The Costa Brava Travel Guide
The Costa Brava has always had a special charisma, attracting artists and dreamers from around the globe. This north-eastern corner of the Iberian peninsula has been a cultural melting-pot for centuries. Within Spanish political borders, the Costa Brava is northern Catalonia (and it’s challenging to explain the present diplomatic situation in a few sentences). So, in a way, the Costa Brava isn’t quite Spain, nor is it France: it is unique territory. Therefore, you need a Costa Brava Travel Guide.
There are studies of an organized Catalonia well before the Spanish crown appeared in Madrid. Charlamagne in France used Catalonia and its people as a buffer, avoiding Moorish invasion of the French kingdoms. Thus, the Costa Brava held a political function well before the aristocracy in Madrid annexed it to Castilian Spain. And this marvelous coast is also some of the most beautiful Spanish countryside.
Hence, the Costa Brava is mysterious and unique, timeless and historic. If you haven’t heard a lot about it, here are 10 reasons Costa Brava and Catalonia travel should be on your bucket list.
Travel Where the Pros Ride
Today there are over a hundred pro-cyclists traveling in the province of Girona. As long-time resident David Millar explains to Cycling Weekly, it is the perfect place to find varied terrain, great weather, great road conditions, major airports and rub shoulders with the UCI’s best racers.
In the 90s George Hincapie came to Girona as part of the US Postal Service pro team. Soon after Lance Armstrong followed him (possibly to get away from France’s anti-doping laws). However, today you can still see Lance’s house right in the middle of the medieval center. If you go with the right people, they’ll show you where it is and share a few more stories you may not know about the famous Texan.
Many British cyclists trained on the streets and hills of Girona. Bradley Wiggins moved his family here in 2009 to train with the then Garmin-Slipstream team.
Today you’ll find Christian Meier – retired GreenEDGE cyclist – operating La Fabrica coffee shop and popping in and out of his bike store The Service Course. At the Tour de France, you watch the pros whizz by. In Girona you have coffee with them in the plaza.
Costa Brava is Els Ángels
Spending time in Girona means climbing up the coveted Els Ángels from the village center. There are two different approaches: one from the south and one from the northeast. The latter is definitely more challenging.
From the south, the ascent takes about 11 km over 400m of elevation. The first kilometers have grades about 5-6% and the last kilometers is over 7%, yet everything in the middle is a nice roll through some thickly covered cork forest.
Climbing from the northeast involves a circuitous route through Madremanya. From this small town you “only” have a 6 kilometer climb, yet the grades run about 6-8% right in the middle of an exposed road. You can attempt to do one side or the other (and circle back to Girona) or try both in one day.
A local bishop built the sanctuary at the top in the 1400s, as a location of prayer for the local villagers. On Sundays many locals hike up the mountainside for morning services and then lunch at the Sanctuary’s cafeteria. In modern time, Dalì made the sanctuary famous, for it was here that he married Gala in 1958.
But Lance Armstrong also made this climb a sacred mecca for cyclists. During his US Postal years, Armstrong would take to Els Angels for a quick intense ride. Today, you’ll find many cyclists riding up both sides of this iconic hill.
A Stroll Through Sleeping Volcanoes
The Garrotxa Natural Park extends for over 11 municipalities on your way to Olot. This stretch of the eastern Pyrenees is one of the best examples of volcanic hillsides anywhere on the Iberian peninsula. It contains over 40 cones formed over 5.3 million years ago. However, the last eruptions are from 500,000 and 11,500 years ago, evidenced by dramatic craters and over 20 solidified lava flows.
This volcanic “range” offers a unique microclimate in this section of Costa Brava as you travel through it. Thanks to the orographic, geologic and meteorologic composition of the park, a wide diversity of flora and fauna inhabits the forest.
While many of the locals consider the volcanoes extinct, volcanologists specify the land is simply “sleeping.”
So when you make your way to Olot – the volcanic city – don’t wake the beautifully dormant volcanoes of the Garrotxa Natural Park.
A Wine-Lover’s Travel Treasure
Sure, you know your French Bordeaux’s and Sauvignon Blancs; you’ve had your Italian Barolos. But what do you know about Spanish wine?
Probably not a lot. Spend time in the Costa Brava, traveling from winery-to-winery. Fill up as many glasses as possible and try out all of the delicious wines the coast has to offer. Much like Italy and France, it was the ancient Greeks that planted the vines and the Romans who cultivated them further. There are centuries of wine-making history in Catalonia. There is no better way to see the Costa Brava than to bike and drink your way across Catalonia. Take our word for it!
Costa Brava’s Dramatic Coastline
The Spanish journalist Ferran Agullo first described this majestic coastline as the “Costa Brava” in 1908. With a stroke of the pen, the writer embodied the rugged landscape with two simple words.
In Spanish, “Costa Brava” means “wild coast”. With plummeting cliffs glowing with red hues and the breaking surf, it is one of the most beautiful corners of the earth. Reminicent of the French Côte d’Azur, this is one of the most stunning European coastal roads.
Some travelers claim it resembles the coastal road Route 1 along the California coast. However, this is no flat roll. The ups and downs along this route make for one of the more challenging days on the bicycle. But luckily there are plenty of moments to get off the saddle, breathe in the air, and take a few more pictures.
Cap de Creus
The Cabo de Creus is the eastern-most geographical land-mass within Spain. It cauliflowers out into the mediterranean and has drawn numerous artists and visionaries to its hills for many years.
Consider the architectural magnificence of Sant Pere de Rodes. One of the most impressive Romanesque structures in all of Catalonia, this monestary’s orginis are shadowed in ledgend and mystery. Initial documentation dates the building from 878, with nothing more than a small cell dedicated to Saint Peter. The monestary took on a major role during the X and XI centuries with the expansion of the great hall and the construction of the external bridges.
The Cap de Creus, thus, is a location of meditation, both religious and artistic. There is no surprise Dalì summerd here, in the village of Port Lligat, right near Cadaques. He turned this sleepy fishing village into a bustling ceneter for artists and writers. Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Marcel Duchamp are just a few of the illustrious names that have come to Cap de Creus for inspiration.
The food along the Costa Brava is as unique as its wine. It is not “Spanish” Italian nor is it a “Catalan” interpretation of French cuisine. Although close in geographic position, foreign cultures have done little to alter the authentic flavors of the Costa Brava travel experience.
The eastern side of the Mediterranean provides chefs with fresh sardines and tuna; fabulous pulpo a la plancha; and extraordinary seabass. The inland fare is no less impressive with farm-raised pork loin, lean duck and exceptional local beef. And rest assured there are plenty of local fruits and vegetables when you are having lunch in the middle of an olive orchard .
Yet Spain’s olive oil is something special. From many native varieties – such as hojiblanca, picudo and arbequina – it is no surprise they are the number one producer of European olive oil.
Col de la Ganga
This is a beautiful, easy climb from Bisbal d’Emporda though a lovely cork forest. The descent is sweet and lovely, bringing you all the way to the sea. The best part about the climb is walking along the beach! You can’t travel to the Costa Brava and not spend time at the beach.
A Coexistence of Cultures
Today, it’s hard to imagine the peaceful coexistence of religions before the 1492 Alhambra decree, expelling practicing Jews from the Castillian kingdom. There is abundant evidence reveling the peaceful coexistence of the Jewish and Christian communities throughout Catalonia. An ancient Jewish Miqveh was discovered accidentally in the small medieval city of Besalu in 1964. It dates back to the 12th Century as is considered one of the oldest Jewish baths in Europe.
Girona held one of the most ancient Jewish quarters – El Call – until the 1492 decree. Many Jewish families settled here in the IX century frequented the old synagogue. Today that same building is the Museum of Jewish History.
A Peaceful Night’s Sleep
Empuries is a town founded by the Greeks along Costa Brava’s beautiful shoreline. It was a center for commerce and exchange.
The Hostal Spa Empuries lies right next to the ancient city, steps from the beach. There is no car traffic and no busy city. In the evening, there is the peaceful sound of the Mediterranean lapping along the Catalonian coast, lulling you to sleep.