With bustling harbour towns and medieval villages set against the spectacular Pyrenees, Catalunya is one of the world’s most beautiful regions and a hidden gem.
I first fell in love with the Costa Brava or Spain’s ‘wild coast’ after a weekend at an incredible Spanish wedding high up on a cliff top (it finished at 4am!) and I had always wanted to return to discover more.
This summer we took a week long road-trip (love a road trip) around the region, visiting the city of Girona, the mountain town of Begur, coastal Cadaques and crossing the border to Collioure in France. Here is how we did it.
Girona – the cool sister of Barcelona
Whilst Barcelona might be the famous capital of Catalunya, Girona is its teenage sister with its own quirky style. Located on four rivers, Girona has a fascinating history, including some of the longest preserved Roman city walls in Europe and an incredibly preserved Jewish Quarter or ‘call’.
That is enough from the guidebook; Girona is a city to get lost in. My advice is to forget your map and just explore.
Like me, you are sure to fall in love with Girona’s medieval streets, the colourful “Cases de l’Onyar” riverside houses and the 19th-century Plaça de la Independència, from which the hubbub of happy diners draws you across the river from the old town. Quite simply, Girona’s relaxed manera de viure makes it very hard to leave.
Where to stay in Girona
Located high above Girona, yet only 10 minutes from the centre, the quirky and stylish Montjuic B&B has it all, including a plunge pool, a total luxury in the hot and humid city. With a warm welcome, great organic breakfasts, incredible beds and that view, I wouldn’t recommend staying anywhere else.
Where to Eat in Girona
Beg, borrow or steal a table at the 3-star El Cellar Can Roca. Otherwise opt for organic, sustainable and zero mile burgers from Km-0 Hamburgers and for pudding, the best ice creams ever from Rocambolesc, the gelateria owned by El Cellar Can Roca.
If you have more than one day in Girona
Visit Casa Masó, the only home open to the public on the river. Then just let your feet wander the Jewish and Medieval quarters, around every corner is a picturesque square – I recommend sitting on the steps of Cafe le Bistrot (above) for a pick me up glass of wine.
Discover the ‘real’ Costa Brava in Begur
The beaches around the mountain town of Begur are what I would describe as the ‘real’ Costa Brava, the rich and famous of Catalunya certainly think so; many of them have spectacular homes here – and you should see the private jets at the airport.
If you aren’t into beach life, the Costa Brava by Begur is linked by a rather strenuous coastal path which allows you to find a beach spot not known to the crowds. Head back to Aigua Blava bay for soft sands, perfect for a doze after climbing the hundreds of steps.
Back in the town, Begur may be a chi-chi destination for the cream wearing jet-set and their beautiful kids, but it has a secret underbelly.
In the 19th Century, 500 Begurencs headed to Cuba to set up tobacco factories and returned to build spectacular homes which now give the town a rather different character to most Catalyuna towns sitting under the shadow of their hill-top forts.
At night, the Cuban mojito bars are jumping; I recommend La Bodeguita Del Medio. Watch out as the mojitos are free pour – something that I learnt to my cost one morning. Ouch indeed.
Where to stay in Begur
The Hotel Aiguaclara is one of my favourite discoveries. In beautifully restoring one of the Cuban mansions, owners Clara and Joan have created a quirky retro hotel hangout with real warmth and welcome.
The rooms are truly breathtaking, with high ceilings and spectacular views. At night, the hotel’s restaurant serves local dishes accompanied by a DJ; just loud enough to encourage you to dance to the 60s tunes after dinner.
Where to eat in Begur
Probably the best meal of our trip (and high up the list of best ever) was incredible and unusual tapas at the tiny Platillos. With just 5 tables and room for 3 couples at the bar, make sure you book in advance. Try the pink(!) mini burger, which when paired with a side of truffle macaroni cheese, it is truly life changing stuff. Just look at it.
If you have more than one day in Begur
Head inland to the town of Pals. It looks original but was restored over a 30 year period by a local doctor after it was partially destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. Despite, in places the rather obvious restoration work, it is still a very atmospheric place, with some serious door goals.
Cross the border to Collioure
Just one hour north of Girona, across the border into France, where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean is Collioure. The town has two small but sweeping beaches, dominated by a huge medieval castle and err, the rather phallic Notre Dame des Anges church.
The town was a favourite of Matisse, and at times by day, the light is so violent to send you scurrying to a shaded terrace for a glass of the local Collioure and Banyuls wine; try the 2 Euro rose, you won’t be disappointed.
People watching here is a delight, especially as Collioure is home to the French army’s commandos, whose operations in the harbour are carried out with black-clad-uniformed panache. By night, the town comes alive with a lively party atmosphere.
Choose a tapas restaurant for dinner or watch out for regional speciality, Dorados (Sea Bream) and more of that rose. After dinner, the bars may quieten down as the tourists leave, but then just having the lapping waves and the knocking of boat sails for company, is no bad thing.
Where to stay in Collioure
The famous Hotel Des Templiers is located right on the main street, it has simple, characterful rooms, a breakfast terrace right in the action and the best bar in town.
Where to eat in Collioure
For a real taste of the region, head to Michelin-stared La Balette at the Relais Des Trois Mas hotel, for fresh Languedoc flavours. They also have the best view of Collioure and fantastic service. Or try the unusual tapas at La Cuisine Comptoir, set in a beautiful courtyard.
If you have more than one day in Collioure
Explore the castle, otherwise known as Château Royal de Collioure (great value at 4 Euros) for the views high up over the bays or take the tourist train down the dramatic coast. In the hot afternoon sun, hire a lounger and lie on the beach with one of the best views on the Med.
Fall in love with Cadaques
If Collioure is Matisse (bright and expressive) then Cadaques (pronounced Cad-a-quez) is all Dali, striking and at times very surreal.
Just getting to Cadaques is an adventure, driving up from the coast from Roses or Port de Selva you have to tackle a hair-raising mountain road. Take your time; the barriers just seem an afterthought. The view descending down the mountain, with the white buildings and Cadaques’ pretty church glowing in the distance, is one you won’t easily forget.
Safely down, Cadaques at first just seems like one long, but promenade stretching around a large bay. The town might be reminiscent of a quiet and idyllic Greek Island, but behind the promenade, the town has a hippy and hedonistic past, led by the wild ways of Dali, and some of this remains today in the higgledy piggeldy maze of backstreets.
By night, Cadaques promenade is for well, promenading, and music and cocktail drinkers spill out of every bar. Pull up a chair, or a seat on the stairs and watch it unfold before you. Ask for a gin & tonic, they might be around 8 Euros but they are as big as your head.
Where to stay in Cadaquez
The Hotel Ubaldo is located on one of Cadaques famous slate lined streets, where in the evening restaurant tables spill out into the road. The rooms are simply done, but have balconies and aircon and are spotlessly clean. Look out for the owner’s 5 sleepy cats.
Where to eat in Cadaquez
You are spoilt for choices with nearly 100 restaurants squeezed into Cadaques winding streets. Try delicious Italian food at Celeste, regional specialities at Mut and Lebanese cooking in an amazing courtyard at El Barroco. In the evening search out the brilliantly hippy Brown Sugar for vegan food, great drinks, and interesting customers from all over the world taking in the Catalunya hospitality.
If you have more than one day in Cadaques
If you have time on your trip, make sure you visit Sa Perafita vineyard for a wine tasting and then a glass of wine overlooking the spectacular mountains. We were lucky to stay here for the night and it was one of the most perfect evenings I can remember…
We loved every moment of our trip, and the warmth and hospitality we received was spot on. What struck me the most though about the Costa Brava was the passion of the locals of their Catalunya heritage; their use of their own language, and the flying of the red and yellow Senera flags.
Whatever your politics on independence (hey Scotland!) it demands a certain kind of respect. The Catalunyan people should be rightly proud of their region, for it totally stole my heart.
Visca Catalunya, Love From, Scotland x
A Costa Brava Road Trip
We flew into Girona from Manchester with Jet2 and picked our hire car up at the airport. We found the drive incredibly easy, including the motorway. For more information on the Costa Brava region and Cataluyna visit In Costa Brava