A lot of people have tried to describe Spain’s Costa Brava in a variety of ways. As I sat down to give an overview of the region, I could only think of how my senses were set on fire every day with new stimuli; one more exciting than the other. So that’s how I want to introduce you to the region, through the senses.
1. Sight – There are a million views in Costa Brava, but what I remember most is the glare of the sun as it peeked through the well manicured hedges in Santa Clotilde’s Botanical Gardens. Created in 1919, the massive outdoor space was built be Nicolau Maria Rubió i Tudurí in a well organized, Italianate style. Today it’s a serene pocket of Eden in an already beautiful region. I was like a kid in a candy store traipsing along the green paths covered in ivy, drawn like a moth to flame to the lookout point over the water. The coastline curves gently and in its embrace were a series of sailboats, praying for more wind than what existed on that still morning. Rather than a secret garden, Santa Clotilde’s is a garden of secrets with surprises in the most unlikely of places. Quiet spots to read a book, Greek busts of people long forgotten and the aroma of a particularly aromatic flower were some of the surprises I found that morning. Yes, Costa Brava is a place of beauty where the sense of sight is well rewarded, but my mind will always race back to these gardens whenever I think of this beautiful region.
2. Taste – I’m not sure how the Spanish manage to eat and drink as much as they do; their svelte figures would suggest a granola diet instead one made of delicious meats, cheeses and breads. I began to understand the reason for this lack of fat though during a cooking class at the popular Hotel Restaurant El Far that sits high above the water on a promontory. In front of me were a series of fresh foods: olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, ham and bread. My task was to create a real Spanish aioli from scratch. Until that point I thought aioli was mayonnaise, but I was quickly corrected by our able chef instructor. The classic aioli is no more than copious amounts of fresh garlic and olive oil, with salt for seasoning. The process to make a homemade version was an arduous one, mashing together the ingredients with a mortar and pestle for more than thirty minutes until finally my aioli was given the thumbs up by the chef. While the condiment definitely had a strong kick, it was delicious and tasted even better when paired with fresh ham, sausages and bread. I learned that afternoon why the Spanish diet, while expansive, is also healthy. There are no processed foods, almost everything is fresh and taken in moderation. Living in a culture where everything is boxed or wrapped, this was an amazing revelation and one that I hope influences my eating habits even when I’m not in Spain. Of course, mashing the garlic for half an hour isn’t a bad workout either.
3. Smell – Every destination has a smell, some more recognizable than others. For me, Costa Brava exists in my sense memories as a mélange of specific scents, disparate yet inseparable. The saltiness of the ocean air is undeniable; even as you travel further inland it is a constant companion. The sea has always been the lifeblood of the Costa Brava, from its early days in trading to today as a tourist hot spot. The sea is a constant, not always taking center stage but never too far away. The burst of flowers combines with the salty air to further define the master scent, from fields of wildflowers in the country to baskets of vibrant lavender in someone’s house. Everywhere I turned I was confronted by the strong scent of a newly budding flower – nature at her most primal and beautiful. True to its nature, the third scent to add its notes to my master scent is garlic, perhaps a by-product of my culinary adventures through the region. Every time I walked by a restaurant or sat down at a café, the gentle aroma of freshly crushed garlic filled my nostrils, setting my mouth to tingles of anticipation. The scent of Costa Brava is a base, almost primal one – salt, flowers and garlic. But the story of the region can easily be told by the three smells and they’re as much a part of its history as any monument.
4. Touch – I walk through the medieval village of Peratallada and run my fingers along the ancient stones, feeling their strength. Some are a little moist, still others are covered in what I guess to be ivy. But they’re all strong, they had to be and are the reason why this 1,000 year old village remains today. They must have been quarried from the same source, because they’re all roughly the same color and hue. I tap one with my knuckle for no reason, just a reflex really. But how many others must have tapped that same stone and traced their hands along the rough wall as they walked through the tiny alleys. I’m always humbled and awed by areas of immense age not just because they managed to not collapse, but because of the stories not told. We’ll never know everyone who called Peratallada home, we’ll never know about them or their lives. Were they happy or sad? Did they love their spouse; did they have kids? What did they think about the world around them, did they even ever leave the village? We’ll never know, but it’s for those stories that I love visiting these forgotten corners of history, the cultural inheritance of any destination.
5. Hearing – Laughter. That’s what I think of first when I rack my brain trying to recollect the sounds of the Costa Brava. Laughter of children rushing past, almost knocking us over, as they scamper down the boardwalk on a day off from school. Laughter of friends meeting after work in the middle of historic Girona, pushing together tables so more friends can join. They pass the wine, order some more tapas and settle in for a long evening of gossip and good times. But the laughter I remember most is my own. It’s been a long time since I was that happy, and it’s due to what makes Costa Brava great. Friends abound in the area, even if you travel there alone you will soon meet comrades for life. Traveling with a group of like-minded souls for a week, laughing at strange customs and improbably large meals, that laughter is something I will never forget and will always bring me back to the beautiful coast of Spain known as the Costa Brava.