Appeared in May/June 2006 LINKS
The veneration of local heroes often says as much about the locals as it does about the heroes. Would Elvis be the King, for example, if Graceland were on Long Island? I pondered this matter as I prepared for a golf trip to the Costa Brava region of Catalonia, Spain, on the northeast tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Located in the province of Girona, the 125-mile Costa Brava (“wild coast”) produced Salvador Dalí, best known of the Surrealist artists and writers. With blazing eyes, a handlebar mustache and strange headgear, Dalí exuded the larger-than-life aura that seems to accompany most heroes. What, I wondered, should one anticipate of the homeland of the man who created “Soft Self-Portrait with Grilled Bacon”?
The answer proved simultaneously simple and otherworldly. The Costa Brava is, as Monty Python might say, something completely different, especially compared with the better-known Costa del Sol to the south. Many visitors from the Continent consider the Costa Brava, contiguous to France directly to the north, an epicenter of creative cuisine.
In addition to year-round golf, the Costa Brava offers skiing in the neighboring Girona Pyrenees and sprawling beaches on the Mediterranean coast. Catalonia’s cultural traditions draw on Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and modern influences.
The unique Catalan dialect—distinct from Spanish, and the second-most spoken language in the country—reinforces the sense of a world apart; congruent with the exotic physical environment, the populace seems, entirely apropos of Dalí, avowedly iconoclastic.
My tour began with arrival in Barcelona, the focal point of Catalonian culture and history. There’s certainly plenty in this teeming city to keep one occupied, but my destination was 50 miles north, to the provincial capital city, Girona, and Empordá Golf Resort. Tough enough, but not overwhelming, it turned out to be a fine place to start, although the region’s numerous pitch-and-putt courses would also be suitable candidates.
Designed by globetrotting American Robert von Hagge and opened in 1990, Empord‡ is a 36-hole complex located east of Girona. The 18-hole combinations, designated Forest and Links, employ a design palette typical of many courses in the area. Forest has holes framed by huge, umbrella-like pine trees and cork oaks. Links—just minutes from the coast but not technically linksland—has tight, sandy turf and windswept dunes that simulate the links experience.
Next on the agenda was La Costa Hotel Golf & Beach Resort, where the “golf” component is actually a pair of unrelated but nearby courses, Golf Platja de Pals and Golf Serras de Pals. The headliner is Golf Platja de Pals, which lies within sniffing distance of the Mediterranean but plays more like a parkland course. Designed by British architect F.G. Hawtree in 1966, the 6,844-yard layout is the oldest of the Costa Brava’s 10 courses and opens with several short but extremely narrow holes circumscribed by towering 100-year-old pines. The holes get progressively longer but more wide open—the eighth hole is 575 yards and the back nine has three par 5s—and both the topography and the green-to-tee transitions are conducive to walking.
Indeed, a good pair of walking shoes is de rigueur in the Costa Brava, as I learned in nearby Peratallada. The name of this restored medieval village, one of several in the area, is a contraction meaning “carved rock,” in this case an 11th-century palace and walls, surrounded by an incredible moat that seems chiseled from sheer granite. The urban grid is dominated by a central square, from which narrow spokes emanate toward residential streets, today occupied by restaurants, bars, shops, galleries and cozy hotels.
The region’s diverse appeal within a geographically tight radius was again highlighted during my lunch break on the Begur Coast, the easternmost point of the Iberian Peninsula. A craggy configuration of secluded blue-green coves and inlets, these beach communities feature all manner of water sports, including scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, windsurfing, water-skiing, sailing and deep-sea fishing. I dined al fresco at Hotel Aigua Blava, a family-run establishment set on a pretty cove.
Another fine place to bed down for the night is Mas de Torrent, a lavishly restored Catalan masia, or farmhouse, dating to 1751. The main building houses 10 individually decorated units, discreetly complemented by 20 garden suites.
Near the AP7, the major thoroughfare connecting Girona and Barcelona to the southwest, is PGA Golf de Catalunya. Here the championship Green Course is a strapping layout of 7,247 yards designed by European Tour veterans Angel Gallardo and Neil Coles. Opened in 1999, it’s a perennial presence on Europe’s best-of lists, and plans are in place to add another 18-hole track as well as a first-class hotel.
The city of Girona also demands a visit. Twenty centuries have imbued the town with layer upon layer, literally and figuratively, of culture and history. For starters, its location at the confluence of four rivers—Onyar, Ter, Güell, and Galligants—makes it an urban-planning phenomenon.
To the north, Figueres, a bustling town, is Dalí’s birthplace and site of a museum he founded to feature his work. Housed in a converted theater, Museu Dalí is as dramatic as the artist himself, and adds well-rounded perspective to his prolific artistic career, much of which embraces more traditional forms of expression, in contrast to his more sensational surrealist imagery.
It seemed fitting to spend the final evening of my trip at the Restaurant Hotel Plaça de Madremanya, a renovated castle in the eponymous town just northwest of Girona. Legend says the Costa Brava/Pirineu de Girona landscape resulted from the union of a shepherd and a siren. My going-away repast perfectly captured the spirit of this pairing with a dish of garlic-infused pork and fish. My only regret: the going-away part.
Costa Brava Contacts
Empord Golf Resort
Golf Platja de Pals
Golf Serras de Pals
PGA Golf de Catalunya
Hotel Aigua Blava
La Costa Golf & Beach Resort
Mas de Torrent
Restaurant Hotel Playa de Madremanya
Girona, Peratallada and other Costa Brava attractions