepy Calella de Palafrugel. If it was a day like this, let’s hope she was wearing her gumboots. The Costa Brava is a great place for walking, most of the time. The craggy topography makes it difficult and expensive to build high-rise monstrosities, so instead we have a chain of charming coastal villages, each on a little bay between rocky points. Villas perch on the cliffs, looking both pretty and expensive.
Another shower sweeps across the water towards us. In the village people are buying postcards of Calella de Palafrugel basking in bright sunshine, with colourful fishing boats drawn up on the beach and crowds of sun-worshippers spreadeagled on the sand. I take a close-up shot of the postcards, hoping that with a bit of judicious photoshopping, I could make the place look its sunny best.
It’s attractive enough anyway with its whitewashed buildings and arched porticos over the beachfront cafes, and the colourful fishing boats are still there, albeit with rain splashing into their colourful tarpaulins.
A poster in a shop window announces an artisans’ market on today, and a check of the map shows us it’s in a nearby town. The novelty of walking in the rain is wearing off, so we make a dash for the car and head inland. It’s appealing landscape; rolling hills, cork trees and olive groves surrounding smartly renovated farmhouses made of local stone.
But by the time we reach the market in the aptly named village of Torrent, the rain is steady, and water is gushing down the narrow cobbled streets. Soggy artisans are stretching plastic over displays of sausages and olive oil, and there are few customers. Maybe once Kirk Douglas and Montgomery Clift slipped into Torrent to buy sausages too.
We take refuge in the only cover in sight, the Museu de Confitures, and yes, it is indeed a museum of jam. We’d never have known we were so interested in jam if it hadn’t been for the rain, but there it is, pots of it, from all over the world, lining the shelves of Torrent’s major wet-weather attraction.
Other tourists who forgot their umbrellas are poring over wall charts detailing historic jam recipes (only the marmalade one is in English so we soon run out of reading material) and we can taste a range of sticky conserves, including coffee jam – an interesting flavour. Fortunately the friendly staff are also serving steaming cups of coffee-flavoured coffee. After a bracing brew we buy a jar of fig jam, scuttle through another shower, fumble for the car keys and drive on to Girona.
Girona is the capital of the region and a popular day trip out of Barcelona, and at first it’s hard to see the attraction. Sure it’s quiet and small, less than 100,000 people, but the outskirts are industrial and non-descript and near the centre of town there’s nowhere to park. Girona’s most recent celebrity resident probably didn’t have this problem. Lance Armstrong lived here while training for the Tour de France, and he probably did the shopping on the bike, even on wet days.
But once we leave the car and squelch into the narrow streets, Girona gets interesting. It’s a prosperous university town, with art galleries, jewellery shops and cosy cafes. The ancient cobbled laneways and intriguing staircases of the former Jewish area, the Call, have been beautifully preserved, and the story of mediaeval Jewry up until their expulsion from Spain in 1492 is told in a museum built on the site of an old synagogue.
The tower of the baroque cathedral is wreathed in scaffold for restoration, but we still have the energy to scale the 86 steps to the front door. Did Elizabeth Taylor ever climb up here? Probably Lance and the boys used to fang the bikes up and down the stairs just as a morning warm-up. We settle for the view out over wet Girona rooftops.
Along the River Onyar, the red and yellow buildings backing onto the water form one of the region’s most photographed scenes. I step out onto the bridge and take the obligatory snap, then wipe the rain off the lens and we move on in search of something warm to fill the belly.
We round off our Costa Brava experience with a meal in Palamos. It’s not the most attractive town in the area, with apartment blocks and a busy road along the beachfront. However, we love the cheerful atmosphere at Cafe Baretu, and the black and white photos of old film stars on the walls set the tone.
The smoke takes us back to the fifties too. There’s a legal ban on smoking in Spanish bars and restaurants, though exemptions are made for those under 100m2. Consequently an awful lot of 99m2 establishments have sprung up. But the tapas and the cava, local sparkling wine, are excellent and we can reflect on a day well spent.
We hope to do it all again some time, just as soon as the weather improves.
Trains to Girona leave from Barcelona Sants station at least every hour. The trip takes 75 – 90minutes and costs 24 euros return.
Ryanair flights to Girona from London Luton Airport start at 9.99 euros (you’re kidding!?), excluding taxes (oh). Book early for the cheapest prices!
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney