Northern Spain, Catalonia included, is bit of a riddle. It has never experienced the influence of the caliphate, it is locked in by French Pyrenees on one side and by the sheerness of the Balear sea from the other. In Spain, the regions of the north lack the frivolous familiarity of the South, its spirit of never-ending spring. And thus, like a woman who accepts her different ages with pride and grace instead of vulgar ignorance, the North is mighty and profound, standing its battle against the strong winds. It is also the homeland of Salvador Dali, a man with a heart made of buzzing dragonflies.
Cadaqués: a universe in itself
Catalonia’s capital is Barcelona, which is a great city and a world in itself, but it’s great to have roads you’ve never walked on, and these roads are not in the cities. Rent a car, type in “Cadaqués” and follow. Not only Dali, but Picasso, Miró, Duchamp and many other artists left their mark here. Make sure to time your journey so that driving into Cadaques happens by daylight. Until only fifty years ago, the town was almost entirely isolated from the rest of Spain due to the appalling state of the connecting road, which is till one of the most narrow serpentine roads of Europe I have ever experienced. But what lies ahead is a true treasure. Having read that Cadaques was labelled “the most beautiful town in the world” by Dali, and later “off beaten track” by various guidebooks, I was naturally sceptical. Can one really encounter a truly authentic place that is not just being marketed as “unique”? Yes, a thousand times. There is not even an “old town” in Cadaques – it’s an old town in its entirety! And once we arrived, on a windy April evening, it felt like the time-space continuum was broken, like we fell into the rabbit hole, like we were experiencing the world behind the looking glass.
Nevertheless, such a mundane necessity as dinner still had to be taken care of. Through the whirlwind of little streets, with almost no other human being in sight, we stumbled upon the magic courtyard of “El Barocco”, which was once Dali’s traditional spot for having meetings. It is known that in 1979 Dali even deigned the logo of the restaurant, but the course of history is unclear on whether back in the day the place served Lebanese food as absolutely delicious as it does now. Distant arabic melodies, old photographs, a chaos of old kitchen utensils and souvenirs, the warmth and sound of the crackling fire, the serene manner of the owner who comes to serve each table and have a little chat – the time must have stopped. And once that same owner, a Lebanese grandfather with a smile wide and sincere touched the keys of the grand piano, the time must have started going backwards. The tune itself, unsure of whether it belonged into the Mediterranean, or the Middle East, was that of universal beauty.
Early in the morning was our time to visit Dali’s house-museum in Port Lligat, the place where he spend some of the happiest years of his life with Gala, his only ever (Russian!) muse, until her death in 1982. Once inside, one gets a unique experience of really seeing a home, something fixed and daily, adding roots to all the extravagance and epatage (France is so close even my phone signal was fooled at some point!) associated with the couple. Long gone are the days when we could afford (time, money, effort, fantasy, desire – wise) to make our living space a continuation of our souls, but Salvador and Gala did, making their home simple, but aired with fantasy.
The town of Cadaqués itself, just a ten minute walk from the museum, should be explored without a map, or a phone, or a camera, for that matter. Wander around without the risk of getting lost, dive deep into your thoughts without the risk of being distracted by the shopping windows, let yourself be bathed in sun and wind, indulge into an hours-long cup of coffee at one of the many seaside cafes. On weekends the little square by the creek holds a market, where you can get anything from wooden hand-made toys to an endless selection of cheeses and freshly made bread and donuts (here I would insert an ode to a real rustic donut but that seems too risky of a move for my first article on this website).
The magic of the area does not limit itself to space, though. When leaving the house-museum, we innocently asked for the right way to town and got an entire hour of instructions, recommendations, revelations and a short history course from the local shop assistant. The ability to connect to others, without the fear of losing time an energy, seems to be embedded in the vast majority of people we encountered here. Small town naivety? Perhaps. We followed his advice anyway…
Cap de Creus: I’ll have the sunrise for take-away
…and woke up at 5am the next morning to watch the sunrise at Cap de Creus, which is the easternmost point of mainland Spain and the Iberian Peninsula, and happens to be a 15-minute drive from Cadaqués. The legend has it that it was Hercules who hewed it out of stone and judging by the unpredictability of winds and the greatness of the scenery, it might as well be true. You can choose to hike up there during the day, but seeing the sun rise from the sea with an almost 300-degrees angle is one hell of a spectacle. If you are organised, bring a thermos full of coffee and some sandwiches – the nearby restaurant, which opens much later, has some incredible wooden benches, carved into the rocks to face the sea. Be ready to share with greedy pigeons.
A short drive down the same road you came by will lead you straight into a Dali-inspired, Dali-inspiring fairytale. I would say follow the signs for “Paratge de Tudela” (the wikipedia page for it only exists in catalan, from which I concluded that we found a real gem), but there aren’t any signs really. If you go off-season you are not likely to see any tourist groups, so slow down and look out for a red&white road barrier on the right, that’s where you can park. This part of the natural park of Cap de Creus is the cradle of Dali’s fantasies, which later found their place in his paintings. The surreal shapes of animals we see in world-famous masterpieces were taken straight from the shapes of rocks in this natural park. For those lacking visionary skills and/or the knowledge of Dali’s work, the rocks are signposted. Strolling through this vast scenery and contemplation can take you hours, so make sure you aren’t on a tight schedule.
To complete the “Dalinian triangle”, visit the Pubol Castle, where the genius spend the last lonely years of his life and the Dali Thetre-Museum in Figueres, which showcases not only his painting, but amusing jewellery creations.
Without even leaving the area, there are a few other picturesque roads to explore, to the monastery of St. Pere de Rodes being one of them. The monastery itself is somewhat composed and severe, containing cooled off air within its abandoned walls. But what a scenery! A random cloud passing through the entirely blue sky that merged with the blue of the sea, was casting a shade upon the surrounding mountains, being the only active movement in sight.
Cadaqués and its surroundings made us continuously forget which country we were in, simply because it did not matter. Real beauty and happiness don’t belong with a geographical point, or to a nation – they are simultaneously heartbreaking and enlightening to the point of making us feel like a unified roundelay of humanity dancing on the same planet, at each and any point in time, irrelevant of the historical context.