Early in June this year, a few days after the lifting of the national lockdown, we visited Porte-Vendres on the Mediterranean coast, not far from the border with Catalonia, Spain. In a normal year, this would have been the start of the holiday season. This isn’t a normal year of course, so there were few other visitors walking around and a lot of still-closed businesses. Including the kiosks for boat trips along the coast. With a positive outlook, we took photos of the excursion posters. Someday…
Now it’s September. Masks ready, we headed back to Port-Vendres to take a boat day-trip to Cadaqués in Spanish Catalonia. The route of the little cruise is along the rocky coast where the Pyrénées Mountains smash into the sea. On the French side, this is called La Côte Vermeille — The Green Coast. On the Catalonian side, it’s the Costa Brava — The Rough Coast. We cruised south from Port-Vendres, passing the border at Cerbère, then east around the rough Cap de Creus, finally tucking into the protected harbor of Cadaqués. Each way between Port-Vendres and Cadaqués took about two hours.
We both had expectations of grand abrupt rocky landscapes, monumental like the Pyrénées themselves. The coast is indeed rugged and spare. But more restrained than we anticipated. Nonetheless, we enjoyed being out on the water, passing by the villages perched above the rocks. After Port-Vendres, Banyuls-our-Mer, whose rocky landscape produces some noted sweet wines.
Then Cerbère. This is the last French village before the Spanish border. Its celebrity comes from the fact that the Spanish and French railways use different gauges; cargo and passengers have to be transferred between systems. Back in the day, this operation meant that passengers relaxed in the seafront village, wining and dining.
We rounded the Cap de Creus. No villages here. This is an area of protected wild land. Just us, the sea, sky, rocks and hills.
Cap de Creus, the mythology of geology
The easternmost tip of the Spanish mainland is a mythical place, formed by the rocks of the foothills of the Pyrenees, producing an almost phantasmagorical landscape! This geological treasure trove of international acclaim is several million years old. When the Pyrenees emerged from the earth’s crust some 300 million years ago, magma rose to the surface in the form of great black rivers. The schist and rock have been eroded by the fierce Tramontana wind and now make up an eerie landscape, inhabited by “amazing creatures”: a waymarked path highlights an eagle here, a seal there or a horse over there. All these shapes inspired Dali’s work and he said that Cap de Creus was “a place made for gods rather than men”. He spent his entire life fighting to preserve the area.
But it was a close call for the nature reserve. Between 1962 and 2004, it was home to a holiday village for scuba diving enthusiasts, attracted by the transparent waters of Cap de Creus. A hundred or so concrete bungalows marred this beautiful landscape, not to mention the sewage waste that spewed directly into the sea. After a massive clean-up, thankfully begun before the economic crisis (otherwise it would never have taken place), Cap de Creus has, happily for us, been restored to its former, unspoiled glory. (source)
Just before Cadaqués, we pulled into the small leisure harbor of Cala de Portlligat; it sits just over a little ridge from Cadaqués. Our boat captain pointed out the Casa-Museu Salvador Dalí. Dalí spent quite a lot of town here. You can see his favorite egg shape atop his white house with the prominent staircase.
Born in Figueras, Dali, whose statue surveys the port of Cadaqués, spent all his holidays on this coast, before buying a fishing hut, and then another at Portlligat in 1930, a few hundred metres from the centre of the village – attracted by both the quality of the light and the secluded wilderness. Today, this amazing house-museum, where nothing has been moved since the artist’s death, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world. It is a maze of corridors, not unlike the village itself, in the heart of which lies a lush Mediterranean garden. (source)
We sailed around a rocky promontory into Cadaqués. How different is this all-white village from the tans, ochres and terra-cottas of Port-Vendres.
The gentle lifestyle and mild climate of Cadaqués, a little fishing village on the Catalan coast, a few kilometres from the French border, were much prized by some of the leading 20th century artists.
Tucked away in a natural harbour sheltered by Pyrenean foothills, this Catalan village, home to less than two thousand souls, has retained its whitewashed, traditional architecture. The only road leading to the village, which is also spectacular, was built just fifty years ago, leaving this tiny Catalan fishing village cut off for many centuries, which is no doubt why its own traditions and culture, particularly that of buccaneering, became so strong. The fishermen of Cadaqués used to attack boats on the high seas, fleeing home to the safety of their village. In turn, hardened pirates would then launch raids on Cadaqués in retaliation. The steep lanes of the village, which still resemble a maze, were originally laid out to lose and disorient attackers. The Turkish pirate, Red Beard, however did manage to burn down the church of Santa Maria in the 16th century. Rebuilt by the fishing folk, the edifice is now home to an outstanding Baroque altarpiece one of the most beautiful of Catalonia. The masterpiece however very nearly disappeared during the Spanish Civil War, when the Republican troops intended to subject it to the same treatment as the legendary pirate. The inhabitants hid the altarpiece behind a stucco wall that was erected in just a night! (source)
Our tour boat pulled right up onto the sand of a village beach. As we waited to disembark, two uninhibited, shall we say, nymphs, shucked almost all their clothes and waded into the water. Alas, they selected the berth of an even larger tour boat that wanted to pull up next to ours. It took multiple blows of the horn for the nymphs to realize the peril of their swimming spot.
We disembarked at a little after noon. Of course, that meant that the first stop had to be lunch. Our open-air table directly overlooked the beachside promenade. Within a few minutes of our arrival, quite a few other French people had been seated. Our hostess confirmed that the French eat dependably at noon. The Spanish eat after two. Pretty good for business it seemed to us.
Seaside lunch meant seafood lunch. Just a short distance from France, and the food is noticeably different: different spices, less inhibited.
After lunch, we strolled about the village. We enjoyed the Catalan character of many of the buildings. This felt like a real vacation: so close but so different.
Then we ventured up the picturesque narrow streets of the oldest part of the village.
After only a few turns, we popped out onto the small plaza in front of Santa Maria’s Church of Cadaqués. The large white church sits atop the village like a giant protectress. We’ve already seen our fair share of old churches so we weren’t tempted to go in. Fortunately, though, we peered in the window at the entrance to find a baroque golden altar extravaganza. Very worth a photo, and then back to secular diversions.
Santa Maria’s Church of Cadaqués
The shape of this 16C church has been immortalised by many painters and is a symbol of Cadaqués. The exterior austerity of the building contrasts with the interior, that houses a baroque retable by Pau Costa. This work of art, one of the most remarkable of its kind in all Catalonia, was made by Joan Torras. It is a spectacular piece of gilded wood iconography. (source)
Cadaqués is both a touristy and an arty place. We really enjoyed the fact that artists had chosen utility wall panels — like those that cover electrical equipment — as their canvasses.
Besides Dali, who introduced many of his friends to the area (Picasso, Mirò, Federico Garcia Lorca, Buňuel), Cadaqués also wove its magical spell over some of the leading figures of the twentieth century from Magritte to Marcel Duchamp and John Cage to André Derain! Somewhat earlier, Christopher Columbus stopped here to shelter from a storm. Cadaqués is also the spiritual home of the greatest Catalan writer of the 20th century, Josep Pla, who has yet to gain fame outside his country. (source)
To board the boat for the return trip, we stood on the beach, masked, with our fellow passengers. One of the crew called out passenger names one by one. We were a little late on that list, so we chose to sit in the enclosed cabin of the boat. We knew that the windows open generously, so we would have fresh air but not too much sun. As we were trying to figure out how to open the window, a woman of about 70 just in front of us, became agitated. She said, “No, don’t open the windows. I can’t stand the wind and air. You can’t do this. Go outside if you want air.” It was very warm and stuffy in the cabin. She was “wearing” her mask: on her chin. We countered with, ”But it’s so hot in here. And we are behind you; the wind won’t blow on you.” That wasn’t good enough for her; she kept on with her adamant objections. Buttons pushed, I said to her slowly, clearly, “You have to cover your nose and mouth with your mask.” She turned away, huffed, and pulled up her mask halfway.
Then one of the crew announced that we could go out on the bow of the boat if we wanted. Which we did. Lots of air; not too much sun because the day had turned cloudy; and great views.
Along the way, the captain slowed the boat. The crew scrambled to one side. Two large blocks of styrofoam floated nearby. To their great credit, they took a few minutes to retrieve the waste. The captain noted that the Mediterranean is the most polluted sea on the planet. These blocks of styrofoam had probably fallen off fishing boats.
A bit later, a fellow passenger on the bow with us suddenly jumped up, pointing, “Dolphins! Dolphins!” Indeed there was a pod breaching off in the distance. The captain gently turned and approached. At one point, one of the dolphins leapt fully out of the water. Mike’s camera reflexes were superb.
Port-Vendres welcomed us back after a delightful mini-vacation.