Our four favorite Baix Empordà coastal villages are the hub of the Costa Brava fishing tradition and lifestyle in its most prestigious area.
The Baix Empordà, which is the southerly half of the Empordà region of Catalunya, is located in the northeast portion of the Iberian peninsula. Inhabited since Paleolithic times, it has been under the control of Greeks, Iberians, Romans, as well the Crowns of Aragon and Aquitaine, and is currently part of Spain. This is the center of Catalan cuisine, and its coastal area, the Costa Brava, its most prestigious tourist draw. We think the Baix Empordà is the perfect geographic combination in a dynamic drama whose protagonist is the Mediterranean.
Today, Baix Empordà coastal villages are prime locations for gastronomic excellence, the centerpiece of which is not surprisingly the diverse variety of seafood here: sardines and mackerel, rockfish and sole, sea urchins, shellfish and clams. But the unique atmosphere is not just limited to food and drink, although they play a large part. We’ve talked before about the Catalan tendency to live in the now. In these villages, that vibe is tempered with an appreciative approach to both natural and manmade beauty. Each day is a world in full. You seek and eat the day’s catch and what the farmer has in season. You celebrate your family, friendships and the cycle of living. Life is simple, transparent and valued.
We were fortunate to become acquainted with more than a few Baix Empordà coastal villages during a recent visit to the Costa Brava. In this post, we bring you our favorites.
Betsy’s Favorite: Begur
Cradled in a nest of several hills called the Begur Massif, Begur incorporates medieval Esclanyà, whose 14th-century castle tower overlooks the village’s eight different sea coves. What differentiates Begur from its sister villages is a most intense cultural link with Cuba. In the 19th century, emigres from Begur – “Indianos” – made their fortune in Cuba’s New World plantation economy, which produced coveted cork for the burgeoning wine industry, and sugarcane for Europe’s growing sweet tooth. The Indianos returned to Begur to build magnificent villas, and influenced their hometown culture with Caribbean flavors.
Each summer, Begur’s Festival of Music brings “havanera” style to life in a capella and accompanied performances. Rounding out the summer holiday season, its Festival de Indianos on the first weekend in September relives the infusion of Cuban elements in cuisine, crafts, and the arts.
It seems like everyone in Begur claims to make its “best mojito,” and for that reason alone, it might become your favorite of the coastal villages in the Baix Empordà. Or if not, maybe the shopping?
Where to Eat and Stay in Begur
Hotel Aigua Blava – a four-star property located on beautiful Aiguablava beach, the hotel’s restaurant is a member of Cuina de l’Empordà, a consortium of restaurants dedicated to promote Costa Brava as a first class gastronomic destination. Founded in 1934, the hotel is now managed by the third and fourth generation of the same family. Rockfish was featured on the menu when we visited; the cliffside coves of Begur are ideal habitat for rockfish, with the season stretching from April through July.
Hotel-Spa Classic Begur – six rooms on the second floor of a classic, ca. 1857 Indiano house, the hotel boasts an award-winning restaurant on the ground floor, Can Maurici, and just down the street, a sidewalk cafe, Es Castell, where you can order “the perfect mojito.”
Turandot – an intimate restaurant with possibly the most innovative presentation we experienced in all of Costa Brava. Owned by a young couple, its lunch and dinner menus hit just the right spot.
Pete’s Pick: Palamos
As an angler, Pete is all about the fishing, and Palamos is all about the fishermen. Its protected port is home to large and small commercial fishing operations with boats of all sizes. The day’s catch is sorted in blue trays even before landing, and then travels by conveyor to waiting bidders. The auction at Palamos serves all the area restaurants and fish markets. Each tray gets quick bids from their reps and then is sent for packaging and pickup. Average time from off-loading to pickup is 2 minutes. You can’t get much more fresh than that!
Above the fish auction is Espai del Peix, providing training for chefs on how to prepare seafood, creating new recipes for known fish and developing recipes for new species brought in by local fishermen. We were smack dab on top of the prawn and sardine season in Palamos, which runs May through June.
Also worth a visit while in Palamos is Museu de la Pesca, The Fishing Museum, if you can stand to be off the water. If you’d rather be with the other old salts, sail out in the traditional way with Tela Marinera on a vessel dating from 1915.
Stay in Palamos at the hundred-year-old Hotel Trias, located on the port Promenade, with a star-struck history that includes guests Truman Capote and Ava Gardner.
Betsy’s Runner-Up: L’Estartit
The horizon off L’Estartit is dominated by the Medes Islands, a protected seven-island archipelago about a mile off shore. With only about 1% of the entire Mediterranean under protection, the Medes Islands provide a unique and diverse vegetal and marine ecosystem for study and recreation. You can sail, snorkel, dive, and windsurf to your heart’s content!
Our group headed out with Medaqua Adventure Sports, located on the harborfront, who fitted us with heavy-duty neoprene wetsuits along with the requisite snorkeling gear. After the initial shock of the early season water temperature, we were paddling around with our guides while Medaqua’s boat kept within a very safe and reassuring distance. If snorkeling isn’t your thing, Medaqua can help you hit the water by kayak or scuba, too. Friendly guides and video orientation quickly get you up to speed and “ready for the Med.”
Where to Eat and Stay in L’Estartit
Those happy smiles above were due in part because we’d been fortified with an excellent lunch at Restaurant La Gaviota, considered by many to be L’Estartit’s best.
The three star Hotel Medes II offers family-centered service and a comfortable location a half block from the beach. The hotel restaurant offers midday and evening fixed price and a la carte menus.
Pete’s Runner-Up: Palafrugell – Llafranc
Palafrugell’s inland urban center is complemented by beachside communities (Llafranc, Callela de Palafrugell and Tamariu). Centered among Costa Brava’s most popular attractions, these communities offer events and cultural spaces that epitomize the modern lifestyle of Baix Empordà coastal villages. The annual Jazz, Spring and Garden Festivals, and the Garoinada (sea urchin) and Christmas gastronomic events enliven every season in this area.
Where to Eat and Stay in Palafrugell – Llafranc
Hotel and Restaurant Llevant – adjacent to the Cami de Ronda walking route on the Bay of Llafranc. The restaurant, which opened in 1935, is situated on a seaside terrace and is part of the Cuina de l’Empordà consortium.
Hotel Sant Roc – Located in Callela de Palafrugell, Hotel Sant Roc opened in 1955 to serve wealthy French and Catalan tourists who arrived en famille and stayed for the entire three-month summer season. Run by the third generation of the original family today, the hotel offers individual character rooms, suites, and family apartments, most with sea views.
Disclosure: we were the guests of Costa Brava Turisme, who kindly arranged each of the Baix Empordà coastal villages experiences we’ve mentioned. As always, opinions are our own.